The Grand Dame of Literatura - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Grand Dame of Literatura

The Grand Dame of Literatura

By Lorena O'Neil

Victoria Ocampo


As fall’s big books hit the shelves, here’s a tale of how one woman revolutionized the world’s literature. 

By Lorena O'Neil

Victoria Ocampo could have gone the way of many aristocratic Argentine women in the early 1900s, playing housewife, producing heirs and spending her inheritance on gowns, jewelry and real estate. Instead, she smoked cigarettes, drove a car, wore pants and used her fortune to foster a literary culture in South America.

Ocampo was born in 1890. Being a girl, she was deprived of a formal institutional education, but at the insistence of her Aunt Vitola, she and her five younger sisters were taught French, English, Spanish, literature, music, religion, history and mathematics. She grew up traveling to Europe, where she once commented on seeing the Queen of England: “I am already tired and bored. Finally a nice coach arrives. Inside is an old, fat lady. That’s all. This they call the Jubilee.” (Don’t you love her already?)

Victoria smoked cigarettes, drove a car, wore pants and used her fortune to foster a literary culture in South America.

Victoria Ocampo

Victoria Ocampo


Her outspoken attitude would only intensify with age. Victoria’s true desire was to become an actress, much to the chagrin of her father, Manuel Ocampo. “The day one of my daughters gets on stage is the day I put a bullet through my head,” he said.

Her father, of course, wanted her to become a wife and mother. Victoria fell in love with Bernardo de Estrada, known as Monaco, and they were married in 1912. Their romance – although not their marriage – was short-lived after Victoria found a letter Monaco had written to her father, assuring him that Victoria would stop thinking about acting as soon as she became pregnant. “I have married a traitor,” she wrote during their honeymoon voyage to Europe.

Victoria once sold a diamond tiara so that she could rent a place for Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, after her father refused to let him stay in their villa.

Victoria soon met Monaco’s cousin Julian Martinez, with whom she carried on a 13-year affair. However, her soulmate was literature, and with Julian’s emotional support, she began writing an analysis on Dante’s Inferno and other literary works. Just as Gertrude Stein was hosting the Lost Generation at her salon, Victoria invited writers and artists over to her homes in San Isidro and Mar de Plata to listen to music and discuss current events.

In 1931 Victoria founded Sur, a literary magazine that published articles by Octavio Paz, Henry Miller, Jorge Luis Borges and T.S. Eliot. The magazine covered not only literature but also culture, music and social issues. Two years later she opened the Sur publishing house and published Federico Garcia Lorca’s El Romancero Gitano, followed by translations of Virginia Woolf, Jack Kerouac, Carl Jung and more. Many South American authors credit Ocampo with educating them at a time when literary translations did not exist elsewhere. 

Victoria counted many of these authors as her close friends, but her writing and publishing skills did not solely define her. She was the first Argentine woman to obtain a driver’s license. She would socialize with international guests at her villa in San Isidro, donning her trademark white cat’s-eye glasses.

“For us, Sur was temple, home, center of meeting and confrontation.” – Octavio Paz 

Her taste in music was extremely contemporary. Victoria was championing Igor Stravinsky when people were walking out of his shows because they disliked his music so much. She eventually completed her dream of acting by performing in Stravinsky’s Persephone in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, calling it “the most painful memory” because it was the best thing she’d ever done in her life, and she wanted to continue acting.

At 74 Victoria saw an early Beatles gig in London and returned home with their record and a John Lennon wig. During a salon, she insisted Borges don the wig. He declined. She said he would never amount to anything.

At age 63 she was arrested as a political prisoner for publicly speaking out against President Juan Peron. Aldous Huxley, Waldo Frank, the New York Times and the prime minister of India all called for her release.

Her strong personality and love of literature impacted intellectuals across the world. English writer Graham Greene and French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan dedicated books to her, and Victoria received honorary degrees from Columbia University and Harvard University. She was also named as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

When Victoria passed away from mouth cancer in 1979, Borges wrote, “In a country and in an era in which women were generic, she had the distinction of being an individual. She dedicated her fortune, which was considerable, to the education of her country and of her continent. Personally, I owe a great deal to Victoria, but as an Argentine, I owe her far more.”

Now that’s a life epigraph if we’ve ever heard one.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories