Icons / June 2017

The Rakes of the Riviera

The epithet pluralised above, in actuality, belonged to Gianni Agnelli — the late Fiat boss after whom this magazine is named. But, says Nick Foulkes, Agnelli was just one of the many potently charming, impeccably stylish jet-set-era gents who once turned the Côte d’Azur into an arena of amorous mastery.

A core protagonist within the 1950s jet set, Gianni Agnelli was resolutely committed to a playboy's lifestyle - carousing nights, fast cars, an endless string of romances and, naturally, a sprawling mansion on the French Riviera.

The south of France in the 1950s was a hunting ground for a group of men who had raised the sport of lady-killing to the level of an art form of operatic intensity and balletic grace. Contrary to what the proponents of the free-love era of the late 1960s would have posterity believe, they did not invent the concept of enjoyable, unfettered sex: all they did was to strip away the charm. The middle years of the 20th century saw the greatest-ever group of legendary seducers concentrated along this strip of Mediterranean littoral. Rather like some species that would become extinct but did not yet know it, in these men, the playboy had reached his highest evolution: impeccable manners, irresistible charm, remarkable sexual technique and an ability 
to seduce women that bordered on sorcery.

French-born American designer Oleg Cassini described the 1950s as the “golden age of romance”, because it was a time when grand gestures were still possible; it was an age when high-speed, transoceanic wooing became viable for the first time. The aeroplane had opened enormous romantic vistas. One could say, ‘I’ll meet you in Cannes for the weekend’ or ‘Here’s a plane ticket. Why don’t you meet me in Gstaad?’ And then, in Cannes, Gstaad, Antibes or 100 other romantic venues, the game of seduction would still be played subtly, cleverly, with a fillip of uncertainty.

The kings of seduction were men such as Aly Khan, Porfirio Rubirosa and Gianni Agnelli; these men established the template to which an entire generation of jet-set men aspired. In his novel Thunderball, Ian Fleming gave a snapshot of the popular ideal of the mid-century playboy with a minor villain called Count Lippe who drives a violet Bentley:  “The man was extremely handsome — a dark-bronzed woman-killer with a neat moustache above the sort of callous mouth women kiss in their dreams. He was an athletic-looking six feet, dressed in the sort of casually well-cut beige herringbone tweed that suggests Anderson & Sheppard. He wore a white silk shirt and a dark red polka-dot tie, and the soft dark brown ‘V’-necked sweater looked like vicuña.”  It was all the information that Bond, Fleming and Fleming’s countless readers needed to know to identify Lippe as “a good-looking bastard who got all the women he wanted and probably lived on them — and lived well”.

Here, in short, was the ideal of the homo universalis as lounge lizard, a man who squanders his looks, talent, physical attributes and time on the pursuit of pleasure — and of women, to pay for it. But this snapshot of the homo Riverias of the early jet set was but a flickering and indistinct reflection of the genuine article: a satyr to the real Hyperion that was Porfirio Rubirosa. Sometime diplomat and on/off urbane frontman for the disagreeable 
regime of Rafael Trujillo, the tyrant dictator who ran the Dominican Republic as a large personal estate rather than a small Caribbean nation, Rubi was not bothered by the finer points of international politics or diplomacy. As he once said candidly of his younger self, “The only things that interested me were 
sports, girls, adventures, celebrities — in short, life.”

 

Rubirosa was one of the most celebrated lovers of the time — indeed, for that matter, of all time — and known for having a particularly large penis. “He was very proud of his abilities and endowments,” noted a friend of his from the ’50s, “and would, at times, perform parlour tricks. He could balance a chair with a telephone book on it atop his erection. ‘It’s a muscle like any other,’ he would say. ‘It can be strengthened.’” This being a more delicate age than ours, Rubi’s endowments were alluded to coyly (the oversized peppermills favoured by Italian restaurants, for instance, became known as Rubirosas). However, the man who saw himself as the ‘jet-set Proust’ was rather less reserved on the subject. “That quadroon cock,” enthused Truman Capote in Answered Prayers, his controversial and unfinished roman à clef about international society, “[was] a purported 11-inch café-au-lait sinker, thick as a man’s wrist.”

However, to cast him as a gigolo, a stud and an anatomical marvel — a sort of superior fairground freak — would be to miss out on the overwhelming characteristic of Rubi: his charm. Barbara Hutton put it very well: “He is the ultimate sorcerer, capable of transforming the most ordinary evening into a night of magic.” And it was this quality of charm that he shared with his greatest rival for the title of ‘Playboy of the Century’.

By the ’50s, Prince Aly Khan was a legend: racehorse owner, jockey, womaniser, gambler and maniacally fast driver of sports cars — pursuits not entirely compatible with his being a religious-leader-in-waiting. His father was the Aga Khan III, a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed and a spiritual leader — Imam of the Ismaili Muslim sect, a hereditary role that he had assumed as a child of eight upon the death of his father in 1885. Clearly, the Aga Khan III was by no means a chaste fundamentalist ascetic: by 1908, a young Italian ballet dancer called Teresa Magliano was expecting his child. By the 1950s, that child had grown into one of the two most adept lady-killers of the century: the dashing, restless, tirelessly gallant Aly Khan.

Aly was divine — literally. One day, he would inherit his father’s role as a sort of living god. But it was not this trait that attracted women to him. He had a reputation for sexual prowess that rivalled Rubi’s, mantling him with a mist of innuendo and double entendre. “No matter how many women Aly went with,” recalled a friend, “he seldom reached a climax himself. He could make love by the hour, but he went the whole way himself not oftener than twice a week. He liked the effect it had on women. He liked to get them out of control, while he stayed in control — the master of the situation.” Inevitably, a cloak of myth began to surround Aly’s amorous achievements. According to some, he would plunge his arms into buckets of ice kept at the bedside (which does rather militate against sexual spontaneity). Oleg Cassini, meanwhile, had it on good authority that Aly was peerless when it came to cunnilingus.

But he was much more than an expert sexual technician; he was possessed of the vitality and glamour of a man of action, and he was just as tireless out of bed as he was in it. “I once left Aly at four in the morning in Deauville,” recalled one awestruck and exhausted friend. “When I got back to his house late that same day, he had ridden a horse in the morning, played tennis, flown 
to England to watch one of his horses run, flown back, and then we played bridge until three the next morning. Meanwhile, he 
had a few girls around to relax, too. At three in the morning, he took his car and drove off to the casino.”

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Nick Foulkes