Natale Rusconi ran the Hotel Cipriani on the tip of Giudecca, Venice, for more than 30 years and in that time it became one of the world’s most fabled hotels. He ran it like a viceroy or sometimes a warlord rather than a humble corporate employee, arriving in the morning on the hotel’s private launch, which would pick him up from his house on the Zattere in Dorsoduro. Rusconi would stand ramrod straight at the helm of the boat, looking like an admiral about to inspect his fleet.
Under Rusconi the hotel’s giant swimming pool became the social hub of Venice, especially as a favoured few local grandees were also allowed to use it. It wasn’t always like this. When he arrived, he used to call the pool Lourdes because there were so many ancient people huddled in deckchairs around the perimeter, including British colonels missing arms or legs.
Natale Rusconi was born in Milan in 1926. The hotel trade was in his bones as his family on both sides were in the business. After gaining a doctorate from the University of Pavia in the mid-Fifties, Rusconi joined the Savoy in London as a trainee and for 18 months worked his way up before leaving to run Hotel Argentina, the family hotel in Milan. Managing the Argentina was a joint operation with his mother, whom he found too capricious and demanding, so he left in 1959. There were a number of false starts in Sicily, and even a period where he offered his services to Danilo Dolci, the prominent anti-mafia activist, before he went back to the Savoy, where he ended up in charge of the front desk.
Under Rusconi the hotel’s giant swimming pool became the social hub of Venice.
Everything changed in 1960 when Rusconi worked in the head office of CIGA, a now-forgotten hotel group. The philosophy there was to have a single manager at a hotel responsible for administration and operations, while the head office would control the figures but not impose from above.
After a number of resignations Rusconi became general manager of the Grand in Rome in the late Sixties. Here, he became friends with Maria Callas, the opera diva, and Giorgio de Chirico, the Italian artist, and dealt with numerous visiting heads of state.
Among them was Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, whom Rusconi said taught him more about protocol than anyone else. Payment for the emperor’s stay was provided by an aide-de-camp, who turned up dragging a large suitcase stuffed with cash. The Queen of Afghanistan was also a frequent guest, mainly to shop at Valentino. Apparently she had an obsession with germs and insisted on all surfaces in her suite being covered in sheets. She was also concerned about security and had a number of female servants that slept on the floor next to her. Another quirk was that she claimed not to understand English and would never speak directly to anyone, only via her interpreter. One day as Rusconi was approaching the queen in a corridor, a British film star walked past, causing her to forget her usual script and blurt out: “Was that David Niven?”
While at the Grand, in 1969, Rusconi married Connie (née Titzel), from Pittsburgh, who survives him, along with their children: Francesca, who earlier worked in hotels but now lives with her family in the US; Elisa, a health and lifestyle coach in Switzerland; and Pietro, a hotelier in Venice.
From the Grand, Rusconi moved to the Gritti in Venice in 1972, which he ran for four years until CIGA was purchased by the mafioso businessman Michele Sindona. It was while at the Gritti that Rusconi started the first cookery school in a prominent Italian hotel. He later had Julia Child, the renowned American food writer, take cookery lessons at the Cipriani. By then his fame had spread and The New York Times devoted an entire page to him in 1973. It revealed that he kept colour-coded cards on every guest ranging from VIP to “Unacceptable”, meaning they were never allowed to return.
Rusconi started the first cookery school in a prominent Italian hotel. He later had Julia Child, the renowned American food writer, take cookery lessons at the Cipriani.
Several offers came, such as to manage the Connaught in London and the Lancaster in Paris simultaneously, but in 1976 Jim Sherwood, the American businessman, chose him to run the Cipriani, which he had purchased from the Guinness family. Within two years Rusconi had made the hotel profitable. He finally retired in 2007, aged 81.
He needed all the lessons he could find on protocol, as guests at the Cipriani included Giscard d’Estaing, president of France, a particularly demanding guest. In June 1980 a meeting was held at the hotel between Margaret Thatcher, Andreas van Agt, the Dutch prime minister, and D’Estaing, so Rusconi ensured that flags from each of the countries were flown at the entrance. Furious that his flag was the same size as the other two, D’Estaing demanded that a larger one be raised for him as he was head of state rather than a mere head of government. An oversized silk flag was produced by the officials from the Quai d’Orsay. Rusconi quietly arranged for some seamstresses in the hotel to invisibly sew the seams of the flag together so that while the other two fluttered in the breeze, the Tricolour hung limp.
Although Rusconi dealt with numerous high-maintenance guests, none was as tricky as Princess Margaret. She was going to stay at the Villa San Michele, the Michelangelo-designed hotel in Fiesole, near Florence, also managed by Rusconi. He made a point of going to welcome her. A short woman in sunglasses was first out of the royal car, so Rusconi went over, assuming it was her lady-in-waiting and greeted her with: “Welcome, Mrs Stevens.” Off came the sunglasses with the retort: “I beg your pardon, I am Princess Margaret.” As she was shown to her suite, Rusconi mentioned they had a mutual friend, Billy Hamilton, who had worked for the Orient Express Group. “Really? I happen to hate that man!” Rusconi later confessed to his wife that had this encounter happened earlier in his career, he probably would have left the business.
Natale Rusconi, hotelier, was born on April 9, 1926. He died on February 28, 2020, aged 93