La Pietra is as grand as any house in Florence, a seventeenth-century mansion. Its last owner, Harold Acton, lived there in style, and left it in his will to New York University. For the last five years, NYU’s Center on Law and Security has held a conference there on terrorism. One of the keynote speakers at the latest conference, a few days ago, was Admiral William Fallon, who recently quit U.S. Central Command. Presentations are supposed to be confidential, so I will only say that the admiral seemed in good spirits.
I don’t suppose many people read Harold Acton’s books now, and I think he knew that might be his fate. He was a man of his time, an aesthete of the Twenties, avant garde though not enough to be really shocking. Evelyn Waugh, a contemporary and friend, put him into his fiction as the rather camp character Anthony Blanche, and Acton never quite got over the fact that Waugh’s novels were so much more recognized than his own. Between the wars he lived in China, and collected art, all of which the Maoist regime was eventually to expropriate. His very rich American mother paid for everything. Learned, amusing, catty, he was certainly mannered. His voice rose and fell like nobody else’s, and a New York film producer once asked me to do a documentary to record this amazing intonation with its unique precision of speech. Alas, Acton refused.
Acton came to stay with my parents in central London towards the end of the war, when I was still small. Perhaps because he had nowhere of his own, he was there for weeks. My mother refused to go into air-raid shelters for fear of being buried alive, so at night we would all sit in the dark with the windows open as a precaution against blast. The ground shook under the Luftwaffe bombs, and the beams of searchlights criss-crossed the night skies fitfully illuminating our faces, while Acton passed the time by teaching us Chinese.
In post-war Florence, he found perfect subjects to write about in the Bourbons and the later Medicis. He entertained in that splendid house. Behind the chairs in the dining room were statues, one of them a Donatello. Stories about him were as legendary as the setting. A famous film star visited, but she was a kleptomaniac. Noticing how she was filling a capacious hand-bag with his possessions, Acton said at the end of the tour, “And now, my dear, we shall restore the missing trinkets.” Every summer, Princess Margaret invited herself to stay. Leaving, she said once, “I suppose you’ll now dance and sing.” Acton replied, “Oh no, ma’am, much too tired.” An author sent him proofs of a book in which she called him a homosexual. Furious, he made her take it out as libellous, saying, “What do these impudent young women know about me?”
NYU has spent a fortune on the house and its out-buildings and especially the gardens. The place looks more majestic than ever. Moreover La Pietra offers programs, lectures, seminars, research facilities, all valuable. And yet, and yet. What not so long ago was the domain of a highly cultivated, generous, and eccentric individual has become public property, busy with worthy purpose, as it were nationalized and socialized. Melancholy lingers in the great approach lined with cypresses, the rose beds. and box hedges, the classical façade, the statues, because the kind of past that produced all this is over and done with.