LADY SUSANA WALTON 1926-2010
Some lives read as improbable fictions. Too far-fetched to be viable in a novel, their tribulations tax all credulity. For an individual to live through such calamitous moments, betrays a strength of spirit, and a well of emotional resources most souls could never call upon. One such passage from the cradle to the grave was the life of Susana Valeria Rosa Maria Gil. Passo. Her ability to adapt to a world she could never never envisaged as a good Catholic girl in Buenos Aires, was an amazing feat of endurance. And to have survived it and thrived, is even more remarkable. That world was to be London's high society just after World War Two, where she proved herself as a perfect wife to a talented but far from perfect man.
Sheltered, spirited, but devastatingly beautiful, it was a chance encounter of the 'eyes across a crowded room' kind, that catapulted the ambitious daughter of a wealthy landowner and lawyer, beyond the shores of her native South America. She had, much against the wishes of her family, and the conventions of the time, taken a job as a PA with the British Council.
At a press conference in Argentina to celebrate the arrival of William Walton, the composer of the music for Edith Sitwell's Facade, Olivier's Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III, and Belshazzar's Feast, she was spotted by the celebrated guest, a man not noted for his celibacy, who leant across to Benjamin Britten and announced: "I think I'll marry that girl over there." Within two months his wish had come to pass. She was 22, her husband, 46. Her poor father was so shaken by the drastic turn of events, that he spent most of her dowry on champagne for the assembled two thousand wedding guests to drown their sorrows over their unorthodox union. However, on their return to London, Susana quickly realized that her husband, though feted, was far from wealthy, and lived even further from the confines of fidelity. She tolerated his indiscretions, and there were many, surmising that as an artist he was inevitably going to be drawn to beauty, and that his amours were fleeting, whilst she was for keeps. What she was not permitted to keep was the child she quickly fell pregnant with.
Walton had warned her that the thought of children made him feel physically sick. He forced her to have a backstreet abortion in Chelsea. It was just one of the many sacrifices she would make to placate a spouse who at best, could be politely described as inherently selfish.
It was decided that they could live better on his slender means if they moved to Italy. Their arrival on Ischia is like something out of an E. F. Benson novel. They moved their Bentley, the only car on the island, on a boat used by the islanders for supplies. There they resided in gentile dereliction in a rented house eventually buying a volcanic outcrop of rock, much against the advice of their friend Laurence Olivier, and set about consolidating their home on the island.
Although she longed for children she sacrificed this desire to maintain a creative tranquility for her resolutely unfaithful husband. The architect Russell Page was hired to design the garden before the house had even been envisaged, but as the surrounding succumbed to Susana's determined vision, her steeliness in these surroundings mirrored the improbable soil on which her marriage was rooted. Guests at La Mortella included, Charlie Chaplin, Maria Callas and Vivien Leigh, and it gave Walton had the seclusion to compose at his leisure. Against the odds of negative expectations, the gardens, and the marriage blossomed, although Walton continued to philander. his reputation as a composer grew, despite his output being difficult and slow.
By 1982, his 80th birthday was celebrated at the Royal Festival Hall, with Susana and he seated in the Royal Box. After Walton's death in 1983 she devoted life in his absence to promoting his musical legacy. In 1988 publishing a witty, diverting, but candid memoir Behind The Facade, which horrified musicologists with it's lack of musical comprehension, gossipy nature, and settling of ancient feuds. It however gave a flavour of the lady who had been eclipsed for too long.
Susana continued to develop the gardens. They became a major tourist attraction. and in 2007 had over 70,000 visitors. In tandem with this passion, she used them as a platform to promote her late husband's music via the Fondazione William Walton e Mortella, building an open air Greek-style theatre, whilst the house became as famous for its concerts as its flowers. Lady Walton was a vivacious woman, with a taste for impractical hats, particularly the towering creations of Phillip Treacy. In the years after Walton's death she made herself a gardener of repute, forging a reputation beyond his long, lingering shadow, whilst keeping his work in the public eye.
Her 2002 book La Mortella - an Italian Garden Paradise had a foreword by the Prince of Wales, patron of the William Walton Trust. In that year she was made an MBE, and a Grande Ufficiale della Republica Italiana, a mark of the respect which she had earned in her adoptive homelands. Loud, eccentric and captivating, she was a splash of Latin drama in the staid world of English classical music.