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Iris Origo: Marchesa of Val d'Orcia

Iris Origo: Marchesa of Val d'Orcia

by Caroline Moorehead

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
An affectionate history of the writer and charmer Origo (1902-1988), this biography offers lush descriptions of Italian landscapes and the social intrigues of expatriate life in Florence between the wars. But Moorehead (Bertrand Russell: A Life) ultimately fails to make the reader care about her subject, in part because she neglects to firmly establish her subject's place in modern literature at the outset. Origo (n e Cutting and later married to an Italian nobleman) was an aristocratic Anglo-American reared in Italy. Though an early acquaintance of such luminaries as Edith Wharton and Somerset Maugham, Origo did not launch her writing career until later in life; she had been sidetracked by family tribulations, her conversion of an arid Tuscan valley into a thriving agricultural community, her work with destitute children, the rise of Mussolini and WWII. And while Origo was certainly more than the sum of her literary contributions, it was primarily through her biographies, memoirs and criticism that she gained renown. Moorehead waits too long to bring the full force of Origo's literary ambitions and achievements to bear. Moreover, Origo's presence, admittedly reserved at times, is undermined by excessive scene-setting and a parade of lesser characters. In the end, the reader may depart with the sense of having visited Italy and the forgotten worlds of the idle rich and interwar intelligentsia, but not necessarily of having been permitted a dance with the remarkable marchesa herself. B&w illus. (Mar. 30). Forecast: Godine published Origo's autobiography, Images and Shadows, in 1999; her fans and those interested in Italy's cultural scene before and between the wars will look for this. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Godine, David R. Publishers, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.01(w) x 9.44(h) x 1.25(d)

Read an Excerpt

Marchesa of Val d'Orcia

By Caroline Moorehead

David R. Godine

Copyright © 2000 Caroline Moorehead.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1567921833

Chapter One

A different child

'All this national feeling makes people so unhappy,' wrote Bayard Cutting in his last letter to his wife Sybil, as he lay dying, about the future of their only child Iris. 'Bring her up somewhere where she does not belong, then she can't have it. I'd rather France or Italy than England, so that she should really be cosmopolitan, from deep down ... She must be English now, just as she'd have been more American if I had lived and not you. That is natural and right. But I'd like her to be a little "foreign" too so that when she grows up she really will be free to love or marry anyone she likes, of any country, without it being difficult.'

    Iris was then seven. Sybil respected her husband's wishes, and her only daughter grew up far from both England and America. But this left her uncertain about where she belonged, with a precarious feeling about being a stranger, and with a need for and reliance on close and intimate friends as marked as the uneasiness she often felt in the company of acquaintances. It made her a very good friend; but it also made her restless. In her autobiography Images and Shadows, written when she was seventy, she recorded the 'sense of rootlessness and insecurity during my youth' and the way that each 'uprooting was followed by a readjustment of my manners, and, to some extent, of my values'. She became, each time, a different child.

With an American father, an English mother, and ancestors from Holland, France and Scotland, Iris's divided identity began at birth. Her mother Sybil was the second daughter of an Anglo-Irish peer, Lord Desart, to whom Iris became deeply attached. As Hamilton Cuffe, younger son of an impoverished family, he had had so few apparent prospects that at the age of twelve he had signed on with a wooden frigate, the Orlando, bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia. But he was both determined and able, and it was not long before he made his way back to England, went up to Cambridge and then read for the Bar. He was also lucky. In 1898 he inherited an earldom and an estate in Ireland he had never expected to come his way. By then he was married to Margaret, one of the fourth Earl of Harewood's fourteen children, had been appointed Assistant Solicitor to the Treasury by Disraeli and was living in London, in a tall, narrow house 'like a sentry box' in Rutland Gate, to which his bride had brought, as a trousseau, twelve of everything: chemises, nightgowns and flannel petticoats of such fine quality that she wore them until she died. Punctual and affectionate, he came home every evening at six to spend an hour with Sybil and her elder sister Joan; he was later to say that these were the happiest days of his life. Not long afterwards he was appointed Queen's Proctor, and became involved in Oscar Wilde's trial It is said that he tried to delay the warrant for Wilde's arrest in order to give him time to escape to France: Wilde turned down the offer. The Desarts never had much money, but everywhere they went they took the privileges of Victorian England for granted, and Iris soon learnt that her grandfather's mildness, his openness to the views of others, concealed extremely firm and strong moral convictions.

    The Cuttings were richer and more orderly. William Bayard Cutting, Iris's father, belonged to a prosperous and philanthropic New York family, whose money came from railroads, shipping, land development and sugar beet. They spent their weekends and holidays in a house called Westbrook on the southern shore of Long Island, where they had turned a spit of sandy, marshy land into a botanical garden and built what looked like an enormous English country cottage, covered in creepers. Here Bayard played lawn tennis and held house parties with his younger brother Bronson and two sisters, Olivia (named after their mother) and Justine. All four later claimed to be 'particularly allergic to the taste of their silver spoons'. In New York, where he owned a brownstone house on the corner of Madison Avenue and 72nd Street, Bayard Cutting's father — also Bayard— was one of a group of men who took a close interest in the arts, architecture and furniture; he was a founder-member of the New York Public Library and of the Metropolitan Opera, where he had a box. Edith Wharton, a family friend, whose novel The Age of Innocence might have been written about life at Westbrook, later complained that the New York of her youth was like 'an empty vessel into which no new wine would ever again be poured'. She made an exception of Bayard Cutting, Iris's grandfather, and one or two other friends, because as men of 'a cultivated taste with marked social gifts' they stood apart from their contemporaries, who lived in what she called 'dilettantism leisure'. The 'self-appointed aristocracy' of New York, she also said, 'does not often produce eagles'; Cutting, on the other hand, 'stirred the stagnant air of old New York', thereby generating the 'dust of new ideas'. It was with her grandparents at Westbrook that Iris, as a small child, first knew the sensation of being—not alone, but one in a long and dignified line of people, 'the last and smallest acorn on the tree'. One Sunday morning after church, her grandmother told her to climb up onto a chair so that she could read the first page of the family Bible that stood open on a lectern. There, at the very bottom of a long line of names, in fresh ink, was her own.

    Bayard Cutting, Iris's father, was a cheerful, gifted and extremely successful schoolboy. At Groton, a private boarding school, he edited the paper, played the violin in the orchestra and was vice-president of the debating society. At Harvard he took a BA degree summa cum laude in history, economics and philosophy and was a pupil of George Santayana, who later remarked on his 'multitudinousness and quickness of ideas'. He played golf and football, rode and shot, and belonged to the most desirable college clubs. In appearance he was slight and dark; he later grew a pointed beard that Iris said gave him the look of a distinguished Frenchman.

    In the summer of his junior year, Bayard was asked whether he would like to accompany Joseph Choate, newly appointed Ambassador to London, as his private secretary. He accepted, but though the shooting weekends were fun, he did not entirely enjoy what he was soon calling 'this infernal social act'. To his younger brother Bronson, just off to school, he wrote an affectionate letter about his own schooldays, full of rather revealing advice. 'Sometimes I was a little blue, but there were so few minutes to be blue in that I soon got out of the habit ... There's no place where half so much as at a school, the good comes out on top ... So if one finds one is not getting on well at school, one can be absolutely sure it's one's own fault somehow ...' To a remarkable degree, Bayard was a man who remained in control of his own emotions and fears.

    Early in 1900, riding in Hyde Park with Joseph Choate, he met Lord Desart. With him was his daughter Sybil. She was slightly plump and very fair, with china-blue eyes. She was also clever and full of charm, if prone to self-absorption. 'Sybil's always ill', her mother remarked on one occasion, 'when she can't get what she wants.'

    She was, however, just about to get, as she usually did, precisely what she wanted. The morning ride became a regular event. Bayard and Sybil exchanged books, and discussed the Boer War. In the summer Bayard was invited to Desart Court in Ireland, an Italianate house built at the beginning of the eighteenth century in what was called 'Kilkenny marble', the local grey limestone. The house looked out over parkland and the overgrown remains of a former Italian garden. The weather was fine, and together Bayard and Sybil rode around the estate, meeting people who, as Bayard wrote to a friend, greeted them with the words 'Ah, Lady Sybil, it's a grand/beautiful/honourable young man you've got.' When they announced they wanted to become engaged, both sets of parents disapproved, on the grounds that they were too young, and their worlds too different. But they were determined, and anxious to waste no time. Bayard wrote to his father that they planned to explore California to see whether the life there suited them, particularly Sybil, who needed 'to live in the country, in one place, without any occasion to exhaust nervous energy'. He should perhaps have been warned, for Sybil was not just prone to getting her own way, but deeply immersed in her own health. She now caught a cold, and was irritable. Neither of them enjoyed the strict rules of chaperonage which prevented Bayard from acting as her escort in the evenings, or the etiquette which restricted their meetings to three dinners at Rutland Gate each week. Before very long, their parents capitulated.

    On 30 April 1901 Bayard and Sybil were married at All Saints' Church in Ennismore Gardens. The church was decorated with palms and white flowers, and the two pageboys wore Watteauesque costumes of pale blue silk.

After the wedding they sailed to America. They did indeed go to California, but only briefly, before returning to New York, where Bayard enrolled at the Columbia Law School. It was on their return to London the following June, in time for the birth of their first child, that Bayard suddenly had a haemorrhage. Little was made of what was described as a weak spot on one lung, and he was sent to convalesce at a sanatorium in the Cotswolds; the word 'tuberculosis' was carefully avoided. It was in the nearby village of Birdlip, on 15 August 1902, that Iris was born. Bayard wrote to his father that 'Sybil dined with Malcolm Donald, Lady Desart and me, and after dinner sat out till nine in the moonlight looking and feeling as well as possible. At about one the trouble began, and was over at seven, the doctor arriving about 4.30 ...' He was delighted with his daughter, writing to a friend that she was 'a healthy looking child, chubby and fair, with a loud voice and an excellent appetite, and not uglier than most of her kind'. He added: 'Of course, I had rather hoped for a boy — but after all, a boy is much harder to bring up, and I feel too inexperienced to do it decently.' Soon after, he started an album, 'Bayard's Accounts of Iris his daughter, 1902-1903', largely made up of copies of letters to his family and friends describing the baby. On 11 September he recorded, 'She is as fat as butter, with a gigantic crop of golden hair'; on 4 October she was 'developing a temper crying herself hoarse if left in bed'; on 7 November her temper was becoming 'daily worse. She cries and bawls whenever she leaves her nurse, and Sybil cannot stand the crying long': she was 'terribly distressed at her baby's minding being with her'.

    Neither Sybil nor Bayard wanted Iris to be christened, but their parents felt strongly and a christening of sorts took place on 30 September in the Chintz Bedroom of Desart Court, Sybil being too unwell to leave her bed. The baby was given the middle name Margaret, after her grandmother; 'Iris', protested Bayard's brother and a sister in America, was too botanical — 'Iris Cutting', they felt, 'suggests a gardener's catalogue.' Sybil's sister Joan was asked to be one godmother and a friend, Patience Cockerell, another; William Phillips and Joseph Choate, both Americans, were the godfathers. To Joseph Choate Bayard later wrote that neither he nor Sybil cared about the religious views of the godparents, 'only about our friendship with them'.

    On 7 December Sybil, Bayard and Iris left for Italy. According to a separate album kept by Sybil, Iris had learned to crawl and imitate the noises of animals by the age of between eight and nine months, and particularly enjoyed being played to on the piano. With Iris's nurse, they moved between various hotels in Portofino and Sestri Levante; for the few remaining years of Bayard's life, they were to keep moving, to different climates, different cures, different doctors, as the weakness in his lungs spread and he suffered repeated haemorrhages. Bayard's diary of Iris's progress charts their route. In December they stopped in a little fishing village south-east of Genoa, 'in a deep bay well sheltered from the wind, with pine woods behind. The view is lovely, the air all soft ... our kid is in good health ... but has a very imperious will.' He had had a worrying 'bilious' attack, which he blamed partly on being at sea level and partly on the local milk, which he thought provided too little nourishment for his bones. There was by now no avoiding the word tuberculosis.

    Sybil spent Christmas Day in bed with a sore threat and a weak pulse, while Iris's temper continued uncertain and Bayard longed to go home to America: 'I am tired of being an exile,' he wrote to a friend, adding that what he really needed was a companion to go about with. On 1 February 1903 they rented four adjoining rooms with a large terrace in Portofino, in order to have a change of walks and different meals, and spoke of a possible visit to Florence, just to have a little fun'. Bayard neither complained nor railed against his condition. As the months passed and his horizons grew ever smaller, so his ambitions became more modest; he was now talking of returning to Harvard to study economics, perhaps for 'university work and diplomacy', jobs best suited 'to a person who is not strong'. Sybil's health takes up almost as many lines as Iris's temper: on 1 February in Portofino, Sybil was 'pretty feeble and dreadfully thin', having worked too hard at her Italian; on 3 February she was 'very poorly'. But on 12 February the weather improved, Edith Wharton came to visit them, and, he noted, 'It is a pleasure to be alive.' She had always liked Bayard. He had, she wrote many years later, a rare quality of 'a sort of quiet radiance which sent its beam through the dark fog of weakness and pain enveloping the years that ought to have been his happiest ... We have always needed such men sorely in American public life.'

    In the autumn of 1903 they did what they had planned to do when they first married, and set off to explore California. The doctors had advised Bayard to live in a climate which was neither very hot nor very cold, nor muggy, nor windy, and to spend as much time as possible outside, sleeping in a tent or shelter and doing a lot of riding. Eventually they found themselves in a rented house in a place called Nordhoff, up in the hills between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. The house was run-down and lacking in furniture, supplies were hard to come by, and it was far more isolated than they had expected. However, Christmas was cheerful. Iris played on her own in a way 'quite remarkable for so young a child'. They were all charmed by the number of birds, and Bayard, who looked for work wherever he went, for a while edited the local newspaper, the Ojai. Sybil, Bayard wrote to his mother, 'shows great talent for settling'. Iris's temper had improved, but she still greatly preferred people to her toys, though she much enjoyed looking at pictures. The following summer Sybil noted that her daughter's hair was golden in colour and very soft, but that she was backward in talking. Her health was 'perfect', which, in a family so focused on illness, was fortunate. She also had an excellent memory, and 'her mind seems never at rest'.

    Joseph Choate asked Bayard to stand as godfather to his own new daughter, and in accepting Bayard wrote: 'I don't know whether you are glad or sorry at having a daughter instead of a son ... I know that no boy could be half as amusing as Iris has been, or a quarter as full of odd little affections.' He added that he had had to abandon his journalism because he had become 'so thin (and irritable!) ... I was born to vegetate, apparently.' Soon they were on the move again, this time to the Adirondacks in north-eastern New York state, where there was a sanatorium which provided a radical new treatment. He wrote again to Joseph Choate: 'I am absolutely sick of being on the sick list, and mean to try what a little "consummate caution" for a year or so is worth. I hope you and your wife never have to think about anything as annoying as health ...'

    In June 1905 Bayard set down on paper, in two columns, the advantages and disadvantages as between life in the United States or Switzerland. America came out on top, with a better climate, the possibility of setting up a proper home, and seeing his old friends; St Moritz might, he conceded, be better for his health, but there would be no chance of having a house or a dog of their own. Either way, he added, 'I look ahead of me at a lot more travelling ... but nothing resembling a continuous cure.'


Excerpted from IRIS ORIGO by Caroline Moorehead. Copyright © 2000 by Caroline Moorehead. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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