November 24, 1975 12:00 PM

Only Americans call me contessa, and, of course, my maid since childhood,” says Susanna (Suni) Agnelli, 53, curled up in the sun-drenched living room of her Park Avenue penthouse. “Being an Agnelli, people think you are going to give yourself airs,” she says. “And they are pleasantly surprised if you don’t.”

Signora Agnelli does, however, insist on a certain amount of deference. (Tradesmen and journalists, for instance, are admitted at the back entrance.) Such airs come naturally. She is, after all, the granddaughter of the founder of Italy’s giant Fiat empire and the sister of Gianni Agnelli, the powerful man who now heads it. The Agnelli fortune is conservatively estimated at $550 million. “The Agnellis are not a family,” say Italian wags, “they are an economy.”

Now the handsome signora is in the news herself, not just for her famous name but for her own achievements. She is the author of a memoir, We Always Wore Sailor Suits, an overnight best-seller in Italy which was recently published in the U.S. And for the past two years she has been the highly controversial, ecology-minded mayor of Monte Argentario, a small Italian town which includes two of the country’s most luxurious Mediterranean resorts, Porto Santo Stefano and Porto Ercole.

“One knows more about the English royal family than about the Agnellis,” an Italian book reviewer noted. “The queen often has unfaithful or gossiping servants. The Agnellis, never.” For all her frankness, Suni Agnelli lays bare few family skeletons. She feels her book is more important for its portrait of Italy under fascism: “Practically nothing has been written about living in Fascist Italy, except by political writers, and it is time.”

As recalled by Suni, childhood was a lazy, languid interlude peopled by kind English nannies and romantic figures like designer Emilio Pucci (“tall, thin as a skeleton, with the long, sad face of a horse”)—and, of course, Mussolini. Her later memories provide a curious blend of innocence and moral ambiguity. (Suni’s mother begs a personal favor from II Duce; her brother enters military service; Suni herself falls in love with Raimondo, an anti-Franco fighter in the Spanish Civil War, who nonetheless is close friends with Count Ciano, Mussolini’s ill-fated son-in-law.)

While serving in the Italian Red Cross in World War II, Suni met her husband-to-be, Count Urbano Rattazzi, a bookish cavalry officer who later converted to fascism. After the war, he took her to live on a ranch outside Buenos Aires for 10 years. In 1965, Suni, the mother of six children, now aged 19 to 29, decided to ring down the curtain on her marriage with a legal separation. (Seven years later she was divorced and now prefers to be called Signora Agnelli.)

Full of restless energy, she went to work for the International Red Cross and was sent as an observer to Vietnam and Biafra; she turned to writing; and this year she was elected mayor for a second term, despite the divorce, which was a hot political issue in the small town. “But even the Church does not censure you, if you don’t remarry,” she shrugs, adding, “Of course, it would be disastrous if I lived with someone.”

Suni focuses all her passion on the mayor’s office. On the job, often in workaday blue jeans, she battles promoters who want to pepper the wooded hills with housing. “My only dream is to get into bed at night—and sleep,” Suni admits. “I don’t think I would ever want to get married again. Life with another person is trouble. It is not for me.”

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