Façade of Flowers

Exterior of Barbara Hutton’s house

Walking through the snaking cobblestone streets of the old Medina, I try not to stumble on the uneven surface. My eyes are no use to my feet. They are not focused on where I am going because I cannot tear my attention from the neutral-colored plaster buildings that tower over me on both sides. Most are simply adorned with colorful shutters and doors, and each possesses a unique charm. A hint of jealousy sneaks into my heart as I pass a group of locals. They walk with a steady gait, looking forward as if entirely accustomed to the beauty around them. From my dorm window back in Biddeford, I stare out at a cracked parking lot, a chain-link fence, and a few scattered trees. What I would do to have this view instead.

I wish to slow down and soak in all the details, but as if programmed by a stopwatch, the tour guide is on a mission to lead our group of students along the scheduled route in the allotted time frame. Surely, we are easily identified as American tourists as we walk shoulder-to-shoulder in a much too narrow street in fear of taking a wrong turn and getting lost in a foreign maze.

As we come around the corner of a new street, there is one house that catches my eye. I look around to see that it has the same captivating effect on everyone else as they all have their cameras inches away from their faces, trying to capture the perfect shot. The blossoming pink and purple bushes that frame the house are in striking contrast to the pure white of the exterior. The house itself radiates confidence, demanding attention and admiration from passersby. Adore me. Love me, I imagine it saying.

The tour guide stops and turns to face the group, ready to give another rehearsed speech. With my eyes still fixed on the house and my mind navigating through the rooms behind the walls, he begins narrating the life of the estate’s previous owner, Barbara Hutton, an American socialite and at one point the richest lady on earth. In what seems like a distant background, I hear him describe Hutton as a “cute little thing” who charmed the Medina with her lavish and outrageous parties. He even laughs a little as he describes how she would give her guests payments to get them to leave at the end of the night. As I try to imagine what the house must have looked like illuminated by chandeliers with shadows of dancing silhouettes cast on the walls inside, the tour guide’s voice deepens.

“She lived an extravagant life,” he says in a more serious tone, “but everyone knew that she was unhappy. After losing her mother at the age of four to a tragic suicide and being neglected by her emotionally absent father, she was raised by her grandfather. She married and divorced seven times, and was often abused and manipulated in her relationships. After wasting her fortune on an impressive collection of gemstones and destructive lifestyle habits, she passed away with just $3,500 to her name.”

A vivid picture of her forms in my mind: blonde hair curled tightly to her face, lips that are unfamiliar with the shape of a smile, and emotionless eyes that search for something unattainable.  Looking back at the house with a new perspective, I am no longer taken in by the elegance. The towering flowers now seem to beg for validation and appear desperate, not proud. They serve only as a distraction to avert one’s eyes from the emptiness behind the walls. The house seems to be an embodiment of Hutton herself — a real-life Gatsby who wasted her life vainly chasing after joy and affection.

My wandering thoughts are interrupted by movement around me. As if reminded by an internal alarm, the tour guide stopped talking and began leading our group to the next location on our route. With the story of Hutton still fresh in my mind, I am reminded of the truism, money cannot buy happiness. Even though I will never bear the title of “richest lady on earth,” I think to myself, I have found a sense of fulfillment through my friends, family, and studies that Barbara Hutton would envy.

Sarah Woodford is an Animal Behavior major at the University of New England.

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