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Born to Run
I like to look straight into the sun.
For someone who took great delight in affronting every tier of convention throughout her lifetime, it is perhaps fitting that some debate would exist as to the actual date and place of Anita Pallenberg's birth. While a multitude of biographers, columnists and even agents' résumés have previously declared dates that span the early to late 1940s, it was only following her death in June 2017 that her family would confirm that Anita opened her eyes to the world on April 6, 1942 in Rome, Italy.
While the Italian capital would remain a not insignificant location for Anita over the years, in the spirit of her ancestors she could never be constrained by the limitations of being allied to just one country. In turn, this would add to some confusion as to the roots of her ancestry when she was first thrust into the public eye in the 1960s. While some would claim she was German, others would declare with authority she was Swedish, others Swiss, and yet this ambiguity that she belonged to nowhere and everywhere only added to her enigmatic attraction.
Nonetheless, it is evident that the Pallenberg family lineage embodied a unique, inventive presence. Anita's genealogy peppered with luminaries from many spheres, her bloodline was strongly bonded by an elemental quality, a steeliness that Anita would later describe as "sun, fire and ice in the same body".
The surname Pallenberg translated as an "overhanging rock on a mountainside", Anita's lineage would make its first recorded impression in 15th-century Sweden. However, it would be from the 18th century that a more sustained presence would be documented in Germany – most descendants of the Pallenberg line concentrated in Cologne. From the available evidence, it appears all were moneyed and wielded considerable influence within their communities. Much like the creative patchwork that would make up Anita's life, her direct family history would embody an impressive lineage that had its most sustained foothold in the arts.
It was during the 19th century that Anita's Pallenberg bloodline would be galvanised via imaginative interior design. Based in Cologne, a Pallenberg family business was driven by two brothers – Johann Heinrich and Franz Jakob. Not wishing to follow in their father's (albeit successful) roofing business, they turned their attention to furniture making. Imaginative and iconic, the firm became suppliers of highly sought-after inlaid furniture and choice artefacts to wealthy industrialists and others drawn from the highest echelons of European nobility.
Alongside the thriving family business, Johann Pallenberg held an interest in the more romantic arts, providing financial support for artisans and museums in his locale and beyond. In 1871, tangible confirmation of Pallenberg's affluent status was preserved in a painting by noted artist Wilhelm Leibl; the portraitist's take on Johann Pallenberg depicting a portly and sedentary individual reclining in a chair. While the painting was fairly typical of studies of the period, what elevated Leibl's portrait was that the subject was clinging onto a bag – presumably containing money, and if so, a clear symbol of the family's affluent status.
In time, Johann Pallenberg handed the family firm over to two of his sons, Jakob and Franz, both of whom failed to inherit any of their forefathers' gusto for running a business. Nonetheless, Franz turned his talents to painting and sculpture, and in 1890, he moved to Rome, settling in a palatial and expansive villa northeast of the city at 315 Via Nomentana; the first of the Pallenbergs to make a permanent base in the Italian capital – his vision, to establish himself as an artist. For practical and financial reasons, Franz left the bulk of his money in Germany, but following World War One, he lost the entirety of his capital due to poor financial advice and as a result, never returned to his homeland. Given his dire circumstances, Franz would often have to subjugate his artistic leanings for more practical occupations.
Despite this turbulence, Franz would marry Angela Böcklin – daughter of the Swiss-born symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin. Unlike the Pallenbergs' résumé in more tangible artefacts, Arnold Böcklin's heritage was far more ethereal. An innovator in 19th-century symbolism, Böcklin's romantic surrealism would mark him out as one of the most important artists of his era, and a future influence on the likes of Dali, Duchamp and Ernst. Like many intoxicated by Goethe's dreamy odyssey to Italy, Böcklin eschewed his native Switzerland and relocated to Rome, using the rich and vivid textures the country possessed as a creative muse for his work. Böcklin's defection south would establish a pan-European sensibility that others in the family line would follow. In what would appear a rite of passage, Angela made a base for herself in Rome, where she would meet Franz.
The union of Franz and Angela spawned four sons, Franzino, Arnold "Arnoldo", Corrado and Roberto. With such celebrated histories on both sides of the family, it was generally assumed that one of the children would maintain a tradition in the creative fields. Born in 1903, Arnoldo was one Pallenberg with dreams of a life in the arts. Yet with a dwindling inheritance, he was forced to put aside his passions and find more financially sustainable work, taking a job in a travel agency.
At twenty-one, Arnoldo – German by parentage – applied for full Italian citizenship. He later met and married Paula Wiederhold, another German who had settled in Rome during the late 1920s and had taken work in her mother country's embassy. The marriage produced their first child, Gabriella, but family life was soon interrupted when Arnoldo was forced to see out national service as World War Two loomed.
With the war raging on, Paula discovered she was pregnant with her second child. According to Anita, her parents' hope was that they would be blessed with a boy. But against all predictions, on April 6, 1942, Anita was born. The sun rising at a little before 6.44 a.m. that Friday, the weather was as expected for an Italian spring morning, with temperatures in the low 80s for most of the day.
Yet any early bonhomie would be neutered by the ever-present spectre of conflict in Europe. Possessing an abhorrence towards any sort of violence, Arnoldo had nonetheless been conscripted as a cook by the Italian armed forces and sent off to the north of Italy. Rome torn apart by war, Paula and her two young daughters would endure some turbulent and unsettling times. With the city being bombed, the children's mother heard there was a last chance of escape from the capital via a lorry, and they took off through the savage maelstrom of bombing into the Italian hinterlands to take refuge.
"We drove through all the burning cities," recalled Anita later. "My mum must have been mad, but she was just trying to get us away from the Nazis."
Even at this tender age, Anita was receptive to the traumas that were engulfing Europe, the vibrations of conflict so strong that she would later recall that most of her early childhood was spent in a permanent state of shock.
The cessation of war in 1945 allowed a greater freedom of movement, ensuring that the family could return to the Italian capital. With the use of Arnoldo's father's villa at 315 Via Nomentana, the Pallenbergs were able to establish a home base, albeit a crowded one – the once opulent property now shared with many displaced aunts, uncles and cousins drawn from across Europe.
With precious little money to even heat the villa, Arnoldo – like the rest of the family in the house – was forced to work endlessly to support the running of the property. Still, with the clutter of relatives present, a warm, if slightly congested, ambience occupied the Pallenberg Roman base. Given the contrasting linguistics present at home and outside on the street, Anita's parents were nonetheless insistent that their children learned German, an edict that Anita would reject for a long period, considering herself first and foremost a native of Rome.
As befits the fickle mores of youngsters growing up, at one point Anita declared she wanted to be a Catholic priest. "I loved those white dresses for communion," she told the Daily Mail in 1994. "Going to confession and all that stuff. It had great allure and mystery. I like what's forbidden."
Music a constant in the family home from the offset, Anita and her sister Gabriella recalled their father playing the piano at every given opportunity. As would become a family tradition, every Friday, Arnoldo would host chamber music concerts in the house. Predictably, elements of this lively, creative atmosphere began to rub off on Anita.
"My father was a very good pianist," recalled Anita for Marie Claire magazine in 2002. "I grew up in Rome in a classical music atmosphere, and I did play cello well. We had no TV, no radio. The music we played was the only way to escape, the only distraction."
With music as a backdrop, Anita's childhood was as idyllic as anything in post-war Italy could offer. While playing on the streets with the Roman locals gave her a sense of liberation, her Lutheran father was nonetheless insistent that she went to a bilingual school, and she was sent to the Scuola Svizzera di Roma (the Swiss School in Rome). Established in 1946, the school was well known in the capital for its unique approach to education, but Anita had little interest in conforming to the syllabus or indeed the school structure. Frequently skipping lessons, she preferred to wander around the historic ruins of the city or hang out with her coterie of friends on Rome's patchwork of streets.
At one point in her teens, Anita spotted the hedonist prince Dado Ruspoli in a restaurant. The infamy of Ruspoli's playboy existence a trigger for Fellini's La Dolce Vita, the fleeting moment would prove telling. "He was behaving very strangely," she would recall on witnessing the languid Ruspoli. "Later I found out why."
When asked what her formative interests were, Anita would list archaeology and anthropology, declaring that the city's museums held far more of an attraction for her than the classroom. But often more instinctive pursuits would snare her fascination. Her fraternisation with Rome's prepubescent underbelly became a cause of concern to her parents, and she was shipped out of Italy to Germany to study at the exclusive Landheim Schondorf boarding school, set on the banks of Lake Ammersee in Bavaria. The school's curriculum embodied a heavy emphasis on Teutonic study, which met the demands of Anita's parents, who wanted her to honour her Germanic heritage and sharpen her language skills.
But life at Landheim Schondorf – which had a strong gender imbalance of 180 boys to just twenty girls – would be of little consequence to Anita, who later declared it "decadent", commenting that many of her fellow students were hewn from Nazi parentage.
Nonetheless, for a few years at least, she excelled at the school, gaining exceptional marks in medicine, Latin and pottery. It was at Landheim Schondorf that Anita would declare an interest in the works of Franz Kafka, the Czech writer's isolationist themes arming her with a healthy scepticism towards authority. She also demonstrated impressive linguistic skills, and by the age of fifteen was reportedly fluent in four languages. Her impressive polyglot status would impress her father, who encouraged her to pursue a secretarial career. But it was more than evident that Anita was never destined for life behind a desk.
Despite sailing on Lake Ammersee and the occasional skiing trip sponsored by her school, other distractions – smoking, drinking and not least, the school's relative proximity to Munich – ensured that Anita would excuse herself frequently from Landheim Schondorf's perimeters, on numerous occasions hitchhiking the 50 kilometres to the city, to savour its raunchier energy.
Anita's free spirit and sense of wanderlust would test the boundaries of Landheim Schondorf. Often absent and in no great mind to adapt to the curriculum, the school's patience eventually snapped and Anita was expelled – just six months before her university entrance exam.
In the wake of an enforced ejection from school, Anita would maintain a presence in nearby Munich. Declaring later that she had left her studies for a while "to make some money" for a while she'd, she would mooch around the city, finding particular favour in the left-field district of Schwabing, an area rich in bars and clubs and populated by a largely bohemian fraternity. With no qualifications to get into university, Anita was accepted at an art college in the city. It was here that she would have her first encounter with sex – albeit an unwelcome one. In what would prove to be a defining moment for her, a fellow student had loaned some of her art books to a friend, and yet when Anita tracked the books down to an anonymous male based in the city, the man attempted to force his attentions on her.
The intrusiveness of this episode would set Anita onto a path where for a while she would declare she preferred the intimate company of females. "I went with women," she would recall later. "I went totally anti-men. I found them to be very obnoxious, so I just ignored them."
Her art course completed, and following a brief period of free-range hitchhiking around Europe, Anita returned to Rome in the summer of 1959. Hoping to carve out a career in the arts, she won a scholarship to the acclaimed Accademia di Belle Arti di Roma to study graphic design and picture restoration.
Despite being handed this educational lifeline, she would fail to complete either course and, as was her wont, was far keener to spend her time hanging out with a crowd of hip Italians. While the capital was seemingly forever enveloped in a mad dance of a million adventures, during the summer of 1959, Rome's airborne joie de vivre was crystallised by the shooting of Federico Fellini's classic paean to the sweet life of Italy, La Dolce Vita. With filming taking place in more than eighty locations across the city, Anita was able to meet and speak with its director, as well as other figures in the Rome film community such as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Luchino Visconti. Such was her continued presence on the set that Anita was adopted by the crew as a mascot during filming. Having a taste for the rare and exotic, she soon became what she would later describe as a pariolina, an aloof and yet fashionable female resident of Rome. Chic and visible in the trendiest bars and cafés of the capital, the stunning seventeen-year-old with a bobbed haircut would become a familiar presence around town.
"I was involved in the 'dolce vita' mode of that time," said Anita in 2002. "I remember Nico and Donyale Luna – the first black model – walking through the streets of Rome."
Born Christa Päffgen, Nico would prove an extraordinary reflection of Anita during these early days in Rome. Blonde, Teutonic, multilingual with interests straddling modelling and films, her stunning, otherworldly presence would enliven an environment already sated with beauty and talent. Despite being a few years older than Anita, Nico would spookily shadow her movements over the coming years.
A more defined influence occurring at that time was Anita's exposure to rock 'n' roll. Like many youngsters around the globe, she was ignited by the ferocious sounds blasting out of every club, bar and transistor radio. "As a teenager I discovered rock 'n' roll," she told Mojo magazine in 2003. "It was a Fats Domino album – Blueberry Hill,' she replied when asked what the first record she bought was. "He was someone I got into out of rebellion from the classical music that I grew up with in my home."
Despite the considerable distractions Rome had to offer, Anita would maintain her mercurial presence across Europe, often utilising family contacts in Germany, Spain and France to find accommodation. On a visit to an aunt in Berlin during August 1961, she would witness the building of the Berlin Wall. The following year, while visiting a relative in Hamburg, she would make a trip to the seedy Reeperbahn district. There, on a wander down the notorious Große Freiheit, she would find herself in the Star-Club, listening to a then unknown band from Liverpool. Despite her rock 'n' roll leanings, she found The Beatles' "preppy" uniformity unimpressive, and dismissed them.
Aware that a warm welcome would always be afforded her in Rome, Anita could easily merge back into the scene there. The city renowned for attracting all manner of artists, those on the cutting edge were starting to be heard. While traditionalist art would predominate, there was a sizeable coterie of left-field artists – part of the second wave of what had been coined the "Scuola Romana" – who would clearly delight in being an affront to the Accademia di Belle Arti.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "She's a Rainbow"
Copyright © 2020 Omnibus Press.
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Table of Contents
'ANITA PALLENBERG, 1942–2017' by Gerard Malanga,
CHAPTER ONE: Born to Run,
CHAPTER TWO: You Got the Silver,
CHAPTER THREE: Girls Dress Men to Suit Themselves,
CHAPTER FOUR: Blood and Thunder,
CHAPTER FIVE: The Black Queen,
CHAPTER SIX: Vice and Versa,
CHAPTER SEVEN: Lucifer and all that...,
CHAPTER EIGHT: Exiled,
CHAPTER NINE: Deeper than Down,
CHAPTER TEN: Renaissance Woman,