Susana Walton, 83

Susana Walton, 83; gardener, wife of composer William Walton

Susana Walton transformed La Mortella into a lush memorial to her husband, William Walton.
Susana Walton transformed La Mortella into a lush memorial to her husband, William Walton. (Marvin Joseph/the Washington Post)
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By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 27, 2010

Susana Walton, 83, the colorful and devoted wife of the 20th-century composer William Walton, died March 21 at the couple's home on the Mediterranean island of Ischia. The cause of death was not reported.

A passionate, green-thumbed gardener, Lady Walton transformed La Mortella (the place of the myrtles) from a rocky and arid hillside into a lush paradise, first as a creative oasis for her husband and, after his death in 1983, as a public garden and a living memorial to him and his music. The garden draws as many as 70,000 tourists a year.

Susana Gil Passo was born in Buenos Aires in 1926 and educated by Spanish nuns. She studied accountancy but, as a fluid English speaker, took a job with the British Council in the Argentine capital.

The Waltons met at a conference in 1948 in Buenos Aires. William Walton was in his 40s, established both as a composer and a lady's man, and his future wife was a beautiful, spirited but sexually inexperienced 22-year-old with an independent streak. On seeing her, Walton is reputed to have turned to fellow delegate and composer Benjamin Britten and said, "I think I'll marry that girl over there."

Her father, a prominent lawyer, was aghast, reportedly spending her dowry on champagne for wedding guests when she married eight weeks later.

After a time in impoverished postwar London, the Waltons moved to Ischia, in the Bay of Naples, where they could live on a modest income in a warm climate. (The island also attracted other artists, including the poet W.H. Auden.) The Waltons rented a home before buying land to build La Mortella, where she faced formidable obstacles to her garden plans. At the time, the only water on the island came from cisterns or wells. On a visit, the actor Laurence Olivier tried to talk her out of buying the property. But the site and climate couldn't overcome another force of nature: Susana Walton's determination.

Working with the society landscape architect Russell Page, she slowly established a garden of dry-loving plants. After years of building the garden with homemade compost and with the arrival of piped water from mainland Italy, her ambitions widened. She added spectacular water features that included a fountain with a valve in William Walton's study. The composer could turn off the jet of water when it distracted him. She showed Page that she could grow moisture-loving tree ferns, which changed his plans for the garden, and she went on to cultivate thousands of exotic tender and hardy plants.

In spite of her husband's romantic wanderings, Lady Walton remained steadfast, believing it her duty to create an environment that would allow the perennially tortured artist to write his music. Long after his death, she referred to him as "darling William."

In a Washington Post review of Susana Walton's memoir, "Behind the Facade," pianist and music critic Samuel Lipman wrote that William Walton "composed and received the adulation of the world; she planned and executed their domestic arrangements, superintended the building of their houses, the planting of their gardens, and diplomatically -- and often theatrically -- managed the thousand details of life in a foreign, albeit extravagantly beautiful, environment."

This sense of personal theater was evident on her last trip to Washington, in 2006, when she attended a Kennedy Center performance of the composer's choral masterpiece, "Belshazzar's Feast," and lectured on her garden. Her repertoire included a series of colorful stories, dramatic bursts of laughter and shimmering gowns. She was always a fan of millinery, and toward the end of her life, she liked to wear the outlandish, feathery and kinetic hats of the designer Philip Treacy.

After her husband's death, she established a foundation in his name to develop and protect the garden and create a center for music education and performance. Into her 80s, she could be found working hard in the garden, if not in the soil herself then directing a team of gardeners. She was a firm believer in talking and gesturing to her plants, especially her beloved palm trees. "You have to wave at them when you go by because they think you haven't paid attention," she said.

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