There is a common litany of glamorous tidbits that tends to accompany any story about Marisa Berenson. Her christening portrait was published in Vogue. Elsa Schiaparelli was her maternal grandmother. Gene Kelly taught her to dance. Diana Vreeland jump-started her modeling career. Andy Warhol was a dear friend. Yves Saint Laurent anointed her the “girl of the 70s,” thanks in part to her star-making roles in Luchino Visconti’s 1971 Death in Venice, Bob Fosse’s 1972 Cabaret, and Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 Barry Lyndon. Whether this collection of particulars constitutes anything close to an accurate portrait of Berenson as a model, actress, and general cultural icon is up for debate. But when considering the Marrakech riad that she has called home for the better part of the past few years, it does make you wonder why a woman whose life has been so publicly chronicled over seven decades would open up her personal sanctuary to more of the same.
“This place is my haven. I’m away from the world here, and I do like to keep it that way. So I don’t know why I did these pictures for ELLE Decor!” Berenson admits with a laugh.
The motivation behind her decision to share her Moroccan home with an audience may be elusive, but we are unquestionably its happy beneficiaries: Berenson designed the house entirely herself, and it is a marvelous example of her multifaceted creative talent. About eight years ago, Berenson started spending more time in Marrakech while she was designing a spa for a Sofitel there and working on an eponymous skin-care line to be used in its treatment rooms. She fell in love with the city’s peaceful lifestyle; after renting a series of houses, she found out about a property for sale through word of mouth.
“It was completely abandoned—like a ghost house,” Berenson recalls. “But there was an energy about it. And I knew it was a place I wanted to transform.”
Berenson studied at London’s Inchbald School of Design when she was 16. “I’ve always decorated my own homes,” she says, adding that she had intended to become an architect before her career as a model took off. As such, she felt confident in reimagining the house into a Venetian-Andalusian amalgam, with help from a local architect who drew up a new set of plans.
The central patio, through which you enter, has a classic fountain covered in blue-and-white azulejos from Seville, Spain. The space is furnished with antique seating reupholstered in textiles by Pierre Frey—most of the home’s fabrics are Pierre Frey—and the tiled floor is strewn with kilim rugs. A fireplace features tiles Berenson salvaged from an old palace in Seville, and the hand-painted mural of angels was inspired by the inside of a church she saw in Spain. She also installed a retractable glass roof, making the patio comfortable even in the winter.'
In a living room next to the patio, one finds leopard-print seating and yellow and red Venetian sofas, along with a hand-sculpted plaster fireplace that is as airy as lace. An adjacent dining room, separated by double-sided orange and gold taffeta curtains, has antique light fixtures Berenson picked up at a Paris flea market and a black-lacquer Chinese panoramic screen that was originally in her New York apartment.
A nearby library is home to a pair of Napoleon III chairs she rescued from the Château de Ferrières, outside Paris. “They were being discarded, and I said, ‘No, no, no, I’m going to keep them!’ ” says Berenson, who has a knack for reviving abandoned treasures. “They’re all completely in their own juice, getting a bit old. But they have personality.”
The outdoor spaces are equally enchanting, with a wild, lush garden, an expansive terrace, a swimming pool (there is an indoor one, too, for colder days), and an organic vegetable garden and chicken coop. There are two guesthouses, and when you add in the five bedrooms radiating off the main patio and the two upstairs suites, that brings the total bedroom number to nine.
“I wanted this home to be a place where all my loved ones could come to stay for however long,” explains Berenson, who often has people over for festive lunches and cozy dinners. “This house can have intimate corners, or it can have a lot of people if one wants.”
Indeed, Berenson had a housewarming of sorts three years ago when she hosted more than 200 people for a party celebrating the opening of the Yves Saint Laurent Museum. It was an appropriate inauguration considering that Berenson first visited Marrakech as a model in the ’70s, when Saint Laurent held court in the city with Pierre Bergé and Loulou de la Falaise. Berenson’s modeling days are still thriving: She was recently the star of a campaign for the Italian brand Etro, whose cashmere fabrics she used in a beloved Parisian apartment she owned in the ’80s. And Berenson has a slew of film projects, about which she remains coy, on the horizon.
“I never expected any of the things in my life to happen. I dreamt about them. I had a desire for them, but it just came into my life as a sort of miracle,” she says of her long and rich career. “It’s great to be able to still make my dreams come true.”
This story originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of ELLE Decor. SUBSCRIBE
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