Vivian Grisogono

Zlata Grisogono (1910 - 2000)

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Zlata, c.1933 Zlata, c.1933

The story of my mother Zlata (1910-2000), whose life spanned a turbulent period of European history.

Zlata was born to Ivan (1869-1936) and Darinka Dubravčić (née Vuletić, 1878-1959) in Sušak (now part of Rijeka, which was then known as Fiume) in northern Croatia on June 23rd 1910. As the laws of the time restricted Croatian ethnic names, she was formally christened Aurelia ('Golden Girl'), but was always known as Zlata, the Croatian equivalent.


Darinka Vuletić was engaged to Ivan Dubravčić in 1897

Golden childhood

The Dubravčić family into which she was born was from Nerežišća on the island of Brač. At the end of the 19th century they were suffering severe hardships, in common with very many Dalmatian families. There was massive economic migration at the time, and young Ivan Dubravčić was told by his father that he too was to be sent to America to earn a living for the family. There was a last-minute change of plan, and Ivan and his brothers put their efforts into wine and oil production.

Ivan Dubravcic enjoyed life to the full

Zlata's father Ivan (right) was a keen hunter

The Dubravčić family was large and generally close-knit.

Some of the Dubravcic family. Zlata's father Ivan on the right, with Darinka, Ivo and Dinko behind him. Ivan's father is at the back with the umbrella

Their trading was so successful that by the time Zlata was born the family was extremely wealthy, acquiring a substantial portfolio of business and residential properties and land not only on Brač, but also in Split and Rijeka. Zlata's father Ivan enjoyed his life to the full. He bought extensive woodlands near Rijeka and on Brač, and kept horses as well as very fine hunting dogs.He cherished and preserved the countryside in his possession.

Ivan and Darinka Dubravcic with their children first-born Ivo on the left, second son Dinko on the right. Darinka is holding a third son who died young before Zlata was born

The happiest days of Zlata's early childhood were spent in Podvežica, then an isolated hamlet some distance from Rijeka, now just a part of the city's sprawling suburbs. Very late in her life, Zlata would speak with the deepest love of Podvežica's natural beauty and the horses, dogs and other animals who were her childhood companions.

Zlata with one of the many dogs she loved during her lifetime

Later on, Zlata's happy times centred on Brač, where she loved swimming across the exquisite bay. She had a large-sized very powerful speedboat named 'Torpedo', and revelled in water-skiing behind it, exciting the admiration and jealousy of the onlookers in almost equal measure.

Zlata's boat Torpedo, requisitioned during WWII by the Partisans and never recovered

Natural talents

Zlata was blessed with many gifts. She loved music, and played the piano with style and verve, not only classical pieces, but also popular songs and the blues. She had exceptional linguistic talents. From childhood she spoke fluent German and Italian alongside her native Croatian and the Brač dialect. She could read and write in French, and she could read English. She learned to speak English properly later in her life, and although she never lost her strong Croatian accent, her written English was faultless and delightful.

Zlata was an avid reader all her life, and even in her later years she was able to quote extensively from a wide variety of books in different languages, from classics like Dante's 'Divina Commedia' to lighter literature such as P.G.Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster stories.

Happy times

Zlata was known for her beauty, and when she married Nenad Grisogono on 26th November 1933, the 'golden girl' married into a family whose name (originally Greek Χρησογονος) means 'golden origins'.

Zlata and Nenad at a ball in 1934, when she was pregnant with her first child Sasa

Zlata and Nenad, 1934

Nenad was a promising young lawyer who had obtained his doctorate in law at a very young age. He was a keen all-round sportsman, with special talents for boxing, sailing, tennis and chess. His father Prvislav was Ambassador in Prague at the time, and the young couple moved between Prague, Split and Belgrade, where Nenad's legal work was based.

The early part of their life together involved a glamorous social round of charity balls, receptions and sports events.

Their first child. Saša (Aleksander), was born in Split in September 1934, and their second, Branko, in Belgrade in March 1938. In between, in 1936, Zlata's father died after a long and debilitating illness which had left him in pain and wheelchair-bound over several years. Otherwise there was little to mar the family's happiness. Holidays were spent skiing, sailing and swimming, and they wanted for nothing.

Wartime trauma, a little joy and much sadness

The outbreak of war and the Axis occupation of then-Yugoslavia in 1941 brought ever-increasing levels of danger and hardship to everyone caught up in the conflict, however unwittingly or unwillingly.

The family was based in Belgrade at the time, and Nenad quickly sent Zlata and the children back to Split, which was relatively safe under the Italian occupation of Dalmatia.

After seeing the Nazi concentration camp at Sajmište, on the outskirts of Belgrade, in July 1941, Prvislav and Nenad became active in the resistance. They helped Jewish friends and acquaintances to escape, and they liaised with the Vatican and London as well as other resistance workers. Prviaslav was arrested and imprisoned twice buy the Gestapo, but Nenad managed to stay free, eventually returning to Split to join the defence forces.

In the midst of all the uncertainty, Zlata and Nenad had their third child, Maria, born in Split in May 1942. In September 1943, following the fall of Italy, Nenad fought with the combined forces consisting of Partisans and non-Partisans who defended Split against the incoming Nazis. After two weeks they were forced to retreat, and Nenad made immediate plans to escape, knowing he was at high risk of being arrested or killed.

Zlata with Maria, Sasa and Branko in Split, 1943

Zlata with Maria on her lap, Saša and Branko, in Split

Open goodbyes would have been dangerous, so he and Zlata walked chatting casually on the seafront at Split before Nenad departed on a small boat, eventually reaching the safety of British-controlled Bari in Italy.

Courage in adversity

Immediately after Nenad left, the Gestapo came to the family house late at night to arrest him. Zlata faced them with the utmost calm and bravery, telling them in her fluent German that she did not know where her husband was, but if they woke her children she would be very angry. They departed meekly. The outcome could have been otherwise.

Zlata was unafraid in the face of danger. Sometimes she even courted it recklessly. On many occasions during the Nazi occupation, she and her friend Dora would defiantly hammer out a duet version of Beethoven's Fifth symphony on Zlata's boudoir grand piano, while Saša would rush round the house fastening the shutters to prevent the Nazi soldiers billeted nearby from recognizing the BBC call-sign – the first five notes represented the Morse code for V, therefore the Allies' motto of V-for-Victory. Aged all of ten, Saša was much more aware of the dangers of taking risks than Zlata ever was during her long life.

World War II was a lean time of food and fuel shortages. The end of the war brought worse, with the victory of the Communist Partisans in then-Yugoslavia's complex civil war. It quickly became clear that Nenad, a staunch promoter of democratic values, could not return safely to the new one-Party state, and the family could expect no favours from the new regime.

There was widespread deprivation, and deadly illnesses were rife. Saša died of pleaurisy and tuberculosis on January 16th 1947. Nenad had sent the newly available drugs from London which might have saved him, but they arrived too late. Devastated, Zlata took the brave decision to escape to rejoin Nenad. She left Branko and Maria in the care of her mother and older brother Ivo, and Nenad's father Prvislav promised to bring the children out of the country at a later date when the opportunity arose.

Zlata's escape involved sailing over to the island of Šolta and hiding overnight in a little church. The following day, she secretly left in a small boat for Italy. The penalties for flight were severe: death or prison if caught; if not, immediate loss of citizenship and confiscation of all personal property, from clothes to businesses, buildings and land. Zlata arrived in Rome with literally nothing but her life. Nenad travelled from London to meet her and take her back to London.

Refugees building a new life

Many difficulties lay ahead. Nenad's post as a Minister in the Yugoslav government-in-exile came to an abrupt end when the British government switched its support openly to Tito's Communists. Nenad's legal qualifications were not recognized in Britain. Money was desperately short. Worst of all, it was not certain if or when Branko and Maria could be brought out of then-Yugoslavia, as the borders were closed.

There was some consolation when Zlata gave birth to their fourth child, Vivian in September 1948. In July 1949, in a costly and perilous exercise, Branko and Maria escaped to Trieste in the care of Prvislav and Ksenija, Nenad's sister, with a small group of friends.

The children were reunited with their parents after the long traumatic separation, and met their little sister for the first time. However, the reunion did not last long, as Zlata fell seriously ill twice during the next three years with tuberculosis and rheumatic fever. She spent six months in an isolation hospital each time, while Branko and Maria were sent to a convent boarding school run by unsympathetic nuns, while Vivian was homed in a children's hostel.

On recovering, Zlata immediately went to work for the first time in her life, to guarantee the family's financial stability during the difficult years when Nenad was unable to earn a regular income. Previously used to servants, she now had to take on all the household chores of cooking, cleaning, washing and ironing alongside her full-time employment. She made clothes for the children, painted the house and dug the garden when needed. Zlata's determination and self-sacrifice ensured that the children were all able to continue their studies until they were ready to start their own working lives.

Zlata, Nenad and Vivian, c.1987

As a counter-balance to the general hardships of her life, she loved holidays and celebrations, and always made birthdays and Christmas memorable family occasions. In the photograph above, Zlata is wearing the only dress which was saved when her property was confiscated by the Communist regime after her escape in 1947. The dress was made for her in 1932, and only had to be shortened to fit her perfectly all those years later.

Indomitable spirit

Zlata never let physical frailty stand in her way. Hr medical history is a miracle of survival. She had tuberculosis twice, the first time at the age of 15 when antibiotics were not yet available. Apart from rheumatic fever, she endured benign tumours, episodes of malignant cancer and several leg and arm fractures, not to mention a spinal fracture while in hospital in her 80s. She bore pain and illness with astonishing fortitude throughout her life, to the confusion of many doctors who tried to write her off prematurely. In between her physical disabilities she remained active, enjoying walking and swimming well into her old age.

Famous for her strong character, Zlata had a formidable will to live, although her zest for living diminished following Nenad's death in December 1993, shortly after their Diamond Wedding celebration. The last two years of her life were spent in peace in St. Mary's Convent in Chiswick, West London. She was extremely well cared for, and enjoyed the visits of her children, granddaughter Lidija and friends.

Zlata with granddaughter Lidija, 1993

Zlata celebrated her 90th birthday in June 2000. On December 13th 2000, the 7th anniversary of Nenad's death, Zlata closed her eyes. She remained conscious but 'asleep' until 22nd December 2000, when her life very quietly and peacefully slipped away. It was, coincidentally, the anniversary of Nenad's funeral. After death, they were reunited in their homeland, and are buried together in the exquisite tiny village of Pitve on the island of Hvar.

At peace in Pitve's cemetery on Hvar Island

On June 23rd 2010, Maria, Vivian and Maria's husband Nicholas celebrated what would have been Zlata's 100th birthday in due style in one of the family's favourite restaurants in Split. Glasses were raised to her indomitable spirit. Zlata would certainly have been well pleased.

© Vivian Grisogono 2015