In an elegant apartment on a side street of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Vittoria Marisa Schiaparelli Berenson opens her door on a late Sunday night, perfectly dressed and extremely beautiful, for a two hour interview. She is leaving for London the next morning to play in the Kenneth Branagh Theater Company’s staging of Romeo and Juliet.
The world first knew of her as a 16-year-old model cherished by Diana Vreeland, as the actress who moved us in Luchino VIsconti’s Death in Venice and Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, and as the classical beauty who graced the covers of so many magazines (Vogue, Time, Interview).
Her life is a novel. An aristocratic taste for style permeates the iconic elegance that is her very being. Today she is as enthralling and as talented as ever.
interview by OLIVIER ZAHM and KATERINA JEBB
photography by KATERINA JEBB
style by ALEXIS ROCHE
OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s your connection with Paris?
MARISA BERENSON — It’s been a home for me since I was a very little girl. I love Paris. My parents lived here, my grandmother [fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli] lived here, and I moved here from New York at the age of two. I was brought up here and in Switzerland, and then in various boarding schools. I didn’t go back to New York until I was 16.
KATERINA JEBB — Not once?
MARISA BERENSON — No. I was born there, but we didn’t go back. My father was the director of Aristotle Onassis’s shipping company. We lived in Europe, and he traveled all the time. I went to boarding school. This was 1955-56.
KATERINA JEBB — Was boarding school traumatic?
MARISA BERENSON — A bit lonely. I went to five, three of them in Switzerland. One in Italy, in Florence, and one in Ascot, called Heathfield. My parents were always traveling, so my roots were everywhere. I was brought up like that. My grandmother, Elsa Schiaparelli, her roots were here in Paris. She was the backbone of the family because she had a big hôtel particulier [private mansion] on the Rue de Berri. It was a fantastic house, which doesn’t exist any more — though it should. Napoleon had given it to Princess Mathilde. But when my grandmother died, it was sold and torn down. The most interesting artists and people used to visit her there. She’d give fabulous parties. I lived in that house when I was little, and again in the ’70s when I came to live with my grandmother. I had the top floor of the house but had my own entrance, so I could sneak in and out.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you like fashion as a teenager?
MARISA BERENSON — I loved it. In the late ’60s or early ’70s, the fashion was miniskirts. I also dressed in Yves Saint Laurent and Valentino. People dressed divinely. I think fashion is in my genes, even though my grandmother closed her maison de couture [fashion house] in 1954. The last memory I have of that was maybe when I was six, and my sister and I were on the cover of the Christmas issue of Elle — in red dresses with big pink sashes and bows. That was my first picture.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did your grandmother’s brand compete with Chanel?
MARISA BERENSON — That’s what people say, but she was very much her own person. Her heyday was the ’30s and ’40s. But then the war came, during which she left Paris for America. After the war, fashion changed. Women no longer had the same esprit. She’d made clothes that were avant-garde, innovative, and original, even surrealist. After a war, the world changes. Things change. Dior came in and created a new look.
KATERINA JEBB — What was your grandmother Elsa Schiaparelli like?
MARISA BERENSON — Amusing, fun, very social, but strict, very strict. She never spoke about her life or her career. I was a bit of a rebel. And I think she saw in me something of her, which she didn’t want. She had a different kind of relationship with my sister, who was easier and never made waves. Everybody adored my sister’s funny, sunny personality. I made waves, didn’t like injustice, and felt very existential, unloved, and was always arguing with her and my mother. I adored my father, but he was never there.
KATERINA JEBB — How old were you when he died?
MARISA BERENSON — Sixteen.
KATERINA JEBB — A poignant time to lose a father — the parent you look like.
MARISA BERENSON — Yeah, I have his eyes. He was a very beautiful man in every sense of the word. He was the most charming. He looked like a movie star and was kind and affectionate, so I have an idealized vision of him, which can also be difficult for a child, especially when you lose your father.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did he die?
MARISA BERENSON — He died of leukemia, cancer of the blood. It’s terrible. He was sick for about five years, but we didn’t know it, even though he was in and out of hospitals. I was devastated when he died. I would have wanted to be by his side. We didn’t see him because he traveled for Onassis, then became a diplomat, appointed by Kennedy. My parents were in Asia, then Yugoslavia — we’d go there on holidays. Tito was in power. The Iron Curtain was still up. Then he was in Libya, where I also spent summers, when I was 12 or 13.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You discovered the world. Did you look for your father in other men?
MARISA BERENSON — I always said I would never marry a man unless he was like my father, then I married men who were the opposite of him.
KATERINA JEBB — Who was the first one you married?
MARISA BERENSON — James Randall, Jim, an American, who lived in LA when I met him. He’s the father of Starlite, my daughter, and a self-made man, outgoing, bigger-than-life personality, extremely funny, intelligent, but kind of a bad boy.
KATERINA JEBB — Who was your first love?
MARISA BERENSON — Costantino Ruspoli.
OLIVIER ZAHM — From the Ruspoli family in Italy?
MARISA BERENSON — Florence, but originally from Rome. I was 15. He and I both went to very strict schools in Florence where they would open our letters and listen in on our phone calls. My mother had given a list of the friends I could go out with on the weekends — she had a lot of friends in Florence. During the week, wearing our uniforms, we’d go into Florence. Boys would look at us, and we’d be devastated from having to wear uniforms. It was horrible. I said to my mother, “If you don’t take me out of here, I’ll kill myself.” She said, “Darling, to take you out would only spoil you.” So she left me there, and I was miserable. But on weekends I could go out with anyone on the list of friends. All were Florence aristocrats, of course. Mothers would stand by daughters so the boy would be on one side and the mother on the other — the boy and girl looking at each other, nobody daring to speak. That’s how I met Costantino. Of course, he and I were rebels, free spirits, all that. We danced when nobody else would, and everybody’d look at us. Then we decided not to attend the dances. We’d go to the movies and come back late, and I was always scolded. That’s how I began to have friends in Florence. We also wrote love letters to each other.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In French or in Italian?
MARISA BERENSON — I was there to learn Italian. He spoke only Italian. That’s how I learned it.
KATERINA JEBB — Did the school read your letters?
MARISA BERENSON — Yes, and confiscated them and sent them to my mother. They were nothing, really. We were innocent. We were 15. No sex or anything. But the schools were about to throw us out.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What happened?
MARISA BERENSON — I went my way. He went his. But we stayed friends, even now. He’s a photographer, married, has got three kids, and still divine. He was an orphan, and strangely enough, his father, in the old days, was one of the men who wanted to marry my mother. He was killed in a car crash, and his uncle, in Florence, brought up Costantino.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Sometimes connections surprise you.
MARISA BERENSON — Karmic connections. Family connections — connections that jump from one generation to another. Florence was the home of Bernard Berenson, my great-uncle, the great Renaissance art historian, Harvard scholar, art dealer, and expert. I met him when he was 90. But Nicky [Elisabetta] -Mariano, his right arm, organized his life, and everything he ever did, he could not have done it without Nicky, who was his companion, though he was married to Mary and was quite a womanizer. He was very handsome.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was Bernard Berenson an influence?
MARISA BERENSON — Yes, of course. When I go to Florence, I still visit his beautiful gardens and the house — an enormous art library of about 200,000 books, which he left to Harvard. There are apartments just outside the property — the house is exactly the way it was when he lived in it. So my grandmother and BB, short for Bernard Berenson, were both very important.
KATERINA JEBB — Did you feel privileged?
MARISA BERENSON — Yes. And I’ve always been very proud of my family roots because both sides are extraordinary — my father’s side, and the Schiaparelli side from my grandmother and her aristocratic Italian family.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You look Italian.
MARISA BERENSON — I have Italian, Polish, Scottish, and French blood.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did Bernard Berenson give you a sense of art?
MARISA BERENSON — Very much so, but I’ve always loved art. I studied art when I was in Florence.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Being from an aristocratic family, were you obliged to?
MARISA BERENSON — In a way, yes. My mother sent me always to the best schools, and I’m really grateful for that. Education is so important — it’s the basis of life and whatever wealth might come from inside you. She was very educated, very cultured. So was my grandmother. It’s part of the family, for the children to be well educated. So you have to play the piano, dance, learn languages, learn art history, geography, mathematics, algebra, Latin, Greek, you name it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you know you were beautiful?
MARISA BERENSON — No, not at all. I was told the opposite. First of all, I was very, very thin. At school, I was called Olive Oyl, after Popeye’s girlfriend. My mother would say, “Darling, you look like a Modigliani, and your sister looks like a Renoir.” So I’d look at a Modigliani painting, and I’d think he painted the saddest, ugliest women I’d ever seen. My sister, of course, looked like a Renoir, beautiful blonde, divine, blue-eyed, round, and sensual. I had a complex about that. My mother would say: “Oh, you’re so cute. You look like a little monkey.” When you’re a child, it stays with you. When I started modeling, I wondered what people saw in me.
KATERINA JEBB — Were you interested in fashion?
MARISA BERENSON — Well, I used to make clothes at Heathfield, that boarding school in England. We had to learn sewing, fencing, and lacrosse. I made Chanel suits in sewing classes. I made one in black and white tweed with an orange lining. It was so cool, and a very Chanel cut. I wore it to go out. My best friend at school — a half-Swedish, half-Australian girl named Meg, who was older than me and so emancipated — was allowed to do everything. I was allowed to do nothing. Flocks of boys wrote to her. She had three brothers, one better looking than the other, and lived near Ascot, so I’d go with her on weekends. I was, like, 13 and was supposed to be a good girl. But all I could think about was being like Meg and going out and having success with boys. So I’d wear these pointy stiletto heels that I’d buy behind my mother’s back, and my little Chanel suit, and on the weekends we’d go out.
KATERINA JEBB — So how did you become a model?
MARISA BERENSON — When my father was dying, I was called to New York from London. That was in the ’60s, a wild time. My father was in a New York hospital. My grandmother was there. When I arrived in New York, I was 16, and I hadn’t been back since I was two. I didn’t know America, but I’d met Diana Vreeland, who was a great friend of my grandmother and my father. Her husband, Reed Vreeland, and my father were very similar. They looked like Gregory Peck, tall, lanky, good-looking, and wonderful men. Diana and Reed and my parents were always together. So, when I went to New York, I didn’t know how sick he was. He took me to a debutante ball. It was my first ball. I got all dressed up. Diana Vreeland was there, and a Vogue editor was there. She knew everyone and was invited everywhere — to the chicest parties. She came up to my father, and she said, “We have to photograph Marisa.” And that’s how it started.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was it the first time Diana Vreeland saw you?
MARISA BERENSON — The first time since I was little. She used to call my sister Berry, “Berinthia,” and me, “Mauritania,” like from the Cunard line of ships. So, she rediscovered me at 16. I did my first pictures with Bert Stern, in a studio, a proper Vogue sitting, with lots of people around.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you want to become a model?
MARISA BERENSON — I did. I’d been to Eileen Ford for some reason, so I’d already started to imagine myself as a model. I can’t remember how I got to see her, but obviously somebody got me there. She looked at me and said, “You’ll never make a model, ever.” So I went home, and I cried.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did Eileen Ford give you a reason for rejecting you?
MARISA BERENSON — She said I wasn’t the type. Then a month later, I was doing pictures at Bert Stern’s studios, and Stuart Models came in and said, “We’re hiring you,” and that was it. Eileen Ford regretted it. She said on television that she made two mistakes in her life, and one of them was Marisa Berenson.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s cool.
MARISA BERENSON — That was cool. I got to know her years later, but I never went with her agency.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So modeling started in New York, not Paris.
MARISA BERENSON — Well, when I was living in London, I was photographed for Vogue by David Bailey. I was just out of school. For some reason, my parents let me live in London, but as a paying guest with Lady Jellicoe, who had a townhouse in Belgravia. She was supposed to chaperone me. But I was impossible. London was so much fun, and I was having a ball, and she was frantically phoning my parents, saying: “I cannot control Marisa. She’s out every night.” So my father, for the first time in his life, wrote me a very severe letter: “You know, it’s for your own good … please be nice to Lady Jellicoe,” and so on. And for some reason, British Vogue saw me. I was studying architecture. And they took a picture of me. I was 15, so young. And then they had me photographed by David Bailey. I’ll never forget it. He wasn’t interested in photographing me at all. He put me in a black studio with music blaring. Didn’t speak a word to me. He was going out with Jean Shrimpton — what a gorgeous woman at the time. So I was kind of traumatized. I thought, “If this is modeling, I don’t want to do it.” Then I went to New York.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And your perspective changed.
MARISA BERENSON — Well, yes. Then, Diana took me to Paris to do the collections. In those days, that was the biggest thing that could happen: you did the whole issue of American Vogue, all the haute couture, including the cover, with the best photographer, and only one photographer. And guess who it was? David Bailey. I ended up doing that a few times — Irving Penn, then Richard Avedon. It was like a dream come true.
KATERINA JEBB — Did you like working with David Bailey?
MARISA BERENSON — We became really good friends and worked together a lot after. I worked for the best magazines with the best photographers only. I went straight to the top, so I never had the dangerous, unprotected life a lot of some young models go through today, castings, schlepping themselves around.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you see fashion as having artistic importance or as a narcissistic form of recognition?
MARISA BERENSON — First of all, I loved doing it. I loved working with incredible photographers. It was like acting. It was the beginning of expressing myself, like a butterfly spreading her wings. I think I’m probably one of the few people who have worked with every great photographer alive — Penn, Avedon, Helmut Newton, Bert Stern, David Bailey.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You were one of the first to be naked in front of the camera.
KATERINA JEBB — Not erotically.
MARISA BERENSON — I was radically not erotic. Especially photographed by Irving Penn, which is like being painted by Botticelli. There’s no eroticism. He looked at me as if I were a still life or a sculpture. It was art. But my grandmother was not happy with me at all.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because it was really hot — even if it is aesthetic.
MARISA BERENSON — Hot, yeah. I did the first Vogue nudes ever — the Penn spread was, like, 10 pages in Vogue.
KATERINA JEBB — Who decided?
MARISA BERENSON — Diana Vreeland. Avedon sent me a telegram to congratulate me. So it was so natural, but I wasn’t at all promiscuous. I wasn’t into the sex, drugs, and rock and roll thing. I was a very good, very spiritual, very romantic, and very idealistic girl. I worked on becoming a more spiritual being. So I went to India. It was the most important part of my life. My young life started there.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why India?
MARISA BERENSON — I went on a photo shoot for Vogue with Arnaud de Rosnay. I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but I’d heard about guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He was like the superstar of gurus. The Beatles, the Beach Boys, Mia Farrow, even Clint Eastwood were following Maharishi. I ended up at his ashram.
KATERINA JEBB — With Arnaud?
MARISA BERENSON — Arnaud was there for a while, then left. I stayed. I became a vegetarian and started doing meditation. We’d meditate all day long. The Beatles and the Beach Boys were there. We had tiny rooms with little cots. George would sit on the floor playing the guitar. We all sat on the floor.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s like a movie.
MARISA BERENSON — Yeah. Except you live it. Obviously you pay for it. I remember going through a whole ritual with Maharishi, and a ceremony. He gave me a mantra. He whispered it. I was so afraid I’d forget it, or that I wouldn’t hear him. But then I’d meditate for hours, and I learned about yoga, vegetarian food — a door opened up for me on a spiritual path.
OLIVIER ZAHM — When was that?
MARISA BERENSON — It must have been the end of the ’60s because I was already into all that when I started making films, in 1970.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s hard to imagine things happening then so naturally. Even celebrity wasn’t such a big deal, especially at an ashram.
MARISA BERENSON — We were there for a reason, to learn meditation. It was very natural.
KATERINA JEBB — A turning point in your life?
MARISA BERENSON — Oh yes, definitely. When I left, I was already different. That’s how I survived the period, the drugs, which I didn’t take. And waking up at 6 AM to be in the studios, and out all night, but drinking orange juice — and meditating.
KATERINA JEBB — Did they see you as an anomaly?
MARISA BERENSON — Kind of. Diana wrote the forward to a book I wrote called Dressing Up. She said I always had a purity about me, which I think was what saved me. I didn’t want to be dragged into darkness. I was aspiring to light in the spiritual sense.
OLIVIER ZAHM — At the same time, you were very open-minded because you fell in love with Helmut Berger, who was gay…
MARISA BERENSON — Bisexual, not gay — he slept with women and men. But it was a kind of dichotomy for me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — An unconventional lover?
MARISA BERENSON — I’m not a conventional woman. But my relationship with Helmut Berger was very pure. He had his life. But with me, he was different. He put me on a pedestal, which may have been too much, but we loved each other. I created a safe haven for him, I think.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So your love life was romantic.
MARISA BERENSON — I was a romantic girl. I only had long, serious relationships. I never was an easy girl. Ask Helmut how long it took him to get me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Flowers, dinners?
MARISA BERENSON — Oh, yeah.
KATERINA JEBB — Of the men who tried to romance you, who was the most romantic?
MARISA BERENSON — Jim [Randall] and Richard [Golub]. They pulled out the stops. Jim tried everything because I wasn’t interested at all. He was so not my type. I was used to European men, and he made airplane rivets. He had a house in Beverly Hills, and he was kind of a playboy. But he had set his eye on me. He said to George Hamilton, the actor and his best friend: “You see this girl? I’m going to marry her.” He didn’t know me, and I didn’t know him. Then I was in California for the opening of Barry Lyndon, and Alana Hamilton, George Hamilton’s wife, took me. Then, after a dinner, at two o’clock in the morning, she said: “I have to see my friend Jim. Come with me.” I was staying with her, so at two o’clock she takes me to his house. He opens the door in his pajamas. And, well, I was into gurus and about to go to San Antonio, Texas, to meet another guru, to be initiated, and he opened the door to a playboy’s kind of house, with fur rugs and mirrors everywhere, on the bedroom ceilings… Alana told him I was on my way to San Antonio to meet such and such a guru, and he said, “My chauffeur is into that guru.” So he got the driver out of bed, at two o’clock in the morning, and the chauffeur and I had an intense conversation about the guru while he and Alana lay on the bed watching television.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It hardly seems true.
MARISA BERENSON — It is, though. The next day, a huge black stretch limousine arrives filled with flowers, driven by the chauffeur. Then Jim shows up, wants me to go to dinner. I said I’m a vegetarian, which he hated. He always had a glass of vodka in his hand. But he sits through a vegetarian dinner, with me talking about spirituality and gurus — and he’s a party guy. Then I went to San Antonio, searching for the guru, but couldn’t find a hotel because I was with my
dog, and they don’t let dogs in hotels. I was in tears, in the middle of nowhere. I thought: “What am I going to do? I’m here, alone. Whom do I call?” I called Jim because I knew he would have a solution. He says, “Honey, don’t worry about a thing.” He jumps on his private plane and comes to San Antonio, takes my hand. We go to the best hotel in San Antonio. He gives the concierge a hundred bucks and installs us in a two-bedroom suite, me in one room and him in the other. We stayed a few days, but I didn’t even see him. I was off with the guru. I’d come home at night to find little notes on my pillow. He’d be sunning himself all day, waiting. Then he took me back to LA, and one thing after another — court, court, court, spoiling me rotten, doing all these things to make me happy — and I fell madly in love. The next thing I knew, six months later, I was getting married — a Hollywood wedding people still talk about: 800 people from all over the world. I literally redecorated his house, in five weeks. Furniture arrived the day of the wedding. Andy Warhol was there and did a chapter on my wedding, taking pictures in the house in Beverly Hills.
KATERINA JEBB — Did you know Andy Warhol?
MARISA BERENSON — Andy was one of my closest friends in New York. He and his crowd, Bob Colacello, Truman Capote … great artists.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is that when you started acting?
MARISA BERENSON — When I was living in New York and modeling, I studied acting at night, with Herbert Berghof, then Sandy Meisner, and then Bob Modica. I’d try out for off-off-off-off-off-Broadway parts and make a fool of myself onstage. I was very shy. It was not like being in front a camera. But I forced myself to do it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s very different.
MARISA BERENSON — It’s another dimension: words. Modeling is also acting, except you don’t have to talk, or remember lines, or embody someone else. It’s difficult. I’m going through that right now with Shakespeare. I’m doing Romeo and Juliet with Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford in London. [Ed. note: The play ran from May 12 to Aug. 16.] It’s the first time I’ve done Shakespeare. But it’s very exciting because they’re incredible directors, and it’s a fabulous cast.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you dream of becoming an actress?
MARISA BERENSON — I wanted to be an actress when I was young. My bedroom in Switzerland was covered in magazine photographs of divine actresses — Audrey Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner. But never in a million years did I think I would have such a career. Audrey Hepburn was my inspiration. Then I met her; I went to school with her daughter. She was wonderful. She inspired me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was it hard to transition to acting after modeling?
MARISA BERENSON — It was hard in those days because people really didn’t take you seriously if you were a famous model — or if you were a model at all. They think models are unintelligent. Very few models really have the stuff to be an actress. Who of my generation of models became an actress?
KATERINA JEBB — Carole Bouquet, the Bond girl.
MARISA BERENSON — Carole, yes, and Jackie Bisset. But many tried who didn’t succeed. You really had to prove yourself. And to prove myself even — coming from my family, everybody thought I was born with a silver spoon and didn’t have to work, which was not true.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Weren’t you a socialite?
MARISA BERENSON — I was born and brought up in that world. All my life, I’d seen extraordinary people. But that’s not a plus in the movie world at all. No one takes you seriously. They think, “She doesn’t need to work — she comes from a rich family.” Which is totally untrue. I always worked and never got a cent from my family. I made my own money from the day I was 16. I lived on my own in New York. I got my own apartment.
KATERINA JEBB — What was your apartment like?
MARISA BERENSON — My grandmother and my mother were not so happy about it. But my mother was so devastated after my father’s death that I left home. I was 17 and I got a little apartment on 53rd Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue, which was about the size of this room.
OLIVIER ZAHM — All by yourself in New York.
MARISA BERENSON — And it was fabulous. I was happy. I was free. I was in the midst of the wildest place. But I wasn’t afraid. I had a lot of friends. I worked constantly. Diana Vreeland protected me. She’d have lunch with me every week, and I’d have dinner at her house every week. She was always there for me — I mean, she was sort of like a godmother. She protected me. And she was wonderful. So I had a wonderful time and met extraordinary people.
KATERINA JEBB — Do you think that could happen today?
MARISA BERENSON — No. It’s a completely different world today. People don’t mix in the same way anymore. You don’t have mentors anymore — young people need mentors. I was lucky to have Diana and Visconti as mentors. I had friends like Halston, Andy…
OLIVIER ZAHM — One of your first movies was Death in Venice. How did it happen?
MARISA BERENSON — Yeah, my first movie. It happened really like a miracle. I was living in New York and went to the opening of The Damned — one of the most beautiful movies ever. And after seeing it, I fell in love with Helmut. I went to dinner with Diane and Egon von Fürstenberg, who were also, like, my closest friends, and who protected me a lot in New York. I said Helmut Berger was the most amazing guy. Egon said, “He’s not interested in women.” I said, “You never know.” Helmut was there for the opening. And then we were placed next to each other at the dinner and fell madly in love. It just happened like that.
KATERINA JEBB — Was Visconti there?
MARISA BERENSON — No, Luchino was in Rome. Luchino had a beautiful house in Ischia; so did my mother. So when I started going out with Helmut and we were in Italy, he stayed at Luchino’s, and I was at my mother’s. He would invite me over to lunch, and so I met Luchino. There were always incredible people at a big table talking about music, literature, and art. One day, when I was sitting next to Luchino, he turned to me, looked at my face, and said, “You have the perfect classical physical beauty for my next film.” I didn’t believe it. In this business, people say a lot of things. But being in his romantic house a lot, writing poetry and stuff like that … one night I was sitting in a big armchair, Mahler’s fifth symphony was playing, and
I started to cry. It was like a premonition of becoming Madame Mahler in the film I was actually going to do.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You didn’t know Death in Venice was about Mahler?
MARISA BERENSON — No, I knew nothing about it. Luchino just said, “In my next film.” But it was as if I were literally inhabited by the music. Luchino also said: “I need a very emotional actress for this part. I don’t know if you can act, as you’re a model, and you have the physique, but I don’t know if you have the emotions, so I’m going to do a screen test.” Then I went back to New York, and to modeling, and didn’t hear from him for a while. Then he sent me letters about the screen test, that he needed an actress who knows how to show a lot of emotion.
KATERINA JEBB — Were you still studying acting at night?
MARISA BERENSON — I was. But I was modeling and didn’t really believe it was going to happen. Then I get a telegram saying I’ve got to be in Rome in 10 days for costume fittings and that the film starts in three weeks or something. And I thought, “What?” Plus, he never did the screen test, so he didn’t know if I could act or not. When I arrived at his house, Helmut was there.
KATERINA JEBB — You were still with Helmut Berger, or…?
MARISA BERENSON — Yes. But in Luchino’s house, I was so nervous I was hyperventilating. I said to Helmut, “How am I ever going to do this?” Before the shooting, for 10 days, there was a lot of preparation, costumes, etc.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Wasn’t Visconti also in love with Helmut Berger? Was he jealous of your relationship?
MARISA BERENSON — He was more like a father to Helmut. They were not in a romantic relationship anymore. And he wasn’t at all jealous. He encouraged our relationship because he thought I had a stabilizing effect on Helmut. Luchino literally adopted me, and I loved him. He was so kind and so wonderful to me.
KATERINA JEBB — Was he a father figure to you, as well?
MARISA BERENSON — He was. At one point in our relationship, he said: “Please marry Helmut. You’re his one chance to be happy and have a normal life. I’ll give you the house.” I said I couldn’t marry him. I was already thinking of leaving Helmut because it was too destructive a relationship, and even though I loved him, I didn’t see myself married to him. It would have destroyed me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Helmut wasn’t in Death in Venice.
MARISA BERENSON — No. But the entire experience was extraordinary.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What about the shoot?
MARISA BERENSON — My first day was a big scene where I had to be very emotional, fainting and crying, running to Mahler. There were 500 extras in this huge room, and I had to make an entrance, and I thought, “My God, all these people, andI have to do something miraculous.” But once I was on the set, it was like I was at home. It was where I was supposed to be. This was my life. It was the most wonderful feeling. I had no fear.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you speak Italian in the movie?
MARISA BERENSON — I didn’t speak at all. It was just emotions. I cried. I fainted.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But in a way, you’ve always been in dramatic movies. Barry Lyndon is dramatic, existential, too.
MARISA BERENSON — It’s part of who I am, playing deep emotions.
KATERINA JEBB — Some of the most powerful scenes in cinema are without dialogue.
MARISA BERENSON — Stanley [Kubrick] always said cinema is more powerful without dialogue.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So how do you see things today, in fashion and cinema? You’re still part of the scene, but you’re very discreet. You don’t play the celebrity.
MARISA BERENSON — I like my life, you know? People have often said I should be doing this or that. But it’s not my character or my personality. I guess it’s a question of education, too. I’m not pushy. I find it embarrassing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — People think if you’re not pushy and don’t force a situation, things don’t happen.
KATERINA JEBB — I think what should happen, will happen.
MARISA BERENSON — I think so, too. I really do. Obviously there are a lot of people who push doors, and celebrities make huge amounts of money. I don’t want to be like that. It’s not that I have something against the Hollywood establishment. I’ve privileged other things. At the top of my career, having done Barry Lyndon, I could probably have done anything I wanted, you know, the covers of Newsweek and Time magazines…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Barry Lyndon was a masterpiece and also a commercial success.
MARISA BERENSON — Yes. But then I chose to get married and have a child. I went against the grain then. Maybe it was a mistake, a child, not married for very long. Maybe it ruined my career. Then I went through another very difficult marriage. I could have probably done things differently. But, you choose your life. And I chose to take a certain path.
KATERINA JEBB — Do you think it’s because men want to possess you?
MARISA BERENSON — Definitely. But I’ve never been one to be possessed. So I left them all.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You left them even though you still loved them?
MARISA BERENSON — I left for survival. And so it was hard, and then even harder, because divorces are difficult.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You made your life artistic. Does the man you love today understand that?
MARISA BERENSON — He does, and others have, too. But it wasn’t easy for him. And it’s rare to find a man who can be your partner in life, who gives you the freedom to be yourself, who wants the best for you, and on top of that supports you, instead of crushing you. There’s always the fear that somebody can come along and take you away because you never know in life. I never take anything for granted, not with him, or with anyone.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you continue your spiritual quest?
MARISA BERENSON — I found my path with a series of amazing people, masters and teachers. I formed my own spiritual path and my own way of doing things, learning what’s best. You never stop learning. It’s a constant growing process, a constant evolution. You never really achieve nirvana, either, because there’s always a next step until you’re no longer reincarnated. I think we’re all instruments of energy and give purpose to our lives as conduits for others. I’ve seen my life like that since I was a little girl, seven years old, wondering who God is, who I am, what am I doing here, what is my point on this planet, and where am I going? Little by little I understood that whether I’m a model or an actress or a Unesco Ambassador or selling beauty products or writing a book or doing anything, life with my friends and my family, or just being in life, is kind of this energy of flowing light, which goes through me out into the world. Everything I’ve been given, God has given me, and I have to use it to the best advantage and share it. I never modeled or acted or did anything out of vanity or egotistical desire. I’ve been given these gifts, and it’s just passing through me, so I have to share it with the world. I was always this little channel of light.
KATERINA JEBB — You have more light than most.
MARISA BERENSON — People are born with all kinds of possibilities, which you develop or not. Some people are born with awareness. I think I had it early on. But growing up was hard for me. When I was young, I thought, “How can I be a spiritual person in a world of glamour and modeling, which seems so superficial, but shouldn’t have to be?” I battled that for a long time.
OLIVIER ZAHM — To combine them?
MARISA BERENSON — To understand why I loved doing what I was doing, while wanting to be a spiritual being. Then one day I realized that’s what life is about. You’re here to combine. It’s not as if I wanted to be a nun and live in a monastery. I grew up thinking I’d retire from the world early. But it was difficult to live in the world I was thrown into early on, and be a spiritual being, and stay on a path, and have positive energy for the world. So combining the two has been important.
KATERINA JEBB — Living in conflict?
MARISA BERENSON — But it’s not a conflict for me anymore. It’s such a part of me that I don’t feel conflict. Being brought up a Catholic, I thought you have to give up everything to be spiritual. You have to be poor; you have to sacrifice, have nothing. How could I be in this world and also in that one? In the end, it’s not about spirituality. It’s about energy. Divine energy is universal. It’s in all of us. It’s in every religion. It’s at the basis of everything and everybody, and it’s the one truth in life.
KATERINA JEBB — You’re building a beauty business. That’s very real.
MARISA BERENSON — Yeah. I make natural beauty products with my name. They’re available in spas all over the world, in Neiman Marcus in America… I started this company with Jean-Michel [Simonian] two years ago, and it’s really growing. So between getting married, building a business, modeling, and going back to acting, my life has had some very different moments. I never stopped.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re still so optimistic and still so young. It’s incredible. Like you’re always at the beginning of your life.
MARISA BERENSON — I am. I’m starting a new life now. I’ve had a lot of different lives. Like a cat that’s had nine lives, I’ve had many incarnations in one lifetime. I feel I’m at the beginning of a new life cycle at this very moment in time.
[Table of contents]
The Fall/Winter 2016/17 collections
by Craig McDean
Alex BecerraRead the article
by Gareth McConnell
by Jeff Rian
Taryn SimonRead the article
Julius von BismarckRead the article
by Bill Powers
by Olivier Zahm
Best of Men’s F/W 2016 Fashion
by Andreas Larsson
by Ren Hang
by Petra Collins
William N. CopleyRead the article
by Glenn O'Brien
by Jack Davison
by Jean De Loisy
David HorvitzRead the article
by Max Farago
by Simon Liberati
by Terry Richardson
Eric WahlforssRead the article
by Olivier Zahm
by Donatien Grau
by Katerina Jebb and Olivier Zahm
Justin Morin x Louis VuittonRead the article
by Oliver Zahm
by Olivier Zahm
Simone RochaRead the article
Tom Sachs’ Art Odyssey
by Alex Antitch
Giuseppe PenoneRead the article
Ornella Muti for the 90th anniversary of FendiRead the article
Y/ProjectRead the article
Gavin KenyonRead the article
by Casper Sejersen
Gianni MottiRead the article
High-speed Historical Accidents
by Heji Shin and Bernadette Van-Huy
by Maurizio Cattelan
Chanel Cruise La Habana, Cuba
by Olivier Zahm
Rosson CrowRead the article
Koumiko by Anna DuboscRead the article
by Chikashi Suzuki
Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris
by Gianni Oprandi