"I’d rather cry in a Rolls-Royce than be unhappy on a bicycle”
Patrizia Gucci is an iconic figure. A strong woman, with an intense dark beauty, her marriage into the world-famous fashion house was both her making and the cause of her downfall. For a while she was an Italian celebrity with the glamour of a Grace Kelley. But in her clashes with the Gucci dynasty she more closely resembled Princess Diana. She once compared social events with the Gucci to ‘having dinner with the Borgias’.
Born into a poor Milanese family in 1948, Patrizia never knew her natural father. Her mother, a laundress, remarried a well-to-do townsman when Patrizia was 12. Fernando Reggiani took years to legally adopt his new step daughter but spoilt her with matching shoes and mink coats. This ambiguous attitude to men, money and security hounded Patrizia throughout her life
When Patrizia met and fell in love with Maurizio Gucci she was at the height of her charms. He must have loved her intensely. By all accounts Maurizio was one of the shyest of the Gucci clan, but nevertheless he stood up to his father and uncles to marry Patrizia in 1971 – even though this meant being written out of his father’s legacy. Maurizio’s father Rodolfo accused Patrizia of being a ‘gold digger’ and ‘low class’ – a little ironic since the whole clan owed their fortune to Guccio Gucci, who was a lowly hat maker.
For a while, Patrizia and Maurizio lived an idyllic life: two beautiful daughters, a large house in Milan, villas on the coast, yachts. They were the high society couple of Milan, feted by politicians, writers and artists. Maurizio had no interest in company politics and their marriage seemed blessed.
But even during these happy times there were hints of what was to come. Patrizia was highly superstitious, worried that there were malign forces out to get her. Her irrational fears made her easy prey to those who wanted to exploit her, and while on holiday in Sicily she met Pina Auriemma, a manipulative ‘psychic adviser’ (think of Cherie Blair's guru Carole Caplin).
Before long Patrizia’s fears of some kind of curse were fulfilled. The Gucci family business had always been run along the lines of fraternal warfare. When Maurizio’s favourite cousin Paolo Guccitried to start up his own label, the family descended into vicious and often violent confrontation in the boardroom. Then, when Maurizio’s father died, it turned out he had left his son shares in the company after all. Along with his cousin, he had a controlling share, and a night of the long knives, Maurizio and Paolo ousted the rest of the family and took over the Gucci Empire
But victory came at great cost. As Maurizio got more and more involved in the running of the business, he became increasingly estranged from his wife. Meanwhile, her irrational fears became more obsessive. Maybe it was an early indication of her growing brain tumour, but Patrizia’s anxiety was a self-fulfilling prophesy. She pushed Maurizio away. Tired of the struggles both in the home and in the board room, Maurizio sold the company in 1983 and left Patrizia.
Even then Maurizio was half in awe, half in love with Patrizia. He sent news he was leaving her through his family doctor – he was too scared to tell her face to face. He also took ten years to divorce her. During this time Patrizia half loathed, half adored her estranged husband. She famously dismissed his divorce settlement as ‘a plate of lentils’ and said:
"Maurizio was my husband. I was, am and will always be in love with him… Unfortunately, he was not the man I wanted him to be.”
Though still living the high life, Patrizia’s mental state deteriorated badly, and she became increasingly under the influence the fortune teller Pina. She was diagnosed with a life threatening brain tumour and though she survived the resultant operation, Patrizia was told that Maurizio had only come to see her ‘to see if she was dead’.
Patrizia was furious when her ex set up house with a new partner and started asking everyone she met - lawyers, her babysitter, her mother, her friends – whether they could organise the assassination of Maurizio. Her mother said Patrizia’s requests for a hit on her ex husband were as casual and commonplace as if ‘she was asking for a cup of tea’.
No one took her seriously. Except her Sicilian psychic adviser Pina Auriemma…
The circumstances around the murder of Maurizio in 1995 are still debated. Pina Auriemma organised the hit through her contacts in the Italian underworld. Patrizia only started paying the psychic and her accomplices after the shooting. Whether the money was in payment for the deed, or blackmail after the event, is open to question. But when the killers demanded more hush money Patrizia refused. In her typical, slightly mad fashion Patrizia claimed: "It was worth every lira to see him dead…. But he wasn't worth one lira more."
The truth eventually came to light two years later when Pina Auriemma and her friends tried to hire a Colombian enforcer to scare Patrizia. The hit man was an undercover policeman. The police arrested Patrizia in 1997 and the resulting trial was a tabloid sensation. It captivated both Italian and international media: Patrizia was dubbed the ‘Black Widow of Milan’ and was sentenced along with Pina and the other conspirators to 25 years.
After being found guilty of her husband's murder Patrizia said.
"Truth is the daughter of time, so I shall take time”.
Patrizia has protested her innocence ever since, claiming she was blackmailed. Medical opinion has cast doubt on whether she could have ‘criminally responsible’ at the time of the assassination given her acute mental condition. Her demand for a retrial on this basis was turned down by the court of appeal in Venice in November 2006. As with her life so far, Patrizia seems bound to court more controversy and strong opinion, but this is what makes her such compelling a figure.
Like Maria Callas or Judy Garland she seems to embody so many powerful contradictory emotions – superstition, glamour, love, hate – that only a tragic drama, with all the expressive power of music, can really do her justice.