In the 1960s, it was one of the most magical places on earth. And it still is. Ondine Cohane pays tribute to the italian hotel where glamour is a fact of life.
Il Pellicano was already a legend by the time I was born, in the early 1970s. In fact, my parents had been regulars since the very first weekend it opened, in the summer of 1965, and from then on they steered their boat each summer into Porto Ercole. They would head up from the little harbor, then (as now) lined with tightly packed painted houses – my mother in floaty katftansand silk turbans, my father in perfectly starched white pants and a kerchief casually tied around his neck – for longo dinner parties with semiroyalty like the Agnellis and Radziwillis. Occasionally, when i was older, I go to tag aloong, and I remember well the completely effortlesselegance of the place, how it felt more like a superchic house party than a hotel. It eptomized the glamour of a bygone era, one in which Italian nobility rubbed elbows in exclusive enclaves with American celebrities, British society figures, and European royalty.
The hotel’s origins were equally fabulous, mfounded on a love story that seems lifted from a screenplay. Michael Graham, a debonair ex-RAF pilot who was never without a long cigarette holder rakishly dangling from his mouth, first captured the attention of American social mainstay and tycoon Patrichia Judson when the story of his surviving a horrible plane crash in Africa was widely celebrated in the international press. As legend has it, she clipped the item while still married to her first husband. After he died (ironically, while piloting their private plane), Michael and Patsymet at the aptly named Pelican Point in California. Of course, the fell madly in love – despite the fact she was then dating Clark Gable.
It was during their extended honeymoon tha the duo happened upon an undiscovered stretch of spectacular Tuscan coast and decided to build a hotel. The environs included Porto Ercole, a beautiful medieval port, which at taht time was home only to a fleet of fishing boats and a few family-run seafood restaurants. Outside the tiny towns, winding roads headed into fragrant pine-filled hills that offered flashes of the Mediterranean below. But this idyllic spot wasn’t for sale, at least not to just anyone. It lay within the Argentario, a wild Mediterranean promontory tha was mostly owned by the noble Borghese family. There were a few private villas scattered about, but in generalit was the kind of under-the-radar paradise where even the most famous could hide. Jackie O vacationed there, after all, as did Charlie Chaplin. Luckily for the Grahams, the Borgheses felt that if anyone would understand how to open a hotel without sacrificing the area’s privacy, it was this glamorous, well-heeled couple. Il Pellicano became a playground for their group of international friends. Now a new book from Rizzoli offers a rich photographic chronicle of the property’s almost five-decade history. Hotel Il Pellicano divides the hotel’s history into three periods. John Swope’s images document the hotel’s early days, from 1964 to 1971, and include an amazing picture of Patsy lazing in the grass with a perfect vintageFiat behind her and an excavator in the background. Slim Aarons (who returned to the hotel every year for 25 years) captures Il Pellicano’s heyday, from 1967 to the early 1990s. Finally, Juergen Teller presents the hotel in its current incarnation with a series of portraits of perfectly turned-out guests. (Frida Giannini, the designer of Gucci, is the kind of regular the place attracts now). Collectively, the images capture how the glamour of travel has changed but also remains very much the same – which could be said of Il Pellicano itself. Although the property is much larger now than the Graham’s original rendering, many of its details have been preserved, such as the curved pool hewn from rock, the terraced restaurant that hangs over the sea, and the wood dock that you reach by climbing down what seems like hundreds of stone steps carved into the cliff – a spot that serves both as a boat launch and a diving board for the tanned beauties plunging into the sapphire waters.
Today Il Pellicano is one of a handful of enclaves that form a circuit of mythical destinations (others are Ibiza, St.Bart’s, Marrakech, and Gstaad) where the well connected and well traveled seem to just happen across other members of their particular tribe. The feeling is luxurious but not flashy, a place where vintage cigarette boats are more common than huge yachts. Part of what preserves Il Pellicano is a location that can’t be developed too fully, one that never feels generic or overly accessible. Michael and Patsy’s legend has been carefully maintained. And it was, thankfully, built to last.