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Below are some of the most popular articles from my blog, The Culture Vulture.

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THE LIFE OF MARIA CALLAS – A TRAGEDY IN THREE ACTS

Everything about Maria Callas was larger than life – her personality, her love affairs, her feuds and of course, that magnificent voice. The story of her journey from modest beginnings to reigning prima donna of the operatic world has all the elements of a classic rags-to-riches tale – drama, comedy and tragedy. It is possibly this last element of her life story that accounts for our enduring fascination with this formidable yet vulnerable woman. The public, true to macabre form, has allowed the spectre of Callas’s doomed love affairs and early death to loom large, overshadowing her great musical achievements. Like Marilyn Monroe before her, the legacy of Maria Callas has fallen victim to her legend.

Act 1 – Inauspicious Beginnings

Cecilia Sophia Anna “Maria” Kalogeropoulos was born on December 3rd 1923 in Queens, New York, barely four months after her parents arrived in America from Greece. Her father, George Kalogeropoulos, was a pharmacist and her mother Evangelia (Litza) was an ambitious social climber with big aspirations for her family. Around the time of her birth, Maria’s father changed the family’s surname to the more manageable Callas.

Maria was the youngest of three children – her elder sister Jackie was born in 1917, and her brother Vassilis born in 1920. Maria never knew her brother, but was destined to live in his shadow for much of her childhood. Vassilis died in 1922 from meningitis, and Maria was what could be described as a “replacement” baby. Her parents, desperate for another son, even went so far as to consult astrologers for advice on when would be the most opportune time to conceive a boy. This astrological intervention failed, however, to produce the much longed-for son. When Maria was born, her mother was so distraught and disappointed she refused to look at the little girl for four days.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given this less-than-promising start, Maria’s relationship with her mother was factious and fraught with difficulties. Litza’s obvious preference for her elder daughter Jackie sowed the seeds of resentment in Maria that were to define the relationship with her mother for the rest of her life. Litza was not averse to taking advantage of Maria’s musical talents, which were apparent from an early age (“I was made to sing when I was only five, and I hated it”). Litza became the ultimate domineering “stage mother”. Maria herself summed up the situation best when she said:

“My sister was slim and beautiful and friendly, and my mother always preferred her. I was the ugly duckling, fat and clumsy and unpopular. It is a cruel thing to make a child feel ugly and unwanted… I’ll never forgive her for taking my childhood away. During all the years I should have been playing and growing up, I was singing or making money.”

This unhappy childhood was compounded by her parents deteriorating marriage. Incompatible from the start, the arguments between her parents became more and more frequent. George was said to be unhappy with Litza’s unfair treatment of their youngest daughter, and Litza, for her part, was frustrated by his apparent unambitious attitude and lack of interest in social advancement. They eventually divorced in 1937, when Maria was thirteen years old.

After the divorce, on Litza’s insistence, her two daughters moved back with her to Athens, where they spent the war years. Animosity between mother and daughter continued to increase during this time, as Litza reportedly encouraged her daughters to fraternize with Italian and German soldiers during the occupation, in order to bring home food and money. Maria viewed this (perhaps rightfully) as a form of prostitution. Interestingly, her mother did not have a job of her own during this time.

There is, however, one thing for which we must be grateful to Maria’s mother – her insistence, despite the scarcity of money, that Maria should receive a musical education (whether this was for Maria’s benefit, or for the advancement of Litza’s own future, is debatable – her motives were, as ever, dubious to say the least). Litza’s driving ambition was about to set her daughter on a course for international stardom.

Act 2 – Triumph over Adversity … The Rise of the Diva

After an unsuccessful attempt to gain entry to the Athens Conservatoire, Maria’s mother managed to convince Maria Trivella (of the lesser Greek National Conservatoire) to listen to her daughter sing. Trivella was so impressed with Maria’s (as yet untrained) voice that she agreed to teach her free of charge.

Callas proved to be a precocious student. Trivella soon ascertained that Maria’s voice was a dramatic soprano, not a contralto as was previously believed. Callas responded well to Trivella’s training, throwing herself into her studies. Trivella later said of her:

“A model student. Fanatical, uncompromising, dedicated to her studies heart and soul. Her progress was phenomenal. She studied five or six hours a day. …Within six months, she was singing the most difficult arias in the international opera repertoire with the utmost musicality”.

Callas would remain a student of Trivella for two years, after which she re-auditioned for the Athens Conservatoire. This time she was successful, greatly impressing Elvira de Hidalgo, the famous Spanish coloratura soprano, who was to become her next teacher, and who would play an “essential role” in Callas’s artistic development.

While still a student, Callas secured a number of small roles, mainly thanks to de Hidalgo’s connections. It would not be until 1942 that she would make her début professionnel in the minor role of Beatrice in Suppé’s Boccaccio. From then on, she was never short of engagements, working steadily in Greek operatic productions until she made the brave decision, at the end of the war, to return to the United States of America to live with her father. And so it was, at the tender age of 22, Maria Callas embarked on the next stage of her career.

After numerous auditions and a few false starts (she wisely turned down a beginners contract, and the opportunity to play Madame Butterfly, at the New York Met), Maria Callas came to the attention of the renowned Italian conductor, Tullio Serafin. The great maestro was instrumental in securing for her the lead role in La Gioconda, in a production to be staged in Verona, Italy. After La Gioconda, Serafin, again showing his faith in the newcomer, cast her as Isolde in Tristan and Isolde. This was the beginning of a long and fruitful professional relationship between the soprano and the man who would become her mentor.

From this point on, Callas’s career went from strength to strength. She was in high demand all over Italy, appearing in all the major Italian opera houses. The only theatre left to welcome her was the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, arguably the most renowned of the Italian opera houses. The reason for this seemed to hinge on the dislike La Scala’s general manager, Antonio Ghiringhelli, harboured for Callas. Eventually, however, even he could not deny or ignore the trajectory of her rising stardom, and she made her La Scala debut in December 1951. La Scala was to play a significant role in Callas’ career throughout the 1950’s.

Italy, however, was not the centre of Maria’s world.  She headlined productions all over the globe, including the New York Met, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the Royal Opera House in London. After the success of her London début in 1952, Callas went on to appear at the ROH in 1953, 1957, 1958, 1959, and 1964 -1965. During these years, Callas’s artistic output was immense. She performed lead roles in all the major operas, specialising in the tragic heroines of the Italian repetoire – Florida Tosca, in Puccini’s opera of the same name, and Violetta in La Traviata and Bellini’s Norma.

Her legacy was immeasurably enriched when she agreed, at the pinnacle of her career, to record Tosca for EMI in 1953. Thanks to the relentless perfectionism of Callas and her equally pedantic conductor Victor de Sabata, the now infamous Tosca sessions were a grueling process, exasperated by soaring August temperatures in Milan (the sessions were recorded at La Scala). The results, however, were magnificent, described by an EMI executive as having “made immortal contributions … to the artistic history of our time.”

During these years, Callas’s reputation as a singer was almost overshadowed by her growing reputation for being “difficult”. Maria was renowned in operatic circles for her sheer force of will and her indefatigable ambition. Indeed, it is fair to say, her meteoric rise to fame would not have been possible without these personality traits. She had an innate intelligence, and was supremely confident in her vision for her career. Rudolf Bing of the New York Met said:

“… she was so much more intelligent. Other artists, you could get around. But Callas you could not get around. She knew exactly what she wanted, and why she wanted it”

However, despite this, she often suffered privately from personal anxieties which were at odds with the ultimate self-assurance she displayed on stage. As a result, she relied heavily on the emotional support she received from her husband, Giovanni Meneghini. She met her much-older husband early in her career and they married in 1949. Giovanni was a wealthy man, and marriage to him freed Callas from financial worries, which meant she was at liberty to develop her art without constraint. Giovanni managed her career until the marriage disintegrated in 1959.

Act 3 – A Fall from Grace

Callas’s growing reputation for diva-esque behaviour, coupled with the disintegration of her relationship with the mother (which was played out in public thanks to the publication of Litza’a book My Daughter – Maria Callas) combined to ensure that she became a permanent fixture of the gossip pages. Hoards of reporters followed her every move. Callas’ life became tabloid fodder, and perhaps unfairly, she became the victim of press vilification. In what could be described as a manifestation of “tall-poppy syndrome”, the press seemed to take unbridled and perverse delight in pulling this prima donna from her gilded pedestal. In her characteristically elegant way, Callas responded to this brutal public flogging by saying:

“I am not an angel and do not pretend to be. That is not one of my roles. But I am not the devil either. I am a woman and a serious artist, and I would like so to be judged.”

If all of this negative attention was not bad enough, a fateful meeting with the powerful Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis in 1957 would send the printing presses into overdrive. Despite the fact that Ari and Maria were both married, he pursued her relentlessly, and in doing so, ensured their budding romance would continue to feed the media’s insatiable desire for Callas-related stories.

The couple had much in common – both rose from dubious beginnings in Greece, overcoming many obstacles to reach the pinnacle of their chosen professions. Maria eventually succumbed to Ari’s advances, and she left her husband of ten years in 1959.

Her relationship with Onassis coincided with a period of immense professional difficulty. By the late 1950’s, it had become evident that Callas’s voice was in decline. Severe weight-loss had weakened her diaphragm, and years of overwork had damaged her remarkable voice – Callas’s vocal capabilities were failing at a worrying rate. This, coupled with her poor treatment by the press, convinced Callas to enter a period of semi-retirement. Content in her relationship with Onassis, she appeared happy to give up her career to focus on their relationship.

There is no doubt that Onassis was la grande passionne of Maria’s life – she loved him deeply. There has been much speculation regarding Maria’s desire to have a child with Ari. Some have said that Onassis forbade it (forcing her to have at least one abortion), while others (including her ex-husband) maintain that Callas could not have children, while yet more friends hint at the possibility that Maria bore a secret child by Ari who died in infancy. We will never know the truth behind these conflicting rumours – yet they go a long way to cementing her image as a tragic victim of circumstances.

Maria and Aristotle never married. Again, there is no consensus as to why this was the case – some believe that Onassis never wanted it, while others are convinced their volatile relationship and explosive arguments always prevented them from walking down the aisle at the last moment. Whatever the case, the pair remained a couple, and apparently devoted to each other, for nine years.

In 1968, Callas was left utterly devastated when Onassis abruptly cast her aside to marry Jacqueline Kennedy. It was a blow from which she never recovered. Maria retreated to her apartment in Paris, apparently losing interest in life. Nobody could have described this dark period better than Maria herself when she said

“First I lost my voice, then I lost my figure and then I lost Onassis”.

In 1974, she eventually emerged from her private and professional hibernation to embark on a world tour with the tenor Giuseppe di Stefano. While commercially successful, the performances were slated by the critics. The great La Callas had fallen on her sword. She would never sing in public again.

On September 16, 1977, Maria Callas died of a heart attack. She was just 53 years of age. And so it transpired, the story of Maria Callas’s last years ensured she would be cast in her final role – the ultimate tragic heroine of our times. When one considers her triumphs as Violetta, Tosca and Norma, perhaps this should be seen as a fitting tribute. Her life, in the end, imitated her great art … and it was, indeed, a life less ordinary.

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THE HISTORY OF THE FABERGE EGGS

From their beginnings in Imperial Russia, where their fate was inextricably linked to that of the doomed Romanov family, to their ignominous off-loading in Depression-era America, the story of the Fabergé Eggs provides an interesting snapshot of early 20th century European and American history.

The tale begins in 1885 when the penultimate Russian Emperor, Czar Alexander III, took the Easter tradition of decorating eggs to an entirely different level by commissioning the renowned goldsmith and jeweler, Peter Carl Fabergé, to create an extravagantly ornamental egg as a present for his wife, Empress Maria. It is believed that the idea for this ostentatious gift was borne out of Maria’s admiration for a similar egg owned by her aunt.

The precious egg, which became known as the Hen Egg, was made of gold and was covered with transparent white enamel to give it the appearance of a real egg-shell. The outer shell of the egg could be pulled into two parts, revealing within a gold yolk, which in turn contained further bejeweled gifts.

Maria was so delighted with the present, her husband decided to have one made for her every Easter, with subsequent offerings becoming increasingly decadent and larger in size. Thus, the giving of lavishly decorated Fabergé Eggs became an Easter tradition for the Romanov family, which continued when Nicholas II succeeded his father in 1894, right up until the overthrow of the monarchy during the Russian Revolution in 1917 (by which time a total of 50 Imperial Eggs had been made).

Post-revolutionary Russia, however, was a very different place to that which existed under the House of Romanov. With Nicholas II and his immediate family ruthlessly executed, the country was now in the grip of the Bolshevik’s Communist regime. Where did the Fabergé Eggs fit in this strange new world?

In truth, the Bolsheviks were at a loss as to what to do with them. The eggs, undoubtedly valuable and noteworthy, had nonetheless become synonymous with the extravagance associated with the former Imperial Family. They were also, perhaps, an unwelcome reminder of the bloody and brutal revolution of the not-so-distant past – undoubtedly, Fabergé’s creations suffered from a bad case of guilt by association. In the end, Lenin arranged for all the eggs to be rounded up and stored in the Kremlin Armoury in Moscow. Consequently, the stunning pieces were left to languish for years, all but forgotten, in a dusty basement.

The Imperial Eggs came to prominence once again in the late 1920s under the Stalinist regime, when they were resurrected from their ignominious hiding place. Desperate for western currency, Stalin sold many of the eggs to overseas buyers, scattering the collection to all four corners of the globe. Indeed, between 1930 and 1933 alone, fourteen Imperial Eggs left Russia for foreign shores.

One of the more prominent buyers was Armand Hammer, a well-known American businessman, who had connections with Russia (he was a good friend of Lenin’s and his father established the Communist Party in the US). Hammer’s motives for buying up ten of the eggs, and a lot more Romanov treasure besides, has been widely debated. Was he trying to promote the cultural, artistic and historic importance of the Imperial Easter Eggs, or was he purely interested in making money? We shall never know.

There can be no doubt, however, that Hammer went to great lengths to sell the treasures in America in the early 1930s. Despite an extensive promotional tour which took him from the East to the West coast of the United States, the Great Depression ensured that buyers were few and far between. Eventually, he did succeed in off-loading the eggs, but at bargain basement prices. The majority fetched only a few hundred dollars each.

It would be several decades before collectors finally realised the true value of the Fabergé eggs – they now carry multi-million dollar price-tags; indeed some people believe the eggs to be priceless.

But while the Fabergé Eggs now inspire fascination and admiration around the world, as much for their intricate craftsmanship as for their tragic and blighted history, few have found their way back to Russia. At present, only ten can be found at the Kremlin, while a further nine have been bought by the Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. The rest (apart from the eight whose whereabouts remain unknown) are strewn all over the globe, with Her Majesty’s Royal Collection boasting three of the miniature treasures. It is indeed a sad fact that by selling the eggs, Stalin significantly diluted Russia’s artistic and cultural legacy.

If you fancy getting your hands on a Fabergé egg for a loved one and don’t have millions of dollars to spend, don’t despair – there is a raft of authorised reproductions and unofficial fakes on the market with somewhat more affordable price-tags. And even if these are outside your price-range, there’s always the Kinder Surprise …

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IS JOHNNY DEPP A REAL-LIFE DORIAN GRAY?

When People magazine announced, at the end of 2009, that Johnny Depp had once again been voted “Sexiest Man Alive” by its readers, the female population of the Western world responded with a resounding “DOH!” As any hot-blooded woman can attest, we hardly need yet another ‘sexiest man’ poll to tell us what we already know – Johnny Depp is, without doubt, one of the most gorgeous men on the planet.

This is the second time the delectable Mr. Depp has won this dubious “honour” (the first time was in 2003). In doing the double, he has joined an elite and exclusive group – Brad Pitt and George Clooney are the only other modern-day deities who have previously trodden this hallowed path. This achievement is no mean feat, considering the fickle, frivolous world of celebrity hero-worshipping. It is interesting to note that it is the old masters who are coming out on top, fending off young, upstart pretenders to the throne like Robert Pattison and Jake Gyllenhaal.

However, one thing that marks Depp apart from clean-living hunks like Clooney and Pitt is his notoriously hard-living, hard-partying, hell-raising ways. He has openly admitted to a lifelong love of liquor (after breaking up with his fiancée Winona Ryder in 1993, he had a tattoo changed from “Winona Forever” to “Wino Forever”). During the mid to late nineties, a number of incidents cemented Depp’s bad boy image, including his arrest in New York after allegedly trashing a hotel room during an argument with his then-girlfriend Kate Moss. Another, more tragic, event was to have a long-lasting effect on the young actor – the death of his friend River Phoenix. Johnny was present at a jamming session at his night club The Viper Room the night River Phoenix fatally overdosed from a mixture of heroine and cocaine. (He was onstage playing with Michael “Flea” Balzary, bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers – another infamous hell-raiser – unaware that River was dying on the pavement outside his club). Although there was no evidence that Johnny was indulging in drugs himself, he became the victim of guilt-by-association in the press.

While fatherhood has somewhat dampened his appetite for the self-destructive, Depp still appears hell-bent on pursuing a lifestyle which would wreak havoc with the looks of the more genetically-challenged among us. Indeed, we only need to consider Johnny’s friends (people like Keith Richards and Shane MacGowan of The Pogues) to see how a similar lifestyle has been to the detriment of their looks. (Although, lets be honest, in MacGowan’s case, maybe the lack of teeth has more to do with his present unattractiveness than the years of alcoholism!)

It is obvious that Depp places no value on his astonishing good looks. While it is not beyond the realm of possibility to imagine other Hollywood leading men obsessing about grey hairs and wrinkles, and going to bed with a de-toxifying face mask, Johnny goes out of his way to disassociate himself from the pretty-boy image. In fact, considering the off-beat characters he chooses to play (a transvestite in Ed Wood, the wacky Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, a disturbing Willy Wonka, an artificial man-freak in Edward Scissorhands, a demon barber in Sweeney Todd), it would appear that a pre-requisite for his acceptance of any film role would be the opportunity to ugly-up his impossibly handsome face.

During a recent (and rare) interview on the Jonathan Ross show, Depp appeared oddly ill-at-ease in his own skin, hiding behind his lank, greasy hair. The dirty, tatty clothes he was wearing, including his beloved fifteen-year-old boots, gave him an appearance more like a homeless bum than a Hollywood leading man. And don’t even start me on his filthy fingernails and ugly tattoos! And yet, despite all this, or maybe because of it, he seemed more attractive than ever! Regardless of the off-the-wall character roles, and the seeming desire to drink his way to ugliness, Johnny Depp never seems to age. If anything, his good looks seem to have improved over the years. Nothing diminishes the appeal of the man!

While pondering the genetic paradox that is Mr. Johnny Depp, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is brought to mind. In the novel, an incredibly handsome young man (Gray) is having his portrait painted when he suddenly becomes aware of his own mortality. He is distraught at the prospect of his good looks fading, and so makes a pact with the devil – Dorian sells his soul in exchange for the preservation of his beauty. His wish is granted and Dorian never ages a day. Despite a gradual descent into hedonism and debauchery, the effects of his lifestyle never show on his face. Even though Dorian’s outwardly appearance remains unaltered, his portrait is constantly changing, becoming ever more uglier and disfigured. The picture is reflecting how Dorian’s self-gratifying and increasingly evil ways are affecting his soul. The novel climaxes with Dorian, in a blind rage, plunging a knife (which he has just used to murder his best friend) into the painting. With the portrait destroyed, Dorian ages very quickly and dies. When his body is discovered, he is so disfigured and withered, he is unrecognizable. It is only through the rings on his fingers that he can be identified. In the end, even Dorian Gray could not escape the ravages of time.

So, Johnny Depp, what is your secret? Is it simply great genes? Have you discovered the elixir of life, the fountain of youth? Or could there be a portrait of you, hidden far away from prying eyes, which is slowly becoming uglier and more disfigured, while the devil waits patiently for your soul? Do tell …

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MON DIEU! LA JOCONDE, ELLE EST PERDU!

Mona Lisa. La Gioconda. La Joconde. However you know her, Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of a beguilingly mysterious lady is inarguably the world’s most famous painting. Instantly recognisable, the face of the Mona Lisa is identifiable to even the most uncultured philistine among us.

But why is this the case? Why is this particular painting more famous than, say, Virgin of the Rocks or Lady with an Ermine? Both are equally as accomplished, if not more so, as Mona Lisa. For that matter, why does Mona Lisa‘s renown eclipse works by other Old Masters, like those of Raphael, Caravaggio or Rubens?

Many would claim that the reason Mona Lisa has captured our imagination for generations is all down to that enigmatic, mesmerizing smile. Others would point to her inscrutability (Is she smiling or smirking? Is she happy or scornful?) as the reason behind our continuing fascination with her. Still more would cite the long-running theory that the painting is, in fact, a crafty self-portrait of the artist himself.

Most likely, all of these explanations are true, in part at least. But it may surprise many to learn that, up to a century ago, the most famous painting in the world existed in relative obscurity. While she still hung in the Louvre, the daily queues of tourists, eager to catch a glimpse of those legendary lips, simply did not exist. Yes, she was a highly valued example of da Vinci’s genius, but she did not inspire anything like the adoration she does today.

The fact is, Mona Lisa’s fame can be traced to a precise point in time, 21st August 1911, almost exactly one hundred years ago. On this day, a humble Italian painter and carpenter by the name of Vincenzo Peruggia staged one of the most audacious art thefts the world has ever seen, and in doing so, propelled Mona Lisa into a realm of notoriety, hitherto unknown for any artwork, no matter how extraordinary.

Peruggia, in the mistaken belief that Mona Lisa had been stolen by Napoleon, was determined to restore the masterpiece to his native Italy. (In fact, the painting had never been misappropriated – da Vinci had brought the painting with him to the court of the French king, Francis I, and it had remained in France ever since.)

Having previously worked in the Louvre, Peruggia was familiar with the layout of the gallery, and so was able to secrete himself in a hiding place close to where Mona Lisa hung. There he waited for hours, until the gallery had cleared of visitors. When he emerged, he was wearing a painter’s smock, similar to those worn by the gallery’s many restoration staff. Coolly lifting the precious painting from the wall, he then sauntered to a stairwell, where he discarded the frame and protective glass. Sticking the bulky treasure under his smock (Mona Lisa is painted on wood, not canvas), Peruggia calmly exited the building. He then took a bus back to his apartment, where he laid the painting in a specially constructed box, and stowed it under his bed, where it remained for the next two years.

Astonishingly, the theft went unnoticed for a full 24 hours. When the Louvre’s security guards saw the empty wall space which had previously been occupied by Mona Lisa, they assumed the painting had been taken to the photography department for safekeeping. Blithely unaware that any theft had taken place, the guards went about their business as normal. Only when a persistent visitor asked repeatedly about Mona Lisa’s whereabouts was the theft discovered…

Within hours, news of the robbery had spread all around the world, where it was greeted with widespread consternation. How could so precious a painting as Mona Lisa simply disappear from the Louvre, without a single person noticing the loss?

The ensuing controversy captured the public’s imagination unlike any other art theft in recent memory – to the extent that more people went to view the empty space where Mona Lisa once lived than had seen the actual painting the entire year previously. Ironically, despite the fact that Mona Lisa had hung in the Louvre for many years, it seemed the precious masterpiece only began to be appreciated in its absence.

So unknown was da Vinci’s painting prior to the theft that French police, in an attempt to familiarise the public with the image, printed 65,000 copies of Mona Lisa, which were subsequently distributed throughout Paris.

In the blink of an eye, an industry sprang up around the missing painting. Enterprising traders, keen to capitalise on the unprecedented interest, set about reproducing the police copies with fervour. Soon, she began appearing on everything from postcards to matchboxes to chocolate boxes. So intense was the demand for reproductions that, within days, even the de Medici Society in London sold out of its store of facsimile copies. Mona Lisa was suddenly the most celebrated artwork in the world.

However, two long years were to pass before Mona Lisa was returned to her adoring public. She eventually re-surfaced in a hotel in Florence in December 1913. Peruggia had travelled to Italy with a view to selling his ill-gotten gains to an art dealer. As he was leaving the Hotel Tripoli-Italia for a rendezvous with a potential buyer, an eagle-eyed concierge noticed he was carrying a rather bulky load. Fearful that Peruggia was making off with one of the hotel’s cheap reproduction paintings, he accosted the guest and accused him of theft. When a quick search of the unfortunate Peruggia revealed that painting he was carrying was, in fact, Mona Lisa, the gig was finally up – Peruggia was arrested soon afterwards. And so it was, rather comically, a lowly hotel concierge unwittingly nabbed the most daring art thief in history!

But the story doesn’t end here. Luckily for Peruggia, the Italian authorities refused to extradite him to France, insisting he should be tried in Italy instead. He was eventually sentenced to 27 months for his crime, which was commuted to 7 months on appeal. Upon his release, Peruggia entered the Italian army, where he served honourably during WW1. In 1921, he married an Italian girl and eventually settled in (where else?) France.

Mona Lisa was not returned to her adopted home straightaway. She went on display in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, where she was seen by many thousands of people. She was made her triumphant return to the Louvre on 4th January, 1914, none the worse for her adventure.  If anything, her little sojourn proved only to be beneficial … Mona Lisa emerged from her two years in darkness to become the most feted work of art in the world – and it doesn’t look like she will surrender her crown any time soon.  Now that’s definitely something to smile about!

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COCO CHANEL – NAZI SYMPATHIZER?

Coming just a few months after John Galliano’s spectacular fall from grace as a result of his ill-judged anti-Semitic remarks in a Parisian restaurant, the fashion world has once again been left reeling by a similar controversy, this time involving la grande dame of haute couture, Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel.

In his new book, Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War, author Hal Vaughan puts forward the argument that, not only was the fashion designer ‘fiercely anti-Semitic’, but she was also engaged in some high-level wartime espionage.

Claiming to have used ‘new archive evidence’ in his research, Vaughan insists that Chanel was recruited by the Nazis in 1940, at the age of 57. Identified only by her agent number (F-7124) and her codename (‘Westminster’, after her ex-lover, the Duke of Westminster), the book claims that Chanel travelled to Madrid and Berlin on secret missions with her new lover, the German spy, Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage.

The notion of Chanel being a Nazi sympathizer is not new. Post war, rumours of collusion with the enemy dogged Chanel until her death in 1971. Numerous biographies, including last year’s offering from Justine Picardie, have alluded to these suspicions, but Vaughan’s book is the first to present these rumours as fact.

A spokesperson from Chanel was today quick to dismiss the book, claiming her close friendships with scions of the Jewish community, including the Rothschild family and the photographer Irving Penn, refuted the assertions that Coco Chanel was an anti-Semite.

The life of Coco Chanel has always been shrouded in mystery. Often economical with the truth, Chanel concocted numerous different versions of her life story. A notoriously slippery interviewee, she seemed to revel in the confusion she created for reporters and biographers. So, has Hal Vaughan at last succeeded in unravelling the mystery of Coco Chanel’s life? Well, that remains to be seen. But if his claims prove to be true, it will make life very difficult indeed for the fashion house’s current owners, the Jewish Wertheimer family, and it’s Jewish head designer, Karl Lagerfeld …

‘Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War’ by Hal Vaughan is published by Chatto &Windus, an imprint of Random House. Out now.

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