It promises to be Succession meets Inspector Montalbano meets Dynasty. House of Gucci, directed by Ridley Scott, opens in cinemas next week, starring a roll call of Hollywood actors, including Adam Driver, Lady Gaga, Al Pacino and Salma Hayek. Based on a book by Sara Gay Forden, it’s a tale of murder, money, greed, handbags, villas and yachts, all inspired by the Gucci family.

The film will be spectacular – judging by the glimpses released on Lady Gaga’s Instagram, it’s straight out of the pages of Seventies Vogue. But the real life story is even more incredible.

Gucci began in 1921, when Guccio Gucci opened a leather goods shop in Florence, inspired by his time working at the Savoy hotel and admiring the guests’ luggage. Fifty years later the brand was a byword for status, its entwined G logo synonymous with high-octane glamour.

It was Guccio’s sons, Aldo and Rodolfo, who capitalized on their father’s success. By the Seventies the label had opened stores in prime locations across the world. Japanese shoppers would buy dozens of Gucci bags at once; the brand was worn by Washington DC power brokers and film stars.

But in private the family was dysfunctional, tearing itself apart. Behind closed boardroom doors there were fistfights, sibling rivalries, competing ambitions. Forden, at the time a correspondent for Women’s Wear Daily in Milan, was in the right place to interview everyone from Gucci family members to staff who had worked for the family for decades and insiders who had seen the shouting matches firsthand.

Adam Driver and Lady Gaga as Gucci and Reggiani in Ridley Scott’s new Gucci movie.

Rodolfo’s son Maurizio, played in the film by Driver, was charming and charismatic. He had married, against his father’s will, Patrizia Reggiani, an Elizabeth Taylor lookalike, the daughter of a waitress and super-rich owner of a transport company. For a while they were a power couple on both sides of the Atlantic. But after his father’s death, Maurizio feuded with his uncle Aldo in a legal battle for control of the empire.

Maurizio ultimately lost control of the family business. He sold his share of the label to a Bahrain-based investment bank, Investcorp, for $120 million. Forden interviewed Patrizia, played by Lady Gaga in the film. By this time Maurizio had traded her in for a younger model (literally – he was living with former model Paola Franchi).

“Patrizia spewed pure vitriol. How incapable Maurizio was. How ineffective. All the mistakes he had made. Yet at the same time, she had tried to help him save the company. She was very invested in being a Gucci by marriage. She felt the buyout was a personal affront to her.”

On March 27, 1995, an unknown gunman shot Maurizio three times. He was 46.

Forden heard the news in her apartment, getting ready for work. “I was in complete shock,” she recalls. “People did not get shot in cold blood in Milan. It was electrifying. I ran down there – the office was just around the corner – and already it was a crush of journalists and cameras. It was absolutely shocking. No one knew who could have done such a thing.”

It would take two years for detectives to find their culprit – and the murder trial would transfix Italy. As for Gucci, a cool Texan designer called Tom Ford was busy transforming its fortunes – again. —Louise France

An Excerpt from Sara Gay Forden’s The House of Gucci

Stepping through the great wooden doors of his Milan apartment and out onto the sidewalk, Maurizio Gucci glanced at his watch – just after 8.30am. He waited at the corner for the light to change and crossed over Corso Venezia before walking briskly along Via Palestro.

Arms swinging, Maurizio walked in through the doorway of his office and greeted the doorman. He hardly noticed the dark-haired man looking up at the number of the building as though checking the address.

The man who’d been loitering opened his coat with one hand, and with the other pulled out a gun. He straightened his arm, raised it towards Maurizo’s back and started firing. The doorman heard three quick, muffled shots in fast succession.

The Guccis at one of their family’s stores in Paris, 1983.

Only the maid saw Patrizia Reggiani, Maurizio’s ex-wife, sobbing the morning of March 27, 1995, after she heard the news. In the early days of their marriage she had propelled her shy, reserved husband forward, acting as his behind the scenes adviser. She had excelled in the role of the celebrity wife, cruising around town in her chauffeur-driven car in her Valentino and Chanel suits. She once confessed in a television interview that she’d rather “weep in a Rolls-Royce than be happy on a bicycle”.

A few months after her ex-husband’s death, Patrizia moved into his old apartment, where she got rid of every trace of his partner, Paola Franchi. From one wall, she hung a larger-than-life oil portrait of herself. At night she slept in Maurizio’s bed, waking up to the sound of peacocks in the Invernizzi gardens below. In the mornings, after her bath, she wore Maurizio’s bathrobe.

“He may have died,” she told a friend, “but I have just begun to live.”

Patrizia Reggiani once confessed that she’d rather “weep in a Rolls-Royce than be happy on a bicycle.”

On the evening of January 8, 1997, Filippo Ninni, the chief of Milan’s Criminalpol police force, was working late, as he often did, when the night watchman rang saying there was a call for him. “I must speak with you face to face,” said the caller. “I have important information.”

Ninni, intrigued, asked, “How do I know I can trust you? I have enemies out there – at least tell me what it is about.”

“Is it enough if I say it’s about the Gucci murder?”

Ninni’s colleagues at the carabinieri had been investigating the mysterious murder of Maurizio Gucci for almost two years. The magistrate, Carlo Nocerino, had returned from Switzerland, where he had gone to investigate Gucci’s business affairs, with no leads. Ninni had ordered his men to ask for information about the Gucci murder whenever they arrested Milan’s criminal underground. But time after time the person being questioned would shake his head. Ninni became convinced that the killer couldn’t have been a professional. He felt sure the solution must be traced through Gucci’s personal affairs.

“Dottor Ninni, I’m afraid,” the voice grated. “I know who killed Maurizio Gucci.”

“Can you come to my office?” Ninni asked.

“No, it’s too dangerous. Meet me at the gelateria in Piazza Aspromonte,” the caller said, indicating an ice-cream bar near the city’s train station.

As he reached the gelateria, Ninni saw a man standing outside, who introduced himself as Gabriele Carpanese.

Gucci, who eventually traded Reggiani in for a younger model.

Carpanese explained how he had moved back to Italy several months earlier with his wife after they gave up efforts to run a trattoria abroad. They found lodgings at an inexpensive hotel near Piazza Aspromonte until they could get settled. Carpanese had made friends with the doorman, the hotel owner’s nephew, Ivano Savioni. To Carpanese, Savioni seemed well-meaning, although he was in debt and juggling schemes to pay off creditors.

As Carpanese’s meager savings ran thin and his hopes of landing a job paled, his imagination came to life. He spun a tale for Savioni of big-time South American drug dealing. Carpanese told Savioni he had millions in drug money stashed in US bank accounts and that he would be able to pay for his lodgings as soon as he resolved his legal problems. Savioni, whose own small-time drug dealing never amounted to much, hoped that Carpanese could get him into the big time.

One August evening in 1996, Carpanese told Ninni, he and Savioni were relaxing together at a pavement café. Savioni leaned back in his chair, took a drag on his Marlboro and looked over at Carpanese. He too had been involved in something big, something that had been in all the papers, he said, studying Carpanese to gauge his reaction. Savioni told Carpanese snatches of the story until he dropped the bombshell: he had lined up the killers of Maurizio Gucci.

“Is it enough if I say it’s about the Gucci murder?”

Over the next few weeks, Savioni told Carpanese every detail about the planning of the murder and the execution of Maurizio. Carpanese was shocked. He couldn’t believe Savioni had got himself into something so serious. After wrestling with his conscience, he decided to go to the authorities. He knew he and his wife would lose their lodgings, but he thought he might get some compensation.

He walked to the pay phone in Piazza Aspromonte, dialed the number of the Milan courthouse, and asked the operator for the magistrate handling the Gucci investigation. After waiting five minutes, he ran out of coins. When he tried the number again a few days later, the operator told him she didn’t know who had the Gucci case.

Carpanese then called the carabinieri, where the receptionist refused to put him through because he wouldn’t leave his name. One night in January 1997, he watched a talk show about organized crime in which Ninni participated as a guest speaker. Carpanese liked Ninni’s straightforward manner. He went back to the corner pay phone.

Carpanese told Ninni the story of the murder plot, rich with details that only an insider could have known. Ninni was sure Carpanese was telling him the truth.

Patrizia Reggiani had ordered the murder of Maurizio and paid 600 million lire, or about $375,000, for it. Her longstanding friend Pina Auriemma had helped her and acted as intermediary, funneling money and information between Reggiani and the killers. Pina had gone to Savioni, an old friend, who in turn had involved Orazio Cicala, a Sicilian who ran a pizzeria. Savioni knew that Cicala, saddled with gambling debts, needed the money. Cicala found the killer and drove the getaway car.

The killer’s name was Benedetto Ceraulo, a former mechanic who lived behind Cicala’s restaurant. Ceraulo had obtained the 7.65 caliber Beretta revolver used to kill Maurizio Gucci, constructed a silencer from a metal cylinder lined with felt, bought the bullets in Switzerland and destroyed the weapon afterward.

But as the months passed after the murder, the gang had grown dissatisfied, Carpanese said. They had taken all the risks for a pittance while Patrizia Reggiani – “la Signora” – lived in luxury. Now they wanted to pressure her for more money.

Prince Rainier III of Monaco and his wife, Grace Kelly, leave the Gucci boutique in Rome, 1959.

As Carpanese talked, a plan started to take shape in Ninni’s mind. Ninni found a young detective named Carlo Collenghi. Carlo would pose as “Carlos”, a killer from the Medellín drug cartel who was visiting Milan “on business”. Carpanese would introduce Carlos to Savioni, proposing him as the ideal person to help “persuade” la Signora to give them more money.

The telephones of all the suspects were tapped. Savioni called Pina at her niece’s house near Naples while the police reels turned. “Pina, listen, I have something important to tell you,” said Savioni. “I met this Colombian, a really tough guy. He’s killed more than 100 people. This guy can help us with la Signora. He will make her pay up.”

Over the next few days the police recorded every conversation. Ninni had Savioni and Pina on tape talking about the plot. He had a conversation between Savioni and Benedetto Ceraulo, the alleged triggerman, and he had a conversation between Savioni and Pina talking about Cicala, the alleged driver of the getaway car. All he needed was Patrizia, la Signora. But la Signora was clever and, although she talked on the phone constantly, she never discussed anything compromising.

On January 30, one of the agents called Ninni in. He played a conversation that morning between Patrizia and one of her lawyers. “There are dark clouds gathering over this family,” the lawyer said ominously, although the subject of the call was an apparently innocuous debt Patrizia had run up with a local jeweler.

After an emergency summit with Nocerino and his superiors, they decided they had enough evidence to cut the investigation short. “We thought she was on to us,” said Ninni later. “We were afraid she could slip out of Italy and we’d never get her.”

The Crackdown

At 4.30am on Friday, January 31, 1997, two police cars pulled up in front of the palazzo at Corso Venezia 38. Ninni rang the bell of the Gucci apartment, where Patrizia now lived with her daughters, Alessandra and Allegra, and two servants, as well as a cocker spaniel, mynah bird, two ducks, two turtles and a cat.

Reggiani, on the town in the 80s.

The imposing arched wooden door remained shut. He knew Patrizia was home because his men had followed her back to the house after dinner. He also suspected she was awake because he knew from wiretaps that she had been on the phone with her boyfriend until 3.30am. Patrizia, who suffered from chronic insomnia, often spoke to friends until dawn and then slept until noon the next day.

Eventually, a Filipino maid swung open the heavy door and Ninni and his officers followed her through the courtyard and up the marble steps. As the officers ogled the plush furnishings, the maid ushered them into the living room.

Patrizia entered the room a few minutes later, wearing a pale blue dressing gown. Of the officers gathered in her living room she recognized only a carabiniere, Giancarlo Togliatti, from the interrogations after Maurizio was murdered. Patrizia had a contact in the police department whom she called from time to time for updates, but lately he had had nothing to report.

“Signora Reggiani, I must place you under arrest for murder,” said Ninni.

While Patrizia dressed, agents searched the apartment, sequestering papers and Patrizia’s leather-bound diaries. When she emerged, they all stared at her in disbelief. Patrizia had donned gold and diamond jewelry and a floor-length mink coat. In her manicured hands she grasped a leather Gucci handbag.

“I’ll be back tonight,” she said, turning to kiss her daughters. As she walked out, she slipped a pair of sunglasses over her eyes, which were unusually pale without their customary shield of black liner and mascara.

Patrizia donned gold and diamond jewelry and a floor-length mink coat for her arrest. In her manicured hands she grasped a leather Gucci handbag.

“I have always tried to help the people I have arrested,” said Ninni, “but I looked at her and felt something that I had never felt before. I saw her as a woman with nothing inside, a woman who defined herself by the things around her, a woman who thought money could buy her everything. I couldn’t bring myself to talk to her – something that has never happened to me in my career.”

The news was splashed all over the press: Gucci’s ex-wife and four unlikely accomplices had been arrested for his murder.

On June 2, 1998, the door to the right of the judge’s bench opened suddenly and five female prison guards escorted Patrizia into a packed courtroom in the Milan courthouse.

The trial had already been in session for several days, but that morning marked Patrizia’s first appearance in court. She consulted with her lawyers, two high-profile criminal defense specialists. The distinguished Gaetano Pecorella would be elected a deputato to the Italian parliament before the trial was over, while the perpetually suntanned Gianni Dedola defended industrialists, including former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Gucci in the 80s. He would be murdered in 1995.

Gone were all traces of the society queen. At nearly 50 years old, pale and unkempt, the Patrizia who entered the courtroom that day had lost her bearings. Never had she been so on display, yet her short, dark hair was uncombed, her face puffy from medication. She twirled a string of rosary beads around her right wrist. On her left, she wore a plastic Swatch watch.

Directly behind the courthouse stood Santa Maria della Pace, the basilica where Maurizio had married Patrizia 26 years before. For weeks during the trial, the Italian papers and television stations had produced accounts of the face-off between the “Black Widow”, as they called Patrizia, and the “Black Witch”, as they dubbed Pina.

Both Pina and Patrizia were held in the women’s section of the San Vittore prison. In the beginning Patrizia refused to socialize with her cellmates: an Italian woman who had been jailed on charges of fraudulent bankruptcy, and a Romanian girl accused of prostitution. She isolated herself in the lower bunk, flipping through magazines and tearing out pictures of outfits she liked. Her mother, Silvana, brought her nighties, lipsticks, face creams and Patrizia’s favorite perfume.

Investigators had raided Patrizia’s jail cell, finding a statement from her Monte Carlo bank account, code-named “Lotus B”, which showed withdrawals corresponding to the sums Pina and Savioni said they received. In the margin, Patrizia had written “P” for Pina. The prosecutor, Carlo Nocerino, even had Patrizia’s diaries, which police had confiscated when they arrested her. But he had no direct admission of involvement from Patrizia, and this troubled him.

From her seat at the back of the courtroom, Patrizia blankly scanned the brown steel cage – a standard feature in Italian courtrooms. Inside, Ceraulo, the accused triggerman, and Cicala, the alleged driver of the getaway car, hung their arms on the bars and scanned the sea of journalists, lawyers and curious onlookers.

The Gucci murder trial became the Italian equivalent of the OJ Simpson case. “This is not a murder case,” muttered Patrizia’s attorney, Dedola. “This story makes a Greek tragedy look like a children’s story.”

Gucci’s body is carried out of the company’s offices in Milan.

Patrizia’s defense attorneys didn’t deny Patrizia’s obsessive hatred for Maurizio. But they painted her as a rich, sick woman who had become the puppet of her friend, Pina. Pina, not Patrizia, they said, arranged the murder and then blackmailed and threatened Patrizia for her silence. The 150 million lire (about $93,000) Patrizia paid out before the murder was a loan to a friend in need, the attorneys said. The 450 million lire (about $276,000) she paid afterward had been extorted from her by that same friend with threats to Patrizia and her daughters.

The proof, said Dedola, was a three-line letter Patrizia deposited with a Milan notary that read: “I have been forced to pay hundreds of millions of lire for the safety of myself and my family. If anything should happen to me, it will be because I know the name of the person who killed my husband: Pina Auriemma.”

Dedola’s oratory and Patrizia’s apparently desperate letter couldn’t counter the blow her defense received one morning – a confession by Cicala, the driver of the getaway car. He described an encounter with Patrizia herself. Frustrated by the lack of action and concerned that she was being defrauded, Patrizia cut out Pina and took matters into her own hands, Cicala said.

The Gucci murder trial became the Italian equivalent of the OJ Simpson case.

“One afternoon I was at home and the doorbell rang and it was Savioni,” said Cicala. “So I came downstairs with him and he whispered, ‘She’s in the car.’ ”

“And did you ask him what she was doing there?” asked Nocerino.

“No, I didn’t say anything. I just got into the back seat and there was a lady with sunglasses who introduced herself as Patrizia Reggiani,” Cicala told the prosecutor. “She asked me how much money I had received and what point I was at,” he said.

“I told her that I had received 150 million lire [$93,000], that I had found the people but they had been arrested, and I needed more money and more time. At that point she said, ‘If I give you more money, you must guarantee that this thing gets done because time is running out. He is about to leave on a cruise and he’ll be gone for months.’ ”

Cicala decided to hire a killer, a man he described as a small-time drug dealer. As judge Renato Samek Ludovici peered down at him skeptically and Nocerino watched in consternation, Cicala denied the killer was Ceraulo in the cage next to him, saying he was afraid to pronounce the real gunman’s name because he was still on the loose. Nobody believed him, but in Italy, a defendant who takes the stand in his own defense is not obliged to tell the truth, the whole truth or nothing but the truth.

Reggiani enters the courtroom.

On the night of March 26, Pina, who knew that Maurizio had returned from a business trip to New York, called Cicala with a cryptic message: “Il pacco è arrivato.” “The package has arrived.” The next morning, Cicala picked up the killer and they drove together to Via Palestro to wait for Maurizio.

“The killer asked me, ‘Is that the guy?’ ”

Cicala recognized the man walking jauntily up the street from the photograph of Maurizio that Pina had given him.

“I said, ‘Yes, it is.’ ”

When Pina took the stand a few weeks later, she explained in her Neapolitan drawl how Patrizia had asked her to organize Maurizio’s murder. “We were like sisters. She told me everything,” said Pina. “She wanted to do it herself, but she didn’t have the courage. Because of her super-northern Italian mentality, she assumed that all of us southern Italians must have ties to the Camorra [Naples mafia],” said Pina, rolling her eyes. The only other person Pina knew in Milan was Savioni, the husband of a friend.

“Every day that passed for her was a day lost,” Pina said. “She tortured me, day after day, and in turn I tortured Savioni, who in turn tortured Cicala. I couldn’t stand it any more.”

“[Patrizia] wanted to do it herself, but she didn’t have the courage.”

In July, hair freshly coiffed and toenails polished at the San Vittore salon, Patrizia took the stand in a green designer suit and delivered a composed, three-day defense, refuting all the charges against her. She seemed to be almost her old self – proud, arrogant and uncompromising. Observed by three psychiatrists, who declared her sane, she appeared at times more lucid than Nocerino himself. The psychiatrists subsequently diagnosed her as having a narcissistic personality disorder.

Patrizia described the first 13 years of marriage with Maurizio as perfect bliss, which she said broke down when he became more influenced by business advisers than by his own wife. “People said we were the most beautiful couple in the world,” Patrizia recalled. But after Rodolfo [his father] died and Maurizio went from executing his father’s decisions to making them himself, he turned to a series of advisers for support. “He became like a seat cushion that takes the shape of the last person to sit on it,” Patrizia said.

Benedetto Ceraulo, left, the alleged hit man in the Gucci murder, and co-defendant Orazio Cicala stand in the defendants’ cage at the start of the trial.

Patrizia said the first she knew about the plot to murder Maurizio was from Pina, a few days after he died. “So, are you happy about the nice present we gave you?” Pina said. “Maurizio is gone. You are free. Savioni and I don’t have a lira – you are the goose with the golden eggs.” Pina became “arrogant, rough and vulgar”, threatening her and her daughters if she didn’t pay 500 million lire for the death of Maurizio.

“I felt sick. I said I would go to the police. She said if I did, she would accuse me. She told me, ‘Don’t forget, there has been one death, but there could easily be three [meaning Patrizia and her two daughters].’ She said she wanted 500 million lire,” Patrizia said as Pina shook her head.

“Why didn’t you go to the police?” asked Nocerino.

“Because I was afraid of the scandal that would explode, just as it did,” she answered. “Besides,” she added, “Maurizio’s death was something I had wanted for so many years – it seemed to me a fair price to pay.”

“People said we were the most beautiful couple in the world.”

Nocerino reminded Patrizia that after Maurizio’s death she and Pina had talked on the phone almost daily, taken a cruise and gone to Marrakech on holiday. “Pina warned me that the phones were almost certainly tapped. She said our behavior had to seem as normal as it had always been,” Patrizia retorted without batting an eyelash.

On November 3, 1998, after nearly seven hours of deliberations, Ludovici swept into the room, followed by the assistant magistrate and the six jurors. Ludovici looked up momentarily from the sheet of white paper in his hands to scan the crowd before he began to read.

“In the name of the Italian people…”

Patrizia Martinelli Reggiani and the four accomplices were found guilty of murder. Ludovici read out the sentences: Patrizia Reggiani, 29 years; Orazio Cicala, 29 years; Ivano Savioni, 26 years; and Pina Auriemma, 25 years. Benedetto Ceraulo, the killer, received a life sentence.

As he read out her sentence, Patrizia looked impassive. The week she was convicted, Gucci stores around the world displayed a pair of sterling silver handcuffs in their windows. A spokeswoman assured callers the timing was a “coincidence”.

Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci hits theaters on November 26

Sara Gay Forden is a Washington, D.C.–based writer