Lush Places

03.24.14

Casa de la Torre: The Museum of Mexico’s Liberace

Fifty miles south of Mexico City, a house holds a massive trove of international art collected by the world’s most flamboyant bon vivant—yet, you’ve probably never heard of him.

Robert Brady, a consummate bon vivant, Hollywood hobnobber, and kaftan enthusiast, lived a rather short, but very full life spending his inheritance creating one of the most beautifully curated collections of private art in the world. Casa de la Torre, his masterpiece, is an immaculately preserved residence-cum-museum that is a testament to the impeccable taste and quirky life of its creator.

Born in 1928 in the cornfields of the Midwest, Brady was the son of a railroad tycoon and a teacher. From an early age, he was encouraged to pursue the arts, and he studied painting, among other disciplines, during his university years. Capitalizing on his family’s excessive wealth, Brady left the United States after he finished his studies and headed to Europe.

The gadabout trust-fund kid purchased a home along the Grand Canal in Venice next to Peggy Guggenheim, and the two became fast friends. Guggenheim pulled the confirmed bachelor into her coven of beatnik friends. They often travelled together, picking up one-of-a-kind souvenirs in Asia, Africa, India, and the Pacific.

But in 1959, Brady left Europe for a new adventure in Cuernavaca, Mexico. At the time, the city was a bustling town of international acclaim, long attracting a colorful corps d’elite as well as a motley cast of characters, including the Shah of Iran and mob boss Al Capone.

“He placed an oppressive preponderance of religious art at the entrance to his boudoir.”

The new residents’ need for privacy spawned a curious perversion of architecture that felt almost medieval in style: rows of high walls hid rambling gardens and villas. By the time Brady arrived, the city was a veritable Tetris game of villas fit into a grid of staunchly protected private estates. The Cuernavaca of today is much like it was during Brady’s time, with its busiest streets wholly unremarkable, offering no sign of the spoils within.

Brady purchased part of a rather rundown monastery and transformed it into Casa de la Torre—his own private manse. His home quickly became a reliquary of sorts as he fastidiously transformed each room into a shrine displaying a smorgasbord of decorative arts. Brady possessed the remarkable ability to take items from disparate cultures and bring them together in the most stylish way possible. He hung rare masks from Papua New Guinea above embroidered Peruvian pillows, and somehow the combination made sense.

His curation techniques were far from scientific; his knack for interior design was often fueled by his sense humor. He placed an oppressive preponderance of religious art at the entrance to his boudoir, undoubtedly as a sly nod to the fact that his bedroom activities were most definitely not Jesus-approved.

Inspired by Guggenheim’s salons, Brady sought out emerging artists and took a special interest in Mexico’s artistic community. He vigorously collected works by Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Rufino Tamayo, and María Izquierdo.

A painter himself, Brady added to the ever-growing collection with his own oeuvres, which included a vibrant portrait of Guggenheim (coterie of faithful dogs included) and a giant painting of his cook, María, depicted with strange, chicken-like legs and a noticeably disgruntled smirk. Fittingly, the latter portrait hangs in the kitchen beside an assortment of decorative dishware.

Though covered floor-to-ceiling with roughly 1,500 pieces of irreplaceable objets d’art, Casa de la Torre was far from hallowed. Ever the consummate host, the effervescent Brady made sure that his hacienda became an obligatory stopping point for the Hollywood jet set on their international party circuit. He regularly welcomed the most talked-about entertainers of the time, from Maria Callas and Rita Hayworth to Candice Bergen and Ali McGraw. European royals and diplomats would also find themselves at Brady’s door, seeking refuge in his gaudy world where the stifling etiquette protocols were left on the other side of the estate’s vine-covered walls.  

His most frequent and beloved guest was Josephine Baker, whose presence can be felt throughout the mansion in framed photographs, signed artwork, and a wooden doll of the danseuse in her signature banana dress. Brady adored Baker’s company so much that he styled an entire guest suite for her using an unholy mishmash of African tribal art and painted sutras from the Indian subcontinent.

When Brady died of liver cancer in 1986, he bequeathed his mansion to the city, allowing the municipal government to transform the estate into a museum. He had one stipulation: nothing in his home could be touched or rearranged. Even the linen kaftans in his dresser drawers came with explicit instructions to be stacked in a manner that reduced the gradual fading of their color. He knew that his intercontinental collection of art was priceless, and the manner in which it was arranged was a veritable exhibit of its own (and, more generally, a testament to his wickedly good taste.)

Much like his close friend Peggy Guggenheim, who was famously buried with her dogs on her Italian estate, Brady was entombed on the grounds of his adopted land, forever cementing his reputation as the Mexican Liberace.