Palm Beach’s passion for La Dolce Vita flourished during the 1920s and 1930s, a bygone era in the aftermath of The Great War when some members of society’s leisure class pursued social pleasures and marriages as if in a world apart, untouched and indifferent to the consequences resulting from the polarity of political extremes that foreshadowed World War II.
Whether reveling in Venetian Fete night at the Everglades Club to afternoons at Rome’s Polo Club, Palm Beach’s classiest toted Florentine handbags, taken in by their Medici-styled interiors, and drove the latest Bugatti or Isotta Fraschina with the same enthusiasm Mrs. W. R. Hearst was reported having a luncheon with Mussolini at Villa Torlonia.
Thus, when Ned and Marjorie Post’s first guests were seated in Mar-a-Lago for dinner, they were not rattled that scenic designer Joseph Urban was said to have described it as “Mussolini’s dining room,” having modeled it on Il Duce’s reception rooms found in Rome’s Chigi Palace.
Reflecting on Palm Beach’s affinity for all things Italian, at a time when many believed whatever means Mussolini took to accomplish his ends were justified, a 1930s UPI story reporting on the life of Americans living in Italy interviewed an “American lady who married an Italian count.” She remarked, “The exchange rate is favorable … There is little grumbling among my friends about censorship, strict state regulations, and the lack of personal privacy … Italians are not opposed to regimentation, having their so-called freedom contained.”
After all, among Mussolini’s imperious undertakings, “Restoring Italy to the standing of ancient Rome, bringing to light the great palaces and temples of the Caesars …”
In January 1, 1945, Sidney Legendre wrote his wife Gertrude Sanford Legendre while she was still being held as a prisoner of war by the Germans, describing letters he received from her sister Janie and husband Mario Pansa: “I could not believe my eyes when I read about the polo … he is president of the polo club. A long discussion on the merits of the ponies, the dinners, and who they had seen. And how impossible it was to remember anyone’s names, as one saw so many people. A short sentence saying that no doubt the poor people are having a difficult time buying food … I wonder if the writers or recipients wondered at themselves and considered what they were saying and doing while the entire world was at war and men were dying, losing their limbs and eyes.”
The remarkable letter is one of several among the Gertrude Sanford Legendre Papers, 1836-2000, at the College of Charleston’s Special Collections. Was the cocoon of resort life — bridge, backgammon, lunch at the Golf Club with Count Ciano or an afternoon of chukkers at the polo Club — the only way Jane Sanford Pansa could have survived the war?
While a herd of earlier Gilded Age debs and dames couldn’t resist the charms of English and French entitlements, here is a look back when dancing with an Italian dictator was assumed no more than a passing phase.
Two weeks before Ned and Marjorie Hutton moved into Mar-a-Lago with its interior Italianate historical tableaus staged by Joseph Urban, Americans awakened on Sunday morning, January 9, 1927, to “My Twenty-Four Hours,” the first of several lengthy columns written by Benito Mussolini and syndicated nationwide by UPI, including The Palm Beach Post. Each article was “revised, corrected and approved by Il Duce.”
January 22, 1927
Ned and Marjorie Hutton arrived at Palm Beach for their first season at Mar-a-Lago, replete with a mélange of historical reproductions including a living room copied from the Thousand-Wing Ceiling at the Accademia in Venice and a dining room inspired by Rome’s Chigi Palace.
Located on the Piazza Colonna, the Chigi Palace was acquired by the Italian government in 1918, for the purpose of housing “the department of the colonies,” that became known as the Ministry of Foreign affairs after Mussolini took power in 1920. While living at the Villa Torlonia, Mussolini would meet at the Chigi Palace with foreign diplomats, dignitaries, and visiting notable Americans.
The London Observer’s Rome correspondent described his visit to the Chigi Palace for an interview with Il Duce as “I steeled myself for this pilgrimage to a Fascist shrine … full of fine old furniture, gay with Venetian chandeliers, its doors white-and-gold with scrolled carvings surmounted with oval pictures of cherubs immersed in astronomy, and the separate suites separated by hanging precious velvets, lovely rooms recalling the pomp and charm of the 18th century. The door opened to a beautiful Renaissance room and Mussolini stepped forward to greet me …”
Showing that Palm Beach is “more than a frivolous place,” George and Elizabeth Mesker hosted more than 250 guests for the monthly Current Events gathering at La Fontana, their Mizner-designed 16th-century Italian Renaissance Midtown mansion, featuring lecturer-author George Earle Raiguel who spoke on his recent interview with Mussolini at the Chigi Palace.
The article written by Jerome Beatty begins:
“Although the world is rather well dotted with Princesses, few of them have a life story as exciting as Rome’s recently deceased Princess Jane di San Faustino, once of Bernardsville, New Jersey, and New York city. Born Jane Campbell, she went to Rome forty-four years ago and without much money – became the ringmaster of society in the Eternal City. By her death this June, the career of the most colorful Princess ever heard of, came to an end at the ripe age of seventy-five.”
Having found an irresistible attraction for foreign affairs, Chicago, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and New York’s wealthiest debs and divorcees said, “I do,” to an assortment of Italian consuls, vice-consuls, “special attaches” to the Italian Embassy, “members of the Italian legation,” as well as counts and dukes.
Among those whose promise of for better or worse landed them in Mussolini’s Rome included: Josephine Fish x Count Anthony de Bosdari, former Italian Consul in New York & Italian ambassador to Germany, Mrs. David Plunket Greene x Count Bosdari, Helen Lewis x Count Anthony de Bosdari, Natalie Mae Coe x Leonardo Vitteti, Margaret Trimble x Count Riverdin, Edith Candler x Count Carlo Buef, Beatrice Gallatin x Count Carlo Buef, Dorothy Taylor x Count Carlo di Frasso, Mrs. Henry Whiton x Count David Constantini, Ursula Forhan x Count Enzo D’Urbinia, Lettie McElroy Shuster x Count Giulio Cacciaguerra Ranghieri, Mrs. J. B. Warden x Count Cacciaguerra Ranghieri, Ida May Swift x Count James Minotto, Marqueene Gwedolyn Stevenson x Count Andrea Marco Soranzo, Margaret Erhart x Marquise Celsio-d’Vegliasco, Blanche Vogel x Count Antonio Martini Crotti, Carla Malagola x Count Giorgio Roberti, Helen Wardman x Count Giovanni Naselli, Ruth Brower x Count de Vallombrosa, Nancy Hall x Count Luigi Savelli, Teresa Higginson x Count Giangiullio Rucellai, Jacqueline Melanie Stewart x Count Giovanni Guido Carlo Cardelli, Renee Thornton x Duke Castel del Monte, and “Madcap’ Merry Fahrney x Count Oleg Cassini.
Charles Filipponi aka Count Carlo Filipponi:
A Palm Beach “Count”
Count Francisco & Countess Rosalind Guardabassi
In 1928, when 40-year-old woolen heiress Rosalind Wood, a relative of General George Patton, married a legendary Italian war hero, restaurateur, and singer-artist Captain Francisco Mario Guardabassi, she could have never imagined this fairy tale union would result in becoming a titled countess in December 1934, ennobled by the King of Italy and Benito Mussolini. As well, she had not planned on her titled husband’s arrest in January 1942 by the FBI as an “enemy alien,” jailed in Phoenix, before being confined to a barbed-wire enclosed wartime Alien Detention Camp at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas.
“He is perfectly innocent and it is a tragic mistake,” wrote Countess Guardabassi, in a February 8, 1942, letter to one of her husband’s former “Mon Cheri,” Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. In a lengthy letter, Rosalind pleaded for her help in having him released. “He caught a chest cold … living in a tent … a perfectly harmless, peaceable old gentleman … Can nothing be done to save my husband?” The count never became an American citizen.
Although the couple met in New York, both had earlier ties to Palm Beach. Rosalind’s father William M. Wood built the Mizner-designed mansion known as The Towers on North Ocean Boulevard. Guardabassi had arrived on Palm Beach a few years earlier, serving as social and art director at the Alba Hotel on Palm Beach, later known as the Biltmore. Admittedly, he was sponsored/ financed in the US by the Italian government for what the singing portrait artist called “orders for a special mission.” Guardabassi entertained numerous rich American heiresses before his marriage to Rosalind Wood appeared to fulfill his intended role.
During the early 1930s, the count and countess moved to Italy where they became entitled, as well as restored a villa near Guardabassi’s native Perugia. In 1939, they began spending winters in Tucson where the Count’s outspoken support for Mussolini caught the eye of the FBI. After his internment, the couple returned to Italy for the duration of the war.
They resettled on Palm Beach during the early 1950s. First renting a house on Seminole before buying the old Shepherd house at 127 Dunbar. Following Count Guardabassi’s death, the countess spent many years at her Dunbar Road villa supporting intellectuals, such as Alabama governor George Wallace’s presidential campaign, Father Coughlin and Gerald L. K. Smith.
Jane Sanford-Mario Pansa
1937 – 1946
Just as her brother Laddie had a Kismet moment in 1930, meeting his to-be wife actress Mary Duncan at a polo game, Jane “Janie” Sanford was reported to have also met her husband Mario Pansa at a polo game. While the College of Charleston’s Gertrude Sanford Legendre archive documents multi-generations of the family’s life, certain periods of Jane’s life remain vague and/or undetermined at this time.
Among the guests at the Pansa wedding, Lali von Schwabach Horstmann, who arrived on Palm Beach accompanying Jane Sanford. Horstmann and her husband, Frederick “Freddie” Horstmann, a onetime German diplomat and newspaper owner, lived grandly near Berlin during the war, “not as bad as you might think,” surrounded by their bronzes, crystal chandeliers, and gilt-framed paintings. When the Germans surrendered, the Horstmanns found themselves in the Russian Zone. Freddie died in a Russian camp; Lali fled to London. Lali’s recollections of champagne-and-paté at the Hotel Adlon’s underground VIP café during the Allied bombing are recounted in her diary, published in the early 1950s and available online at Nothing for Tears.
Jane was a double Sanford. Her father had married his cousin, Ethel Sanford, the daughter of noted diplomat Henry Sanford. In 1935, Janie was reported in a “romance” with David “Winkie” Brooks, “has the town talking,” who died the following year when he fell from a 14th-floor window in the early morning hours.
After the wedding and a California honeymoon, the couple reportedly first settled in Belgium where Mario was stationed as a first secretary at the Italian Embassy in Brussels. The Ellen Glendinning Ordway Collection on the New York Social Diary contains a photo of the couple at Palm Beach during the 1938 season, lunching at her father John Sanford’s Villa Marina. When her father died the following year, she attempted to return to the US. When she learned that if she left, she would not be allowed to re-enter Italy, she decided to stay with her husband.
In June 1939, Mario and Jane were reported in New York for a gala event at the World’s Fair Italian Pavilion. In 1940, the couple reportedly fled Brussels, “three days before the invasion,” and were said to be in Budapest. “It’s pretty awful to think of Jane’s husband fighting against the Allies,” Mary Sanford told the New York Daily News.
I was unable to determine Jane and Mario’s precise whereabouts between 1939-1943, assuming they were dodging bombs between the summer of 1940 when the Allies began bombing Milan, Turn and Genoa. Then later, Rome. On December 10, 1942, Gertrude Legendre wrote to her husband Sydney, stationed at Pearl Harbor, “I trust Old Sarah in Rome takes to the hills before the RAF pulverizes it. It certainly looks like they might.”
The College of Charleston Addlestone Library’s Special Collections houses the Gertrude Sanford Legendre Papers: 1836-2000 that includes archival materials relating to Jane Sanford and Mario Pansa. Currently there are several letters written by Jane Pansa between 1943 and 1945 that are accessible online. There are also several hundred photographs of Pansa’s career as a diplomat for Benito Mussolini’s government.
The available letters should be framed within Italy’s declaration of war against England and France in 1940 and with the US following the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, until Italy surrendered in September 1943. Although Rome was declared an “Open City” in 1943, it was not liberated by the Allies until a year later. In July 1943, Mussolini was impeached, only to set up a shadow government in northern Italy with Nazi support. In 1945 Mussolini was executed.
Several of the letters are written addressed from the Pansa apartment in Rome, Via della Pilotta, 23. In addition to this location, across from the Palazzo Colonna and the Pontifical Gregorian University, there is also mention of Capri, a house in Ravello on the Amalfi Coast, a visit to one of the di Frasso’s villas near Brindisi, and a friend’s chalet somewhere in the mountains.
Jane Sanford to Gertrude Sanford Legendre Letters, excerpts
© College of Charleston Libraries. Gertrude Sanford Legendre Papers, 1836-2000.
“Life goes on despite all the incredible upheavals and conflicts … there are always people to see in the evenings… thank goodness I spent three months in the mountains skiing. “M (Mario) is well despite strenuous and long work. We bought a lovely place on the sea with superb bathing.”
“A long talk with Virginia Cowles (“Ginny” was the daughter of media baron Gardner Cowles, who became a noted London Times journalist who covered World War II from many fronts and an author of several biographies) … Buzzie Scheftel visited in the morning … stayed for lunch. Moving back to house after long wandering gypsy life since last September … even if noisy Scotland Yard is next door. Tuesday there was a cocktail party. Tomorrow going to see “Blythe Spirit.” First theater in years. It is just great to be alive and speak English. Everything is so complicated … would it be utterly impossible to meet in Capri or somewhere like that?”
August 4, 1944
“Yesterday a very nice General came to see us … Saw Gifford Cochran, came up from Naples quite by chance (Cochrans were 19th-century kin of the Sanford family – Sarah Jane (Cochran) Gifford married Stephen Sanford in 1849 – manufactured carpets, also thoroughbred horse breeders). There have been masses of British officers thru here. Mario takes them out to the polo fields where they have the time of their lives … riding the ponies and knocking a ball about … Saw Frank Stanley Clarke (English aviator married a George Baker daughter) … he is off to Cairo with Whitney Straight (son of Dorothy Payne Whitney and renowned aviator). Have arranged to go down to Carlo Frasso’s (was married to American Countess, Dorothy Taylor) near Brindisi with a charming Engish officer in his truck. Mario believes a two-day journey, stopping in Naples along the way to see the battle ground. Aileen has been staying with us for six weeks. Down there we will have sea bathing – a nice comfortable house on Capri is out of the question. Transport situation is fearful … we have had our car stolen like everyone else but we still have a horse and buggie. Could Sidney have Deering Howe to try and send us more money and start working on my getting back to America, all of which is very difficult (Lawyer & financier Deering Howe, heir to multiple fortunes as well as a director at Chemical Bank that managed the Sanford trusts). If you can do anything about it, please try, all looks now as if the end of the war is approaching rapidly and it might not be too long now.”
Torre di Civeta, Ravello
”Fabulous place … top of a hill see to Amalfi. What a view, more beautiful than Capri and much more primitive. We go down to the sea by car in 15 minutes … Saw Bill Taylor, said he saw Sidney in Hawaii ages ago … Yesterday a very nice little American general down from Naples bringing a friend of ours for the night. We went back north … at our property and the Packard were all ruined … the Germans there for five years. The destruction is heart rendering, bridges, railroads, a chaotic state of anarchy … 50 years to rebuild … dangerous shootings. God knows what will happen, all so depressing… we are lucky to be away from all this politics. Waiting for visa …”
January 1, 1945 – January 6, 1945
Sidney Legendre to Gertrude Legendre Letters
© College of Charleston Libraries. Gertrude Sanford Legendre Papers, 1836-2000
“Mr Ericson sent a memorandum from the man who had seen Jane. He has dined with them at the apartment several occasions and has met many of their friends. He said Mr. and Mrs. Pansa know everybody and are immensely popular. They have a lovely apartment. Janie had some problems with servants but now she has three or four (not so bah, huh). Janie appears to be rather frail. She has one of the best doctors in Rome prescribing for her. Isn’t that wonderful. (Have you ever known when she wasn’t in the hands of the best doctor). Both Janie and her husband have large wardrobes.”
Jane Sanford Pansa returned to the United States, awaiting the arrival of her husband. She moved in with Laddie and Mary at Forest Edge, their Old Westbury cottage on Long Island. In late March, Jane travels to Palm Beach, staying with Laddie and Mary at Los Incas. On the evening of March 29, Laddie and Mary hosted a dinner dance for 150 friends welcoming Janie back to the United States as well as his sister Gertrude’s release from a Nazi prisoner of war camp.