My mom met Madame Ganna Walska back in the 70’s while she was a photography student at Brooks, in Santa Barbara. She told me that she made everyone call her “Madame” and she would invite them for tea and stroll through her garden, which she named, Lotusland. Situated on 37 acres of land in Montecito, there are 17 different gardens and 3,000 unique plant species from around the world – some of which are now extinct.
Soon after my mom told me about The Madame, we visited Lotusland. And although I never met Ganna Walska, this interview is a conversation with her. I couldn’t find the words to describe this magical place – so I read her autobiography and pulled quotes from her writing to answer my thoughts and the questions I would have asked, had she still been alive. During this process, I learned of an ambitious, strong-minded and talented woman who refused to live by the norm and who broke all the rules.
Lotusland is the child Madame never bore, the six husbands she never held onto, the success never achieved in her twenty-year operatic career, it is the culmination of a visionary woman, who had all the riches in the world, and only realized her true capability when she got out of her own way.
CS: Madame Ganna Walska, you died in 1984. As you can imagine, this is quite bizarre to be “speaking” with you.
GW: I am sure that the major part of humanity—through respect for their various religions, through fear of Heaven’s condemnation or simply for the sake of consolation—believes in the immortality of the soul. How can it be otherwise?
CS: Many people will tell you that an afterlife does not exist. They will say that there is no proof for such thinking.
GW: No thinking can admit that we die like a misused machine the moment our physical heart stops beating. The creative idea of this machine still exists and will exist eternally, creating other machines and repairing the broken ones. Life’s only rule is to live and let live.
CS: Living is much easier to talk about than actually do. Many say we are on an endless pursuit to understand our meaning. I’d say those who are truly able to live and let live, understand fear for what it really is.
“Life’s only rule is to live and let live.”
GW: I was told by astrologers that I am a Jupiterian type, and Jupiter stands for ambition. I can see, as if I were today, a little girl of six or seven seated on the floor and trying for hours to catch with her tiny fingers the mercury taken from the broken window thermometer in a moment of no supervision. That happened so often that scarcely was a new thermometer put up than it was down again. With unbelievable patience for such an age, the tiny fingers always pressed on emptiness, the quicksilver ever escaping rebelliously but already her will power directed another finger trying to catch the mercury, the unreachable on the floor….the perseverance of that little girl was a symbol of my whole life…
CS: I used to pretend I owned a store in the basement and would make my Dad and his friends purchase goods from me. My favorite part was writing the receipt in my fabricated scripture. I even had a cash register. I think I was 5 or 6 then. I’ve always known I wanted to make my own money while creating something new, pushing boundaries and asking a lot questions in order to keep learning.
GW: There is no greater urge than the desire for knowledge once it has been awakened. Nothing! For it is the only Power, driving Power, irresistible Power!
CS: But what if you don’t succeed?
GW: If I do not succeed in doing something worthwhile during my stay on this earth at least I will have nothing with which to reproach myself, for I have not sat comfortably in an armchair with folded hands waiting for a roasted pigeon to fall directly into my mouth, as our Polish proverb says. Living on this planet is not a reality but merely a passing moment in time and space allotted us for our growth.
CS: Yes. I completely agree. There is a solace I find in believing that we are all on a journey and nothing is truly “ours”— it makes taking risks easier, it diminishes the fear of losing or failing. For what is life if we are paralyzed by something that doesn’t really exist?
GW: I realized that the negative side of our thoughts, feelings and emotions such as depression, judgement, irritability, criticism and condemnation are profoundly devastating to our inner life because they sow deadly poisons with each breath we take in. That perception was a tremendous help to my advancement because it produced a definite metamorphosis of my mind, even if I needed years to put it into practice. But once done I achieved the greatest treasure one can possess—stability in peace!
CS: What about love?
GW: Love with a capital L., human love, primitive love or divine love rules the world. It is Love that makes of a man a mystic. It is love that creates heroes and their opposite—criminals. Love around which resolves the whole world. . . .
CS: Were you ever in love?
GW: Love comes and goes on its own accord, like a fever. Nothing can stop it, nothing can prolong it either, for love positively refuses to obey reason or its command.
CS: Is that why you were married six times? You had a reputation for being quite difficult as a spouse – too independent.
“Love with a capital L., human love, primitive love or divine love rules the world.”
GW: My reputation (…) was entirely my own creation for self-defense . . . frequently I was considered to be an exceptionally level-headed woman, a thousand-headed monster, a hard working machine; while my executive ability and quick judgments often made my friends call me “Leader in skirts!”
CS: These acquisitions are not entirely false. In many respects you were a “Leader in skirts.” In the 1930’s you assisted passing the bill for American woman to hold the right to have an independent residence from their husbands for voting purposes. You were not an American-born citizen, but you still fought for women’s rights in this country, why?
GW: An American woman, who is considered to have the greatest freedom and the most rights of any woman in the world, could not vote in one state or city if her husband’s residence was in another. Such laws did not seem to me to be compatible with the great freedom this country stands for . . . Therefore I decided to fight for truly equal rights for women as sponsored by the National Women’s Party (…). I made many radio propaganda speeches previous to the presentation of the new bill in Albany . . . Luckily, the bill passed, first in the state of New York where it was signed by Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt and a few months later in Washington. American women won the right to have independent residence from their husbands.
CS: How did your peers react?
GW: I was looked upon as an eccentric person.
CS: And you never tried to rebut their opinions?
GW: Far from protesting against the reputation of such insensibility, I found that such an interpretation of my outer personality was an extremely easy way to escape the indelicate indiscretions of the people who are always trying to penetrate into our most private thoughts with their galoshes on, as the Russians put it.
CS: Yet, you still threw extravagant parties, you literally and figuratively fed into this scene so profoundly the most elite in the world would wait in anticipation for their next invitation. But then one year, you stopped it all. No more parties, you even stopped frequenting the opera and theatre, why?
“Living on this planet is not a reality but merely a passing moment in time and space allotted for our growth.”
GW: I made a great and final ascension to the peaceful state of mind when I understood consciously—unconsciously I had already sensed it for years—that uselessly wasting energy on empty chatter, superfluous repetitions, unimportant statements, low vibrating gossip, uninstructive plays consumes our vital forces and diverts our creative thoughts and extra strength away from their proper channels.
CS: That was the time you changed your view on the importance of your singing career. You learned how to separate yourself from what many of us struggle with – identifying our entire self to how we make money – to what we “do”.
GW: From that time I stopped living in the future, stopped trying to make beautiful plans agreeable to my ego. I also realized then that singing—or any other work such as cleaning shoes, pruning trees or managing a Wall Street office—has only importance for the spirit which goes into the work and not at all by reason of the work itself. It is the process of doing that develops our souls and not what we do.
CS: Which is a perfect thought to bring us back to Lotusland. Which you first named, Tibetland. In 1940 you traveled back to America from Europe, this would be an important voyage for you as it would eventually lead you to the West Coast where you would settle for the next forty years of your life.
GW: I knew that the day would come when I would go to that Golden State. I felt positive that one time or another I should live there. . . . Live and perhaps even finish my earthy existence there. . . . somehow I had the feeling that I belonged there even if, strangely enough, I was not in a hurry to get there.
CS: And within a year of your arrival you met and wed your last husband, Theos Bernard. You divorced two years later, but your life in California had only begun.
GW: Indeed, great things are timeless, for during that period, so short but fertilized by many centuries, in this California wonderland—where creations flourish overnight… I began to fill my being with the vital substance of this charged air.
CS: And you created Lotusland, from a dream to reality.
GW: It is through the stories we weave in our minds that all great things happen in the world. In order to create, we have to work out the story in our imagination.
Always Room At The Top, A Memoir, Ganna Walska
Lotusland Official Website: http://www.lotusland.org/
Photos: Ganna Walska Lotusland / Always Room At The Top, A Memoir, Ganna Walska