I have heard that Carla Fracci has died of cancer at her home in Milan. She was Italy’s grande dame of ballet and one of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century.
I was fortunate to have met her once or twice and her Obituary called to mind a wonderful summer my partner, Tony, and I spent in Positano at the spectacular home of Franco Zeffirelli, Villa Treville, in
July 1986 when, at 34, I was even more ignorant than I am now, knew no-one and had been nowhere really.
Tony had been asked by Franco to fly out to Italy to help him with some script writing, something he had done before. Tony was then a Literary Agent at London Management where Franco was represented by Dennis Van Thal.
We had only been together for about eighteen months and Franco, who had quite a soft spot for Tony, was curious to know who he had landed, as it were!
I cannot tell you the feelings of excitement, trepidation and curiosity that besieged me as we stepped into the stretch limo that had been sent to Rome to fetch us nor will I ever forget the drive down to Naples thence along the Amalfi Corniche to Positano. There was a waxing moon reflecting on the waters, the warm sea air carried scents of Jasmine and tomato on it; there was no traffic; the twists and turns provided a thrill in themselves and the car radio had some popular Neapolitan songs rendered by Pavarotti playing quietly over the hum of the motor. Corny I know but to me, then, utterly romantic.
We arrived at about 1.00am. We helped the driver unload our little bags. He escorted us down a steep set of stairs to an iron gate which opened onto what I can only describe as a sort of paradise: Villa Tre Ville clings to the cliff, built on a series of terraces; it is really three villas on the headland overlooking the bay. There are trees, there is jasmine, there are flowers, there is water trickling; again the sea air, again the moon; it is cool but with that underlying feeling of a heat gently quenched. It was truly beautiful.
Down some more stairs and on the terrace below, a small party waiting including of course our host. Tony was in front, I was partially hidden from view beginning to feel socially gauche.
“Aaaaah, Tony, Tony, Tony there you are! You are here. Welcome, welcome, come on down.” A slight tilt of the head, a narrowing of the eyes, a peering round, “and this must be Peter……..in his little Marks & Spenser shirt!”
I nearly died of embarrassment. 1986 was a good year for Marks
Villa Tre Ville, Positano : once the home of Diaghilev & Franco Zeffirelli. Now a boutique hotel. Sadly!
& Spenser and I was indeed wearing a rather slim fitting, green shirt with sort-of fish net, short sleeves that rather nicely, I thought, showed up the muscles! How he had guessed this, peering through the gently lit darkness I do not know other than to say that design and fabric were his two biggest strengths. He just knew.
And I knew I had to be on my mettle in that paradise but oh dear, I remember the bricks that my unease made me drop as I tried to keep up with the names and the graces.
First up Carla Fracci.
The next morning as on all mornings I was on my own because everyone else was working on the script. I explored along the terraces and eventually fetched up down on the water where flat rocks jutted over the aquamarine, a shaded pavilion set out, comfortably arranged with loungers. There was only one other person there. She was slender, impish almost, was wearing leg warmers and was exercising, elegantly backlit by the bright sun and reflecting sea.
I am thinking, now who is this? I must be careful. Everyone here is famous. I ought probably to know who this is. She looks familiar. Blast my colonial past. Oh Lordy…I know nothing. Where’s Tony. He knows everything.
“Hello, I’m Peter,” I say.
“I am Carla,” mid-plié.
Carla who? I’m thinking. I know, I’ll ask what she does – as if it weren’t already evident. Can you believe this?
“And what do you do?” I blurt. “I mean, do you work for Franco?”
Like do you clean the silver, do the dishes, sweep the terraces. After all these years I blush at my clumsy diplomacy.
She smiles; she knows; she is sweet, gentle, “Well, I suppose I do sometimes.” She smiles again, “I dance. In the ballet.”
A ghastly paralysis comes over me. I have seen her dance. Many times. In London and, even, in Cape Town.
“I’m Carla Fracci.”
“Of course you are…!”
Lying on that same beach reading The Silence of the Lambs on another morning, this time in larger company, Tony in my eye line and several sun loungers down, a voice straight out of New York says, “The Silence of the Lambs! Now that is some story. Whaddya think?”
Two men, an older and a younger are standing over me. The younger is very good looking; the older is familiar but once again I am at a loss. I have not seen him among the guests before. I ought to know. I am after all an actor – albeit unknown; but why can’t I remember. Oh heck. He’s somewhere in my profession I’m sure. But might he be a banker? They were always popping in and out, alternately backing or pulling out of one or other of Franco’s projects; and the young man? Are they lovers? Lucky whosis if they are.
“Yes. It’s thrilling. Spectacular. Evil,” I say. “I can’t imagine what must be in the mind of the author; he must be diabolical. Yes I’m enjoying it….” Yatter, yatter, yatter.
“Oh, Tom (Thomas Harris) is the gentlest, kindest man; he’s our neighbour in New York. Wouldn’t harm a fly. Those Lecter stories are a sort of conflation of real crimes he covered on the police beat for Associated Press. It’s very clever the way he’s put it all together.”
“Oh,” I say, “that’s interesting.” So this man must somehow be in publishing or movies or producing of some kind.
“And what do you……I mean, are you in the movies at the moment..or…?” Out of the corner of my eye I catch Tony frantically semaphoring me. I know I’m heading for another gaff. “Erm….what movies – “
“Oh heck no. Never. I burnt my fingers in movies once and never again thanks! No we’re just neighbours here, on vacation, come to borrow Franco’s beach and say ‘hi’. We’re in that villa up there.” He points vaguely up the cliff where a thousand steps lead to another paradise.
“Oh.” So he’s not in movies.
“This is Charles by the way.” Charles nods and smiles. What a gorgeous man. Oh heavens what am I thinking?
Still no clue. Tony is now frantic. Semaphoring again. He’s been semaphoring me for 38 years!
“Enjoy the rest of the book. See you all later.”
“Okay, yeah. Great.”
They move off and in a trice Tony is by my side, “That’s Hal Prince, Pete! You know, the Impresario?”
“Oh crikey. Of course. Yes. I was wondering who he was! And is that his partner or lover? I didn’t think Hal Prince was gay?”
“He’s not, Pete, he’s not. That’s Charles. His son!”
On another sun lounger on another day in Nirvana, came round the headland the most enormous private yacht. A murmur of excitement among the jetsetsia as the craft slowed and dropped anchor. There was a flurry of activity from uniformed crew as a shore party was arranged. The yacht was modern but elegant; a section of the hull inched open to
create an embarkation platform and a sleek tender was lowered and brought round to the landing platform.
There was a short wait.
A group of ladies and gentlemen emerged onto the platform and were handed into the tender. The tender moved off.
Now what? Who were these new arrivals and where were they landing? The yacht must only have been a few hundred yards out and soon it was clear that this amphibious landing would be at our jetty.
The troop of fashionably dressed jetsetsia disembarked and there was much waving and greeting as they made their way up the stairs along the terraces along the terraces to the villa chattering multi-lingually nineteen to the dozen.
The yacht was being worked over, spick’d and span’d by the crew who all looked like models in their stylish uniforms, on standby for the party’s return.
As always around 2.30pm a bell sounded up on the terrace, rung by Ali the chef-housekeeper-manager, summoning us to lunch. We moved lethargically up the stairs to our rooms to change out of beach togs and assemble on the terrace where Ali has laid out a long table set for lunch. Chilled vino bianco locale, huge salads, platters of prosciutto, cheeses and olives, freshly baked breads, jugs of cold spring water and an abundance of fruit, all local, have been set out, the air is heavy again with the scent of jasmine, tomatoes and the sea.
No ceremonies. No introductions. French, English and Italian voices raised in merriment. I sit down next to a man who seems familiar – that dreadful feeling again – but I could
only guess at who he might be. “Who are you?” he asked, smiling and at ease. Tony is semaphoring again.
“I’m Peter. I’m here with Tony over there,” I indicate. “He helps Franco with scripts and things.”
“So you are enjoying this beautiful place? What do you do?”
“Oh….I’m an actor I’m afraid. Another one! There are so many of us. Too many!”
“Are you working with Franco too?”
“Oh, heavens no. I wish!” I laugh. He joins in. “And what do you do,” I blurt, without the slightest idea.
Without even a nano-second’s pause he replies smoothly, “Oooo..I suppose you could say I am in the schmutter trade: I design clothing and things. I am Valentino,” offering his hand.
“Of course you are!”
Tony has collapsed into his wine.
It turns out that the yacht was his and most of the guests were in the “schmutter trade”. Salvatore Ferragmo was there representing shoes along with others I cannot remember.
Franco Zeffirelli had published a memoir the year before,
a copy of which was on Tony’s bookshelf. I had read it and thought I was up to speed on the necessary detail. Trouble is I am the kind of person who when I am under any sort of stress simply forget things I know I know and resort to panic blurts. I could write a book about my cascading bricks.
On one evening the ensemble were gathered after dinner on the terrace playing Machiavelli, a wicked card game, at which Franco was exceptionally good. We were all slightly intoxicated from the long hot day, the gentle sea breezes and scents, the good food and wine. The company. The inhibitors are at bay. There are about ten of us round the table. There is a pause in the play and Franco who is opposite me, starts chatting, reminiscing about Maria Callas among others, when I get into ‘blurt mode’ and, even knowing it was the stupidest question to which, with
thought, I’d have known the answer and in an attempt at holding my own I ask, “….And did you ever work with Joan Sutherland?”
There is a shocked silence round the table. All eyes gaze at me in stupefaction. I go hot with embarrassment at what I have asked. Franco is speechless. His vanity is affronted. Tony has given up semaphoring.
“Peter, Peter, Peter……you are welcomed in my home, you eat at my table, you enjoy my beautiful Tre Ville…and you ask this question?”
He stood up. He withered me, would be one way of describing it:
“In 1959 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, two stars were born – Franco Zeffirelli and Joan Sutherland and it was my production of Lucia di Lammermoor!”
Of course they were!
Well, I was mortified. Everyone else said, “Oh don’t worry about it, he’s only joking….he’s not really angry or upset…..” and so on.
I spent the rest of the stay dodging behind trellises and flower pots in avoidance tactics, when I saw him coming along. He was into colourful caftans in those days and usually had a small glass of very watered down whisky in his hand. But one hot afternoon I dodged the wrong way and there he was before me.
“Oh…..hello Franco….such a beautiful day like all the days here in your paradise,” tumbled out, and “I just want to say how sorry I am about the terrible gaff I made the other evening – you and Joan Sutherland……I don’t know………”
He cut me off with a below of laughter and put his arm around my shoulder, “Oh Peter, Peter……..don’t worry…it’s nothing really. I suppose now you want me to put you in one of my movies.”
“Oh never, Franco, no. I’d rather stay your friend!”
Franco was a complex man. Some would say a monster. He certainly had an enormous ego, he could be jealous and proprietorial but he also had a very good heart and was quite extraordinarily generous with everything he possessed. I am grateful for the chance to be in that wonderful place to which Tony and I were invited several times.
Robert Powell was there often with Babs his wife. He told us some interesting stories. Of course, famously, he’d been Jesus in Franco’s epic TV series Jesus of Nazareth, produced by Lew Grade.
Apparently Lew Grade was leery about casting an actor who was “living in sin” and insisted Franco should make sure Robert actually married Babs before he could play the role of Jesus. Their first child, Barnaby, was born in 1977 as the series launched and Robert with a twinkle said he go his own back on Franco by making him agree to be Barnaby’s Godfather.
A Lifetime Connection : Godfather Franco with Babs, Robert & Barnaby Powell.