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A former US congressman’s wife is now a princess with a $500 million Roman villa for sale

Rita Jenrette (No author/WikiCommons)
April 10, 2022

This story is equal measure fairy tale, heartbreaker and adventure, and its roots are in South Carolina politics.

Rita Jenrette burst on the scene as the second wife of U.S. Rep. John Jenrette, a rising star of Democratic politics turned bad boy and federal prison inmate. He was seen as a Kennedy-like candidate, groomed for greatness, with a blond and beautiful wife, personable and not quite as staid as some of the wives of Washington, D.C.

Today, nearly 50 years later, Rita Jenrette is Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi of Italy, the third wife of the now-deceased Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi, living in a 500-year-old Roman villa valued at nearly half a billion dollars.

On Thursday, the villa she has called home for the better part of two decades will be auctioned in a contentious battle with her stepsons to settle part of her husband’s estate.

How the 72-year-old got from South Carolina’s Pee Dee to Rome, with stops as a TV host in Los Angeles and real estate broker to Donald Trump is, quite simply, the stuff of Hollywood.

The Jenrettes of Washington, D.C.

Rita Carpenter was born in San Antonio, Texas, to a ranching family. She graduated cum laude with a history degree from the University of Texas and before long was in Washington, D.C., working for the Republican National Committee gathering research on Democrats.

Then, in 1976, she married one. John Jenrette was running for what would be his second of three terms in the House of Representatives. They met on the day she arrived in Washington, and he urged John Clark, a top aide, to interview her for a job.

In his book “Capitol Steps and Missteps,” Clark says he did interview Rita, but they had no jobs available at the time.

Eighteen months later, Rita and John were married.

She remembers soon after they were married shaking hands outside a factory at 4 a.m. then watching a greased pig contest, which she said she found fascinating. A vegetarian, at an event later she worked her way around the meat in a chicken bog.

In a WhatsApp call from the villa, she recounted the memory with good humor, not derision, one part of the life she led at the time.

Clark feels otherwise.

“Reaction to Rita was mixed,” he said in an email Tuesday. “When in public, she was friendly and generally liked by locals. But many conservatives, especially women, were put off by what they considered an ostentatious manner.”

He said she seemed to “put up with the locals, but did not want to spend much time with them.”

She was 25; Jenrette was 39. Clark in his book recounts a stormy relationship between the Jenrettes. John Jenrette had numerous sexual affairs — sometimes more than one a day — both in Washington and in South Carolina’s 6th District.

Rita Jenrette claimed in a Playboy story from that time that she and her husband had sex on the Capitol steps during a late-night session, a story she has since renounced.

Clark said that story is largely what people of the district remember about her.

Jenrette was reelected in 1976 and 1978. Then along came the FBI and ABSCAM, an FBI operation to uncover political corruption in the government.

Thirty-one public officials were targeted for the investigation, in which FBI agents posed as representatives of a fictional Abdul Enterprises, Ltd., owned by an Arab sheik. They were offered money for votes on government contracts benefiting the sheik.

Five congressmen, including Jenrette, were convicted of bribery and corruption.

“So devastating to me. So traumatic,” Rita said.

Jenrette served 13 months of a two-year sentence in federal prison. He lost the 1980 election.

Television, movies and interaction with Trump

A lot happened to Rita Jenrette in the early 1980s. She divorced her husband and published a book — “My Capitol Secrets.”

The book and subsequent interviews on shows like “The Phil Donahue Show” brought loud rejoinders from some usually quiet congressional spouses.

“I think she’s a very bush-league Marilyn Monroe,” June Bingham, wife of Rep. Jonathan Bingham (D-N.Y.) told the Washington Post in 1981. “She has Marilyn Monroe’s problem of good looks and no self-esteem. People like that just want admiration.”

Clark said, in the article, Jenrette “belittled the rural people of the district, picturing them as a bunch of simpleton rednecks and viciously attacked the men and women of the Grand Strand as a bunch of vacuous, adulterous hedonists.”

Any goodwill she had left was extinguished, he said.

Jenrette simply moved on. She laughs now at the idea of writing an autobiography at 29.

Subsequently, Jenrette appeared in plays, made a movie called “Zombie Island Massacre,” joined the “Fantasy Island” television show cast and appeared in Playboy twice.

By the end of the decade, she was hired to interview celebrities on “A Current Affair.”

Then, she said, she got bored. She needed something new to do.

She moved to New York City and began selling real estate. Among her oft-told stories is of selling the General Motors building to Donald Trump in 1998. She said she went into his office and he bragged about his net worth.

“I didn’t know what to say, so I said, ‘How lovely for you,'” she said.

Jenrette also said Trump didn’t pay her commission, but ultimately she was paid by another party involved in the sale.

The prince, the villa and his three sons

In 2003, Rita Jenrette met Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi. She said he had read a story about New York power brokers.

He asked a friend to serve as an intermediary to tell her he had property he wanted to develop as a hotel in Rome.

She was in her last year in the Harvard MBA program and had little time to spare.

“Besides, everyone calls himself a prince,” she said.

She agreed to go for three days.

“He was so charming,” she said. “It was magical.”

Soon, he was asking her which of his houses she’d like to live in. They married in 2009.

She chose Villa Aurora, built in 1570 by Francesco del Nero, a member of a rich Florentine family and a treasurer of Pope Clement VII.

It sits about a half mile from what is now Trevi Fountain on a knoll overlooking Rome. Devastated by neglect — birds flew through it — the 30,000-square-foot villa nonetheless holds antiquities and masterpieces — a statue of the Greek god Pan attributed to Michelangelo, a rare Caraviaggio mural representing most of the value of the house.

Galileo, Goethe and Tchaikovsky were visitors to the estate that once covered almost 90 acres. At one time it was home to Julius Caesar.

T. Corey Brennan, a classics professor at Rutgers University, met the Ludovisis in 2010. Since then, he has compiled the Boncompagni Ludovisi archives, 150,000 pages of material.

“We’ve only scratched the surface,” he said.

They have found “revealing” letters from Marie Antoinette in perfect condition.

“They were sealed up and not looked at again,” he said.

As they uncovered historic documents, they began working on the building itself, if not to restore it, at least to rectify the decay. A new roof, other fixes.

She gave tours to generate income and invested some of her own money into the work.

Then in 2018, the prince died. He was 77.

“He was reading about physics on the day he died,” the princess said.

She describes her life in Rome as “the happiest 20 years of my life.”

According to his will, his wife could live there as long as she wanted to, and if sold, the proceeds would go 50% to her and 50% to the prince’s three sons.

An Italian court ordered the property be auctioned. The asking price was $534 million.

Held in January, the first auction did not attract a bid. The court set a second auction for Thursday, cutting the asking price 20% to $427 million.

Ludovisi has come to terms with the ill will with her stepsons and the possibility she might have to move. She’s not sure where she would go should that happen.

But she does know there are few people in the world who could afford the house, the necessary renovations and the upkeep.

In the meantime, Ludovisi is watching current events unfold — from the pandemic, where she stayed in the villa except to go to church — and the war in the Ukraine. Her housekeeper’s grandchildren are living with her now, having arrived from Ukraine in mid-March.

“I’ve had a wonderful life, and I’ve met a lot of wonderful people,” she said.

Something interesting will come next. It always has.


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