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Evelyn Kelly Lambert (1907-2004) – The American Widow who Conquered Europe

Evelyn Kelly Lambert (1907-2004). Photo: James Fennell. You can find James’s photos of Casa Leon here.

In 2001, I was lucky enough to spend a week as the guest of 93-year-old Mrs Lambert, collector, philanthropist and grande dame of late 20th century Dallas, at Casa Leon, her wonderful home in Cuernavaca, Mexico, along with my old pal, James Fennell.

Evelyn and her late husband Joe Lambert were icons of Dallas and Venice in the 1960s and 1970s.

 

*****

 

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 Yusupov, 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. “You’re 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 eight-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.

Photo: James Fennell.

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 up the aisle together 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 into Baja California 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”.

There were other adventures, possibly at this time – a houseboat in Kashmir, adventures on the Caribbean, her first forays into a world around which she would travel umpteen times.

Photo: James Fennell.

Three years after the end of World War Two, Evelyn found work as director of advertising 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). He was calm and introverted; she was full of colour and sound. 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 George W. Bush (the then president, 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 Houston 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 Tennessean!”.

The new Mrs. Evelyn Lambert had soon totally immersed herself in helping her husband to promote Dallas as a city of elegance and culture. According to Texas Monthly, she “was one of the most influential forces on the Dallas social scene through much of the fifties and sixties. Smart and dynamic, Lambert was a woman whose imprimatur could immediately put any cause in the social limelight.”

She stood as fashion advisor to the Dallas Chamber of Commerce, sat (or, more aptly, leapt) on the board of the Dallas Contemporary Arts Museum (founded in 1960), the Dallas Civic Opera, the Dallas Theater Center, the Dallas Fashion Group, and the Northwood Institute. In 1966, she co-founded TACA (Theater Arts Center Auction) with her friends Jane Murchison and Betty Blake. She 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 Zeffirelli with his directorial debut, and effectively threw her weight behind every single civic, corporate or charitable get together that was going on. She coordinated the women’s section of the Red Cross Membership and Fund Campaign.

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, Picasso, Alexander 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 abruptly ushered back to another age, a sedate and seductive semi-colonial Gatsbyesque biosphere 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 (where the Lamberts restored a 16th-century villa and garden in the Venuto) 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.

 

*****

 

Mrs Lambert died 2004. In 2014, the Nasher Sculpture Center and Peggy Guggenheim Collection launched a collaborative internship program named in her honour.

 

*****

 

While staying at Evelyn Lambert’s house, I was introduced to a man who told me that during his youth, he had been a close friend if not the lover of Prince Felix Yusupov, the slayer of Rapsutin. I subsequently assume he must have been Victor Contreras (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victor_Contreras). Mathew Dennison suggested I contact him and write Yussopov’s biography. However, as I told Mathew, I am far too petrified by Raputin’s long reaping arm to chance such a thing. One must remember Bobby Farrell of Bony M who died unexpectedly in St Petersburg … on Rasputin’s birthday.

 

*****

 

The following article was written for The White Book in March 2005, published with photographs by James Fennell. I was Homes Editor of The White Book at the time.

Casa Leon, Cuernavaca, Mexico – The Incredible Mrs Lambert

The Mexican home of American socialite Evelyn Lambert celebrates her famous art collection with a fantastical vision of Spanish design and eclectic taste.

In the heart of the medieval Mexican city of Cuernavaca is Casa Leon, the Spanish-styled 17th century home of American socialite, Evelyn Lambert. The house, like the city itself, is soaked in history. Montezuma, Emperor Maximillian, Diego Riviera and the Shah of Persia have all played a hand in its evolution. Located close to the 400 year old palace of Conquistador Hernan Cortes, Casa Leon once served as a residence for his domestic staff before lapsing into a house of ill-repute for the city’s Spanish garrison.

The casa’s present owner has a history as colourful as her home. Born in a Tennessee farmhouse in 1907, Lambert is the personification of a “Southern belle” who, as a former journalist, museum director and art collector has rubbed shoulders with everyone from Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw to Placido Domingo and George Gershwin. Her stunning art collection is a testimony to her friendships with 20th century icons such as Cecil Beaton and Pablo Picasso.

When Lambert arrived in the “City of Eternal Spring“, Casa Leon was in a state of considerable dilapidation. The last work of any note took place in 1907 when the former Mexican owners added a second floor. Aided by her designer godson, Lambert set about converting the premises into a building that would house her impressive art collection as well as act as a home. The crumbling interior walls were immediately given a fresh covering of plaster and painted off-white to allow the rooms to breathe.

The entrance is a small door into a high wall. A beautiful mosaic stairwell climbs upwards from the entrance hall in tandem with a series of green perceptual strips by Bridget Reilly. A spiked ball by Francois Morelet hangs overhead, drawing attention to a ceiling print by William Hayter. A four-foot doll calmly seated cross-legged on a sofa sports a welcoming grin in the doorway; the enormous white spectacles, heavily bejewelled hands and pagoda-shaped brilliant white hair prepare all newcomers for the upcoming reality that is Evelyn Kelly Lambert. This engaging entrance is further enhanced by a caricature etched by Beaton in 1973.

The main living room is a long, whitewashed open air space with four separate seating areas. This is where guests gather for Lambert’s internationally renowned social get-togethers An entire wall has been knocked back to form three distinct archways, separated by white pillars, leading out to a stunning tropical garden filled with Mexican flowers, water fountains and a small pond. At the far end of the garden is a fibre-glass processional sculpture by Igino Balderi. The apples seemingly inserted into the pillars are by Moulton while gigantic works by Mexican artist Lucero Isaac dangle from the ceiling on chains. Lambert considered the ceiling a sensible place to put paintings by Dorazio and Calder. The elderly spend a good deal of time lying down, she says, and it’s good for them to have something to look at.

The house is a treasure chest of visual delights – banners by Timothy Hennessy, glass sculptures by Christopher Wilmarth, red and black chairs by Gerrit Rietveld, sculptures by Barry Flanagan and Polesellos, a pair of perfect blackamoors by Venetian sculptor Andrea Brustolon, treasures from Middle Eastern souks and ethnic toys collected from around the world. Korean chests, Burgundian cabinets, Balinese ducks, Tibetan teapots, Italian tiger lights and wooden Majorcan locomotives pop out at every corner, again neatly arranged to bring out the best of, say, a Jean ArpLucio FontanaDali or any of the other artists whose work she acquired over the years.

The Lambert residence may be a tribute to its owners love of art, but by doubling as a home it immediately transcends the stuffiness of a gallery. The moment one enters the front door of Casa Leon, one is transported back to another age, a sedate and seductive Gatsbyesque world of proper manners, considered art and living history.

HISTORY IN THE MAKING

In 1980, an eight-page Vogue feature was dedicated to “the incredible Mrs. Lambert“. Twenty five years later, that description is as relevant as ever.

Evelyn Kelly Lambert was born in a Tennessee farmhouse in 1907. During the 1920s, she toured the battle-scarred cities of Italy and France. By 1928 she had enrolled in the school of journalism at the University of Cuba and secured a commission with the Havana Post. Interviews with leading figures of the day followed, including Gershwin, Churchill and George Bernard Shaw.

While in Cuba, Lambert bought her first serious piece of art, a small abstract by Wilfredo Lam. Early works by Amelia Pelaez and Massauger soon followed.

After her first husband, the Marquis del Barrio, died in 1935 she made her way, via San Diego, to Dallas where Niemen Marcus had given her a senior advertising post. It was here that she met Joe Lambert, the man credited with landscaping Dallas. The two inevitably became the IT couple of post-war Texas.

By the 1950s, her knowledge of the international art world had convinced the Dallas Museum of Contemporary Art that she should be appointed as its director. It was a post she threw herself into with such relish that she was soon on the boards of the Dallas Municipal Theatre (where young Zefferelli made his directorial debut) and the Dallas Opera Hall (where she hosted operatic debuts by leading performers such as Maria Callas, Placido Domingo, Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballe).

In the mid 1960s the couple bought a Palladian villa in northern Italy where they lived until Joe’s death in 1970. Mrs. Lambert moved to Cuernavaca in 1991.