From the ’Cosmo’ Archives: The Model, the Mob, and the Playboy

From the ’Cosmo’ Archives: The Model, the Mob, and the Playboy

Certain industries, particularly the entertainment business, have a long history of dubious characters with less than noble motives. The fashion industry is no exception, as William Murray explores in this riveting piece of reporting set in Milan, Italy in the mid-’80s—the height of the cocaine era when struggling young models were vulnerable to all kinds of trouble. It was in Milan that the story of a troubled young American model and a rich Italian playboy collided into scandal, death, and prison. Yet for those who knew the model and the playboy, what happened did not come as a surprise. From the July, 1987 issue of Cosmo, this cautionary tale is hard to shake. —Alex Belth, Hearst archivist

Content warning: This story contains details of self-harm, suicide, drug abuse, and murder.

When an American fashion model named Terry Broome shot and killed an Italian playboy in his apartment early one morning in June of 1984, a lot of people in Milan, where the crime took place, were shocked but not surprised. Francesco D’Alessio, the victim, had a reputation in his circle for violence, and it was well-known that he had been publicly rude and obnoxious to his murderer on a number of occasions. As for Terry herself, she had a history of violence in her own past as well as an ugly residue of broken dreams and smashed hopes to sustain it.

At the time of the killing, most people had no way of knowing anything about either Francesco or Terry, until they began to read about them in the press after the murder. The act itself, however, seemed to many the perfectly natural outcome of a way of life the city has fostered, gossiped about, and glamorized for years—a nightly fandango of fast cars, pretty girls, easy money, and cocaine. It’s a wonder, some observers have noted, that it took so long for this ingrown fringe world, where scandal-mongering passes for casual conversation, to explode into the headlines.

She held “nothing against the girl who fired the shots,” Francesco’s widow testified, “but with this miserable world that destroyed my marriage.”

Milan is in the industrial capital of Italy; it is also the center of publishing and ranks with Paris and New York as a hub of world fashion. Its modeling agencies and photo studios attract young women from around the globe and especially from America, all seeking fame and money. “They arrive here used to eating hamburgers made out of ground bones, and they’re catapulted into luxury restaurants,” declares a popular hairdresser named Franco Battaglia, through whose midtown establishment dozens of these hopefuls pass every week. “From Coca-Cola they go to champagne, from the occasional sniff of cocaine they find themselves surrounded by trays full of the white powder. They arrive shy, naive, and afraid. After a month of this life, they’ve already learned how the world works, and they’ve completely changed. But it’s not their fault. It’s these rich characters who ruin them, delude them, promise them dazzling careers.”

original magazine spread

Original magazine spread in Cosmo

Many of these young women have never been abroad before. They arrive in the city with a few hundred dollars in their purses, a promise of work from some agency or other, an introduction or two to a well-known local photographer or art director, and much hope. The agencies, especially those with offices in New York, sometimes pay for their plane tickets and loan them enough money to stay alive for a month or two while they’re out making rounds.

If a girl gets lucky, the money is good, ranging from $200 to $1,000 a day. Equally important, she can build up her portfolio, eventually move on to Paris or New York, where she can become an international cover girl, fashion star, and very rich. And what lies beyond? Why not Hollywood, true celebrity, millions? The dreams are real, at least.

The first few weeks in town are crucial. If a model can get herself hired for a fashion layout or an advertising campaign, she begins to earn a little money, out of which she has to repay the agency and keep herself alive. More than alive, she has to look all the time and everywhere just as beautiful and alluring as possible. And she has to go on making the rounds, get herself known, not only inside the studios, ad agencies, television-producing offices, and magazines but in the party circles, nightclubs, restaurants, luxury apartments, and country villas of the powerful, the well-connected, and/or the merely rich.

“It’s not by chance that Francesco was married to a model, courted only models, spent the last night of his life with a model, and was killed by a model.”

Some few women can and do succeed on their extraordinary good looks and talent, but most can’t. They need help, they need connections, the kind that can get them the break they want—an introduction to a top photographer, a meeting with a powerful art director, an audition for a TV commercial. And they also need support, money, a little flattery, a hand to hold in the dark. “They know we’re alone like dogs here,” a 21-year-old model from Houston named Rochelle Redfield told a reporter shortly after the D’Alessio murder, “without roots, far away from our friends, and that their company is the only one offered us.”

The available men are cast from a classic mold. They all have plenty of money but are usually not the ones who made it. Francesco D’Alessio’s father, Carlo, is an industrialist and the proprietor of Italy’s most successful Thoroughbred racing stable. Francesco’s closest friends were Guido Borghi, whose family makes refrigerators; Carlo Cabassi, the brother of a powerful financier; and Umberto Caproni, heir to an airplane business. These typical figli di papá, or “daddy’s kids,” consider any evening wasted in which they fail to show up at some fashionable gathering or watering hole without at least one long-legged beauty, preferably foreign, on their arm. “It’s not by chance that Francesco was married to a model, courted only models, spent the last night of his life with a model, and was killed by a model,” an acquaintance of his observes.

Meeting the new arrivals on the scene has never been much of a problem for these men. One way is to hang around a midtown residence hotel called the Principessa Clotilde—better known everywhere in the fashion world as the Princess Clitoris—most of whose 220 rooms are rented out either to the women themselves or permanently occupied by the hunters. The latter are hard to resist, even if their advances tend to be a little crude. “I was sitting on a sofa at somebody’s party,” one ex-model recalls, “when some little fat guy sat down next to me. He’s looking me up and down, and then he pulls out his checkbook and shows me he’s got millions in the bank. He sticks it back into his pocket and says, ‘I’m tired of this. Want to go to my place?’ Then he asks me if I’ve been there before. So many girls come and go that he can’t even remember.”

Usually, the wooing is a little less brutal and accompanied by masses of flowers and small gifts. Some of the girls move in with these men, a few even get married, but most soon find themselves being passed around until they discover they’ve become used goods and the phone stops ringing. Yet given the dreary alternatives, it’s understandable they would let themselves be whisked into this corrupt life. “I never gave a damn about hanging around that world,” a 26-year-old model from Chicago told a reporter, “but I can understand my colleagues who are blinded by those siren calls.”

She went on to describe a daily life made up of hours wasted on useless interviews and auditions, bad treatment at the hands of photographers, contempt from fashion editors. And all the time the obsession to be perfect, to stay thin, the fear of putting on that deadly extra ounce. “And then, when the day is over, the four walls of your hotel room. Loneliness, squalor, boredom.” Obviously, it’s much more fun to be wined, dined, and showered with presents, even if there may be a small carnal price to pay at the end of the evening.

What most of the women caught up in this self-indulgent game fail to realize is that the rules are largely dictated by the Mafia, which secretly owns not only many of the nightclubs and restaurants they frequent but some of the hotels they stay in. Milan, with its hordes of flashy entrepreneurs, has become celebrated as the crime capital of Italy. Several local commentators have compared it to Chicago in the 1920s, the only difference being that today’s gangsters are making their fortunes mostly in the narcotics trade. Through the city’s streets and piazzas flow what one columnist called “rivers of heroin,” and drugs of all kinds are available practically on any corner.

“Sometimes, he’d drive holding the steering wheel between his knees while he sniffed cocaine,” Terry later testified.

One of D’Alessio’s acquaintances from the club-and-disco scene was Joe Maserati, a hood reported to be the king of the cocaine traffickers. And the fact is that the story of Terry Broome and her victim is also a tale of cocaine addiction. “I have nothing against the sad little girl who fired the shots,” Cheryl Stevens, D’Alessio’s widow, testified in court, “but with this miserable world that destroyed my marriage….Cocaine drove [my husband] crazy. Once, when he’d taken too much, he tried to rape and strangle me, he who at the start of our relationship was so sweet and gentle.”

By the time Terry Broome and Francesco D’Alessio met in the spring of 1984, they were both living on the edge of catastrophe, united in their little dance of death by their mutual desperation. Terry was 26, with a long history of failure already behind her. For her, the Milan adventure was another in a series of misguided attempts to haul herself out of a pit and achieve success in a world for which she had few qualifications. One of five children, she was raised on various military bases all over the U.S. and grew up envying her younger sister Donna, who was prettier and more popular than she. Terry was terrified of her father, Bill, a career Air Force sergeant who raised his kids as if they were a combat platoon and used to knock them around. “He threw us from wall to wall and punched us like we were big men,” she remembers. Terry was, in fact, his favorite victim.

At 15, she ran away, was hitchhiking in South Carolina when picked up by a couple of bikers and raped. Then the man she approached for help near a local bus station also attacked her, but this time, though nearly hysterical, she managed to fight him off. Her father’s reaction was that she probably deserved whatever had happened to her.

She tried to escape again at 18 by marrying a high-school beau, but the union quickly failed. Donna, meanwhile, had moved to New York and was already launched on a successful modeling career. Terry joined her there but couldn’t find much work. She was a little too tall, a little too gangly, and her freckled, irregular features didn’t photograph as well as her sister’s. She drifted onto a party circuit of drugs an alcohol. “I was drinking maybe a bottle of Scotch a day,” she recalls.

In 1979, she followed Donna to Paris, where everything at first was, “marvelous, fabulous, divine.” After a few weeks, however, Terry found herself once again tagging around after her sister and finding no work. She thought she’d become known, but everybody knew her only as Donna’s sister.

She fled back to New York and, in 1980, tried to kill herself. Finally, she returned to her family in Columbia, South Carolina. There, helped by her mother, she fought to break her habits, but her old acquaintances would telephone from New York and she would go up on visits and fall into booze and cocaine again. Nevertheless, despite a number of such setbacks, she did manage to pull herself together and save enough money to rejoin Donna, this time in Milan, for one more try at modeling.

Terry arrived in the city on April 20, 1984, with about $1,000 in cash in her purse, which was snatched by a pickpocket the very next day in the subway. Suddenly destitute, she became totally dependent on her sister and moved into her apartment. But Donna was deeply involved with a rich businessman named Giorgio Santambrogio and couldn’t cope with Terry’s disorderly intrusion into her life. “I used to spend days cleaning up her messes, putting things back in place,” Donna explained in an interview. Eventually, she moved Terry into the Principessa Clotilde, where she was immediately snapped up by a 38-year-old playboy named Claudio Caccia and introduced to the city’s extravagant nightlife.

Caccia took Terry to all the best places—the Café Roma, the Plastique, the Vogue, and the Nepentha, the last everybody’s favorite late-night hangout in the shadow of the curlicued Gothic spires of Milan’s great cathedral. In these hot spots, where the cocaine provided by the Mafia is passed around on little trays and everybody sniffs, Terry quickly became hooked again but didn’t think she was in trouble. Whereas Donna and her boyfriend would show up in this milieu only occasionally and then just have a drink or two before moving on, Terry became a regular. Her days were spent hoping for jobs that never materialized, her nights being taken from one place to another, passed from one bed to the next and always high on coke. Still, she had convinced herself she’d make it. “If I don’t get the success I expect, I’ll content myself with a husband,” she told a friend.

She even thought she had finally met just a man in a jeweler named Giorgio Rotti. He had a shop on the fashionable Via Manzoni and a pied-à-terre at the Princess Clitoris. Chunky and hairy, with a big nose, he was not good looking, but at least he treated her well. He gave her a gold necklace, a ring, an expensive watch, and he drove her around in a Mercedes, with a telephone in it. He also used drugs. “Sometimes, he’d drive holding the steering wheel between his knees while he sniffed cocaine,” Terry later testified. Nevertheless, he seemed to be genuinely smitten by her and even introduced her to his parents, a sure sign in Italy that he was serious about her. In early June, Terry moved in with Rotti. “I can’t believe this,” she told Donna. “I’m so happy.”

The happiness was not destined to last more than a couple of weeks, because by this time, Terry had already met her nemesis, D’Alessio. Their first encounter was at a party Caccia had taken her to on the night of May 6 at Carlo Cabassi’s villa in Casorezzo, a few miles out in the suburbs. A gray-haired, elegant-looking man, Cabassi has a reputation for giving parties that start out innocently enough but often degenerate into drug-and-sex orgies. On this occasion, after the servants had gone to bed, Terry remembers his preparing “lines of snow” with a razor blade for his guests to snort from a tabletop. Under the questioning court, Cabassi couldn’t recall if whether cocaine had been used that night, “but I can’t exclude it, because I can’t know what my guests have.” He did admit that he himself sometimes used the drug but continued to deny Terry’s version. “Nobody’s going to make a demon out of me,” he told his friends during the trial. “I’m vaccinated against this and other things.”

Later that night, Cabassi persuaded Caccia to let him take part in a sexual threesome with Terry. Francesco had fallen asleep on the floor, but a few hours later, after hearing that he had missed out on the fun, he walked into Terry’s bedroom and woke her up. He began to masturbate in front of her and insisted that she make love to him immediately. Terry refused; she was afraid Donna would find out about the party, and she was sober enough by now not to want to give herself to anyone. Which to Francesco must have seemed like a slap in the face; he was not used to being turned down. As Terry would testify, “I think he was very well known and very liked liked by girls.”

In any event, from then on, Francesco never let up on her. Because they moved in the same circles, the two kept bumping into each other, and on every occasion, he would proposition her or make disparaging remarks, then touch himself in the crotch. Terry told her friends about these incidents, but even those who witnessed them advised her to ignore them. It was just the way Francesco was, nothing to take seriously, nothing to worry about. But for Terry, his behavior became a daily nightmare. “He used to call me a whore, a bitch.” She couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t let her alone; she didn’t realize he was as desperate as she.

On the surface, Francesco D’Alessio appeared to have everything. He was 40, a ruggedly handsome man of 6 feet 4 who had been born rich, knew everybody, had a beautiful wife, two healthy children, and had succeeded at whatever he tried. He also liked to gamble. He knew more about racehorses than anyone except perhaps his father. In his teens, he sat up late at night studying blood lines and breeding charts, and he could judge the racing potential of an animal in five minutes. “Women didn’t matter to him,” recalls a bookmaker who used to go to the races with Francesco. “They came after everything else, and everything else came after horses.”

“Life is a bet,” he liked to say, “and I want to lose it.”

D’Alessio had always been rude and headstrong, probably as a result of his pampered childhood, but after he found drugs, he became something more than merely a big, undisciplined kid used to getting his own way. One acquaintance remembers Francesco’s beating up an American girl in a nightclub because she wouldn’t go to bed with him. And several years earlier, at the Nepentha, he kicked and slapped his wife around because he had found out that she wanted to leave him. He cracked up cars, fell asleep in his clothes in hotel lobbies, didn’t wash, rarely shaved, created public scenes everywhere, from which only his money and connections extricated him.

As his life went to pieces and her personality disintegrated, he turned his self-hatred against all women. “He used to love them, that’s all,” a friend recalls. “Love? An invention of novels, according to him,” says another. He developed sadistic psychological techniques for making women fall in love with him and then leave them. He became obsessed by the idea they were all trying to put something over on him. An acquaintance remembers bumping into him at a private sporting club in the company of a beautiful blonde. Francesco pulled him aside, “What do you say, shall I drop her?” he asked. The friend didn’t know how to answer, so he mumbled, “Why rush it? Sooner or later, probably, it’ll end anyway.” To which Francesco replied, “So then better do it at once. Thanks for the advice.” Then he turned back to the girl. “From this moment, you’ve had it,” he announced and walked away.

His gambling became a metaphor for his urge to self-destruct. Although a superb handicapper who could read an odds board at a glance, he made impossible bets. He played to lose, and not only on the horses but at cards, tennis (a sport at which he had been a champion), even the most routine aspects of daily life. By the time he met Terry Broome, he had convinced himself that nothing counted except the pleasure of the moment and that existence was meaningless. “Life is a bet,” he liked to say, “and I want to lose it.”

One the night of June 25, Terry and Rotti joined Donna and her boyfriend at the Café Roma, where Terry spotted Francesco at the bar. Anticipating trouble, she persuaded her party to leave, and they moved on to the Nepentha. But at 2:00 a.m., Francesco showed up and walked over to their table. “Hi, look who’s here,” he said to Rotti and smiled at Terry, who was already high on pills, alcohol, and coke. She fled to the ladies room, but he waited for her to come out, then hung around the table dropping crude insinuations about Terry’s penchant for group scenes and homosexual affairs. “How come when the girls are with Rotti, they don’t want to [have sex with] me anymore?” he asked at one point.

The jeweler did not rise to the bait, and the group soon left the club. On the way home in the car, though, Rotti maintained a sullen silence, then suddenly asked for the return of his gifts. “What happened at the Nepentha must have made Giorgio change his mind,” Terry later told one of her defense lawyers. Although she eventually found out that Rotti had treated other so-called fiancées of his the same way, she believe at the time that the incident had ruined her marriage plans.

Back in the apartment, Rotti went to bed, but Terry was too upset and agitated to sleep. She moved restlessly about, then rummaged through bureau drawers looking for electronic games, for which she had a passion, and came across Rotti’s gun, a Smith & Wesson .38-caliber revolver. She put the weapon in a brown bag, opened it into her purse along with some little plastic envelopes of cocaine, put a jacket on over her blouse and jeans, and telephoned Francesco at his apartment on the Corso Magenta, an elegant part of town. She made an attempt to pass herself off as “Diana” and was invited to come over, even though she had the clear impression Francesco wasn’t alone.

After a 10-minute cab ride across town and a couple of snorts of coke, she showed up at D’Alessio’s place at about 5:00 a.m. As she had suspected, he wasn’t alone but in the company of a tall, pretty blonde named Laura Marie Royko. Francesco grinned at Terry and invited her into the bedroom. “I knew you’d show up,” he told her and again made more of his ugly advances. When she refused him, he asked if she wanted him to invite some of his friends over, since one man clearly wasn’t enough for her, and he also called her a bitch.

It was too much. Terry suddenly reached into her purse, took out the gun, and fired. The first shot missed and Francesco moved toward her. The second one struck him in the chest, but he managed to reach her and grab her wrist. They fell to the floor, wrestling for the gun, and Terry pulsed the trigger three more times. The last bullet caught Francesco in the temple, from a distance of about five inches. Terry got up, put the gun back in her purse, and left but not before assuring the woman in the next room that she had nothing to fear from her.

“I didn’t want to kill Francesco,” she kept repeating to anyone who would listen. “I didn’t mean to kill him.”

The horrified Royko, who had been dimly aware only of an argument going on in the bedroom prior to the shots, ran out of the apartment to inform Carlo Cabassi, who kept a penthouse flat upstairs. “I shouted, ‘Carlo, Carlo, wake up!’” Royko recalls, “‘Francesco’s dying!’ He got up, got dressed very slowly, and went downstairs.” While an ambulance and the police were being summoned, Cabassi set about eliminating any evidence of drugs, then calmly telephoned various friends to tell them what had happened. Francesco was apparently still breathing, but he had not much longer to live.

At home, after Terry had told Rotti what had happened, the jeweler reloaded the gun and put it back in the drawer. Terry called Donna, then hung up on her when her sister began to shout that she had been nothing but trouble ever since she arrived. While Terry packed a suitcase, Rotti cleaned the blood off her sneakers. Then he drove her to the airport. “I had a round-trip New York/Milan ticket,” Terry later explained to a magistrate, “but I didn’t want to go back to the United States.” At Rotti’s suggestion, she flew to Zurich on a ticket he bought for her and holed up there in a cheap rooming house that happened to be opposite a police station. When the Swiss, altered by the Italian authorities, began to look for her, all the cops had to do to arrest her was to cross the street.

Extradited to Milan, Terry was stunned by the crush of reporters and the popping of photographers’ flashbulbs that greeted her return. “What is this?” she asked, confused and apparently unaware of the sensation the crime was causing. “I didn’t want to kill Francesco,” she kept repeating to anyone who would listen. “I didn’t mean to kill him.”

Terry spent the next two years in jail awaiting trial. She was held first in an old and overcrowded prison in Milan and then Pavia, where she was mixed in with hardened criminals, drug addicts, and lunatics and became addicted to methadone, a chemical substitute for heroin prescribed for her by someone on the medical staff. Twice she tried to kill herself by slashing her wrists. Finally, she was moved to a more modern facility near the ancient town of Bergamo, east of Milan. And there she started at last to rebuild her life.

She was immediately befriended by a former terrorist named Vincenza Fiorini, who helped Terry with her rudimentary Italian and eased her into the prison routine. The two young women shared a cell, and Terry began to find security and peace in this new relationship. Her mother continued to stand by her; so, too, did Donna (she is still a top model, and her career, in fact, has benefitted from the attendant publicity).

When the case finally came to trial last summer, there was no doubt where the sympathies of the public lay. Terry was regarded as the victim, not the protagonist, of the crime. Her codefendants—Rotti, Caccia, and Cabassi, who were up on various related charges but had spent almost no time in jail—were referred to in the press as “the three little pigs” and pilloried as the architects of her ruin. In his summation, one of her defense lawyers told the judges, “You see before you a living being, but in effect she is deader than the one whose life she inadvertently took. Only your sentences can bring this girl back to life.” The spectators burst into applause and many people, including Terry’s interpreter, were crying, but the presiding magistrate sternly reminded the courtroom that “a hall of justice is not a theater.” All Terry had to say in her own defense was that she had not meant to kill Francesco and could do nothing to indemnify his death. “I can only guarantee that I will try to change my life.”

After eight hours of deliberation, she was found guilty of voluntary homicide (second-degree murder) with attenuating circumstances and sentenced to 14 years in prison. She has already served more than three and seems sure to be released well before she completes her full term. Her lawyers, meantime, are appealing the sentence, but Terry seems resigned, even content, to be where she is. She now gets up every morning at 7 and spends her day making pottery, studying Italian, writing, reading, working in the prison vegetable garden and laundry, for which she is paid about $100 a month, enough for her immediate needs. Free at last of her dependency on pills and coke, she looks tanned and fit. She seems to have acquired a pretty clear understanding of her own involvement in a scene she doesn’t miss and has no regrets about the world she left behind, most certainly not the men in it. In jail, she has assured everyone, she has met a far better class of people.

As for the three little pigs, they were all found guilty of a number of offenses, ranging from possession of drugs to giving false testimony, but were handed suspended sentences and sent home. Of these men and the scene in general, a well-known columnist named Giorgio Bocca observed that “they had no desire or capacity to love” and had to resort to drugs and the lures of the flesh to make it through the night. The women, he continued, were incapable of having valid desires or of living real lives but allowed themselves to be exploited and used simply in order to be thought desirable, to be valued solely for their looks and immediate availability. We had been asked to witness a dram of impotence, he wrote, without heroes or heroines, played out against a background of trivial pursuits and easy money.

Produced and directed, he might have added, by the real villains of the piece—the quasi-respectable Mafia hoods who keep the rivers of drugs flowing through the great cities of the world. None of them were on trial in Milan.

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