First-rate educator

Broadsides from the pirate captain of the Jet Set

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A note from Jeremy Sykes enclosing an article about a friend of mine who died 40 years ago last Tuesday, on 5 July 1965. In his kind letter, Jeremy Sykes assumes that I knew the man who died in his Ferrari returning from a Parisian nightclub so long ago, and he is absolutely spot on. In fact, I was with Porfirio Rubirosa until 3 a.m. in New Jimmy’s, the legendary Montparnasse club, and had left only because I had to be on court in Nice the next morning for a tennis tournament. (That’s how we trained back then: in nightclubs doing a fast mumbo.) Rubi left Jimmy’s after 6 a.m., drove through a deserted Paris into the Bois de Boulogne on his way home across the Pont de St-Cloud. As an ex-racing driver — Le Mans, Sebring and a one-off in a Formula 1 — Rubi was going much too fast. He clipped the back of a parked car, and with his steering jammed ran straight into a tree, dying instantaneously. A passing ambulance picked him up but it was too late. As a newspaper wrote the next day, ‘Had he been wearing his seat belt nothing would have happened to him. But if he had put on his belt, he would not have been Porfirio Rubirosa.’

What was it about Rubi which still makes people talk about him? Was it the legendary sexual prowess? The charm? The sense of danger whenever he was around? Well, all I can say is definitely all three, but much, much more. Rubi sort of adopted me when I was just 20. He loved to be around younger people, and I soon joined his polo team. I also moved into his house in the chic suburb of Marnes-la-Coquette, where I proceeded to box with him every morning in the ring he had built inside his grand 17-room country house, and drive into Paris to work the ponies in the Bagatelle Club, where we played every weekend. We also dropped in on Madame Claude’s famous brothel rather regularly, having first dispatched Rubi’s wife Odile and whatever girl I was with to go shopping on their own. It was a good life. Not a very spiritual one, mind you, but as Papa Hemingway had said earlier, ‘It was a necessary part of a young man’s education.’

Rubi was 57 when he died, but the mundane death of a minor diplomat from a tiny country most people had trouble locating caused headlines the world over. Rubi’s reputation was such that even newspapers from communist countries included an obituary. The Forties and Fifties were the golden days of international playboys, men who should never be compared with what passes as playboys nowadays. Back then, a playboy had to be first of all a man’s man: physically tough and ready to defend his turf, a sportsman and a dandy, as well as one who always treated a woman like a lady, especially those of the world’s oldest profession. Rubi’s peers were men like Alfonso de Portago, dead at 27 driving a works Ferrari in the Mille Miglia of 1957, Prince Aly Khan, dead in a Lancia sports car aged 49 going to a ball — also in the Pont de St-Cloud — Errol Flynn, the greatest swashbuckler of the silver screen, dead at 50 from a heart attack, and others, less well-known, like Harry Schell, a Formula 1 driver who also died at the wheel, and Juan Capuro, the best-looking man of his generation and a Rubi clone, dead in his Porsche returning from a party somewhere in Chile.

Rubi was appointed to the Paris embassy of Santo Domingo, just before the second world war, by his father-in-law, General Le