An ode to Marrakech: Actress Marisa Berenson captures colour and culture of city in new book
The former model and film star used her time at home during the pandemic to craft the photographic tome
“It was the perfect project while I was locked down for five months because of Covid-19,” says Marisa Berenson, 73. Tucked away in her exquisite riad on the edge of Marrakech at the beginning of last year, the American model and actress set to work on Marrakech Flair, a beautiful photographic homage to the Moroccan city that has been her home for the past eight years.
A place of peace
The project was initiated around Christmas 2019, while she was staying with her friends, publishers Martine and Prosper Assouline. They asked if she would be interested in writing about the city that she had first visited as a model in the 1970s to do a fashion shoot for Vogue.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the Moroccan city was a place of peace and love, full of free spirits and creatives drawn in by its mystical aura. “It’s very spiritual here and there is a luminosity about it and a vibration that is very special,” Berenson says. “The lifestyle is nice and gentle, and there are lots of interesting people, wonderful artists, designers.”
It’s very spiritual here and there is a luminosity about it and a vibration that is very special
So much so that she got carried away visiting all their studios during her research for the book. Artist Hassan Hajjaj is a particular case in point. “I am inspired by them and wanted to write about what is happening here now as a modern city with a movement that is socially, environmentally and politically conscious. I was so impressed by their creativity and awareness.”
In Marrakech Flair, Berenson immerses her reader in the culture and colour of the city, highlighting its inhabitants and visitors both past and present, including 19th-century painter Eugene Delacroix, writer Ernest Hemingway, fashion designer-turned-hotelier Jasper Conran, and Yves Saint Laurent, who arrived in the city in 1966 and fell in love with it, making it his second home. “A visit to Marrakech was a great shock to me,” Saint Laurent once said. “This city taught me colour.”
Henceforth, Saint Laurent designed all his haute couture collections from Villa Oasis and its famous La Majorelle Gardens, one of Berenson’s favourite haunts. “We were friends for years when I was very young in my early days in Paris,” the actress recalls of the famed couturier.
“But I wasn’t [spending time] here in Marrakech in those days, although I did come to do a Vogue shoot at the original La Mamounia hotel when it was a simple colonial hotel, where Winston Churchill, Rita Hayworth and Charles de Gaulle have all stayed.”
Churchill once said: “Marrakech is simply the nicest place on Earth to spend an afternoon.” Actress Anjelica Huston describes it as “one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and I think the most romantic place I’ve been to in my life”.
In its heyday, the Moroccan city attracted a glamorous bohemian crowd that included A-listers such as Mick Jagger, the Beatles, Talitha and John Paul Getty Jr, and perfumier Serge Lutens. “What is fascinating is that it was a woman, Zaynab an-Nafzawiyyah, who actually created the city in the 11th century,” explains Berenson. “She was an incredibly beautiful, intelligent woman, who became queen and drew artists, philosophers, poets and architects from around the world.”
Africa's 'garden of Eden'
Dubbed the “red city” for the colour of its sandstone buildings, Marrakech quickly became a lively hub, buzzing with souqs and artisans in the Medina, and the energetic trading of sugar, tobacco, Sudanese elephants and giraffes. Beautiful gardens were created and these remain some of the actress’s favourite places to visit, including Le Jardin Secret in the heart of the city, the Cactus Thiemann Botanical Garden, La Majorelle, the gardens at La Mamounia and artist Andre Heller’s Anima garden, which features works by Auguste Rodin and Keith Haring and has been dubbed “Africa’s garden of Eden”. Another go-to is the extraordinary sculpture park created by French artist Jean-Francois Fourtou at Dar El Sadaka in the Palmeraie area of the city, a surreal 4.4-hectare garden and house to delight children and adults alike.
“It is magical, like Alice in Wonderland where Fourtou creates incredible worlds of giant insects and animals, an upside-down house and huge furniture inspired by his childhood,” Berenson explains. The site also functions as a spiritual retreat and visits can be arranged by appointment, while the residence is available for rental.
Some of Berenson’s favourite shops are in the city’s famed hotels, such as El Fenn boutique at El Fenn hotel, the boutiques at La Majorelle and the Musee Yves Saint Laurent, which she describes as “a jewel of a place”. Notably, Saint Laurent had dubbed the actress “the girl of the ‘70s”.
Despite stepping away from the limelight, Berenson has continued to have an interesting career. She moved to Marrakech eight years ago to create a cosmetics line that was launched in hotels and spas, but the venture is now in hiatus. “It was destiny, a new cycle in life,” she says of the move. She brought her mother, daughter of couturier Elsa Schiaparelli, to live with her, until she died four years ago.
A life in front of the camera
As a model and actress, Berenson has lived her life in front of the camera lens; even her christening portrait was published in Vogue. The green-eyed beauty was born into a world of style, with a grandmother known for her surrealist collaborations with artist Salvador Dali.
Her creative mother, Countess Maria Luisa Yvonne Radha de Wendt de Kerlor (known as Gogo) went on to marry a dashing American diplomat called Robert L Berenson. The actress was born in New York, and she and her younger sister, Berinthia (who as Berry Berenson-Perkins went on to become a photographer) had a peripatetic upbringing, moving to Paris when Marisa was 2.
In the 1960s, at the age of 16, Berenson was spotted by Diana Vreeland, the renowned Vogue editor who was a friend of her grandmother and parents. “She had known me as a child and then rediscovered me and said: ‘Oh, we must photograph Marisa!’ That was it, I immediately started working for American Vogue," Berenson recalls.
The indomitable Schiaparelli, however, was less than pleased: “She was a very courageous and strong woman and when she saw I had that same desire to go out in world and follow my dreams and be independent, she was afraid for me and wanted me to be settled down and get married,” admits Berenson. “But it was in my genes, inherited from her.”
As one of the most successful models of her time, Berenson worked with many of the great photographers, from Irving Penn, Cecil Beaton and Richard Avedon to David Bailey, Herb Ritts and Steven Meisel, bringing to life the fashions of the best designers on the printed page. “It was a time when there was so much artistic expression, freedom and individuality,” she recalls.
However, she was soon enticed into acting by the legendary filmmaker Luchino Visconti, whom she met in Ischia, where he and her grandmother owned houses. Visconti thought she would be perfect for a role in his evocative period movie Death in Venice in 1971. “He gave me my first chance and believed in me and that was very important when I started.”
She was invited to London for the casting of Cabaret, in which she starred alongside Liza Minelli, who was to become a lifelong friend. She secured the role of the chic but naïve Natalia Landauer in the 1972 Bob Fosse film, which earned her a Golden Globe nomination. “He was a real actors’ director, demanding and challenging, but I learned a lot from him and because of that, I was chosen by Stanley Kubrick for Barry Lyndon. They were the best teachers in the world,” she says of the two directors.
Berenson has also performed on Broadway in New York and in London’s West End, and continued making films (mostly European) over the years, despite taking a break when she married twice and had her daughter. But her life has been guided by her spiritual beliefs. “I was very existential as a child, wondering what is my purpose here? What is my life? Who is God? What am I doing? So, I started to search when very young for answers,” she says. This led her to India when she was about 18, she recalls, where she ended up in an ashram in Rishikesh with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the Beatles learning transcendental meditation.
Her spiritualism has seen her through two divorces and the tragic loss of her sister Berry, who was in the first plane to hit the World Trade Centre in 2001. “It guides my life and gives me purpose and strength, peace of mind and tranquillity,” she says. “I’ve always followed a holistic life in body, mind and soul, and built my life around living that way.”
Given the mystical magnetism of Marrakech, it feels almost inevitable that the city would become her spiritual home.
Published: February 13, 2021 08:13 AM