Many believed that Ricky was not a Baron from Naples. His father Paolo was even said to have declared, ‘I am the only man who inherited a title from my son.’ In point of fact, Paolo was a younger son in a large family of the Neapolitan Apuzzo di Portanovas. An ancestor had worked with the Bourbon monarchy, saved by Admiral Nelson and Lady Hamilton from revolution. The family still had a palazzo and property in the centre of the Italian port city. A Carolina di Portanova had married an Apuzzo, and with a lack of male heirs, the two names had been conjoined to preserve the titles.
And so Enrico Apuzzo di Portanova would be born on 16 August 1926 in Naples, although his passport showed him of the 1928 vintage. That is the usual vanity of age. His penniless father had gone to South America before reaching Hollywood. Both of them were devilish handsome, but bad actors. Paolo certainly could not survive the transition from the silent screen to talkies, while Ricky was also to fail in the neo-realism of the Italian cinema after the Second World War.
I had first heard of Ricky di Portanova from the malice of gossip columns. He was a creature of extravagance with a slipping toupée and revolting manners. Then I heard of him again, when I was escaping to Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, from the waste of my own Hollywood months. I was staying at the Mount Lavinia hotel to the south of Colombo. It had been the old residence of the British Governor-General. How could one have a Raj without such names? Under long cool roofs ran corridors as long as those in liners with wine-dark floors and pillars and ceilings of open ornate boxes. Enormous propellers slowly revolved above to keep a tepid breeze circulating from air drugged by a sluggish sea. Outside the verandah facing the weedy beach, crows congregated like columnists, their beaks open in pages, ready to rend.
Ricky used to drift in with his bevies of northern beauties and try and buy every gem in this island of serendipity. Based in Rome, he was a brilliant designer of rings and brooches and necklaces. The jewels were often smuggled to Italy in the private parts of young ladies, which Ricky may have investigated before. He would go spear-fishing and hunting in the reefs and jungles of the south. The big prize was leopards, although tethering kids outside in the night to attract the spotted beasts was as dangerous as Beowulf. Slimy monster crocodiles would drag away the prey by dawn, but leave the tents alone. Once in frustration at bagging nothing, Ricky shot the sacred peahens of a Buddhist Temple. Pursued by a mob of raging monks, he escaped in his Jeep from that orange revenge.
On these expeditions, Ricky was made to cook the pasta in the mess tins at night. He had to take the role of Frank Sinatra, who once courted Ava Gardner in Africa during the shooting of Mogambo. The director John Ford did not want Sinatra around, and so he did a deal, as Ricky would later do with the crooner and a basking shark. ‘Tell the wop to be useful,’ Ford growled in his charming way. ‘If he wants to stay, let him cook the spaghetti.’ In the late forties, Ricky himself would pursue Ava from Rome to Berlin in a small Fiat. There he would claim to have seduced her, while burning down her living-room by mistake.
Later, Ricky himself told me of these far voyages, more curious than those of Sinbad the Sailor. He had to make his way in the world, before the death of his unseen grandfather and his divorced mother uncorked a vast inheritance like the genie from the magic lamp. He had tried to corner all the sapphires and rubies in India and Burma and Ceylon.
‘I had a Jeep and three Sikh guards with the old Lee-Enfields. The three-othrees you could Rapid Fire until the linseed oil boiled out of the woodwork and burned your hands. We only needed them in the hills sometimes. The rest was bargaining. And the pay was in gold guineas and rupees. We went beyond the Brahmaputra as far as Mandalay.’
Back in Rome, Ricky did well in the gem trade, although he also modelled for the fumetti. These were cartoon romances, illustrated by balloons of dialogue floating in sexy still photographs. He dropped his original Swedish wife for the double of Sophia Loren in her risqué shots. A professional basketball player from Yugoslavia, Ljuba Otanovic was spectacular. And when Ricky’s unknown grandfather died in 1957, Ricky found himself with a monthly cheque of five thousand dollars from the Trust Fund of the estate, and a golden ticket to Monte Carlo, both for social and tax reasons.
There the couple spent money like eau de toilette. Ricky loved the famous and escorted everybody from Greta Garbo to Errol Flynn, who had known his father. Sometimes caviar was served with ice-cream scoops to regulate the quantity. Ricky gave and gave flamboyantly, until he had to borrow ten thousand dollars to fly to Houston and begin a long lawsuit against the Cullen trustees to give him his due as the eldest grandson of the eldest daughter of the owner of Quintana Oil, who had developed both the river port and the medical centre of Houston.
At the pace of the slug, which is the lawyer’s income, Ricky slowly increased his share of the take to a million dollars a month. He always had income, but no capital, but he looked after his melancholy fat mother in Mexico, divorced from his father Paolo, who cared for Ricky’s younger brother Ugo, unfortunately a schizophrenic, who became a ward-of-court.
Yet Paolo married well, and three times – as Ricky would. The elder Portanova had a second American wife and then reverted to a Neapolitan, called Rita. He would end in Monte Carlo and live to the age of ninety-six years. Ricky would chuck his Yugoslav beauty for Sandra Hovas from a struggling family in Houston, whose wholesale furniture business was often on the edge. She was seventeen years younger than him with an electric attraction and a large bosom – she was called ‘Buckets’ at High School. And she would save his lifestyle and his life.
By the time she took Ricky in hand, he was already known as an international playboy. Outside his jewellery store in Rome in the Via Margutta by the Piazza di Spagna, one of the few flashy Ferrari Americas would be parked. The only other one in post-war Rome belonged to the free-living Dado Ruspoli. When in London, Ricky would roust about with the Marquis of Milford Haven, usually at the Les Ambassadeurs of Johnny Mills, an expatriate Pole who also ran the Milroy. During the war, he had learned the skills of survival as Ricky had, and where to get luxury goods on the black market without tax or question.
Ricky’s life-long romance with the country of his mother’s exile was fostered by his friendship with the wealthy Mexican President Alemana, who considered Ricky almost as a son. Ricky bought a small house near the Diver’s Cliff at Acapulco, where the long plunge against the chance of death into the sea below would become a social occasion. Back in the fifties, Ricky’s patch was a lizard garden. He would send out his cook to the morning market to buy up the live iguanas, prized for their roasted tails. He would have them released in his shrubbery and talk to them between his own pasta meals. The paradox of hunters is that they may love and conserve wild animals. Or what do they have left to kill? Ricky’s own way of life managed to turn the extravagances of the screen into a series of true romances. Even more than William Randolph Hearst of Citizen Kane fame at his Californian extravaganza of Xanadu, Ricky created a world of social fantasy at his Arabesque in Acapulco. This was such stuff as hallucinations are made of but it was real, although hardly credible.
Ricky’s dream palace was not the West Egg of Jay Gatsby’s parties in Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. Behind the security gates a herd of concrete camels safely grazed above the five giant palettes connected by a tented trolley railway up the cliff face. Down the rocks tumbled many a waterfall past a vast pool into the Pacific. In the twenty-eight guest suites, tigers in lacquer and mother-of-pearl burst through the bedroom walls.
There were no corners or straight lines wherever. All was curved or arched in the Moorish fashion. A pastel fretwork pervaded throughout, a style I had only seen once before in Cairo in the grottos of its last Egyptian monarch – and so I called it Faroque. And, indeed, in the past it turned out that Ricky had been an intimate friend of King Farouk’s sister. And so he had created a mirage so serpentine that all his guests were entwined within the elaborations of its djinn.
In the Jungla suite of Sonia and myself, white lamé elephants with jewels in their foreheads trumpeted mutely above our double beds, while a huge lion’s rug on the floor lay ready to scratch our naked feet. For thirteen years, we were told that Ricky had been creating this fantasy with a resident Italian architect, close to him than ever Michelangelo was to the Medicis, when he agreed to make horses out of snow for the princely family in the palace courtyard.
The oriental adventures of Ricky named the other guest harbours of Arabesque. These were Bamba and Jaipur and Zebra, with tiles reflecting the design jewellery, which Ricky brought back from his wanderings. Other rooms suggested the limits of the world, Mariposas and Orguideas and Cacatuas, or the Parrot Suite. And as in The Jungle Book, Ricky spoke of communing with the beasts and the birds of the fabulous East, from apes to ants, from tigers to butterflies, now remembered in the Elefante Bar or the Mesa Tortugas or the Grotto Verde. His pet iguana was called Nemesis.
The guests could walk up or down beside ‘Sandra’s River’, flowing over blue mosaic to arrive at the tented top of the main room, a wobbly oval some two hundred yards about. Half of that was a swimming pool which made a second gulf above Acapulco Bay, as if the ocean had tossed up an azure pancake. Under the arches, candles blazed taller than grenadiers, and gold cloths hid the round tables. Tuberoses drenched the air, while among the nacreous bric-a-brac, a papier-mâché Madonna took away her false face from her real one.
With visitors and no children to entertain, Sandra di Portanova loved switching the slides in her gigantic magic lantern. Each meal had a different theme with various napkins and glasses and centerpieces. Her library was of table designs. Her storehouse was of myriad place settings. Her planet was the plunder of nature, fish and flesh, fruit and fowl. Every dinner was a revelation of another aspect of Arabesque. The invited sat in a kaleidoscope, ever shaken as a cocktail. The eye slid from one contour to another, never at rest.
So the Portanovas captured their fantasies in their palace by the sea. Ricky no longer had to slip out like Haroun-al-Rashid into the city on his nightly escapades, followed by Sandra as his rescuer. He hardly remembered in the morning the mayhem and the misdeeds of the day before. He had his mansion built in the arcs of time that return to the same point of oblivion, and need no leaving.
He fixed his fancy. The flow and curves of the scrollwork were nets for parrots and leopards. The pools and rock crannies were traps for silver turtles and mother-of-pearl doves. Fables reigned in the rainbow curtains of the suites with their giant brass tortoises and birds of paradise and circular stone bathtubs, big enough to bathe a baby hippopotamus. The doors of the cupboards and rooms were all keyholes painted with candycoloured stripes and mirrored, so that we were always looking into a spell of selves. All that was alive was woven into that cliff place, the grasses and the serpents, the lilacs and the lions, the termites and the lizards, the hummingbirds and the dragons.
Ricky’s wife Sandra saw him as the Caliph from The Book of the Thousand and One Nights. She called the two main bedroom suites Scheherazade One and Two. Trusted guests took turns in playing the role of the Persian storyteller, so that we all might survive till daybreak, when Sandra would provide the distractions to see us through the light and the next evening. The dawn and claret shift began with the closure of the private starspangled cabaret in the small dead hours. Ricky was still at the burgundy and needed company. Somebody had to be there when he turned into the Devil, and began to rail at God for giving him so much pain.
‘There is only one good book in the Bible,’ he would tell me, when he heard the click in his head from the chilled claret towards sunrise. ‘And that is the Book of Job. Look how cruel God is to me, His faithful servant.’
‘But look what Job got back,’ I used to say, ‘after all his sufferings, because he still believed in God.’
‘Job lost everything. He was tortured night and day. I won’t stand for it. Fuck you, up there! Do you know, I nearly fell over yesterday? That Devil put pads under my feet.’
‘Cloven hoofs,’ I said. Of course it could have been the good wine. And unlike Job’s camels, Ricky’s oil wells kept on running.
‘Cloven hoofs,’ Ricky shouted. ‘He wants me to be a Devil. Join him.’ Then he would bang his forehead on his fist.
‘Horns! I can feel them sprouting.’ And I would have to talk him down with the Gnostics and St. Augustine and blind Milton. Satan was a fallen angel; the rival of God. The Serpent was Wisdom. Judas was a Saint, for without him there could be no crucifixion. If Ricky was being transformed into the Devil, that was the Will of God and a good thing. For, in a way, he was the sinner, whom God loved the best.
And Ricky would quieten at the rosy fingers of the Mexican dawn and go to bed. He would sleep through the morning and talk about his investments on the telephone in the afternoon and return to his pavilion by the pool to play backgammon until dinner, solitary or with one of us. The click of the ivory counters and the roll of the dice ticked off the everlasting hours of his ennui, waiting for the entertainment arranged by his wife for those passing through Arabesque.
The Portanovas knew their visitors better than Gatsby did – a Texan blonde with three oil wells and four husbands, arms dealers and ladies from Monterrey and the Chase Manhattan Bank, Hollywood superagents and Simon of Castle Howard, where Brideshead was Revisited in the film of it, Mexican plutocrats and Cuban refugees. Two of them were found coupling in Scheherazade Two. Ever courteous to her guests, Sandra asked them, ‘Can I help you?’
One of her friends was married to a businessman from over the Border, whose favourite story after dinner was to tell of taking a rival on a high ride in his helicopter. Pushing his competitor out of the door, he heard his victim ask as he fell to earth, ‘WHY? Why? Wh…’ Then thump.
Such questions were never asked at Arabesque. Living and dying seemed suspended in this lotus-land. Acceptance was all. Of course, the screen stars came, to check that their celluloid roles were no make-believe. There were Tony Curtis and Michael York, both as ageless and Rider Haggard’s She, stepping from the flame of eternal youth. Kirk Douglas and Sylvester Stallone looked in, the muscles of past and present time. Also in evidence were Barbara Walters and Placido Domingo and Roger Moore, playing a skit as James Bond for a charity show. Indeed, some scenes from A License to Kill were filmed in Arabesque, as 007 found his perfect location.
While we were there, Joan Collins came in her confection, and the blue glaze of Frank Sinatra, who fortunately did not recollect my rudeness at Limehouse, on the Thames. He was sent for by Sandra to solve the problem of Ricky’s new friend, who had come to call, a small basking shark. Pools had been built in the rocks to catch the deluge down the cliff. Pumps lifted the sea on high to cascade down to the beach, by the flick of a switch.
‘Just like life,’ Ricky used to say. ‘An endless treadmill. We use too much energy to come back to where we started from.’
He was then talking to the shark, not to me. A fisherman had caught it in his net and had sold it along with his catch. Ricky had put it in his rock pool and fed it with steaks and cutlets. Now the shark was a better companion than I was. It stayed up till dawn and never answered back.
‘You do not mean to scare people,’ Ricky used to say, as the shark nuzzled at his fingers to snap down a hot dog à la moutarde. ‘You merely have to bite. God made you so. He gave you all those teeth. What else should you do with them except eat things?’
Then Ricky sneezed. He always took a sneeze as a personal attack by heaven. So the ancient Greeks had thought thunderbolts and lightning were the assault weapons of the gods.
‘Damn you up there,’ he cursed. ‘You get up my nose.’ He turned back to give the shark some kidneys en brochette. The shark ate the skewer as well. ‘I do not hate you, my friend. You are as you are. Exactly what you should be in creation. No frills, no nonsense. All you want is breakfast.’
Late that night, Sandra came down the steps cut in the rock between the concrete joists, which supported the palettes of Arabesque. She knelt by Ricky, as he fed the shark. The dark round her eyes was not kohl, but lack of sleep.
‘Come to bed, my love,’ she said. ‘Perhaps I am softer than your shark.’
‘You are,’ Ricky said. ‘But he is more truthful than you. He only loves me because I feed him. And he listens to everything I say. He never contradicts me.’
‘A wise shark.’ I saw Sandra take Ricky’s hand and softly bite the tips of his fingers one by one. ‘Do I – really – eat you – because – I don’t – get enough – to eat?’
‘You and my shark,’ he said, ‘you are my best friends.’
‘I’m not jealous,’ Sandra said. ‘But perhaps your shark would be better off in the sea, where his friends and family are.’
‘He is my guest, too,’ Ricky said, waving towards me. ‘I have checked on his background, and he is admirable for what he is. A shark of honour. You can trust his teeth. A pedigree pal. And as you know, I never turn away a guest unless he is rude to the cook.’
‘But he might be happier back in the sea.’
‘Not as long as he wishes to stay.’
Sandra left Ricky with his friend the shark, and myself, for she was dropping with sleep. For days, she brooded on how to separate the new companions. Then she telephoned her friend Conchita in the Land of the Stars and heard that Ole Blue Eyes Himself was coming down their way.
Nobody could make a dinner for forty better than Sandra; if the Roman Emperors served larks’ tongues, she served ceviche with shrimp and clams and conch marinated in lime or scooped avocado with the spawn of Sargossa Sea eels or langoustines as soft as the garlic butter. The quails to follow were marshmallows on the tongue, the curried chicken hotter than the seven spices of sin, the mango sorbet as sweet as a lick of paradise. At the end of the dinner, Ricky took Sinatra to meet his friend in the rock pool. The basking shark smiled as best it could, given the dentures donated by creation, and it gobbled down a quart of chopped steak.
‘You will not meet a better type in Hollywood,’ Ricky said. ‘Always turns up on time. Straight as a die. Never says no to a good deal. You can count on him in a crisis.’
‘He reminds me of my old agent,’ Sinatra said. ‘The one who did nothing and took the dough. Why don’t you turn him loose?’
‘But he is my guest.’
‘Not by choice. Tell you what – ’
‘What would you take to turn him loose?’
Now Ricky knew that there was one thing that Sinatra would never do. He would not sing at private parties. He guarded his voice like the gold in Fort Knox.
‘Sing for your supper,’ Ricky said. ‘And the shark goes free.’
Sinatra scowled. Then he looked at the shark, now floating like a tea-tray with a carving knife on top. Round and round and round it skimmed the small pool with nowhere to go. The eternal return without getting on. Or maybe like a mobster trying to leave Alcatraz.
‘You’ve got it,’ he said. ‘I sing and he swims.’
So Sinatra sang to the dinner guests that night. And when the songs were done, Ricky turned on the pumps until a flood swilled on the cliff top. Then he pressed the switch for the release gate, and a cascade flushed out the nooks and the pools, scooping the shark down to the sea inlet below.
There were tears in Ricky’s eyes.
‘I know he will come back,’ he said. ‘He is my friend.’
‘No,’ Sinatra said. ‘He needs the sea and the other sharks. We don’t.’
For three days the few swimmers in the sea paddled back to the beach because a small shark came up to put its nose in their hands, as if they had something to give. But on the fourth day, the shark did not reappear, and never again. And I heard Sandra ask, ‘How long does one remember a free lunch?’
Sandra sorted out Ricky’s social problems. He could not be alone at night, or else he went on the town. So she organised glittering evenings at home, so that he was kept under control. When we were at Arabesque, we heard that he had disgraced himself because of a weak bladder. At a charity dinner, he had removed the flowers from a vase and relieved himself in it and set it back on the table. ‘Ten years of social climbing,’ Sandra said philosophically, ‘down the drain.’
Ricky became the Consul-General of San Marino in Washington. He was decorated with the Ordine di Sant’ Agata, and later became the tiny state’s Ambassador-at-Large a disposizione. He and Sandra would visit San Marino every October for the formal changing of the Heads of its two minuscule Regions. The government of ten ministers only altered every five years. Yet it remained the only Renaissance city state in Italy, too small to annex. Napoleon had even offered it a strip of land to the sea, wisely declined because that gift would have been fatal to its independence – and that had also been praised by Abraham Lincoln.
Among its other splendours, Arabesque boasted the only private paddletennis court outside Marbella. In this outdoor game, which is a cross between squash and racquets, the balls could bounce off the back walls before they were swatted back over the net. When we were there, Henry Kissinger was playing with ageing Acapulco blondes. A podgy force of aggression, he might have been bombing Vietnam as he exhorted his partner when losing, ‘We’re giving them a sense of security, then we’re going to give them hell.’
Among the platinum ladies, his partner was the one brown-eyed brunette, although she wore white stretch overalls, studded with US air force badges. When she left the court, her WASP husband said to me, ‘She came straight off the goddam reservation.’ And she had to give the tight little smile of those whose faces were lifted, but not their hearts. The casual cruelty of the rich men to the consorts they had bought was extraordinary, as was the competition between their wives.
Sandra presented Henry with a lookalike doll complete with a tiny paddlebat, while his tall wife Nancy received a golden thwacker, set with rhinestones. Henry joked that he had once briefed Nixon that Mauritius was Mauritania. That was why he was reduced to playing games in Acapulco. He was generally gloomy about the state of things, pessimistic particularly about Gorbachev and glasnost. Nothing could change in Russia.
He would prove to be wrong about that, as he had been about the war in Vietnam. He remained unrepentant on his strategy over there, particularly the bombing of the Viet Cong sanctuaries in Cambodia. ‘We were losing five hundred American boys a week, and after the bombs, the numbers dropped.’ He still believed that America could have won the war with another hundred thousand more men and the bombing of Hanoi. Too little was done too late, because of domestic opposition. His most significant remark was, ‘Nixon – or shall I say I – decided to mine the port of Haiphong.
Shall we not say Henry? His accent was still Germanic and guttural. When he was forging American foreign policy, he was kept off the media in case the people thought a European was leading their country. I was reminded of an apocryphal story I had heard about him as a professor, when I also was at Harvard. Putting forward the case in the Cold War for an assault on Russia by the Western Allies, he lifted his right arm straight and high and said, ‘And then, with our panzers, we will take Moscow – we Americanz!’ Stanley Kubrick was widely credited for taking him as the role model of Dr. Strangelove and the dropping of the bomb.
The evening ended in the cinema and disco on the third palette of Arabesque. There a kitsch cavern with sugar-fairy arches and iridescent flashing lights suggested a child’s dream. A Paraguayan mariachi band thumped out ‘Tarragona’, and the party-goers watched themselves on a video taken before dinner, each one entranced at being his or her own star of an hour ago. Instant celebrity was conferred on all who had passed into that wonderworld, only to fall into conspiracy with the showing of a Far Right underground documentary about the lewd evils of their anathema, President Bill Clinton.
The following day in the swimming pool, Sonia learned that the old bank of Barings had collapsed because of a rogue trader in the Far East. What money she had was invested by the firm, which also looked after the portfolio of the Queen of England. From their lounging chairs, the other guests wondered how Sonia would cope with the crisis. She swam slowly up to Sandra and said, ‘Well, the Queen and I will just have to take in lodgers, though she has rather more space.’
Great wealth creates thieves. Lawyers intervene to deal with trustees and bankers and even family. Ricky began to slip into the paranoia of his younger brother. He had cause. There was a mysterious fire at his mock- Regency mansion in Houston. And there, his groom, mistaken for him, had the back of his head blown off by a rifle shot through the window. There was a poisoning attempt at a major London hotel. And when Sonia and I were at Arabesque, we were both struck down by a brief paralysis from toxic food or water. Soon after our stay, we heard that many of the staff of seventy had been fired.
Ricky’s growing mistrust could well refer to his and Sandra’s dying. She had suffered for many years from the nervous illness called MS, which is generally debilitating with periods of remission. She had been diagnosed at the Mayo Clinic, but they could find no reason for the continuing pains in her arms and her legs. Perhaps because of his smoking, Ricky had also had an attack of throat cancer, but this had been cured. Before Christmas in 1999, Sandra fell over and broke two ribs. She also became more and more incoherent.
In the New Year, the suffering moved into her skull. At the end of January, she flew to a hospital in Houston, where she was told that she had an inoperable brain tumour. She had only three or four weeks to live. Ricky had remained in Acapulco, where friends flew down to inform him that he should come back to Houston in time for Sandra’s birthday at the end of the month.
When he was back in his Texas mansion, he was told the truth about Sandra’s condition. He fell sick himself and would not eat and chainsmoked in spite of his damaged throat. An observer said, ‘He let himself go and died.’ He was seen without covering in an air-conditioned room, shivering towards his ending, probably from pneumonia.
With his death, all his assets passed to his wife, who had resisted her own going. She was never told that Ricky had died. He was still in Mexico, her friends informed her. But she understood the truth, too. She lapsed into a coma and died on Good Friday, leaving most of the Portanova fortune to her brother.
I was never more than a bystander in these affairs, as Nick Carraway was to Tom and Daisy Buchanan and the flawed hero of The Great Gatsby. Scott Fitzgerald had already put my observations in the mouth of his narrator. Nick had an unaffected scorn for everything which Jay Gatsby represented. Yet ‘if personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him … it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person.’
That was what I thought, when I knew Ricky. Even so, he was more real than Gatsby. Yes, he had been a jewel-smuggler as Gatsby was a dealer in forged bonds. Yet his title did come from Naples and not from a false and hinted genealogy. He did not claim a spurious Oxford degree, as Gatsby had in his doctored photograph. And Ricky became the Ambassador-at- Large of postage-stamp San Marino, rather bigger than the fated estate at West Egg.
Ricky’s wealth did derive from the Cullen trust fund in Texas, although its value and sources were always an oil-well for lawyers and more mysterious that the Styx. Fortune had blessed him as it did the lesser Gatsby. He used it with equal flamboyance and stranger taste. However, he and Sandra, as Jay and Daisy, were condemned by the mischance of their extravagance to a bitter end.
Unlike Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan, the Portanovas did not smash up things and creatures and then retreat into their money or their vast carelessness. They used the money to build up their fantasies and their friendships with more than gifts of good cheer – five thousand dollars to a broken-down spear-fisherman, a whole toyshop to village children in Sri Lanka, an incredible largesse of impulse.
Most of the rich are rich because they are mean. They never have a million enough. They break their wrists, reaching from the cheque. Not so the Portanovas, who had a generosity of spirit, which matched their noble hospitality. Indeed, their wish was to donate the splendours of Arabesque to the orphans of Acapulco. This would fulfill the childless Sandra’s wildest dream of putting tiny tots, poorer than Aladdin, into an Arabian Nights cave of treasures.
This was not done by her inheritor and brother, Greg Hovas, who kept the dream palace. As with possessions, desires do not survive beyond the grave. For three days a year while she was alive, Sandra would let the orphans run and play in Arabesque, thinking them her own, wanting them there forever, if she ever had to leave. She and Ricky, who once had a bar in Naples which went bust, but was named after Bogart’s place in Casablanca, were always romantics with a true generosity of spirit. I wish I could say, ‘Play it again, Portanovas. Play it again.’