Love affairs and sins at Casa Cuseni

People in Taormina named him with affection the “crazy English”: not only for his look (tall and thin, blue eyes, mustaches, a certain flamboyance in dress, with his colorful jackets); but especially, because the painter Robert Hawthorn Kitson have spent and kept spending huge amount of money left by his father, industrialist, after his death, to build a villa in one of the more suggestive, but also wildest and driest areas in Taormina, along the street above the ancient village reaching Madonna della Rocca sanctuary.

A wild escarpment, becoming a show of nature only for few days of the year, in late January, because of the almond tree blossoms. The “crazy” Robert Kitson, arrived here from England with a lot of money to be spent and converted in few years the wild escarpment in an enchanting green oasis, planting cypresses, pines, palms, olives, fruit trees of different kinds, exotic plants (imported from Africa and Asia), and built his villa, considered even nowadays one of the most beautiful of the town.

A English Lord villa in the “Leopard” island. Nothing to be compared with the luxury and austere eighteenth-century palaces owned by Tomasi di Lampedusa in Palermo and S. Margherita Belice (the famous summer residence in Donnafugata); nothing to be compared with the rococo style of those palaces halls. The gay painter Robert Kitson’s house in Taormina, with its architectural traits and interior designs, has the English liberty style decorative mark and artisanal refinement. Surrounding the house there is a huge garden, crossed by cobblestone alleys, stone walls covered by bougainvilleas and jasmines, seats in hidden corners (created for intimate moments), tanks with Egyptian papyrus, big and small flowerbeds with geraniums, wisteria, wallflowers. And a breathtaking panorama, with the Etna covered in white for five months per year, and the Bay of Naxos, first Greek colony in Sicily.

A house-museum (full of frescos, paintings, potteries, antique furniture, art pieces), to whom Daphne Phelps, Kitson’s niece, dedicated a successful book, “A House in Sicily”, in English and Italian. Casa Cuseni took its name by the neighborhood where the house was built. Declared today “National Monument” and protected by the most important museum of Art and Design in the world, “Victoria and Albert Museum” in London, the house has been one of the most craved places in Taormina and in Sicily in the first postwar period. And it is this “breathe” of culture what fascinate visitors.

Well-known, for sure, as “house-museum” and “cultural salon”. But Casa Cuseni will become even more famous for its love affairs of its prestigious customers (writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, scientists, actors, from all over the world, not only English and not necessarily homosexuals), hosted in the house by the painter Robert Kitson, a man with great culture, with degree in Cambridge in Natural Sciences: the same will be doing the niece heir, after his death (in 1947).

It was in this stunning villa, in 1950, the break-up of the third marriage between the seventy-eight year old philosopher Bertrand Russell, English Lord and Nobel prize winner for the literature, and Patricia called Peter, his ex student in Oxford; Patricia packed her things and left Taormina alone straight away, when found out that the husband was too keen on Kitson’s niece, at that time thirty-nine. At Casa Cuseni, in 1969, began as well the passionate particular friendship between the gay American Tennessee Williams, forty-eight, already rich and famous for his plays brought to Hollywood as well-known movies (like “The Glass Menagerie”, “The rose tattoo”, “A Streetcar Named Desire”) guest of Daphne Phelps for a week, with the thirty-five year old painter Henry Faulkner, at the time unknown and broke, living permanently in two rooms belonged in the past to the gardener.

A room of Casa Cuseni, the most beautiful, holds the name of Greta Garbo. She spent there only one night, in 1962 (when she was fifty-seven). In Taormina she was guest of the diet doctor Gayelord Hauser, a German born U.S. citizen, explicitly homosexual, who was about to marry her in Hollywood, some year before the famous performer of “Mara Hari”, “Anna Christie” and “Marguerite Gauthier” left the cinema, at only thirty-six year old. Greta, explained the famous photographer Cecil Beaton, one of her greatest lover, “was absolutely unable to  love a man, with a real and authentic relationship”. Her love stories, after the clamorous escape from Hollywood? The costume designer Adrian, homosexual, and the Orchestra director Leopold Stokowski, homosexual. And she was hosted in Taormina by the gay diet doctor Gayelord Hauser.

Greta and Gayelord reached together Casa Cuseni, invited for dinner by Daphne Phelps (great friend of the “divine”, meeting each other often in London), and the diet doctor came back alone in his villa on the seaside between Taormina and Letojanni. His famous guest Garbo, enchanted by the stunning panorama, did not resist to the tempting perspective of admiring the sunrise from those terraces and accepted the invitation of the Daphne to spend the night there. Just the day after her friend Gayelord went by car to pick her up. And she said she did not even sleep: she waited for the sunrise from the terrace in her room, keeping on watching that “amazing show of nature”.

[Author: Gaetano Saglimbeni / English: Clelia Caltabiano]

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