“Alright everyone, you can all come up on deck now, we’re the biggest!” Called out Baron Ricky di Portonova, as the yacht S. S. Miranda pulled into the port of Monte Carlo to bring aboard caviar and Champagne from a local supplier. Ricky, the heir to an enormous Texas oil fortune from his grandfather, oil wildcatter Hugh Roy Cullen, on his mothers side and what some people have called a “purchased” Italian Baronial title from his charming, father, Paulo di Portanova. Traveling in what he called his “taxi” a Lear jet he called the “Barefoot Baronessa” between homes in Houston, Rome and a fabulous villa in Acapulco called “Arabesque” that was protected by a small army of machine-gun toting guards in towers, and featured an indoor waterfall and 28 bedrooms.
The yacht, the S.S. Miranda with 27 in crew and only 6 of us aboard chartered by Ricky and calling on various ports around the Mediterranean for the months of July and August. Guests aboard included Ricky’s girlfriend Sandra Hovis who later became his wife, Dee Hay from England, Patsy de Rothschild from Basil, Switzerland, and Ricky’s friend Eddie and his girlfriend along with my wife and I. Ricky had sacked the ships English cook and replaced him with one of the Rothschild’s French chefs. He immediately intimidated him by complaining that the lamb was too rare and it also turned out that this poor chef suffered from seasickness. After stocking up with many kilos of caviar in Monte Carlo he inflicting a couple of his favorite dishes almost every night—a baked potato filled to overflowing with Beluga caviar or fettuccine tossed with great quantities of caviar; who would complain? The latter dish years later made it onto the then tired menu of Tony’s Restaurant in Houston. Tagliatelle Portanova!
I first met Ricky in Capri after hearing a booming voice shout out, “Where is the Christian section?”, as he moved across the crowded terrace of the Quisisana Hotel, turning heads as he authoritatively pushed through. He sat down at the next table with a large party of friends including a pal of his by the name of Eddie who had recently lost his leg in the crash of his Ferrari. Presumably, other parts were lost as well as he was an embittered man, who carried a cane with a sword in it – he was always waiting for any opportunity to use it. We spent the summer in Capri. Island life, on a small Island such as Capri, becomes rather clubby, with an influx of new players coming and going. Sometime during this period of time Ricky made the suggestion that we join him in Ostia (the port of Rome) and cruise on a yacht he had chartered.
We stored our car at a friend of ours who was staying at a large villa just outside Rome, his name was Charlie Fawcett. I suggested that he come along with us to the port and board the yacht and meet Ricky whom oddly enough he had not met, and God knows, he had encountered almost everyone who was worth knowing in the entire world, and it was a great pleasure to introduce him to someone he did not know. They hit it off very well and became long-time friends after that first meeting.
One night, after a few days docked in Monte Carlo, Ricky said, “Let’s go to Au Pirate tonight, it is a very unusual, fun restaurant but we will not dine there as the food is inedible. We may have a little Moussaka as an hors d’oeuvres, it’s passable, and there is nothing wrong with their Champagne and whiskey; until we can adjourn to a more gastronomic atmosphere later in the evening.” As it turned out anything could happen or be acquired for a price in this bizarre restaurant, you could break anything, or order the waiter to throw the chairs or tables into the huge fireplace and burn them, which he would gladly do and automatically tick them onto the bill realizing a great profit for the restaurant. Ricky took off his gold chain studded with diamonds and gave it to the young son of the restaurant owner; the father now had a grin from ear to ear and reciprocated by firing up a big display of fireworks gratis, normally a big-ticket item if you ordered them yourself. You might also choose to have the house donkey brought over to the table and put through his paces by his trainer for added amusement. Or there was a tree in the courtyard, which guests could climb up to the bar on the next floor, although a major hazard was being hit by cocktail glasses that might, and usually did, rain down onto other guests climbing up on the lower branches.
The next day we pulled up anchor and set a course for St. Tropez, arriving in the late afternoon. The Captain of the port told us that we drew too much water and would have to anchor outside the harbor. Three sailors in full dress uniform brought us to the quay by launch and I must say the launch was a great deal bigger than many of the yachts tied up in front of the Quay. En route to Corsica from St. Tropez we ran headlong into a violent Mistral that lashed the big ship and even broke the straps that were securing some of the cases of wine in the hold. In Sardinia we went swimming in the small coves and had a very leisurely time and with the bar being tended 24 hours a day, by order of Ricky, the nights were sometimes very late.
We steamed back to the ship’s home port of Palma de Mallorca where Ricky commandeered the bar in the best hotel and told the Concierge to find him the first flight out, because he disliked Mallorca so intensely that he did not want to spend even one night there. After about two hours the word came back that there were no flights available. Ricky sent the Concierge back to charter a plane. The bewildered Concierge came back and said, “Senor Portanova, there is only one plane available but it seats over 250 passengers.” “I’ll take it”, said Ricky. “Make sure that they have plenty of French Champagne and caviar aboard.” The cost: $10,000, a great deal of money for a one-way flight to Rome in 1969 for 6 passengers although this took into account the return flight back to Mallorca.
photos: above top: Ricky & Sandra Portanova in Acapulco; below top: Ricky Portanova; below center; Sandra Portanova (photos copyright www.lasziomontreal.com); below bottom H.R. Cullen Enrico Portanova’s grandfather.