Cut! Hollywood turns Gucci family saga into an epic drama

The British director Ridley Scott is planning to make a film about the Gucci fashion dynasty, and though he has not begun to cast it yet, there is already a whiff of treachery in the air, a tang of grapeshot in the nostrils and the rumble of bitter feuding about to break out.

From surviving members of the Gucci dynasty emerges the none-too-subtle hint that they have been horribly turned over.

The news of the planned film was broken by the showbusiness newspaper Variety. It reported that Scott, the director of films such as Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator, "will fashion the story of the Gucci dynasty into a feature". The film, it went on, "will chronicle the wild and glamorous story of the Gucci family in the 1970s and 1980s, when its 153 shops moved $500m in product annually".

The "catalyst" of the story, according to Variety, "will be Maurizio Gucci... who was gunned down in front of his Milan apartment in 1995".

The ingredients are almost too luscious to be true, combining the conspicuous luxury of the Florentine bags-to-fashion house, the vast fortunes and giddily extravagant lifestyles the family members revelled in and the fratricidal feuding that destroyed it all, leading to punch-ups and flying tape recorders in the boardroom; one Gucci shopping his aged father to the American inland revenue who duly put him in jail; and, in the blazing climax, Patrizia Reggiani ordering the contract murder of her hated ex-husband, Maurizio.

It is a story that the Guccis cannot expect people to forget, but also one they would much rather put behind them. Within 24 hours of the Variety story breaking they had made their view of the project very clear. Patrizia Gucci, 45, niece of the murdered Maurizio and herself a designer and writer, told the Corriere della Sera newspaper that she was "surprised and upset" by the news; felt that she had been betrayed by Scott and announced legal action to stop the film being made. "The film is not authorised [by the family] and if it presents the story of our family in an offensive manner, we will try to block it," she said.

The words "wild and glamorous"; the planned centrality of Maurizio and the mention of the unmentionable the way Maurizio met his maker have set off all available alarm bells in Gucci Mansions. Patrizia Gucci recalled with bitterness how Scott's Italian partner Giannina Facio, "who is also his producer", came to Florence three years ago "and was our guest, and for three days stayed in our home. She proposed the project, briefly sketched the screenplay, and even raised the possibility that the character of my father Paolo, who died in the same year as Maurizio, could be played by a great actor, probably Nicholas Cage. I was happy. I thought, finally justice will be done to an important family which has contributed so much to the image of Italy abroad. We parted with great affection."

Scott can hardly be blamed for getting his wife to winkle herself into the Gucci family's favours. But his chances of producing a storyline the family would find remotely acceptable were never going to be strong.

Because the tale of the Guccis is a moral fable. It is the story, in essence, of all successful family dynasties, especially the Italian ones, where the strength of the family bond and the quality of the business and design talent are matched only by the potential and appetite for vicious vendetta. Where the speed and height of the ascent are perfectly balanced by the vertiginous and terrifying downfall.

Beautiful leather was the Gucci hallmark from the beginning. The family's rise began a century ago when the father of the founder of the fashion empire started a shop in Florence selling saddles and other equestrian accessories to the local gentry.

His son Guccio Gucci fell out with him and ran off to London, getting a job as a waiter at the Savoy. Benefiting from this intimate exposure to the frailties and foibles of the rich, he returned to Florence in 1921 and opened a shop selling trunks and suitcases made from the same beautiful Tuscan leather that his father used to make saddles.

The customers were the sort of people who inhabit E M Forster's A Room with a View affluent English and other foreigners enjoying the Tuscan leg of the Grand Tour.

Business boomed, but feuding was in the blood. Guccio had five sons, and encouraged rivalry and even treachery between them. With so many heirs to the burgeoning family fortune, arguments were almost inevitable, and fights broke out in the boardroom over disagreements. Paolo Gucci, grandson of Guccio, infuriated his father and other relatives by insisting on driving the expansion of the firm all over the world against their wishes. Tempers flared at one board meeting in 1982 when Paolo was struck by a flying tape recorder. He took revenge against his father, Aldo, then 81, by informing the American authorities that the old man had been cheating on his American tax returns. Aldo Gucci, who owed some $7m, was tried and put in prison.

But the seeds of the family's crowning tragedy had been planted a decade before. Maurizio Gucci, nephew of Aldo and son of Rodolfo (formerly a star of Italian silent films), was a relatively quiet member of the turbulent family circle. But in 1972, he caused a scandal of his own by announcing that he wanted to marry a girl called Patrizia Reggiani. The Guccis were by now seriously rich, and Patrizia, though glamorous and vicacious, was regarded by the rest of the family as socially their inferior, being the daughter of a trucking contractor and a laundry woman. But for Maurizo Gucci, no woman but his "pocket-sized Venus" would do.

Though Maurizio was shy and introverted by nature, and Patrizia was anything but, for years the marriage clicked, lubricated by all that money and a lifestyle to match. But as Maurizio began to try to assert control over the brand, sparks began to fly.

Sara Gay Forden, author of The House of Gucci, who interviewed Maurizio Gucci extensively before he was killed, said, "The first 12 years of the marriage were blissful. He doted on Patrizia and their two daughters, buying her important properties and taking her advice on business matters." But as he brought in his own advisers and lost interest in his wife's counsel, the partnership soured dramatically.

Forden said: "She became volubly and harshly critical of her husband, domineering and constantly criticising him publicly and privately, trying to push her way into the management of the business... She told people his personality was like a seat cushion, that it took the shape of the last person to sit on it."

By 1985 he had had enough: he packed an overnight bag, saying that he was leaving on urgent business then the next day sent a doctor friend, armed with a bottle of Valium pills, to announce that he was never coming back.

That might have been the end of it. It was certainly Maurizio's wish to finish like this, and at the end of a nasty and drawn-out divorce Patrizia emerged with a huge settlement.

But she couldn't let go. "Neither Maurizio nor Patrizia ever really emotionally divorced each other," claimed Forden. "They were constantly fighting and arguing with each other — they fought a lot about the children — and over the years Patrizia had really nurtured this conflict into a deep, obsessive hatred of Maurizio."

But for Patrizia the last straw was when Maurizio found another woman Paola Franchi, tall, slim, blonde. Amid all the fighting the entire Gucci clan had lost control of their beloved brand: Maurizio had sold his stake for $300m to a firm based in Bahrain called Investcorp. But rescued at last from the family squabbles, in love again, installed in a noble palazzo and with new offices of his own in an expensive corner of Milan, Maurizio was on the verge of a new life. Or so he must have imagined. He announced his plans to re-marry.

And that was his undoing. For

den, who interviewed Patrizia two years before the shooting, remembered Maurizio Gucci's ex-wife as "incrediby lucid, bright and dynamic" but also "very angry at Maurizio... But I never dreamed it would turn into murder".

But Patrizia Reggiani had begun keeping strange company, including the night porter of a cheap hotel in Milan; a former boutique owner who was said to be a psychic and others.

Forden said that in these last years Signora Gucci was staggeringly frank about her desire to have Maurizio murdered, talking about it openly, challenging her servants, her lawyer and her low-life friends to find someone to do the needful.

Finally, at 8.30am on 27 March 1995, a highly professional Sicilian thug named Benedetto Ceraulo performed the deed, firing four shots into Maurizio's body, finishing with a coup de grce to the head. The film, as Scott must have seen, practically writes itself: hubris and nemesis, greed and jealousy, all the old passions, against a background of soft hand-tooled leather and the cobbles of Florence. Then the pathetic coda: Patrizia Reggiani's desperate defence, her claim that the man who organised the murder did so merely in order to blackmail her; rejected out of hand by the judge, who in 1999 sentenced her to a total of 29 years in jail.

And then the second, even sadder postscript, with her lawyer trying to persuade an appeal court that she was not responsible for ordering the killing because she was suffering from the after-effects of an operation to remove a benign tumour from her brain. Just over one year ago Italy's highest court finally rejected this appeal too. Suffering from epilepsy, frequently unable to walk, she remains in jail, suffering the torments of the damned for her crime. Scott is not the first director to see the film potential in this saga. Five years ago, an Italian company proposed making a television drama about it, and the family in this case Maurizio and Patrizia's grown-up daughters Alessandra and Allegra reacted just as furiously. "We are very angry about that," their lawyer told one journalist. "We don't know if it is happening or not. Also, we are aware that a film is supposedly being made by Martin Scorsese. No way will we allow this to go forward."

In 2002, the daughters' argument was that Patrizia's appeal was pending, so any dramatisation could prejudice the outcome of the court case.

With their mother's last appeal now lost, that line of defence has gone. But the strength of feeling remains. "Our family", said Patrizia Gucci on Tuesday, "has contributed so much to the image of Italy abroad." True enough; but not exactly as she meant it.

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