Notes on a scandal: The real story of 'Lady Gucci'

By Mariella Radaelli

Published: Thu 1 Apr 2021, 6:16 PM

It is a lovely day of spring, March 27, 1995, as the clocks strike 8.30 am in Milan. At that very moment, Maurizio Gucci enters the downtown building where he works via Palestro 20. The 45-year-old businessman is elegantly dressed. He is the former chairman of Gucci, the last scion of a dynasty of designers who elevated stylish leather to a place of honour in high fashion. The family empire was founded in Florence in 1921 by his grandfather Guccio Gucci, who had five children, including Rodolfo and Aldo. Maurizio is the only son of Rodolfo, a former actor-turned-stylist, who designed the Flora scarf for Grace Kelly, a very loyal Gucci client.

Like any other morning, the porter Giuseppe Onorato greets Maurizio with a smile and says, “Good morning, doctor” as an honorific while the lobby door opens. Maurizio appears completely unafraid. Within a few seconds, a man comes out of nowhere to fire three shots at Gucci’s back as he goes up the steps. The fourth shot to his head finishes him off. Gucci collapses and dies in the red-carpeted foyer of his office. Before walking away, the assassin turns his gun on the building’s janitor — two bullets pierce his arm and shoulder. Then the killer flees in his green French car double parked in the road. An accomplice is waiting for him to speed away. Besides Onorato, another person, a young female employee, is witness to the crime. She notices a baseball cap on the murderer’s head.

Police immediately think the killing is work of a professional hitman due to the precision of the shooting.

Did Maurizio have an alleged unsettled debt in Japan? Was he working on a controversial project in Switzerland? Or did his violent death have something to do with a legal battle within the Gucci family?

Over the previous two decades, a familial civil war had turned brother against brother and nephews against uncles. Rivalry, secrecy and suspicion were proving detrimental to the interests of the brand, resulting in mismanagement and financial mistakes.

After Rodolfo died in 1983, Maurizio inherited his father’s majority stake in the company. He wanted full control of the business and took over its direction. Five years later, he sold nearly half of the company to a Bahrain-based investment fund. His finances were in red and by 1993, he signed the company away to the same investment fund for $170 million.

Destruction was occurring in his private life as well. In 1972, he had married Patrizia Reggiani. She was a beautiful, mysterious girl with stunning and shockingly violet eyes reminiscent of Liz Taylor. Gucci’s father Rodolfo did not approve of their marriage. On the day of their wedding, he flew to the US. He did not like Reggiani’s strong personality. And she was not part of Milan’s high society — she grew up in Vignola, a little town famous for its deep red cherries.

Reggiani once described the beginning of their love story as tormented as that of Romeo and Juliet. But then they were so happy together. They lived the high life at Piazza San Babila in the heart of Milan. Their love nest was a 1,800-square metre penthouse apartment with a swimming pool, a hanging tropical garden and an entire floor used as a party room. They drove Ferrari cars, romantically sailed on superyachts. They owned a ski chalet in Saint Moritz, a holiday home in Acapulco, a penthouse in New York and a farm in Connecticut. She would spend $9,000 a month on orchids alone. Their first baby girl, Alessandra, was born in 1977. The second girl child, Allegra, was welcomed in 1981.

But la dolce vita turned sour.

In the spring of 1985, Maurizio told his wife that he was going on a business trip. He packed a suitcase and left. The following day, he sent a friend to tell her that the marriage was over. What was happening to the couple’s emotional world, not just the material or external circumstances?

After the divorce in 1991, Reggiani was awarded the equivalent of $500,000 in annual alimony. But nothing seemed to ward off the bitterness that flooded her mind. Resentment increased when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1992. The tumor was removed without any apparent ill effects, but the acrimony deepened the moment her former husband sold all his shares in the iconic family business.

Maurizio, on the contrary, began to rebuild his life. He started a new business venture and a new romantic relationship with a younger woman, Paola Franchi, a former model. The lovers would meet, clueless about the danger.

The true crime story is becoming a movie, The House of Gucci. Directed by Ridley Scott, it promises to exude ’90s glamour, intrigue and the stench of decay. The British director, best known for Blade Runner and Gladiator is filming on location across the Gucci family’s emotional landscape. The first scenes were filmed in the Italian Alps, used to recreate the ski resort of Saint Moritz in Switzerland where the Gucci family spent leisure time. Filming will also take place in Milan, Lake Como, Florence and Rome.

The biographical crime film stars Lady Gaga as Patrizia Reggiani, “Lady Gucci”, who loved her husband against reason, peace and happiness. The cast is stellar and includes Adam Driver playing the role of Maurizio Gucci, Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons and Jared Leto. Pacino portrays Aldo Gucci, Maurizio’s uncle. It was Aldo who created the iconic double-G Gucci logo in homage to his father Guccio Gucci. Once President John F. Kennedy referred to Aldo as the “first Italian ambassador to the United States”. The Gucci breakthrough in the US led to its global development in Asia and the Middle East. Jeremy Irons plays the part of Rodolfo, Maurizio’s father.

Scheduled to be released on November 24, the film is based on the book The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed by Sara Gay Forden, an American journalist who covered the Italian fashion industry from Milan for years.

In 1997, eighteen months after Gucci’s assassination, this sort of modern Greek tragedy was on its way to legal resolution. “Lady Gucci” was arrested and charged with murder. Love had turned into heartlessness, hate and greed. At a long murder trial that captivated Italy in the late 1990s, she was found guilty of having hired a contract killer after discovering Maurizio had been unfaithful. Reggiani was also furious with him for selling the company. Losing the family business was stupid and she was filled with rage. At the time, Italian media dubbed her La Vedova Nera — the Black Widow.

In addition to her, four others were arrested. Investigators believe that Reggiani hired the killer through a one-time friend called Pina Auriemma, a Neapolitan fortune-teller who put pressure on the hitman to carry out the murder quickly. Pina testified that Reggiani could not bear the thought of another woman taking her place as Mrs. Gucci — and with it, the status and money that she “had earned”.

Her lawyer and doctor tried to prove that her brain tumor had caused psychosis. She was sentenced to 29 years. On the day of the verdict, the Italian media reported that Gucci boutiques across the country hung silver handcuffs in their windows.

After 18 years in prison, she was released on grounds of good behaviour in 2016 and immediately told la Repubblica newspaper about her yearning to return to the world of Gucci. “They need me,” she said. “I still feel like a Gucci — in fact, the most Gucci of them all.”

Reggiani, now 72, tells of her extravagant existence speaking directly to camera in a new documentary available for streaming on Discovery Plus titled Lady Gucci: The Story of Patrizia Reggiani.

In a recent interview with the Corriere della Sera newspaper, she expressed annoyance about Lady Gaga portraying her “without even having the courtesy to come and meet me”. “It has nothing to do with money. It is about respect,” she remarked. “Any good actor should get to know the person they’re playing.” But a few days later, she changed her mind: “Lady Gaga is alright. I will watch the film. She looks like me.”

Finally, the ‘Black Widow’ is said to be waiting for death to arrive. “Perhaps I will reincarnate, as a ladybug, I hope.”

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