Glass interviews former ‘70s It girl and actor Marisa Berenson



Glass interviews former ‘70s It girl and actor Marisa Berenson about her book about the art and culture of her home city Marrakech  


MARISA Berenson’s latest book, Marrakech Flair, is an homage to the inspiring city in which she has made her home.

Berenson conveys her fascination with the rich history of Marrakech, and the inspiration she finds in the art and nature of the city and its people, in a celebratory work that is thoughtful, intimate and deeply researched.

Created during lockdown, Berenson’s portrayal of Marrakech as a place of regeneration and resilience (as the world faces the repercussions of the pandemic) adds a poignancy to this beautiful collection of photographs, interviews and history.

The US-born author’s love affair with the southwestern Moroccan city began in her youth when Berenson was the protégé of fashion visionary Diana Vreeland, and succinctly described by Yves St Laurent as “the girl of the ‘70s”.

Glass spoke to Berenson about fame, fearlessness and her hopes for her beloved Marrakech.


Marisa Berenson. Photograph: Adam Scott Peters


In Marrakech Flair you place your emphasis on the people from Marrakech, not the visitors to Marrakech, who are creating great art and great design there.
More and more people are finding out how interesting a platform it is, artistically and creatively, because it’s filled with the most innovative, young artists, and I really wanted to honour them.

Moroccan art used to be considered more a decorative art and then they came along; these artists who revolutionised art and created a very strong, powerful language where they broke down all the barriers and dared say things that nobody else had ever said in their country. Art became a form of expression, a form of challenge.

Marrakech turned out this incredible mix of young people and the older generation.These fascinating people that are so culturally rich, original and avant-garde. I really wanted to profile them –  I wanted them to be in the light, and to make people aware of what was really going on in Marrakech, that it’s much more than just a haven of bohemian chic.


It’s always been a creative, innovative place with a fascinating history and culture, and very mixed. Marrakech was created by a woman, called Zaynab who became one of the most powerful women in the Arab world. She married the Almoravid King Yusuf in a fourth wedding, and this incredibly beautiful, cultured and brilliant woman created Marrakech from nothing.

Yusuf built her a palace, on a place that she chose – a key spot where there was water, and where the caravans and all of the trade could come in – and she built the city. Zaynab made it into this incredible city of learned men and cultural and spiritual people, and a passageway for the whole world.

The book was a lot of work. It was perfect because I was confined. It was very, very well spent time. I did it during lockdown, in two months.

I was there for five months in my house, working on this book. I decided I wanted to photograph some of the key people that interest me. And so, in four days, we raced around and photographed some of the artists and some of the designers – not all of them, because they weren’t all available, but at least some of the people I wanted in the book.

Then there was the lockdown. Everything else I did on the phone. I called people up and they sent me photographs, and material … whatever I was asking for. It took exactly two months to write. And then we edited it and chose the photographs, did the layout. The whole thing took about three months.


What are your hopes and fears for Marrakech during the Covid-19 crisis, with tourism being a significant part of the economy?
Marrakesh has gone through so many deaths, renaissances, difficult times … it has always been reborn and it always is still there. Yes, it’s a tragedy for Morocco and for Marrakech especially, because it lives on tourism. It’s truly a tragedy for so many people that are going to lose work, and businesses that are closing down. But Moroccans are very innovative people, they’re also creative people and they’ve gone through difficult times, and the whole world is in this together.

In times of crisis, in the world, or in oneself, there’s this survival instinct … a regeneration thing that comes out, there’s a creativity that surfaces, and different values are being put into play. People are looking at life differently. It’s a very, very complicated, very sad time.

But it’s also fascinating to see how the world is going to come out of this. What are the new things that are going to pop up and how are people going to reinvent themselves? How is the world going to change? Because it’ll never be the same. It’s going to be different.


In your modelling career you were at the epicentre of the revolution in social values and fashion.  Yet, when you initially approached the Eileen Ford modelling agency, you were turned down.
When I was a child I started dreaming, of certain actresses who inspired me … I collected all these images but never in a million years did I think that I would become a model or an actress because I was not brought up like that at all. On the contrary, I was brought up to marry well, and to have a completely different kind of life.

I wasn’t brought up at all in in the fashion world. Although my grandmother (couturier Elsa Schiaparelli) was a huge presence and celebrity in the fashion world in her day, when I grew up she was not in that world anymore. And she never spoke of that world, never talked to me about it.

I knew Diana Vreeland when I was a small child  because she was a friend of my grandmother. But then I didn’t see her for years until I was 16 and went back to New York where I was born. She saw me with my father one night at a ball in New York, and she said, “We have to photograph Marisa”. And that’s how it started really. I wasn’t expecting to become a model or an actress. I imagined how wonderful it would be, but I never thought it would happen to me.

Geometric architecture with Moresque arches at guest pavilions at Amanjena. Photograph: Reto Guntli

Your signature eye make-up – “spidery mascara” –  is still a shorthand for ‘60s style. Did you create it on purpose?
Yes, I did! We models would carry around all our stuff – make up, hair, underwear, stockings – whatever might be needed. There were usually great hairdressers, but the makeup we often did ourselves. So, I invented all of these looks! We were free to do all of that, which was amazing. And that was something I invented one day to make my eyes look bigger and more distinct.


I did wonder if it was a happy accident.
Oh no, it is individual lashes that are glued on one by one and my mascara.

You went on to be the first person to appear nude in Vogue and were described by your friend, Yves St Laurent, as “the girl of the ‘70s”.
The 1960s and ‘70s were incredibly freeing and innovating. All of us young people at that time were very free spirited. It wasn’t about connections … there were all those girls who were fabulous models and they were just the face of the times; they just were the soul and the pulse of that period. They represented everything that was going on: a whole other freedom of spirit, a whole other way of looking, and living life after the war.

People like Diana Vreeland were the instigators  –  she was this visionary. She loved people with personalities, people with differences. It wasn’t about who was connected, or who was aristocratic – just about who had a great personality and who she thought was interesting. That’s the way it worked in those days. It was a very creative and innovative time. Very freeing.

Thinking back on all those people, who were there at the time, where they came from, and how they got there … It’s interesting, actually, versus how it is today.


It seems as though the Eileen Ford Agency, in its rejection of you, was expressing a form of “old guard” gatekeeping. Whereas Diana Vreeland, in contrast, stormed the barricades.
Oh, she did. God bless her. She was wonderful. I loved her so much, she was fantastic. She just went beyond all of the rules and the boundaries. She was a fantastic person who saw the world in a completely different way – in a big way, a very original way, a very intelligent way … innovative, creative, uplifting, glamorous. She was bigger than life, Diana –  courageous, and strong – she taught me so much.

She would say “Marisa, discipline is one of the most important things you’ll learn in your life”. She was so right. Hard work and staying pure of heart … she liked that. The wisdom I found in her was fantastic.


There is such generosity and warmth in Diana Vreeland’s writing. It’s never controlling, or from a place of fear, and always about expanding rather than diminishing yourself.
Exactly, exactly. Always creative, constructive criticism. People were scared of Diana, but I was not. She was very demanding, but you worked for her and you learned so much about everything – it was a real school of life.

Hand decorated with henna

Your daughter Starlite’s profession is creative play therapy, an important line of work that she is clearly passionate about.
Starlite is very unique and she never wanted to do what I was doing. She has always had her own path – to change the world through children and through a new kind of creative therapy with kids. I admire what she does and the way that she is bringing up her own daughter – my granddaughter who is three – it’s just so wonderful and so extraordinary. The new generation of children who are brought up this way will create a new world which is much more positive … which is what we want and need.

Fine leatherwork adorns the Berber horsemen’s attire at Palais Soleiman. Photograph: Reto Guntli


In recent years, you created a skincare range. How did that come about?
Wellness is a big part of how I live on all levels. That will probably be my next book, sharing all the things I have learnt over the years. I started doing that when I was very young, and many people thought I was a bit eccentric at the time.

They would say “Oh, Mari is at it again with this, that and the other”, but I didn’t care what people thought. I just did what I felt was right for me. Then you share it with others to give them the possibility to have beauty and wellness, healthy skin and a healthy body. Whatever I try to pass onto people is always from the general philosophy of wholeness and wellbeing on every level.

I think this is a time of reinventing and bringing out the values that are important, sharing that with people. There is actually a lot to do in this new world.

by Rachel McCormack

Marrakech Flair is published by Assouline