Obituary: Paul-Annik Weiller

THERE WERE 25 square metres of flowers at the funeral of Paul- Annik Weiller in Geneva last week. Friends flew from as far as Mexico and Florida, while Servette, the football club he saved for Switzerland, was there in force. Much-loved and a highly successful international businessman, he succeeded in remaining largely unknown to the world's press or public.

Weiller faced a life full of challenges with courage and considerable ingenuity, while remaining a man of charm and modesty, about whom I never heard an unkind word said. His early life was difficult. Paul-Annik was the product of the uncomfortable union between two extraordinary people.

His father, Commandant Paul-Louis Weiller, was one of the most enigmatic men of the 20th century, a man of determination and dynamism, who employed 20th-century inventions and business techniques to create a life that many compared to the court life of the great French kings. Indeed, Greta Garbo called him "Paul-Louis Quatorze". He was an industrialist from Alsace, who became a flying ace in the First World War, administrator of the Societe Gnome et Rhone (an aero-engine company employing more than 20,000 men), a pioneer in the field of civil aviation (his airlines were subsumed into Air France on nationalisation in 1935), a political prisoner in the Second World War, and later a munificent patron for charity and Maecenas of the arts. A man who continued to work past his 100th birthday, he amassed an immense fortune, and yet, in his lifetime, avoided the publicity that attended his peers - Aristotle Onassis, Stavros Niarchos and Paul Getty.

Paul-Annik's mother was a Greek beauty queen, Aliki Diplarakos, first spotted by the Commandant in 1931 when she came to Paris to represent her country in a "Miss Europe" contest. He fell in love with her, courted her with every resource available, flowers and jewels, and placed his cars and private aeroplane at her disposal. Overcoming parental disapproval due to her extreme youth, he made her his second wife in 1932, and she found herself hostess to Parisian luminaries such as Anna de Noailles and Jean Giraudoux. Paul-Annik was the only son of the marriage, born in Paris in 1933.

The all-consuming business interests of Paul-Louis, matched only by his smothering devotion to his wife, did not make for happiness. When the war began and he realised that he was in danger of arrest, he sent mother and son first to Biarritz and Lisbon and then to the United States. He himself was imprisoned in France, but eventually escaped to Cuba, attempting to join his wife in New York. He reached Canada in 1943, but at this point she divorced him in Reno. Many bitter years followed, during which, it must be said, the Commandant never ceased to adore her.

In 1945 Paul-Louis went to New York and settled at the Plaza on East 59th Street, while Aliki and Paul-Annik were living on East 58th. They promptly left for England, where presently she married a young diplomat, John Russell, who rose to be ambassador in Ethiopia, Brazil and Spain.

Paul-Annik was raised in French until he was seven, learned Greek from his mother and English in America. He began his schooling at Buckley in New York, only spending holidays with his father in Canada. Then he went to St Edmund's School, near Guildford in England, where he was a ward of the British court. In 1946 his father won an action and placed him in the prestigious Ecole des Roches in Normandy. His father drove him hard, withdrawing pocket money if his results were unsatisfactory. The shortfall was invariably made up by a kind housekeeper. In 1953 he was inscribed in the Paris lycee Louis-le-Grand, where he studied the arts in defiance of his father, who was determined he should read engineering.

In 1954 Paul-Annik attained his majority and instantly escaped from this authoritarian regime by secretly embarking on the Queen Mary for the States. Of his own free will, he entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studying engineering for two years, working 70 hours a week. He refused any financial support from his father, living off a modest inheritance from an aunt. This was a major rebellion and effectively made Paul-Annik his own man. It also won the approval of his father, and even more so when he defied parental fears by earning his diploma with a high pass mark.

In 1957 he undertook military service as a pilot in the French Air Force, serving in the Algerian war. He notched up a remarkable 1,000 flying hours and was decorated for valour. This achieved, he went to Munich, where his father had an interest in a chain of service stations, anticipating the arrival of the major oil companies from the US. Again defying his father's prognostications, he achieved great success, reselling the filling stations not for their real-estate value but for the cash-flow achieved by the gallons sold. The service stations were in due course sold with considerable profit as two networks to Gulf Oil and Getty Oil.

Following this, Paul-Annik became a businessman independent of his father. The rivalry between them was a driving force and it was Paul-Annik's victory that he held his father's respect without becoming his cypher.

Some years ago I advanced the theory to Lady Diana Cooper that he may have been a greater businessman than his father. She asked the Commandant, who replied mischievously: "Ah! That I don't know. When he is needing money, he comes to Papa!" The reality was that any deal made with his father was on strictly business terms.

Paul-Annik's empire included a car-wash business that he started in Germany in 1965, backing an inventor whose system was so sound that it is still used today. Combining a sound knowledge of the engineering side with a flair for real estate, he extended this enterprise into 12 countries and licensed it in Japan. His other endeavours included substantial development and investment in telecommunications, solar energy, a vast train-wash business, and property. For seven years he was a main board director of GEC.

He established the equivalent of the Reject China Shop, La Porcelaine Blanche, in Germany, and acquired the franchise for the Wendy Hamburger chain in Switzerland.

Paul-Annik was a workaholic like his father, thinking nothing of rising at 5am and those who preferred to arrive in their offices at a more respectable hour invariably started their working day attending to a barrage of faxes that had arrived before the sun. It is asserted, and it is a daunting assertion, that, by the time his father died at the age of 100 in 1993, Paul-Annik's empire was the larger of the two.

Besides his numerous business endeavours, he ran a number of charitable institutions and continued the work of restoration on fine buildings in Paris begun by his father. He was well-read, played the piano superbly, was a keen tennis-player and loved football. This last love caused him in 1991 to buy Servette, the Geneva football club that had fallen into debt. He introduced three world-class players and in 1994 they won the Swiss Championships. The club revived, the players were sold on, and the team is in good spirits and thriving once more. To them he was a hero, and in 1994 he was carried shoulder-high round the arena.

His aim was solely to create a much-needed impetus for the young of Geneva. Now they have 70 youngsters in training.

Furthermore, he associated all the small local teams in Geneva with Servette, allying a further 700 young cub players to the larger club. Talent scouts watched them regularly and there were many opportunities for promotion. He also founded a football magazine, Match Mag. When Paul-Annik stepped down, the television channel Canal + took over and continued all his schemes.

In 1965 Paul-Annik Weiller married a beautiful Italian princess, Olimpia Torlonia, granddaughter of Queen Ena of Spain, herself a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. The prospect of this union delighted his father for dynastic reasons, but his first question to the young bride was suitably disconcerting: "You are Italian. Can you cook pasta?"

Olimpia was as sweet-natured as she was beautiful and she and Paul-Annik were profoundly happy. They had six children between the years 1967 and 1985, two of whom died young. They divided their time between Geneva, France and Italy.

The first time I met Paul-Annik was at a daunting lunch in Versailles in 1984. The gathering included some distinguished Frenchmen, who had spent part of their youth at the Commandant's South of France villa, La Reine Jeanne. I had been bidden to write the history of this villa. Paul- Annik asked me how I was getting on, and in turn I asked him if he had any advice. "Certainly," he replied. "If I was you, I'd jump out of the window." He added: "You won't do yourself any harm, we are on the ground floor."

For all the drive and energy he had inherited from the father, he wore it lightly. He was less intense, kinder and more sensitive. Physically a huge, powerful man, he was essentially gentle. He possessed an abundance of charm and a highly developed understanding of his fellow men.

In September 1994, almost a year after his father's death, he presided over the wedding at Versailles of his daughter Sibilla to Prince Guillaume of Luxembourg. It was a magnificent occasion, attended by a king, five queens and an empress and 1,300 guests. Outside the cathedral, as the bridal couple stepped out into the sunlight, the photographers shouted "Ici la mariee" or "Presses de la France". When they then shouted "Altesse!", most of the congregation looked round.

Hugo Vickers

Paul-Annik Weiller, businessman: born Paris 28 July 1933; married 1965 Donna Olimpia Torlonia (four daughters, and one son and one daughter deceased); died Geneva 2 November 1998.

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?