ALFONSO DE PORTAGO: FERRARI'S GENTLEMAN RACER
It’s a term we see less frequently in today’s rendition of motorsport, yet the “gentleman racer” is still the archetypal figure in the realm of racing drivers and especially those in Formula 1, the pinnacle of all motor racing. Whilst the exact definition wavers, the gentleman driver is generally understood to be an individual who comes to play with the professionals on track, in other words a wealthy aristocrat or playboy with a huge inheritance and often more money than responsibilities, fuelling his passion for daredevil fanatics with a nonchalant disregard for the inherent dangers.
Perhaps that’s true, but it’s hardly the sole reason we love and revere them to this day. It has as much to do with character as it has to do with bravery (or irrationality). The swept back hair, sprezzatura, and appetite for danger make these individuals stuff of legend today, in a world where rules, regulations and political correctness reign supreme (much of the time for good reason). Oh, and did I mention the relentless attention from women – another accolade of the gentleman driver and certainly something by which they’re remembered. It’s funny really that those same characteristics which made them sex magnets of yesteryear are the very same reasons we revere them here and now. With such a hunger for speed and danger, it’s of little surprise these rakish characters lived every day as their last; to the full, and with no regrets.
What you have just read was the original introduction written for this piece, where I had the intention to create an article focussed on some of the gentleman drivers to compete in Formula One over the years. I was originally planning to go in depth on some of the sport’s most enviable and recognisable characters, namely Peter Collins, Mike Hawthorn, and Graham Hill and was even going to try and reason why my favourite driver of all time, François Cevert, should arguably hold the title as the last of the gentleman drivers (an accolade often given to two-time World Champion Graham Hill). But the first on my list was to be Alfonso de Portago, a Spanish aristocrat and godson to King Alfonso XIII. Coming to the end of my short but elaborate section on the marquess, I realised there was so much more to his story than I could ever have done justice in so few words. It’s the story of a man whose life was as glamourous as it was short, but also seemed to be governed by fate and superstition. For that reason I couldn’t merely gloss over his life in such an article, but instead have refocussed the whole piece towards the adrenaline-fuelled aristocrat.
Full name Alfonso Antonio Vicente Eduardo Angel Blas Francisco de Borja Cabeza de Vaca y Leighton, the 11th Marquess of Portago was everything you’d expect of a gentleman driver and more. A jack of all trades, Portago had a resume like no other: a jockey, bobsledder, pilot, skier, polo-player, jai-alai professional and last but not least, a racing driver. Not uncommon of young racers of that era, Portago seemed to be one of those men who would succeed at anything and everything he put his mind to. Descended from aristocracy, its unsurprising the young Portago was accustomed to life’s finer indulgences, living between the family’s properties in Spain, Italy, Great Britain and the USA, not to mention his home on ‘Millionaire’s Row’ in Paris.
“If I’d lived 600 years ago I’d have been killing dragons or helping maidens in distress” Alfonso de Portago (11th Oct 1928 – 12th May 1957)
Gifted at the helm of machinery and taking after his father’s affinity to gambling (one of Spain’s best golfers and a passionate gambler, his father once won $2 million at the Casino de Monte Carlo), a 17-year-old Portago won a $500 bet flying a plane under Tower Bridge in London. Those antics behind the wheel of a borrowed plane marked the beginning of a short but illustrious life in which Alfonso de Portago would ascend to the ranks of Ferrari Formula One driver. Throughout his life, Portago took a liking towards anything which required copious amounts of adrenaline and a dismissal of danger. Entering the Grand National as a “gentleman rider” not once but twice, was almost as impressive as his 4th place finish at the 1956 Winter Olympics held in Cortina D’Ampezzo (missing out on a bronze medal by 0.16 seconds) as part of Spain’s first ever bobsled team, which he founded alongside his cousins. A third-place finish at the 1957 FIBT World Championships in St. Moritz however would prove there was little the marquess couldn’t do. To quote Gregor Grant, founder of Autosport Magazine, “a man like Portago appears only once in a generation, and it would probably be more accurate to say only once in a lifetime. The fellow does everything fabulously well. Never mind the driving, the steeplechasing, the bobsledding, the athletic side of things, never mind being fluent in 4 languages. (...) He could be the best bridge player in the world if he cared to try, he could certainly be a great soldier, and I suspect he could be a fine writer”
Portago was only 20 when he married his first wife, Carroll McDaniel, a former model who was several years his senior. But, as you can expect for a young Spanish aristocrat with an appetite for danger, he attracted plenty of attention. The couple were soon to have their second child when Portago become infatuated with Dorian Leigh, an American model 11 years older than himself. Whilst both Leigh and Portago were reluctant to divorce their spouses, it soon became clear that things were to go a step further. Following her divorce to Roger Mehle, Leigh was soon married to Portago in Mexico, only for it to be ruled as unofficial, as Portago was still married to McDaniel. To avoid a scandalous illegitimate pregnancy and gossip columnists in the United States, Dorian left her three other children with her parents in Florida and fled to Paris and Switzerland. In Switzerland Dorian gave birth to her son, however, she never told her parents, instead lying and telling her family that she was in a tuberculosis clinic. An on-and-off relationship between the two continued in 1956 and 1957, at which point Portago had started openly dating Mexican actress Linda Christian. She was the last woman he’d ever kiss, a moment captured in a photo now commonly referred to as “the kiss of death”. According to eyewitness accounts, at the Rome checkpoint of the Mille Miglia Portago stood on the brakes, locked the wheels, and waited for Linda Christian before kissing her and holding her in his arms, until a furious official waved him on.
His big break into the world of motor racing came in 1953 following an encounter with Ferrari’s importer in the US, Luigi Chinetti, with whom he sat as co-driver during the Carrera Panamericana before going solo at the 1954 1000km of Buenos Aires. Six major wins would follow for the renowned playboy, who is said to have sharpened his reflexes by having his friends throw knives at him (he’d catch them all by the handle). These included the Tour de France automobile race, the Oporto Grand Prix, and the Nassau Governor’s Cup, twice. His driving style was hard and fast, which led him to be known as a two-car man, often requiring several cars to finish a race thanks to his unforgiving right foot and appetite for speed. However, it wasn’t long before the lure of Formula One loomed large, and Portago competed in 5 World Championship Grand Prix in Ferraris between 1956 and 1957, with his best finish a second place at Silverstone in 1956.
Portago was now competing in the big leagues and earning $40,000 a year with the Scuderia. However, as I mentioned previously, for these gentleman drivers it wasn’t so much the money which attracted them but rather the adrenaline-fuelled quest for glory:
“There comes a time when money bores you and even women don't satisfy you anymore. At that moment you discover a drug that becomes everything for you, that drug is called risk”. Alfonso de Portago
Portago’s luck would wane at the 1955 Grand Prix at Silverstone when he suffered a crash at 140mph resulting in a broken leg. Yet the accident was an omen he chose to ignore, a mere inconvenience for the Spanish marquess who was more-or-less undeterred from the high-octane life in which he revelled: "I won't die in an accident. I'll die of old age or be executed in some gross miscarriage of justice". However, fellow driver Edmund Nelson countered this claim, saying Portago wouldn’t live to see 30.
Despite such composure on the racetrack alongside some of the sport’s most legendary figures, Portago seemed uncharacteristically anxious prior to the 1957 Mille Miglia. The challenge of racing on public roads was daunting, and Alfonso argued that it was practically impossible to race on a surface where the condition of the road was an unknown. The Commendatore encouraged the challenge stating that “on the road you learn to improvise, to react to unexpected events and to control the shivers of fear. On the road you become great drivers, Alfonso.” And so, the marquess would go racing for what would be the final time.
On the morning of the race, a young girl came up to Portago whilst he shared breakfast and strategy chat with Romolo Tavoni, Enzo Ferrari’s right-hand man. Naturally the aristocrat would oblige, attention from women an enviable weakness. However, in turning around the driver inadvertently bumped a waiter who spilled a tray of tea and milk over Portago. Tavoni remembers the driver’s facial expression changing in an instant: "Tavoni, in my country pouring milk and tea is bad, it is synonymous with bad luck, today will be a bad day!”. Superstitions had crept their way into Portago’s life, adding an extra weight onto the already distressed driver’s shoulders – he was so rattled by the 1000-mile race that lay ahead, he had approached teammate Luigi Musso two days prior to offer him the drive. Musso declined, still recovering from illness.
“As you know, my love, I didn't want to race, but Enzo Ferrari made me do it. Hopefully I'm wrong, but maybe it's going to an early death. I don’t like the Mille Miglia, no matter how much one trains and memorizes the route, it is almost impossible to remember each of the curves of the route and a minimum error of the driver can kill fifty people, since it cannot be avoided that the spectators crowd the streets." Alfonso de Portago In a letter he wrote to his girlfriend, Mexican actress Linda Christian the night before his death.
In yet another cruel twist of fate, Edmund Nelson (as co-driver) would lose his life alongside Portago during the 1957 Mille Miglia, in a horrific accident which killed both men along with 9 spectators, of which 5 were children. They were only 70km from the finish on a straight piece of road between Cerlongo and Guidizzolo when a front tyre exploded at 150mph, causing the car (a 4.1 litre V12 Ferrari 355S, at the time it was the most powerful works car ever built by the marque) to fly over a canal on the left side of the road, before veering back across it once more. Simultaneously, a concrete highway milestone was ripped from the ground due to the impact, flying into the crowd and causing the death of two children. The two drivers were found beneath the wrecked 355S, Portago’s body in two sections. It was a tragic accident which spelled the end of the Mille Miglia once and for all.
“Alfonso “Fon” de Portago, a great Spanish nobleman, had interests all over the world and was a man of the world. He was always on the go but never carried any luggage with him. In the cities where he did his business, he always had a suite booked in some five-star hotel. He made the hotel porter find new underwear every morning, a pair of trousers and a black T-shirt, all new. If it was necessary he would buy a suit or a tuxedo, then he left everything as a gift to the concierge.” Romolo Tavoni
Alfonso de Portago died as he lived, at the helm of speed and giving it his everything: “it is better to be wholly alive for 30 years than half-dead for sixty.” Be it the cars, the numerous women, or the ability to fly at aged 17, the marquess certainly lived life to the max and left a legacy which endures to this day. The final hours of his story and the uncanny involvement of fate surrounding the Mille Miglia remind me of a quote by the late, great Lorenzo Bandini:
“If you have to go, if it is written, your time is that day. You will die whether you go racing or not”
Portago, Ferrari’s playboy superstar, chose to go racing…