I am…Dracula. I bid you welcome.
There’s nothing like Halloween to put us in the mood for something a little, shall we say, hédoniste. And they don’t come more so than La Casati.
Marchesa Luisa Casati
The toast of Venice long before the bellini was invented, Marchesa Luisa Casati (1881-1957) was painted by Boldini, photographed by Man Ray and Cecil Beaton, revered by Jean Cocteau and dressed by Poiret, Fortuny and Erté. Out of all these bold-faced names, no one, but no one, created more art with the Marchesa as muse than the Marchesa herself.
Nearly six-feet tall with brilliant red hair, Kabuki-white skin and enormous emerald eyes that she kept dilated with poisonous belladonna extract, the Marchesa held court at her various residences (including the Palazzo dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, now home to The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and the Palais Rose, a red marble mansion outside of Paris) surrounded by a menagerie of lovers, artists and exotic animals like leopards and snakes of every stripe.
A painting of the flame-haired Marchesa by Augustus John
The deaths of her parents (her father was a cotton baron) when she was just a teen left the Marchesa and her sister the wealthiest heiresses in Italy. A marriage at age 19 to the Marchese Casati was loveless, but blended her immense wealth with his aristocratic credentials: a useful cocktail if you seek to be one of the most notable society hosts of all time.
A typical Marchesa party would… oh, well, there was no such thing as a typical Marchesa party. At one, there were servants, in powdered wigs and waistcoats, feeding the fireplace a steady stream of copper filings to keep the flames burning a vivid green. At others, she might paint herself in gold leaf, crowned with a headdress of stuffed snakes or gilded ram’s horns.
She was nothing if not committed. She once showed up to the Paris Opéra in a white sheath, topped with the feathers of an entire white peacock and, just before coming in, she had her chauffeur streak her arm with the blood of a freshly slaughtered chicken. It was not uncommon to catch her swanning around the streets of Venice at night, wearing nothing but one of her signature headdresses and flanked by two cheetahs on jeweled leashes.
Sometimes, she’d sit stock still and silent next to a perfect wax replica of herself (yes, a doll, doll), leaving her guests to wonder which Casati was their actual hostess. She once locked a hapless guest in a powder room for daring to come to one of her costume balls in a similar get up to her own.
Georgina Chapman named her fashion company, Marchesa, for the avant-garde style icon. (photo of Georgina Chapman: Harper’s Bazaar)
If you get the sense that the Marchesa wasn’t the most gracious of hosts, you are probably right. Her fêtes were more about performance art than having a few friends ‘round to break bread. But that doesn’t make them, or her style, any less legendary. She is the namesake of one of the ultimate prêt-à-partay fashion collections, Marchesa, and continues to inspire designers, artists and, of course, hosts with her mad, bad ways. Rumor has it our gal even inspired Cartier’s famed Panther design.
Portrait of the eccentric Marchesa Casati by Giovanni Boldini,1908
As so often happens when one makes a habit of throwing copper on fires, the Marchesa eventually burned through her money and spent her last years penniless in London. A dévotée of the occult, she died of a cerebral hemorrhage following a spiritual session, and was buried with custom-made, enormously long false eyelashes and a black and leopard funereal costume, with one of her beloved deceased Pekinese (taxidermied, of course) buried at her feet.
We doubt that resting in peace was exactly her style, so we will mix up a Chrysanthemum in her honor and hope that she’s at least resting in sybaritic splendor.
2 oz. dry vermouth
1 oz. Bénédictine
3 dashes absinthe
Stir ingredients with ice in a mixing glass untill well chilled. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with an orange twist.
Music to Channel Your Inner Marchesa
Season of the Witch – Karen Elision
Voodoo Lady – Ween
I Put a Spell on You – Screaming Jay Hawkins
People Are Strange – The Doors
Witchcraft – Frank Sinatra
Werewolves of London – Warren Zevon
Spooky – Dusty Springfield
Kooks – David Bowie
Jump in the Line – Harry Belafonte
Heart of Glass – Blondie
Click here for more information about the Marchesa.
Introductory photo: House of Dracula, 1945
Introductory quote: Dracula, 1931