Someone once said that ‘the rich get richer and the poor get children’. The first part of this saying was certainly true in the case of Giovanni Agnelli, known as Gianni, possibly Italy’s most important industrialist as chairman and major shareholder of the Fiat motor company, a life senator and owner, for a period, of the Juventus soccer club.
Born in Turin on March 12, 1921, Gianni Agnelli was the son of Eduardo Agnelli and Princess Virginia Bourbon del Monte di San Faustino and the grandson of Giovanni Agnelli, who founded Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino (FIAT) in 1899. He was educated at Pinerolo Cavalry Academy and, although he never practiced, he took a law degree at the University of Turin, which later led to him dubbed ‘l’ Avvocato’ (‘the lawyer’). During World War II, he fought on the Russian and the North African fronts, was wounded twice and, after Italy signed the armistice, worked as a liaison officer for the occupying U.S. Army.
In 1953, he married Marella Caracciolo di Castagneto, a Neapolitan princess with whom he had two children: a son Edoardo, who tragically committed suicide in 2000; and a daughter, Margherita Agnelli de Pahlen, who, to the disdain of most of the Agnelli family, is currently embroiled in a law suit against three of her father’s advisers as well as her mother over her father’s immense fortune.
After several years of leading a playboy’s existence, in 1959 Agnelli took over the family holding company. Four years later, already in his forties, he became managing director and, then, in 1966, chairman of Fiat. With his business acumen, he turned the company into a worldwide conglomerate and helped catapult Italy’s agriculture-based economy into the modern industrialized world. In the 1970s, he diversified the business, brought in new and dynamic managers and expanded the company outside Italy, opening factories in Russia, Spain and South America.
During the global oil crisis of 1976, in a controversial move aimed at raising capital, he sold 10 percent of Fiat’s shares to Colonel Qaddafi of Libya. He would later buy them back. Not only did he negotiate joint ventures internationally, but on the domestic front, he acquired Alfa Romeo, Lancia and a large slice of Ferrari. Agnelli led the company through 30 difficult years marked by massive trade union agitation, terrorism, political bribery scandals and the very frequent fluctuating fortunes of the world automobile market.
His detractors claim that his main interests were those of the family, and that all too often he bent Italy’s labour laws and tax system to accommodate the company’s needs. While this may have been so, there is no denying that at its peak the Fiat group employed about 200,000 workers and produced almost 5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. It also controlled a myriad of subsidiary holdings, including auto accessory companies, La Stampa newspaper, banking and insurance agencies and even textile and food firms. This made Fiat a formidable force to be reckoned with. It still is. Named a life senator in 1982, Agnelli stepped down as head of Fiat in 1996 although he kept the title of honorary chairman until his death.
In his personal life, Agnelli’s success with women was legendary. He is reputed to have had affairs with actresses Anita Ekberg, Rita Hayworth, Linda Christian, and Danielle Darrieux. Pamela Churchill Harriman described their five-year relationship, when he was still a bachelor, as the happiest period of her life. Jacqueline Kennedy was also rumoured to be one of his conquests. Always the gentleman, in an interview he once said, ‘Men fall into two categories: men who talk about women and men who talk to women. In my case, I talk to them’.
Apart from women, his other pastimes included international jet-setting, fast cars, sailing, skiing and his beloved Juventus. Just before he died, he left his amazing collection of paintings by both young and old masters to the city of Turin.
A tall, handsome man with Roman-emperor-like features, Agnelli became a national and international style icon for his impeccable, if slightly eccentric, fashion sense, which embraced wearing his watch over his cuffs and leaving the top button of his shirt unfastened under his tie. In 2007, Esquire magazine named him one of the five best-dressed men in the history of the world.
When, at 81, Agnelli died of prostate cancer on January 24, 2003, the president of Italy, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, summed up his life, commenting that he had been ‘for more than half a century, one of the protagonists of the history of our country, expressing in every critical moment the fundamental values of the national character and identity’.