from family archive

The Accidental Exile

For more than half a century, Daphne Phelps's Sicilian casa has been a haven to such colourful characters as Tennessee Williams, Bertrand Russell - and the local godfather

by Louette Harding for YOU magazine 18 April 1999
photographs Geoff Wilkinson

When she was 34, Daphne Phelps changed her life.

From a large and clever family, she was, I suppose, destined to marry an academic or a lawyer, to bring up children in the shires, perhaps. But a number of factors combined and off she went to Sicily where her uncle had built a house - the most beautiful house in the beautiful town of Taormina, whose medieval walls are stitched valiantly around the precipitous curves of the cliffs above the sea.

There she has lived until the present day, running Casa Cuseni as a kind of artists' retreat, so that Tennessee Williams, Bertrand Russell, Roald Dahl and Caitlin Thomas pitched into her life. And there she camouflaged herself among the Sicilians. She did this so well that the local mafia godfather, Don Ciccio, placed her under his protection.

How come we have never heard of this mettlesome woman before? Now, aged 88, she has written a book about her house and her life in Sicily, and I set off to interview her, a journey that culminated in a steep climb through her exuberant garden, past a fountain cupped against a stone wall, and up on to the terrace.

Daphne's uncle, Robert Kitson, picked the site for its views, to the left over the rooftops to the bay, and to the right across the plains to Mount Etna. The volcano is awake today, emitting papal smoke signals by day, first white, then grey, and glowing beads of lava by night.

Daphne leads the way, slowly and determinedly on her stick, to some cane seats. 'The number of books which have been written here and pictures painted! And I always see that the inexperienced painters start with Etna. The awful thing is at my age there are holes in one's memory. I think my reasoning powers are as good as ever they were, but what I forget is quite alarming.'

Daphne paid her first visit to Casa Cuseni in 1935. However thrilled she was by the panorama from the terrace or by the perfect proportions of the building, she was rather more nervous of her uncle, who was tetchy and explosive. Then, during the war, he fled Italy for England, 'and I got to know him over the washing-up sink'. He announced that he was going to leave the house to her. A day after his return to Sicily, he was dead. Daphne had no intention of settling there in his stead: 'My uncle had told me it would be impossible.' Once duties had been paid, there was not enough money left for running the house: she must sell. So she set off, swapping the dishpan skies and restrictions of post-war England for the vibrant clamour of Sicily, intending to stay for a fortnight.

Fifty-four years later, she ponders how her plans changed. She had been working as a psychiatric social worker, but her boss, Dr Kate Friedlander, died suddenly. 'I knew I would never work with another psychiatrist to compare with her. She had been analysed by Freud himself, so why she needed to be a chain smoker . . . ' Also, a romance had gone wrong: 'I couldn't have the one I wanted and I didn't want second best: I've seen it in other marriages and it doesn't work,' she says.

Finally, she thought of a way to earn enough to maintain Casa Cuseni. 'I saw a chance - taking my friends and their friends as PGs. That's probably a very old expression and not recognised now: paying-guests. I never took any total unknowns; I couldn't risk it. They had to be recommended. It began with me taking in creative people, but then I decided I must have some ballast - teachers or academics - otherwise it was just too fiery.' She charged very little but it was enough for her own modest needs.

Problems came in plagues. The Italians, the Germans and the British had occupied the house in turn. 'There weren't windowpanes in a great part of it so the shutters had to be kept shut, but it really wasn't too bad. It was watertight by the time I came,' she says.

'I don't think I've been in danger. I may have been blind to it.' She puffs with laughter. 'I've had a great deal of help and affection, largely because they loved my uncle so. I call them the little people, which, I still prefer to the working classes, but it's not PC, is it?' Not at all, I tell her. 'PC has developed since I've been here. I'm out of touch.'

Like her uncle, she has avoided the cocktail parties of the Sicilian bourgeoisie. In doing so, she has made enemies. She was anonymously denounced to the authorities for running a pensione without the necessary papers. 'Things were very bad after the war and the hotels were nearly empty. They saw I was having a lot of guests. It was jealousy - well known as a Sicilian vice; they are incredibly jealous in every way. The head of police said, "I think you'd better have a licence," so I became a locanda [guesthouse]. It was tiresome because of the officials coming. In their uniforms,' she adds mischievously. 'With their revolvers in their holsters.'

Her book-jacket blurb describes Daphne as 'modest', which is true in many ways, but there are flashes of ego, too. Without it, she would not have found pleasure in exile. At times, it was fun to stand out from the crowd. In the early years, she caused a stir in her open-top car. 'It was blond - "Blond like you," as they told me. I was the only blonde. They're all blond now but there weren't any then,' she says, wryly.

Everywhere she went villagers would gather agog. 'They didn't believe a woman was capable of driving. You call that chauvinism, do you? I call it sheer ignorance,' she says.

Daphne's most extraordinary friendship was with the local godfather, an uneducated man, wiry, scarred, with a penchant for handmade silk shirts. Don Ciccio was proud of his power: he'd toss his cap on to the bonnet and Daphne could leave her car unlocked on an isolated track. But he lived simply, in the same poverty as the peasant farmers of his hillside village.

Daphne's descriptions of him are hugely romantic. 'What should be stressed is that he has nothing to do with the modem Mafia, which is absolutely foul. Don Ciccio was the Robin Hood thing. You see, if the state wasn't giving the people justice, others stepped in. It was very popular - not now, this was a long time ago.

'At our first meeting, he bowed, kissed my hand and said, "Signorina, I place myself at your disposal. If there is any individual who is displeasing to you, you have but to let me know." Any individual? I was thinking of the neighbours. The lawyers had failed to settle a boundary dispute. And then I envisaged the knife in his hand and the throat being slit.

So I never dared call him until some villages here were cut off by snow and I'd collected warm clothing and food. I rang Don Ciccio on the only line into his village and he was here the next morning. He was modest enough to put the two holdalls on his back.

'I accompanied him to the gate, and he said, "It is for you I wish to do something." I said, "That's very nice but I can't think what." "Well," he said, "I will tell you the story of the little Baronessina. She was very beautiful and rich. An elderly lawyer wanted to marry her but he was not pleasing to her parents. He kidnapped her. So they summoned me and within 24 hours she was returned perfetta e completa. Of course, I hope that never... But if...' She mimes Don Ciccio's Sicilian shrug and roars with laughter.

We move on to the subject of her famous PGs. She escaped Dylan Thomas's widow, Caitlin, by the skin of her teeth. Caitlin arrived late at night, a bottle in her basket glinting in the moonlight. Daphne scampered down the hillside to find her a room, claiming the house was full. 'I had to rush to the hotel next door. I was not going to have her here. She could have smashed things!'

Tennessee Williams she took to a local restaurant, where he admired the local waiter even more than the local food.

But her absolute favourite was Bertrand Russell. 'Oh, he was a very great friend, once I'd controlled him - he couldn't keep his hands off any woman. He was the wittiest person I'd ever met.' They went sardine fishing by night with other friends. 'The wicked fishermen - this is a Sicilian thing - they mixed the drinks, because they love seeing these enormously tall - so much taller than them - foreigners drunk, which Sicilians never are. They're very abstemious. So we all got wittier and wittier and Bertie said, "This is disgraceful. I was a teetotaller until I was 45 . . . I'm as drunk as a lord. But it doesn't matter - I am a lord." That was typical of his wit.'

Anecdotes like these fall word perfect from Daphne's lips, almost exactly as they appear in her book. This is indicative of her long practice as a hostess, refining the best stories for her guests, but she lobs personal questions away awkwardly. She is, perhaps, well suited to single life. For years she lived without a telephone and even now says, 'I hate that beastly thing ringing.'

She claims never to have felt isolated, mentioning that she is constantly in touch with her '29 great niblings', her great-nieces and nephews. She refused dozens of proposals of marriage from 'men who wanted to marry my house'. (In local law, a woman's property became her husband's.) Her house painter proved unexpectedly poetic on this subject: 'He said to me, "You and I are two sensitive souls - too sensitive for the perils of matrimony." '

But it was only when Concetta Genio came to be her housekeeper that Daphne felt the future of the house was secure. 'I didn't feel so lonely about it all,' she confesses. Concetta was the wife of Daphne's then gardener, Peppino. 'I'd have taken her for her smile alone but I didn't realise I was going to get one of the most capable people at anything she turns her hand to. And she's barely literate because the fascists didn't educate girls.'

Concetta and her family, including her daughter, a teacher, her son-in-law, a doctor, and two grandchildren - the girl of three is named Daphne - live in a house in the grounds. 'They have meant an immense amount to me. My young sister, aged only 85, wrote only this week saying, "I do so envy you having them there, somebody to talk to. I have days without a word to anyone."

'It's invaluable for me to have a doctor in the family, so to speak. I fall. The last time I fell, I dislocated two fingers and fractured one. As my sister says, old age is not for sissies.' As she stumps ahead through the garden and house, I remark on the birds, which are chirruping like monkeys in a jungle. 'I can't hear birdsong any more,' Daphne says, momentarily wistful.

Robert Kitson built his house in 1900. The three main rooms - with airy ceilings and uneven oak floors - open on to the terrace. On one side is the dining room, an Arts and Crafts jewel created by Sir Frank Brangwyn, on the other, the library, lined with faded book spines. In the middle, in the salone, pieces of beautiful old furniture stand in the shadows and patches of sun are sifted through settling dust motes.

Robert Kitson

The Salone

The Front Door

Pool with Papyrus

There is something essentially English about the house and Daphne remains 'profoundly English'. Might she, by virtue of old age, have become an honorary man to the Sicilians? 'I think they just think I'm odd. A woman here in a place like this, not married when she obviously had many, many, many chances,' she says.

Daphne would love one of her family to continue in her stead but, thinks this unlikely. The Landmark Trust has expressed an interest in Casa Cuseni, so its future is secure, 'It would have been levelled to the ground and a ten-storey hotel built if I hadn't suddenly decided to fight for it, not at all certain I should succeed,' she says. At her age, Daphne has given up PGs, but, she says, between the visits of friends and family, 'I never know who's going to come up those steps. Which I enjoy.

'I'm still surprised to find myself here after 50 years,' she tells me. I wonder. When she first discussed moving to Casa Cuseni, a colleague - a psychiatrist - was alarmed. 'I warn you, Daphne,' he said, 'people who settle in those out-of-the-way places become very eccentric.' Does she think that's true? 'No. I think they become...1 was going to say exceptional.' There is a pause, She decides the word 'unusual' will do,
The truth is, Daphne Phelps shrank from her neat, shires destiny. A house in Sicily was her means of escape.