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Thanks For The Memories……………of Villa Favorita.

I often wondered what my reaction would be if and when Tita finally sold Villa Favorita; the Thyssen-Bornemiszas’ “ancestral home”, or the closest thing they had to one, on the shore of Lake Lugano. Now I know, but I have to admit it did come as some surprise, when I realised that I was feeling quite emotional. As if I have suffered some personal loss and, in a way, I suppose I have. For during my various visits to Francesca or Heini and sometimes both, at the Villa Favorita, some twenty plus years ago, I never had anything less than an extremely enjoyable time.

But that was in those golden days before I wrote The Thyssen Art Macabre and everyone but Heini and Tita blamed me for their forbears’ misdeeds. For it is a little known fact that the rich often don’t like journalists or writers because they have managed to convince themselves that it wasn’t their fault that they, or the aforementioned forbears, did what they did, but the messenger’s fault for revealing it.

Now there were three ways to get to Villa Favorita, and probably still are: by road, by plane to Milan and taxi to Lugano or by plane to Geneva and a local connecting flight to Lugano (which has a notoriously short runway that Prince Charles overshot. Thus successfully diverting attention away from the purpose of his visit, which Heini insisted was to persuade him to move his art collection to Britain.)

I tried all three options, the latter part of the second being arranged by the staff at Villa Favorita and consisting of a reliance on the services of an ancient Packard, Dodge or Chevrolet driven by a man calling himself The Swiss Cowboy, who, with little or no encouragement, accompanied his renditions of Hank Williams classics on an ancient Gibson acoustic, while simultaneously challenging three lanes of busy afternoon traffic. His passengers’ eventual arrival in a state of catatonic shock subsequently awarding Heini and Francesca endless amusement!

Actually, you can also get there by train, which I seem to remember doing once, but I can’t remember anything about it, apart from being picked up by Francesca in her brand new BMW M3 convertible, which she drove with sufficient speed to replace my calm well-being with, for her, an amusing degree of terror.

I also tried the more local flight path via Geneva, but the second part of the journey involved navigating through the mountains with only a matter of feet between wing tips and snowy peaks, thus resulting in even greater terror and subsequent hysteria.

Sometimes we slept in one of the guest rooms, behind and above the Villa where the motley crew of dogs would come and wake us before waiting for breakfast to arrive. I also stayed with Francesca at her separate house, looking down on the Villa and out over the sparkling lake. And other times at the little Italian Hotel, down on the lakeside where the owner would sing Puccini while serving the customers supper, as God supplied the instrumental accompaniment, in the form of a magnificent thunderstorm.

The Villa’s banqueting hall was designed to seat eighty guests so, weather permitting, we ate lunch on the terrace and supper in an alcove with Tita or Francesca and sometimes Simon Levie; the highly entertaining art historian and director of the Rijksmuseum who, when I complained about the long-stemmed wine glasses with the miniature green bowls engraved with hunting scenes, and how they held insufficient wine and looked like something Heini had bought in a charity shop, giggled and said, while we doubtless all agreed, they were very old Hungarian glasses worth at least ten-thousand pounds each.

We also drank much better wine than Tita would ever serve in all the years I dined with Heini in Spain. One night with supper at the Villa we started on 1970 Margaux Grand Cru and stayed up all night drinking ever more expensive wines. Giorgio, his wonderfully elegant Italian butler, eventually started to plead with Heini not to be asked to open bottles worth thousands, because we were so obviously way past the point where our critical faculties were any longer operating. But Heini giggled and took even greater pleasure in his demands. After that Giorgio used to welcome me back with a resigned smile, while shaking his head from side to side.

Some evenings we would all go out to a restaurant. Heini and Tita would be driven in his Mercedes 600 Pullman, for which he had paid a premium for the removal of the glass division between the driver and his passengers. We would follow in another Mercedes with two bodyguards and their guns; the same bodyguards who Heini later told Tita, had drunk all his most expensive wines; while smiling at me across the table.

Tita often wore a solitaire diamond ring in which the pillow-shaped, pure white diamond must have been nearly two inches long. She also wore diamond and emerald earrings that were so heavy she had to have gold hooks over the top of her ears to support them. But this was in the days when Heini had his own jet and an ocean-going yacht, as well as the second biggest art collection in the world.

Two or three times he took me round the museum and into the storage room, which was like being inside a giant filing cabinet containing huge files on which pictures were hung; hundreds of them. He never talked much about the paintings or the artists, just anecdotes relating to their acquisition; how much he paid for them and how much they had become worth after being restored; though once, when we were both feeling rather emotional, Heini quietly cried and told me that he would have given his entire collection in return for being able to paint.

Another day, the entire board of directors from General Motors arrived for a meeting with Heini, which should have had nothing to do with me. But before I could arrange alternative entertainment for myself, Tita informed me that the men had arrived with their wives, for whom she was apparently expected to act as hostess and entertain for lunch on the terrace and expected me to help her. It wasn’t an order but it was close! And much to my surprise, it proved to be an enjoyable and valuable experience. It was the first time that I had seen Tita in full charm mode and I have to admit, it was extremely impressive, to both me and to the corporate wives.

As the only male guest I didn’t really have to work very hard. The palatial backdrop helped me give my best Noel Coward impression and the rest was down to the hot sun and ‘ennnnndless’ champagne.

Heini didn’t like the Villa very much. No one did. Only his father had done and Sandor Berkes, Heinrich’s surviving, deeply wonderful Hungarian chauffeur, manservant, curator and companion still did. It was fusty and damp and styleless; full of fake grandeur and art and guilty secrets.

I felt sorry for it. For despite the fact that Villa Favorita and Switzerland had protected the Thyssen-Bornemisza fortune, it had never been appreciated or a real home to any of them. Just a monument to a very, very rich but dysfunctional family, including four banished ex-wives and their children.

The last time I stayed at the Villa, I spent two days on Francesca`s beautiful faux Renaissance terrace, making a piece of sculpture. It consisted of a cracked wooden heart with a giant cast iron nail driven through it; in anticipation, perhaps, of how I already sensed the Thyssen-Bornemisza family would come to an end, at the Villa Favorita, by the side of Lake Lugano.

Grand Cru Classe: Heini Thyssen and David Litchfield at Villa Favorita, ca. 1989 (photo: Nicola Graydon)

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