A tale of Deia, plastic and madness31st January 2016

In the past few days posts about the amount of plastic in our oceans have been popping up on my Facebook page with increasing rapidity. Reading that “By 2050, our oceans will hold more plastic than fish” got me thinking about Deia. But not in the way you might imagine.

The gorgeous Barbara Baekeland
The gorgeous Barbara Baekeland

 

Savage Grace

As my regular readers will know, I’m constantly surprised by the fact that I’ll be reading something and discover a new Deia connection I had no idea existed. This is what happened with the chilling but compelling book Savage Grace.

Savage Grace tells the story of the relationship between American socialite Barbara Baekeland, her husband Brooks and their son Tony. It’s set against the backdrop of lotus-eating socialite life in the USA and Europe in the 1960s and 70s, when the dissolute smart set drifted from East Hampton to Cadaques and other boho chic playgrounds. One of these, perhaps inevitably, was Deia.

After she’d separated from Brooks in the early ’70s, Barbara and Tony spent the summer in Deia, where they met Robert Graves. According to Barbara, Graves “came to lunch and saw Tony’s poems. He wrote him a marvelous letter”. Barbara goes on to say

We are settling into this beautiful place. The house was designed by the Archduke Luis Salvador and is unique and distinguished if not very comfortable…If there were ever a place where one could find peace and tranquility, this is it.

The house, which I believe to be on the left-hand side of the road as you head into Deia from Palma, turned out to be the site of long summer days of craziness and mayhem on the part of Barbara and Tony. Far from tranquil. (It was also rumoured that black magic rituals were carried out at the house.)

As poet and journalist Alistair Read, himself no stranger to Deia summer madness, says in Savage Grace

There’s this enormous great semicircle of mountains where Barbara and Tony were living in Mallorca that’s like an amphitheater. It’s as though it invites the people who are there for the summer – or compels them – to give themselves up to the demands of the landscape…The whole landscape of Mallorca has always reminded me of a Greek tragedy.

Which, without giving too much away, gives you some idea of how the book begins and ends. But what’s the plastic connection?

Bakelite logo
The Baekeland family pot of gold

 

The Father of Plastics

In 1940, Time Magazine reported that the Philadelphia Institute was honouring Leo Hendrik Baekeland, inventor of Bakelite and “Father of Plastics”. Leo was Tony Baekeland’s great-grandfather. Bakelite, which had millions of uses, was actually moulded into some beautiful pieces of plastic as well as things like less than charming artificial limbs, control devices for submarines, and coffins.

Without Leo’s invention there may well have been no modern plastics industry and no countless tonnes of plastic clogging up our oceans. As Brooks Baekeland, Leo’s grandson and Tony’s father, wrote “Had my grandfather known what would have evolved from plastics, he would have undoubtedly withheld his invention”.

Brooks, as you’ll realise when you read Savage Grace, is being characteristically high-minded and hypocritical when he writes this. Without the fortunes earned by Bakelite, he would never have been able to live his gilded, aimless life as a writer manqué.

And there’s a strange, moral connection between what Leo accidentally or unthinkingly unleashed on the world when he invented Bakelite and the toxic behaviour of his offspring. People who knew the Baekelands compared them to characters from Tender Is The Night and reading Savage Grace I was reminded of  Fitzgerald’s observations on the carelessness of the very rich. In the case of the Baekelands this carelessness ran dangerously deep, with terrible consequences.

Barbara with Tony
Barbara with Tony

 

Those were different times – or were they?

Read Savage Grace and if you know Deia, especially in the summertime, you’ll no doubt find the sense of tempestuous madness a little too familiar. But, apart from the thrill of recognition – even if it’s of a darker sort than is usual for Deia – you won’t fail to be gripped by this awful but mesmerising story.

And, of course, you can always watch the film with Julianne Moore playing Barbara which was, I believe, partly shot in the village.

Links

Savage Grace trailer

Buy the book

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