Monday, October 15, 2012

Il Dolce far niente in Porto Ercole

Gazing out onto the Tyrrhenian sea from the cliffside perch of the hotel’s heated saltwater pool.
Il Dolce far niente in Porto Ercole
by Delia von Neuschatz

A cobalt blue sea glimpsed between tall cypress trees. The song of cicadas and the quiet bounce of a tennis ball on a grass court. The heady scent of fragrant flowers mixed with clean Mediterranean breezes. These were the first impressions that greeted me and my husband upon entering the manicured grounds of Il Pellicano hotel located near the old fishing village of Porto Ercole, a two-hour drive north of Rome on Tuscany’s western coast.
The gates to the hotel’s pristine grounds.
The second impressions were of efficient and solicitous service made upon the prompt delivery of strong, frozen margaritas which went a long way towards soothing our nerves which were still somewhat jangled by the careful negotiation of a few hairpin curves. And it was thus that my husband and I settled into a week of total relaxation highlighted by lunch with our friend, writer Caroline Moorehead, who has a house nearby, and by dinner with the hotel’s young and charming co-owner, Marie-Louise Sció. Sure there are plenty of things to see and do on the Monte Argentario peninsula where we were (what with Etruscan ruins, 16th century Spanish forts and golf courses nearby), but we chose to just sit back and enjoy la dolce vita.
The patio by the outdoor bar – the perfect place for drinks. Also not to be missed are the French fries.
First things first. Il Pellicano is discretion exemplified. If you’re looking to see and be seen or to go out clubbing, this is not the place for you. For all of its glamour and high-flying guests, Il Pellicano is a relaxed and unpretentious place. It you are looking to truly get away from it all, however, and to feel pampered and taken care of at every turn, then you’ve hit the jackpot at this iconic hotel.

Consisting of 50 rooms spread out between the main house and six cottages, Il Pellicano has attracted a notable clientèle since its stylish beginnings in the 1960s. Rock stars, financiers, aristocrats and royalty have all rubbed elbows at this low-key hideaway. Bold-faced names are too many to count, but here’s a small sampling: Sophia Loren, Bing Crosby, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Juliana, Queen of the Netherlands, Yul Brynner, Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Britt Ekland, Elsa Peretti, Consuelo Crespi and her daughter Pilar, Henry Kravis, and more recently, Mario Batali, Bono, Margherita Missoni, Eugenie Niarchos and Tatiana Santo Domingo.
Above, left: Patricia and Michael Graham, the hotel’s founders, in the 1960s on the Monte Argentario. Photo: John Swope.

Above, right: The debonair Michael Graham. A godson, Nicholas Galitzine, son of Prince Emanuel Galitzine, who was a fellow Spitfire pilot and lifelong friend of Michael’s (as well as a great-great-grandson of Russia’s Catherine the Great), sheds some light on the airman’s daring-do in flight as well as in life: Both men “were young and they viewed their lives could be over in two minutes, so they lived their life to the full and they had great fun.” Photo: John Swope.
Il Pellicano is the creation of charismatic society couple Patricia and Michael Graham. Patricia Graham, née Dalzell, was an American glass heiress and Michael was a dashing British aviator who had a knack for surviving airplane crashes. In June of 1947, the decorated 25-year-old RAF pilot had miraculously survived the fiery crash of a Pan Am Clipper in the Syrian desert. He had been on what was to be the first westbound passenger service to circumnavigate the world. 

Perhaps the Captain’s lucky escape did not come as a surprise to him, for the young bachelor was the veteran of no less than ten air mishaps during WWII, including one in Africa where, in mid-attack, he jumped without a parachute from his disabled Spitfire, managing to make a safe landing on a thicket of trees. Appropriately enough, after the Pan Am accident, Michael’s nickname became “Crash.”
A New York Times account of the Pan Am clipper crash in Syria which killed 14 people, six of them burned beyond recognition. Captain Graham had somehow escaped unscathed. He is pictured here (front, left) with the other survivors upon their subsequent safe arrival at La Guardia on June 22, 1947.
“Crash” came to prominence by providing accounts of the Pan Am accident to a series of New York Times articles. Half a world away, in Phoenix, Arizona, these articles (with their pictures) caught the eye of Patricia Dalzell Judson, the young wife of another decorated WWII pilot, George Judson.

Captivated by the brave and handsome British aviator, she tore them out of the newspaper and filed them away. Two years later, Patricia became a widow when George crashed his personal plane and as fate would have it, Patricia and Michael met by chance in Los Angeles in the early 1950s after Michael had moved to California.

Clark Gable, ca. 1945. A biography of the movie star describes Patricia as a “classy widow with charm and wit” – just the ticket for this legendary actor. Problem was, however, that Patricia was not the sole object of his affections.
He vied with no less than the likes of Clark Gable for the attentions of the refined and socially prominent widow who counted Ronald Reagan and Marlon Brando among her friends.

They married a year after they met at a Beverly Hills soirée and settled in the town of Belvedere in Marin County, building a mansion on Pelican Point Road.

Fast forward a decade or so later, Michael and Patricia decided to sell their respective businesses lock, stock and barrel (his – an upscale car dealership; hers – a fashion and interior design boutique in the Bay Area) and build a luxury hotel in Europe. Just like that. 

After scouring Spain, the French Riviera, Corsica and the Amalfi Coast for the better part of 1962 and despairing of never finding exactly what they were looking for, the Grahams came upon a cliff-top plot of land on the unspoiled Monte Argentario peninsula.

With its purchase, they managed to accomplish “what a lot of people talk about, after their third martini, but seldom actually do – they chucked all their so-called ‘security’ and changed their lives,” in the words of famous San Francisco society chronicler, Herb Caen.
Prince Alessandro “Tinti” Borghese with his wife, Contessa Fabrizia Citerrio, and their two children at Il Pellicano in August, 1967. It was Tinti Borghese who sold the land to Patricia and Michael Graham. He could have relinquished it to someone else, but according to Fabrizia, the Prince decided on the Grahams for, despite their obvious inexperience (and the fact that they didn’t even speak Italian!) they were distinguished and possessed a certain flair and would, in his estimation, create something special. Photo: Slim Aarons.
Porto Ercole (“Ercole” is Italian for “Hercules”). The Borghese family had inadvertently helped put this “one horse port” on the map with their connection to the famous baroque painter, Caravaggio. Until it became a chic holiday destination in the 1960s, Porto Ercole had had the dubious distinction of being the place where Caravaggio met his untimely end in the early 17th century.
Above, left: Chalk portrait of Caravaggio (1571 – 1610) by Ottavio Leoni, ca. 1621. The painter had gone to Porto Ercole to retrieve three paintings including David with the Head of Goliath which were meant as gifts for Cardinal Scipione Borghese. A pardon from the powerful cardinal for the volatile painter’s many misdeeds (including murder) seemed to be imminent. But, Caravaggio never did meet with the Cardinal for he died in the fishing village in July of 1610. Conjecture as to the cause of his death abounds. Was he murdered? (He certainly had no shortage of enemies.) Was it lead poisoning that did him in? Or, did he succumb to a fatal fever? This once marshy area was notorious for its malarial breakouts.  (The Argentario peninsula is in fact located in a part of Tuscany called the Maremma which means “marshy land near the sea.”)

Above, right: David with the Head of Goliath by Caravaggio, 1609 – 1610. The giant’s severed head is Caravaggio’s. The painting did end up in the possession of the Borghese family after all for today, it hangs in Rome’s Borghese Gallery.
Michael Graham secured funding for the hotel from about 20 friends and a year after breaking ground, the hotel was up and running. Modeled after Santa Barbara’s San Ysidro Ranch, Il Pellicano consisted of a bougainvillea-covered main house surrounded by guest cottages.
The San Ysidro Ranch in California’s Santa Ynez mountains has been an elite hideway since 1893. It is where John and Jackie Kennedy honeymooned in 1953. It is also where Laurence Olivier married Vivien Leigh in 1940 and more recently, where Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin exchanged vows. 
When it opened, Il Pellicano consisted of a main building with 18 suites, nine rooms for the guests’ drivers, a beauty salon, a clothing boutique and a restaurant surrounded by 4 cottages. Photo: John Swope.
There are no pelicans at Il Pellicano. The hotel’s name was inspired by Pelican Point Road, the street on which the Grahams had lived in Marin County. The Grahams had at one point planned to import the bird to the aviary on the hotel’s grounds but those plans were abandoned.
The hotel’s understated entrance.
Il Pellicano’s restaurant earned two Michelin stars in 2010 under the guidance of its young head chef, Antonio Guida.  It has certainly come a long way since its first summer in 1965 when the pool boy also served as head waiter.
The hotel’s mountainous backdrop. Monte Argentario is wild and unspoiled. It once belonged to both Spain and Naples and in fact, it looks and feels more like southern Italy than Tuscany.
One of Il Pellicano’s picturesque boungainvillea-laden cottages.
Two potted orange trees flank a set of steps.
A cottage almost completely hidden from view by the lush foliage.
The grass tennis court.
The hotel was meant to be the center of Porto Ercole and so it was, its popularity assured from the get-go by the patronage of Queen Juliana of the Netherlands who was an honored lunch guest during Il Pellicano’s inaugural summer.
Queen Juliana of the Netherlands with her family at their 24-room villa, Elefante Felice (Happy Elephant), built by her husband, Prince Bernhard (pictured) on a clifftop near Porto Ercole. The queen was considered the richest woman in the world at the time on account of her family’s large stake in oil giant Royal Dutch Shell.
It also helped that the Grahams ran Il Pellicano in a relaxing and convivial way – more like a private villa than a hotel – where guests were introduced to one another and the alcohol flowed. “It was one big party, for sure,” recalls a frequent visitor. That certainly didn’t mean that they let their exacting standards slip, however. The Grahams ran everything according to their rigorous specifications (Italian sheets weren’t considered good enough, only American ones would do) and did most everything themselves at the beginning. The hotel was expensive, for sure, but it was worth it as Patricia liked to point out, for no matter how hard the Grahams scrambled behind the scenes, the atmosphere was always one of ease and elegance. 

Initially, Robert doubted they would survive: “It was tough to start with ... I didn’t think we would make it. Patty did all of the housekeeping and cooking. I tended the bar. We [both] did the laundry … Oh, it was murder at first.” 

But survive they did. VIPs were beginning to flock to the peninsula. There was the young Princess Margaret who came with her new husband, photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones, the Earl of Snowdon, followed later on by her relatives, the deposed King and Queen of Greece.  And a year before Il Pellicano opened, none other than Jackie Kennedy, coming out of official mourning, had holidayed at Porto Ercole.
Jackie Kennedy stayed at a villa in a secluded spot near Porto Ercole in the company of her sister, Lee Radziwill, her stepbrother, Gore Vidal and her children, Caroline and John Junior in August of 1964.
Soaking up the sun in the 1960s on the hotel’s dock. Photo: John Swope.
Josie Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin’s daughter. Charlie Chaplin, who bought one of the cottages in the 1960s, was one of Il Pellicano’s first devotees.  
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in 1966. Photo: Slim Aarons.
By this time also, Porto Ercole had become a hangout for the international literary set due in large part to renowned author and war correspondent, Alan Moorehead, having moved there in the 1950s. He built a villa and they came: William Styron, Irwin Shaw, John Cheever and art historian Robert Hughes all stayed at Casa Moorehead. The Monte Argentario continues to attract writers today. Recent literary visitors have included Peter Matthiessen, John Hersey, Jules Feiffer and Susan Minot too.  I had the chance to visit Casa Moorehead when I had lunch with his daughter, the biographer and journalist, Caroline and her brother, John, a former journalist, and his philanthropist wife, Sarah.
The sea view from the rambling farmhouse-style villa built by Alan Moorehead on 10 acres of land. The writer penned several of his best-sellers including Gallipoli in a cottage on the estate. The property contains an eight-bedroom house, a pool and a badminton court. A beach is only five minutes away. The property goes by the name of Bocca D’Oro and is available for rent through the holiday-lettings site
The large terrace is a great place to entertain, sunbathe or nap.
Another expansive view from the terrace.
Caroline Moorehead taking in the beautiful surroundings. She recalls how her parents planted over 1,000 trees on Monte Argentario’s “hard scrub,” including eucalyptus, myrtle, heather, juniper and rosemary. She and her brother John, now own the property.
John Moorehead, with his wife Sarah. As one might imagine, a property of this size requires a good deal of upkeep and it is John, a former correspondent for the London Evening Standard and the Daily Mail, who is in charge of running the place and of making rental accommodations. (And judging by the glowing reviews on, he is doing a bang up job.) Sarah is a trustee of a wonderful organization called Give A Book, which donates books to schools and charities.
The area’s popularity grew further when in 1972, Porto Ercole’s marina opened, quickly becoming the preferred midpoint route for yachts floating between Capri and Saint Tropez and one by one, they dropped anchor nearby – the Agnellis, the Niarchoses, Aristotle Onassis aboard the Christina and John Wayne who once requested 10 martinis from the hotel’s bar from his 136-foot converted minesweeper. In more recent years, fashion designer, Valentino Garavani, has disembarked from his Picasso and Warhol-filled 152-footer to have lunch on the hotel’s terrace.
Emilio Pucci boating in Porto Ercole’s bay aboard the tender of Stavros Niarchos’s yacht, the Creole in 1969. Photo: Slim Aarons. Michael with his beloved “Patsy” in 1973. “They were inseparable. They supported each other in everything they did. There was nothing they did not share. They just never had disagreements,” recalls Bill Judson Graham, Michael’s stepson. Photo: Slim Aarons.
But, despite the area’s and the hotel’s now established popularity, the party was coming to an end for the Grahams. For one thing, Il Pellicano was not making any money. The initial investors had bought in in exchange for free holidays, an arrangement they and their extended families took advantage of year after year. Perhaps it also didn’t help that the clubby atmosphere fostered by the Grahams was not always welcoming to newcomers. New guests had to pass a certain muster with the proprietors or else they would be turned away.  For another, Patricia had fallen ill with breast cancer and was exhausted from the treatments. So, by the mid-seventies, the Grahams were ready to sell up and move to London. Enter Robert Sció.
Robert Sció and his wife, Marie-Louise Mills at their villa (previously owned by Charlie Chaplin) at Il Pellicano in 1980. Photo: Slim Aarons.
The real estate developer liked the hotel so much, he bought it. Robert had sojourned there in 1967 upon the recommendation of Canadian billionaires, the Kruger family. It was during his sixth consecutive summer at the resort that Michael approached the savvy businessman, confiding in him about the state of affairs and asking him for help in finding a buyer. When an extensive search proved unfruitful, it dawned on Robert that he had known the perfect buyer all along – himself. He made his acquisition in stages, beginning with the purchase of Charlie Chaplin’s cottage for $100,000 – a price which, as he points out, could have bought a 4,500 square-foot apartment on Park Avenue at the time. Never mind that, just like the Grahams when they had embarked on this adventure, Robert had no experience in running a hotel. A crash course on hotel management at Cornell University would soon take care of that. By 1979, the resort was all his. Thus dawned a new age in the life of a beloved destination.
Film producer and Vanderbilt family scion, Harry Cushing with Italian actress Rosalba Neri at Il Pellicano in 1973. Photo: Slim Aarons.
A trio of young Italian aristocrats. Clockwise from top: Count Palatine Manfredi della Gherardesca ca. 1986; Milan’s Marchese Stefano Cordero di Montezemelo, with his Jack Russel terrier, Montez; Baron Marcus von Jenisch, 1973. Photos: Slim Aarons.
Actress Elisabetta Catalano, August, 1969. Photo: Slim Aarons. Marie-Louise Sció, Robert Sció’s daughter, in 1991. Photo: Slim Aarons.
Marie-Louise Sció is the Vice President and Creative Director of her family’s hotel group which also includes the legendary La Posta Vecchia, an antiques-filled seaside Renaissance villa formerly belonging to John Paul Getty. She works out of her own Rome-based design firm, MLS Design.  Photo: Monica Vinella.
It’s safe to say that under Robert’s careful hand, Il Pellicano soared. He managed the delicate feat of injecting professionalism to the resort without losing any of its character.

He added a few more cottages, installed an elevator, updated the rooms, and hired a good chef, making things much more comfortable over all. Yet, through all these changes, Il Pellicano retained its elegant ease. And the glamour quotient rose even higher.

A consummate host, Robert continued to let the good times roll at Il Pellicano with the aid of his beautiful Manhattan-born wife, Marie-Louise Mills. Their daughter, also named Marie-Louise, recalls how her parents hosted “Gala Fridays” during which the women came clad in long dresses and turbans and the men donned tuxedos or seersucker suits.

Over dinner (at the two-star Michelin restaurant which is well worth the price of admission), Marie-Louise recounted how on one occasion, her mother wasn’t going to let an eye problem mar her fun and for a Gala Friday, this former journalist slipped on an eye-patch and reveled into the night.

Today, the hotel continues to thrive under the watchful eye of Robert’s vivacious daughter, Marie-Louise. This student of architecture and graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design spearheaded a two-year overhaul in 2006.
My room at Il Pellicano: fresh, comfortable, generously sized and with a huge bathroom.
Il Pellicano’s cozy lobby.
One of the inviting patios.
Marie-Louise has also helped usher the hotel into the 21st century by bringing a new generation of fashionable guests in her wake. Coco Brandolini, Giovanna Battaglia, Andrea Casiraghi and Vladimir Restoin-Roitfeld, among others, have all basked in the relaxed glamour that is Il Pellicano.

It was Marie-Louise’s idea to document the half-century of halcyon days at the hotel and the result is a beautifully nostalgic photography tome featuring the work of three influential and diverse photographers:  Slim Aarons, John Swope and Juergen Teller. It is mostly from this book, with contributions by Vanity Fair’s Bob Colacello and fashion historian Bronwyn Cosgrave, that I recount the hotel’s history. 

Slim Aarons, who was a frequent guest for a quarter century until 1991 captured, as he put it: “attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places.” Life magazine photographer, John Swope, who also happened to be one of Il Pellicano’s original investors, was there from the very beginning, recording the hotel’s gestation.

Juergen Teller rounds out the story by shooting the new jet set at one of the hotel’s recent annual summer galas.  A perusal of the photos in Hotel Il Pellicano reveals that this book is as much a family album – first for the Grahams and then for the Sciós, as much as it is a record of the hotel’s history.
Margherita Missoni, Eugenie Niarchos and Tatiana Santo Domingo at Il Pellicano in 2009. Photo: Juergen Teller.
Marie-Louise with her brothers, Roberto Francesco Sció (left) and Harry Charles Sció in 2009. Photo: Juergen Teller.
Clockwise from top left: Andrea Casiraghi, son of Princess Caroline of Monaco in 2009; Vladimir Restoin-Roitfeld, son of former French Vogue editor, Carine Restoin-Roitfeld in 2009; Robert Sció with his grandson, Umberto Mortari, Marie-Louise’s son in 2009; Marie-Louise’s sister, actress Yvonne Sció, with her daughter, Isabella Beatrice in 2009. Photos: Juergen Teller.
Il Pellicano’s chic cement beach.
At the end of my weeklong stay at Il Pellicano, I could understand why people return to its sun-kissed terraces and manicured grounds, year after year. (Maire-Louise had told me that 40% of the guests are repeat clients.) As I drowsily lay in the sun one afternoon, I watched an American teenage girl calling every staff member she saw by name, making the rounds with her little brother to thank them and to say good bye. She was leaving that afternoon and it was all very bittersweet despite the affectionate jokes and the teasing. During this long leave-taking, I overheard the girl tell another guest that she and her family had been coming to the hotel for 13 years. She must have been going there since the year she was born. It had become a second home of sorts for them despite the long distance involved.

And that, right there, is what sets this small oasis apart from larger, glitzier venues. Aside from the beautiful surroundings, fantastic food and attentive service, what really keeps people coming back time and again is the cozy intimacy, the personal touch which you feel all around you and which can only exist in a lovingly-tended family endeavor like Il Pellicano.
Table for two at Il Pellicano.