Those that have had the honor of meeting or knowing Countess Elsie Lee Gozzi can attest to her larger-than-life persona, a fitting description for the woman responsible for bringing Fortuny’s textiles out of the churches, museums and theater and into people’s homes. Her relationship with Fortuny began in 1927 and continued until her death in 1994. Her charisma and taste were ever present in the patterns and colors and she made sure Fortuny maintained its legacy and presence when she took over the production in 1949 after Mariano Fortuny’s death, at the request of his widow, Henriette. However, while she was so greatly involved with the company, her private life was not something that was widely documented. In this day and age, people often feel as though it’s a given to know the intricacies of public figures’ lives, and while Fortuny’s history is readily available, the Countess’ is not.
Enter photographer Milton Gendel. Now 96 years old, Gendel was a fixture in the upper echelons of Rome’s social scene during its most glamorous moments in the 1950s and 60s. His photos often communicate this fact — Peggy Guggenheim and Queen Elizabeth were among his many subjects.
Gendel’s work was incredibly intimate, as he often said he never had the intention of publishing any of the images. The photograph he took of Countess Gozzi is an example – he captured her and two other women sitting and talking over tea in Venice in 1977.
Their posture is natural, their faces are genuine, engaged. The moment, true to Gendel’s style, is absolutely authentic, offering a rare glance at the Countess—a woman who, like Gendel, appreciated beauty, craftsmanship, and loyalty.
The difference between this photograph and Gendel’s others is his role. Many of his works are lively and bustling, and his presence is strongly felt. He was always at once experiencing and documenting what he saw through the lens. However, with the image of the Countess, he feels like an observer. The photograph’s quiet nature suggests that Gendel did not want to interrupt the conversation, and all the unknowns of the circumstances add to its allure. It is exciting to ponder what brought the Countess and Gendel together, especially considering how much he valued who and what he photographed. But despite these unknowns, the image itself is still a treasure as the Countess sits surrounded by grand columns and the long, grassy branches of the willow trees, their earthy colors perhaps inspiring a new iconic Fortuny design or color palette.
Some selected works of Milton Gendel. Photos from “All Around Fulco di Verdura” book, viewable online here.