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COLUMN ONE : After Years of Music, Silence : Once a budding concert pianist, Dorothy Eustis moved to Venice and lived as a woman of mystery. Then, in her 70s, illness left her mute and bedridden. America ignored her, but Italians have rallied to help.

March 22, 1995|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VENICE, Italy — Once, concert audiences in the United States thrilled to her music. But when Dorothy Eustis came to live in Venice, she was aging, alone and thirsting for new friends.

Along ancient canals, Venetians welcomed her. She brought them flowers, and sometimes she bewitched them with piano recitals in her apartment living room, but no one knew she had been famous.

New friends became her family, and she became "La Dorothy," a familiar figure striding through the Cannaregio neighborhood in her blond wig and white raincoat; cheerful, outgoing, the perfect lady.

But over time Eustis began to fret. Nobody knows why. She carried a can of Mace in her pocket, prepared to fight off muggers, the Mafia, kidnapers, unseen enemies out to poison her, kill her--to get her.

They never came, but something even more insidious attacked her. One spring morning, her mind snapped shut. Friends took her for help. She had fallen into any expatriate's worst nightmare: to be old and helpless in a foreign land.

For two years she lay vacant and mute, withdrawn from the world, in a Venice hospital bed for which no one has paid. A mystery patient with no known family, she was ignored by her own government and abandoned by all except the doctors who refused to release her into emptiness and a neighbor who never stopped caring.

Against the odds, the doctor and the neighbor won.

On Tuesday, Dorothy Helen Eustis, who once filled Carnegie Hall, left Venice's Giustinian Hospital by ambulance for a home in Florence, where Roman Catholic nuns have volunteered to minister to her.

La Dorothy is 79, a frail, silent echo of the dynamic performer who debuted with her hometown Seattle Symphony when she was 12.

During and after World War II, Eustis played with leading American orchestras. She performed with conductor Sir Thomas Beecham and pianist Jose Iturbi in her teens, making her debut at New York's Town Hall. In 1946, she debuted at the Hollywood Bowl under conductor Leopold Stokowski.

"There are many who believe this healthy, happy-hearted, handsome and courageous West Coast girl is destined for great things," one columnist wrote.

Eustis made several transcontinental tours and appeared in movies including "The Chase" and "Carnegie Hall."

A Eustis performance in Richmond, Va., rang with "that intangible thing we call inspiration," one reviewer said.

"A brilliant performance," wrote another critic after one New York concert.

Eustis apparently stopped performing publicly in the 1960s. She never told her Venice friends why she left the stage.

"It was a dream to hear her play," said Venice hotel clerk Giuseppe Visentin, who would listen in awe with a handful of the pianist's other new friends in her living room nearly half a century later.

Publicity photos taken in her prime show Eustis as a tall, imposing, composed woman.

She still was that when she first visited Venice in 1987, spending several months at the Canal Hotel near the railroad station.

"She was a splendid lady-- una signora. She went out of her way to make friends," Visentin said. "She'd bring us plants to the hotel as gifts."

Her new friends believe that Eustis came to Venice after living in London for a decade or more, and that she perhaps had lived elsewhere in Europe.

Nobody realized how well-known she once had been, or had any inkling why her 1947 marriage to an industrial engineer had ended.

"She was mysterious about the past. She never talked about herself, except the music, and if you'd ask about her family, Dorothy would make an ugly face. Neither did she have any interest in going back to the United States," said Arlette Moro, the 47-year-old wife of a professor of architecture at the University of Venice.

Eustis apparently had no children, but she could not have had a more loving daughter than Moro.

"She probably will never know it, but Dorothy's great fortune was to have known Signora Moro," said Dario Bianchini, an earnest Venetian lawyer who now is Eustis' no-nonsense, court-appointed guardian.

Moro says she and her school-age daughter Martina met Eustis by chance on a bus leaving Venice to go to the circus. They spoke English and La Dorothy spoke practically no Italian.

"She was always planning to learn but never mastered it," Moro said.

Friendship grew, and when Eustis returned to live in Venice in 1988, the Moro family helped find her an apartment and, later, a small piano.

"I had the impression she had not played for many years. Still, she was very afraid to hurt her hands," Moro said.

In Cannaregio, one of Venice's least tourist-spoiled neighborhoods, where her $1,000-a-month second-floor apartment looked onto a branch of the Grand Canal, Eustis became accepted as a retired woman of refined taste and independent means.

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