Source: Harpers & Queen UK, September 2002
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Gentleman playboy, renowned lover and billionaire tycoon, ‘Gianni’ Agnelli turned Fiat, Ferrari and Juventus into world-beating behemoths. But his tragedy-pront family seems destined to leave him without an heir. Is this dynasty doomed, asks William Stadiem.
‘He is the most elegant man I’ve ever known,’ says Alexandra de Borchgrave, of Giovanni Agnelli, the driving force behind Fiat. A pre-eminent hostess and author, de Borchgrave, whose husband is the editor-in-cheif of The Washington Times, says that when she and her husband first encountered Agnelli in 1969, she wasn’t prepared for the avalanche of luxury and chic that engulfed them. ‘He invited us to his apartment in one of those great buildings in Turin, and his servants prepared fresh tomato juice. I’ll never forget that. You rarely get fresh orange juice at cocktail time, but fresh tomato juice? And that was just the beginning. The pasta., the Canalettos, the furniture, the friends. the family – everything was perfect; but not as perfect as Agnelli himself. That hair, that tan, those wrinkles. No actor could play him, not even Marcello Mastroianni. He is the soul, the essence of the best of Italy. He’s their real king. When he goes, Italy goes.’
Henry Kissinger recently said of Agnelli: ‘He is one of the people in the world l like most. He represents the permanent establishment, the continuity, what Italy can be proud of.’ But now, Agnelli is suffering from a cancer that is widely rumoured to have spread beyond his prostate. Last May, when he flew to New York for treatment, rumours of this last tycoon’s imminent demise mused a panic on the Milan stock exchange. Oddly enough. Fiat’s long-depressed stock shot up, with the prospect of the company’s sale, for it is believed that, alive, Agnelli would never relinquish the ailing car division, despite his sale of a 20 per cent stake to General Motors in 2000. Through Fiat, Agnelli owns Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Maserati. Where would Italy be without them? It is almost unthinkable, as is the absence of the man himself, in his trademark driving moccasins, unbuttoned button-down collars, wristwatch on the outside of his shirt cuff (a trademark he picked up from the clockwatching coaches of his vaunted football team Juventus). Italy senza Agnelli? lt would be like France sans de Gaulle. but even worse.
That Giovanni ‘Gianni’ Agnelli could die – that Fiat, much less Ferrari, could be devoured by the SUV monster of Detroit – such is the stuff of tragedy. Yet tragedy has been the leitmotif of the Agnelli dynasty almost ever since Fiat (Fabrica Italiana di Automobili Torino) was founded in 1899.
In 1935, when Gianni Agnelli was 14, his falher Edoardo was decapirated in a freak seaplane accident in Genoa. In 1945, he lost his mother, Virginia. in a car accident near the family beach compound in Forte dei Marmi. His brother Giorgio died at 35, in 1965, and his favourite nephew Giovannino – scheduled to succeed his uncle as head of Fiat – saw his brilliant career plans snuffed out by a rare stomach cancer which felled the heir at 33 in 1997. And in 2000, after decades of heroin addiction, Gianni Agnelli’s only son, Edoardo, leapt off a 25o-foot-high motorway viaduct in Turin. his Fiat Croma left idling at the scene. Aside from the family deaths, Gianni Agnelli himself nearly lost his own life in two car crashes of his own that nearly destroyed his right leg, and left him with a permanent limp. Apart from these troubles, there were other clouds over the dynasty, such as the wartime alliance of Fiat’s founding father with Mussolini, as well as Gianni’s own fiscal mésalliance with Libyan strongman Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, to whom a lira-strapped Agnelli sold a huge stake in Fiat in 1976.
‘There’s no tycoon in the world like him’ says Taki, a friend of Agnelli’s. ‘No one comes close to having his charm, particularly the moron crooks who run America’s big business. He’s a prince, and they are football hooligans in comparison.’ The Greek sportsman/ social commentator, who has crewed on Agnelli’s hi-tech yacht., Stealth, which won America’s Jubilee Cup in 2001, remembers the effect Agnelli had on his fellow mogul, Henry Ford. ‘Ford was a very rough diamond. When he saw how Gianni lived, he divorced his American wife and got himself a third-rate Italian, just to try to copy him.’
One part of the Gianni Agnelli mystique is his image as a Croesus-like businessman. Another is that of a Casanova-like stud. In addition to his 50-year marriage to Princess Marella Caracciolo di Castagneto, one of the world’s legendary beauties and one of Truman Capote’s famous ‘swans’, Gianni Agnelli had high-profile premarital affairs – with film stars, including Anita Ekberg and Rita Hayworth, and society beauties such as Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman. Agnelli has also been seen and photographed with some of the most stunning models on the planet.
‘Gianni is not someone a normal woman can easily resist,’ says New York socialite Jan Cushing, who recalls a winter skiing holiday in St Moritz at 21, when she was ‘recruited’ by one of Agnelli’s ‘scouts.’ ‘The scout himself was a handsome young Bulgarian, pretty smooth and dashing,’ recalls Cushing. The Bulgarian invited her to a Christmas Eve party at the Agnelli chalet. ‘I wasn’t sure what to expect, an orgy or what, but I was young and reckless and thought, why not? I was up for adventure. But it turned out to be the homiest Christmas Eve I’ve ever had. The Bulgarian wasn’t there. There were no models. It was just eight people: Gianni, Marella, some family and me. They were like best friends. We talked about world politics. It was terribly jolly.’ But that Christmas wasn’t the last that Jan saw of Gianni. ‘A few years later, I was back. I was seeing [Greek shipping magnate] Stavros Niarchos at the time. At four o’clock, the telephone rang in my room. It was Gianni, who asked, “Can I come upstairs?” I asked him why, and he said “I have to see you. I have to.” He was very urgent and very convincing. I told him how flattered I was, but that I was seeing Stavros who was, supposedly, one of his best friends. He kept pressing his case and, at one point when I wouldn’t give in, I heard this huge laughter on the phone. It was Stavros. “I had no idea you were so loyal,” he said. This was their idea of a great joke.’
The origins of the Agnelli story go back to fid de siecle Turin, a dour city in the foothills of the Alps where Gianni’s grandfather and namesake, Giovanni Agnelli, moved out of the cavalry and into the horsepower business. Muscling out his original partners, he came to dominate his country’s nascent car industry, arrogating to himself the sobriquet ‘the Henry Ford of Italy’. By the end of World War I, during which Fiat provided most of the Italian military’s mobile equipment, Agnelli was considered the country’s leading industrialist. However, in 1921, communist workers seized the Fiat plants, and Agnelli responding by quitting the company. As it turned out, the workers couldn’t get by without him. After barely a year, 3,000 employees marched on Agnelli’s private office and petitioned him to return. He heeded the call. However, after this brush with communism, Agnelli was natural prey to the Fascism of Benito Mussolini. In 1923, Il Duce appointed Agnelli Snr to the Italian senate for life. He thus became known as ‘the Senator’.
‘Ihe Senator’s son Edoardo followed his father to the Pinerolo Cavalry Academy, the Sandhurst of Italy, and then wcm to work in the family’s ball-bearing business. He also gave the family, which was entirely bourgeois, its first connection to the Italian aristocracy, when he married Virginia Bourbon del Monte, whose father was a Roman prince. The couple had seven children: four girls and three boys. Gianni was the second child. ln her 1975 memoir We Always Wore Sailor Suits, Gianni’s sister Susanna, or Suni, who went on to become a prominent politician, recalled how, despite their great wealth, the Agnellis were still considered second-class citizens, well beneath the aristocracy into which her father had married. She recalls that her sisters had a ‘desperate battle to overcome the horror of looking like a grocer’s daughter. The Roman children don’t talk to us anyway’, she said. ‘They all speak Italian with an English accent and don’t understand how anybody could live in Turin. They live in beautiful palazzi with terraced gardens, where their Easter eggs are hidden. They don’t go to school; they go for picnics al the Villa Doria. The girls are all called Donna Topazia or Donna Babu or Donna Francesca. We are called by our names.’
Gianni, nevertheless, was adept at cultivating an aristocratic take on life. He pronounced that ‘falling in love is for servants’, despite the fact that his recently widowed mother had embarked upon a torrid and scandalous love affair with the left-wing Curzio Malaparte. That scandal, combined with the outrage of the widow Agnelli taking to the Forte dei Marmi sun completely naked to flaunt her body, prompted the Senator to declare her an unfit mother. With the power of Mussolini behind him, he seized custody of his seven grandchildren.
As his grandfather’s ward and heir, a teenage Gianni was sent to work incognito at Ford in Detroit to see an American assembly line in action. More to his liking, however, was the family’s traditional alma mater, the Pinerolo Cavalry Academy. From there, he volunteered to fight for Il Duce on the Russian front, and was twice wounded. After further service in north Africa, Gianni worked at Fiat, making equipment for the Axis. However, when the tide of the war turned against Italy, Gianni and his sister Suni decided to switch horses and bet on the winner. They tried to drive south toward Naples and join the Allies. But a terrible car crash, caused by their inept German chauffeur, nearly cost Gianni his leg, and kept him in hospitals and out of action until the fighting was over. When the end of the war came, there was no period of rejoicing for the Agnellis. Soon after the Allied victory, his mother met her end in a fatal car crash. Three weeks later, a broken and defeated Senator, having been ejected from control of Fiat by the Allies, died in Turin. He was 79. Hardly anyone outside the family attended the funeral.
The Agnelli family would not resume control of Fiat until 1966. Meanwhile, Gianni, who was only 24 when the war ended in 1945, had wild oats to sew. His base was a 30-room Côte d’Azur mansion called La Leopolda, which he had purchased in the post-war real-estate clear-out sale for just $100,000. Depressed property…
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…and Jack Warner, and stars including David Niven and Gregory Peck joining the Euro-playboy set of Prince Rainier, Porfirio Rubirosa, Ay Khan, Baby Pignatari, and Gianni Agnelli.
There was a lot of sex and there were a lot of drugs,’ says Prince Muriu Ruspoli, a noble Roman who was also on the scene at the time, ‘All of these so-called playboys and their pimps to find new girls for them, scouting the beaches and the nightclubs. They always had to have something new. It was a very reckless crowd.’ So reckless that it nearly killed Agnelli. ln 1952, in the fourth year of his affair with society adventuress Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman, Gianni was caught by Pamela in flagrante with a 17-year-old French aristocrat named Anne-Marie d’Estainville. After Pamela threw a fit, Gianni spirited his young charge into his Fiat to take her back to her family home in Cap Marlin. En route, Gianni ploughed head-on into a van carrying four butchers to the morning meat market in Nice.
Anne-Music and the butchers somehow survived – Gianni almost did not. He broke his jaw, and repeated the injury to his bad right leg, which became gangrenous. Only the intervention of sister Suni saved the limb. She chartered a plane to take her brother to the top orthopaedic hospital in Florence where, after several operations and nine months’ recuperation, Gianni was finally able to limp on his own. During this period, both Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman and Anne- Marie d’Esminvillc were ‘retired.’
Chastened by his brush with death, Gianni decided to settle down. At 32, he proposed to a princess from one of the great families of Naples, a friend of his sisters’ who had had a crush on him for years. Marella Caracciolo’s mother was the daughter of an Illinois distiller who had married well. Marella had studied at the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, but she was no career girl, and she was three months pregnant with Edoardo when the couple married in Strasbourg in 1953.
Until 1966, Gianni Agnelli’s main business interest was Juventus, the football team that he helped build into a colossus. Otherwise, he and Marella spent their time being globally chic, jetting between their homes in Turin, Rome, St Moritz, Paris, Corsica and New York. They had two children, Edoardo and Margherita, who seemed as perfect as their parents. Fiat seemed perfect as well, having boomed in the post-war period under the dictatorial control of the Senator’s successor, Professor Vittorio Valletta. a five-foot-one plutocrat who had crushed the communist assembly-line workers and turned the operation into a true ‘auto-cracy’. By 1966, success had erased any sour memories of the Senator’s Fascist collaboration. With Valletta now aged 81 and ailing, it was time for an Agnelli to retake the reins. Re-enter Gianni1 aged 45. His playboy phase was over. Now it was tycoon time.
The remaining years of the Sixties were sweet, business-wise, for Agnelli. who diversified Fiat into banking, textiles, insurance and publishing (it owns Rizzoli and part of La Stampa). However, the oil crisis of the early Seventies dealt the company a major body blow, one that knocked Gianni into the outstretched arms of Libya’s Gaddafi, who used his oil windfall to acquire a massive 10 per cent of Fiat. Adding injury to insult were a series of massive strikes, labour unrest (which intensified when it was discovered that Fiat was spying on its own workers) and the spectre of the Red Brigades. As the richest man in Italy, billionaire Agnelli and his family were the terrorists’ prime kidnap targets. An Agnelli couldn’t – and wouldn’t go anywhere without a phalanx of armed guards.
By 1980, the fun of being a tycoon was wearing thin. Agnelli, turning 60, realised he needed managers made of sterner stuff than his family could provide. He replaced his younger brother Umberto, who was serving under Gianni as general manager, with corporate strongman Cesare Romiti. The stresses continued. His son Edoardo, whom Gianni would have loved to succeed him, started well, going to Princeton, but then got sidetracked by eastern religions and heavy drugs. Gianni’s daughter Margherita also shunned any company role. She married Alain Elkann, the writer son of the chief rabbi of Turin. They had two sons before divorcing.
The seemingly indestructible Gianni underwent coronary-bypass surgery’ in 1983, after which he became relatively monastic in his eating and drinking habits. He needed all the stress relief he could get: in addition to the erosion of Flats market share by its relentless Japanese competitors, there was the traumatic arrest and trial of Edoardo in Kenya for heroin possession in 1989. Aided by a dream team of lawyers worthy of OJ Simpson, Edoardo was acquitted. Neither of his parents flew to Africa for the trial.
Abandoning all hope of Edoardo joining the company, and with boss Romiti approaching retirement, Gianni struggled with the perennial problem of a successor. He thought he had found his man in nephew Giovannino, son of the bounced brother Umberto. A graduate of Brown, the good-looking former paratrooper had been toured as Italy’s most eligible bachelor until he married the beautiful American architect Avery Howe in 1995. Giovannino’s mother’s family owned Piaggio, maker of the classic Vespa scooter. Giovannino had taken over the company and was beating Japanese rivals Honda and Yamaha at their own game in the European scooter market. He had proved his competitive mettle. Uncle Gianni was delighted; he had found his heir. Alas, three months after Avery gave birth to their heir, Virginia Asia Agnelli, Giovannino succumbed to stomach cancer. He was only 33.
Three years later, the Agnelli curse struck once more, with the suicide of Edoardo, who had become known to his New York friends as ‘Crazy Eddie’. Eddie Agnelli was crazy in his lavish generosity, though he did at one time in 1998 vent his frustration at being passed over by his father at Fiat by comparing the situation to ‘Caligula, who made his horse a senator.’ He was buried beside his cousin Giovannino in the family crypt at Villar Perosa, the ancestral home in the Turin hills.
Now all dynastie eyes turned to Gianni’s grandson, John Elkann, who was elevated to the Fiat board of director aged 22, following Giovannino’s death. A graduale of Turin Polytechnic University, the tall, handsome ‘Iachi’, as he is known, worked incognito (just as his grandfather had done at Ford) on Fiat assembly lines in Poland and France, as well as in a Fiat-owned lighting plant in Cannock, Staffordshire. Described as an intense ‘petrol~ head’, he was dispatched to the United States to spend a year in the General Electric accounting department. His boss at Fiat, Paolo Fresco, who joined the in 1998, was former vice-chairman of General Electric under superstar Jack Welch. It is fervently hoped that Iachi will rise to this Pantheon. Ready to assist him are Fiat consultant Henry Kissinger, and Agnelli’s dear friend David Rockefeller, just in case.
John Elkann looks setto be the man who is chosen to fill the world’s most well-heeled shoes. Yet the patriarch, Gianni himself, is still showing no signs of giving up the ghost. He continues to revel in his black-sailed Stealth, the fastest sailing boat in the the world, the Darth Vader of the high seas. Gianni Agnelli is a man incapable of slowing down. Mussolini., Gaddafi, broken legs, cancer – all be damned. Back from New York, he underplays his medical problems. And he still enjoys unparalleled respect. ‘People say we’ve got too much; he said recently. ‘But on the whole, I think they trust us more than others.’ For now, the uncrowned King of Italy still reigns.