Most people, says Marisa Berenson, “tend to live in my past. Which is fine.” She smiles, well aware of the fascination. “But I tend to live in the present and in the future.” A 2001 profile of the model/actor in the New York Times described her as a “Zelig of the zeitgeist … popping up in the right place at the right time”. And there is certainly something magical about her life and the people who have passed through it. As a child (she is now 72) she was taught to dance by Gene Kelly. Greta Garbo came to her parents’ parties; Salvador Dalí – a friend of her grandmother, the designer Elsa Schiaparelli – wanted to paint her. The legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland pushed her to become a model – Yves Saint Laurent would describe her as “the face of the 70s” – and she was photographed by giants such as David Bailey, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. Andy Warhol photographed her wedding.
She discovered meditation in India alongside George Harrison and Ringo Starr, was at Bianca Jagger’s Studio 54 birthday party – the fabled night of the white horse – and attended Truman Capote’s famed Black and White ball. Although she continues to work in film, she hasn’t made a huge number of movies – but the biggest, early in her career, were Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice, Bob Fosse’s Cabaret and Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.
Berenson lives in a villa down an unprepossessing road on the outskirts of Marrakech. Even this place seems suitably magical – “my paradise”, she says – an oasis of bright colours and patterns, and lush greenery amid the scrub. We sit on her terrace, overlooking the garden and pool. Tiny birds flit in and out. Berenson, beautiful and glamorous, is wearing a long, patterned kaftan, her slight but athletic frame untroubled by the weight of her heavy jade earrings and matching tangled vine of necklaces. Her sunglasses stay on throughout – I never once see her eyes.
A housekeeper brings green juice made with vegetables from her organic garden. She is thinking, she says, of writing a lifestyle book, filled with healthy recipes, and interiors and gardening advice. There is something both timeless and very current about Berenson. She was well ahead of the “wellness” trend, and stands at something like high priestess level now – she doesn’t eat sugar or gluten, she does yoga, pilates and meditation – and has taken to Instagram.
Berenson is one of a generation of supremely cultured, well-connected Euro-aristocrats (she speaks five languages), born to socialite Gogo Schiaparelli, daughter of Elsa, and Robert Berenson, a director of Aristotle Onassis’s shipping company who became a US diplomat. As a child she wanted to be in the movies, her bedroom plastered with pictures of Audrey Hepburn, Rita Hayworth and Marlene Dietrich.
She grew up moving around Europe, then was sent to boarding school in Berkshire, where she concluded she was “hopeless” at acting. “They had plays they put on and we were obliged to get up on stage and do things. And I remember running off the stage crying, because I was so terrified. So you can imagine I never thought it would ever happen.”
When she was 16, her father took her to a ball in New York where Vreeland spotted her and decided she must start modelling. Vreeland, she remembers, “said, ‘We have to photograph Marisa.’ That was it. That’s how it started.” Berenson had already been turned down by one model agent, the influential Eileen Ford, but with Vreeland’s backing, she became one of the most sought-after faces of the 60s and 70s. Elsa Schiaparelli wasn’t too pleased. “I think she was afraid for me,” says Berenson. “I was so young, and living in New York alone.” Also, she adds with a smile, “I was a little bit outrageous too. I did the first nude in Vogue, and things like that, and she was horrified.”
In her spare time she was hanging out at parties with artists and rock stars, and in relationships with actors and rich heirs. She remembers doing a shoot for Vogue in Iran. “In those days, everything was accessible.” She makes it sound so glamorous and bohemian. Was she a wild hippy? “Not at all,” she says with a laugh. “I was a combination of very well-brought-up, and an old-fashioned romantic way of looking at life.” She was on, she says, a “spiritual quest”. Being into health and meditation probably saved her. “Unfortunately, a lot of people didn’t survive. I went through that whole period on orange juice and meditation.” Drugs, she says, were “terrifying to me. I couldn’t imagine losing it like that. And then sexually I was kind of romantic, so I never did the whole crazy thing that way.”
It was on a Vogue shoot in India when she was about 18, in the late 60s, that she learned about Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram, the birthplace of transcendental meditation. Two of the Beatles were there when she arrived. “And one of the Beach Boys,” she points out. “So I ended up staying there for a while, going through the initiation, becoming a vegetarian. The days went by and we would just meditate, sleeping in little huts.” Did she spend much time with George and Ringo? “When we’d finish the day, George would say, ‘Come into my room’ and we’d sit on the floor, and listen to them playing guitar.” At the time, she says, it didn’t feel like a big deal. “We were all on the same quest – there was a lot of peace and love in those days that we were all looking for.”
Back in New York, Berenson took acting classes in the evenings. “And then I started doing very off-off-Broadway things, just to learn and to get past my insecurities and shyness.” She met Visconti though her then-boyfriend Helmut Berger – he had also been in a relationship with Visconti – and he virtually cast her on sight for Death in Venice. “The first day, I thought I was going to die of fright. But then I set foot on that stage, and I just had this incredible feeling that this is where I’m supposed to be.”
She was doing Death in Venice when she got a call from a producer who said Bob Fosse wanted to see her for a film, which turned out to be Cabaret. On the set of that, she says she remembers trembling so badly that Fosse asked her why her hat was shaking. “It was terrible. It was only my second movie.” Then Kubrick saw Cabaret and decided he wanted her to play Lady Lyndon in his adaptation of the Thackeray novel Barry Lyndon. He called her when she was in bed with pneumonia and could hardly speak. “I was practically unconscious,” she says. “I just let him speak because I was speechless anyway. But he carried on for quite a while about every detail of what he’d liked about my performance in Cabaret.” She didn’t meet him until she was on the set.
Berenson moved into the wing of a draughty castle in Ireland, where they were shooting. Every day Kubrick would tell her she might be needed on set, but she never was (her scenes were filmed once the production suddenly moved to England, reportedly following a threat from the IRA). “It was the most depressing place,” she says. “I had visions of going riding in the Irish countryside and all that, but in the end, it rained all the time and I was so lonely. I think Stanley liked the idea that I became very melancholic there.” She would cook spaghetti bolognese for the crew, just to have visitors.
Kubrick was, she recalls, “totally kind and respectful, and very amusing. He never raised his voice, he was always very gentle, but he wanted what he wanted, so if he wanted a scene shot 50 times then it would be shot 50 times. Yes, he was a perfectionist and he wanted you to give the best of yourself, and he expected people to be available.” She understands that, she adds. “Every great person I’ve worked with, whether a director or photographer, they have this exceptional kind of rarity. You have to be demanding, you have to be a perfectionist, you have to know what you want, and you have to have the best of what you can have because otherwise you don’t do extraordinary things.”
Her acting career had got off to an electrifying start, but Berenson walked away. “I got married shortly after that, so my career sort of …” She pauses, then says crisply, “I put everything on hold for a period of time, which was a choice.” Her marriage to rivet tycoon Jim Randall didn’t last. “And then I went through a series of very challenging things in my life, so I had to kind of move through all of that and come out the other side. I had a marriage, a divorce, a car crash” – she was injured, but the two people in the other car were killed – “and another marriage and another divorce.”
She started working again, in theatre and European films, but none of her roles have had the same impact as her first three. Does she regret not pushing her career? “I can’t regret anything because I had a great, beautiful daughter,” she says. “And now I have a granddaughter, so I’m thrilled. With Hollywood, I don’t know what would have happened if I had stayed. It’s true that Barry Lyndon was such an amazing thing for me, that had I continued on that road, maybe, I don’t know … But one makes choices and I made that choice at the time so I can’t regret it.”
There doesn’t seem much room in Berenson’s life for negativity. She takes her spiritual practice very seriously, and it has seen her through the toughest times, she says, among them the death of her sister Berry, a talented photographer who was a passenger on one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center on 9/11.
Berenson was also in the air that day, flying to New York, when her plane was diverted to Newfoundland, where she was stuck for several days. “We were put into this big stadium place, and there were tables they had organised with fruit and a toothbrush and a piece of soap, and medical whatever, and then a whole line of telephones on another table.” She called her daughter, who had frantically been trying to track her down, and learned what had happened to Berry. She remembers accompanying a priest, a fellow passenger, to a tiny church on a hill where they said prayers and sang songs.
It must be a particularly painful loss because those images are so vivid, and are still used in reports and documentaries all the time. She nods. “To see that tower constantly, it’s awful. It’s so huge and so beyond anything imaginable.”
She has been able to deal with it, she says, because of her spirituality. “I try and look at things on a different level of consciousness, and I connect with my sister all the time. So that helps a lot.” She adds, very sincerely: “I believe that so strongly that I never feel alone and I always know that I’m accompanied by higher powers.”
When she looks back, does she really have no regrets? “Sometimes I think maybe I wasted too much time on things. But in the end, I talk myself out of it – nothing is a waste of time, because everything is a growing process.”
Berenson isn’t slacking. She spent much of last year in Paris doing a musical, realising her dream to sing and dance. Three years ago, she took on Shakespeare for the first time, performing in London’s West End in Kenneth Branagh’s production of Romeo and Juliet. “I don’t let age get in the way of my life. I continue to do the things I want to do and thank God I’m able to do it.” Nobody likes getting old, she says, “but it can also be glorious. I feel better about a lot of things now than I did when I was younger, and creatively I think I’m much better now. I’m more secure within myself.”
By now it’s late afternoon, and a far-off call to prayer comes shimmering through the warm air. She likes this time of day – she’ll watch films, or read books. Perhaps have a swim. A time for contemplation, and planning. What does she want to achieve? “Lots of things. I’m not finished yet.”