And yet, the same refrain: “Then I felt I needed to do something else.” With her marriage foundering, she decided to make a fresh start in Manhattan, where at the time, she says, “apartments cost nothing!” She bought a prime Fifth Avenue duplex for under $250,000 and spent $1 million redoing it and wiring it with sensors that automatically modulated everything from the lighting to the music to the coffeepot. “I look at Bill Gates today with his ‘smart house,’” she boasts, “and I think: I had that in the Seventies!”
Overstatement aside, it’s impossible not to be charmed by Fontanals-Cisneros’s exuberance or impressed by her triumphs. After she finished renovating the Manhattan apartment, a buyer offered $4 million for it. “The most expensive home on Fifth Avenue at that time was well under a million,” she claims. “My sale was all over the papers. I said to myself, My God, I did something that people like, and I wanted to do it again. So I started a business in New York, buying apartments and turning them into the future!”
The house-flipping phase lasted for five years before she returned to Caracas to be with Oswaldo and devote herself to philanthropy. After the director of a charity she founded ran off with the organization’s money, she embarked on what she describes as a spiritual quest with a guru. “One day, in 1989, I heard in my meditation that I should travel to Jackson Hole,” she says. “I didn’t know where it was, but I heard that people would be waiting there to help me start a foundation. So I took my plane and just went.” In Wyoming she met with local officials and set up the Together Foundation, an international conflict-resolution center that relied heavily on new computer technologies, which led her to get involved with a software company. “I started trying to build the Internet!” she says, sounding like a Latina Al Gore on uppers. “But then AOL came out first.”
Meanwhile, she and Oswaldo began drifting apart again, and in 2001 the couple finally divorced. Afterward, she says, Oswaldo, with whom she remains on good terms, remarried and adopted four children from Romania.
Fontanals-Cisneros has also found someone new—an Italian banker and abstract photographer named Guido Albi Marini who rarely spends a night away from her, whether she’s at her Coconut Grove condo or her homes in Gstaad, Madrid, and Naples, Italy. (She flies between them on her red and white private jet.) And she has achieved, on Miami’s art circuit, the sort of recognition one assumes she had hoped for in all of her previous endeavors. “She’s a visionary, and she’s lived a very intense life,” says her friend and fellow Miami art patron Solita Mishaan. “She leaves her mark.”