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.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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For two years she lay vacant and mute, withdrawn from the world, in a Venice hospital bed for which no one has paid.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.

"She knew who she liked and who she didn't. She came every couple of days--I'll never forget that white raincoat with black spots--and we would talk for an hour or two," said Pierina Biasetton, who runs a fruit stand in Cannaregio. "La Dorothy would always go home with bananas--she loved bananas--and sometimes tomatoes too, if they were especially nice."

Biasetton was a regular participant at Thursday afternoon recitals-by-the-canal.

Daisy Savini, another neighbor, remembers Eustis as a woman who took pride in herself and her art.

"Even if you knocked on her door at 8 in the morning, you'd find her well put together. . . . The music was amazing. She played from memory, and it was Liszt that she liked best," Savini said.

"Dorothy was a member of our family, almost a grandmother to Martina," said Moro, who lives in another neighborhood. At her insistence, Eustis taught piano to Martina, now 15, and even cajoled Arlette into a few lessons.

Eustis' life of pleasant retirement collapsed in four terrible days of dementia in April, 1993. She has been institutionalized ever since, adrift in her own world.

One exception came early in 1994, when for what Moro describes as a few glorious but ultimately cruel days La Dorothy seemed to have returned. But Eustis has not spoken for more than a year.

Moro has scarcely stopped talking on her behalf. One consequence is that Eustis has a safe home for the rest of her life. Another is that America's name is mud among Venetians who knew La Dorothy, or followed her story in the local media.

"I called the American Consulate in Milan and said, 'There's an American in trouble, she has no one, she needs help,' " Moro said. Citing technicalities, "they said, 'Sorry, we can't help.'

"I called the embassy in Rome. Same thing. I called Milan again and again, got into shouting matches: nothing. All my life, I have loved everything American," Moro continued. "Now, after Dorothy, I can't talk about it without wanting to spit."

Hospital officials say they had no better luck in winning official American attention.

Moro finally turned to the Italian police for help, and they persuaded her to write a letter of appeal to the prefect of the republic, the country's senior administrative authority.

It took long and anxious months of waiting, but it worked. An Italian judge went to the hospital, took one look and appointed Bianchini guardian for Eustis. He went to work.

Late last year, 19 months after Eustis was admitted to the hospital, an American vice consul managed the three-hour trek to Venice from Milan to see if she needed help. Eustis wasn't talking, but her doctors were fairly outspoken.

"Apparently the consulate felt that legally the request for help had to come from Dorothy herself. Once an Italian court became involved, they were quick to offer to repatriate Dorothy and find a home for her," Bianchini said.

Venetian journalists say that finely turned letters of self-justification from the U.S. Consulate in Milan are now raining on local news outlets.

At the American Embassy in Rome, spokesman Gustavo Suarez told The Times that U.S. privacy laws forbid the release of any information about the case.

Although her problem seems less physical than psychological, the state hospital kept Eustis without protest and without payment. Dr. Marino Peruzza, head of geriatrics, seemed surprised when asked why.

"She had no relatives. We couldn't turn her out into the street. That is not our way," Peruzza said.

Diagnosis has been difficult, Peruzza said, but Eustis does not appear to be suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

"She may understand when she wants to," he said, "but she refuses to communicate, lives in her own world, it seems to be a kind of defense on her part."

About a month ago, the Venetian newspaper Il Gazzettino stumbled on the sad story of the mysterious American. Television cameras soon followed.

All it took was one short segment on national television about the mysterious American pianist who would owe hundreds of thousands of dollars for two years of care, if she could pay--or if anyone realistically expected her to.

Springing from an Associated Press account of her story, Seattle newspapers this month found a brother who says he has not spoken with Eustis since 1968, and a niece who last saw her aunt on a concert stage even longer ago.

The niece told reporters in Seattle that she would help if she could, but by then Marilou Gasbarrini, a doctor's wife in Rome and a grandmother of five, had seen the news reports.

"I saw this poor, abandoned woman, and I was really moved," Gasbarrini said. She called a friend, the mother superior of the Little Sisters of the Poor, an international order of nuns based in Rennes, France, who care for old people without funds or family.

"I asked if the nuns could help," Gasbarrini said. "Half an hour later the mother superior called back and said, 'God must want us to take the American signora , for one of our ladies has just died. She can go to our house in Florence.' "

On her last full day at the Venice hospital, Eustis lay dressed in a flowered housecoat in a well-made bed in a bright room with two other patients.

Hands clasped, she stared at the wall, her occasionally blinking blue eyes the only sign of life. She gave no response to greetings in English from a visitor, or to piano music--Liszt--played on a tape recorder.

Early Tuesday, clearly upset, Dorothy Eustis left the Venice she loved in an ambulance boat. Today, she lies immersed in a concerto only she can hear at her new home in Florence. The nuns there promise to care for her until the music stops.

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