How a Family Empire Went to Hell in a Handbag

The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed , by Sara Gay Forden. William Morrow, 351 pages, $26.

The Gucci family, as everyone knows, accomplished something far more magical than turning the proverbial sow’s ear into the proverbial silk purse. They transformed the sow’s ear–or presumably some more tender part of the pig epidermis–into the leather handbag, and subsequently converted the handbag (with help from some loafers and flowered scarves) into a global retailing gold mine.

But, as everyone also knows, the humbly porcine origins of even the most stylish fashion accessory can be tough to eradicate. And so, while the passing years enhanced the splendor of the Gucci reputation and its fabulous real estate, penthouses, showrooms and boutiques, you could hear the faint echo of a disquieting sound: an initially plaintive and progressively more enraged and greedy … oinking. Eventually, the Guccis allowed their animal passions to trump their business acumen. Profits plummeted, family infighting escalated into accusations and cabals, lawsuits and physical violence. The family lost control of the empire that still bears its name, and–on a more personal note–Patrizia Gucci was accused and convicted of masterminding the 1995 Milan murder of her husband, Maurizio.

The story of this rise and fall–this metamorphosis and reversion–is entertainingly told in The House of Gucci . Sara Gay Forden’s “sensational story of murder, madness, glamour, and greed” provides all the guilty pleasures and none of the usual drawbacks of the sex-and-shopping novel. For one thing, it’s more lucidly written than your average Judith Krantz or Jackie Collins heavy-breather. For another, it happens to be nonfiction, so you can’t blame the writer for the sort of melodramatic, unlikely plot turns that might make you suspect a novelist of having learned to write by watching reruns of Dynasty and Dallas . You can only chalk up the wildly improbable characters and events (for instance, the exorcist summoned to cleanse the bad vibes from the Creole , the newly purchased yacht on which Stavros Niarchos’ first and second wives had committed suicide; or the “coincidence” of the silver handcuffs that appeared in Gucci shop windows worldwide after Patrizia was convicted) to the mysterious workings of Destiny, and to the fact that truth is way stranger than fiction.

Ms. Forden, former Milan bureau chief for Women’s Wear Daily and editor of the magazine L’Una , has two intertwined stories to tell, and she manages to cover them both with an admirable, if at times dutiful, thoroughness. Underneath everything is the spiking, plummeting fever chart of an international mega-business with loads more glamour and cachet than most multinational concerns–a family company that began in 1921 with Guccio Gucci’s leather-goods shop in Florence. His sons Aldo and (to a lesser extent) Rodolfo kicked things up a few notches: “By the 1970’s, Gucci had come to symbolize status on three continents.” Aldo opened a store on Rodeo Drive; Japanese shoppers had to be restrained from buying dozens of Gucci bags at once. Gucci loafers paced the corridors of high-level Hollywood and Washington power, and–in this democratic society–anyone with the money could order a Gucci interior for that new Cadillac or Chrysler LeBaron. Meanwhile, crowds of New Yorkers were lining up to catch some major attitude from the famously snooty and dismissive Eurotrash sales help at the East Side boutique.

But Aldo’s and Rodolfo’s sons didn’t agree on a lot of issues, principally power and money, and a struggle ensued which led to a bloody scuffle (well, someone’s face got scratched) at a board meeting in Florence in 1982. Rodolfo’s son Maurizio gained control of the business, and–according to Ms. Forden–ran it into the ground. There was trouble with the tax authorities and with the law, some of it involving that ill-fated yacht, the Creole . ( Mi amore , did that exorcist give us a money-back guarantee?) Backers (a company known as Investcorp) kept Maurizio afloat for years, but eventually had to dump him, and the new corporation–Gucci minus the Guccis–was finally free to restructure. Wisely, the new management gave creative control to designer Tom Ford, who understood the brave new fashion world in ways Maurizio never could. Mr. Ford and chief executive Domenico De Sole put Gucci back on the map and together forestalled a takeover attempt by LVMH.

In fact, there’s a lot of financial stuff, and how sexy you think all this is may depend on your ability to stay with a passage like the following: “On September 5, Investcorp announced plans to take Gucci public, offering 30 percent of the company on international stock markets–which would still leave Investcorp with majority control at 70 percent … The S.E.C. unexpectedly asked Investcorp to rewrite part of the Gucci prospectus and then the Milan stock commission refused to list Gucci, citing its recent losses.” For some people, I realize, this is sex and shopping. Others may find it rather like watching a bunch of European guys in handmade shirts and beautiful suits trying to balance their checkbooks.

Happily for the fiscally challenged, The House of Gucci has great characters and high drama: part opera, part soap opera. First, of course, there’s Patrizia, who came from Maurizio’s own class–serious new money–and wanted something better: What she called for was nothing less than “the era of Maurizio,” an era that peaked in international disco glory and ended with a bang after a public, low-rent (Patrizia and their two daughters arriving at the ski house to find that Maurizio had changed the locks) divorce. Even more compelling is the romantic Rodolfo, Maurizio’s father, who ran away from home to become a movie star, got parts in silent films until the advent of sound ended his career, and then went back into the leather business with his brother Aldo. His beloved actress-wife died young and left the widower in a high-strung relationship with his son, an intense closeness that ended abruptly when Rodolfo–correctly, as it turned out–opposed Maurizio’s marriage to Patrizia.

Obviously, Ms. Forden knows what the truly attention-grabbing elements of her narrative are–the murder and the trial–and deploys them at the book’s beginning and end. These chapters may remind you of one of Claude Chabrol’s lesser films: the blare of sirens screeching around the misty corner where Dottor Gucci had just been shot. And the investigation–how the Italian detectives caught the small-time wannabe criminals who got suckered into the murder plot, and then suckered into revealing it–is terrific. I could have read a whole book just about that. But The House of Gucci has larger ambitions and offers something to readers who want a detailed business lesson (short version: it’s easier to wreck an empire than to build one) mixed in with their sex-and-shopping celebrity murder scandal.

Francine Prose’s most recent novel is Blue Angel (HarperCollins).