The New York Post’s celebrity gossip website PageSix,com has posted a story relating to Harold Acton’s bequest of his estate near Florence, Italy to New York University. Acton died childless in 1994 and left most of his fine art and property to NYU with a smaller bequest to the British Institute of Florence. NYU uses the estate known as Villa La Pietra as a base for “study abroad” students and faculty. The artwork is also open to the public for visits by appointment.
For some time the bequest has been contested by the late Liana Beacci and her daughter Mrs Dialti Orlandi who claimed that Liana Beacci, described as a Florentine hotelier, was the illegitimate daughter of Arthur Acton, Harold’s father. She was born of an affair between Arthur Acton and his secretary who was Liana Beacci’s mother. Under Italian law, at least since 2013, it is unlawful to discriminate against children born out of wedlock. Whether Harold Acton was aware of Mrs Beacci’s claim at the time he bequeathed his property to NYU isn’t clear from the Post’s story, or those of the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail which have both picked it up. The Florentine civil court ruled on 18 July that Mrs Beacci was fathered by Arthur Acton. This is apparently based, inter alia, on DNA results. But there has been no ruling on whether she was entitled by law to a share of the estate.
What will happen now is unclear. The property is worth approximately £800 million according to the press reports. Mrs Orlandi, who is pressing the claim and talking to the newspapers, says she doesn’t need the money but is fighting the case as a matter of principle.
The stories all note that Harold Acton was a friend of Evelyn Waugh at Oxford and afterwards and was the model for the character Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited. Waugh and Acton were friends and Waugh respected Acton’s artistic taste. It was based on Acton’s assessment that Waugh destroyed the draft of his first novel The Temple at Thatch, and he was among the few people invited to Waugh’s first wedding where he acted as best man.
A later, and expanded story in the Daily Mail adds more information about Harold Acton and his career, some of which implicates his friendship with Waugh. Not all of this new information is accurate. According to the Mail’s later story:
Among Acton’s guests [at La Pietra] 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.
Waugh visited Acton in Italy at least twice after the war. He saw La Pietra in 1950 but was not a guest of Harold. At the time of Waugh’s visit, La Pietra was still occupied by Acton’s parents and he lived nearby. Waugh stayed at the Pensione Villa Natalia and was probably escorted to La Pietra by Harold. In a letter to Nancy Mitford, Waugh pronounced La Pietra as “very fine. Much more than I expected.” After that visit, he described Bernard Berenson’s villa at I Tatti as “a miserable hole” in comparison (Letters, p. 324). He also travelled with Acton to Sicily and Naples in 1952 but did not stop in Florence on that trip. The trip did not go well, and they saw each less often after that. Acton inherited the villa in 1953 upon his father’s death.
It is not clear from what information the Mail has concluded that Waugh and Acton were lovers. Selina Hastings (p. 95) wrote that Harold was attracted to Evelyn but the feelings were not reciprocated. She also notes that Harold was jealous of Evelyn’s relations with the men with whom Waugh did reciprocate his feelings, Richard Pares and Alastair Graham. Most Waugh scholars have argued, as the Mail notes later in its article, that Acton shared the honors as a model for Anthony Blanche with his friend Brian Howard, who also knew Waugh at Oxford but was not close to him afterwards. See below. According to Selina Hastings, Waugh also named him as the model for Ambrose Silk in Put Out More Flags.
The Mail goes on to describe what it calls the “Curse of Brideshead” and concludes that it may now be extended to Acton posthumously. According to the Mail, if the legal proceedings against the NYU bequest 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.
Most Waugh scholars have concluded that Sebastian Flyte was inspired for the most part by Alastair Graham, one of the lovers of whom Acton was jealous, although Hugh Lygon may well have contributed some features to his character. Whether Plunket Greene’s life was the primary inspiration for Vile Bodies seems a stretch and neither he nor Robert Byron had anything to do with Brideshead aside from being friends of the author,
On a lighter and concluding note, Harry Mount, editor of The Oldie, has also joined the reportage by posting an article on The Oldie’s weblog about a 1983 trip he made to La Pietra with his family at age 11. They were hosted by Harold Acton on a visit that was arranged by Mount’s great-uncle Anthony Powell, another friend of both Acton and Waugh:
…Acton had recited The Waste Land, from his window in Christ Church, Oxford, at passing rowers 60 years previously, as Blanche does in the book. In this same voice, according to John Betjeman, Acton said, while at Oxford, ‘My dears, I want to rush into the fields and slap raw meat with lilies.’ And in this voice, he asked my brother, sister and me, ‘Would you like some crisps?’ They were quite the most delicious crisps I’d ever had – bacon-flavoured, but with none of the coarse, bacony flavour of Frazzles, the bacon crisps popular in Britain at the time…