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Obituary: Paul-Annik Weiller

Hugo Vickers
Wednesday 11 November 1998 00:02 GMT

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.

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