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Marisa Berenson's Open Book

With a new coffee table retrospective on the way, the model and actress looks at her personal history.

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PARIS — Marisa Berenson has graced the cover of Vogue, hung out with Salvador Dalí and The Beatles and dated the world’s most eligible men, but she still has one unfulfilled dream: owning a pig.

“I’m a big, big fan of pigs,” the model and actress says, sipping a cup of Lapsang souchong tea in a Paris cafe. “My daughter is always wanting to give me a pet pig. But I said, ‘I don’t think I could bring it on the plane.’”

That the woman once dubbed “the most beautiful girl in the world” by Elle magazine has a soft spot for swine may come as a surprise, but then again, her life reads like a surreal fairy tale. The daughter of diplomat and executive Robert L. Berenson and socialite Gogo Schiaparelli, and granddaughter of designer Elsa Schiaparelli, Berenson was discovered by American Vogue editor in chief Diana Vreeland in her teens and has never looked back. Her story is lushly documented in “Marisa Berenson: A Life in Pictures,” a 240-page coffee table book published by Rizzoli this month.

Berenson, 64, compiled the tome with the help of photographer Steven Meisel, who helped her sift through almost five decades of archives. With her uncanny ability for being in the right place at the right time, she has been described as a Zelig of the zeitgeist. Berenson posed nude for Irving Penn in the Sixties, was known as the queen of the scene in the Studio 54 era and in the last year has sauntered down the runway for Alberta Ferretti and Tom Ford.

“People are constantly saying to me, ‘Well, what was it like being with Andy Warhol or being with The Beatles?’ But you know, you just live your life,” she says with a smile. “Everybody lives in my past, but I don’t live in my past.”

Despite her protestations, Berenson is a gifted and gracious storyteller, rattling off tales about dancing with Gene Kelly as a small girl, or slipping into a Truman Capote falsetto when recalling how he named her shih tzu King Kong. Some of the best anecdotes, however, come from her modeling days. She spent much of the Sixties jetting across the planet, posing with sheep, covered in bronze paint or surrounded by dragsters spouting rocket fuel.

“In one sense, I was extremely insecure as a child, extremely introverted, very existential and very shy, and then all of a sudden when I was in front of a camera everything just disappeared. I blossomed into this other side of me, which was totally the opposite to that,” she recalls.

For a young girl raised in strict European boarding schools, she was remarkably carefree about stripping in front of the camera.

“I didn’t think twice about it. It’s not like I had any complexes,” Berenson shrugs. “My grandmother was furious. Livid. She was not happy at all that I was in the fashion world, believe me.”

Photo shoots at the time were exotic, borderline dangerous, affairs. Berenson recalls one with Henry Clarke on a blue mosque in Iran.

“Can you imagine going on the roof of a blue mosque today, half naked?” she muses. “You would be shot dead.”

Her film debut in Luchino Visconti’s 1971 classic “Death in Venice,” in which she stars as the wife of a doomed composer played by Dirk Bogarde, was equally radical.

“It was in this huge concert hall and there were 500 extras, and Luchino said to me, ‘I want you to be half-fainting, half-crying,’” she says. “And that was it. The minute I set foot in that scene, every fear just left me and I just felt, this is my destiny, this is where I’m at home.”

Even as a child, Berenson had a quasi-mystical certainty that she was destined for great things.

“Basically I wanted to be an actress, but I also wanted to go into a monastery and be a nun,” she says. “I thought that nobody understood me and I was quite miserable about it, actually. I felt very alone and very misunderstood and I couldn’t wait to spread my wings and go out into the world and do my thing.”

She credits her spirituality with helping her deal with tragic events in her life, including the death of her beloved sister Berry Berenson-Perkins, who was in the first airplane that hit the World Trade Center on 9/11. “I couldn’t have survived without my inner spiritual core,” she says.

Though she has never dished on her romantic history, which includes relationships with Helmut Berger, David de Rothschild and Rikky von Opel, Berenson has clung to her independence. She has a daughter, Starlite, from her first marriage to industrialist James Randall, and divorced her second husband, lawyer Richard Golub, in 1987.

“I don’t know how men feel about it, but I feel very free as a spirit,” she says. “Men want you to be their thing, their possession.”

Which brings her back, somehow, to animals.

“I’ve always had an affinity with animals. I used to have monkeys. Dalí once wanted to give me some of his cheetahs,” she says.

“He was a great friend of my grandmother’s, and so when I went to New York I’d go visit him sometimes, and he had about six cheetahs in his hotel room. They were like climbing all over the furniture and the walls. One day I come in, and one of them had just had babies, and he wanted to give me one,” she continues. “I said, ‘I think I’ll pass on that one, but thank you.’ They were so beautiful, but you know — wild.”

• • •

 

Hair full of seashells, shot by Henry Clarke:
“This is by Alexandre, the great hairdresser, who was the most amazing man. This was in Sardinia. This is something you could never do today either, because you would be arrested. We did all the garbage cans of all the restaurants at five o’clock in the morning, where everybody had eaten the night before — all the mussels and the seafood and everything like that, and he put them on my head!”

Dressed as Marchesa Casati, photographed by Cecil Beaton at the Proust Ball hosted by Baron Guy and Baroness Marie-Hélène de Rothschild in 1971:
“That outfit was by Piero Tosi, who was Luchino Visconti’s costume designer and the most exquisite, wonderful man you could ever meet in your life. When everybody was preparing for this ball and having their costumes made, he said, ‘Oh Marisa, you’re not going to go as another Proustian lady with corsets. They’re all going to look the same.’ He said, ‘You should go as the Marchesa Casati,’ who was the end of that period of Proust anyway, except liberated. This is a real Poiret dress. Piero came to Paris, and he spent a day making me up. He did the wig for my hair, which was bright red. And I walked into the ball with David de Rothschild, who I was engaged to at the time, and Marie-Hélène didn’t recognize me. Nobody recognized me that night. I had so much fun because everybody was looking at me thinking, ‘Who is that?’”

Jumping in the surf, shot by her then boyfriend Arnaud de Rosnay:
“He was a complete daredevil, and he lived on the edge of danger all the time. In fact, he died on a surfboard in the China Seas. He always had me on the edge of some cliff or on some moving train. He had a huge motorcycle that I gave him for his birthday once, and I was so scared to go on the back of it, because he just went so fast. He liked danger, and I hated danger, but I just had to go along with him because he was very creative. He always had me hanging in trees. In fact, Steven [Meisel] said to me, ‘You weren’t really in that tree, were you?’ and I said, ‘Yes, we were.’ Because nowadays, of course, they fake everything.”

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