The Summer of '68: Gigi Rizzi

Originally published in Issue 51 of The Rake, Stuart Husband writes that Gigi Rizzi was the leader of a group of Italian gigolos who lived out a kind of Fellini fantasia on the Cote d’Azur in the late sixties. ‘It was ’68,’ he once wrote, ‘and I was dancing barefoot on tables, always out to win, never worrying about tomorrow.’ His charms were not lost on Brigitte Bardot…

The Summer of '68: Gigi Rizzi
In its valedictory round-up of 1968’s most notable people, the magazine Newsweek singled out the year’s headliners: Che Guevara, Christiaan Barnard, and Gigi Rizzi. Gigi who? It was a name to conjure with — indeed, it sounded like an unbeatable submission in the porn-star name game — but Rizzi had done something more momentous and epoch-making than, say, foment Marxist revolution across Latin America or perform the first human-to-human heart transplant. That summer, he had become the most envied man on the planet as the playboy consort of the ultimate French bombshell, Brigitte Bardot. Photos of the time show Bardot and Rizzi cutting a swathe through various palm-fringed rivieras — Saint-Tropez, of course, where Bardot held court in her villa, La Madrague, but also Capri, where she had shot Contempt with Jean-Luc Godard. She tends to be wearing floppy sun hats and cotton vests or micro-dresses; he’s in shirts that are slashed to the navel and low-slung cords or velvet trousers, accessorised with the crispiest of tans, a cat-who-got-the-cream grin, and a kind of lithe-if-not-exotic athleticism — Alain Delon with floppier hair, or Johan Cruyff with a more saturnine edge. Occasionally they sport matching piratical bandanas. “This was a crazy moment,” said the designer Valentino, who bought the Villa Cercola, one of Capri’s oldest villas, just as the island’s reputation for libertinism became turbo-charged. “All the fashion people, all the models, all the movie stars, it was a sort of dolce vita.”
Rizzi sharing a joke with Bardot, circa 1968
With French actress Claudine Auger and designer Nino Cerruti, circa 1970
Rizzi was at the core of a group of young Italian gigolos who were already living out a kind of Fellini fantasia. His crew included Beppe Piroddi, who was then squiring Odile Redon, the last love of echt-playboy Porfirio Rubirosa; Franco Rapetti, known as The Prince; and Rodolfo Parisi. They were collectively known — with geographical rigour, if imaginative paucity — as Les Italiens. “They were the most good-looking, suntanned Italian playboys. They ruled the scene on Capri,” said the socialite Pilar Crespi Robert in a Vanity Fair interview. “They were straight. They always had beautiful American girlfriends. Very glamorous. Leather pants, open shirts with chains.” Rizzi’s own description of their amatory campaigns sounded like something ripped from Guevara’s guerrilla-war handbook: “We had to fight against the multimillionaires to conquer,” he said. “All I had was my face, and that made the challenge even more exciting…we were poisonous.” If Rizzi had a romantic notion of himself as some kind of licentious counter-revolutionary — “while French students burned flags and occupied universities in ’68, we were engaged in our own battle against conformity,” he later wrote in a memoir, Io, BB, e l’altro ’68 — it was true that the champagne-dreams-caviar-kisses lifestyle wasn’t his by birthright. The third of four children, he’d been born in Piacenza in 1944 during an Allied air raid; his father owned a brick-making business. The young Gigi wasted no time in rebelling against perbenismo, the bourgeois code of respectability; his first conquest, at 14, was the family’s governess.
Brigitte Bardot walking with Gigi Rizzi. Saint-Tropez, August 1968 (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)
Displaying his elegant style at a party with the actress Gianna Serra, 1968 (Photo by Keystone Pictures USA/REX/Shutterstock (5363379af)
By the late sixties, Rizzi and his confrères were making fairly choppy waves on the Côte d’Azur in general, and the newly fashionable Saint-Tropez in particular. It was a picaresque odyssey. “I had no Ferrari or Rolls,” he would later write. “I often went by train, and would make my way home as best I could when the money ran out.” Once there, however, he wasn’t hard to pick out of the crowd; he’d be in the thick of the action, Negroni in hand, swinging across a bar on a rope, medallion bouncing jauntily off his chest fur. “It was ’68,” he wrote in an open, elegiac letter to mark Bardot’s 70th birthday, published by Corriere della Sera in 2004, “and I was dancing barefoot on tables, always out to win, never worrying about tomorrow. I was 24, and on French soil I felt like a musketeer, drinking Cointreau with Johnny Halliday and playing football with Gilbert Bécaud in the afternoons on Place Delice. I look back and I see Saint-Tropez, the hellish pit of Esquinade, the endless nights between Escale and Papagayo, and one night in particular, when you were there to applaud the exploits of Les Italiens.” Little wonder that he caught Bardot’s eye. At 34, she was 10 years Rizzi’s senior, and already tiring of her third marriage, to the Opel heir Gunter Sachs. While Rizzi couldn’t compete with the latter on the grand gesture front — Sachs had, after all, courted Bardot by strewing thousands of red roses across the grounds of La Madrague from his helicopter — there was certainly a spark between them: “You were fragile, melancholy, intelligent, sensitive, protective of your intimacy,” wrote Rizzi in his open letter. “You became furious if that was violated, principally by those photographers who used the flash as a bazooka. I saw that, behind the myth, you were a real person. For that, I liked you so much. You made the man close to you feel like he was the most important man in the world, and that the only air worth breathing was the air we breathed together.” Fate had also intervened in the match-up: Bardot invited Rizzi to go water-skiing with her on their first date, blissfully unaware that he had been schooled in the art at Portofino by a world champion. If he needed two glasses of rosé for Dutch courage after running the gauntlet of paparazzi outside La Madrague (instead of the coffee he was offered), it was soon clear that she was as taken with his frank, hedonistic brio as he was with her potent sensuality. Thus, the ultimate summer fling began, as unlikely — Bardot hated nightclubs and drinking and the limelight, while Rizzi lustily embraced all three — as it was emblematic: shots of the pair, nuzzling, cuddling and shimmying while similarly hot-panted and bouffanted couples look on, form a sun-kissed, yé-yé-soundtracked counterpoint to those of the Paris barricades. Both parties seemed to understand that brevity was not only a part of the compact, but made it all the sweeter. Rizzi famously declared, with admiring approbation, that Bardot changed her motorboat with every new boyfriend; after a few months of moonlit water-skiing and skinny-dipping off the deck of her Riva Super Florida, they parted without rancour. “Gigi was sweet,” said Bardot, in a rare encomium to a former lover. “We asked nothing of each other but delight and simplicity. It was a moment in time.”
Rizzi, in a signature open-neck shirt, alongside a band of musicians in 1968
If Rizzi mined that moment in time for maximum advantage over the course of his subsequent adventures, who could blame him? Certainly, his tenure as Bardot’s leading man (as well as giving the Italian male ego a collective boost whose peacocking fallout is still reverberating today) allowed him to pursue his dreams of becoming an actor, though he inevitably found himself typecast in playboy roles in the likes of Carlo Lizzani’s 1972 potboiler Roma Bene. He compounded his image by dating a string of beautiful models-cum-actresses, including Veruschka, Jacqueline Bisset, Dominique Sanda, Cynthia Lennon, and Nathalie Delon (ex-wife of Alain). He also brought his wealth of nightclub experience to bear in joining with Piroddi and fellow members of Les Italiens to open what was said to be Italy’s first bona-fide discotheque in Milan in 1969: Number One was modelled on those establishments in France through which Rizzi and his friends had blazed and caroused, and quickly attracted a chic crowd, prompting the opening of a second club on the Via Veneto in Rome. It was the latter that was to prove Rizzi’s downfall. When cocaine was found in the club’s bathrooms in 1972, Les Italiens were brought to book by the Italian authorities, who saw them as a preening, pernicious influence on their impressionable barefooted-and-bandanna’d heirs; the discos were shuttered and Rizzi the musketeer thought it politic to sheath his rapier, moving to Buenos Aires in the mid seventies. However, South America was perhaps not the best destination to avoid white powder-related depredations, and he ended up in a rehab clinic. His eventual recovery came thanks to the ministrations of Dolores Mayol, the Argentinian woman who became his wife and the mother of his three children, and an unlikely transformation into a farmer; he relocated to the Pampas for the next two decades, growing crops and raising award-winning cattle, before returning to Italy to settle in a house on the Ligurian Riviera. Rizzi now became a kind of priapic elder statesman, making the rounds of Italian chat shows, where his tales of lecherous swashbuckling opened a portal to that heady season when anything — a comparatively penurious Italian stallion winning the hand of the world’s most lusted-after woman, say — seemed possible. His legend continued to be burnished — the racy swimwear company MC2 Saint Barth sells a T-shirt bearing Rizzi’s moody face, cigarette clamped in the corner of his mouth, with the words ‘THE OUTLAW, St. Tropez, Summer ’68’ emblazoned across it, alongside its skull print swimshorts and skimpy chenille bikinis — and it was only fitting that Rizzi’s death came in that same jet-set playground, the place that had been the making of him, when he returned there to celebrate his 69th birthday in 2013. “I feel even today the pull of that summer,” he had written to Bardot, “and I am still your friend. À bientôt.” But don’t let the plaintive tone deceive you too much: Rizzi remained raffish to the end. Had he ever suffered for love, he was once asked. “Yes, many times,” he answered. “But I consoled myself in a hurry.” This article originally appeared in Issue 51 of The Rake.