Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Clara's life

A Cabbage White butterfly at work. 1 PM. Photo: JH.
Wednesday, August 10, 2016.  Sunny and warm yesterday in New York, but not too humid, with a strong, pleasant breeze coming off the river in the late afternoon.

I went down to Michael’s for the first time in more than a week or even two, to lunch with Brooke Hayward and Alex Hitz. I was surprised that Michael’s was very busy (on a warm mid-summer weekday when a lot of the clientele are away) and full of the clatter chatter that reminds you you’re in New York and it’s (something’s) happening among the high mucky-mucks. Michael Douglas was in, lunching with Susan Magrino.

The Four Seasons sign sold for $120,000.
Before he arrived, Susan was telling me and Michael McCarty about the Four Seasons restaurant auction because she bought a table and some chairs.  Tables which were favored by well known people went at a premium. Pete Peterson’s table went for $100,000 (did I hear that right?) and purchased by his former partner Stephen Schwarzman. Someone bought Jackie’s table (Onassis) for a pretty penny.

Susan bought the only round table in the Grille Room along with some chairs. It was a very successful auction. Susan also told me that what surprised her was the amount of chewing gum that had been stuck under many tables by the Best of the Best over the years, ahem; harrumph. Life goes on; Oobla dee, Oobla dah.
Table 35 from the Grill Room went for $62,500.
Today we are running another of those wonderful obituaries from the Daily Telegraph of London. This one is of Clara Agnelli who died last month at 96.  Sra. Agnelli was the elder sister of the famous Gianni, of the Fiat family and fortune which was started by their grandfather in the last quarter of the 19th century.

Clara Agnelli in the '50s.
To New Yorkers, the story of Clara Agnelli’s life is pertinent because of her famous son and later even more famous daughter-in-law, Diane and Egon von Furstenberg. Egon who died in 2004 came to live in New York in the late 1960s with his wife Diane. The couple took the town by storm. New York Magazine, then the hottest weekly magazine lionized the couple. The rest of the story is publicity legend. The couple had two beautiful children, eventually divorced, and DvF became a household term on her own.

I never knew Egon (or his wives) although I’d met him a number of times through mutual friends. He was memorable for being an especially congenial and kind person in his approach to people. His sister Ira who was an actress whom I met a couple of times when she visited Los Angeles, had that same quality.  Both sister and brother had many friends in this country. Reading about their mother informs you of the Agnelli family, complicated like all families, and full of dynamic personalities. Clara, it appears, had grace and it was shed on her son and daughter. There is another son, Sebastien, whom I have never met and who lives his life below the glare of the lens.
Clara Agnelli, who has died aged 96, was the eldest child of Edoardo Agnelli (1892 -1935), the Italian industrialist and principal family shareholder of the car company Fiat; she survived a difficult childhood and a scandalous love affair to emerge as one of the most grounded and popular members of her troubled dynasty.

She was born in Turin on April 7 1920, the oldest of Edoardo Agnelli’s seven children (her better-known brother Gianni would be born a year later) by his wife Virginia Bourbon del Monte – the half-American daughter of an Italian prince, and a great beauty.
Virginia Agnelli with Gianni, Clara, Giorgio, Susanna, and Maria Sole.
By the time Clara was born, Fiat (Fabbrica Italiana di Automobili Torino), the company founded by her grandfather, Giovanni, in 1899, had become the third largest industrial enterprise in Italy. A younger sister, Susanna, would serve as Italy’s first female foreign minister in the mid-1990s.

Edoardo was a cold father to his children and, in 1935, when Clara was 15, he died aged 43 in an accident, when a seaplane in which he was travelling off Genoa hit a floating log and caused his head to fall into the revolving propeller.
Susanna Agnelli with her brothers and sisters Gianni, Giorgio, Maria Sole, Clara, Cristiana, Umberto and little Ira Fürstenberg (Clara's daughter).
His somewhat flighty widow, Virginia, then took up with the writer and adventurer Curzio Malaparte, who had first been spotted on a beach by her own American-born mother, Princess Jane, who had acquired a well-deserved reputation in Italy for flouting established social conventions (she was once described as a “woman who collects human beings as others collect postage stamps or moths”). With his slicked-back hair, body glistening with suntan oil and shaved armpits, Malaparte captivated both Princess Jane and her daughter, whose lover he soon became.

While Gianni reportedly hated him on sight, his sisters appear to have been enthralled. “He took us by bicycle to Massa to eat salami,” Clara recalled. The only problem was that Malaparte was an adversary of Virginia’s father-in-law Giovanni, who had fired him from the Agnelli-owned newspaper La Stampa in the early 1930s. Furious at the flagrant manner in which his daughter in law was carrying on the affair, he took legal action to seize custody of her children.
Curzio Malaparte.
A court in Turin pronounced against Virginia, but the dispute rumbled on and in 1937 Virginia appealed to, of all people, Giovanni’s chief ally, Mussolini. Amazingly, the move succeeded. Mussolini loved giving orders – even to an Agnelli – and by the end of the year Giovanni had backed down.

Tassilo zu Fürstenberg.
Virginia would die in 1945, after the car in which she was travelling was hit head-on by a US Army truck. Giovanni Agnelli died a month later.

It seems that young Clara always managed to retain an air of detachment from these family dramas and it may have helped that, as the eldest child, she came most under the influence of the family’s strict English nanny, Miss Parker, and her two assistants. However, it may have been the custody dispute that led her, aged 18, to accept a proposal of marriage from Prince Tassilo zu Fürstenberg, a family friend twice her age, the scion of an ancient Swabian dynasty.

They married in great splendour in 1938 and moved into a 16th-century villa near Treviso, which she had inherited from her father. They had three children. The eldest, Ira, became an actress and socialite, the second, Egon, became a fashion designer (his first wife was the better-known fashion designer Diane von Fürstenberg). Her third, Sebastien, founded a bank.
Egon, Sebastian and Ira von Fürstenberg, 1955.
Clara Agnelli with her son Egon.
Egon Von Fürstenberg with his first wife, Diane von Fürstenberg.
Ira von Fürstenberg.
Sebastian von Fürstenberg.
By the time she married, however, Clara was already in love with someone else. At the age of 12 she had spotted, emerging from a lift in the ski resort of Sestriere, Giovanni Nuvoletti, a dandyish 20-year-old actor and writer who would become best known for his brief role in Mario Bava’s graphically bloody horror “Bay of Blood” (1971), as the count who strangles his wheelchair-bound wife and moments later is himself brutally stabbed to death by an assailant. After her mother’s death, and with her youngest child still a babe in arms, Clara ran off with him, causing a major scandal at a time when adultery was still a crime in Italy.
Clara Agnelli with her second husband, Giovanni Nuvoletti.
Susanna, Cristiana, Clara, and Maria Sole Agnelli.
As the Church demanded action to punish the wrongdoers, the lovers were chased everywhere by the paparazzi and on one occasion, when travelling by aeroplane to Venice, the “adulterer” and his “concubine” were arrested by uniformed police officers. They admitted their guilt and Clara was legally obliged to ask her husband to rescue her. She subsequently had to sign a document renouncing Nuvoletti in return for an annuity.

But the affair continued, and for some 20 years the head of the Agnelli clan, Clara’s younger brother Gianni, refused to set foot in her house – despite the fact that he himself was notorious for keeping a string of mistresses. On one occasion Gianni confronted the lovers in a hotel at Arosa, Switzerland. “We can argue in a moment if you like, Gianni,” Clara recalled Nuvoletti saying, “but have you looked at yourself in the mirror?” Both men were wearing the same suit, but the underlying message was clear.
Clara Agnelli, far right, pictured with her son Sebastien and daughter Ira, Venice in 1962.
Clara with her brother Gianni Agnelli.
After Italy legalised divorce, Clara and Nuvoletti were married in a civil ceremony in 1974 and in the chapel of her villa in 1989 after her first husband’s death.

Her share of the family fortune allowed Clara Agnelli and Giovanni Nuvoletti to live comfortably, and from their home, the Villa Papadopoli, north of Mestre, they became patrons of the arts in the Veneto, and notable party-givers. Clara Agnelli published several cookery books and enjoyed regaling her grandchildren with tales of her privileged upbringing.

Giovanni Nuvoletti died in 2008. Clara’s son, Egon, died in 2004. She is survived by her other two children.

Clara Agnelli, born April 7 1920, died July 19 2016

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