Gay Capri

Anyone requiring a primer on unbuttoned lesbian hedonism in the first quarter of the 20th century should turn to Extraordinary Women, a roman à clef by Compton Mackenzie published in 1928 and still in print. The book more than lives up to its enticing Faber blurb: “In 1914, bored of wartime Lucerne, the beautiful, cross-dressing Rosalba Donsante escapes to the island of Sirene to seek out new conquests, followed by her long-suffering English lover, Aurora. But even Aurora’s patience is tested to the limit when Rosalba sets her sights upon a new target, leaving a trail of broken hearts in her wake.” Mackenzie’s Sirene is an undisguised portrayal of Capri, in those days a liberated paradise inhabited by a large and boisterous community of gay men and women. The central character, Rosalba, is based on Mackenzie’s friend, Baroness Mimi Franchetti, a formidable Venetian femme fatale. Of Rosalba’s many unfortunate paramours, two are of particular interest. Cleo Gazay is based on the pianist Renatta Borgatti, while Olimpia Leigh is based on the painter Romaine Brooks, whose portrait of Una Troubridge appears on the cover of the Italian edition (above).

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