Note: Ute is a German girl’s name, the female equivalent of Otto, pronounced Oo-te, and derived from the word uod meaning wealth or fortune
The last time Ute called was one Sunday morning. Cristina and Jesse were overseas and I remember moving across the bed to get to the phone on the other side. It wasn’t the usual Ute, high on highballs; it was despondent Ute, tired of Las Vegas, sick of life and wanting to die. I could only mouth the usual platitudes – don’t be silly, lots to live for, call a friend who’s a little nearer. But she was probably already talking to the closest friend she had. Who would she have known in Vegas except the barman at the Sands and the teenage son of her neighbours with whom she was having an affair? A week or so later we had a call from a friend of Ute that we had met in Italy telling us that she had driven her car into a wall, lingered, comatose for a few days and died. It may have been listed as an alcohol fuelled accident, but there was no doubt in my mind that she had decided to call life a day. Perhaps that final act of self-destruction was only subconsciously sought; a simple case of pneumonia can send you to the grave when the desire for survival is no longer present. By Ute’s way of thinking there was nowhere else to go. It had, after all, been a long trip, from childhood in East Germany to Las Vegas.
The first time I met Ute was in the years when our Tuscan farmhouse was being restored at snail’s pace and we were living in an apartment in nearby Mercatale Val di Pesa. We were happy there in via dell’Olivo. Our neonato son, Jesse, was coddled by an adoring elderly neighbour, and baby-sat by her Swedish daughter-in-law, Camilla. The village, about 40 kilometres south of Florence, was conveniently near the Antinori bottling plant at San Casciano and close to the Santa Cristina, Peppoli and Tignanello vineyards, where I was spending much of my working week. The small population was a mixture of farm workers and shop assistants working in San Casciano with a sprinkling of landed aristocracy like the Fernet Branca family. On Fridays we often ate at Nello’s, a trattoria in San Casciano. Friday evening was always a fun event at Nello’s; it was on that day that the proprietor made his weekly round trip to Livorno, bringing back palude, vongole and branzino for the dinner menu. The place was packed and being Italy there was no problem with two year old Jesse running around the tables when he got bored of sitting.
One Friday Jesse made friends with a tall, elegant, blonde lady, eating alone at the next table. Introducing herself she invited us over for tea the coming Sunday afternoon. Our acquaintance with Ute coincided with the final denouement of an unhappy and childless marriage and when we were admitted through the electric gates that Sunday afternoon, her husband had already fled to an apartment on the Cote d’Azur. The house, a beautifully restored Tuscan farmhouse complete with staff cottage, was situated on a corner block near the Antinori Cantina on the outskirts of San Casciano.
That afternoon there was tea on offer but, as we gradually found out over the next months, Ute was alcohol dependent and enjoying it. So, although there was a pot of Earl Grey on the table, we ended up helping her finish a bottle of Moet.
About the time of that first meeting with Ute, the world’s attention became focused on a neighbour. Pietro Pacciani, a 68 year old semi-literate farmer who was accused of being the Monster of Florence. The Monster’s grisly trail of mayhem had started over 20 tears previously when Antonio Lo Bianco and his married mistress, Barbara Locci, had been murdered in flagrante delicto in a car parked in a cemetery near Lastra a Signa. Barbara’s child, still asleep in the back seat during the murders, was taken by the killer and deposited on the doorstep of an isolated farmhouse. Barbara’s husband, Stefano Mele was found guilty of the crime and sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Over the next thirteen years three more couples, all caught in the throes of clandestine sex, were murdered. It was not until the fourth crime, when Susanna Cambi and Stefano Baldi were killed in the outskirts of Calenzano on the night of October 23 1981 that the Police realised that they were dealing with a serial killer and that Stefano Mele was almost certainly innocent of his wife’s murder. All the murders had much in common. The victims were all amorous couples, they were all in cars, all in the environs of Florence, and they had all been killed by the same murder weapon, a .22 calibre Beretta. The shell cases all came from a batch of copper-cased Winchester cartridges manufactured in Australia in the 1950s. Subsequent to their death by gunshot, the women had also been ritualistically spreadeagled on the ground and mutilated in the same way. All had a vine branch protruding from their vagina.
Meanwhile the murders continued. June 1982 – a couple at Montespertoli. September 1983 – two German boys south of Florence – probably a mistake due to the shoulder length hair of one of the boys. July 1984 – a couple in Vicchio di Mugello and in September 1985, a couple of French campers killed near San Casciano. Two days after this, the last of the so-called “Mostro di Firenze” murders, a piece of flesh from the French girl’s breast was mailed anonymously to the Public Prosecutor in Florence.
Pietro Pacciani, a keen hunter and part-time taxidermist, seemed a strong candidate for the role of Mostro. He had spent thirteen years in prison for the 1951 murder of a travelling salesman whom he had caught making love to his fiancée. After stabbing his victim 19 times he raped his corpse. On his release Pacciani married and had a family, but was back in prison again from 1987 to 1991 for beating his wife and sexually assaulting his two daughters. The 1992 televised trial of Pacciani was a big media event, with the local newspaper opening up a “Monster hotline” for the public to ’phone in their opinions. Robert Harris, author of “The Silence of the Lambs” attended the trial and decided to set his next Hannibal Lecter story in Florence.
Before, during and after the trial the bars and cafes of Mercatale and San Casciano were rife with rumours surrounding the Monster. Stories of Pacciani’s association with an occult group, suggestions that there was more than one killer, suspicions that Pacciani and his friends Giovanni Faggi and Giancarlo Lotti (the so-called “Compagni di merende” or “Picnic friends” because of Lotti’s claim that they went on picnics together), were merely the instruments of a group of rich and powerful men who enjoyed satanic ceremonies. In 2006, Ute’s pharmacist friend, Francesco Calamandrei, a man she had brought on occasion to our house as her lunch or dinner companion, was accused by the Italian Prosecutors of ordering the deaths of five of the couples (subsequently exonerated).
Ute, meanwhile, was still alone and it was becoming quite evident that her husband was not planning to return. Ute dealt with the situation in her own way. After cutting the arms and legs off her husband’s impressive collection of designer suits, she bunkered down in her farmhouse, surrounded by her housekeeper, two Alsatian dogs and a cellar full of fine wines. In this war of attrition there was no doubt that he had the edge in the resources needed for a long and bitter fight.
We received frequent reports on the war’s progress at Nello on Friday nights when Ute would either sweep in, radiant in Ungaro, or creep in, unpainted, in grey Toreador pants and brown Poncho. We gradually learned that Ute could be snobbish, rude and fond of outraging anyone who she thought susceptible to provocation. She could also be generous and thoughtful. Many people, through their own effort or through pure fortune can leave behind a life of misery and poverty but cannot shake off generations of bad taste and poor manners. When sober, Ute was graceful, well read and knowledgeable about art; even her taste in music, which was limited to Mozart and Elvis, had a ring of purity to it.
In the early 60’s the job of Air Stewardess, as Flight Attendants were then called, was restricted to young, white, single and attractive women. The figure-enhancing uniforms, the travel, the lifestyle and the opportunity to meet celebrities ensured there was intense competition to secure a place as Stewardess with an American airline, especially long-haulers like Pan Am and TWA. The airlines themselves promoted the idea that stewardesses were glamorous and even attainable – Hi, I’m Cheryl – Fly Me! was the notorious slogan of National. William D Hathaway, a Maine politician, claimed that the airlines were “flying bunny clubs.”
How Ute made the transfer from East Germany to Los Angeles and became a Pan Am Stewardess I never learnt, but even 25 years later, I could imagine what effect a trimmer and healthier Ute might have had on her male passengers. I believe that, like many ambitious and attractive women, being a flying waitress was her first step in a calculated road to Hollywood riches. She did get closer. There were regular invitations to Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion where she claimed she flirted with James Caan. There were also purported romances with (an elderly) Henry Mancini and with pop singer Trini Lopez. The word for Ute, in another age, was demi-mondaine. But Ute never did things by half.
As it happened her success lay not with the Hollywood milieu but with a well-to-do Los Angeles dentist whom she married and subsequently divorced, acquiring a fine Beverley Hills home as part of the settlement. Her next long-term conquest was a rich Tuscan businessman idling in Los Angeles on the pretext of corporate expansion. For a while the couple stayed in Los Angeles until eventually, like all expatriate Italians, Ute’s husband wanted to go home. It is not difficult to imagine how hard it would have been for her, used to the ample diversions of Hollywood to adjust to the dormouse society of San Casciano. She rose later and later, drank earlier and earlier, became a tottering drunk in front of her husband’s friends. And, finally, she arrived at her table for one at Nello on a Friday night.
Meanwhile, from the comfort of his Riviera hideaway, her husband conducted a campaign to rid himself of his wife through a team of ruthless lawyers. The two Cherokee Jeeps were claimed as corporate property and taken away under the gaze of bemused Carabinieri. The live-in housekeeper, technically an employee of her husband’s company, was dismissed. Ute, with the income from her Beverley Hills home, now rented to the Danish Consulate, still managed to keep up her social life. Some afternoons she would drive over to our now restored farmhouse and have tea with my mother. There were evenings of chamber music at her friendly neighbours, and dinner parties in her besieged farmhouse, where one evening I found myself sandwiched and tongue-tied between artist, Karel Appel and his wife Harriet. Many of these parties ended in disaster. One even began in disaster. Invited to a July 4th dinner together with visiting American friends, Gayle and Jim, we arrived to find Ute’s courtyard festooned with American flags and a 6 foot windsock decorated with stars and bars. The table was lavishly laid and there was champagne in the ice bucket; Ute only appeared an hour later, morose and unsteady on her feet. At Jesse’s baptism at Ann and Aldo’s chapel in San Martino she managed to incur the dislike of all the other guests except my father-in-law, who was awestruck by her scornful brand of haughty elegance.
In a final act of resentment and despair Ute moved to Las Vegas after destroying as much of the farmhouse as she could. Antique fireplaces and the sixteenth century tiles paving the courtyard were ripped out and sold to dealers. There was a fire sale of everything in the house. I acquired a Backgammon board and a first edition of “The Oak and the Calf”, Cristina some cutlery and cooking pots. I often think of Ute when I pick up one her black handled knives at the dinner table, of the possibilities but eventual emptiness of her wasted life. I think too of her dinner parties, of the strange company and, of course, the wonderful food. It only seems appropriate that her house on the corner in San Casciano is now a luxury restaurant.
Ute Wishan born Germany circa 1945. Died Clark County, Nevada 2002
Karel Appel – Dutch abstract painter, born 1921, co-founder of COBRA movement. Died Zurich, May 2006. Buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery, Paris
Pietro Pacciani died in his home in Mercatale of a drug overdose in February 1998. It has long been suspected that he was murdered to prevent any embarrassing revelations at his scheduled re-trial.