By  on September 22, 2010

“Today, if you call someone a Beautiful Person, it is almost an insult.” Those are hardly words one would expect Marella Agnelli, wife of Fiat chairman Gianni Agnelli and ultimate BP herself, to utter. But she did, and with much verve, to WWD for a profile dated Nov. 30, 1976, tied to her new fabric collection for Swiss house Abraham-Zumsteg. In the clique of then-famous BPs, WWD wrote, “Agnelli’s [style] is less pristine and remote than Babe Paley’s; less self-conscious and lacquered than that of the splendidly professional Jacqueline de Ribes, and less cool and self-absorbed than Gloria Guinness. Agnelli is a strangely uncontrived, though utterly elegant member of the pack.” The paper also noted her surprising interest in “the photographer’s paraphernalia,” in the way she inspected the equipment and offered up her own suggestions. (“Please don’t use that [lens] — use an 85.”) Apparently, it was a passion that stemmed from her early days working with shutterbugs Cecil Beaton and Erwin Blumenfeld at Condé Nast.

Born in Florence to “an ancient Neapolitan family,” Agnelli also surprised our reporter with her American roots. Her mother, whose family was from New Orleans, was born in, “of all places,” Peoria, Ill. “Her father died when she was four, and she later moved to London, then to Florence, which is where she met my father,” explained Agnelli, who also opened her New York home to be photographed by WWD. The apartment was her third residence (the other two were in Rome and Turin, Italy) and bore the decorating touch of Françoise de la Renta, whether in the “chintz-covered library” or the “pale living room with plant-filled corners.”

“[De la Renta] has a great knack for houses,” explained Agnelli. “Women don’t pay so much attention to how they dress today. There is much more attention on the house. And why is this? I’ll tell you. Life has become so difficult. The home is a refuge.”

On the subject of beauty, Agnelli offered up a wealth of bon mots, including that one-liner on BPs. “If you’re beautiful, then it’s very rare that you’re elegant,” she said. “To be elegant is a great effort, after all, a great chore. For a woman who is not beautiful, elegance is indispensable.” Of those who combined both elegance and beauty, “there is only one: Babe Paley.” Guinness got these choice words: “I don’t consider her a real beauty.” Agnelli, however, reserved the sharpest tongue for Truman Capote. “The difference between Proust and Capote is this,” she said. “Proust was in love with the things and the people of his lost time. Capote despises the people he talks about. Using, using all the time. He builds up his friends privately and knocks them down publicly.”

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