The Diva Who Built Her Own Personal Paradise
Madame Ganna Walska was a frustrated opera singer who grew an eccentric garden and in her California home. It became both her refuge from the world and the love of her life...
One night during a dance held by the Russian court, the tsar’s eyes fell on a 19-year-old Polish girl. The monarch didn’t hesitate to say that she was the most beautiful woman in the place. Her name was Hanna Puacz, and three of this young woman’s great passions were plants, opera, and men. Her life would be anything but common, and would come to an end in California, on an exotic estate she called Lotusland, one of the world’s most beautiful botanical gardens.
Long before Puacz arrived in the United States, her life had already taken unexpected turns. After capturing the attention of the tsar of Russia – who would eventually have her immortalized in a painting – the young woman of humble origins managed to be counted among the highest echelons of European society. This was for her wit, her charisma, and beauty, and it was all under the name of Madame Ganna Walska. She was to have six husbands, among them a Russian count, a professional swindler, a yogi, and an inventor.
While still married to her first husband and enjoying a life of luxury, Walska tried to become a professional opera singer. Her only problem was that she didn’t know how to sing and even if she had, her deep stage fright never allowed her to pursue a successful career. This led to multiple embarrassments around the world. In 1918, before an enormous audience in Havana, Walska took the stage and within a few minutes the audience began to boo. Her fourth husband, Harold McCormick, was only too happy to help her to pursue her career as a singer. He became the inspiration for Orson Welles’ character of the millionaire who lost his entire fortune trying to make his wife into a famous singer in the film, Citizen Kane.
Still, art was to play a leading role in Walska’s life. After her marriage to McCormick in 1922, she purchased the Theater des Champs Elysées in Paris. Much later, Walska assured the world that “Love comes and goes on its own accord, like a fever. Nothing can stop it, nothing can prolong it either… My reputation was entirely my own creation for self-defense… I was considered to be an exceptionally level-headed woman, a thousand-headed monster, a hard-working machine.”
During her life in Europe, Walska led a glamorous life and, for some time, even had her own brand of cosmetics. Shortly thereafter and very reluctantly, with the start of World War II, she was forced to leave Paris for the United States. It was there that her life was to change completely. She stopped appearing in society, and in 1941 she purchased from the Gravits family an estate of some 15 hectares near Santa Barbara, California. Increasingly obsessed with herbalism, the place was to become her life’s passion.
With the help of her final husband, a yogi known as the White Lama, Walska put all of her energy into what was to become her masterpiece: a garden later to be renamed Lotusland. In France, Walska purchased many of the statues to decorate the garden already plotted by the previous owners in the dramatic style of a Renaissance Italian garden. At some point, she intended to call the garden “Tibetland” upon bringing several Tibetan lamas to live there. This project was thwarted by the political impediments to transferring Buddhist monks to live in the United States.
Madame Walska’s garden is, in fact, multiple gardens. Each was named arbitrarily at the whim of the owner: the “Blue Garden,” the “Australian Garden,” and the “Bromeliad Garden” are just some of them. The “Water Garden” is populated by lilies and the enormous lotuses which lend their name to the place. An unexpected Eden, it’s also filled with strange objects alluding to the Parisian Belle Epoque and to the other eccentric tastes of its creator – who, by the way, also liked to consult the Ouija board.
The labyrinthine garden also includes an insectary, a Japanese garden, and an aquatic garden with a pool surrounded by fountains, seashells, and snails, as well as an open-air theater decorated with statues emulating the grotesque style of the 17th century and many characters from the plays of Molière. One can also find, among the paradisiacal landscapes, giant pieces of colored glass which decorate the dreamscape like enormous gemstones.
At the heart of the property is a pink Mediterranean style house and surrounded by dozens of cactus species. In this beautiful, surreal house, Madame Ganna Walska lived until she was 96 years old surrounded by her nearly 3,000 species of plants, the true loves of her life. Shortly before her death, Walska auctioned much of her jewelry to make one last garden, as a habitat for cicads: the final gesture of this special woman who ultimately found purpose in her life was a grand California orchard.
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