His name is Baron Enrico di Portanova, and in Houston it is an oddly ubiquitous name. It is ubiquitous because the baron appears in the gossip columns on a nearly daily basis, traveling constantly from his various houses in Europe to a mansion in River Oaks to his villa in Acapulco. Along the way, he married a Houston girl named Sandy Hovas and transformed her into Baroness Alessandra, attempted to buy the “21” club in New York as a token of love for the baroness, hauled in 75 tons of steel and glass to enclose and air-condition his mother-in-law’s back yard on River Oaks Boulevard, and built Arabesque, the largest villa in Acapulco—32 bedrooms, 26 bathrooms, 4 kitchens, 2 indoor waterfalls—where he recently entertained Nancy and Henry Kissinger.
The odd part is that no one in Houston seems quite sure who the baron really is. From time to time, a columnist will explain that he is the grandson of a Houston oilman, but the title of nobility, the age of his money, and his nouveau riche behavior don’t exactly go together. The contradiction is best explained by saying that he is the unwelcome heir to a family fortune and that, in a sense, he made it on his own, the hard way. To get his fortune, he has waged a twenty-year legal battle that will culminate this spring in what will be one of the most interesting probate fights Texas has ever seen. If he wins, the judgment awarded could amount to billions of dollars and go down in Texas folklore as the greatest of all stories about how fortunes can shape the lives of their inheritors.
The baron’s grandfather was Hugh Roy Cullen, an authentic capitalist hero. Furnished with a fifth-grade education, he became one of the richest men in the world. He struck oil for the first time near Houston in 1928 while his wife and children—dressed in their Sunday best—looked on. He went on to make three more major finds in the next seven years and was one of several people the press called King of the Wildcatters. Cullen’s crowning achievement was finding the Tom O’Connor field, which was a mile-deep, billion-dollar pool of oil near Victoria.
As Cullen grew rich, the U.S. economy entered its darkest years. Cullen voted for Hoover and opposed FDR at every turn. According to his authorized biography, Hugh Roy Cullen: A Story of American Opportunity, published in 1954, “he had waged a personal holy war against the two things he feared the most—growing strength of federal government and infectious foreign ideologies.” He offered his own version of the New Deal by building “the big white house,” a huge mansion on six acres in River Oaks that required a staff of fourteen servants. In 1932, while the house was under construction, Cullen formed the Quintana Petroleum Company—named for a group of abandoned shacks that had been a flourishing port on the Brazos River when Houston was an inland village—and took his wife, Lillie, and five children to Europe.
In 1936 Cullen began to feel that something in life had gone awry, and he started trying to divest himself of his fortune. Over the next twenty years he gave away more than $200 million to the University of Houston, the symphony, and various hospitals, while the Houston press pointed out that “only America could have created millionaires and philanthropists.” Cullen’s biographers attribute this onset of philanthropy to the death of his oldest child and only son. Roy Gustav, a young husband and the father of two sons and a daughter, was killed on a drilling rig in 1936. The biographers do not consider the possibility that the fate of Lillie Cranz Cullen, who was the second-oldest child and Baron Ricky’s mother, might also have had a profound effect on her father.
Lillie’s story is as classic as her father’s. She was an American heiress who was swept off her feet by an Italian playboy who called himself a baron and would eventually have three wives. Paolo di Portanova and Lillie Cranz Cullen married on December 16, 1932, and eight months later, on August 16, 1933, she gave birth to their first child—a circumstance that in those years was cause for mortal embarrassment. Hugh Roy Cullen did not disinherit his daughter, but she appears to have dropped out of his life. She is briefly mentioned in his biography but never described, and if she ever attended any of the large celebrations the Cullens held in Houston, the newspapers didn’t notice.
Only the barest details are known about Lillie Cranz Cullen di Portanova. She and her husband lived in Los Angeles, where they had two sons, Enrico (who inherited his father’s title of nobility) and Ugo. Lillie and Paolo divorced, she moved to New York City, and the sons ended up in Italy. Enrico, the older of the boys, grew up to be a handsome man—tall and well built with black hair and a voice that was a deep rumble in his chest. Ugo, we will come to later.
In the mid-fifties Enrico was living in Rome with no expectations that he would inherit a fortune. In 1957, when Hugh Roy Cullen died, he did begin receiving $5000 a month from his grandfather’s estate, but he received no clear statement regarding his inheritance. In 1961, to satisfy his curiosity, he borrowed $10,000 to go to Houston and claim what he felt was due him from the other Cullen heirs. This was to become the central purpose of his life.
The Cullens and the di Portanovas will not talk about their earliest encounters or, for that matter, about any facet of their relationship. Attorneys for Enrico will say only that the baron was treated badly—when he came to call, the Cullens shut him out. According to one story, the baron, a brash young man, showed up at Quintana accompanied by a Roman lawyer, demanded his inheritance, and got thrown out on his ear. Whether or not the story is true, it is certain that Enrico and his Houston kin didn’t have much in common. Lillie di Portanova’s three younger sisters, having seen her mistake, had all married middle-class men who fit easily into the family business and eventually became pillars of Houston’s financial and philanthropic communities. Harry and Roy Cullen, Roy Gustav’s sons, had also turned out to be sensible people; both went to the University of Houston and then to Quintana.
All of the Cullens lived quietly, completely confident of who they were and how they fit into Houston society. They served on the boards of hospitals, museums, and schools and managed to avoid notoriety, following Hugh Roy Cullen’s advice that they wear the same kind of clothes as their friends, drive the same kind of cars, and live in the same kind of houses. As co-executors of Hugh Roy Cullen’s estate, Lillie’s three sisters—Agnes Arnold, Margaret Marshall, and Wilhelmina Robertson—were in a position to see that the advice was followed.
Enrico’s aunts could not deny that he was an heir to his grandfather’s estate. Both Hugh Roy and Lillie Cullen had provided in their wills for their residual estates to be divided equally into trusts for the eight children of their four daughters. (They had previously provided for Roy, Cornelia, and Harry, the children of Roy Gustav.) Enrico’s three aunts could, however, be very vague about exactly what it was that he had inherited. State laws at that time gave executors a great deal of freedom. The only way an aggrieved heir could get an accounting from an executor was to file suit, a process that took at least three or four years. Enrico’s problem was compounded by the fact that Hugh Roy Cullen’s legacy consisted primarily of trusts that held oil leases managed by Quintana. Not knowing how to estimate the earnings on the leases, Enrico was totally dependent on the Cullen family for information. They were never rude or ugly to him, and they did send each of the di Portanova brothers money. But they would not give an accounting.
Enrico was like the blind man trying to figure out the elephant. A letter written by the comptroller at Quintana survives from a more amicable time in 1961, when Enrico had been in Houston. “Dear Enrico,” it begins, “After our several talks of the past few days it seems appropriate that I furnish you with certain factual information.” The comptroller then went on to describe Hugh Roy Cullen’s early success as if Enrico wasn’t sure how his grandfather had gotten rich.
Seeking the Fortune
The baron returned to Rome after the 1961 visit to Houston, but his mind was not at rest regarding the inheritance. The other heirs appeared to have much more money, and he didn’t like the way he had been treated. In Rome, he traded precious stones and owned a jewelry store, but he was not a wealthy man. What he lacked in assets or personal accomplishments, he made up for with a pleasant personality and good looks. Furthermore, his fluency in English and Italian and his American background gave him mobility in the sort of international fast set that forms in cities like Rome. Recognizing his own lack of aptitude for business, he and his future wife, Ljuba (the j is silent) Otasevic, went to Sicily to ask a friend named Edward Condon for help.
The two men had met ten years earlier, when Condon had been running TWA in Italy. He had both social and financial connections in the United States. He had married Payne Whitney (steel and banking), whose mother, Joan Whitney Payson, once owned the New York Mets, and his forebears had started the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. But he was not immune to bad luck. By the early sixties he was divorced and running a Sicilian crate factory.
Enrico visited Condon in Sicily and later showed him a fiduciary income tax statement from one of the Cullen trusts. Condon looked at the document and decided that the assets should be producing more income than his friend was receiving. He recommended that Enrico move to Houston so that the Cullens couldn’t overlook his claims on the family fortune. Ljuba had proposed the same thing, and she and Enrico encouraged Condon to come along. His factory wasn’t doing very well, so he agreed. The three of them would seek their fortune in Houston.
If the Cullens had ignored their Italian cousin before, they couldn’t continue to do so after 1963. Ljuba and Enrico arrived first. They stayed at the Hotel America until they found a place at Inwood Manor, one of the first and most exclusive high-rise apartments in River Oaks. Baroness di Portanova made a lasting impression on the city. A beautiful woman with fine features, thick black hair, dark eyes, and a striking figure, she spoke English with a mysterious foreign accent, wore clothes by Valentino, and carried off her appearances in public with great panache. The baroness had grown up in Yugoslavia, where her father was an officer in the Royal Air Force; the Nazis put him in a concentration camp from 1941 to 1944. After the war, Ljuba won a position on the national women’s basketball team and in 1956 dribbled her way out of Yugoslavia by using the passport she had been granted as an athlete. She stayed with relatives living in England and then went to Italy, where she found work as an actress in the Italian movie industry. Both Dino de Laurentiis and Pier Paolo Pasolini hired her for movies. Universal International signed her to a contract in 1959, but her career never amounted to much; she had no leading roles and appeared in no major films.
Edward Condon arrived in Houston later than the di Portanovas, but he made an equally deep impression, at least on women. He was, as they say, fabulously handsome, with salt-and-pepper hair that brought to mind the movie star Stewart Granger. He was urbane, worldly, and sophisticated, and perhaps just as compelling in a man so handsome, he was a loner.
Whatever Houston thought of the di Portanovas and Condon, the di Portanovas thought Houston was a hellhole. The climate was awful, the city ugly, the people provincial. After their life in Rome and on the Mediterranean, Houston seemed like Saudi Arabia with swamp instead of desert. To distract themselves, the di Portanovas moved a monkey into
their ninth-floor apartment, and neighboring tenants often thought they heard the baroness playing basketball in her living room.
The di Portanovas and Condon had two specific goals: to secure an accounting from the Cullens and to get Enrico’s mother, Lillie Cranz Cullen di Portanova, to change her will in favor of Enrico and his brother, Ugo. As it stood, the will directed that all of her property be returned to the Cullens. Getting it changed would not be easy.
Lillie di Portanova did not prefer the Cullens to her own sons, nor was she close to her younger sisters. The distance between them was such that acquaintances of the family in Houston assumed that Lillie di Portanova had been dead for years. Enrico and Ljuba’s problem was not Lillie’s emotional preference but her mental competence. As far as the Cullens were concerned, she was mentally incompetent. Until she was proven otherwise, they would not recognize any changes she made in her will.
In 1963 Lillie di Portanova was living alone at the Times Square Motor Hotel in one of the seedier sections of New York City. The hotel was clean but not the sort of place where you would expect to find a woman who kept $1 million in her personal accounts. Mrs. di Portanova stayed at the hotel for approximately ten years. She stalked the streets of Manhattan in a black overcoat, carrying shopping bags under her arms. According to the hotel staff, she bought coats at Bergdorf Goodman, cut off the buttons and replaced them with safety pins, then cut off the collars and decorated what remained with old scraps of velvet. She also wore an old-fashioned black hat and black boots that came halfway up her calves. Almost every day she went out on her rounds in the city, although her legs, swollen and at times afflicted with running sores, gave her pain.
The staff at the hotel not only tolerated their eccentric guest but became fond of her. She could be mean as hell, but she had a good side and held out the possibility of extraordinary tips. A couple of the tips she had given bellhops for bringing her Cokes became legends within the hotel. One desk clerk acted as her personal emissary to the world and spent hours at a time talking to her through her closed door.
Good Times On South Post Oak
Enrico di Portanova opened an office in downtown Houston in 1964, and Ed Condon ran it, with the assistance of a woman named Vivian Flynn. Their stated business was oil exploration and investments. Condon retained a Beverly Hills attorney named Dwain Clark to help him and Enrico arrange for a competency hearing for Lillie di Portanova and a revision of her will.
In 1965, without initiating legal proceedings, Enrico received $841,425 in a lump sum from the Cullen trusts. But if the Cullens thought that a large disbursement would satisfy Enrico, they were mistaken. The money convinced him that he had been right to come to Houston in the first place and made it all the more imperative that he secure an accounting. It also raised the necessity of doing something about his brother. According to Hugh Roy Cullen’s will, Ugo was to be treated the same as Enrico and the other grandchildren, but Ugo was incapable of making his own claim. He was three years younger than Enrico and as eccentric as their mother. An immense man, he lived with his father in Sorrento, Italy. Problems with his behavior led Paolo and Enrico to seek guardianship for his protection. Furthermore, the amount of money that Ugo received each year from his trusts could be dramatically increased if he could be represented in Houston. But to represent Ugo, Enrico would have to become his legal guardian. He would have to have Ugo declared non compos mentis—at the same time that he was having their mother declared compos mentis.
But life in Houston wasn’t all work. Enrico met John Blaffer, a native Houstonian who knew how to have a good time and didn’t care what people thought of him while he did. Blaffer had impeccable Houston credentials: his father, Robert Lee Blaffer, was a founder of Humble Oil. John Blaffer worked two hours a day and, having an unusually quick mind, accomplished more than most men did in eight hours. As an experienced oilman, he was helpful to Enrico, pointing out that if his mother’s trusts were being charged for drilling fees in an oil field, they should also be paid royalties. Blaffer entertained constantly, and he introduced Enrico to all his friends. That was something the Cullens hadn’t done.
Blaffer had married a woman from a socially prominent, well-to-do family in Dallas, and they had had a proper family. He had also met a young woman who was a salesclerk in a shoe store downtown. A free spirit, she was tall and thin, almost demure-looking with her hair pulled back in a bun. She was no great beauty, but neither was John Blaffer, who was a large, rumpled-looking man.
When John Blaffer’s friend and realtor Howard Horn approached him with a deal on a new apartment complex on South Post Oak, Blaffer took him up on it and bought the building. Blaffer’s mistress took over the management of the apartments and made them a sanctuary for the sort of people she and Blaffer enjoyed by renting to interesting men and attractive, divorced women. Married men who wanted a nest away from home were also welcome, and in 1966 and 1967 the apartments on Post Oak became one of the more compelling spots. Gloria King, recently divorced from a Dallas cotton tycoon, moved in. Her ex-husband was Sheppard King, who once owned the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas; he had created a flap by running away to marry an exotic dancer. The less socially prominent Detective Paul Nix, Homicide Division, Houston Police Department, also came to stay.
Blaffer’s mistress held a continuous open house in her apartment. Her five o’clock cocktail parties drew the rich and restless from all over town, and you never knew whom you would meet there or what would happen. What attracted people to the apartments was the atmosphere of license. Most of the apartments faced courtyards, so it was almost impossible not to know what everyone was doing. Blaffer’s mistress had achieved informally what future apartment complexes would try to institute through rental policies and advertising campaigns that called for singles only.
Enrico fit in well with this group. He had the sense of fun that Blaffer required in friends, and like Blaffer, he wanted to have a good time and wasn’t worried about cost or repercussions. He knew the best of everything—food, clothes, jewels, cars, hotels.
It should be remembered that the Post Oak area at this time was in its infancy. Essentially suburban, it was considered the outer edge of the city, and there was as yet no hint that just beyond the confines of the apartments a cluster of buildings that could pass for the downtown of a major city was about to spring up. Life in the foundations can be pretty much as we imagine life in the ruins.
The days at the apartment complex were dedicated to pleasure. After putting in his hours at the office, Blaffer would summon his inner circle for lunch to discuss the previous evening and lay plans for the future. To punctuate the endless party on South Post Oak, Blaffer would throw big parties for two or three hundred people at the Allen Park Motel, which he owned, and there were also spur-of-the- moment trips to Acapulco and hunting trips in Texas. After Enrico bought a twin-engine plane, where to have lunch became a more challenging question; the Cadillac Bar in Nuevo Laredo was a favorite answer.
By August 1966 Enrico had arranged for a hearing at a bank in New York City to consider the sanity of Lillie di Portanova. Three psychiatrists would attend—one for the Cullens, one for the di Portanovas, and one independent—as well as attorneys for both sides. Enrico’s job was to deliver his mother to the hearing, but first he had to find something presentable for her to wear. She had grown immensely fat on a diet of Coca-Cola and sweet cream. Edward Condon and Dwain Clark combed the city looking for a dress that would fit a four-hundred-pound woman. The two men finally found a suitable garment at Lane Bryant and were ready to present Mrs. di Portanova and their case that abnormal behavior did not constitute insanity. The psychiatrists found her of sound mind, and on the same day she changed her will and signed documents creating trusts for her two sons. Not long after the hearing, Lillie di Portanova entered a hospital in New York City, where she died on December 23, 1966. Her estate was valued at $4.8 million.
In October of the same year, another hearing was held at the Villa Martha in Sorrento, Italy, to determine Ugo di Portanova’s mental condition. Judge Pellegrino Senofonte from the Court of Naples, along with a clerk, arrived at the villa and was met by an attorney for the family and a doctor for the state. A servant led the official party to the bedroom of Ugo di Portanova, who had been told that gentlemen interested in his artistic production were coming to see him. They found a large man with long hair and a thick beard lying in bed. After the visitors were announced, Ugo put on a robe and, remaining barefoot, invited them in. The judge noted in his official report that the bedroom was furnished with a bed that had slightly dirty linen and was cluttered with furniture of all kinds (a piano, tables, a trestle, a large wooden table), a record player, books, booklets, large cardboard boxes full of refuse, picture albums, and two cameras. A large plank lay over two trestles and around it were chisels, pliers, and tongs. Ugo explained the equipment by saying he was making a Christ. He also said the pictures of the human body that were in the room were his work. Ugo talked about his recent confinements in psychiatric hospitals. He told the men that he was writing a book “with a philosophical content.” Hegel was his favorite philosopher, and he declared the Bible an immoral book because it represented a cruel and vindictive God. Judge Senofonte declared Ugo non compos mentis.
In Houston, the monkey had taken its toll on the apartment at Inwood Manor. The management evicted the di Portanovas, and they moved to a ranch-style house of baronial proportions at 8828 Sandringham. The house sat on two acres in a grove of pines where other equally grand houses occupied lots large enough to diminish the houses to normal size. Enrico and Ljuba had a full staff of servants, and Enrico had brought an Italian groom, Franco Necci, back from Europe to take care of the horses. But the new house was not a happy home. Ljuba was having severe back problems, and Enrico was still going to the apartments on South Post Oak, which were a five-minute drive away—a special convenience, because he had started seeing Blaffer’s mistress.
“Why Don’t You Look Up My Husband?”
Depending on the point of view, 1967 was either an apex or a nadir for Enrico. He got much of what he wanted financially but lost a lot of what he had. His marriage came to an end, he endured a terrifying experience, and he saw his best friend struck by tragedy.
Enrico began the year by having Ugo declared a ward of the Harris County Court (later the Second Probate Court) in Houston and then applying with his father, Paolo, for the guardianship. Paolo would be the guardian of Ugo’s person, and Enrico would be the guardian of the estate. To pursue his causes in the courts, Enrico had secured the legal services of Woody and Rosen, a small but very aggressive, very hungry law firm. Clyde Woody and Marian Rosen had been involved in defending Candace Mossier in her murder trial. Their practice was primarily criminal law and domestic relations and offered a striking contrast to that of the Cullens’ law firm, the well-established Vinson & Elkins. In February Paolo and Enrico applied for $120,000 per year, based on Ugo’s estimated annual income of $250,000. On receiving that, they decided to push harder still. Enrico filed a notice to show cause in the county court on March 29, 1967, asserting that he, as guardian, was “entitled to the possession and management of all properties belonging to Ugo.” Enrico also demanded that Ugo immediately be paid $841,425, the same amount Enrico had received in 1965. The following week, Woody and Rosen had personal citations delivered to the Cullen-appointed trustees of Ugo’s estate demanding an itemized, verified accounting.
Clyde Woody, recalling the suit, says that the Cullen family was simply too powerful in Houston to defeat. The Cullens filed a plea in abatement, denying that the county court had jurisdiction. The judge agreed with the Cullens, dismissed the di Portanovas’ petition, and referred them to the district court. Rather than wait the three or four years it would take for the case to come up there, they entered into negotiations to settle out of court. In the settlement Ugo’s old trustees resigned and new ones were appointed, among them Enrico and Edward Condon. For Enrico, it was a partial victory; he had gained some control, but he still hadn’t received an accounting of the estate.
Meanwhile, matters had gone out of control at home. In February he and Ljuba had broken up and reconciled. In June Ljuba entered Methodist Hospital for back surgery. And in August their married life together came to an end when, as Enrico would eventually testify in their divorce trial, he “unloaded her in Monte Carlo.” According to court transcripts, Enrico found Ljuba in bed with another man. Banished from Enrico’s life, Ljuba went from Monte Carlo to Rome to collect her things from their apartment. To get to Rome she hitched a ride on Hollywood producer Sam Spiegel’s yacht; he was headed toward Capri with Kirk Douglas and others. Still hoping to work things out, Ljuba called Enrico from the yacht so that Douglas and Spiegel could urge him to take her back. “Kirk,” Enrico said, “you stay out of it. I don’t think we can be together anymore.”
Life was not entirely bleak for Enrico when he returned to Houston in the fall. The previous spring, Edward Condon had introduced him to an interesting young woman named Sandy Hovas. Condon first saw her at a consular ball in Houston, asked for a dance, and got her telephone number. Sandy was a Houston girl who had had the misfortune of growing up middle class in the presence of real wealth. Her family lived in River Oaks, but her father owned a chain of rather ordinary furniture stores. At Lamar High, Sandy, nicknamed Buckets, had been considered nice, bright, and lots of fun. Condon befriended her, and when she called him to ask for shopping advice for a trip to Rome, he took her to see Ljuba, who was in Houston. The two women discussed the best places to buy shoes, handbags, and dresses. “And if you want to see an attractive man,” Ljuba joked, “why don’t you look up my husband? He’s in Rome.”
When he was in Houston, Enrico also had the old group at the apartments on South Post Oak to keep him from being lonely in the house on Sandringham Road. On the evening of October 28, 1967, Gloria King and a world traveler named Norma Clark agreed to come over to help plan a dinner party. Gloria King had gone out on an errand, and Norma Clark was in the living room with Enrico when the sound of a gunshot came from the kitchen. The young Italian groom, Franco Necci, staggered into the room and collapsed on the floor, bleeding from a chest wound. A tall man dressed in a brown jacket and brown trousers followed from the kitchen, waving a .45 automatic and shouting, “I’m going to kill all you SOBs.”
As Necci lay bleeding to death on the floor and Enrico begged the robber to spare their lives, Gloria King drove up in front of the house. She noticed a gold sedan parked on the street with its hood up, but she paid it no mind and went inside. When she walked into the living room, the robber turned the pistol on her and motioned her over to where Norma Clark and Enrico were standing. He handcuffed the two women together, then made Enrico open the wall safes hidden in the house. The existence and location of two of the safes were fairly common knowledge, but somehow the robber also knew about a third, secret safe. After finding nothing of value there, he handcuffed Enrico to a chair and took $350 in cash from the baron and a six-carat diamond ring worth $15,000 from Norma Clark. He missed a valuable ring and earrings that Gloria King had hidden in her clothing and another $360 on the groom’s body.
After the intruder left, Enrico managed to get to a telephone and call an ambulance and his friend Detective Nix, who was in his apartment on South Post Oak at the time. The homicide detective did not notify police headquarters of the crime until after he had arrived at the baron’s house. In time Nix was assigned to the case, and he decided that the crime had been arranged by someone close to the baron. The intruder had gone straight to the safes, and he had somehow known about the third safe. Nix’s theory was corroborated in the course of the investigation by an unidentified source, who informed the police that the robber was working under instructions “to kill the Italian.” According to Nix’s reconstruction of the event, the robber entered through the kitchen and encountered Necci, who spoke no English and was obviously Italian. He shot the Italian, then proceeded with a robbery to create the appearance of another motive for the murder, never realizing that Enrico, who speaks English without an accent, was also Italian. Paul Nix believed the baron was supposed to be killed, and he still believes it today.
In retrospect, all of this seems like a game of Clue for sophisticates: the Baron, the Groom, the Robber, the Socialites, the Detective. But it all happened, and the baron believed his life was in danger. He hired around-the-clock armed bodyguards and moved from Sandringham Road to Gloria King’s apartment, where he stayed—sleeping in the eight-by-ten spare bedroom—until Nix picked up Carl Thomas Preston.
An ex-convict and a drug addict with an expensive habit, Preston had heroin on him at the time of his arrest. He was positively identified in a police lineup by Gloria King, Norma Clark, and Enrico. In 1969 Preston was tried for possession of heroin, found guilty, and sentenced to life in prison. When he was in prison awaiting trial for the murder of Necci, Enrico, according to Nix, offered him $100,000 to talk. Nix says Preston started to take the money, then refused, saying that his life wouldn’t be worth much if word got around that he had talked. Enrico, through his lawyers, says he never offered Preston a cent.
The Mink-Lined Trench Coat And Other Luxuries
Just before Thanksgiving, 1967, and exactly a week after Preston’s arrest, Edward Condon wrapped his car around a tree. He had been to a party and was on his way home in his red Maserati Mistral. The son of the Spanish consul was riding with him. They had both been drinking and were in high spirits when the Maserati, speeding along Sunset Boulevard beneath the vault of live oak trees, went out of control on slick pavement. The collision threw the consul’s son clear, but Condon was trapped in the wreckage. One leg had to be amputated, and he spent the next ten weeks in Methodist Hospital. Often, when Enrico came to see Condon in the hospital, he brought Sandy Hovas along with him. By the time Condon went home, the relationship between Sandy and Enrico was an established fact.
It was no surprise to anyone when divorce proceedings between Enrico and Ljuba were begun. Ljuba had initially agreed to let Woody and Rosen represent both her and Enrico in the divorce. Enrico had told her that if she was nice and didn’t cause a scandal, he would give her $3000 a month, her jewelry and other personal possessions, a 1966 Mustang, and $25,000 to buy a house. Enrico considered the settlement generous, but Ljuba balked. One reason she did was that in a very short time, Enrico had become considerably richer. Not only was money pouring in from the trusts, but Enrico and Condon were making money hand over fist in the stock market.
Ljuba had made one serious mistake in the divorce negotiations: she had never filed a countersuit. If Enrico chose to, he could leave the country, drop his suit, and cut off Ljuba’s temporary alimony payments of $5000 a month. There would be nothing she could do about it but file a new divorce suit and lose many months of alimony in the meantime. In April 1968 Enrico did indeed depart Houston for Rome, putting Condon in full control of all of his affairs, with the assistance of Vivian Flynn. On April 22 Condon withdrew $1.56 million from the 1966 trusts for Enrico and Ugo and had it transferred to a numbered bank account in Switzerland.
Judging from correspondence between Condon and Enrico that eventually surfaced as evidence in the divorce trial, Enrico found happiness in Rome with Sandy Hovas. Their apartment, located in the best neighborhood, was on two different floors and had two terraces and a rooftop garden copied from the gardens at Pompeii. Inside, Louis XV antiques and a museum-quality collection of jade and coral furnished a 75-foot-long living room. In May Enrico wrote to Condon: “Let me say that from now on I’ll let you pick out all my wives as Sandra has been wonderful and fits in beautifully in Rome, never gripes or puts me down.”
To assure their happiness, Condon wrote that he had arranged things so that Enrico would have $20,000 a month absolutely free of debts and taxes. Enrico mentioned that he had found a Louis XV desk for $25,000. Send more money!
For the most part, the mail from Rome to Houston (part of which Enrico denies having written) is fairly typical for people living in a foreign country. It expresses regret for the events that are missed and longing for those things that can’t be found away from home.
Rick to Ed, October 10, 1968:
Received the tragic news on the Maserati. Needless to say I am so upset that Sandra and I are both having our periods together. . . . that bunch of stupid American peasants raced my beautiful machine over those goddam flat, ugly, unprepared roads. . . .You allow a Texan to drive a Maserati it is like allowing a baboon to play a Stradivarius. . . . Please have Vivian pack my mink lined trench coat as the weather is getting colder. If you would like to wear it Sweetie go right ahead. All of us girls should be draped in mink after 40.
Rick to Ed, June 19, 1969:
Thank you for taking care of my aunt’s funeral. I hope everything went well. By the looks of things the longevity on the Cullen side of the family is not very good so more than ever I feel the necessity to enjoy myself to the fullest while there is still some time left.
Rick to Ed, March 18, 1969:
We can return to Rome in the style we have come so used to. Let me know more information either way on our helicopter. I feel that it should follow us this summer during the month of August if for no other reason than that it would be so chic! $$$$$ . . . I hope that in the near future I would be in a position as my father and think of nothing other than the best things in life, sun, sex, and spaghetti.
Sandra to Vivian, December 15, 1968:
- 8 pairs of white (Jockey Life hip briefs) underwear . . .
- 4 to 6 copies of Vodka and Caviar by Paul Mauriat . . .
- Spanish Moonlight by John Gary—stereo 3 copies.
- 2 or 3 albums of Edie Gorme singing Mexican songs with the (I believe) Trio Los Panchos.
- 2 or 3 albums (if you can find them) with the Mexican song TODO El AÑO sung on it.
- 8 cans of King Orthon Turkish coffee.
- 3 bottles (large) of saccharin.
The households of the di Portanovas became extensive and numerous in these years. According to what divorce lawyers call a description of lifestyle, dated December 4, 1970, Enrico, in addition to the apartment in Rome, had a house in Acapulco, a house in Palm Springs, and a house on a farm outside Rome. He had five racehorses in England and four racehorses in Rome. He had a speedboat. He had two Maseratis, one Lamborghini, one Rolls-Royce, and one King Air Beechcraft. He received $64,000 each month from trusts and had $1 million in a Swiss bank. He had one secretary in Houston, four servants in Mexico, two servants in Rome, one chauffeur in Rome, one servant in Palm Springs, two full-time pilots, and one sailor. He had lost $150,000 in one night of gambling at Monte Carlo and had given Cadillacs away as gifts. He was prodigal.
Some Suits And Countersuits
Tragically, however, his relationship with his best friend was coming apart. The problem was money. In addition to the $1.56 million that had already been transferred, in February 1969 Edward Condon transferred $590,000 to Hans Seligman-Schurch, a private investment bank in Basel, Switzerland. In 1970 Condon sent another $296,000 out of the U.S. in cashier’s checks. Enrico testified that he never received the money and that Condon had told him that he had dropped $400,000 in a bad business deal. When he heard about the $400,000, Enrico was floored, then furious. He called his bankers in Houston and stripped Condon of all powers. And he ultimately filed suit against Condon, demanding an accounting of the more than $2 million.
Condon, who decamped for the Costa del Sol of Spain, claimed that the money he transferred had come from several sources, including the di Portanova trusts and a trust that he administered for his mother. He also claimed that he and Enrico had invested the money jointly in the stock market and that when they had started losing money, Enrico fired him. Condon sued Enrico for breach of contract, demanded an accounting, and asked for $250,000 in damages.
Houston Citizens Bank and Trust, acting in a fiduciary capacity for the holdings of Ugo di Portanova, filed suit against Edward Condon and Enrico di Portanova for “acting in concert” to misappropriate funds belonging to Ugo. The bank’s list of claims exceeded $1 million. Ljuba, in her divorce suit, claimed that the baron and Condon had conspired to deprive her of community income by transferring the money out of the country. All that was lacking to make a complete set of theories was for someone to accuse Ljuba and Enrico of conspiring against Condon, but alas, no one did.
Legally, an equally involved episode was Enrico’s divorce from Ljuba. After Enrico dropped his original suit and left the country, Ljuba hired attorneys to file suit, charging harsh, tyrannical, and cruel treatment. Woody and Rosen, acting for Enrico, filed a countersuit that accused Ljuba of committing acts of adultery with several male individuals, who were identified to Enrico. Both of these suits were dropped. Ljuba dismissed her attorneys and hired Percy Foreman, who accepted three star sapphires and a diamond necklace as a deposit against his $50,000 minimum fee and the third of the final settlement that would be his. Foreman included “Sandra Hovas, a single woman” in his list of additional defendants. After that, the lawyers for both sides agreed that the grounds for divorce would be irreconcilable differences, thus limiting the proceedings to the division of property. Judge Jack Smith appointed George T. Barrow, a private attorney, to act as master in chancery. Barrow would listen to sworn testimony and make final recommendations to the judge.
Barrow took testimony for almost all of 1971. The typed transcript—exclusive of exhibits, depositions, and so on—is almost four thousand pages long. Though property was the issue, the trial was not lacking in acrimony. Ljuba’s attorney accused the baron of wanting to have her killed, of suggesting to Condon that he have it written in the newspapers that she “loved to screw Jews, so that maybe a nice young Arab would send her to her Tito in the sky,” and of trying to have marijuana planted on her.
The case finally ground to a halt when Enrico, after submitting to three weeks of cross-examination, got in his airplane and flew away. Doctors in Rome wired that his health was failing and that he had entered a clinic for observation. The last testimony in the transcript was from a woman named Gerry Sammer, a friend of Ljuba’s who had been in a restaurant in Rome on a day when Enrico—too ill, according to the doctors, to return to court—had entertained a large group of Houstonians, Barrow made his recommendations, but both sides rejected them, so it was necessary to hold a new trial. Ljuba finally won, getting $1.01 million, all of her jewelry, all of her furs, and a townhouse on North Post Oak Lane. Enrico paid court fees, which were catastrophic; the fee for the master in chancery alone came to $93,000, and Percy Foreman got nearly $300,000.
Baron Ricky also failed to return to Houston in the spring of 1971 for the murder trial of Carl Thomas Preston. Norma Clark was living in London and Capri, and so Gloria King was left as the state’s principal witness. The defense attorneys, according to the Chronicle, “patently hinted that someone other than Preston killed the groom.” Necci had been shot with a .45 automatic, yet two police detectives testified that no empty .45-caliber hull had been found at the scene. Gloria King, who had not been present at the shooting, said she was positive that Necci and the baron had never had any problems. The jury believed Preston’s alibi that on the night of the murder he had been at a motel in Arizona and acquitted him of the charge of murder. To date, no other suspects have been found.
Non Compos Mentis
The rest of the seventies was a time of relative peace and prosperity for Baron Ricky. He married Sandy Hovas and settled into a migratory schedule that took them to Acapulco in the winter, London in the spring, and Rome in the summer and fall, with occasional visits to New York and Houston. Like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, his new wife passed through a series of metamorphoses—from Sandy, to Sandra, to Sondra, to Alessandra, finally emerging as Baroness Alessandra. They lived elegantly yet did not forget the poor. After the earthquake in Nicaragua, they sent their jet, the Barefoot Baronessa, loaded with medical supplies. They built a center for earthquake victims in Italy and gave to every charity in Houston. Because the baron is not an American citizen, his contributions have been made without the benefit of tax deductions.
The baron, having taken care of so many of his own problems, became more concerned with the welfare of his brother. With the help of their father, Enrico saw to it that nothing was spared to make Ugo happy, and their effort is reflected in a stack of files in the Second Probate Court that grows at a steady pace.
In the early seventies Ugo was still living in Europe for most of the year. Because of his size (very large) and his suspicion of strangers, a minimum of five trusted servants accompanied him at all times. His staff consisted of a supervisor-executive secretary, a regular secretary, a housekeeper, a maid, a houseman, a gardener, several bodyguards, and a servant of unspecified function.
Umberto La Matta, Ugo’s supervisor and executive secretary, has written several letters to the Second Probate Court explaining the therapy devised for Ugo. The staff, on doctors’ orders, humor Ugo and never contradict him. Whenever he wishes to buy anything, they accede to his wishes without question. He is urged to participate in sports—swimming, boating, skiing, tennis—and the staff members also encourage his intellectual and artistic pursuits. At one time, La Matta reported, a secretary was typing the manuscript of Ugo’s book detailing his philosophy of life, and at another time, Ugo was rewriting the Bible. Ugo likes to give parties, particularly for young children, and he enjoys traveling, always with his five servants, who are supplemented with additional staff in each location. He has a house in Sorrento and apartments in Rome, Naples, and Lugano. He regularly visits Acapulco, Paris, Capri, Monte Carlo, and Houston, where he has bought two large apartments and a farm. Because of Ugo’s condition, the physical layout of quarters occupied by him must be planned with great care. For a visit to Acapulco, Ugo’s father reconstructed his house to meet his special requirements and provided a piano, painting tools, a projection room, and a recording room. Ugo and his staff normally travel by commercial carriers. He owns a Fiat, a Mini Cooper, an Austin, a Cadillac, two Volkswagens, a Rolls-Royce, a station wagon, an Oldsmobile, a Mercedes, a jeep, and a yacht. Regarding the yacht, La Matta wrote, “We had several unpleasant incidents caused by Ugo’s complaint that the boat was too small for his requirements. He has requested a larger ship of his own capable of holding his friends and guests.”
To appreciate how seriously this regimen of therapy is adhered to, it is also helpful to study Paolo di Portanova’s applications to the court for increases in support payments. In 1967, explaining the necessity for more money, he wrote: “Ugo di Portanova has on many occasions requested that a chapel be erected on the grounds of the villa.” In the same application he wrote: “Ugo di Portanova has on many occasions requested that a terraced flower garden be constructed.” Ugo’s annual allowance is now hovering at $1 million, making him one of the richest non compos mentises in the world.
One of the difficult things to comprehend concerning the di Portanovas is the sheer size of their fortune. The amount of money has grown at an incredible rate. Considering that Enrico began with approximately $4 million inherited from his grandparents and his mother, it hardly seems possible that today he has, according to court records, an annual income of $8 million and, according to one of his lawyers, an estimated net worth of $50 million—apart from investments in real estate. The price of oil has increased dramatically and the baron has invested wisely, but the most plausible explanation for the size of the fortune is to assume that the “aboveground” assets—that is, everything that wasn’t oil reserves—in the Hugh Roy Cullen and Lillie di Portanova estates represented only the tip of an iceberg.
Money, however, did not assuage the baron’s feelings toward the Cullens. He felt they had mistreated his mother, and he still resented the high-handed manner in which they had dealt with him. The old wrongs had festered and, in the light of his new status, appeared even more grievous. Having settled out of court in 1969, Enrico had never gotten an accounting of his estate, and he had never had his moment of vindication.
In a sense, it would seem that the baron had come to depend upon the conflict with the Cullens to give his life meaning. The fight was his challenge and the ground upon which he could prove himself. It provided a reason to hire lawyers who would represent the serious side of his life. In the fall of 1977, Enrico found a lawyer who could personify his cause. After a burglary at the Regency Hotel in New York, the hotel’s insurors claimed limited liability and the baron and baroness called Roy Cohn to represent them. Cohn had first become famous as chief counsel for the late senator Joe McCarthy’s Permanent Investigations Subcommittee and had developed a reputation as a legal barracuda in his private practice in New York. He seemed like the ideal man to take on the establishment in Houston. Also, the probate code in Texas had changed so as to favor such a fight. Beginning in 1973, the Legislature had passed a series of amendments to the code that increased the jurisdiction of probate courts over independent executors. By 1979 the code had been amended in a way that left no doubt that executors could be required by the court to give an accounting to beneficiaries of the estate or to the court.
Enrico’s problem, as Cohn saw it, was that Quintana had absolute control over the Cullen trusts’ assets but was not accountable to the di Portanovas. He wondered who owned Quintana and why, if the residual estates of Hugh Roy Cullen and Lillie Cullen were to have been apportioned among the trusts of the grandchildren, Enrico and Ugo weren’t stockholders. Cohn discovered that at the time of Lillie Cullen’s death these estates owned 127 of the 250 shares of Quintana stock—a controlling interest. The stock should have been divided equally among the grandchildren.
Cohn, with former state senator A. R. “Babe” Schwartz as his local co-counselor, filed suit in Houston on July 25, 1979. In later pleadings, he asserted that in 1964 the executors, Enrico’s mother’s three younger sisters (Agnes, Margaret, and Wilhelmina) had sold all 127 Cullen shares of Quintana to their husbands (Isaac Arnold, Douglas B. Marshall, and Corbin J. Robertson, respectively) and to their nephews, Roy and Harry Cullen. The sale, according to Cohn, violated not only the wills of Hugh Roy and Lillie Cullen but also the Texas Probate Code, which prohibits the representative of an estate from purchasing, either directly or indirectly, the property of the estate.
The plaintiffs in the case—Paolo di Portanova, Gregory Hovas (the baroness’s brother), Babe Schwartz, Southern National Bank, First International Bank, and Republicbank, in their various capacities as guardians and trustees for Ugo and his estate, as well as Enrico as intervenor—want the di Portanovas to be compensated both for their share of the gains that the other Cullen heirs have reaped from Quintana since 1964 and for the business opportunities missed because they were not shareholders. In other words, they want part ownership of Quintana, part of everything the Cullens have made in the last eighteen years at Quintana, and part of any independent deals that any of the Cullens made because they happened to own Quintana. Cohn says he thinks Quintana distributes half a billion dollars in income every year.
The depositions Cohn took from Corbin Robertson, Douglas Marshall, and Isaac Arnold, Jr., make interesting reading. Robertson, who is chairman of the board of Quintana, said he has no idea how he got the Quintana stock, and Marshall, who is a vice president, said the same thing. Arnold knew only that he had inherited it from his father. None of the men were very clear about anyone’s title at Quintana or about who makes what decisions. It all sounded so informal that there seemed to be very little difference between company and family.
In 1981, after Cohn had started taking depositions, the Cullens brought in Joseph Jamail to augment the legal defense they were getting from Vinson & Elkins, the firm that has handled their legal affairs for as long as anyone can remember. Jamail, who has made his reputation as a personal injury lawyer, will talk about the case only reluctantly. He says that the Quintana stock is worthless because the company owns no assets and that Quintana functions essentially as a clearinghouse to manage the oil leases of the Cullens and the di Portanovas. Jamail, who is adept at appealing to the emotions of a jury, will try to structure the trial as an attempt by the flamboyant di Portanovas to take money away from the shy, hardworking, stay-at-home Cullens. He will also argue that the di Portanovas’ case has no merit and that the Cullens have no duty to include Enrico and Ugo in their transactions.
“21,” the Kissingers, And San Marino
At times it seems that the baron lives two lives—one in court and another in the gossip columns. In 1980 the New York Times reported that he was giving Sandra the “21” club, or at least a controlling interest in it. A celebration party was planned in Monte Carlo, but the deal fell through. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see our friend referred to as Texas Oilman Baron Enrico di Portanova. That same year we saw Rick and Sandra on a two-page spread in the home section of the Houston Chronicle. They had decided to air-condition the back yard at Sandra’s mother’s house on River Oaks Boulevard and wanted to assure the neighbors that they weren’t building a monstrosity. “We like good weather,” Sandra said by way of explaining all the steel and glass that they were hauling in. Architectural drawings showed an enclosed area that looked like a savings and loan lobby combined with a health spa. Immense chandeliers hung over a forty-by-forty-foot swimming pool sunk into a floor of travertine marble. “Elaborate parties,” reported the Chronicle, “include not only local guests but out-of-town guests who often become house guests.” The Chronicle did not say what Mrs. Hovas, who has made the transformation from Eddie Bess to Elizabeth, thought about the addition.
The River Oaks house is small, however, compared to Arabesque, the di Portanovas’ villa in Acapulco. Under construction for five years, the house has 32 bedrooms, 4 kitchens, and 26 bathrooms. When seen from across the bay, it is said, the villa rises from the water like the Taj Mahal. For a closer look, you have to hire a helicopter if you’re not invited, because the only road to Arabesque is blocked by guards carrying machine guns.
But all is not frivolity. The baron and baroness appear to be taking a more serious role in public life. In 1981 San Marino—the smallest republic in the world—appointed the baron to act as its consul general to the United States. San Marino occupies 23.4 square miles on the slopes of Italy’s Mount Titano, and its primary industries are tourism and postage stamps. The baron and baroness attended parties for the first anniversary of President Reagan’s inauguration, and of course, they have a warm and growing friendship with the Kissingers.
The Noble Truth
On January 15, eighteen lawyers representing the parties involved in the di Portanova-Cullen lawsuit met in the Second Probate Court in Houston with Judge Pat Gregory, who also presided over the Howard Hughes probate fight. Gregory set the trial date for May 24. Should the di Portanovas win the first round, the second phase of the trial will be an accounting to determine damages. It could well lead to one of the largest settlements in the history of the United States.
You can’t help but wonder what Hugh Roy Cullen would think of Baron Enrico di Portanova. It would be safe to say that Cullen couldn’t stand his son-in-law, Paolo di Portanova. Five feet six inches tall, di Portanova was an unabashed playboy when he married Lillie Cranz Cullen—the sort of man who would carry a silver cigarette case and wear a pencil-thin moustache. He had worked in Hollywood, and he tried his hand at fashion, working with Oleg Cassini in a business they called Casanova. But in an odd sense, Hugh Roy and Paolo were alike. They both started out with nothing, but they believed in themselves and they believed that in America you could become whoever you wanted to be. Hugh Roy Cullen was a self-made man and Paolo di Portanova was, too.
The Cullen biography says that Lillie went with her aunt to Los Angeles, where she met and married the Italian actor Paolo Portanova. Paolo claimed to be a baron by virtue of the marriage in 1740 of a Neapolitan banker named Apuzzo to a Spanish baroness named Carolina di Portanova. This story is not borne out by the standard reference works on European nobility—Almanack de Gotha, International Register of Nobility, Ruvigny’s Titled Nobility of Europe, and Royalty, Peerage, and Aristocracy of the World, which has a special Italian section. There is a noble family in Spain called Puerta Nueva, but their title is marquis, not baron, and it wasn’t granted until 1746. The books list no di Portanovas or Apuzzos. The Istituto Genealogico Italiano of Florence, an authority in such matters, says there is a family called Accusani, barons of Retorto and Portanova, but Enrico and Paolo are not in its records as members of the Accusani family.
One thing not immediately obvious to an American is that an authentic title of nobility precludes the possibility of an obscure family background. Enrico’s background, however, could hardly be more obscure. In a family history published to go into a cornerstone at the University of Houston, the Cullens gave December 16, 1932, as the date of marriage for Paolo and Lillie and August 16, 1934, as the date on which Enrico was born; in fact, he was born on August 16, 1933. To compound the confusion, Enrico has been almost as casual as his father about what name he used. Born Roy Paul, he attended Hollywood High School as Enrico, then showed up the next year as Roy Paul at the Hollywood Professional School, which educates many of the child movie actors. He left school without graduating, then appeared in Rome in the fifties as Enrico Apuzzo and worked in fumetti, which—depending on your point of view—are either soap operas that appear in magazine form or love comic books with black and white photographs.
It is fairly easy to condemn Baron Ricky for extravagance and lack of productivity. And it is difficult to understand why he would sue over the trusts, particularly when you consider that they were written as lifetime trusts, with the stipulation that if the baron leaves no lineal descendants, the principal of the trusts will revert to any remaining Cullen heirs. But put yourself in the baron’s place. Would you have been satisfied with $60,000 a year? Wouldn’t you have wanted to know how much there was, to begin what could be a journey into a vast fortune?
As for Hugh Roy Cullen, the institutions for which he waged his personal holy war—free enterprise and private property—have made Baron Ricky possible. Cullen made the money; he wrote the will. Baron Enrico di Portanova is just another sequel in a story of American opportunity.