The irony is that most of those whom I consider to be great winners, actually were losers. My number one winner is, of course, General Robert E. Lee, as great a gentleman as he was a military genius. He was a man of flawless honor and great bearing, abhorred secession and slavery, yet led the Confederate forces against the north. Abraham Lincoln had asked Lee to lead the Union armies, an act Lee contemplated for a few seconds. “Mister President,” he wrote Lincoln, “I am greatly honored but I am a Virginian, and my first loyalty lies with my state.” Lee detested to secede but he was a man of honor. He was obliged to take a side. After all, he was the most respected warrior of the nation. Overwhelmingly he believed he was fighting for state rights, not defending slavery, and after five long years of total war he retired, honored by all sides, even the hated Yankees. He refused to cash in on his fame and although quite poor – he was from a very old Virginia family and his grandfather was a hero of the revolutionary war against the British – the only offer he accepted was to become head of Washington & Lee University. He died soon after. A winner who against great odds fought a vastly superior army to a standstill for five long and bloody years and did it honorably. And he lost the war.
Another winner was Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly over an ocean, the Atlantic in 1927. Gifted with great physical looks and intelligence, he married a beautiful and talented photographer with whom he had a baby son. The baby was kidnapped and never found. I believe an innocent man went to the chair for it. So did Lindbergh. Today his reputation lies in tatters because the great pilot advised the U.S. government not to get involved in European conflicts. Both the Jews and the Left in general turned against his pacifist views. A winner who everyone today thinks is a loser
Ioannis Metaxas needs no introduction to Greek readers. His act of defiance against Mussolini is enough to include him in the hall of winners, but his ability to have prepared a very poor country to push back a superior power in 1940 makes him a great winner. A German educated soldier he was very close to my great uncle, Panayotis Poulitsas, the head juror of Greece, since they were students in Germany. Metaxas’s Greece eventually lost, but he’s a very big winner in my book.
And now we come to a man I was very friendly with and knew for the longest part of my life, Giovanni Agnelli, a man who won the lottery of life very early on. A noble looking man with a devilish countenance and a face deeply lined by what Balzac called private defeats, he was born into great wealth. His grandfather started and owned Fiat. Orphaned early on, his father was killed in an air crash and his princess mother in a car accident, he served honorably in the Russian front and after the war became the number one playboy on the French Riviera. A courageous rider he had to give up horse riding after a car accident crippled his leg. He took up sailing and owned some of the most beautiful and elegant boats ever built. He pushed them to the limit. An impeccable dresser, he was a relentless womanizer and was known to have seduced some of the greatest beauties of the Fifties and Sixties. His manners were equal to those of an 18th century duke. Yet he had a great sense of humor and he played wicked jokes on his friends, like the time he had the great Swedish sexpot, Anita Ekberg, stand totally naked on his desk as a group of boring bankers came into his office for a conference.
Gianni’s great fear was boredom. He would wake up very early and get on the telephone, demanding to know the latest gossip from his close friends, and making fun of me whenever I meekly asked not to be wakened so early in the morning. He loved owning Juventus and used to bring certain players on the boat and trade stories about football. I met most of the great ones of the time with him. His art collection was one of the best in the world, and he left it to the Fiat museum in Torino.
His houses were all out of this world, decorated with style but never showy, the people who worked for him in domestic service a marvel to behold. He owned and kept great homes in Villefranche, Turin, Rome, Naples, New York and garconierres in as many places. In 1962 he was named president of Fiat and changed his playboy life overnight. He oversaw Fiat’s rebirth and was eventually elected Senator for life. During the troubles of the late Seventies, Gianni decided to build a boat that looked like a commercial trawler or a giant tugboat. “Takilino,” he told me, “this way no paparazzi will ever come around and take pictures of us being naughty.” On the maiden cruise, just as we were pulling out of the harbor in Genoa, a small speedboat came around and two girls on board stripped off their bras and shouted, “Ciao Gianni!” It was one of the few times I saw Gianni look surprised. All he said was, “After all this trouble?”
Like all my winners Gianni’s end was not a happy one. His son Eduardo committed suicide, and his brother Umberto was denied the presidency of Fiat that Gianni believed he greatly deserved. His nephew Giovanni Agnelli had also died aged thirty, so the great automobile company came into the hands of strangers. An HBO documentary called him, as all the newspapers and magazines used to, the uncrowned king of Italy. Towards the end of the film, one of the best looking men to have lived looked broken and sad.
All lives end in defeat through death, but I thought Gianni’s was particularly sad because he lived to see the end of the Agnelli dynasty. So enjoy it all you winners, defeat will end your winning streak when the man in the white suit comes calling.
Photos: Getty Images/Ideal Image