The good life has had few poster children like the three women of "The Unfinished Palazzo." Even the great paroxysms of 20th-century Europe seem merely a backdrop to the flamboyance of the extraordinary characters in Judith Mackrell's group biography: Milanese noblewoman Luisa Casati, London-born Doris Castlerosse and New Yorker Peggy Guggenheim.
That last figure remains the best known. No doubt many of those who read "The Unfinished Palazzo" will also know Guggenheim's palazzo on Venice's Grand Canal, which, since 1980, has been one of the world's great modern art museums. Mackrell, whose "Flappers" (2014) considered "women of a dangerous generation," investigates not just Guggenheim's remarkable life but also the electrifying adventures of the two women who preceded her in that canal-front property. The result is a breathtaking social portrait, peeling the glitter from privileged lives even as it fleshes out the spectacle they created.
The threesome's appeal has a lot to do with the city that they called home, at once glorious and rickety. Before 1912, when Casati refurbished the palace as her "fantasy," it had languished more than a century in "semi-ruin." One of the seaport's great families had intended to put up a showplace, but no sooner did they post the stone lion heads along the dock than the money ran out. Thereafter, the place never quite lost its "illusion of gothic romance."
Extravagance and collapse also prove a pattern for "the palazzo's extraordinary trio of chatelaines." Fancy vocabulary like that, indeed, suits the milieu. Casati was born to a fortune and married into aristocracy, but her true soul mate turned out to be the maniacal aesthete Gabriele D'Annunzio. She shared his credo that "one must make one's own life as one makes a work of art." Among the many who found Casati mesmerizing was Picasso, and she sustained her performance till the financial collapse of 1929. Then came "Lady" Castlerosse, holding title on the palazzo through the 1930s. In one photograph on its terrace, she seemed "coolly in possession of the moment," and her guests included Cole Porter and Noel Coward. But the next war proved her undoing. Back in London, she found herself strapped. Wartime regulations even prevented her from pawning off her jewels.
As for Peggy Guggenheim — a Jew, after all — her passion for edgy art and feckless men almost kept her from escaping Nazi Europe. Only at the last minute did she arrange a flight, but in description this seems a veritable Ship of Fools. Guggenheim and her fellow escapees squabble over hurt feelings, all but oblivious to the risk.
The episode rates as one of Mackrell's standouts, a page-turner but alert to emotional minutiae. She takes the same care throughout with these complicated women. Each suffers a troubled relationship with children, often sacrificed to Mom's grandiosity, and Mackrell neither downplays the damage nor allows it to create a monster. Once or twice some historical datum feels superfluous, but Mackrell never misplays the salacious stuff, the lesbian flings and sadomasochism; she never panders.
Overall, despite the burnouts and bad sex, this triptych presents an uplifting portrait. Guggenheim runs through a lot of money, but she's the only woman to know "exactly how much was in her account." Likewise, while her escape from Hitler costs her the love of Max Ernst (also on the plane), the artwork he helped her spirit away allowed her to found a New York gallery, mentor Jackson Pollock and eventually set up the Venice collection.
As for the two earlier "chatelaines," Castlerosse shows great force of will and Casati something more — a kind of heroism. An early Asperger's case, according to Mackrell, she channeled her disability into an inimitable style. None of the book's reproductions match the impact of Casati's portraits, and yet it was after the fall that this woman proved her true mettle. "Serene and resilient," she remained a living work of art, even on the cheap. Casati's rapprochement with her English granddaughter, one of the last developments in "The Unfinished Palazzo," is far from its most eye-popping, but the way it gladdens the heart makes for a terrific finish.
John Domini's latest book is "Movieola!"
By Judith Mackrell
Thames & Hudson. 408 pp. $34.95