|Getting To Know You. I’ve known, or rather known of Priscilla (Pri-shee-la) Rattazzi as Priscilla Whittle, Priscilla Rattazzi Whittle, and of course the former, for some time. We’d probably been introduced although I don’t remember that. I really became aware of her as something more than a familiar face when one day a few years ago she said something about one of the Diaries. I’m always flattered when I hear someone reads the Diary. It is likely, by now, that I’ll never get over that.
Before we ever had a conversation, I had a take on her: kind of a quiet woman; a serious, studious sort of woman; a mother, wife (married to Christopher Whittle), friend; somewhat reserved, perhaps somewhat shy. After our conversation I learned that she may be all those things but also is forthright, determined and with generous spirit. Then I read a quote somewhere recently where she said she hugged her young daughters as much as she could hoping that it will infuse them enough self-possession to conquer fear. By now Mrs. Rattazzi Whittle had become something of a charismatic figure in my imagination: solid, stable, and sensitive. And Italian.
I love Italian style. I’m not sure what it is but when it is, it is very alluring. Look at the way they dress – both men and women. They wear their style; simple, casual, formal; all those things, and apparently effortlessly.
Priscilla is one of those women. I had also heard or read that she was an Agnelli on her mother’s side. The Agnellis, if you didn’t know, are the leading industrial family of Italy, owners of Fiat and other large business. Edouardo Agnelli started the business at the end of the 19th century. For the last half of the 20th century his son Gianni Agnelli was head of Fiat, as well as being Playboy and Gentleman of the Western World.
All this leads to an obituary, found in the Times of London, of Susanna Agnelli, known always as Suni, and sister of the late Gianni, and mother of, among others, Priscilla Rattazzi Whittle.
She was a very interesting woman, Suni Agnelli. This was not a secret, as you will see when you read the obituary. She had six children with Count Rattazzi, and they all survive her. The only one I know is Priscilla, and having read about her mother, I feel as if I really, for the first time, know her a bit more than in passing. Knowing about the parent or parents changes the perception immediately.
In late 1943 Mussolini’s son-in-law and erstwhile Foreign Minister, Gian Galeazzo Ciano, had a visitor at the house to which he had been confined by the Germans. It was the 21-year-old Susanna Agnelli, granddaughter of the founder of the Fiat empire and a family friend. Seeking a fresh perspective on his situation, he asked her if she thought he would be shot. “Yes,” she said. And by the Allies or the Nazis? “Doubtless either,” came the less than comforting and, as it proved, prophetic reply.
When, half a century later, Agnelli became Italy’s first — and to date only — woman Foreign Minister her 18 months in office were to be distinguished by the same plain speaking, pragmatism and propensity for making use of personal contacts.
Visiting Sarajevo during the negotiations to end the civil war in Yugoslavia, she went directly to see the Bosnian Serbs without first informing her host, the Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic. And she did not have much time for diplomatic niceties, lengthy meetings that changed little, or her own ambassadors if she thought them ninnies.
Yet while she shared with her brother Giovanni — always known as Gianni — a certain imperiousness of gaze and manner, it was born of a habit of accomplishing what others regarded as impossible (especially in Italy), and of a patrician sense of duty.
From infancy, she had been made aware of the responsibilities that came with privilege, and kept as her watchword the constant admonition of her English nanny, Miss Parker: “Never forget that you are an Agnelli.”
In 1935, however, he was killed in an air crash, while ten years later her world was again shattered when her half-American mother, Virginia Bourbon del Monte, died in a car accident.
The third of seven children, and the closest to Gianni in age, Susanna, known to friends and family as Suni, had a pampered but strict childhood. Her autobiography Vestivamo alla marinara (We Always Wore Sailor Suits, 1975) was a bestselling account of a cosmopolitan upbringing amid the glamour of prewar Italian high society.
“We always wore sailor suits,” she wrote. “Blue in winter, blue and white in spring and autumn, white in summer. For lunch, we were put into smarter outfits with silk stockings. But my brother Gianni would get away with wearing another sailor suit.”
In the book she attributed her strength of character to the much disliked Miss Parker, who had met her howls for a night light with a terse request to not be so silly and to control her fears. Agnelli grew up to become so formidable that she could marshal three ministers to change the law governing the age at which one could leave school.
By then war had come, and Agnelli put behind her a convent education, a serious illness and an unhappy love affair to volunteer as a nurse. She served with the Red Cross on hospital ships and in North Africa, and was on the last boat out of Tobruk as it was bombarded by the Allies.
In 1945 she married Count Urbano Rattazzi, of a Piedmontese family and regarded by some as a professional charmer. Over the next decade she had two sons and four daughters with him, and lived largely in Argentina. During the early 1970s, when the Red Brigades threat in Italy was at its height, she moved to New York. She and Rattazzi divorced in 1975.
Her political career did not begin, then, until she was in her fifties. From 1974 she was for ten years mayor of Monte Argentario, the Tuscan resort favoured by Italy’s old money. It was her most successful venture into politics, and she quickly made her mark with her optimism, seriousness of purpose and ability to get things done.
In 1976 she was recruited by the centre-left Republican Party, the PRI, as an MP. From 1979 until 1981 she was also an MEP and in 1983 became, like her grandfather, a senator. Between 1984 and 1987 she was a member of the UN commissions on human rights, and on the environment and sustainability, the World Wildlife Fund being a key interest of hers.
For eight years, until 1991, Agnelli was also Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, in governments headed by, among others, Bettino Craxi and Giulio Andreotti. She lost this post when the PRI left the ruling coalition, but after the fall of Silvio Berlusconi’s first administration in 1995, she was offered the role of Foreign Minister by his replacement, the technocrat Lamberto Dini.
In the event, most of her plans proved wishful thinking, like so much of politics, though she did help to make headway against US attempts to block reforms to the UN Security Council.
Tall and stylish, Suni remained close to her brother in later life, having an apartment above his in Rome. They shared the same dry sense of humour. When Gianni proposed naming a speedboat that had proved slower than hoped Allegro, she suggested Adagio. After his death in 2003, and that of his brother Umberto a year later, it was she who rallied the family when it seemed as if Fiat might fail. She helped to set it on the path to recovery under a new president, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, and Gianni’s grandson, John Elkann.
Her philanthropic work was substantial, and included a foundation that teaches professions to troubled youngsters. In 1990 she set up Italy’s annual charity telethon, which has raised millions for scientific research. She also wrote three other books, and for many years was an agony aunt for the popular weekly Oggi.
When one reader wrote to say that she and her husband were arguing about the name of the baby that they hoped to have, her advice was characteristically blunt: “Get a dog instead.”
Susanna Agnelli was appointed Cavaliere di Gran Croce in 1996.
Her children survive her.
Susanna Agnelli, philanthropist, author and politician, was born on April 24, 1922. She died on May 15, 2009, aged 87.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009