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"A Festival Wife" is a romantic thriller that takes place in the world of film festivals. A roman a clef, it contains characters, both real and disguised, who come together at the fictional San Lorenzo International Film Festival, a composite of many real festivals. Anyone who has been to Cannes and the global film markets will find the characters recognizable and the story intriguing – even controversial.
A Festival Wife - Chapter 10: Count Rassi and the Nazis
"Movies, gunrunners, terrorists, Hollywood, royalty - Henry this is a great story. I even found out The Worm's real identity!"
"You've got to kill the story, Charles," I said.
"You've begun the cocktail hour before me, eh?"
Mitchell was seated at a small table on the balcony of his room, barely looking up at me as he furiously worked the keys of his laptop with his best reporter-on-a-deadline flourish, as the warm autumn evening breeze played over the San Lorenzo harbor.
"Seriously," I said, "You've got to kill the story. You're doing it to get back at Rassi because of Nora. You're jealous of him, Charles."
"Maybe I am but it's still a great story. Don't you want to know the dirt on The Worm?"
I plopped down on a chair and nodded. I'd had a cocktail or two and was a little drunk.
"Ivan Darko is his name, a former auto mechanic and Serb war criminal on the Interpol's most-wanted list. He was one of the guys carrying out the Srebrenica massacre. They're waiting to put him on trial at The Hague, along with Milosevic. He's a killer, Henry. That's who your friend Rassi's in bed with."
"But what if Rassi's not part of it anymore?"
"What do you mean?" He looked at me sharply.
"Rassi is going to pull out of the Everest deal."
"How do you know that?"
Because, I said, I was going to tell Rassi everything, the whole story about Ari Safta, his brother Eddie the arms dealer, the money-laundering through the Luxembourg tax deal, the killer Worm, the whole damned thing. Because the idea had just come to me: shaming Rassi into pulling out of the deal was the only way I could stop Charles from writing his story.
"Rassi is sensitive about the family name," I said. "He doesn't want it muddied. I assure you, Henry, he is going to pull out of the deal."
"Okay, so he's out. So?"
"Without Rassi," I said, "there is no deal. What would you be writing about - a deal that collapsed? A deal that didn't happen? A deal that doesn't exist?"
Mitchell considered the point, journalistic wheels grinding, cog against cog; within that kind of machinery, reverse gear is difficult to locate. Once a reporter forms an opinion, getting him to change it is as likely as a junkie turning down a fix.
"We'll see," he said, finally.
"You'll kill the story?"
"You've made your point, Henry. I'll consider it."
"Promise me you won't file until I talk to Rassi?"
"I'm on deadline, Henry. You've got twenty-four hours."
* * *
Angie intercepted me on the terrace of the Hotel Dante at the far end of the Passagia. It was a somewhat decrepit but charming hostelry favored by indie filmmakers and their frugal producers. I had put Wim Wenders there once before he was famous and he wrote a movie about it, the title of which always escapes me.
"Hey, loverboy," she said, flipping the phone shut. "You're not looking so ship-shape. What's up?"
I said, "Don't talk to me about ships," and tried to escape. I was looking for Rassi, and had no time to waste. I might catch him on the Dante terrace, I thought, and searched the slate patio, moist with sea splash, empty but for the chairs and tables moved back from the rising tide, and cold.
"Got the goods on Rassi," she said. "You won't believe it. Check this out." She began pulling notes out of a folder and shuffling through them. On her third glass of wine, she was surrounded by a shifting sea of notebooks, folders and stray sheets of paper rippling in the breeze and blowing off the table.
Maybe the future of the world was at stake and mankind could be saved if only I succeeded in warning Rassi, getting him to pull out of the Everest deal, thereby killing Mitchell's story and allowing the good guys to stop the bad guys. And just maybe, on top of all that, I could salvage my affair with Leticia if only my ex-wife would drop Rassi as the focus of her absurd documentary on the Jews of San Lorenzo - or better still, if she would just go away. So I took a shot.
"You have to leave Rassi out of your project."
"But, Henry, your buddy Rassi is the key to the whole goddam story. I've got the goods on him. Here, let me show you."
I had only a minute, I said, and sat down. Angie ordered another drink for herself and a whisky for me. What she proceeded to tell me, there on the chill, damp Dante terrace, was sketchy and in certain critical junctures in the story, incorrect and incomplete. Other sources, including the jeweler David Halevi, later gave a more accurate accounting, filling in crucial details that you see later in the part of Angie's documentary that really does deliver "the goods."
* * *
The story picks up in the summer of 1942 with the mass exterminations of Jews from France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. After a few vintage newsreel clips and narrative to set the stage, so to speak, Angie's documentary quickly moves on to Italy.
The Vatican was told in August 1942 by the papal nuncio in Vichy that trains were leaving from the unoccupied French zone carrying thousands of foreign-born Jews north to "undisclosed destinations." The German army had seized all of unoccupied southern France except for seven departments and two parts of departments in the southeast, including Corsica, which was taken by the Italians.
Southeastern France - the French Riviera -was occupied by Italy in November 1942. There were 20,000 Jews living in this area, their numbers swelling every day with refugees from all over Europe fleeing to the Italian zone until they numbered close to 50,000. This made the Nazis very unhappy, especially with the Allies landing in North Africa.
How soon before the Nazi would begin rounding up Jews in the region?
Partisans in the Italian Resistance formulated a plan in August 1943 to save the Jews now gathered in southeastern France. They acquired four ships to take them in three shifts, 10,000 at a time, to allied-held territory in north Africa.
Giuseppe Rassi was in touch with the Resistance, according to evidence mentioned in Angie's movie, and had even made preparations for the rescue of the Jews in San Lorenzo. This was how he had planned to save his employees and the Jewish residents of the town as well. But plans fell through, too late to make any other arrangements, and the Germans entered the seaside town on September 30, 1943.
"There was terrible news from other places," says Halevi in the film. "Murders of Jews around lago Maggiore and arrests in Vercelli and Novara. The terror was upon us."
Not safe to leave, nor safe to stay, the Jews in San Lorenzo under Giuseppe Rassi's protection were now in terrible danger. Thing went from bad to worse when a party of Germans from the high command visited Rassi one day: General Karl Wolff, one of Himmler's closest associates, Dr. Wilhelm Harster, who had headed the SD in Holland where he organized transport to the death camps, and Theodor Dannecker, who had organized the rail shipments from France and Bulgaria, and now was head of transport for Italy.
They came ostensibly to review defense installations. The actual reason: they were on holiday. They had heard that San Lorenzo was a fine resort to visit, and sought a weekend's respite from Rome. They were especially interested in the Licinian Baths, being sybarites on the one hand, and admirers of Imperial Rome and anything Roman on the other. It spoke to their delusions of imperial destiny, a future that was both as mechanistic as their Panzer divisions and as anachronistic as their pagan ideology.
Prior to visiting Rassi, the Nazi bigwigs had taken the best rooms at the Medici Hotel (I'm sure my own room was commandeered by one of them) and were on their way to the baths when they passed the ancient synagogue on Taviani Street and saw, to their surprise, that it was still open.
Concerned, they went to the mayor, who told them the building was being used by the municipality as additional offices. This thin lie sufficed for the moment while the mayor anxiously contacted Rassi, tipping him off. Once the Germans discovered that several hundred Jews were living in San Lorenzo, it would be a disaster. The Jews must be sent away, hidden somewhere, somehow.
The next day a couple of SS toughs came to the Mayor's office and requested the lists of those Jews who had registered for the work program. Rassi himself had urged his own employees to register. Now they were in mortal danger and their lives were in his hands. He had already begun pulling together fake passports, employment documents, travel passes and using his contacts to find places in the hills where his Jewish employees could stay hidden for a while. They played a sort of shell game, shuttling the Jews from house to house in and around town, keeping one step ahead of the Gestapo.
At that time, there were so many Italian Jews all over the country hiding with false papers in the homes of gentile friends, according to one person Angie's interviews, that there was a joke being told about the tourists in Florence asking their guide where to find Michelangelo's statue of Moses is and the guide replies, "Oh, these days he's in the home of friends."
Rassi was convinced that it was only a matter of a few weeks or a couple of months at most until an Allied invasion of Italy would put a stop to the war, and he would be able to continue his business. He did not want to lose his employees and so he promised to keep paying their salaries, but only if they would sign over to him their bank accounts, so he could deposit the money and nothing could be traced. To escape any confiscations and to keep from being robbed while in flight many signed over to Rassi their jewelry, property deeds, and other valuables they could not take with them on the run.
When San Lorenzo's Jewish community heard this, many decided that they, too - even if they were not employees of Rassi's construction company - would entrust Rassi with their property for safekeeping. All of the transactions were carefully recorded in a ledger kept by Rassi's accountant, Judah Halevi.
Angie's documentary turns a corner at this point and enters controversial territory. It seems that once Rassi got hold of the Jews' cash and property, he began cozying up with the Nazis. Several people interviewed on camera say Rassi entertained the Germans at his home, treated his hidden employees badly, and worked with and for the Germans. Some people claim that Rassi earned himself a place on the Partisan's list of targeted collaborators.
When I ran into Angie that day on the terrace of the Dante, she had come to this point in her investigations and was already drawing dark conclusions. She was having a difficult time, however, separating truth from fiction, as surely happens with history of any kind.
"I think old man Rassi was playing ball with the Nazis," she said, "Playing ball with ‘em. I don't know for sure, though. There are people in town I've talked to who say that this wasn't quite the whole truth. They tell me it's true without a doubt that Rassi's grandfather was a shit to the people who worked for him and a very nice host to the local Gestapo chief."
"What do you mean - he was a Nazi collaborator?"
"Rassi's house was the local Gestapo headquarters," she said. "Not to mention the long-range artillery up there so they could lob shells across the harbor at allied shipping and an anti-aircraft battery to shoot down planes."
Wait a minute, I said - I'd been coming to San Lorenzo for twenty-seven, going on twenty-eight years. I'd heard the rumors about the Gestapo taking over Rassi's house, putting the guns up there and all of that. Against his will, I'd always understood. This was the first time I'd heard it was actually at his invitation.
"Oh, yeah. The high command came in from Rome and the old boy had them up for lunch. Documented fact, Henry. Rassi told them they could put the guns up there in the rocks. He gave the Nazis the keys to the place, let the local Gestapo honcho use the villa for his office. The Huns thought it was pretty cool place, the way it was designed made them feel at home. That Bauhaus thing started in Austria, remember. Besides, it would be safe from partisans tossing any bombs around because that canyon keeps them pretty much at bay."
"Not with Rassi's approval. I can't believe that."
"You think Rassi didn't love the perks of that arrangement? He was that kind of guy, a real star-fucker. That's why he invented this freakin' film festival. But here's the catch, and it's sorta funny. It has to do with that crazy cable car gizmo of his that runs over the canyon."
In her movie, Angie finds one toothless old fellow, a mechanic who occasionally worked on the cable car machinery during the war who tells an amusing story about how Rassi was always making elaborate apologies whenever the Nazi commandant was inconvenienced by the cable car breaking down.
"It just so happened," continues the guy (with subtitles), "that the mechanism always seemed to fail just as a roundup was scheduled to begin in the village. Police actions were frequently postponed. That allowed so many Jews to flee to mountain villages, sometimes in whole families. That is how they went into hiding in the mountains for the rest of the war."
This man claims that Rassi purposely located the Gestapo HQ in his house so that he could keep an eye on them. By this ruse, even though it looked as if he was a Nazi collaborator, old Rassi was able to keep his people informed as to what the Germans were up to.
Onscreen, Angie makes the case for the existence of a widespread clandestine rescue operation in Italy, with people like Rassi in touch with sympathetic people in the Italian bureaucracy, private operators working through secret networks, some under the covert management of the Catholic leadership like Monsignor Barale in Turin, Cardinal Boetto of Genoa and the bishop of Chiavari. Was this with the Vatican's blessing? Was Pope Pius XII pulling the strings secretly? Says one church representative who was interviewed: "The Pope? His business is with God. Our business is here on earth."
People were hiding throughout the Piedmont and Aosta in mountain huts, isolated farms pretending to be farmers, in monasteries dressed as monks, and in psychiatric hospitals pretending to be insane. After the Allies marched into Rome in June 1944 and Italy was liberated, many of the Jews who had left San Lorenzo simply never returned, according to some. They'd grown to like their new surroundings. But Angie suspected otherwise.
"Local myth," Angie scoffed to me. "That's all it is."
"You think they were handed over?"
"And killed, sure. Look, has anybody documented how many San Lorenzo Jews actually settled elsewhere?"
I could name two relocated survivors, actually. One was Leticia's uncle who had worked for Rassi all his life, and joined up with the Partisans. Now his son Lorenzo ran that little taverna, my favorite one way up in the hills beyond the town, but he still remembered vividly the days when he was hiding in a small mountain village and staying on the lookout for the Germans.
"My father used to tell me how to recognize a Gestapo agent," Lorenzo recalls on camera (he and Angie eventually became very good friends, despite their initial flare-up). "Everyone knew. It was the long black leather coats. Like they were always carrying a banner."
The second relocated survivor I could name was Leticia's own father. He came back from the Piedmontese village where Leticia's family was sheltered during that time, and where he aided the Partisans, to resume his engineering job with Rassi. To the end of his life, Leticia says, neither her father nor her uncle ever revealed whether the Partisans had put Rassi on their death list because he was a collaborator or simply in order to fool the Nazis and disguise the fact that he was actually one of them - or because they didn't trust him.
In any case, Giuseppe Rassi did whatever he did and in the end I was grateful to him, you understand, for my Leticia's sake; she would most likely not be here if Rassi had not helped to protect her family.
Later, Angie changed her opinion 180 degrees and came to endorse the accounts of those who correctly attributed the disappearance of Jews from San Lorenzo to their resettlement elsewhere, or to their natural attrition in the post war years before getting a chance to return.
But what happened to the money and all of the Jews' property after the war and after old Rassi died? In the nasty tangle of dozens of conflicting stories was the cause of all the bad blood.
For a few years following the war, Giuseppe Rassi worked to assemble all of the hastily deposited funds and assets into three or four central investment funds. Rassi figured that so long as he possessed assets of this magnitude he might as well see them grow.
Rassi started up the San Lorenzo Film Festival again, this time with government funding as a way to revive and promote Italy's movie production industry. A sizable grant to the festival organization from Rassi was required, of course, to grease the politicians both in Rome and locally in San Lorenzo. This money was funneled through the different funds in such a way that from the very beginning the festival organization's finances became inextricably intertwined with Rassi's.
The co-mingling of the Rassi Construction Company assets with the Festival's money and all of the rest of it created a huge accounting task. Judah Halevi, Rassi's chief bookkeeper was instrumental in helping to carry out the complex sorting of bank accounts and property records, guided by the hand-written entries in his leather-bound ledger. For a few years, monthly checks began to go out as a temporary form of compensation, person by person, family by family, pending a final settlement of accounts.
In 1948, Giuseppe Rassi fell ill with cancer. His illness left him too weak to deal with any final settlement that would fully restore the assets to the people who had entrusted them to him. This responsibility had been turned over by Rassi to his only son, Antonio.
Antonio Rassi had not taken the responsibility well. In fact, he dipped into the funds for loans and advances and used the cash for his own purposes: gambling, fast cars, trips to Paris, Rio and New York with his girlfriend. He had always intended to repay these borrowings, but he had not the elder's gift for finance, investment or even showing up in the office each day. And with his father too ill to pay attention, there was no one to stop him, or at least to moderate his depredations. His first move was to fire Halevi. The bookkeeper raised too many objections; he was in the way. The outgoing checks soon stopped. After a while, questions were asked.
The elder Rassi, though on his deathbed, had gotten word from the banks that the accounts were being mismanaged, that there were many irregularities. He summoned his son and confronted him with what he had heard. Antonio Rassi swore he had done nothing wrong. Before he died, Giuseppe Rassi begged his son to do nothing to bring shame to the family name.
Nothing changed after the elder Rassi's death. The banks stepped in to protect themselves against the impending insolvency of the Rassi Construction Company. When confronted with the embezzlement by the bank executives in charge of the funds, Antonio Rassi became angry, again denying everything, but in the end it was clear that he would have to do something to set things right.
It was a crisis, no doubt about it. Yet, Antonio Rassi evaded the problem, showing up every night in the hot spots of the Via Veneto where he indulged in champagne, women and brawling with anyone who touched off his temper. The paparazzi had a field day.
He was too proud to go to Halevi, whose dismissal after a lifetime of service to the Rassi Construction Company had been unceremonious to say the least. And against the Jews, to whom he was indebted he carried a poisonous resentment, a feeling he expressed frequently to anyone who would listen in virulent anti-Semitic diatribes bordering on the incoherent.
So in the end - although the newspapers all said it was the result of a romantic triangle involving an American movie starlet - young Rassi's father put a pistol to his temple one morning in bed, rolled over and pulled the trigger. Antonio Rassi's suicide left the Rassi estate in a state of total confusion and several hundred Jews without recourse in regaining their lost property.
"So, you see," said Angie, after laying out the key information, "Rassi is what this is all about. His grandfather is the perfect example of collaborators who saved their own skin by turning the Jews over to the Nazis. Your pal Count Rassi is a rich playboy because the old man made a shitload of dough off the Holocaust. He's the key figure for my film and this one is going to win every fucking prize there is including the fucking Oscar. Maybe I'll even let you do the publicity, Henry."
"Such a lot of rot," I said to her. "Nothing but small town gossip. I don't want anything to do with it."
In truth, I was not entirely sure. The chill wind blowing off the bay increased my apprehension. I asked if she had questioned Rassi yet. No, she said, she was still getting more of "the goods" on him first before confronting him with the evidence.
"He's sensitive about the family name," she said. "He's going to go absolutely apeshit when I show him what I have."
She stuck another Marlboro Light between her lips and set it alight. I felt compelled to put up some defense of Rassi, while in truth I was defending my own twenty-seven years in San Lorenzo. My ignorance of its terrible history seemed to make me complicit with it.
"Rassi's a good guy," I said. "He can't help what his grandfather did fifty years ago, Angie. Or his own father, poor bastard. It's just so unfair."
"To Rassi? What about the Jews who were killed, whose money he's living on in that hideous pile of glass up on the hill there?"
"It's a sucker punch, Angie. An ambush."
"I'll give him to time to answer before I put a camera on him. That's where you'll come in, dear. You're going help with this by setting up the interview for me. You're his friend, Henry. You're the only one I know that he trusts. You are going to help me nail Rassi and you'll be doing something real for once, instead of making excuses for him and everybody else," she said. "And don't try to stop me, Henry. I know you went to the Festival President. That's why they've taken my goddam press credentials away. You did that because you're fucking jealous."
I laughed aloud. "Jealous! Of what?"
"Of me, Henry. Of me. Yeah, you've always been jealous of me, of my career, of what I've accomplished. I'm someone who actually goes out in the world and does things. What do you do, Henry? When did you ever do anything? Except take tax-free rake offs from this stupid festival where you get laid once a year, humping your chambermaid."
"That's hitting below the belt, Angie."
"Oh, you don't think I know about that? Your big secret. Hah!"
I dropped a few lira on the table for the drink. "You're crazy, Angie, and I have to go."
She grabbed my wrist, knocking the ashtray from the table and setting the stacks of papers adrift in the wind, but she didn't care.
"No, you wait, Henry, "and listen to me for once. I may be crazy, but you lie for others, and you lie for yourself. That's what you do for a living, isn't it, Mr. PR Guy?"
She was drunk and just getting wound up.
"You've spent your whole goddam life doing what the client wants. What do you want, Henry? When are you going to be an action man. Do something real for God's sake."
"Fuck you!" those two words of eternal wisdom, were all I could manage to croak out, before she stomped off into the hotel.
Somewhere in the alcoholic vapors infusing my brain, as I downed my drink and ordered another, a plan of sorts came together. Damn it all to hell, I would be an action man. In order to set everything in motion I would first have to find Rassi. I knew he would be having dinner at his customary place.
* * *
"Count Rassi," said Rico, the owner of the Tre Fiori bowing slightly with a tilt of his head, in the way Europeans do in greeting the royalty that only a few generations ago they deposed, hanged, beheaded and made a spectator sport of drawing-and-quartering. Rassi was seated alone at a table in a strategic and highly visible corner, the best in the house.
Turning to me, he scolded, "It is terrible I don't see you all festival, Mr. Dean, Why you don't like my restaurant anymore? You give all your business to Stanco's, eh?"
"I only come here with the most distinguished dinner guests, Rico."
The truth was, I dined at Tre Fiori only when someone else was paying. I couldn't afford San Lorenzo's finest and most expensive restaurant on the per diem the festival paid me.
The Count had his own cook but when he ventured into town for dinner it was always the Tre Fiori. "Let me get you a bottle of Barbaresco," said Rico, bustling about, fussing over our napkins and our directing the service to fill our glasses with acqua minerale. "From my brother-in-law's vineyard. My gift to you. What we have tonight that is special..."
On the way in I had said hello to Jane Barclay from Capitol Films, dining with Ismail Merchant who, one year during the Venice Film Festival in a palazzo on the Grand Canal in which Byron had once lived, cooked for me and a dozen other guests the finest Indian meal I've ever eaten. I nodded to John Daly, one half of Hemdale Films. He'd done some time in the ring as a lad before partnering with the actor David Hemmings to produce Oliver Stone's "Platoon," win an Academy Award, and run Hemdale into bankruptcy. Sadly, Merchant, Hemmings and Daly are all gone now, the old pirates.
Seated around another table, a few of the masters of the foreign sales world hashed out the day's dirt. Terry Houseman of BVI, Robert Dyers from Village Roadshow, his nephew Barry Dyers, Deter Felson, the basso-voiced Oklahoman, of Largo Entertainment, and Freddy Kale, a marketing maven who tended to all the top sales companies, all laughing conspiratorially. I overheard them referring to the object of their ridicule, a certain action star, and knew they'd written yet another chapter in their own saga of the indie film story.
Julia Finn, one of my favorite former competitors from Dennis Davidson Associates in London, blew me a kiss from her corner table. A parade of waiters carried platters of lobster, oysters, peeled shrimp and magnums of champagne into the private back room that was reserved for VIPs only. I wondered what fabulous and incredibly rich celebrity was huddled back there this evening.
Rassi and I sat beneath an autographed portrait of Muhammad Ali posed with his fist at Rico's chin. The Greatest had come here for dinner, too. We ordered caprese and mushrooms stuffed with chees and garlic to begin. Rico poured his brother's Barbaresco, which from the glass exuded the tannic tang of leather and smoke and freshly turned earth.
"I have to tell you something," I said to Rassi, determined to get right into the heart of the matter, "about this project you are involved in."
"I know, the script needs some work," he said. "The fight scenes are not written right. I want this to be a movie with real boxing in it. Nothing phony or too Hollywood."
"No, no, that's not what I'm talking about," I said. "It's about this deal with Everest Entertainment. The people you're dealing with. It's not a good deal, Pete. They're ripping you off."
"Henry, I appreciate your concern, and I thank you. But you see, I don't really care if they take my money, as long as there is a movie." He refilled each of our glasses with the strong vino.
"Yes, well - there may be a movie," I told him, "but there won't be much left of your reputation when they start investigating you. You could even wind up in prison."
"Who will investigate me? I don't think you are making sense."
I told him about Ari Safta, how he was a front man for a money-laundering scheme, and how the Everest deal was tied into black market arms dealing with Ari's brother behind the whole thing. I didn't tell him that one of his partners in Everest, Artie Delfont, was actually a British undercover agent setting up a sting operation.
"I see, I see," he said, falling silent for a long moment. He took out his silver cigarette case and lit a Pall Mall. "Well, you know, Henry, it's got nothing to do with me or making this movie. The financing of this movie is entirely from me - my money. So the rest doesn't matter."
"But it will matter, Pete," I said, exasperated with his obstinacy. "It will matter to you because Charles Mitchell is coming out with a story that uncovers the whole thing. And you're in the story. You, for God's sake, Pete. That's his big angle on the story. How Count Pietro Rassi, grandson of the founder of the San Lorenzo Film Festival, is mixed up with a gang of money-laundering international arms-dealing scumbags."
"The media say what they want, make a little fuss, I don't care."
Rico appeared to take our orders for the main dish. I took the lemon sole with caper sauce and Rassi went for the grilled sea bass. Rico nodded gravely, etching the order in his head (the pencil behind his ear was just for show) before galloping back to the kitchen.
"Big fuss, Pete. This is a major newspaper."
"Big fuss, little fuss, soon it blows away. You are supposed to help do that. You are working for us, no? You are getting paid, I assume?"
"Well, you are our publicist. We have to get you paid. I will make sure of it. But you have to do your job, too. This is your problem, Henry."
The conversation was not going the way I wanted it. The last thing I wanted was to be taking any shit from Rassi about "doing my job." I switched the subject and we returned to our old boxing obsessions, trying to muster up the same feeling but the conversation languished after yet another rehashing of the Rosi-Aquino fight we'd watched together at the Coronary back in 1985 - or was it 1987?
But only half-listening to Rassi, I decided to try another angle, up the ante, provoke him by making it personal.
"He's doing it to get you," I said.
"What do you mean?"
"Mitchell. He's writing the story because he wants to make life difficult for you."
"He's never liked me, I know that about Mitchell," Rassi shrugged with the air of noblesse oblige that comes with being a titled rich person. "He can say what he wants."
"He'll say Safta is a crook."
"In the movie business nobody's perfect, right?" He laughed, trying to come off as a cynical insider.
"You'll be a crook, too, by association."
"Anyone who wants to know the truth, they can know. I don't need to be validated by anyone else."
"You don't understand, Pete."
"It's my money. That's all anybody has to understand, okay? I want to make this movie. That's all. If the movie turns out to be bad, so it's bad. We let the critics have their say. But at least I've made my movie."
"Is it your money, Pete - or is it money from the fund that you manage, the one containing the money that the Jews in San Lorenzo lost during the war, what they signed over to your grandfather?
Rassi looked down, flicked his cigarette into the skeletal remains of his sea bass, and then stubbed it out on his plate. He louvered himself up from the table and glowered down at me.
"That is an entirely private matter. But I assure you, the money I invest in this movie - it's my goddam money. Mine. Good night." He took his coat down from the wall-hook.
"Stop being such a bloody fool for her, Pete," said, standing to block his way to the door. "She's not worth the trouble. You've got to pull out of this deal."
He eyed me as if trying to pick lint off his lapel.
"I don't understand, Henry - are you working for us or against us? And why do you say I'm being a fool?"
"Because Nora's playing you for a fool."
"If you are truly my friend and her friend, too, you will please not speak to me about it again. Good night."
"Nora is fucking you over, man. Don't you get it?"
"I won't let you insult me or her this way, Henry." His dog-like jowls tightened in his face like ropes pulling canvas. "You are being very much an asshole. Good night."
Perhaps it was the bottle of Barbaresco from Rico's brother-in-law's vineyard. Maybe it was Angie's needling: "You don't do anything..." that decided my next move. Or maybe it was my disappointment with Rassi, knowing that my old friend had enriched himself in the wake of the Holocaust and at the expense of its tragic victims. That was bad enough. And then for me to be caught up in this whole mess in the first place, with the irksome realization that I was not likely to collect any money for my troubles whatsoever... that I'd even have to pay for dinner tonight.
Just like in the movies, I grabbed his arm at the elbow spinning him around, I said, "I'll show you who's the asshole!"
He looked at me wildly and tried to push me away... too late. My right hand - that old powerhouse right - swung like an iron gate on a well-oiled hinge, landing solidly on Count Rassi's bent nose. It instantly spurted crimson.
"She's sleeping with your director and they are both laughing at you behind your back!" I said.
I felt the punch only when I was staring up at the underside of the table under which I had rolled after hitting the floor. It was a left, I think, a left hook perhaps not unlike the famous one unleashed by Floyd Patterson in the second Johannson fight. From the view I had of the lady seated at the table under which I had fallen, I could see she wore absolutely nothing beneath her dress. She screamed, kicking at me with lethal stilettos. A trio of waiters rescued me, hauling me to my feet and hustling me to the door.
"Why have you done such a crazy thing, Mister Dean, hitting Count Rassi like that - don't you know he was once an Olympic boxer?" said Rico following me outside to the sidewalk while they hailed a cab for me, one of them dabbing at my bleeding brow with a napkin.
"I guess you're right, Rico. I must be out of my mind," I replied, testing my sore jaw to check for loose molars. They planted me in the back seat of the cab, instructing the driver to deliver me directly to the Hotel Medici.
* * *
"It's total shit."
Nora said that over 9 am breakfast before the Nanni Moretti press screening at the Alhambra Theater.
"First Rassi promises his place can be used as a location, then he says he's financing the movie, and now he says he's out of the deal entirely."
We were sitting once again at her favorite pasticceria up the street from the Medici. It was Day Nine of the Festival and around us some of the Fest-goers were buzzing over their lattes and croissants about the latest screw-up: a screening for the new Mike Leigh at the Metro Theater scheduled simultaneously with the Moretti screening at the Alhambra, which was stupid programming on the part of the Festival. Nobody, including Nora, could decide which one to go to. But that was not what had thrown her into such a tizzy.
She had read the story online in Variety. Rassi must have called Jeffries, the Variety reporter, after the incident at the Tre Fiori and given him the scoop. The deal with Everest Entertainment to finance the Great Director's next movie was dead in the water.
"Typical Italian," she grumped. "Such crap."
"You're married to an Italian."
"So I'm an expert."
"Is our director pissed off?"
"Your director is very pissed off."
I hadn't seen our director for the past two days, thanks to the talented Lavender Twins, so I was not up to date on the old bastard's moods.
"You're sorry now you won't have that part in the movie?"
"I'm sorry I won't have an article. Could give two shits about a part in any movie. I never could act worth a damn anyway. The money would have helped a lot. But without an article I'm never coming back here again. My editor will see to that. Oh, God, here comes Charles now."
I turned to see Charles Mitchell turning the corner at the bottom of the hill, ambling up the cobbled street. Nora grabbed her purse and a final bite of pastry.
"He's been intolerably nasty. It will make me very cross to hear him say I told you so in that superior tone of his. If he asks, tell him I'm late to a screening."
I asked which one but she bolted without answering. In minutes Mitchell was standing over the table.
"Damn that woman. She say where she's going?"
"The Nanni Moretti or the Mike Leigh?" he asked, trying her cell phone, getting only static.
"No idea. Have you seen today's Variety? Rassi is out of the deal."
"I know," he said, peering first up one street, then down the other. "That was your doing, I presume?"
"You have no story now, Charles, do you?"
"I can't talk about that," he said gloomily, trotting off to catch up with his festival wife.
A journalist's pride is a tough thing to get around, and he didn't want to own up to the fact that I had, in effect, killed his story. But I was secretly gloating and allowed myself to contemplate with some dark pleasure the cash that would soon be counted out into my hand by the sibling of one of the world's foremost arms smugglers.
That's when I turned around to find Artie Delfont bearing down on me looking as if pursued by the hounds of hell. Lugging his suitcase and sweating twice as much as usual, he said in an agitated rush, "I'm getting out. I'm going. Damn that Rassi."
"What do you mean?"
"Collapsing the deal like that, for God's sake. My friends - you know who I mean -"
"You're MI-6 buddies?"
"They are absolutely livid, old sport. The entire operation has turned into another bloody Dunkirk. And Ari Safta is one very angry man. Henry, if you want to do your friend Rassi a big, big favor, tell the good Count to hire some experienced bodyguards. Better yet, tell him to take the first plane the hell out of here and go into hiding for a decade or two."
"I still don't get it."
Delfont scanned the vicinity to see that no one was listening. "Ari's put out orders on Rassi," he whispered. "Now do you get it? Do I have to spell it out for you?"
"You think we're dealing with boy scouts here?" he said, moustache twitching like some cartoon villain.
I said, "I've done some dirty work on my own, you know. Killing Mitchell's piece wasn't a piece of cake. It's probably cost me a friendship, and not only Mitchell's."
"Good show, old bean."
"Old bean my ass, Artie. Where the hell is my money?
"Ari's the one to talk to about money. As for me, I've got a flight to catch. See you back in Blighty. It's been tons of fun."
Delfont hustled down the street, heading for the line of black taxis standing by the Medici.
I began to feel afraid. Maybe Delfont was exaggerating or laying on the drama a bit thick, but no - he didn't have to spell it out for me. If anything did happen to Rassi it would be entirely my fault: I was the one who persuaded him to pull out of the Everest deal. Now I had to find him and warn him. I poked out the number for his home phone on my mobile, but he wasn't in. I tried his cellular, got voice mail. Then I remembered what day it was: Wednesday. Rassi was a creature of habit. I knew exactly where to find him.
But time was running out.
NEXT: IN HOT WATER
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