“I’m an enemy of the average,” declared Polish-American opera singer Ganna Walska. Average she certainly wasn’t: her drive was well above the norm, her musical gifts some way below it. Even after an exasperated music teacher advised her “learn to cook – you’ll never be a singer,” Walska kept trying, reportedly practising four hours a day for 25 years. But the doors of major opera houses which she couldn’t breach with her voice alone (which sounded like “five million pigs” according to the same teacher), magically swung open when her fourth husband, tycoon Harold Fowler McCormick, reached for his chequebook.
While she was never in the same league of vocal terrorism as the notoriously pitch-averse Florence Foster Jenkins, the name Ganna Walska in a programme was never the hallmark of a good night out. Reviewing a Paris production of Rigoletto in 1923, Time commented that Walska had a voice “good enough for small parlour singing,” but no more. It further reported that the audience laughed openly at the squawks which formed her upper register. The curt headline said it all: “Beautiful, Wealthy, She Has No Voice.”
As reality TV producers know, something magic happens when colossal determination is unburdened by talent, and the woman who insisted on being called “Madame Walska” didn’t need top billing at La Scala to indulge her inner diva. She married six times, beginning with a Russian baron who died in World War I and including an English scientist who claimed to have invented a death ray. Her huge collection of rocks included a 95 carat yellow diamond, her property portfolio a French chateau. Returning to the US from Europe once in 1928, the “personal effects” she carried in her 15 trunks were valued at $2.5 million by US Customs.
It was the compelling combination of an attractive yet talent-free wife and a powerful yet indulgent husband which was one of the influences on Orson Welles as he scripted his 1941 masterpiece, Citizen Kane. Charles Foster Kane himself, of course, is based on magnate William Randolph Hearst, and his long-time lover, actress Marion Davies, is the better known model for the character Susan Alexander. But there’s also a large helping of the Polish prima donna in Kane’s second wife. Like Walska, she has a voice which only a husband could love, and pursues her dream of operatic glory despite universal derision.
Susan Alexander winds up in drunken disarray, a fate which sadly also befell Dorothy Comingore, the actress who played her, who was reduced to bit parts and B movies. And God knows being Marion Davies was no picnic.
Ganna Walska, on the other hand – nothing was going to get her down. She could proudly boast, as Foster Jenkins once did, “people may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.” But she’d been there, done that, bought the orchestra. “My object in this world,” Walska declared, “is to think new thoughts,” and after divorcing the last of her husbands in 1946 she was free, and wealthy enough, to conquer new horizons.
Walska found inspiration in a pick’n’mix of Eastern beliefs before turning to gardening with the same zesty single-mindedness which she’d brought to her singing career. She purchased a plot in Montecito, California, giving it the alluring name of Lotusland. You can already guess this is going to be no ordinary back yard, right?
With 28 gardeners Walska created a surreal, exuberant fantasy land of topiary, exotic cacti and statuary (that’s Ganna admiring a bust of herself in the top photo). If she liked a particular plant she wanted hundreds of it, from anywhere in the world, regardless of cost. Even in her nineties she supervised the entire estate alone.
But one of the garden features suggested that Walska hadn’t completely let go of the past. An outdoor theatre, modelled on the grounds of her chateau, must have presented a tempting backdrop. So I like to imagine Madame Walska there, perhaps at night with jewels blazing under a full moon, dressed in one of the costumes designed for her by Erté, treating her succulents to selections from Puccini.
Citizen Kane is on big-screen re-release in the UK and Ireland throughout November and December.