Her Life Was an Opera
Ganna’s Garden Lives On
Thursday, July 19, 2012
Six Husbands: Ganna Walska couldn’t sing opera worth a damn, but she sure could live it.
A great beauty, she was married six times — to a Russian baron, industrialist Harold McCormick, and the inventor of the so-called “death ray,” among others — and got very, very rich in the process.
Marital happiness and cheers from opera critics eluded her, but she went on to reinvent herself and create one of the world’s great botanical gardens in Santa Barbara: 37-acre Lotusland.
In photos, you see Ganna Walska (not her real name) happily treading the dusty paths of her beloved garden, a woman who was once the toast of Paris, who had the crowned heads of Europe and captains of industry at her feet. While men flung divorce millions at her, an audience in Havana was sufficiently outraged as she “veered so persistently off key that the audience pelted her with rotten vegetables,” according to the New York Times paraphrase of her memoirs.
In any case, her running out of husbands and failing in opera halls became our good luck. So how did a woman of humble birth in Brest-Litovsk, Poland, in 1887, who became so desired and so rich, end up creating a garden here with more than 3,000 plants from around the world?
At 19, at a royal ball in St. Petersburg, Russia, she was chosen the most beautiful woman there, and before long, eloped with a Russian count by the name of Arcadie d’Eingorn. But by 1915, she tired of his drunkenness and carousing and divorced him.
About this time, she decamped to Paris, took up opera singing, and changed her name from the common Hanna Puacz to Ganna Walska, which she coined to remind her of waltzing.
Library of Congress
Then, with World War I raging, she sailed to New York, where she consulted the wealthy Dr. Joseph Fraenkel, who tended to her strained throat and broken heart. They married 10 days later in 1916.
In 1918 she shared the billing with none other than Enrico Caruso. Opportunity knocked again when she met mega-rich McCormick of the International Harvester millions, who fell madly in love with her. He promptly divorced his wife, a Rockefeller, no less, to be free to wed her. He had to wait his turn.
In 1920, Dr. Fraenkel conveniently died. The depressed Walska took a ship to Paris, and while on board met “the richest bachelor in the world,” Alexander Cochran. The sportsman/carpet tycoon proposed two days later. She soon found him “the most miserable man I have ever met.”
In 1922, she shed Cochran and wed McCormick, who was not only a devoted husband but also willing to finance her failing singing career. But in 1931, he divorced her because she would not leave Paris to live in Chicago. (Who could blame her?)
Then came opera lover and inventor/scientist Harry Grindell-Matthews of England, famed for his dubious “death ray” electrical device for supposedly disabling enemy engines. Harry proved to be a jealous husband. So she hopped a boat back to the U.S.
Ganna had long experimented in the occult and began taking yoga lessons. She fell in love with Theos Bernard, a scholar of yoga and Tibetan Buddhism, known as “The White Lama.” They went west like many before them and wed in pre-boom Las Vegas, with Ganna wisely signing a pre-nup. They bought what it now Lotusland, calling it Tibetland, to be a retreat for Tibetan monks.
But World War II prevented the monks from coming, and the retreat idea floundered. Bernard’s mood swings also became insufferable. The Buddhist spiritual leader sued for divorce in 1945, left with many of her valuable books and furnishings, and sought separate maintenance. This was rejected after he was caught committing perjury.
By 1946, Ganna Walska was free to create her magnificent garden for the world to enjoy. She died in 1984, but her creation lives on.
Summertime: Summer means doldrums for most symphony orchestras, but luckily for us, young musicians at the Music Academy of the West are playing superb public concerts at the Granada. Next one is Saturday, July 21, at 8 p.m. Stravinsky, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, etc.
Q for Cute: Santa Barbara City College’s newly rebuilt Garvin Theatre opened last weekend to the much-acclaimed Avenue Q, a sly comic musical that could be described as Sesame Street for adults. Sample songs: “What Do You Do with a BA in English?” and “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” Through July 28.