Long dark night of the soul


Giovanni Boldini: La marchesa Luisa Casati con penne di pavone (1914)

The Marchesa Casati died in London on this day in 1957. It seemed a tease to mention an anecdote about her, as I did the other day, without passing on the anecdote itself. It comes from an entry in Harry Graf Kessler’s diary dated 23 January 1930, recording a story told at breakfast that day by his friend Karl Gustav Vollmoeller. Like many Casati tales, this one dwells somewhere between plausibly outrageous and suspiciously fanciful. Perhaps a passing Casatian scholar might care to comment on its veracity. Certainly the Marchesa’s residence got lost in transcription – Palais Rose was actually to the west of Paris in Le Vésinet, not the Faubourg St Germain, and Louis XV only in style rather than vintage – so it may be prudent to view the rest of the account through a filter of doubt. But even as legend, what rare odours of filthy enchantment this tableau exudes!

Vollmoeller told sparkling, colourful tales about the Marchesa Casati. One of them might well have been invented by Barbey d’Aurevilly. One night at 3 in the morning she rings the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris from her beautiful old Louis XV hotel with its large garden in the Faubourg St Germain, and asks him to come straight away, she has a very important message to relay to him at once; the life and death of her soul is at stake. The cardinal, awoken, refuses to attend to the matter in the middle of the night and finally, after long negotiation, dispatches a priest who holds some position or other with him. The priest sets off, rings the doorbell, is admitted and led along a dark garden avenue toward the house. Halfway along the avenue he suddenly encounters Casati, completely naked, holding a candelabra with numerous candles in each hand, determined to recite a long litany. The priest, utterly horrified, turns tail and flees as though he had witnessed the embodiment of evil and the next day the cardinal lodges a complaint of attentat à la pudeur and blasphemy with the police. The affair ends with Casati disappearing into a mental asylum for six months.

A compelling coda to Vollmoeller’s tattle appears in a 1987 essay by David Wistow. There is a high possibility that it is merely a corruption or conflation of the previous tale, and there may be nothing more than idle between-the-wars café society fabrication to either. At the very least we must replace the name of the prelate. The annotated edition of Kessler’s diaries informs us that the Archbishop mentioned by Vollmoeller was a certain (Louis-Ernest) Dubois, who died in 1929, and his successor, according to my copy of Le petit livre de grands fromages catholiques (a.k.a. Wikipedia) was a certain Jean Verdier:

One source estimates her debts in 1932 to be the modern equivalent of twenty million dollars. Her impending bankruptcy, at least in the mind of the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Louis Ernest Dubois, was just retribution for her profligate lifestyle. When she requested a visit by him to plead forgiveness, the priest was confronted by La Casati dressed all in white, carried in on a settee by four valets, holding a white gladiolus on her lap while a white parrot, representing the Holy Ghost, perched near her feet. With a transfixed stare she kept repeating: “Je suis la Vierge immaculée!


Casati grave


One comment

  1. Michelle Basnet

    I love your site! Wonderful writing and homage to these lesser known characters! Thank you for curating and sharing their stories!

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