Marisa Berenson
Marisa Berenson
"Acting is the first passion of my life," said Marisa Berenson in a phone conversation several weeks ago. She was speaking from Paris where she had stopped at her mother's Avenue Foch apartment in the swanky seizième arrondissement. Surrounding her were objects she's known since she was a child, many of which belonged to her maternal grandmother, the haute-couturiere Elsa Schiaparelli. She was reluctant to describe the artifacts in detail, but allowed that there were two marble leopards crouching nearby that she's always loved.

Berenson was chatting in her low, seductive voice about acting because she was soon to return to New York to begin rehearsals for the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Noël Coward's Design for Living, the naughty farrago that the master wrote in 1932 for Lynne Fontanne, Alfred Lunt, and himself. An up-close and very personal look at a ménage a trois, the piece was assumed at the time it opened to be a titillating confession about the stars' private relationships. John Lahr writes in his critography Coward: The Playwright that this comedy-drama represents Coward's repeated theme of frivolity ruling over bad manners.

But Berenson isn't be playing the frivolous, bad-mannered leading lady in the Roundabout production. That role is filled by last year's Tony winner, Jennifer Ehle, with Alan Cumming and Dominic West appearing as the men who gleefully and repeatedly profess to love her--and each other. No, Berenson shows up late in the smallish role of Grace Torrence, whom Coward describes in the stage directions as "a typically Europeanized New York matron."

Asked how the word "matron" struck her, Berenson laughed a low, musical laugh and reported that when she met director Joe Mantello to discuss the part--she never auditioned--he was deciding which way he wanted to take Grace Torrence, matronly or otherwise. "I said I would love to do it," Berenson related, "and the next thing I knew, I was doing it." In other words, she'd talked herself into a play she describes as "very modern, very actual. Noël Coward could be thought of as light and superficial, but I think, on the contrary, that there's a lot of depth to this play. You have to look at things, as you say in French, en second degree."

With Berenson cast, it's a safe bet Mantello wasn't choosing the matron route but opting for someone who would look good on a summer evening in a gown by, say, Schiaparelli. Someone, that is, whose presence would instantly exclaim "ultra-sophisticated Manhattan." What better choice than Berenson, who has been living in New York for the last two years and who started wearing Schiaparelli as a kid? When she was four, she and her older sister, Berry, appeared on the cover of Elle's Christmas issue in matching Schiaparelli designs: dark red, velvet dresses with shocking pink sashes.

But if Berenson won't have much stage time in what will be her New York acting debut, she nevertheless means to make her mark here. "It's time to come back," she declared to this reporter. "When you've been away and you come back to America, people haven't really seen what you've done." And she's done plenty. For someone whom many perceive as a dabbler in acting, Berenson is extremely busy; last year alone, she made four films that we don't know about on this side of the drink.

She plans to raise her visibility in more than one way. Besides the Coward outing, she has thrown her future in with the Culture Project. Berenson is chairman of the board of that group, which presented two of the best theater pieces seen in New York last year, The Bomb-itty of Errors and Rinde Eckert's And God Created Great Whales. Later this year, she will appear as Lady Anne in a Culture Project production of Richard III. On the way, sometime after that, will be an autobiographical one-woman show that she hasn't yet finished writing.

Though Berenson wouldn't give many (or any) details about the latter piece, she did comment that "life is a permanent adventure of different ups and downs." The statement certainly has relevance to her life, which has come with many privileges but no promise of security. Raised as Schiaparelli's granddaughter, she was also aware of being Bernard Berenson's great-niece. She remembers visiting him at his famous home, I Tatti, and recalled, "I have an image of him walking through the grounds and the gardens, all dressed in white."

Berenson made her movie bow when Luchino Visconti tapped her for Death in Venice, then went on to star with Liza Minnelli in Bob Fosse's Cabaret and with Ryan O'Neal in Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon. She has lived in many of the world's great cities, where she learned five languages. (She's prepared to act in four of them.) There have been two marriages--but today, "I'm free as a bird." There's a daughter, now studying at USC and aiming to work with underprivileged mothers. There was also a well-covered automobile accident; Berenson required cosmetic surgery afterwards.

As if her acting career isn't enough (she's commissioned a screenplay for herself), Berenson is about to introduce a line of health-care products for which she has no name as yet. "I'm into holistic medicine--treating both the inner and the outer body," she told me. It all started with a perfume she created for herself some time ago; she refers to it as her carte de visite. "It's essential that a woman leave her trace," Berenson noted with authority,