During the reign of Pope Pius IX, Lily Conrad was the most beautiful woman in Rome. Her widowed American mother remarried the Marchese Cavalletti, the last senator of Rome in the final days of the Papal States. Educated at Sacro Cuore della Trinità dei Monti atop the Spanish Steps, Lily felt the admiration of Roman society whenever her tall and slender figure, wrapped in Marian blue, walked down into the Piazza di Spagna. She wore her beauty with calm elegance, and all the city held its breath for a glimpse of her hazel eyes and golden hair, tending towards red and concealed behind a white veil. She married into the Black Nobility and became the Marchesa Theodoli. When the obligations of Roman society proved too distracting, she retreated to the solitude of San Vito, a small Alpine town, where the Theodoli have their ancestral castle.
Her wedding likely disappointed many young men in Rome. It was also better for their health. Prior to her marriage, one young son of a princely family, depressed by his failure to woo her, shot himself before her portrait in a gallery on the Corso. At age fifteen, the American author Francis Marion Crawford also fell in love with Conrad. His infatuation was, thank goodness, not fatal. After Lily married the Marchese, she and Marion remained lifelong friends, and she inspired several female characters scattered throughout his thirty-seven novels.
Named for his distant relation, the “Swamp Fox” General Francis Marion, Francis Marion Crawford was the only son of the American sculptor Thomas Crawford, whose colossal bronze Statue of Freedom crowns the U.S. Capitol. After a brief apprenticeship as a stonecutter, Thomas Crawford moved to Italy to begin his artistic career, establishing his wife and three daughters in the Villa Negroni on the Esquiline Hill after securing a lifelong lease on the property from Prince Massimo. After Marion was born, his nurse walked his perambulator to the Church of Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura to watch the shepherds bring their lambs for the blessing on the feast of St. Agnes. His sister Mary Crawford Fraser recalls the scene in her memoir, A Diplomatist’s Wife (1899).
That day the officiating Cardinal was a very old man, and his sight was dim. When the English nurse, curious to see everything, pushed forward, with Marion, a bundle of fluffy whiteness, asleep in her arms, the good Eminenza thought she was carrying a lamb, and, exclaiming “Che bell’ agnellino!” gravely bent over the baby with murmured prayer and blessing hand.
At the Villa Negroni, built by Pope Sixtus with masonry scavenged from the ruined Baths of Diocletian, young Marion laid away the memories that would reappear in the pages of his books. He smelled the wet clay of his father’s studio. He memorized Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome before he could read. He walked daily “among the old-time gardens, and avenues of lordly cypresses and of bitter orange trees, and the moss-grown fountains, and long walks fragrant with half-wild roses and sweet flowers that no one thinks of planting now,” as he writes in Ave Roma Immortalis. “Beyond, a wild waste of field and broken land led up to Santa Maria Maggiore; and the grand old bells sent their far voices ringing in deep harmony to our windows.”
His sister Mary judged her younger brother vain and conceited but also a perfect gentleman with a great reverence for women. As he matured, the Crawfords had to dismiss more than one governess who fell in love with the virilissimo Marion, a blue-eyed, powerfully built natural athlete with a pleasant singing voice. Mary recalls his tutors fighting over his short attention span.
“Aliens, mon petit,” Mademoiselle would say. “Don't worry yourself about those German exercises! It is a hideous language, only fit for their own ugly mouths! It will spoil your pronunciation for French, the only language in which refined people can properly express their ideas!” Fraulein fired back, “Na! Diese Franzosin! She takes up too much of your time, mein kind! What is there in her so frivolous literature to compare with the high and glorious thoughts of the German poets? Put it all out of your head. It will be of no use to you who are destined for great things.”
To whip him into shape, his parents sent him back to America to study at St. Paul’s School. During weekend visits to Boston, he read Dante with Isabella Stewart Gardner. His reverence for Lily Conrad enticed him back to Rome before he was sent to England. After only a year at Cambridge, he admitted that “I distinguished myself at Trinity [College] chiefly in two ways I think—in pugilism and tandem driving.” His Junker brother-in-law persuaded him to transfer to a polytechnic university in Karlsruhe but made him promise never to engage in a duel, a popular fad in German schools. One day, after drinking too much beer, Crawford broke his promise and learned to fence. Crawford’s expertise with a rapier became legendary and is evident in several of his novels. In Saracinesca, he created the unforgettable character of Count Spicca, a “cadaverous” cold-blooded duellist. “Spicca is a living memento mori; he occasionally reminds men of death by killing them.”
During a lazy summer holiday, he relieved his boredom by teaching himself Sanskrit and began formal language study at the Sapienza University in Rome. There he met a Brahmin, descended from an old Indian family converted by St. Francis Xavier, who invited him to sail to Bombay. Running out of money, he nearly joined the British Dragoons when a job notice appeared. The Indian Herald was offering an immediate position to anyone unafraid of cholera who could also write passable English. Days later, Crawford was in Allahabad alongside the Herald’s staff consisting of “a baronet, a disqualified jockey, a drunken parson, a countess, a bank director, a judge, [and] several struggling young barristers.” For the first time in his life, industry replaced indolence as he produced a continuous stream of good copy for the newspaper.
In India, he met the mysterious Mr. Alexander M. Jacobs, a former slave of an Ottoman pasha who had become a diamond merchant. Jacobs brokered the sale of the nineteenth century’s most famous gemstone: the 184-carat Imperial Diamond. “Jacobs was a Persian,” Crawford said of the inspiration for his first novel, Mr. Isaacs (1882). “All Persians have business instincts. The popular saying is, ‘Nine Greeks to cheat an Armenian, but nine Armenians to cheat a Persian.’” Crawford’s uncle insisted that he turn his adventures with Mr. Jacobs into a novel. Possibly the first American novel set in India, Mr. Isaacs became an instant bestseller, and Crawford abandoned Sanskrit and the Indian Herald for a full-time career as a novelist.
While in India, he entered the Catholic Church, whose liturgies and feasts had played a part in his Protestant childhood in Rome. When the Crawford family was renting her Villa Negroni, Principessa Massimo taught the children the rhythm of Roman life in step with the Church’s liturgical calendar. The year began on the first Sunday of Advent with the arrival of hundreds of bagpipe players from the mountains of Romagna and the Kingdom of Naples. Mary Crawford Fraser remembered Christmas Eve in the crypt of St. Peter’s, where in “the darkness under the heavy arches which guard the tomb of the Apostles, every voice of nature seemed to sing its paean of praise. One heard the wind rustling in the trees, the river dancing on its way, the twittering of birds in the dewy dawn, the triumphant joy of watching angels.” During Lent, the Crawford children were surprised with generous gifts from the household servants; the butlers and maids had just made their Lenten confession and, unbeknownst to the children, did their penance by making restitution for their petty household thefts. During Holy Week, the family heard Tenebrae services in the Sistine Chapel. After the candles were extinguished and shadows shrouded Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, “alone and without accompaniment, the sweetest and divinest soprano I have ever heard began the Miserere,” wrote Fraser. “Tender, almost wailing at first, its notes rose higher and clearer, purer and stronger, till the great dark space was filled with such a cry for love, for mercy, for redemption, that it seemed as if Supreme Justice itself must be vanquished at that appeal.”
Three Crawford children—Mary, Margaret, and Marion—would enter the Catholic Church. Mary admired her brother’s faith: “He was one of the few latter-day Catholics who take their creed as the Crusaders took it—whole, unquestioningly, and joyfully.” He investigated and concluded that all the world’s philosophies and the “occasionally reliable results of modern science” led to mental and spiritual chaos, and he told his publisher that “in order to have peace of mind, one must abide by the Church.”
Once Marion had returned from India and the Crawfords had moved into the Palazzo Altemps near the Piazza Navona, the author claimed the medieval tower apartment as his writer’s study. He worked with feverish intensity but always kept the Sabbath as a day of rest. He never missed an opportunity for a festa. In 1883, he surprised his family and friends with a New Year’s Eve invitation. The party began downstairs in the palazzo and, as midnight approached, the group trod the sixty steps to his lantern-lit tower. His sister remembered it as one of the most memorable scenes of her life. “[We] found ourselves in a fairyland of soft colour and light. There were flowers everywhere, nooks hung with old tapestries, a score of little tables set with a dainty supper.” The sparkling wine fizzed, the clock struck twelve, and “a solemn strain stole through the door and one of Palestrina’s Bethlehem cantatas ushered in the New Year,” wrote his uncle Sam Ward to his aunt Julia Ward Howe (the author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”). Marion had smuggled into the tower a harmonium, a string quartet, and nine chanters from the pope’s private chapel. (As a boy Marion sang briefly with the papal choristers.) They performed Palestrina and Allegri into the early hours of the morning, locking arms for “Auld Lang Syne” before the party descended the tower stairs and stepped out into the golden light of the new year.
Willa Cather met Crawford and judged him a “detestable snob,” but Lady Randolph Spencer Churchill “thought him the very best type of a good looking American. He has a pleasant voice modulated by his constant use of the Italian language and talked most agreeably on all subjects.” An eligible bachelor of the first rank, he fell in love with Bessie Berdan. Bessie’s alabaster skin, yellow hair, and burning brown eyes caught his attention while she was touring Europe with her father, Union General Hiram Berdan, whose green-clad sharpshooters defended Little Round Top at Gettysburg. Marion and Bessie wed in Constantinople and settled at their new villa in Sorrento on the cliffs of the Bay of Naples in full view of Vesuvius. Bessie was a devoted wife who read every line Marion wrote and bore him four children: Eleanor, Harold, and the twins Clare and Bertram. Both were afloat on post-partum pride at the twins’ arrival when Bessie’s love for Marion overflowed into another gift. She too became a Catholic.
He was hungry for material and found it outside the walls of his writer’s study. He wandered the wild Abruzzi district with a mule as his sole companion. The peasants taught him winemaking. In Prague, he learned Bohemian, his seventeenth language on top of Slavic, Scandinavian, Persian, Arabic, Latin, and Teutonic dialects. He studied the writers of his adoptive homeland: Petrarch, Dante, Machiavelli, Boccaccio, and more. He sailed his little schooner across the Atlantic without assistance from his lone ship’s mate. He learned silversmithing and Venetian glassworking. At Villa Crawford in Sorrento, he was his own architect, tallying the brickwork for new buttresses in his head and designing improvements to the sea wall. He built reservoirs containing a twelve-month supply of freshwater and sweetened the water with a swarm of live eels, an ancient Italian trick.
To pay for his butler, footman, servants, and his yacht with well-dressed sailors, he continued to produce five thousand words per day. When he needed complete solitude to finish his books, he retired to the thick-walled tower of San Niccola, an old bulwark against invading Saracens on the coast of Calabria. He emerged from his writer’s retreat ready for play. The family decorated their tiled terrace in Sorrento with Chinese lanterns as they danced the tarantella and sang Neapolitan songs into the waves. He dressed as Mephistopheles for Carnevale and appeared for evening cocktails in the white drapery of an Egyptian god, chanting strange nonsense spells to spook the children. An old schoolmate from St. Paul’s visited and found life at Villa Crawford a “terrestrial paradise” filled with fragrant flowers, the pleasant plash of fountains, and the chime of children’s voices. Pushing through a dark-green gate, one approached the villa by a long straight driveway lined with jasmine and geraniums. The villa was built in the classic style of rough-cut stone, patched indifferently with stucco. The family’s four dogs—Romulus, Remus, Jinks, and Donald—circled the garden fountains. Visitors played tennis with Crawford and his sons on a court “so enclosed that one could almost put a hand through the netting and pluck oranges or lemons to quench the thirst.” Dinner on the terrace was lit by flashes from the crater of Vesuvius and combined “Italian waiters, Italian dishes, Italian wine, and American courtesy” to perfection. On Sundays, after Mass, family and guests piled into a boat in search of a nearby rocky beach for a macaroni picnic. If the party’s ambition matched its ability, they might sail as far as Capri.
During visits to New York City, Crawford would hear morning Mass and then lunch with his friends Henry James, John Singer Sargent, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and John La Farge at the house of Mrs. Cadwalader Jones, the sister-in-law of Edith Wharton. Crawford teased James by claiming he could discern when he began dictating his novels. James was “sickened” by Crawford’s superior commercial success with what he judged inferior fiction. At the turn of the century, there was enough demand for Macmillan to republish Crawford’s complete works in a thirty-two-volume hardcover set. In humility, Crawford never held out his novels as great works of art, referring to them in self-deprecation as “pot-boilers” that paid the bills. James won the long race for the esteem of critics and readers, although Crawford is preferred by a few devoted fans. His best novels are both art and artifact, holding in their pages the last echoes of the era when “Viva Garibaldi!” and “Viva Pio Nono!” rang out in rivalry on the streets of Rome. The F. Marion Crawford Memorial Society published a long-running journal, The Romantist, in his name. His ghost stories were held in high esteem in the gothic mind of Russell Kirk.
Near the end of his life, he wrote that money can procure labor and, “with the condition of willingness,” learning. “But money will not buy that love of good and beautiful things which, with labor and learning, brings forth new things, both beautiful and good.” Weak with fever on Good Friday in 1909, he knew that he would soon “die with Christ.” His faithful sailors carried him onto the sunlit terrace at Villa Crawford. After a seaside nap, he asked to be brought back into his library. “I love to see the reflection of the sun on the bookcases,” he remarked, and asked his daughter to read aloud from Plato’s dialogues. Rosary in hand, attended by a Capuchin friar, his last words were “I enter serenely into eternity.”
The village fishermen kept a silent vigil outside the villa. The shops were closed, flags were lowered to half-mast, and every door posted a sign “closed for public mourning.” Over one thousand people attended his funeral Mass on Easter Monday. The mayor of Rome sent a message on behalf of the Eternal City, “whose name and the character of her people Marion Crawford’s magic pen carried throughout the world.” After his death, the local parish priest revealed the enormous scale of Crawford’s quiet charity. For many years after his death, villagers made a pilgrimage to his grave on All Saints’ Day.
Across the Atlantic, his aunt Julia Ward Howe stood in the chancel of a Boston church and eulogized her nephew with the wisdom of her ninety years. “In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea,” as her famous battle hymn proclaims. Lily Conrad, the most beautiful woman in Rome, dedicated her first novel to him. “Sweetly does the sea grow purple for thee, Marion, and ever hast thou the whisper of the leaves in thy ear,” inscribed his wife Bessie on a fountain at Villa Crawford. “May the Muse herself give thee a twofold grace.” Across the bay from the cliff that shelves Villa Crawford, Thomas Aquinas became a Dominican novice in 1242. In the Summa, Aquinas describes the twofold grace whereby a man unites with God and lights another man’s way to Him. For all who found their way to Villa Crawford, Francis Marion Crawford’s sunlit terrace was a flaring reflection of the light of the world.