Francisco ‘Baby’ Pignatari was not your average playboy. Standing at 6 feet and 3 inches tall and darkly handsome, he could carry off any style of clothing from a dinner jacket to a mechanic’s overall. As one would expect, he enjoyed plenty of sexual conquests, crashed luxury sports cars and speedboats and lived his life, as it’s said, ‘to the full’. But one thing set him apart: all the cash he spent at night he earned through hard work during the day.
Unlike his international playboy peers during the post-war era, Brazil’s Francisco ‘Baby’ Pignatari was picking up his own tabs at the end of the evening. While the likes of Porfirio Rubirosa and Gunter Sachs counted on wealthy benefactors, when Baby wrote off a speedboat, hired a plane to fly halfway around the world to amuse a new girlfriend, or rented eight suites at Paris’s Georges V, he paid for it with money he had made himself.
Baby - a nickname he picked up from an English nanny - was proud to have made his own fortune, although it helped having a grandfather who founded Brazil’s greatest industrial firm - Count Francesco Matarazzo. As a young man, Baby inherited a small steel mill founded by his father, Giulio Pignatari, an ophthalmologist who died in 1936. But within six years he had increased the workforce 25-fold and expanded his interests into copper and bauxite mining, machine-gun manufacture, aeronautics and retail. Eventually his business would become Brazil’s third-largest and employ over 10,000 people.
Perhaps these achievements explain why the Italo-Brazilian was so contemptuous of those who judged him for his playboy lifestyle. “I know those Wall Street men with their little neckties and their little hats,” he told Life. “They get drunk, too, when they think nobody is looking. They sneak off with women I wouldn’t spit on. But the next morning they look down their long noses at me.”
He famously never slept for more than four hours a night and particularly enjoyed the sound of his own voice. “I must do something dangerous when I feel restless,” he confided to Life magazine in 1958, going on to explain that he felt restless all the time. “I don’t like watching other people do anything. I only want to do things myself. If you are sitting at this table talking to someone else, I will not hear you. I only hear when I am talking.”
He was also Brazil’s youngest pilot, flying solo after just four hours of instruction at the age of 18. Chiefly, he took to the skies to buzz high buildings or beaches, the fuller the better. He would even terrorise sunbathers from the sea, turning his speedboat direct for the beach, opening the throttle and then turning at the last moment on a wave to head back out for the horizon. When this went wrong one time on Santos beach, he was rescued from the remains of the splintered boat by swimmers and taken to hospital, where his wounds were so severe he had to be stitched up without anaesthetic. He was, naturally, out on the town the same night.
At the height of his notoriety in the '50s, he had a glass engraved with his nickname in every nightclub in the world he deemed worth being seen in. Particularly celebrated was the night he left the Oasis nightclub, his São Paulo local, with that evening’s partner in the passenger seat of his Cadillac, and drove into a telephone pole. When his companion noted that the obstruction was still standing, he backed up, hit the accelerator and finished the job — pole and car. He managed to write off another Cadillac in one go by attempting to drive it through the revolving door of a bar.
A string of starlets and models kept him occupied between longer affairs and several marriages, including Dolores del Rio, Selene Walters, Linda Christian, Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiari (ex-Queen of Iran), Vikki Dougan, Tracey Morgan, Melissa Weston, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Helen and Ann Merrill, Karen von Unge (Anita Ekberg’s stand-in), Barbara Cailleux, Mary Vegh, Jackie Lane, Lucinda Sherill, Susan Cabot, Miiko Taka, Tina Louise, Princess Ira von Fürstenberg, Kathy Bonn and Kim Novak.
Richard Gully, Baby’s social secretary, gave further insights into Baby’s methods: "One of Baby's best approaches is to send a surprising gift to an attractive woman. If, for example, someone is selling flowers in a restaurant, Baby may buy the whole tray and tell the waiter ‘Send these flowers over to that lady with my compliments as a tribute to her beauty.’ Or he may send out for a large bottle of perfume. He is never fresh. And Baby never puts anything in writing. He's the only person I know who gives a girl a diamond bracelet without a card.”
“Baby,” continued Mr. Gully, “has a pre-sold audience. He has all the requisites for being a glamour boy. There are so few men who have ALL the requisites. Baby has sex appeal, charm and money, he’s a good host. He entertains fabulously. He always has two cars with him and when he meets an attractive girl he lets her use one of them, with a chauffeur, of course. He speaks four languages and he’s been married two times. If a playboy hasn’t been married, the women feel there isn’t a chance for them. This way there is always hope.”
Perhaps only a selection of anecdotes can best describe the vigour of his caddish life :
- Baby sends a 155-piece silver dinner service set dipped in 24-carat gold to crooner Andy Russell, the "most popular Yankee singer in South America” as he dubbed him. It arrives by plane with two guards and is said to have been insured for over $20,000.
- Actress Tracey Morgan, whose career was to peak with the role of ‘Girl in Booth’ in the Elvis vehicle Jailhouse Rock, was sufficiently important to Baby to receive orchids encrusted with pearls.
- Baby sends actress Dolores De Rio planeloads of posies.
- While in Rome to celebrate the divorce from his second wife he spots 33-year-old actress Linda Christian, the ex of actor Tyrone Power, at a restaurant. A few days after he meets Linda, the two set off on an around-the-world trip with stopovers in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Cairo, Tokyo, Honolulu, Panama City, and Mexico City. Baby proposes but Linda hears that Baby keeps a secret girlfriend in Rio de Janeiro so she plans a showdown and to call off the marriage. Baby proceeds to picket Linda Christian's Rio de Janeiro hotel with fireworks and blunt signs saying "Linda Go Home.”
- Baby leads a blaring 25-piece orchestra playing "Anchors aweigh" through the Riviera casino in Las Vegas and up to the ninth floor to celebrate his divorce and to pay tribute to the departure of casino legend Shecky Greene.
- While skiing in Cortina D’Ampezzo, Baby meets the married Princess Ira von Fürstenberg and convinces her to elope with him to Florence, but her aristocratic husband, Prince Alfonso of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, learns about Ira’s infidelity and a chase ensues including a custody battle over their children. They make it as far as Mexico City where, eventually, 22 Mexican policemen break into Baby's hotel suite before dawn, seeking him on adultery charges filed by Hohenlohe. Baby is found in trousers and shirt and a brawl ensues along with the six-man guard he had hired for protection. He is arrested but released from jail, drawn and red-eyed after 36 hours behind bars, for lack of proof of adultery with Ira. Charges are eventually dropped and Baby and Ira marry. He is 45 and she is 20.
- Baby stops attending the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro in the early 1970s, claiming it had lost all of its charm due to the influx of third-rate tourists. "Last time I was in Rio during Carnival Week, it had slowed down some because of television and the banning of sprayed ether. It still beats Barstow on a Saturday night,” he explained.