Callas's love letters fail to sell at auction

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The Independent Online

Documents and memorabilia from the life of Maria Callas went under the hammer in Milan yesterday but the soprano's passionate love letters to her Italian husband surprisingly failed to sell.

The 63 letters to the Verona industrialist Giovanni Battista Meneghini a series that started two years before they married in 1949 were the emotional centrepiece of a Sotheby's auction that included designer gowns, annotated music scores, records, photographs and the Paillard metronome that accompanied "La Divina" wherever she went.

However, bids for the letters, which Sotheby's had valued at €70,000 (50,000), did not get beyond €38,000. A spokeswoman for the auctioneers said the rest of the sale had gone well and interest in the letters may have been diminished by the fact that their contents had already been published in a book by Meneghini called My Wife Maria Callas.

Meneghini, who was 28 years her senior, nurtured the opera career of an initially overweight and shy young woman, and continued to inspire a filial devotion even after Callas had left him for an affair with the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. In one of the earlier handwritten notes, the soprano looked forward to their wedding. "Dear love! The day of our encounter is coming! Do you want me? I am yours!" she wrote to the man she knew as "Titta" and to whom she sent three missives a day. Later letters reveal the pain caused by Callas's unfulfilled longing for a child.

Despite being abandoned by Callas in 1959, Meneghini jealously conserved her letters as well as personal items that reminded him of their time together. The couple may even have been close to resuming their relationship at the end of her life, according to Meneghini's nephew Pietro Cazzaroli. Cazzaroli said his uncle had confirmed to him that the two were planning to get back together. "She wanted to come back to live with him in Verona," Mr Cazzaroli told the Italian magazine Chi in an interview due to be published today. "Unfortunately there was no happy end because of Aunt Maria's sudden death."

Callas died in 1977 at the age of 53, reportedly of heart failure brought on by the excessive use of sleeping pills.

Other items in yesterday's sale included one of Callas's favourite paintings, a 16th-century Venetian Madonna and Child, and a 1961 portrait of the soprano commissioned by Onassis from the Spanish painter Alejo Vidal Quadras.

There were also several testaments to the affection of Callas's eminent admirers. A note from the film director Luchino Visconti avers: "Going to La Scala without Maria doesn't greatly interest me," while the composer Leonard Bernstein signed a photograph of himself and Callas together in Paris in 1976: "For my beloved Maria from her almost lover, Lenny B."

A gift from John Fitzgerald Kennedy of a silver Tiffany bowl was inscribed with the words: "To Maria Callas who fulfils the prophecy of President John Kennedy: our generation shall be remembered for its artists."