Living Legend: Marisa Berenson

Full disclosure—Marisa Berenson is one of my best friends, and my daughter’s Godmother. Writing this story is a supreme pleasure, but also illuminating. I learned many things about her that I never knew. Part of why she is such a good friend, is her modesty.

We all wonder, looking at our icons, what separates us? What made them iconic, and the rest of the world, merely mortal? What comforts me, in my lack of illustriousness, is reviewing Marisa’s history. Imagine this cocktail of genes and background:

Marisa Berenson in “Shining Example,” photographed by Brian Duffy for Sunday Times, 1966.

Marisa Berenson’s grandmother was the legendary, creative designing genius Elsa “Schiap” (to those who knew her fondly) Schiaparelli. Born to a Neapolitan aristocrat and Islamic scholar, who went on to become the Dean of the University of Rome, and niece of the famed astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli, Elsa was surrounded by intellect and creativity. She became a designer by way of instinct and artistry rather than training, and one of her most celebrated legacies would be her reputation as Coco Chanel’s biggest rival. But in being driven more by “inspiration” rather than technical/commercial skills, after 20 years her famed house eventually closed. We know what Coco’s course was. During Elsa’s career, she collaborated with Dali to create the legendary Lobster Dress, along with the Skeleton and Tears dresses. Her famed buttons were modeled after such imaginative objects as candlesticks, cauliflowers, and crickets. Legendary designer Jean Schlumberger’s first job was as her button designer. Elsa created the first wrap dress, revisited in 1970 by Diane von Furstenberg—ironic in that Diane is Marisa’s best friend. Elsa Schiaparelli raised her daughter, Maria-Luisa Yvonne ‘Gogo’ Radha de Wendt, largely alone. Her charming, “fortune-teller,” “psychic” husband, Count Wilhelm de Wendt de Kerlor, moved just ahead of the law, and left them after Gogo’s birth. This, compounded by Gogo’s polio affliction, made Elsa’s accomplishments even that more remarkable. Marisa told me, “Schiap inspired me to be strong and independent—to dare oneself with unlimited self-expression, to believe that anything is possible if you have the passion.”

Marisa Berenson on Mauritius Island in the Indian Ocean, photographed by Arnaud de Rosnay for Vogue, 1967.

Gogo completely recovered from her polio, and later married Robert Lawrence Berenson, who was the President of Aristotle Onassis’s shipping company. He was later appointed Plenipotential Minister, an Ambassadorial role, by President Kennedy. His sister was one of the first two women admitted to The Basketball Hall of Fame and his cousin, considered the father of art history, was art historian Bernard Berenson.

Marisa Berenson donning a mauve lamé Indian tunic and pants ensemble with a Chanel necklace, photographed by Gianni Penati for Vogue, 1968.
Marisa Berenson photographed by Slim Aarons in Capri, Italy in 1968.

Gogo and Robert had two daughters, Berentia (can you blame her for going by Berry?), and Marisa. Marisa attended The Fleming School in New York (yes, now Ron Perelman’s Fleming restaurant), but was largely raised in Europe and schooled in Switzerland, Italy, France, and England where, in acting class she felt she was “hopeless” at acting. “I ran off the stage, crying because I was so terrified.” But the life of a retiree was not in the cards for Marisa. While attending a ball in New York with her father, Marisa was spotted by legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. And so it began. Young and lovely Marisa Berenson was propelled into one of the most acclaimed careers in pictures—still and cinematic—that one could possibly imagine.

Diana Vreeland and Marisa Berenson share a laugh as the famed editrix styles the leading model.

Marisa’s then boyfriend, Helmut Berger, introduced her to director Luchino Visconti, who immediately cast her in Death in Venice, her film debut. Marisa took acting lessons and appeared off-Broadway to hone her skills. It wasn’t long before she was chosen to play Natalia Landauer, the elegant German victim in Cabaret—a role for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA award, and for which she won the National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actress. During filming, she developed close relationships with Liza Minnelli and Joel Gray—friendships that remain strong to this day.

Marisa Berenson in Berlin Cabaret, photographed by Victor Tonelli.

Perhaps most challenging, but satisfying, was her invitation by the incomparable Stanley Kubrick, to star in Barry Lyndon. She worked on the film, first in Ireland, living in a drafty wing of a castle, in those famous, misty moors. Their production moved suddenly to England, supposedly because of an IRA threat. Her performance was lauded and the film solidified Marisa’s place as an iconic beauty and magical actress.

She appeared on countless Vogue covers, and in too many fashion shoots to mention. She even appeared on the cover of Time and Newsweek magazines. Yves St. Laurent called her “The face of the 70s.”

Marisa Berenson photographed by Richard Avedon for Vogue Paris’ April 1966 cover.

Through all of this, she never lost her core of proper breeding and good behavior. She didn’t drink or take drugs, which is nearly remarkable considering she regularly frequented Studio 54 with the likes of Halston, Andy Warhol, and Bianca Jagger. “I drank orange juice,” she happily admitted. Her innate spirituality, honed in India with the Beatles at the age of 18, never left her, and in fact, has sustained her.

Marisa Berenson wearing a Balmain dress and Kenneth Jay Lane earrings, photographed by Irving Penn for Vogue, 1967.

After relationships with in-demand bachelors including David Rothschild, Sam Shepard, and Arnaud de Rosnay, Marisa met and married James Randall—the wealthy “Rivet King”—at a grand wedding in Los Angeles. Naturally, their nuptials were photographed by none other than Andy Warhol. The next year, Starlite Melody Randall was born, and Marisa’s focus turned toward nurturing and home life.

While her first marriage lasted only two years, Marisa wed again, this time to New York lawyer, Aaron Richard Golub—a union that would last from 1982 until 1987.

Berenson continued to model, and wrote four books: a tribute to her grandmother, Elsa Schiaparelli’s Private Album (with Hubert de Givency); Marisa Berenson-A Life in Pictures, with Steven Mesiel; another autobiography, Beyond the Mirror: Intimate Moments; and in the 80s, Dressing Up.

Marisa Berenson photographed by Bert Stern in 1966, featured on the cover of Fall Q magazine in 2010.

Despite being dressed and posed for much of her life, Marisa managed to develop her own distinct style—one that has been, and will continue to be, emulated by generations. Informed by her design genetics, international roots, and time spent in India, Marisa is the original and genuine Bohemian chic girl (perhaps the oft used term “Boho-chic” was coined with Marisa in mind?). Her legendary beauty has been made more indelible by her unique way of effortless dressing and presentation.

Marisa was traveling to New York from Paris on that fateful day, September 11, in 2001. Unbelievably, Marisa was in the air at the same time that her sister, Berry Berenson Perkins, tragically flew into the World Trade Center on the first plane. Marisa’s plane was diverted to Newfoundland, where she learned from Starlite that her sister had perished. Passengers on the redirected plane were housed in sparse, makeshift, municipal buildings, but, as the Broadway show Come From Away depicted, a silver lining was the outpouring of comfort and support they were shown from local residents. While in Newfoundland, Marisa developed a close friendship with a priest, who would later conduct Berry’s service at New York’s St. Ignatius Loyola. Marisa said: “Berry was my nearest and dearest. She was the kindest, and most beautiful soul. Although I was the oldest, she protected me when we were children as I tended to be more of a rebel than she. She was funny and stylish, a great photographer, a loving mother and a perfect wife.”

Marisa Berenson and her daughter, Starlite Randall, in Venice, Italy.

Marisa continues to model and act. She was beautifully unforgettable in I Am Love, appeared as Lady Montague in Kenneth Branaugh’s Romeo and Juliet, and performed her Berlin Kabarett in extended shows in Paris and Spoleto. And look for her in ad campaigns for Etro and Pat McGrath cosmetics. Her beautiful home will soon be featured in Elle Décor and coming up this year, “movies, TV, books…and suprises!” she told me.

And most importantly to her, was the birth two years ago of Starlite’s beautiful baby girl, Luna.

Marisa Berenson at home in Marrakech, photographed by Adam Peters.

Paris still beckoned, so Marisa found and designed an enchanting Left Bank home. But the more exotic Marrakech also had allure, and so Marisa began to design her dream home there. Amazingly, Marisa’s uber-European mother, Gogo, also moved to Marrakech and fell equally in love. Marisa joined the Honorary Committee of her late friend’s Musée Yves Saint Laurent, and developed a line of skin care products that were carried in spas throughout Morocco and Europe. Her extraordinary home also produces herbs and vegetables, which help her live the healthy, sugar, and gluten-free life that she always has, long before doing so was in fashion. She is clear proof that it works. Marisa enthuses about her new home: “I love Marrakech for the peace it brings me, for the lifestyle I have created—it’s a little paradise—a Heaven of well being and beauty. I love the light. I love my garden filled with beautiful trees and flowers. Eating from my organic vegetable garden, my chickens laying organic eggs… To be able to swim all year round and have wonderful scrubs and Hamam (Turkish Baths). It’s a holistic regenerating life of body, mind and soul, in between work and being out in the world. I like the people, the food, the craftsmanship…”

What is uniquely hers—beyond the pictures, the films, the fame—is her inherent grace, style, kindness, and beautiful spirit. I can honestly say I’ve never known a more light-filled person. She inspires and graces us all.

Marisa Berenson at home in Marrakech, photographed by Adam Peters.