Tuesday, June 24, 2014

La Professoressa

How much would you put up with to have a dream job? Would you work in a tiny cubicle without windows, take a cut in pay, move to a strange town? Would you work for a crazy person? Would you be her close, personal assistant if it meant you had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?

I was studying in Rome, my last quarter before I completed my Bachelors degree (at the age of 32). My field was Art History and I spoke Italian, so, yeah, I was up for new experiences and a job, and would definitely be interested in staying in Rome. Then I met La Professoressa.

It started with Caravaggio, the bad boy of Italian Baroque painting. While I was in Rome I wanted to see as many of his paintings as I could. It's not hard - they're in churches and museums all over the city. But one of his big ones, Deposition from the Cross, was in a part of the Vatican Museums that was closed.

Most of my fellow students were Classicists and were indifferent to the Baroque art and architecture of Rome, but Karen shared my interest. The two of us were walking towards the Campo dei Fiori and talking about how disappointed we were to not be able to see this one painting because that part of the museum was in restauro. A woman ahead of us whipped around to look at us and said, in a British accent, "I can get you in to see it!"

She was middle-aged and hyperactive. Her graying hair was pulled back into a classic ponytail. She had large, round glasses, orange lipstick, and a leopard-print jacket. Her accent was what I later learned to describe as "posh." She spoke in an animated manner and explained that she was an art historian who lived in Rome, and she was working on a project photographing ceiling murals. She introduced her extremely meek daughter, who I hadn't even noticed and who was carrying the camera equipment. La Professoressa chatted excitedly for awhile, and we made plans to meet soon.

I really can't remember the sequence of events, and the minor details are unimportant. But over the course of the next few weeks I saw her four or five times. She was generous - she took Karen and I out to see some sights and also got us invited to a reception for Roy Lichtenstein at the American Academy in Rome. She took me along when she and her daughter went to photograph a mural at a private palazzo, and another time I had lunch with her at a tiny local ristorante where there was no sign on the door, and we were led into the kitchen to see what they were cooking that day.

La Professoressa was fluent in Italian, and seemed to create a whirlwind wherever she went. When she spoke her arms waved wildly and foamy spittle collected at the sides of her mouth.

I came to learn she had been born in Malay to British ex-pats, and claimed to have stabbed to death a man who raped her during the war when she was nine years old. She had studied at the Sorbonne, or else the Sorbonne had financed her current project. Her quiet daughter was her eldest and, I believe, the only one who still spoke to her. Another daughter had allegedly performed a sex act with an animal for a porn video, which she sent to her mother for spite.

The last time I saw her, I had been invited along with another student, Tyler, to join her on a tour of the Quirinale Palace, the official home of the Italian president. There were others in the group - American Army officers and their families who were recently posted to Rome - and La Professoressa wanted us along to soften them up. She was hoping to get American financing for her research.

Tyler and I went to her apartment before going to the Quirinale, and she looked over what we were wearing to see if we would make a good impression on the military men. She asked Tyler to remove his earring, which he refused to do. All this time she was also talking about the work I would do for her if I stayed in Rome - her daughter wanted to return to England, and La Professoressa needed an assistant. She implied that I would eventually acquire the photographs if I worked for her. I would catalog them, and help carry the cameras and film and tripod on shoots. I would make sure she got the pictures she needed, and that she wouldn't forget to eat. I would help her get home at night after a long day on her feet - and put her to bed!

While she was chattering, she was trying to get me to wear some jewelry of hers, a choker that she was going to let me borrow. I already knew I didn't want to see her again. Tyler and I were going to make our excuses and leave after the tour, and I did not intend to return to La Professoressa's apartment to return the choker. I demurred on the jewelry, and I told her that I appreciated all she had done for me, but I also did not want to work for her. She sputtered about how it was a wonderful opportunity, and why didn't I want to take it? I said, "Because I don't want to wear the choker."

There was silence. But she knew what I meant. She was cool to us during the tour, while she turned her charm on the officers and their wives. After we left the Quirinale, Tyler and I had a peaceful afternoon in Rome, and I never saw La Professoressa again.

But a few weeks ago I was curious. I wanted to find out if she had ever published her photographs - or anything, for that matter. The only references I found to her on Google were old news stories about a court case in Britain a couple of years before I met her. Her husband's family was quite wealthy, and her father-in-law had left a certain amount of money to each of his adult grandchildren. To spite her own children, she claimed that her younger three were not the offspring of her husband and did not have a right to the inheritance. She said they had been fathered by three different men! The judge more or less threw the case out, saying the children had been accepted as part of the family for their entire lives.

You can't make this stuff up, folks!

She never got me in to see Deposition from the Cross, but I did see it on another trip. And I tell you now, I have never regretted walking away from that "dream" job.



  1. This certainly does read like fiction. Fantastical fiction at that. Are you sure you're not pulling my leg Val? I mean...the whole "having sex with an animal for porn" and then sending it to your Mother? That came straight out of a bad Italian soap opera. If not, this is one of the strangest real life stories I've ever read.


  2. Fascinating woman (a little folle, but fascinating) and story. Are you glad you chose not to wear the choker? I'm happy *for* you to have escaped the craziness! xo

  3. Wow, that sounds insane! But I have known people like that - they are a tidal wave who take over others' lives. You were smart to escape!

    I am going to Rome in October...shhhh...so excited. Love your pictures.

  4. Whew! Saved from the choker. Good move Val. You are so educated and interested in the arts...I do hope you find something in that field that can give you a good income.

  5. This sounds like an art version of The Devil Wears Prada! Good save, Val. But I wonder - would you have said no to the whirlwind if Tyler hadn't been there to say no with you? I know I'd be hard-pressed to turn down people to their faces but then again, I hate confrontation.

  6. What an utterly fascinating memory!!! Weird to imagine how your life might have gone had you accepted!!! X

  7. Yes, I'd say you dodged a bullet on that one. Those kind of people initially come off as exciting to be around but then, as Sheila says, they are like a tidal wave that sweeps you off your feet and drags you out to sea.

    I love the photos - I've never been to Italy, although I would like to see Rome one day.

  8. This is funny Val, I just sent Mel a post for the next issue of VOGOFF about searching for the "dream job."

    The photos and many of the memories were obviously worth the trip though. I do with I had those college years to reminisce about.

  9. I was gripped! I can't even imagine why such a formidable woman would do such things to her children, there are so many questions! but you were saved by a choker (phew) Italy is so beautiful, I will get there at some point in my life x x x

  10. What a fabulous story. Good move. I don't like chokers either.

  11. What a great story! They say there is a fine line between genius and madness and I think because of that it could be really difficult to know if something really peculiar is a once in a lifetime opportunity or the beginning of a nightmare. I suspect your instincts served you well.

  12. You mentioned writing again and here you have La Professoressa. I'm glad you escaped that power fiend.
    You speak Italian? That's so romantic. (!)

  13. You have the coolest memories and experiences, Val. This is a short story in itself! Xo

  14. Enjoyed your story, and admire your perspicacity and fortitude! She was a walking, talking Graham Greene character, out of her era a little, but not much! She reminds me, too, of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. This woman or another like her has been traveling through history scaring everyone around her and inspiring villainesses. Sidestepped disaster, well done, you. And a great telling!

  15. Great story, but she would have been a nightmare boss - good thing you gave it a miss, I think! xxx

  16. What a fantastic story. Does sound like you were better off staying away from her!

  17. such a great story, and it makes me think about what it's supposed to be a dream job!

  18. Wowwwwww, love this choker/boss (nightmare) dream job story!!!!

  19. I have met people like her in my life and stayed away! Toxic and a bit folle!
    Good thing you refuse the offer


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