George Pavia, leading Italian lawyer in America for many decades, has died in New York at the age of 92. A void is always left when a member of our community passes away, and in George’s case, the void is huge. Besides his dedication to his firm, George has always in fact, been involved in the most diverse Italian businesses in America; in addition to the world of business, he loved to offer his services for philanthropic missions. He witnessed the creation of GEI, Gruppo Esponenti Italiani, has always supported it, and served on its Board of Directors until a few years ago. He contributed to the launch of the American Italian Cancer Foundation, where he was again a member of the Board of Directors, and supported countless other activities that dealt with bilateral relations.
For this reason, as well, he was awarded the title of Commander of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic. His personal story was not an easy one, a story that takes us very far back in time.
George Pavia was born in Genoa right before the great stock market crash of 1929 and in the middle of a tragic period of time for Europe which proved to be the run-up to the Second World War. His father Enrico, was an expert in international law and one of the most respected lawyers in the city. The family, Jewish, had its roots in Casale Monferrato, about 100 kilometers north, in Piedmont. In the square in Casale, there is still an inscription, “Mercato Pavia” near the small synagogue, one of the most beautiful in Italy. The family worked hard to succeed: a grandfather, Tobia Pavia, formed an import-export business with Max Vitale, mainly dealing with Great Britain, and mainly with whiskey. The family then left the business. However, the Max Vitale company is still to this day, the number one importer of Scottish whiskey in Italy.
Enrico Pavia joined up in the First World War at the age of 16, serving in the cavalry, going back and forth between the French troops and the Italian ones, and received a medal of valor. He then pursued his career until the racial persecutions enacted by Mussolini’s regime in 1938. Due to those laws, Enrico was forced to leave his profession and his children were forced to leave their schools. He had contacts in England where he had studied, and was interned on the Island of Man. He then prepared with his family for the great crossing of the Atlantic, the escape to America, the departure in 1940 on the transatlantic ship, Western Prince, which was then sunk during its return voyage. All of this left an indelible mark on the consciousness and philosophy of young George, subjected to painful racial discrimination and forced to flee, risking his life when he was in his early twenties.
In New York, Enrico worked hard for Citibank. His children, George and Bruno studied law. He established Pavia Harcourt and his children also entered the same profession. After the war, Enrico returned to Italy and re-opened the firm in Genoa: “My father would ask himself: ‘Why do I have to be one of the lawyers at the bottom of the list in New York when I can be the number one lawyer in Italy?’”, George told me a few years ago. He added, “My brother returned with him, while I remained in New York. In a short period of time, the new Pavia Ansaldo firm opened its offices in Milan and Rome and became one of the most prominent Italian firms”.
The American firm and the Italian one collaborated together. Then came the rupture that also marked a family split many years after the death of his father. In his blunt, dry and very direct style George pieced it together like this: “A guy named Francesco Zini arrived at the New York firm from Milan during the Parmalat scandal. This man made a mess of things that created tension between the two firms. It’s useless to rehash it, the relationship at that time deteriorated, plain and simple. My brother remained with Pavia Ansaldo in Milan and I stayed with Pavia Harcourt, but the reciprocity between the two firms ended”.
George continued to go to work until the end. Now over 90, he continued to be part of various Boards of Directors. He was happy to hand the reins over to Giovanni Spinelli, who worked at the firm with him for many years.“Spinelli represents the continuity of a long story that has roots from the last century, and in the preceding one”, George would tell me, who among other things, even had a lawyer of the caliber of Sonia Sotomayor work for him, who today is an American Supreme Court Justice.
The firm has always been a bridge for Italian and European companies that decide to expand to the United States, starting with Fiat and Ferrari, then expanding to the banking, fashion and luxury sectors. Among its clients are Valentino, Ferragamo, Dolce & Gabbana, Roberto Cavalli, Unicredit (at this point for 60 years), and Ubibanca. One of the firm’s strong points has been its specialization in its individual assistance, for instance, in civil law and international corporate law, Trust & Estate, business, immigration and in arbitration — to follow the client through every phase of American growth, from starting a business to researching local key partners.
One of the key characteristics of George’s success was that of humanity, of his strong human relationships with clients. He could even be blunt, but he was always focused on the point under discussion. Characterized by a great sense of confidence, he was pragmatic just as all great lawyers are, often relying more on his intuition and his professional wisdom than on the legal codes to resolve his client’s problem. Having assisted them in their business with hundreds and perhaps thousands of clients, I asked him which one he considered to be the best deal he’s ever made. “My house” — he told me – “I bought it for $365,000 in 1976, and I sold it a couple of years ago for $20 million. We say it all the time, one of our strong points is real estate.”
That house, a townhouse on the Upper East Side — a stone’s throw away from Central Park — will for sure remain in many people’s memory. In the grand halls, George would host an annual reception that important business people and members of the Italian community in New York would attend. He was always a pillar of the transatlantic bridge. With his death, a key post-World War II era has come to an end, when relationships between Italy and the United States had become ever stronger. His memories, lucid and often dense with sharp observations regarding who he met in his very long professional life, have been precious.
I still remember the large, antique print of Genoa that he always had in his firm. For me, it symbolized our shared roots. My father was also from Genoa and he also had to escape during Fascism. It was a print that he cared about because it reminded him of his youth, his birth city and his country of origin that he may have criticized for its political inconsistencies, but that he genuinely loved and continued to love.
Translation by Emmelina De Feo