Maurizio Gucci, whose family name is still a synonym for style and chic, forfeited his pride, his reputation, and his global empire of bags and shoes before he lost his life to a mysterious, elegantly dressed assassin. From Maurizio’s Bulgari-draped ex-wife, and from other family members, JUDY BACHRACH learns of the intense loathing and vicious rivalries that brought down the Gucci dynasty
Maurizio Gucci, whose family name is still a synonym for style and chic, forfeited his pride, his reputation, and his global empire of bags and shoes before he lost his life to a mysterious, elegantly dressed assassin. From Maurizio’s Bulgari-draped ex-wife, and from other family members, JUDY BACHRACH learns of the intense loathing and vicious rivalries that brought down the Gucci dynasty
At five in the afternoon, strong spring sunshine streams through Milano, hardening the new green of the pines in the public gardens, warming the white backs of fat ducks in the Villa Reale, lighting the faces of the spiteful old ladies who gape up at the stone balustrades protruding from the now famous attico of Maurizio Gucci. You can see practically everything from the penthouse of this man who lost an empire of bags and shoes, forfeiting what counts most in Italy: a name, a family, an inheritance.
Much of the world, after he grew too ashamed to meet it, was brought to Maurizio’s living room, a cocktail party of acquisitions thrown together. On a far wall, a late de Chirico depiction of mysteriously illuminated columns coldly eyes a sentimental 17th-century painting of Jesus convening his disciples in the Tuscan countryside. Gold-edged plaster cornices overhang matching indigo silk couches. Enormous chocolates in shiny foil fill prim dishes near a vast Chinese table as thickly rouged and lacquered as an aging actress.
But you can’t see a strand of sunlight. Curtains of heavy satin filter out all intrusions. This is the refuge where the last of the Guccis to run the Gucci company hid out, disgraced, mocked, and often in debt. Maybe the darkness was his solace. “I’m a weak man, I’ve messed up everything,” Maurizio confided to his older daughter, Alessandra. “I think this time I really put my foot in it.”
To everyone else, he was invariably less candid. “I feel like Rocky Marciano, the boxer who fought with his face full of blood, but won,” Gucci declared almost two years ago as his company slid from his angry grasp.
The faceful of blood he did receive. On the morning of March 27, Maurizio Gucci kissed his lover and left the sumptuous gloom of the apartment, striding past the building’s life-size murals of dour Roman matrons and blank-eyed warriors. After a mere 300 yards, he began to mount the blue-carpeted steps to his office on the Via Palestro. Behind him, a patient, elegantly dressed man peeled out of the rush hour traffic, and then everything stopped. No silencer was used.
“Two shots in the back of the head and then, pup, one in the temple. An execution,” explains a Gucci cousin, mimicking with cocked fingers the gesture of the gunman. All of Italy engages in this pantomime these days. The newspapers are full of diagrams and drawings showing the exact methodology of the hit. It wasn’t, the general consensus runs, high-quality. A portiere, an eyewitness, was wounded, not mortally. The gun’s caliber, 7.65, seemed an unusual choice for the crime.
“A paid killer, but whether he was a real professional—that I can’t say,” prosecutor Carlo Nocerino declares mournfully in his office at the Palace of Justice. “A professional killer needs, maximum, two shots. He shot too much.”
Nocerino is a transplanted Neapolitan, handsome and dark, with full lips. But on the day we meet, his solemn eyes are pouchy with fatigue, his face as rumpled as a slept-on sheet. He’s just spent a very long weekend trying to pry information from the dead man’s reticent relations. “I don’t know how much I can tell you” is how he begins our conversation.
As it turns out, the prosecutor has almost nothing to tell. Who is behind this infamous execution? “I have no idea what the motive was and without that I can’t find the person who sent the killer.” What could Maurizio have done to earn such dreadful retribution? “Ma! It’s a real mystery. Because this guy went to the office on foot. If he was worried, he could easily have hired a bodyguard. But he didn’t hire a bodyguard.”
What was the exact message being sent by the murder? “Here we are really stumped!” What are the chances of finding the hit man? “I have little hope of finding him. It’s very difficult.” Even the most workaday details are hazy. The make of the hired killer’s getaway car? “We’re not 100 percent sure. It could have been a Renault Clio.”
Worse: for days, the prosecutor has been pleading with the lawyer for the resistant Patrizia Gucci, currently ensconced in the massive Gucci-family vacation villa in Saint-Moritz, for permission to let him examine Maurizio’s bank statements. “Cherchez l’argent!” cries Nocerino, and you’ll discover everything. He intends to follow the trail of clues as far as New York City, Maurizio’s last stop before his fateful return to Milan.
Surely, Nocerino insists, this murder was no crime of passion. There was money behind those three bullets pumped into Maurizio’s head. Lots of it. However, the Swiss banks are being very careful about the prosecutor’s queries into the deceased’s financial situation. Very guarded. The prosecutor cannot hide his exasperation.
“There are 14 floppy disks locked up in Switzerland.”
But this is a homicide, I protest.
“Ah—” The prosecutor gives an ironic shrug. “With a homicide the Swiss authorities are even more severe, even more difficult. It’s like a dog howling at the moon.”
What is behind the reluctance of the Swiss? At least one of the factors is the miniature figure of Patrizia Gucci— “a pocket-size Venus,” one friend calls her— whose impish crop of hair is the color of fresh pitch. “This is the only interview I’m giving,” she announces dramatically as a white-gloved butler pours Maraschino tea. We meet in her living room, which is quite different from Maurizio’s. The place is alive with light, its ceiling painted to resemble a Tiepolo heaven. Its owner is so tightly wound she seems ready to spring.
Draped in glittering Bulgari bracelets and earrings, her throat blazing with a crowd of diamonds, Patrizia is completely unrepentant about her role in this drama. Nocerino can beg and beg, but she has no intention of revealing the ebb and flow of Maurizio’s finances.
“Absolutely not. I have to protect the heritage of my two daughters.” Then she expands her declaration. “My lawyers said that there was no sense in putting all your money in the hands of the internal revenue. They leave you in your mutandine—in your boxer shorts.”
Well then, how will the Italian authorities ever find the murderer of Maurizio?
“I told you before. Who cares?”
She is wearing a small clingy knit of forest green. Her lids, broadly lined with black, give her huge liquid eyes even more of a tilt; her neat little legs are crossed at the ankles. She says that, unlike the police, she has an instinctive feeling she knows exactly who murdered Maurizio. In any case, she knew he would end up badly. “I felt something.
“You know, Maurizio used to call me La Strega Piri-Piri. A character from the cartoons, on television. Piri-Piri, it means nothing.”
And strega means witch.
“Yes. Because maybe in the cartoons she goes: Peeree, peeree, peeree, peeree. ” Here Patrizia pitches her voice to imitate the squeak of a witch. Her dark gaze is moist, insistent. She is, of course, the ex-wife of Maurizio Gucci.
Inherent in the challenge facing Prosecutor Nocerino in his arduous search for the killer is the fact that an amazing number of people had it in for the victim. Maurizio was a restless, impassioned loner with a mania for collecting: extravagant sailboats, lush residences, expensive but excruciating works of art, potent enemies. Some of his cousins despise him to this day. His clever late uncle, Aldo Gucci, almost succeeded in getting him thrown into jail. His cousin Paolo sued him and other Guccis for $13 million. Even in 1986, when the 153 Gucci shops worldwide were pulling in half a billion dollars a year and Maurizio Gucci was on top of the world, he was basically as loveless as a pauper.
And this is odd because, as one of his many younger relatives points out, quite correctly, “Maurizio was not a terrible person. He was a good person.”
Heir to a vast fortune and an even vaster responsibility—50 percent of the Gucci leather-goods empire—Maurizio should have been, by rights, the toast of Italy’s fashion industry, a major international player. “I once told Maurizio that in my time, when you went on the most important hunts, all the ladies from Grace Kelly to Lee Radziwill to Gabriella di Savoy wore Gucci,” recalls Contessa Marta Marzotto of Milan. “Tutte, tutte, tutte. You were nobody if you didn’t have the mocassini of Gucci, the bag of Gucci.”
And Maurizio understood the value of his heritage. He was only 46 when he died, an industrious man of considerable intelligence, moderately handsome but with subdued features devoid of force. “Si innamorava delle persone, ” explains a sympathetic younger cousin, also called Patrizia. Maurizio was always falling in love with new people, new workers, new ideas. Then, just as precipitately, he would change his mind.
As he did with his ex-wife, in fact. “Ask if Maurizio had any friends,” she taunts. “Ask.”
Cousins, uncles, wife, kids, business associates, friends: there was scarcely a person whom Maurizio Gucci hadn’t managed to offend horribly by the hour of his execution. Upon learning of the tragedy, his former wife summed up her emotions with unbridled specificity: “On a human level, I’m sorry. But from a personal vantage point, I can’t really say the same thing.”
“He was very weak as a character,” explains cousin Roberto Gucci less than a month after the killing. “He was easily led. He wasn’t secure. My opinion: he must have been very much confused.”
Those whom Maurizio Gucci once paid to defend his reputation are now his judges. “The fact that Gucci had no premonition that he was about to be killed—even if he’d done someone wrong—was a bit his nature. In these sorts of things he was a bit superficial,” explains Maurizio’s white-haired lawyer, Vittorio D’Aiello, smiling gently. “A little bit of a lightweight—yes, yes, exactly.”
D’Aiello knows his man. He defended Maurizio 10 years ago, when the constantly conniving and jealous Gucci cousins ratted on their king, and Maurizio was convicted of forging his late father’s signature in order to avoid paying $125 million in death duties to the tax man.
“Four handwriting experts agreed the signature was falsified,” concedes the Milanese lawyer. The conviction was, however, ultimately overturned on appeal. Maurizio—who had fled for a year to his Swiss villa to avoid arrest—came home once again to rule over his messy kingdom. “Il mondo del bello,” he dubbed that empire, because he steadfastly refused to consider his family’s products as luxury items. He refused, in fact, to think of anything in life as extravagant.
“He would say, ‘Oh, that briefcase doesn’t cost much—just $3,000,'” explains an old friend. “Maurizio had no conception of money. After he bought Stavros Niarchos’s yacht the Creole he redecorated and redid the whole thing, I remember one day he talked about the work on one room and said it wasn’t very expensive. I said, How much? He said, ‘Oh, not much—$970,000.’ One room! He had no practical sense, He was an incompetent manager. I don’t think he understood the mechanics of how you make money. Of how you run a business.”
“I say Maurizio was superficial because—well, you have to understand the life Maurizio led,” his old lawyer continues patiently. “At bottom, he was a kid who grew up rich, and he was never denied anything. Right? And therefore I can say he wasn’t likely to be fearful or to have a premonition of the dangers to come. And so he had this joyous conception of life. This is what caused him not to calculate.”
Of course, a different, less joyful man might have calculated that with so many excitable, angry, treasonous relations one’s health might be, some day or other, seriously jeopardized. But Prosecutor Nocerino strenuously denies the notion of a family plot.
“Yes, there was hate in the family. But everyone knows this. Everyone who knows the story of the Gucci family knows this.”
“Oh no, it wasn’t one of the Guccis who did this,” protests Jenny Gucci, now separated from one of Maurizio’s first cousins. “If it had been a Gucci he’d have buggered the job. They bugger everything.”
The roots of the Gucci family’s mutual loathing and self-destructive internecine rivalries are, oddly enough, the very same roots that once nourished its extraordinary commercial success. Back in 1922 in Florence, family patriarch Guccio Gucci was a clever businessman with a passion for craftsmanship and an unfailing instinct about the amount of money that the bourgeoisie would pay to be perceived as aristocrats. Handbags molded in the form of saddles, loafers clasped by gold stirrups, textiles dyed like racing silks, linked stirrups that formed the initials “GG”: over the years, Guccio Gucci created a spectrum of status symbols through shrewd observation of the guests who checked into London’s Savoy Hotel, where he spent his early days, first as a scullery hand and then as a waiter.
After his return to Italy, however, the merchant himself fell victim to the princely dreams he so successfully vended. Newspaper stories perfumed his genealogy with references to mythical highborn forebears. “Such mystique these Guccis have! But they were nothing but a bunch of cobblers, for Christ’s sake,” protests Jenny Gucci. Nonetheless, fabulous dynastic sagas written by Gucci public-relations people often referred to Guccio as descending from the Medicis, or, at the very least, as having crafted for them.
“That is, excuse me, bullshit,” young Maurizio, after he ascended the Gucci throne, informed author Gerald McKnight, who was writing a history of the Gucci clan’s warfare. “We must not give the impression that we have some special right to be on top of the world. … In my own family I insist that we do not carry on as if we came from a sort of kingdom.”
But how could he help it? How could any of the Guccis ignore the call of class woven into the very fabric of their wares? From the earliest days, old Guccio Gucci appears to have been vividly aware of founding a kind of Darwinian dynasty. It is said that the patriarch encouraged snitching among his four sons and when apprised of some youthful misdeed whipped the guilty party with the knotted end of a tablecloth. “Grandfather would play his sons off against each other whenever he could to show they had blood in their veins,” Paolo Gucci, a first cousin of Maurizio’s, would later explain.
One of these sons—good-looking Rodolfo, with his very white teeth and long, eloquent nose—initially escaped the leather-goods business and the tyrant pioneer who ran it, becoming for a while a hand-to-mouth film actor. He specialized in roles, common in the 30s, that required him to wear white carnations and stiff collars while ringing up Anna Magnani on a white telephone (in fact, Italians call this genre, without irony, “White Telephone movies”).
Briefly, Rodolfo adopted the name Maurizio D’Ancora, married Alessandra Winkelhausen, a pretty blonde half -German actress with a very hot temper, and, after World War II, waited for the scripts to roll in. They didn’t. So the defeated actor returned to the family fold. This was the father of Maurizio, an executive Johnny-come-lately as far as most of the family was concerned.
Rodolfo would never truly rid himself of his obsession with the world of cinema. On top of that, he never demonstrated the marketing genius of his older brother Aldo, who had the nerve to tackle the New World. It was Aldo who was responsible for opening the wildly successful Gucci shops in New York, Chicago, and even Beverly Hills; he selected Rodeo Drive when no one in Italy had ever heard of such a location.
“I’ll never forget a man who in 1953 takes an airplane—not a jumbo, it took almost 24 hours to get to New York—and opens a shop on 58th Street,” says one Gucci cousin. “You must really have a feeling for what you do, something you have in your blood. If you have to think about it, forget it.”
Maurizio’s father had other skills. After his return from the world of the movies, he helped lure swarms of glamorous Hollywood royalty toward the House of Gucci. Before long the likes of Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, and Sophia Loren were streaming into the shops. In the film Roman Holiday, Audrey Hepburn’s lovely head was framed by a Gucci silk scarf; she danced in the mocassini de Gucci. Before her marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco, the young Grace Kelly pleaded so movingly for a Gucci-designed floral scarf (she was unable to find a flowered scarf she considered suitable in all of Rome) that the Guccis immediately began manufacturing them, with Rodolfo in charge. Quickly, the Gucci image became as princely as old Guccio’s ambitions. At his wedding, Prince Rainier handed out Gucci scarves to all the female guests.
“In sum, young ladies of the 50s and 60s in Italy—the signorine from the good families of Italy—had Gucci. At Christmastime, on birthdays, the things Gucci made gave you an entree,” explains former tennis champion Lea Pericoli, who was famous for wearing whites edged with lace and rhinestones on the court, and who now writes about fashion. “You needed the pearl necklace and the mink coat, and then you had a Gucci leather bag with the bamboo handle, the Gucci scarf. I had one with butterflies.” She flashes a wicked grin. “And that way you looked exactly like your grandmother!”
The lure of the brand lingered into the era when fashion began to frame and, to an extent, define the borders of a particular kind of political life. Ronald Reagan swore by his Guccis, until it became politic to claim preference for American goods. “Me—when I went to high school here in the 70s, Milano was divided between left- and right-wingers. Well, you were known precisely by your clothes,” says fashion writer Grazia Loria.
“The leftist kids were known by their jeans and by their big white sweaters. Whereas the right-wing kids were known by their velvet trousers, their cashmere sweaters, their silver pendants, their RayBan sunglasses—and their Gucci scarves, which you always wore wrapped around your Hermes bag. And the briefcase also was always Gucci. And that was the dividing line between the left and the right at first glance.”
So the Guccis owned far more than a prosperous intercontinental business. It was a giant leather throne on which sat two exceedingly quarrelsome heirs. Aldo had built up the business; Rodolfo had benefited from his visionary brother’s brilliance and skill. When Rodolfo died of cancer in 1983, he had been a widower for many years. His heir, Maurizio, 34, had been motherless since the age of 5.
And that’s how the cosseted, gentle Maurizio Gucci, who had grown up in a hothouse atmosphere in Milan, complete with Tullia, his governess from the Tuscan hills, a cook, and the two hazelnut Ferraris his father had bestowed on him, inherited 50 percent of a kingdom. Overnight. “He was like a child,” recalls Patrizia Gucci, who attributes his lack of emotional growth to his early development, when, she says, “he was simply a thing called Gucci that had to be washed and dressed.” Certainly, he was—despite an overwhelming passion to prove himself— imperfectly trained for his ascendancy. In his lifetime, his father, for all his love for his son, had not allowed Maurizio to own a single voting share of the Gucci company. The other cousins, descendants of the more fruitful Aldo (who had, in fact, given shares to his offspring during his lifetime), were appalled by Maurizio’s new supremacy. He was far younger than they, and wholly untried. They had been completely upstaged and were forced to settle for far smaller parcels of the company.
“He inherited the rights of God, as we say in Italy—then why he make all the mess he made?” cries Roberto Gucci, one of the many disappointed cousins, who still speaks of Maurizio with disdain. “I don’t have an answer. If you have an answer, I say thank you! And not only me—all the rest of my family. They say, Why? Why?”
At the time of young Maurizio’s promotion to power, the company’s capital assets were said to be nearing $800 million. But he was not the leader, the businessman, the visionary to enlarge them further. Since childhood he had never been trusted—by anyone. Even by Rodolfo, the man who had left him in charge.
“Rodolfo used to treat Maurizio like a stupidino in public meetings,” recalls a younger Gucci cousin. She mimes the father’s dismissive gesture. “You know, he’d say, ‘O.K., Maurizio, off you go now.'”
“Rodolfo was a wonderful man who adored Maurizio, but he knew Maurizio’s weaknesses,” reports a longtime friend of both men. “Rodolfo called me all the time—he used to call me every hour of the day: ‘I’m concerned about Maurizio, very, very concerned,’ he’d say.”
Says Francesco Gittardi, who worked for Gucci for 20 years, “When his father died, it was unfortunate for everybody. Especially for Maurizio because he lost the crutch, lost what sustained him. For me Maurizio had all the good qualities, but he did not have a strong character. Do you understand? When his father was alive Maurizio had to go through the father, and the father was the person who said ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ And Rodolfo’s ‘No’ was always ‘No!'”
“And so I think Maurizio ran away basically,” continues the longtime family friend. “Maurizio married Patrizia. And I think the reason he did it was because Rodolfo was really overwhelming.”
“Patrizia was his only rebellion: perhaps the father thought Maurizio might have chosen someone more eclatante,” hazards a rich Milanese. “Someone with an eclatante family name, so many tiny things. Great class, a great name, and perhaps also the financial part.”
The woman who married Maurizio Gucci knows exactly what the Gucci family thought of her then. And what they think of her still.
“I have never been accepted. No. Not by anybody,” says Patrizia Gucci, her smile faint and utterly mirthless. “I was called the Joan Collins of the situation. By everybody. Thank God my family was rich.”
Patrizia’s penthouse, in the heart of Milan’s downtown shopping district, suggests cash hastily divested for maximum effect. Huddled together on a far table are the glistening, twisted bodies of seven enormous Art Deco vases; elsewhere, a tribe of bronze dancing girls, many in headdresses or coats of mail, strike extraordinary poses. A pair of bronze leopard cubs bestow a blind gaze on a settee covered in leopardskin.
“I was very spoiled by my father,” Patrizia informs me without any prompting. “At 12, I had my first mink coat. Yes, very nice. But I always wish to have shoes in the same color as what I wear. So I went to my father and said, ‘Daddy, thanks for the present, but now I need a pair of mocassini the same color as my fur coat.’ He says, ‘Are you crazy or what?’ “
The frugality of her new father-in-law came as a horrifying revelation when Patrizia married Maurizio. At her husband’s side when he was packed off to New York to learn the family business there, she stepped into their first home—a room at the St. Regis hotel. “I had a tiny, tiny room with only one window, and under the window was a cavedio—a big hall—and I couldn’t see New York! I said, ‘Well, I married a millionaire. Ma! I feel very poor.’
“I say, ‘Maurizio, we have to change the situation. Why don’t you allow me to contribute a little to the expenses of the family?’ ‘No, no! I am the man!’ he says.” But Patrizia ignored him and got a better room. And that’s the way the balance of power would remain. “She was a spoiled brat,” explains a Milanese socialite who knew Maurizio during the early years of his marriage to Patrizia. “She asked for everything, wanted everything.” Says a critical Gucci cousin, “I think Patrizia did everything for Maurizio.” Patrizia herself is the last to disagree.
“Yes, my dear, I knew. I knew. I knew he was weak. But I was not weak. … I pushed Maurizio so strong that he became president of the Gucci,” she insists. “I was very social, but Maurizio didn’t like to socialize. At all. I was always out, he was always in the house. But, you know, I was the representative of Maurizio Gucci, and this was enough.”
In 1985, exactly two years after his father’s death, not long after he’d bought—at his wife’s insistence—the magnificent 70-meter sailboat Creole, once owned by the shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos, Maurizio Gucci packed a little bag. He told Patrizia he was off to Florence for five days on business. A few days later the family doctor dropped by to inform the busy wife, “I’m very sorry, Signora Gucci, but your husband will not be coming back.”
Patrizia’s eyes widen in pain at the mention of the exquisite yacht that sailed out of her life. It was the talk of all Italy, the most beautiful boat in Europe, with an impressive history. Niarchos had used it as part of his ongoing competition to outspend and outshine his archrival, Aristotle Onassis. “Maurizio told me that Niarchos sold it to him with the Impressionist paintings still on the walls,” reports Contessa Marta Marzotto. And not only that: gold taps in the bathroom, bright inlaid cabinetry, a screening room where the Guccis showed the old White Telephone movies of Rodolfo.
The boat broker had warned Patrizia that she simply couldn’t think of buying anything less spectacular (“Because otherwise, signora, you will always be looking for a bigger boat!”). As for the $1 million price tag, that was nothing compared with the roughly $7 million to restore the Creole to its arch -fin de siecle mahogany perfection. “Well, when I want something, you know, Maurizio always gave it to me,” recalls the ex-wife. At the thought of this, at the memory of the day the Italian flag was raised on board the graceful vessel for the first time, Patrizia begins to weep in earnest. Slowly, she blots her cheeks, passing a small, light hand over her lids. A large pigeon-blood ruby winks and glows with the gesture. The moment passes.
“Maurizio’s boat. He bought it for me.”
He kept it, however, for himself.
At the time Maurizio Gucci decided to rid himself of his wife, he seemed to be harboring similar intentions toward the rest of the Gucci clan. It was as if Rodolfo’s death had released this timid gentleman from all ties of family, domesticity, and even prudence. He was aware of this amazing alteration within himself, the death of caution, even proud of it.
“First I had my father, and now I have you,” he told his wife. “I have never been free in my whole life.”
He asked lawyer Domenico De Sole, who eventually headed Gucci America, to fire Aldo Gucci from the presidency of the company. Seventy-eight years old at the time, Aldo was destined for another shock. Eleven million dollars in profits from American Gucci stores had been cunningly diverted, and $7 million in taxes avoided. The old man wept like an infant as he was led off to an American prison. He very likely would have gotten away with everything, but for his own son Paolo, who had squealed about Aldo’s corporate shenanigans in court documents during one of the many lawsuits he filed against the Gucci company.
Maurizio, who always referred to Aldo respectfully as “the big strength, the big power,” twisted the knife in the old man’s back, despite Aldo’s previous favors to his nephew.
“You know, Rodolfo told Maurizio, ‘If you marry Patrizia, you can leave the company.’ But Aldo said, ‘Now, wait a minute, Rodolfo, your son’s a good guy,’ ” reports a Gucci cousin. “And it was Aldo who reunited father and son.”
The cousin vividly recalls Aldo’s fate at the hands of Maurizio. “Two policemen took Aldo out of the office. They took the desk—everything.”
“To see a man like my father, president of a company, a strong charismatic person—to see him destroyed and offended in such a vulgar and such a dramatic way,” says Roberto Gucci, his lips perfectly white as he draws on his cigarette. “Well, excuse me, I don’t want to blaspheme, but it was like offending God.”
At the time of Aldo’s ejection Maurizio was off sailing on the Costa Smeralda in Sardinia. “Maurizio did not like confrontation,” explains an old friend.
The Guccis have never been fans of peaceful co-existence. Warfare within the clan has at times reached Shakespearean dimensions. “It’s in the blood,” murmurs a cousin. The saga of Aldo and Paolo grew increasingly complicated, as Gucci sagas do. At the time of Aldo’s ouster Paolo was constantly suing or countersuing his father over money and Paolo’s desire to create his own brands. “And the father— Aldo—was meanwhile paying for his son’s lawyers to sue him,” reports a family friend. “Yes, every time Paolo ran out of money to pay his lawyer, Aldo would pay.”
Around this time, Giorgio, Roberto, and Aldo Gucci filed a complaint with the prosecutor of Florence, accusing Maurizio of usurping the Gucci presidency. Paolo, in another incident, claimed he had been struck on the head with a tape recorder by loved ones during a Gucci board-of-directors meeting.
“Oh, there was blood all over him,” recalls Paolo’s estranged wife, Jenny Gucci, offering one of the many versions of the story. “Maurizio had grabbed Paolo by the neck, from behind, to get the tape recorder from him, and his signet ring struck Paolo’s temple.”
“I was hit over the head until I bled profusely,” Paolo complained to the court. He got a $200,000 settlement from his annoyed kin. Learning of the fracas, Jacqueline Onassis, a longtime Gucci customer, cabled a solitary word to the clan: “Why?”
Haute Milan was disgusted. The press fanned the flames. “DALLAS” ON THE ARNO, screamed one report.
Paolo’s legal battles were only the tip of the familial legal imbroglios. In one five-year period, 15 lawsuits were filed in the United States alone by members of the Gucci family, all against one another. In 1987, New York State Supreme Court judge Miriam Altman, sick to death of the litigious leather lovers, dismissed one of these suits with this observation: “I know every piece in the Gucci line, and I know that two-thirds of the price of every wallet goes to lawyers’ fees.”
During his reign, Maurizio enacted many modern reforms, some necessary, most painful. For example, the Gucci company got its first in-house audit. One hundred and fifty of the company’s 900 corporate employees—a breed that in Italy is as eternal as Rome itself—were suddenly fired. Other new developments were inspired but executed abruptly: cheaper items such as canvas bags adorned with the famous logo were instantly discontinued. Ultimately, 22,000 different products were whittled to 5,000. In 1990 handbags, shoes, and clothes were pulled out of all department stores; the points of sale were reduced exclusively to the 60 or so Gucci stores and franchises—on Maurizio’s orders. The mouse had turned into a lion.
“But Maurizio did not realize that if you take away a whole bunch of lowerscale products, you cannot change it overnight,” sighs a friend. “You’ve got to plan. And at the same time, he was increasing expenses.”
Maurizio flung money at everything. He switched the Gucci company’s home base from its birthplace in fusty old Florence to fashionable Milan, where he built a grandiose new office: “Something opulent, totally astronomical—not even General Motors has one like it,” claims a corporate insider. He launched ready-to-wear big-time, which was a smart move, except that it made little money. He told P.R. woman Pilar Crespi, who was thinking of ways to promote the new collection, “Why don’t we just rent a circus instead of doing an ordinary fashion show? And perhaps we could have the clowns interact with the public.” Crespi did some checking. “This would have cost us way over $550,000. We were talking about a New Age circus.”
Maurizio used a corporate jet—to get to Florence, two hours away—instead of taking the train. He wanted to spend $100 million to redo existing stores and open new ones. He hired expensive Americans instead of Italians.
The family situation had already gotten out of hand. By the fall of 1985, Aldo and his sons claimed to the authorities that Maurizio had ordered his staff to forge Rodolfo’s signature on documents that endowed him with one million shares of the company—thereby avoiding death duties. The charge seemed to hold a lot of water. One secretary, Roberta Cassol, who testified that Maurizio had ordered the forgery just two days after his father’s death, told the courts there had been an attempt to bug her phone.
Despite his tremendous wealth and prominence, Maurizio never regained his lost status in Italy after being charged with forgery. He was even forced to temporarily surrender his reign over the company. Few sympathized. Many snubbed him. Maurizio was left to stew in his villa in Switzerland and then, after the High Court overturned his forgery conviction, back home in his newly embellished apartment, where the green satin curtains block out the sun. Four years ago, the diminished tycoon began to share his life with Paola Franchi, a forty-something divorced decorator with a taste, like his, for the quiet life.
He made sure never to stay up past midnight. She wore her blond hair in a chignon, never ordered him about, and hoped that he might marry her. Although whether or not they would have wed remains a subject of some dispute, Patrizia insists her former husband was eager to abandon the affair. She says that Maurizio told his daughter Alessandra as much shortly before his death. But how could he get out of it? That was the question. He hated messes.
“These people with all their money, I don’t think they are capable of real love,” Prosecutor Nocerino reflects. “I mean, passion, yes. I read Maurizio Gucci’s letters to Paola Franchi and they are really quite passionate. But real love—no, I don’t think so. There’s too much of ‘This is mine, this is yours, this is ours’ in their thinking.
“It’s like that Jackie Onassis of yours.”
Many prominent Italians regard the Gucci saga as a cautionary tale. “The Fendis of Rome would always talk about the Guccis,” says one family insider. “They compared themselves a bit. And they’d tell their children, ‘See what happens when everyone in a family grabs something for himself. See what family conflicts can do to your business.’ “
By 1989, however, Maurizio Gucci had managed to rid himself of his bickering kin. Gone forever were the conniving cousins. That was the good news. Also gone, however, was much of the company’s business, now that Maurizio had so ruthlessly reduced the points of sale and banished the best-selling cheaper items. In 1988 and 1989, at the victorious heir’s prompting, a Bahrain-based group of investors called Investcorp bought out the shares of the other Guccis, making all of them rich and many of them bitter. “When I left Gucci it was like half of my body was destroyed,” recalls one cousin, who has come to our interview carrying a briefcase by Hermes. “Good-bye to my baby,” says Roberto Gucci, who sold off his 23 percent of Gucci. “My baby’s been suffering.”
And with those good-byes accomplished, 50 percent of the company was placed in the hands of perfect strangers— Arabs, explained the Italian press—who also owned chunks of far-flung stores with such odd-sounding names as Tiffany and Saks. Gucci, for better or worse, was no longer family.
“You see, Maurizio never understood this,” says Domenico De Sole, the chief operating officer of Gucci. “He thought, This is my company—my everything. I told him, ‘Once you bring in Investcorp this is not just your company. This is real life.’ “
But real life, as it turned out, ended up being far more difficult for Maurizio than his own relations. The company was leaking money; expenses mounted. In 1993, Maurizio and Investcorp engaged in a heated and occasionally very bitter duel; the investment group had discovered, to its sorrow, that despite Maurizio’s many promises to make Gucci profitable this eagerly anticipated event had not yet occurred. By 1991 the company was posting a 37.8 billion lire loss. A year later the loss was 24.7 billion ($15.4 million). Investcorp argued in New York State Supreme Court that it was time for Maurizio to give up the business.
The investment group accused Maurizio of violating a major shareholder agreement by secretly pledging a wad of his shares to Banca della Svizzera Italia, of Lugano, Switzerland, in return for a loan. When his Arab partners called him on it, Maurizio hastily reclaimed those shares, repaying the loan to the bank with 30 million Swiss francs.
Where had he found this new stash of cash? Maurizio’s story was, perhaps, not immediately convincing. He said he had been “visited in a dream by the ghost of his father,” who duly informed him that he could find “the money to pay the multimillion-dollar debt hidden under the floorboards of his house in Saint-Moritz, Switzerland.”
“I stick by my story,” Maurizio declared stoutly to an amazed Pilar Crespi, the Gucci employee who had to answer to the press. He later claimed that his reply was a way of telling Investcorp to mind its own business.
It was Patrizia who had introduced her former husband to the mystery man who lent him the 30 million Swiss francs to get back his shares—and also, says Patrizia, his Saint-Moritz villa, which had been used as collateral. “I made the introduction for my daughters’ sake, not for his. Because Maurizio didn’t deserve it.” Patrizia will not, however, divulge the name of the lender. “In financial business there are some things you cannot tell,” she says. (The prosecutor suggests he already knows who it was.) The loan, in any case, carried with it a stiff amount of interest.
The question is: Did Maurizio ever repay this debt? His track record in that area was not good. Domenico De Sole, who lent him $4.2 million around the same time, had to sue to reclaim his money.
Vittorio D’Aiello, Maurizio’s old criminal lawyer, says, “It’s possible certain people who do this sort of lending expect to collect enormously. Perhaps capital plus interest isn’t enough for these people.” So the other question is: If Maurizio didn’t repay his debt, then isn’t there a chance that the anonymous lender may have been behind the murder of the last of the big-time Guccis?
“Absolutely not,” Patrizia says shortly. “Because Maurizio sold his part in the company.” She is referring to the day in September 1993 when Maurizio’s reign and almost a century of family control came to an end. Investcorp won out. GUCCI FALLS UNDER THE FLAG OF ISLAM, read a headline.
And then Maurizio vanished, more or less. The last time his ex-wife saw him, he promised to attend his daughter’s 18th-birthday party at the Villa Borromeo. “And then he disappeared,” reports Patrizia. “And imagine, as a form of respect I had purposely not invited people from Milano and Roma so as not to create embarrassment.” In a way, this self-imposed exile was understandable. For an intelligent man, he’d certainly made a fool of himself in recent times. “Two days before Maurizio sold out to Investcorp, he gives a big speech where he says, ‘Don’t worry. I’m gonna buy out Investcorp. I have the money.’ Yes, he told everyone that,” reports a friend. “I think Maurizio had a hard time at the end…. I mean, I don’t know, at times you felt he had escaped, escaped from reality. He made things up.”
The few friends who bothered to stay in touch were informed that Maurizio was doing just great. That he was sailing with Paola Franchi. That he was “at peace with himself,” the happy recipient of a large chunk of money for his shares of Gucci. How big a chunk, however, is the question. Some say $150 million; others say no, that by then the Gucci shares were worth a good deal less.
But Patrizia Gucci knew better than to believe these reports of Maurizio’s newfound bliss. “He was very dissatisfied,” she says, “according to the people that met him.”
“He was fearful,” her daughter Alessandra told the newspapers. “But why?”
After Investcorp took over completely, the company that bears the Gucci name perked up considerably. Its relatively new backpack is now a best-seller. The classic little bamboo handles have maintained their desirability. The saddle shapes of the bags have been left intact. Designer Tom Ford’s new line of ready-to-wear has received extravagant praise in the fashion press. Today, Gucci rules. “I mean, nowadays Gucci is hot, very hot— and I want to say that this comes from the vision of Maurizio,” says Pilar Crespi, who no longer works for the company. But what was left for her old boss now that he was bereft of his company?
Maurizio was planning to invest in a casino in Crans Montana, Switzerland. He wanted to leave his mark on something. Prosecutor Nocerino says that, as casinos go, Maurizio’s gambling dream was no big deal. A good-size room, really, is what Maurizio envisioned, filled with 60 slots. “But that wasn’t the project he was really crazy about,” Paola Franchi told the newspaper Corriere della Sera. “His heart was really in Palma de Mallorca, where he dreamed of renovating the old port for boats like the Creole. With perhaps a typical hotel included, tiny shops. A small jewel, in short.
“We spent our last weekend talking about this project,” Paola continued. “He was happy because he had already found the name for his resort: Paradise in a Jar. The title was from his favorite Chinese fable, which he’d just read. It was the story of a pharmacist who every evening, weary from the day’s work, found refuge in one of the jars in his shop.
“‘That is my own philosophy exactly’ is what Maurizio told me.”
A few hours after she had seen her lover lying massacred, Paola received a surprise visit from Patrizia Gucci. Maurizio’s former wife had come accompanied by her lawyer and her daughter, who was frantic, Patrizia claims, to recover a sweater belonging to her late father. Paola kept herself invisible, saying she was too distraught to see visitors right then.
On the coffee table that fronts a couch in her darkened living room are two possible clues to the frailty of the new life of Paola, whose rich lover doesn’t appear to have left a will. One is a piece of white paper listing the various phone numbers of her lawyer, Roberto Giustiniani, including his mobile phone. The other is a glossy folio-size publication from Club Med, touting a wealth of vacations. A very different sort of paradise, another kind of jar, for a lady who, in days past, used to sail the Creole.
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