A lot has been said about Marchesa Luisa Casati but the words of her lover Augustus John take the cake: “She should be shot, stuffed and displayed in a glass case,” he wrote after their affair. It’s hard to gage whether this was spoken with affection or bitterness but the comment reveals his admiration. I can only hope someone speaks of me some day with such violence!
It’s hard to pin down exactly what she did to earn such fame. She was an heiress, a socialite, an occultist, a muse and patron of the arts. But more notable was what she stood for in this sometimes-basic world. She was a destroyer of mediocrity and creature of her own design-or what she referred to herself as, “a living work of art.” It’s why we are still inspired by her, decades after her Gilded Age heyday. And the reason I’m writing about her. The Marchesa was an early pioneer in the law of manifesting. Create the life you want, build yourself as the person you want to be. You are your own canvas.
Who did she want to be so badly? I think her eccentricities are surface level to us at this point. We know what she wore and who she slept with. Otherwise she seems impossibly mysterious to me. To sit down with her and pick her brain…that’s the person in history I’d have dinner with. I can’t imagine she was very accessible even in her time. I mean, she dined with wax figures of herself just to freak people out and conducted seances, generally eschewing normal interpersonal relationships. And was so on the fringe of what was fashionable or acceptable that I think she had no choice but to feel cut off. She spoke to this aloneness when asked to comment on a trip to New York:
“Women of the world today all dress alike. They are like so many loaves of bread. To be beautiful one must be unhurried. Personality is needed. There is too much sameness. The world seems to have only a desire for more of this sameness. To be different is to be alone. I do not like what is average. So I am alone.” Substitute “bread” with “Louboutins” and truer words were never spoken even today.
True that she didn’t look like anybody else. She wore black during a time when it was considered only a color for mourning. She bleached her skin white and dyed her hair red. Lined her eyes in coal, glued false eyelashes and strips of black velvet along her lids. And perhaps most terrifyingly – took regular doses of the poisonous, pupil-dilating plant Belladonna to further accentuate her phantom-like gaze. She wasn’t interested in food (preferring to graze on gin and opium) and stood six feet. I think even by today’s standards, she would be a spectacle.
She had homes all over the world which she decked out to a maximum fantasy-like space. She literally feathered her nest, keeping a menagerie of albino peacocks for pets, as well as cheetahs on diamond leashes, pink-powdered greyhounds, a gorilla, a boa constrictor (which sometimes stood in for a necklace when the mood struck her), and of course her lamentable nude and nubian gold-painted servants. They cohabited together in her jungle villa on the Venice canal.
There, she hosted extravagant parties to showcase her outrageous costumes. A dress made of light bulbs powered by a generator. A suit of armor pierced with electrified arrows (that nearly killed her). Always with the intention to commission her own immortality, she made sure such fashion moments were captured. She was muse to all the greats of her time, including Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, Cecil Beaton, Giovanni Boldini and Romaine Brooks.
By the end of her life, she was penniless but more enigmatic than ever, wearing newspaper for a scarf and communicating with loved ones only via telepathy. She died in her one-room flat after a seance. She was buried with her taxidermied pekinese.
The final chapter is dark but I think she achieved what she set out to do-she’s managed to be an ongoing and ceaseless work of art as inspiration to so many still today. And I would point out that she never seemed to have a grasp of moderation, squandering her savings on drugs, parties, image-making and magic spells. Anyone who really wants to manifest must remember to keep their feet on the ground as they keep their dreams alive. A bit of a cautionary tale.