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The Baronessa’s Dream

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Clockwise from top left, Beatrice and Gregor von Rezzori in 1997; Colm Tóibín and Zadie Smith; Ralph Fiennes and Beatrice; Deborah Eisenberg and Wallace Shawn in Beatrice's New York apartment; Beatrice, center, with guest and Frank McCourt; Tóibín and Michael Ondaatje.  

Talk to enough writers about their experience at Santa Maddalena, and a handful will complain—off the record, of course, presumably hoping for another stay marked by ricotta and afternoon swims. One attractive young novelist never recovered from being compared with the baronessa’s pug, and one fellow suggested that some guests were too class-conscious to enjoy their stay. “They iron your underwear for you!” says Andrew Sean Greer, still astonished. “That’s hard to take. You have to kind of decide that it’s fantastic, and there were a lot of writers who found it to be too much.”

The baronessa is generous with her social network; she introduced Gary Shteyngart to his Italian publisher and is campaigning for Deborah Eisenberg to have a run in France. But there is also a certain, mostly forgivable vanity behind her various projects. She intends, for instance, to preserve Santa Maddalena for the ages by having a handful of her fellows, some of them Pulitzer Prize winners, compose odes to particular rooms on the grounds. Shteyngart recently completed a piece on the Tower’s bathroom.

After her first stay, Zadie Smith wrote to her hostess, “When I arrived in Italy, I was all washed up. I hadn’t written properly for a year … I really thought I was all done.” She left with the first 121 pages of her second novel, The Autograph Man, in which a character is inspired by Beatrice (“I’m the older actress, the eccentric one”), and soon bought a pug of her own. She’s now looking for a place in Rome, and plans to study Italian. Specimen Days, the final third of which Michael Cunningham wrote in Tuscany, features a sci-fi lizard woman inspired by a reptile that refused to leave the Tower, and Greer’s next novel features a pair of twins named after Beatrice and her dog. “For me, it’s an intense pleasure,” says the baronessa. “Because what else do I get out of it?”

At dinnertime, everyone gathers around the stone table on the piazza behind the main house for a meal of fried zucchini, risotto, and Beatrice’s fearless name-dropping. Against a shrill chorus of frogs and the strange sounds of mating deer, we hear of “Isabella,” meaning Rossellini, who “goes into Central Park at night to rescue the birds that have fallen out of the trees.” And how John Malkovich once came for New Year’s dinner, “and I’d set up the table quite nicely, with beautiful plates and candelabras, and he put down his baby and changed her right there!” Beatrice’s deadpan delivery can make it hard to tell when she’s being serious or merely trying to spark conversation that meets the standard of her ideal salon. Of Salman Rushdie, she declares, “He has done nothing of importance since Midnight’s Children”; George Plimpton, “I did not like his social manner”; and Juliette Binoche, “like a spoiled French actress, not friendly at all, and so we did not become friends.” On the other end of the spectrum are those like Michael Ondaatje. “Michael is absolutely adorable. He has eyes like water, not blue, more complex. He exudes charm from every part of him!” And then there is Ralph Fiennes, a repeat visitor and one of the few who, bearing a vague resemblance to Von Rezzori, can bring out Beatrice’s girlish side. “He is really very, very handsome,” she says. “We went upstairs to watch Teorema, which is a Pasolini film Ralph had not seen, and he was reclining on the couch just so, like the Scarlet Pimpernel, and he has these incredibly long blond eyelashes … ”

“She is driving me crazy!” the novelist Torrente exclaims after dinner, in a moment of clandestine frustration. “She asks you a question, and then she changes the subject!” But he misses the point entirely: The novelist is here as a companion to this final chapter in the baronessa’s life. Besides, has he played tennis with Pedro Almodóvar or seen Joe Pulitzer in a toga? The young man should listen—this may be his last chance to hear her stories.

By the end of the meal, once the sky has grown dark, Beatrice may have a second wind and lead her group, wine and cigarettes in hand, to watch the fireflies by the rosebushes, where she once coaxed Zadie Smith into an impromptu performance of “Stormy Weather.” But on this night, as is the case more and more these days, the baronessa is exhausted and must bow out of the evening’s big plan: night swimming. “I think that would be great fun,” she tells her writers, “but I must say goodnight. I do wish I were not so tired.”


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