By Nancy J. Farrier
Ganna Walska, born Hanna Puacz, in 1887, came from Brest-Litovsk, Poland. Her interesting life included opera singing, and marriage to six husbands, several of them very wealthy. Her legacy includes a renowned botanical garden in Southern California.
When Hanna began to study music, she adopted the stage name of Madame Ganna Walska. Ganna, the Russian form of Hanna, Walska, similar to her favorite music, the waltz, and Madame being the title used for actresses and opera singers in Europe. Ganna had aspirations to rise to the top and be known for her singing.
From accounts of her opera singing, I gather Ganna had a worthy voice, but
nerves rendered her incapable of performing to the degree
needed. She tried many remedies to combat the nerves, but according to her
memoirs, Always Room at the Top, nothing worked. She sang at many venues in New
York and Paris, but she wrote that during a performance of Giordano’s, Fedora, in Havana, she veered off key so
much that the audience pelted her with rotten vegetables.
After marrying her fourth husband, Harold Fowler McCormick, in 1922, Ganna purchased the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. She invested her own
funds, not those of her wealthy
husband, and told a reporter, "I will never appear in my own theatre until
I have gained recognition based solely on my merits as an artist."
McCormick loved her voice and promoted her career in lavish ways. Many people
claimed McCormick to be the only person who truly loved Ganna’s singing.
Despite the thousands of dollars, McCormick spent on her voice lessons, Ganna still struggled with maintaining a presence on the stage. In 1925, a New York Times headline reported, "Ganna Walska Fails as Butterfly: Voice Deserts Her Again When She Essays Role of Puccini's Heroine" (January 29, 1925) Ganna’s opera career inspired Orsen Welles to include her in his movie, Citizen Kane. The character of Susan Alexander was reportedly based on Ganna Walska.
Her creative talents led Madame Walska to group plant types together, also trying to purchase the most unusual of each type of plant. Lotusland today still reflects this original purpose with a variety of gardens scattered throughout the whole.
The Parterre is a more formal part of Lotusland. Here there are low hedges and brick walkways lined with plants. There are two central water features, one
being a Moorish fountain first put in by the estate’s original owners. There are pebble mosaics, commissioned by Madame Walska. The Parterre leads into the Topiary garden which has a central clock that is 25 feet in diameter. Each section of the clock contains succulents and a copper zodiac symbol. The clock was added in 1955.
The last garden Ganna Walska created was the Cycad garden. It is said she auctioned off some of her extensive jewelry collection to fund the purchase of the cycads. Lotusland is thought to have the most complete collection of cycads found in an American public garden. There are over 900 specimens, many endangered or extinct in the wild.
Madame Ganna Walska accomplished much in her lifetime. Have you ever read about her? Have you ever visited Lotusland? I haven’t been there, but after researching this blog, I know I will go as soon as I have the opportunity.
Nancy J Farrier is an award winning author who lives in Southern California in the Mojave Desert. She loves the Southwest with its interesting historical past. Nancy and her husband have five children and one grandson. When Nancy isn’t writing, she loves to read, do needlecraft, play with her cats, and spend time with her family. Nancy is represented by Karen Ball of The Steve Laube Literary Agency. You can read more about Nancy and her books on her website: nancyjfarrier.com.