Turtle Bunbury

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The American Widow who Conquered Europe


Evelyn Kelly Lambert is at it again. The guests are seated in small, intimate groups, chattering away in Spanish and English. Down in the garden, three young boys are banging out melodies on a marimba and two guitars. A lawyer from Boston is telling an architect from Dallas how she is descended from Jesse James. A robust Mexican sculptor is telling a Venetian of his plans to vindicate the name of Prince Yusspoff, Rasputin's killer. I sit beside Danny Browning O'Keefe who lives in a 1,600 year old Roman villa and has twinkles in his eyes. Danny tells me his favourite place is wherever he is at that particular moment. Then he nods at the Woman in Pink, our hostess, the one whom everyone has been secretly eyeing up since the party began. "Your looking at living history, you know that?", he says.

You can't help but notice Evelyn. She is the proverbial room-lighter. Perhaps it's those enormous white spectacles she wears, immortalised in Sir Cecil Beaton's 1973 sketch by the front door. Maybe it's the way her brilliant white hair erupts in such a formal manner and takes on the shape of an oriental pagoda. Maybe.


But I think it's her overall aura that sets her apart. 93 years after her birth in Tennessee, Evelyn Lambert is still utterly dazzlingly, an irresistibly eye-catching presence and a radiant reminder of all that was epic and beautiful about the 20th century.

In 1980, Leo Lerman dedicated an 8 page tribute to her in Vogue, calling her the personification of the 19th century American Dream that came to be, the Southern belle who came to sit with the high and mighty of Europe's elite, as comfortable in the presence of deposed Shahs, flamboyant Archdukes and Anglo-Irish knights as she was with mud-faced Italian kids and destitute Mexican cabbage farmers for whom she would dedicate so much time trying to help out and motivate.

Her story is indeed worthy of a mighty book, but it won't be written by her. "Oh no!", she says with a happy smile. "All that work?! Regurgitating my life?! No. But if I ever were to write a book, I would start with this: "The Truth is Mighty and I respect it. Therefore I will use it sparingly."".

When Evelyn Kelly was born in McMinville, Tennessee, in 1907, President Roosevelt had just liberated Cuba from Spain and the state of Tennessee was in mixed emotions celebrating the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. "One of my grandfather's fought for the south and the other one fought for the north", she says. "My mother said it was horrible when my two grandfathers met because they'd just fought the war".

Evelyn's mother, Eva Niamh King, taught English in Mexico in 1900. "She was a remarkable lady", says her only daughter, "very much ahead of her time". When Evelyn's father died, she was 12 years old. Her mother decided to up stakes and move north to Oklahoma, "an experience that made me run".

In 1921, her mother took her to see the battle-scarred cities of Europe. "I'd never seen a city before", recalls Evelyn in an awe-struck voice. "All those high buildings and people running here and there and everywhere. I was terrified!"

But fear soon yielded to a traveller's itch and, encouraged by her Spanish-speaking mother, Evelyn took the bold step of moving south to Havana, Cuba. "I flew on the first Pan-American, that was a tri-motored Ford that shook and rattled all the way from Miami to Havana". The year was 1928. After Oklahoma, Cuba provided "a renaissance for my soul". She spent two years studying journalism at the University of Cuba before taking a job as a translator with the The Havanna Post. She interviewed Churchill, George Bernard Shaw and George Gershwin.

In 1930, the 32 year old Tennessee gal purchased her first work of art, a small abstract painting by the then little known Cuban artists, Wilfredo Lam. Works by Amelia Pelàez and Massaguer soon followed.

"Abstraction to me is very revealing. Because abstraction can be one thing one day and another thing the next. That's why abstract paintings are called abstract! It's in the eye of the beholder, in colour and form. They don't have to be objects. It's a departure from objects. It is the same with memory. It's how you train your reflections. You can train them when they are objective and positive, or you can change them when they are pessimistic and sad and dramatic. The same event can be both sublime and beautiful ".

In 1930 she espied the handsomest man in town, the Marquis Francisco del Barrio y Dunbar. A few months later they walked together up the aisle and set forth on a Grand Tour of the world, a handsome couple who charmed all whom they met. The marriage was to be her first of two, both ending with the tragic and premature demise of her beloveds. The new Marquessa del Barrio needed to keep herself busy and so she entered the advertising world with the May Company and Bacardi. This brought her into contact with Manhattan for the first time. New York, she enjoyed immensely. Prohibition had just ended, the Depression hadn't yet kicked in, skyscrapers were coming into vogue, she got to see Duke Ellington live and accidentally went to a party in LA hosted by Mr and Mrs. Bugsy Siegel.

In 1935, the Marquis del Barrio suddenly died and Evelyn left Cuba.

Evelyn is not one given to excessive mourning. At 93, she has an enviably calm attitude to death. "In the 20th century we've made such a bugaboo of death", she muses with that contagious smile of hers. "I can't understand why we're so afraid of the inevitable. If there was a way around it, maybe, but there isn't!".

The concept of death must have become particularly apparent when the United States entered World War Two in December 1941. The young widow was living in San Diego at the time, the American Navy's destroyer base, "real close" to it all. She started off by transporting cabbages, carrots and apples across the Mexican border for the soldiers and then, as the casualty list mounted, settled into the role of nurses' assistant.

"It was amazing what you could save. Those boys would come in and you would think there's no way. Three months later they were pink! But they looked good. It was really fabulous what the doctor's did".

"Wars are very strange things. You realise that we are animals, the basest of animals, because we kill each other. It's a horrible fact to face. I've watched four wars that the United States has been involved in. Vietnam was the most brutal, I think, the most horrible. I knew one boy, a Green Beret, who was very close to me and it ruined his life".

Three years after the end of World War Two, Evelyn found work with Niemen Marcos and moved to Dallas, Texas. "I wanted to do something ladylike after all those cabbages and Bacardi". But she was in for a shock. "I find out that retailing was the last of the dynasties, one of the biggest back-biting, rat-killing, meanest, no quarter worlds . but I worked for them and I enjoyed it and that's where I met Joe Lambert"

Joseph Olliphant Lambert was the landscape architect, once again the most dashing man in town. He had, she proudly states, single-handedly reshaped the small town of Dallas, planting the "fabulous azalea spring-times" which now draw so many Sunday afternoon strollers. When she first saw him, she saw a "terribly attractive" tall man wearing a white suit with a black patch over his left eye. ("Such roguish charm!" - he'd lost his eye in a medical mishap when he was a child). They were married in 1948, moved into a large penthouse in downtown Dallas and rapidly established themselves as the IT couple of the city and, in due course, the entire state of Texas.

"When you're in Texas, you're in a world of your own", she declares engagingly of the state of President Bush (by whose father's side she stands in one of many illuminating photographs in the living room). "There's a quality about Texas. You resent it if you're not of it because there's an assurance and an arrogance and in many cases it's an arrogance of ignorance. But I'm a Tennessean and the Tennesseans founded Texas, Sam Houson and all those. If you're not born in Texas, a Texan will look down on you but I wouldn't let a Texan look down on a Tennesean!".

The new Mrs. Evelyn Lambert had soon totally immersed herself in helping her husband to promote Dallas as a city of elegance and culture. She stood as fashion advisor to the Chamber of Commerce, sat (or, more aptly, leapt) on the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art (founded in 1960), encouraged Maria Callas, Carbalari and Kiri Te Kawana to perform at the Opera Hall ("we had the best opera in the world"), assisted a young Zefferelli with his directorial debut, and effectively threw her weight behind every single civic, corporate or charitable get together that was going on. And somehow, between it all, the Lamberts found time to throw quite the best parties in town.

"I think I was a hyperactive child. I remember galloping about on stick horses and real horses and moving about a great deal and being chased a lot. "Come back here!" are words I associate with a childhood. Yah, I was hyperactive. But I guess they didn't know what that was then!".

"When my husband retired, he decided to live as far away from business as he could get". This was a happy coincidence. Ever since her first trip to Europe with her mother in 1921, Evelyn had also dreamed of moving to the old continent. So when, in 1965, the Marchese Roi suggested they look at a dilapidated 16th century Palladian villa at Vicenza in Northern Italy (the original Palladian stronghold), the couple went and had a look. Two years later, they moved into the 62-roomed chateau. Joe the landscaper burrowed himself into the overgrown 12-acre naturalistic garden. With a wave of his wand he produced three swan lakes, croquet lawns and scented flowers from his hat. Meanwhile, aided by Professor Francesco Gnecchi Ruscone, Evelyn took on the house and set it right. In 1967 the Lamberts moved to Italy.

Yes, they were American. But theirs was an old world America, the Southern belle and the Southern gent, charming hosts, courteous guests, amusing storytellers, remarkably cultured, exceptionally generous. It did not take long before the couple had slotted right into the top end of the Italian and ultimately European social scene.

When Joe suddenly caught leukaemia and died in the summer of 1970, many wondered how Evelyn would cope. They were a couple. They did everything together. And now one of them was gone. Evelyn thought about it and decided her best bet would be to carry on as normal.

"You cannot dwell on the low. You must live in the future. Don't think the future doesn't exist. The future exists as long as we are here. Even if we do not know what it is. And you have to be optimistic about the future, even though it sometimes has all the elements to make you pessimistic".

With this attitude, the twice-widowed Mrs. Joseph Lambert continued to throw defiantly colourful fund-raising galas and al fresco dinner parties as she had always done. She sold the Dallas penthouse in 1973 and shipped her ever-expanding art collection to Italy. Her attitude earned her the undying devotion of the European elite who repaid her by inviting her to come stay at their own magnificent castles, villas, manors and palaces.

Evelyn Lambert is possessed of a practical soul. When her health started to trouble her during the cold Italian winters, she decided the time had come to move on. Where to? Well, how about a town reputed to have one of the best all year round climates (72 - 80º F) in the world. Located an hour south of Mexico City, the university town of Cuernavaca has been attracting the elite at least since Montezuma planted his great orchard here in the 15th century. This is where Cortes built his palace, Emperor Maximillian created his garden, Diego Riviera painted his murals and the Shah of Persia took up residence-in-exile. Indeed, the high walls of Cuernavaca still hide the sumptuous homes of a remarkable collection of émigrés - Americans fleeing the McCarthy witch-hunt, Englishmen seeking sunshine, Greeks desiring health, talented Sixties hippies wanting out of the big bad world.

"If you want to see Cuernavaca, you really oughta take a helicopter". Evelyn chartered a helicopter so she could see over these high walls and get an idea of the sort of place she was looking for. She found her enclosed courtyard casa located just off the town's zocalo (or main square), a 16th century building originally built to house the domestic staff of Hernan Cortes's original palazzo a few hundred metres to the north. In 1991, she signed over her Italian villa and garden to the Italian government (it now serves as a music conservatory) and moved to Casa Leon, Cuernavaca. The next few years were spent painting the interior white, extending the terrace, restoring the small garden, building a pavilion for guests, adding awnings and generally preparing the building for the arrival of her by now extensive collection of contemporary art (including works by Polessello, Dorazio, Dali, Calder, Jean Arp, Lucio Fontana, Gerrit Rietveld, Igino Balderi and Barry Flanagan), Burgundian furniture, porcelain and silver, baroque carvings, souk treasures and ethnic toys which had to be shipped back across the Atlantic Ocean from her Renaissance villa in Italy.


She points to the small chapel built into the side of the house in 1907 (the year she was born) and tells me that in a few days time she is to stand as godmother to one of her housekeepers daughters. This will be her 23rd grandchild, the youngest in an honoured set that includes a Kenyan elephant, a Pretender to the Portuguese throne, a Druse Sheikh and her 52 year old Korean-Irish heir. "I call them my borrowed children".

At the dinner party I attend, some of the guests confess they've only known her since she moved to Cuernavaca. Others claim to have known her since the Dallas days. Danny tells me he'd heard of Evelyn from about 1950 onwards, but never got to meet her until 1970.

Like many of Cuernavaca's smart homes, Casa Leon is another world. The entrance is a small door tucked into a high wall just beside the main party spot in town. One second you are gazing at the nubile youth of an optimistic Mexico, revelling to the sounds of Western music and multilingual babbling. Knock knock open wide and one is suddenly ushered back to another age, a sedate and seductive semi-colonial Gatsbyesque world of proper manners, great taste, wonderful art and powerful dialogue.

In the drawing room of Casa Leon is a pile of Visitor's Book dating back to the Dallas days and moving on through Venice to Cuernavaca. The names read like a fantastic International Who's Who. If the world is run by seven people, then Evelyn has probably had them all over for dinner. Her constant stream of jet-setting guests is not so much a fear of loneliness and solitude. She simply thrives on company - "people are very stimulating to me" - on conversation and the absorption of new ideas, knowledge, new faces. And she won't slow down on her artistic impulses either, serving on the board of the magnificent Brady Museum and numerous other societies for the promotion of education, arts and culture.

The thing is Evelyn Lambert still likes life and, coming from a 93 year old, that is a profoundly refreshing notion.

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