High society types and other people of monetary means have flocked to the coastal community of Montecito near Santa Barbara, California, since the late 1800s when they came in search of winter sun, salty sea air, mesmerizing vistas of the Pacific Ocean, and a near perfect Mediterranean climate. Long time residents of Montecito include actress and scion to a multi-billion dollar fortune Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Oprah Winfrey who owns a 40+ acre spread that La Winfrey now calls The Promised Land.
But long before them there was Madame Ganna Walska, a Polish opera singer and socialite, who purchased an estate here in 1941 and spent 43 years designing a world-class botanical garden called Lotusland. For her, grand Italianate gardens were boring. Her taste leaned more towards the experimental incorporating the principle of sustainability long before that was even a word. The extraordinary collection of cycads, cacti and palms, ferns, aloes and lotuses are a testament to the singular vision of Madame Walska, a bold and audacious pioneer if ever there was one.
Born in 1887 in Poland, her charm, allure, and powers of seduction were legendary. She lived a cultured life in St Petersburg, Russia, being named the most beautiful woman at the ball by Tsar Nicholas. She collected famous friends and married six times, a number of those husbands being very wealthy, and actually became an opera singer to get the attention of a husband to be. She moved to New York during World War I where she continued to sing and get married a lot, first to multimillionaire sportsman and carpet tycoon Alexander Smith Cochran and then to industrialist Harold F. McCormick, chairman of the International Harvester Company. Orson Welles claimed that McCormick's lavish promotion of Walska's opera career was a direct influence on the screenplay for Citizen Kane.
After a short marriage to death ray inventor Harry Grindell Matthews (it seems having three names was de rigueur in those days) it was on the encouragement of her sixth husband, yoga master and guru-trickster Theos Casimir Bernard, that she purchased the historic 37-acre "Cuesta Linda" estate in Montecito. Together, Walska and Bernard planned to create a spiritual retreat called Tibetland. However the guru was revealed to be a charlatan, and the marriage fell apart.
Madame's passions, formerly reserved for men, travel and luxury were soon subsumed by her love of the garden. Eccentric to her core, Madame used to wander barefoot on the grass with a bird called ‘Happy’ perched on her shoulder. She built an outdoor theater where she placed her collection of antique stone grotesques. Here a stage backdrop and wings made from tall hedges became a kind of living metaphor: nature had her back. Like many a rare bird of paradise, Madame was plagued by stage fright; had she not been, perhaps we wouldn’t have been blessed with such a glorious legacy of horticultural splendor.
*It turns out our informed docent Cristi Walden is herself a pioneer in the plant world running the nearby Sea Crest Nursery so make sure you get on her tour when Lotusland reopens in February 2017.