The oft-married singer, gardener and collector Ganna Walska died on this day in 1984. We’ve already looked at her dauntless yet doomed attempt to achieve success as an opera singer, and how it helped inspire the character of Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane. Re-examining Walska’s modus operandi, it is striking how utterly contemporary her approach to celebrity was, a combination of slender accomplishments and gargantuan ambition, of fashion labels and scent endorsements, of big rocks and little dogs.
As we’ve seen, Walska acquired many of the famous photographic portraits of the Countess de Castiglione from the estate of Robert de Montesquiou. She also bought up jewels and clothing that once belonged to Castiglione, coming as a job lot with a more abstract bequest from the Second Empire courtesan: a lesson on presentation and marketing of self which Walska readily absorbed.
Key to the Polish soprano’s protracted campaign to conquer a reluctant public was fashion. A noted beauty, she was also a modish dresser and collector of baubles. Her war chest brimming with conjugal contributions, Walska raided boutiques in Europe and America, returning with pieces by Adrian, Boulanger, Madame Grès, Schiaparelli and Lanvin. Third husband Alexander Smith Cochran gave her carte blanche at Cartier as a wedding present, and the press avidly reported on both her extravagance and her mercurial marital relations.
In 1925, The New Yorker describes Walska at a Ballets Russes performance in Paris, “her regal head and matchless shoulders rising from a very low décolletage of red chiffon.” Lord Berners, as it happens, was at the same performance (Ganna Walska and Lord Berners at the Ballets Russes? What protective garment must one wear to deflect the white-hot, magnesian fabulousness of such an encounter?).
But if Walska treated the world as her stage, how did she treat the stage itself? Well her instrument may have been a thin, unsteady voice worsened by chronic stage fright, but even when her notes failed to reach the back row (or, even worse, when they did), her sumptuous costumes ensured that her glamour, at least, would be perceptible by all. Her most fruitful collaboration in the pursuit of costumed perfection was with the designer Erté. Walska contacted him in 1920, calling him ‘the most imaginative man in the world’. They met in Monte Carlo, and he was soon designing stage costumes for her operatic roles.
To complete this picture of starlet glamour the singer carried the requisite diva-esque tiny pooch (which led to the following exchange with a reporter: “Is that your dog?” “It is.” “Is it the only dog you have?” “It is.” “Well, all I can say is, you are damn near out of dogs.”). But having established the template of the beautiful, couture-clad society singer, Walska was able to subvert it. For one recital she appeared, to the audible astonishment of the audience, in a simple white shift with not a carat of bling.
Walska’s marital scoreboard rivalled Elizabeth Taylor’s, and just like Taylor she rarely left a marriage empty-handed. After all, even when the union goes pear-shaped those rocks don’t lose their shape. And, like Taylor, Walska produced her own scents. Between 1925 and 1935, she flogged a range of perfumes with names like “Chypre”, “Gardenia” and, in a very modern play on her own notoriety, “Divorçons” (“let’s get a divorce”). The Paris outlet of Ganna Walska Perfumes was a stone’s throw from the Place Vendôme address where Castliglione sat out her dotage in monastic seclusion.
Age elicited no such reticence from her acolyte. At a 1945 opera premiere in New York, Walska appeared in a furry, midriff-baring, harem-trousered ensemble, such as one of Genghis Khan’s warriors might have donned had he set out from the Mongolian steppe expecting to end up at a pool party.
Soon after Walska established the garden of Lotusland near Santa Barbara, and while hardly one for dungarees and a floppy hat, she did tone down the glam a little. In the 1970s she sold much of her jewelry to fund the garden, a symbolic break with her past, and spent the rest of her life landscaping the huge estate. After she died, Lotusland was opened to the public and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art received her extensive wardrobe of both onstage and offstage pieces (a distinction more fluid in Ganna Walska’s life than was ordinarily the case). Meanwhile, a selection of “Madame’s” personal effects is currently on display at Lotusland.