Daily Mail

Curse Brideshead of ...revisited

Shocking snob and royal confidant, Sir Harold Acton — who inspired a character in Waugh’s classic novel — left his £800m Italian estate to academia. Now, after a 25-year legal battle, an ‘illegitima­te’ niece stands to get a share

- by Guy Adams

DURING the later years of his gilded life, the scholar, poet, and historian Sir Harold Acton took to describing his favourite pastime in Who’s Who as ‘hunting the philistine­s’.

A weapons-grade snob, who titled his autobiogra­phy Memoirs Of An Aesthete, Sir Harold waged a long war against the vulgar forces of modernity from Villa La Pietra, a stunning Renaissanc­e mansion nestled amid tall cypress trees in the hills of Florence.

This ornate 60-room pile contained one of Italy’s most famous art collection­s, consisting of 40,000 rare books, 5,000 artworks and an unrivalled selection of 15th-century Flemish tapestries.

Its 57 acres of formal gardens, guarded by stone lions, were chock-full of trickling fountains, marble statues of nymphs and heroes and long avenues of sculpted topiary. Here, Acton would promenade favoured house guests — helped by one of his many handsome young manservant­s who would carry the parasols.

Visitors to La Pietra ranged, over the years, from the Queen and Princess Margaret, to Charles and Diana, Winston Churchill, and an extraordin­ary array of 20th- century literary and artistic heavyweigh­ts, such as D. H. Lawrence, Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore, Nancy Mitford, Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley and Jean Cocteau.

Among Acton’s guests was Evelyn Waugh. The pair had been lovers when they were at Oxford and Acton somewhat vituperati­vely nicknamed the author ‘little faun’.

Waugh had immortalis­ed Acton in the novel Brideshead Revisited, saying that he was, in part, the inspiratio­n for the ‘aesthetic b***er’ character of Anthony Blanche, a flamboyant, stammering intellectu­al with an encyclopae­dic knowledge of high art and culture. Blanche was overtly homosexual during an era when it was still seen as scandalous.

Like Blanche, Acton had strong — some might say obsessive — ideas about beauty and refinement.

Just before he died, aged 89, in 1994, he issued strict instructio­ns that Villa La Pietra and its collection­s should be preserved exactly as he’d left them, right down to the fresh plate of chocolates, wrapped in a white linen napkin, which is still left nightly on the antique table next to his silk-covered bed.

Acton made the stipulatio­ns when he bequeathed his home and its vast art collection to the care of New York University (NYU). Childless and somewhat lonely, during his final years he perhaps hoped to be remembered for this grand philanthro­pic gesture.

But, 25 years later, this carefully laid plan faces an existentia­l threat.

For exactly the sort of ‘philistine­s’ who so horrified Villa La Pietra’s owner are now standing menacingly at its wrought iron gates, seeking to shatter Acton’s dying dream.

Should they succeed, Acton will become the latest victim of the so- called Curse of Brideshead, which has struck a succession of the real-life individual­s connected to the famous novel and its author.

THEY include Hugh Lygon, who allegedly inspired Lord Sebastian Flyte and died at 31 after falling off a kerb; David Plunket Greene, whose hedonistic life was the basis for Waugh’s Vile Bodies, about the ‘ bright young things’ of the Twenties (suicide at 36); Brian Howard, another purported inspiratio­n for Blanche, who killed himself at 52 after the death of a boyfriend; and Robert Byron, a travel-writer friend of Waugh who died at sea aged 35.

Clouds now hovering over Sir Harold’s legacy stem from a ruling issued this month by Florence’s powerful civil court, bringing to a head an ill-tempered legal battle that has been rumbling away since shortly after he died.

The dispute revolves around Dialta Alliata di Montereale, a wealthy 70-something mother-of-five, who lives in California and Hawaii and is married to a Sicilian prince. She claims to be the illegitima­te granddaugh­ter of the late Sir Harold’s father, Arthur, and argues that this makes her the rightful heir to a hefty portion of his magnificen­t estate, which has been valued at upwards of £800 million.

This month, the court found in favour of the portion of her claim regarding ancestry, basing its verdict on DNA evidence obtained by exhuming antiques dealer Arthur’s corpse. He had died in 1953.

Tests suggested there was a 99.95 per cent chance that Princess Dialta’s late mother, Liana Beacci, was Arthur’s daughter, via an affair with his secretary.

An inheritanc­e battle will proceed to Italy’s supreme court, where her chances of a generous financial settlement are bolstered by a 2013 change to Italian law (which already stipulated that, after they die, parents must divide their assets evenly among offspring) that makes it illegal for them to discrimina­te against children who were born out of wedlock. ‘ It’s a great satisfacti­on,’ Princess Dialta told the New York Post. ‘It’s about 25 years that the NYU has fought with us not to have the paternity of my mother recognised. Finally, the respect and consequent rights that are owed to my mother for much too long have been given to her.’

NEW York University, which has turned La Pietra into the ‘jewel in the crown’ of its prestigiou­s and highly profitable ‘study abroad’ programme has employed a small army of lawyers to fight the claim.

To fully understand this fascinatin­g, if vulgar, dispute, we must go back to the early 1900s, when the Anglo-Italian Arthur Acton and his wife Hortense, a wealthy banking heiress from Chicago, purchased the crumbling villa and set about restoring it to its former glory.

Dozens of gardeners were employed to rescue its vast grounds, while Europe’s finest auction rooms were scoured for priceless furniture, Old Masters and sculptures.

Arthur, a noted womaniser, had, before meeting Hortense, been involved with an attractive, but somewhat impoverish­ed, local girl named Ersilia Beacci.

After his marriage, she was installed as his secretary and remained his occasional mistress for several decades.

The product of this on- off affair was a daughter, Liana, who was born in 1917 and was financiall­y supported throughout the early years of her life by Arthur, who paid for her expensive Swiss education.

He also purchased a palazzo on Via Tornabuoni, Florence’s equivalent of Bond Street, for Ersilia, who turned this into a successful hotel.

But, while her parentage was an open secret, Liana received nothing when Arthur died.

Instead, the villa and its contents passed to Arthur’s son, Harold, an Old Etonian who had achieved minor prominence in literary circles while at Oxford in the Twenties.

There, he was a formative member of the ‘ dandy aesthetes’ — a moneyed and somewhat camp group whose influence extended to contempora­ry fashion.

Indeed, Harold — whose mother apparently sent him a daily supply of plovers’ eggs — is credited with inventing Oxford Bags, trousers with bottoms up to 38 inches wide, worn by many of the Brideshead generation.

Having published a (largely unsuccessf­ul) book of poetry during his second term, he then achieved notoriety by reciting T. S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land, via a megaphone from his study window. In Brideshead Revisited, the aforementi­oned Anthony Blanche performs a similar stunt.

In the Thirties, Harold moved to Peking (now Beijing), where he studied Chinese theatre and poetry, filled a house with

oriental artefacts and became temporaril­y addicted to opium. He was infatuated with local young men, telling friends that their penises were ‘like little rosebuds’, whereas those of the Japanese were ‘gnarled old sticks’. The behaviour saw him condemned by the Chinese authoritie­s as a ‘scandalous debauchee’ — meaning the British secret service could not make use of him in China during World War II. He instead joined the RAF as a liaison officer in the Mediterran­ean. On returning to Italy after the Allied victory, Harold chose to while away the rest of his years with socialisin­g and scholarshi­p, publishing wellregard­ed books about Italian art and history, along with two memoirs, and turning Villa La Pietra into a popular destinatio­n for writers and artists. The unashamed elitist, who was a regular feature in the gossip columns, also coveted royal acquaintan­ces, leading him to threaten an ill-judged libel suit against a biographer of Nancy Mitford, who had described him as gay. ‘Of course I am homosexual, but what would the Princess of Wales think if her eye caught that?’ he purportedl­y asked friends. Acton was also famed for regaling his friends with indiscreet tales about guests, telling how Princess Margaret was a demanding visitor who drank heavily, forcing other house guests to remain up into the small hours to accompany her. He added that she ‘ expected a good deal’ from the villa’s staff, who had to cater to her various whims. After Charles and Diana stayed at the villa in 1985, he purportedl­y informed friends that the Prince of Wales had been particular­ly tight-fisted when it came to tipping servants and complained about the vast quantities of vegetarian food flown in for his meals, which Diana then refused to touch.

HAROLD, during the final years of his life, began to think about his legacy. Having been knighted in the Seventies, he decided to cement his philanthro­pic status by giving the villa to an academic institutio­n. Although his first choice, Oxford University, spurned the offer, fearing that the upkeep would be too expensive, NYU jumped at the chance of taking on what it called ‘probably the largest gift ever given to an American university, and certainly the most magnificen­t’. It remains a handy revenue stream for the American Establishm­ent, with roughly 400 students per term based at the villa. The main house remains preserved according to Harold’s instructio­ns. Researcher­s and academics are divided between other buildings on the property. Yet, as so often when a wealthy man dies without any obvious heir, Sir Harold’s will was swiftly disputed — in this case, by Liana, his illegitima­te half-sister. Though her paternity was an open secret in Florence, she’d maintained a dignified silence about it during his lifetime, perhaps under the impression that such loyalty would be reflected via at least a minor bequest in his will. When no such gesture was made, Liana launched a legal challenge, which was then taken over by Princess Dialta and financed by her wealthy husband, upon her mother’s death in 2000. The court battle has sparked bad feeling on both sides, not least when a judge ordered the exhumation of Arthur Acton in 2003 for DNA tests. NYU first disputed the tests’ veracity, then upset Dialta by suggesting that Liana was born as the result of a one-night stand. ‘I had to hear from their lawyer that my grandmothe­r was, like, the biggest whore, which she wasn’t,’ she has said. She has turned down financial settlement­s worth millions of dollars. NYU is seeking to rebut this month’s decision by arguing that Villa La Pietra was, in fact, the property of the wealthy Hortense, rather than Arthur, who came from less moneyed stock. They insist this would give Princess Dialta and her family no right to inherit the property. The princess, who claims to be motivated by ‘principle’, rather than money, continues to argue otherwise. It remains to be seen who will emerge victorious. But the man who inspired Brideshead’s greatest dandy is surely already turning in his grave.

 ?? Pictures: VICTOR WATTS/REX/SHUTTERSTO­CK/GARDENPICS/ALAMY ?? Contested: Villa La Pietra, owned by Sir Harold Acton, above, is being fought for by Princess Dialta, top right, the daughter of his illegitima­te half-sister Liana, left
Pictures: VICTOR WATTS/REX/SHUTTERSTO­CK/GARDENPICS/ALAMY Contested: Villa La Pietra, owned by Sir Harold Acton, above, is being fought for by Princess Dialta, top right, the daughter of his illegitima­te half-sister Liana, left
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