Sasha Selavie on the inimitable Marchesa Casati
Who could possibly make the flaming queen Quentin Crisp catch his breath and gasp, ‘She wasn’t beautiful – she was spectacular!’
Well, meet the Marchesa Casati. Fabulously wealthy, implausibly tall, and thinner than the most fanatically devoted anorexic! Sure, unsurprisingly, she drew stunned adoration from poets, artists and writers across the pre-First World War world, but even poetry written a century earlier – the bisexual, bad, mad and dangerous to know Lord Byron’s ‘She walks in beauty like the night’- fitted Casati like a gorgeous, murderously tight corset!
Who was this woman? Who on earth could possibly blow the modern equivalent of 25 million quid in the 1920s, simply hosting parties that made Leigh Bowery look dull, pedestrian and barely worth noticing? ‘I want to be a living work of art’, Casati’s quoted as saying, and though born before the shocking, surgically-assisted transgender outrages of Amanda Lepore, Nina Arsenault and female performance artist Orlan were possible, Casati, arguably, excelled them all!
Way before Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, Casati comprehensively spat on social and religious proprieties and any form of behavioural restraint, hacking her own startlingly original standards of beauty and decorum from nothing but her own, morbidly depraved desires and imagination. Fittingly- in common with every courageous queen since time immemorial – hello, Quentin Crisp – she cared absolutely nothing for the reactions and opinions of the dull, sheep-like mass of pedestrian crowds. No wonder she harboured a life-long fascination for the blatant, phallic symbolism of snakes, which she’d often wear as living jewellery; Casati, always, fully embraced life, and nothing’s more death-denying than a flickering, penis-faced python on one’s wrist!
More striking still, Casati enhanced her already unnaturally huge, bulging eyes – possibly a symptom of hyperthyroidism – with the instantly dilatory drug Belladonna, transfixing guests and the unwary with a riveting, just-fucked stare worthy of a gang-banged cobra! Me, I’d instantly sacrifice the gushing length of my blissfully-severed penis for a Dr.Who time-trip to confront Casati in her semi-naked, peak glory in 1920s Venice!
Dressed in little more than perfume and the insolent swagger of a fur cloak, she’d stalk with two cheetahs on leashes, dutifully preceded by an Ethiopian servant brandishing two, flaming torches! Now that’s panache! The furious, delusional glory of a true original, not the laughable hordes of pathetic, artistic frauds currently besieging London culture with hi-jacked looks, songs and patter!
So, no wonder Casati and her legacy is constantly, authoritatively exhumed in print, most currently in Ryerrson and Yaccarino’s Infinite Variety; the Ultimate edition. OK, granted, even Casati borrowed stylistic grace-notes from her arguable inspiration, the tall, thin Cristina Trivulzio, who kept a partially embalmed male corpse in her boudoir wardrobe, for which she remained inexplicably immune to prosecution, but what full-on hedonist worth the name wouldn’t keep an au natural, necrophiliac vibrator conveniently to hand?
Still, that influence aside, Casati was the living, ultra-witchy embodiment of Cruella de Ville, predating that icon by decades, driving her lemon-yellow sports car for hours dressed in nothing but sheer, mauve silk, her mind – and body – ablaze with her preferred, recreational highs of coke, ether, and absinthe, not to mention being ‘positively embalmed in opium’, according to Lady Moorea Black, her granddaughter!
Jee-zuss – what’s not to like? Sure, sneering detractors might think 24-7, fancy dress excess is easy, but what remains far beyond easy, uninspired Instagram mimicry is Casati’s shatteringly unperturbed arrogance and sense of entitlement, and the sheer, lavish scale of her outrages. She’d appear as gay icon Saint Sebastian completely sheathed in metal armor studded with illuminated, electric arrows that spectacularly short-circuited, nearly killing her, and – in a gesture guaranteed to have PC fanatics retrospectively frothing at the mouth – commanded hundreds of party guests to wear blackface.
It couldn’t last. Casati eventually died after impoverished decades in London, buried in Brompton Cemetery in mangy leopardskin. Fittingly, a famous ex-lover wrote, ‘You destroy mediocrity!’, possibly the campest endorsement ever! Essential reading!