It is difficult to take the measure of a man through someone else's eyes and experience. After all, we don't actually meet them, except, perhaps, in the pages of diaries, magazine articles, even cookery books - as is the case, in my experience, with Norman Douglas. Over the years, I haven't bothered to read any of his books, and the other day I remembered why. I shall read them now - I discover that the university library has some - South Wind, Old Calabria and even a collection of limericks entitled Some Limericks, Collected for the Use of Students, Ensplendour'd with Introduction, Geographical Index, and with Notes Explanatory and Critical. Anyone who can write such a title deserves to be read, however bawdy the contents of his book.
I was put off Douglas years ago because of what I read or, rather, read into the quotation below, another from Elizabeth David's An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. The young man referred to, it seems to me,was simply being inexperienced, adulatory and looking for what we nowadays call validation for expressing what was, in post-war Europe, and could be still, a valid socialist point of view about the haves and the haves-not. Looking back, I wonder if I, young as I was, took Douglas, and the victim (as I considered him), and myself far too seriously. I wonder also, as I write the last sentence, if a reproof ever really needs be annihilating.
"In the summer of of 1951 there was much talk on Capri, and elsewhere in Italy, of a great fancy-dress ball to be given in a Venetian palace by a South American millionaire. The entertainment was to be on a scale and of a splendour unheard of since the great days of the Serene Republic. One evening, Norman, a group of young men and I myself were sitting late at Georgio's cafe in the Piazza. Criticism of the Palazzo Labia ball and the squandered thousands was being freely expressed. Norman was bored. He appeared to be asleep. At a pause in the chatter he opened his eyes. 'Don't you agree, Mr Douglas?' asked one of the eager young men. 'All that money.' He floundered on. 'I mean, so many more important things to spend it on ....'
" 'Oh I don't know.' Norman sounded very far away. Then, gently: 'I like to see things done in style.'
"And he stomped off. Evaporated, as he used to put it. The reproof had been as annihilating as any I ever heard administered."
Charles de Beistegui's fancy-dress ball took place sixty years ago and is as far distant in memory and relevance as the Ball of the Yew Trees given at Versailles in the Galerie de Glaces. Either ball could be called legendary - the one attended by royalty, aristocrats and artistic riff-raff, snobs and panderers, a group of loose associations and equally loose living – now collectively described as cafe society – and the other ball where Jeanne Antoinette Poisson tangled with the King's hunting horn, went on to become royal mistress, great patron of arts and literature, and lend her name to a hairstyle much beloved by tele-evangelists. However, legendary isn't an adjective I'm disposed to use and I wonder, perhaps, if there might not be a description less travelled-by, as it were.
Celebrated, fabled, notorious, out-of-sight, doozie, outrageous, rad, fantastic, fabled and stupendous are all adequate synonyms, depending on your point of view and age. I don't think there's anyone still alive who might say out-of-sight, man except perhaps ironically, though there are plenty of us who remember it. Rad is, well, no longer rad, fabled is such an advertorial phrase, notorious has long slipped into the porcine vocabulary of reality TV, and chic has lost its cachet in some quarters - though not in mine, as I quite like the word still. My style guru says that crispy is a word of the moment but the moment might have passed by the time I finish this sentence. I shall fall back on the old word, gratin to describe if not the ball, then the guests, and in that I am definitely not being original.
When the gratin - European royals and aristocrats, American and South American millionaires, Hollywood movie stars, politicians, artists and general hangers-on - moved on after the ball in the not-so-early hours of the morning, they left behind not a legacy of taste and style for the aspirational, as is occasionally supposed, but something of far more lasting value. That something, which for a few short hours, was merely a theatre for one of the silliest of human activities - striking attitudes, playing at tableaux, and seeing and being seen - that something was the glorious set of rooms at the Palazzo Labia.
The ballroom is the star, with its frescoes by Tiepolo of the story of Antony and Cleopatra, a tale from the ancient world, transposed to modern-day Venice. The pair, as with everyone else in the frescoes, was not clad in Roman or Egyptian fancy dress, as had been Besteigui's guests dancing in front of them, but in seventeenth-century aristocratic dress - the equivalent of being portrayed today in a tuxedo and a couture evening gown.
The conversation Elizabeth David recorded took place in 1951, three years after de Beistegui bought the house from a Labia widow, and only six years after the end of the Second World War - a war that had laid waste to Europe, the East, and to unimaginably vast numbers of people, in the Shoa, on battlefields and at sea, and which rewrote the manuals on Fascism for succeeding generations. Undoubtedly, in those early years of reparation and repair, an ostentatious event such as the Villa Labia ball could be viewed as a rich foreigner's attempt to buy his way into an old and hermetic society - much in the same way as did the Labia family centuries before - and, given the rawness of the early post-war years, perceived as spitting in the face of the still-suffering populations of Europe. That is how, I think, the young man in Elizabeth David's tale saw the situation. If I have taken his measure correctly, the young man, the anti-hero, saw the situation for what it was.
Photographs of Villa Labia rooms by Gianni Berengo-Gardin for an essay published in The World of Interiors, April 1987.
Painting of Palazzo Labia by John Singer Sargent from Wikipedia Commons.
An interior design history enthusiast and in my own way an erstwhile chronicler of those I call the Lost Generation - those men, some of them gay and many of whom died of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s, and who are to a great degree forgotten.