High life | 14 September 2017

Once a rendezvous for the chic and the beautiful, Harry’s Bar is now overrun by the obese and the ugly

High life | 14 September 2017
Text settings

I’m in Venice for the film festival that just ended and, as an American humorist once wired his paper: ‘Streets full of water, stop. Send funds, stop.’ What is there to say about Venice that hasn’t already been said or written by better men or women — Thomas Mann and Jan Morris to mention just two? Yes, Venice evokes higher thoughts, but not this time. I was thinking of Byron as I chugged past the Palazzo Mocenigo where he lived, when I spotted a gondola with five Chinese women on board, all fiercely concentrating on their mobiles. ‘Stop that and look at the buildings, girls,’ I yelled at them. They completely ignored me and continued texting, or whatever they do nowadays, even on a gondola in the midst of Venetian splendour.

Venice is now a microcosm of what the world will be like, say, 100 years from now: full of Chinese and Indians walking around ancient monuments with vacuous expressions, totally removed from their surroundings. Ah, Venice! What a city it once was. Anything could happen there. Its people were cruel. Only a Venetian could fire at the Parthenon, as Morosini once did, blowing up the most perfect edifice ever. His descendant was a great buddy of mine when we were youngsters. I once asked Fabrizio how anyone could commit such an atrocity. He shrugged and asked why not. The Turks were inside figuring that no one would ever fire on the sacred site. Well, a Venetian did just that.

The Venetians also took over the Ionian Islands, where the Taki family came from, keeping away the hated Turk and offering us, among other goodies like titles, a Renaissance, one the rest of occupied Greece never experienced. The results are easy to spot: Ionian Greeks of a certain age are civilized and poetic. The rest of the Hellenes may be made of sterner stuff, but they are cruder, and have Levantine manners. Be that as it may, I feel little affinity with the Venice of today. I used to be a regular at the Volpi ball during the 1950s and 1960s, held at Palazzo Volpi on the Grand Canal. Venice back then was empty except for a few chic visitors and us partygoers. It was, to use an understatement, paradise.

Now, as they say, Venice is sinking, literally, and overrun by the bane of the modern world, tourism. Thousands upon thousands are disgorged every day, and they walk about aimlessly, taking selfies, clogging up the bridges and turning the sinewy narrow streets into Cairo-like bazaars. Great cafés such as the Florian are half full during peak hours, the mobs of tourists never having heard of it, thank God. Harry’s Bar, once a rendezvous for the chic and the beautiful, is now overrun by the obese and the ugly. I stayed far away. The Danieli was almost as bad. The Excelsior at the Lido is the only place that evokes, via its fascist architecture, a glorious past.

Showing at the festival was James Toback’s The Private Life of a Modern Woman, starring Sienna Miller and Alec Baldwin, a film that stayed with one for days after watching it. Although it was called a masterpiece by some critics, I spotted a review in a major English newspaper that claimed viewers were scrambling for the doors. That is an out-and-out fabrication. I was present and no one left except for the odd oldie seeking to relieve him- or herself. My friend Michael Mailer was the producer of this movie that will astound you. What will further amaze you is that the same team, Mailer-Toback and Taki, that shone so brilliantly in Seduced and Abandoned four years or so ago — see Deborah’s Spectator review (9 November 2013) — has done it yet again in another documentary, Venice Lives! Jimmy Toback calls it a cross between Seduced and Abandoned and The Talented Mr Ripley. I see it as a light version of Death in Venice, except that I don’t look at all like the beautiful Silvana Mangano, who plays Tadzio’s mother. Actually, the documentary is about the death of beauty, and Toback dies in the film looking as bad as Aschenbach did, but a bit heavier than Dirk. And less sweaty because he drowns in the Lido. This is all I’m allowed to reveal.

I also attended the HBO opening of Agnelli, a documentary about the fabled Fiat owner, in which I had a very small part. Not many noticed me sitting in the audience. In fact, not a single person. I guess appearing in movies is not what it’s cracked up to be, and doesn’t guarantee instant fame. In my case, it was the opposite. A policeman ushered me away until the director intervened. The producer of the Agnelli saga was Graydon Carter, and he has also produced Late Lunch, which stars Reinaldo Herrera and Taki talking over lunch about the good old days. It took three years — yes, three years — to film, but it’s now ready. Will it lead me to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, where stars leave an imprint of their paws? I wouldn’t bet on it, but then stranger things have happened. Like Venice turning into Disneyland and being overrun by Chinese mobs.