I first met Maria Manetti Shrem one overcast evening on the rooftop of Palazzo Gondi. The exchange was short but special. It was as though the clouds had opened and the sun shone as Maria joyfully exclaimed at the view of the Duomo with her trademark elan. Across the miles—Maria’s currently in California when she’s usually in Florence—this modern patroness of the arts speaks at length about her life, charity work and projects.
Helen Farrell: Maria, can you give me the potted history of how a Florentine moved to California.
Maria Manetti Shrem: It’s an American Dream story. Most Italians who live in the San Francisco Bay Area are from Genoa and Lucca. I came here for love! Aged 21, I married an American, Edward De George, who was 25 years older than me. Ten years later, I was running our company, manufacturing knitwear sold to the US and Europe and we weren’t getting on well anymore. Eventually, through my husband, I met this young Berkeley student, Stephen Farrow; he was ten years younger, tall, blond, blue eyes, and we fell in love like crazy. Divorce didn’t exist in Italy in 1972, so I lost everything: the company, the Chianti Classico villa, everything. I moved to San Francisco, married Stephen, with about 2,000 dollars at the age of 31. I remember we had to scrape money together to buy olive oil in the supermarket! I quadrupled what I had by working very hard, becoming the director of the Gucci franchise at Joseph Magnin department store before founding Manetti Farrow Inc. . I sold the company in 1992; since then I’ve been managing my investments and have become a benefactor for lots of charities.
HF: Tell me more about your charity work.
MMS: Working with charities gives me the most joy. My husband and I made the decision that we would give away our money during our lifetime. I’m involved in 18 charities in the Bay Area and in New York, and about eight charities in Europe, which include the Andrea Bocelli Foundation, Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, Fai (the Italian national trust), Fondazione Fiorenzo Fratini, The Prince of Wales’s Charitable Fund and Venetian Heritage, Friends of the Louvre, and Friends of Versailles. At this time of the year, I’m usually in Italy for six weeks. I stay three weeks in Florence before going to Capri for my birthday and visiting my friend Prince Charles in London. Travel is my oxygen, but right now instead I’m cleaning up 35 years of filing because of this virus.