Influences: Cheetah Chic

Phyllis Gordon with her cheetah, shopping in London, 1939

I came across this image of actress Phyllis Gordon out shopping with her pet cheetah a number of months ago, but it's been on my mind ever since. I'm enchanted by the inherent insouciance of it all. Imagine trotting out to do a few errands in the neighborhood and bringing along your favorite big cat just for kicks! This is the essence of luxury and chic.

I'm not at all what one would term a "cat person". I'm cool with cats, but wouldn't choose to have one over a feisty and funny terrier. I've been known to cat-sit here and there which isn't altogether unpleasant, although I'd prefer a cold wet nose over a sandpaper-tongue. So it is interesting that I find myself completely jealous of those eternally-stylish women who through history have sported cats as an accessory. Not just any cat, but a full-grown cheetah or leopard. Hands down, this is beyond stylish and everyone knows it - no Yorkie in a Louis Vuitton bag could compete.

As Jessica Kerwin Jenkins writes in Encyclopedia of the Exquisite, "by the twentieth century the cat's sexy, slinky reputation was appreciated by bohemians, intellectuals, and some extremely glamorous women, who upped the ante by taking in leopards as pets...As they proved, no animal makes a more stunning sidekick than a glowering great cat."

Women casually strolling with a cheetah on a leash sounds like something out of an old Hollywood urban legend. You know the scene: fur coat to the floor with a sharp cloche hat and five big cats on a chain, preferably while walking briskly down a train platform with the steam rising and a porter trailing with a mountain of trunks. My whole life I've longed to be this woman.

Marchesa Casati with her leopards, by Paget-Fredericks ca. 1920s

When I first started reading about the Marchesa Casati, I became enchanted with her pet cheetahs. According to legend, the Marchesa would take her private gondola across the Grand Canal late at night just to walk her pets through the Piazza San Marco. True to form, she would perform this ritual while completely naked but for a fur coat. Imagine running into that after too many Bellinis at Harry's Bar!

Marchesa Casati with her pet cheetah, 1912

Josephine Baker was also known to sport a leopard named Chiquita around Paris in the 1920s when she was the most flamboyant act in town. Diana Vreeland saw the pair out at the movies once and loved how Chiquita pulled Baker into her white Rolls Royce in a single bound: "Ah! What a gesture!...I've never seen anything like it. It was speed at its best, and style."

Josephine Baker & Chiquita

Gloria Swanson also seems like the type who would have had cheetahs close at hand. In Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond seems to be surrounded by leopard skins in one way or another. Even the seats of her Isota-Fraschini are upholstered in leopard skins. This detail in the production lends itself to the once-glorious past of Norma Desmond, recalling glamorous days of dancing the tango with Valentino.

Desmond's character probably had some basis on one of the original movie starlets, the great Pola Negri. Although she made her mark in early silent film in Europe, Negri signed a contract with Paramount and came to Hollywood in 1922. (It was she, not the fictional Norma Desmond, who met Valentino at a classic Davies-Hearst costume party at San Simeon a few years later. The two became lovers until Valentino's death in 1926.) Like the Marchesa Casati, Negri also had a weakness for cheetahs and walked hers frequently down the real Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood's heyday.

Negri's love of cheetahs came full circle much later on when in 1964, Negri starred with Hayley Mills in Disney's The Moon Spinners as Mrs. Habib, a character with a pet cheetah named Shalimar. While filming this teenage caper flick in London, it is said that Negri caused a sensation walking the cheetah nonchalantly through a hotel lobby. It sounds as though Negri not only knew the essence of glamour, but that she also had a true sense of humor too.

Hayley Mills & Pola Negri in The Moon Spinners, with a cheetah in the background.

To seal Hollywood's fascination with the luxury of keeping a big cat, there's also Bringing Up Baby - an entire screwball comedy devoted to the antics surrounding a rich woman's pet cheetah.

Film stars with cheetahs seems to be a classic combination. If they didn't keep them as pets they were certainly photographed with the cats as props; I would guess it is because of the wild, exotic, and animalistic connotations. You can't really argue with that. Indeed, the earliest Hollywood stars seem to have been photographed with cheetahs time and again in their ultra-glamorous, fantasy-driven publicity stills.

Bebe Daniels and a cheetah.

Joan Blondell and a cheetah.

I suppose that it isn't entirely practical to aspire to keeping a cheetah in this day and age. But was it ever practical? No. It's their impracticality that makes them so very stylish. All of these women seem to have been a bit "unleashed" while accompanied by a big cat on a leash. The sexy, outrageous, glamorous, diva-ish behaviour just seems to go hand in hand with this type of indulgence. Anything that's so truly luxurious as a pet cheetah could only be utterly, exuberantly beautiful in itself.

For more images of starlets & cheetahs, be sure to visit this post from the Pictures blog.

All images from internet searches.

Influences: La Casati

I finished Scot D. Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino's book Infinite Variety - The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casatilast evening and, true to form, I've spent this morning furiously questing for additional imagery and information on the fascinating Marchesa and all of her far-reaching influences. Luisa Casati Stampa di Soncino, Marchesa di Roma is truly a non-pareil that could hardly be summed up here, but I did want to celebrate her miasmic life in art and fashion.

I mentioned this book a few posts ago in the Lit Tag, but now that I've read the entire book I have to say that I'm really haunted. I cannot tell if I even like the Marchesa as a person, but I am completely enthralled by her ceaseless devotion to art and creativity - both in herself and others. So, the whole snakes and monkeys thing sort of creeped me out, but how shockingly fabulous would it be to wear a little coiled snake as a dramatic necklace at a dinner party? Or to walk a pet cheetah or alligator like they were the family Jack Russell? As the authors did state, the Marchesa's quest to always out-do herself got a bit stale over the years; her profligate lifestyle becoming almost insulting during political and economic crises, while her overbearing eccentricity hid an ever-growing personal insecurity. As a quote from Maurice Druon said in the book: "Eccentricity is tolerable only in its first freshness. Cherished until it has gone stale, it becomes unbearably pathetic and at the same time alarming."

Eccentricities aside, the Marchesa did accomplish exactly what she set out to do: become a living work of art. Her personal style of medusa-like curls dyed bright red, large black-rimmed eyes, sleek gowns, and hats swathed in veils have influenced many fashion designers, writers, and film directors. Even toward the end of the Marchesa's life when she was forced to live in poverty, her tattered elegance recalls everyone from Dickens' Miss Havisham through to Big and Little Edie from Grey Gardens. While one cannot help but feel sorry for one of Europe's former glitterati in her late-life squalor, looking at the reach of her influence you can see this is not how she is remembered.

In 1998, John Galliano for Christian Dior Haute Couture created a masterpiece of runway theatre when he presented an entire collection honoring the Marchesa Casati. Shown at the Paris Opera Garnier, the show was said to be surreal, haunting, and overwhelmingly elaborate. After trolling through the internet, I was able to find this news clip covering the show from so long ago...

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The Marchesa Casati by Augustus John

La Marchesa Luisa Casati with a Grehound by Giovanni BoldiniFollowing-up on some of Luisa Casati's portraits, I learnt more about Augustus John and Giovanni Boldini, both of whom painted significant images of the enigmatic woman. In 2003, London's Royal Academy of Arts held an exhibition Pre-Raphaelite and Other Masters: The Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection, which included Boldini's 1908 portrait of the Marchesa with her Greyhound. Art historian Christopher Wood stated: "The staggering Boldini portrait of the legendary Marchesa Casati is surely the greatest portrait of the Belle Epoque." Augustus John's 1919 portrait is considered a twentieth-century masterpiece, and was purchased by the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1934, while the tripe-eye photograph of the Marchesa taken by Man Ray in her hotel suite at the Paris Ritz is considered the first and most important of Surrealist photographs. Even the Marchesa's famous ruin of a home in Venice, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, was purchased in 1949 by Peggy Guggenheim and now houses the prestigious Guggenheim Museum.

Thought to be lost, another major portrait by Romaine Brooks has recently been recovered and is in a private collection. Hopefully an image will become available sometime soon! Having never seen any of Brooks' work, (now impossible to believe) I have enjoyed looking at her paintings, finding them incredibly odd, yet beautiful, and certainly very modern for their time. Likewise, the work of Giovanni Boldini is now among my favorites for its romantic yet impressionistic style. I've learnt that a handful of Boldini's pieces even reside in San Francisco!

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Her influence is not limited to art and fashion, however. Vosges Haut Chocolat created a special collection of Marchesa Truffles which are available only in December. "Black sea salt caramel ensconced in 85% bittersweet dark chocolate and real freshwater pearl dust." A very fitting tribute.

My friend Michael Mattis wrote a piece about this book and La Casati on Dandyism.net a few years ago, wondering if the Marchesa could be considered "a dandy"; if she were a man then no doubt the term would apply, but as a woman? According to Mr. Mattis, even if the Marchesa were a dandy, being androgynous, masculine, and beautifully dressed as she was, she wasn't elegant enough for the term to apply. True, the Marchesa was heavy-handed with everything from eyeliner to pearls to gold lamé, but I would hold off on the dandy label anyway. To me, the Marchesa's androgyny and aggressive extravagances set off her distinct womanhood, I don't find her masculine at all. This, like Marlene Dietrich or an Yves Saint Laurent Smoking, make the true woman. The Marchesa's style was all about NOT being manly, but being every bit the independent, entitled woman that she was born to be in this world.

As another fashion designer, Elsa Schiaparelli, stated about La Casati: "Tall and gaunt with heavily made-up eyes, she represented a past age of splendor when a few beautiful and wealthy women adopted an almost brutally individualistic way of living and presenting themselves to the public."

The rest of us should be so brave... 

Portriat of Marchesa Casati, Man Ray 1922

The Marchesa Casati, Augustus John 1919, Art Gallery of Ontario

The Marchesa Luisa Casati with a Greyhound, Giovanni Boldini 1908, collection of Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber