Forty years after its publication, John Davidson still considers his 1982 article “The Very Rich Life of Enrico di Portanova” to be “the most fun story I ever did.” Davidson had written several stories for Texas Monthly over the years, but “Rich Life” marked his first stab at the salacious high-society magazine profile. His subject was Enrico di Portanova, litigious heir to the Cullen oil fortune, who said he was an Italian baron. He was the talk of H-town at the time, though few were willing to talk about him to Davidson when he first started reporting. He tried contacting members of di Portanova’s legal team. “I had called Joe Jamail’s office and said I hoped he would talk to me, that I wanted to get their side of the story, and that I was doing the story whether or not they talked to me. Then one evening I got a message from him saying ‘I received your threat.’” It didn’t work though: Davidson couldn’t get di Portanova to participate.
It turned out he didn’t really need to. Because one day Davidson stumbled across the sort of thing magazine profilers dream of: four thousand pages of court testimony from di Portanova’s divorce from his first wife. “For some reason, in the divorce suit, the documents hadn’t been sealed,” he says. “I went in and they laid all the documents they had on the table, and it was like twenty feet long.” A divorce suit wouldn’t garner that much documentation if it weren’t full of juice, and indeed Davidson was able to pull out salacious details from the hours and hours of depositions, stories of wild parties in a Post Oak apartment complex, hit men in West Houston, mink-lined trench coats, and a phone call from Kirk Douglas that the actor made on a yacht sailing toward the isle of Capri. Douglas was trying to persuade di Portanova not to divorce his wife. “Kirk,” the baron responded, “you stay out of it. I don’t think we can be together anymore.”
The resulting profile is as lush and decadent as Enrico di Portanova’s lifestyle. It is a story of wealth, and secrets. There are private planes and mistresses and a legal battle over a disputed inheritance that leaves more than one family member accused of mental incompetence. It is exactly what a high-society magazine profile should be: full of fascinating characters to be both envied and judged, like Dynasty, or Dallas, except real. For goodness’ sake, Roy Cohn even shows up in this thing! As fun as this story was for Davidson to report, it remains, even forty years after its publication, just as fun to read.
And Davidson did eventually get into di Portanova’s inner circle, although it was years after the story came out. “I went to a party at their house in Acapulco, but I never identified myself,” he recalls. “I was afraid their security would throw me into the bay.”