OVER LOTUSLAND: A BIRD’S EYE VIEW OF GANNA WALSKA’S MASTERPIECE
Lotusland, an expansive estate nestled in the Arcadian hills of Santa Barbara, is an early iteration of contemporary pop spirituality: a yoga retreat for a celebrity of the Gilded Age. It was created over a period of four decades by Madame Ganna Walska, a former opera singer and headline-grabbing socialite. As a young woman, Walska parlayed her good looks and phenomenal charisma into the upper circles of pre-Bolshevik Russia. As she recounts in her grandly titled 1943 memoir Always Room at the Top, her life was shaped early on by her interest in the occult and her “petty romances.” Born plain Hanna Puacz, she changed her first name from the Polish to the Russian form, and invented a new second one that reminded her of her favorite dance, the waltz. She claimed that a Ouija board foretold her rise to fame at the Chicago Opera, and resolved to follow that prediction, later sharing the bill with Caruso and pursuing a singing career, albeit to very mixed reviews — she’s said to have been the inspiration for the Susan Alexander character in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. She also became a patron of the performing arts, owning the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris for over 50 years and funding its concert programs in the late 1920s. Even more notorious than Walska’s philanthropy and singing, however, was her extraordinary ability to seduce extremely wealthy men — before her 40th birthday Madame had already married five times — and her close ties to powerful (male) figures are too numerous to list.
Perhaps more than any other personality of the time, Walska leveraged her beauty in her youth, and had a second act learning to create and cultivate beauty and peace through highly creative gardening. Madame bought the 37-acre Santa Barbara property in 1941, encouraged by her sixth and final husband, yogi Theos Casimir Bernard. In some ways Lotusland was conceived as the survivalist utopia of a vastly wealthy and theatrical woman: her 1946 divorce from Bernard liberated Walska, she later wrote, to work toward her own vision of Shangri-La. When she died in 1984, at the ripe old age of 96, she left behind a lovingly cared-for floral wonderland comprising more than 15 different themed gardens, each one with its own specialty such as cacti, bromeliads, and even butterflies. Lotusland displays a curious combination of ancient plant life and set design, some of its gardens featuring species of plants and sea shells that no longer exist in their native habitat.
Another great earth mother and entertainer, Martha Stewart, whose passion for gardening no doubt rivals Walska’s, recently wrote about the usefulness of drones in garden design. “It is hard to imagine André Le Nôtre laying out the exquisite landscape designs for Vaux-le-Vicomte, and later the magnificent Château de Versailles, with … no drone to show him the complexities of the terrain,” she mused in a 2014 op-ed for Time magazine. Walska, for her part, would surely have appreciated the myriad new vantage points of Lotusland afforded by the eagle eye of a drone, which is why, in the spirit of Stewart’s technological enthusiasm, PIN–UP sent one up to capture Madame’s uncompromising vision and flair for setting the stage.