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The Frothy Saga of the Jacuzzi Family

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The Frothy Saga of the Jacuzzi Family

Candido Jacuzzi didn’t set out to turn his last name into a global brand. Nor did he intend to power a business which, though it created the family fortune, nearly tore them apart. He just wanted to ease the physical pain suffered by his son, any way he could.

The Jacuzzi — that vessel of bubbling water known and loved the world over — may now be geared for backyard socializing, a must-have for yachts, hotels and chalets, spring break parties and cruise liners, but its technology was conceived with just one person in mind: Kenneth Jacuzzi, a boy under 2 years old, stricken with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis after a severe case of strep throat.

This empire starts, and ends, with family — seven brothers, to be exact, Candido being the seventh. It begins long before his son’s diagnosis in 1943, although that was the catalyst.

The Jacuzzis were, at the turn of the 20th century, a large clan in Casarsa, a farming commune in Northern Italy. Growing up on this hilltop surrounded by vineyards, the siblings began work early and wore wooden shoes, saving handmade slippers for Mass.

Though money was often scarce, the family had as pillars their deeply religious parents: Teresa, who didn’t work outside the home, and Giovanni, a carpenter. They were descendants of farmers and dock workers, and not only raised seven sons, but also six daughters. These were, in order: Rachele, Valeriano, Francesco, Giuseppe, Gelindo, Giocondo, Felicità, Angelina, Ancilla, Candido, Cirilla, Stella and Gilia. They were an ambitious baker’s dozen; the boys studied to become engineers, and the girls trained to become seamstresses.

As change swept through Europe, and war threatened, Giovanni hatched a plan to get his sons to the United States. The brothers headed wherever there was work. For some this meant rural Idaho; for others, sun-dappled California, where eventually the entire family would settle.

“They dug ditches, built railroads, did everything they could to make a buck and send it back to Italy, and try to get the rest of the family over,” said Paulo Jacuzzi, 54, the grandson of Valeriano Jacuzzi, the second oldest of the thirteen children and the first to arrive in America.

It was a gradual exodus, starting in 1907 and ending in 1920. “The sisters came over in the second wave,” Paulo added.

The brothers, speaking only basic English, worked first in the California orange groves, before banding together and using their background as mechanical engineers to establish a machine shop in Berkeley in 1915, working under the name Jacuzzi Brothers Incorporated.

After a period of stagnancy, facing debts incurred by the loss of the expensive plane, the brothers redirected their focus to the land. They worked on developing irrigation systems for orchards and designed a line of deep-well injector pumps, later selling their patents to large corporations in exchange for royalty deals, and began manufacturing swimming pool supplies.

The move to water made them well placed to venture into hydrotherapy when, in 1943, Candido’s 15-month-old son fell ill.

The prognosis was grim, and doctors were uncertain he would live past 8. The boy was once active and healthy, but doctors told the family that he would slowly lose mobility and be unable to live independently.

Devastated, Candido and his wife, Inez, tried everything, including a full-body cast in an attempt to coax his limbs to grow straight, and even the “gold treatment,” in which gold salts are injected into the body.

But it was their introduction to hydrotherapy by way of the Hubbard tank at the Herrick hospital in Berkeley that gave them a glimmer of hope. The Hubbard was an oval-shaped vessel with a wooden bench, through which water would swirl and pummel the patient’s body to relieve stiffness and improve flexibility.

This form of hydrotherapy made such an immediate difference to the boy’s well-being that they took him there twice a week. But the hourlong drive was a strain for Inez, and painful for Ken, who would writhe in agony during the commute. “So she comes home to Candido and says, ‘Hey, I’m doing all of this driving, why can’t you make something like this at home?” Paulo recalled. “And that’s exactly what they did.”

The J-300 was a pump designed by Candido that created a similar whirl of warm water to the Hubbard and could be attached to a bath. But Ken could stretch his whole body out, whereas he had to sit upright in the Hubbard.

Once they understood the pump’s health potential, and made structural improvements to the design, the brothers began selling the units in 1949, through bath supply shops and pharmacies, before widening their focus to the broader commercial market in the mid 1950s.

An ad campaign promoted it as a “lightweight, portable, hydromassage unit,” perfect for “the tired businessman or harried housewife, for the golfer with sore muscles, for the aches and pains of senior citizens, for frolicking youngsters and for those who just want to relax and pamper themselves with a hydromassage bath.”

To some consumers the idea of mixing an electrical device with water was worrisome, so the Jacuzzis started making bath units with the technology built-in, the first of which became the original whirlpool, known as the Roman Bath (the family now has more than 50 patents). These early models featured multiple wall-mounted jet fittings, heaters and recirculation pump filters, as well as skid-proof steps and an optional safety rail.

Hence, the Jacuzzi was born.

By adding fiberglass panels, the Jacuzzi could be configured in various shapes and sizes, resulting in the 1966 Luxury Line Hydro-Therapy Pool, the same year it made its film debut in “The Fortune Cookie,” directed by Billy Wilder and starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon.

By the ’80s, Jacuzzis were globally recognized. The business had opened factories in Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Chile and Italy, as well as in the United States, choosing Lonoke, Ark., as its hub.

All of the children and grandchildren were expected to chip in during school and college vacations: working the assembly lines, packing boxes and answering the phones. “There was always that ‘you have to do it for the family’ kind of thing,” Paulo said of the Jacuzzi family’s sense of unity.

“If you have a hot tub, especially if you are like a straight man, you’re making a statement about yourself, and you want to seem very cool and suave,” said Rax King, who writes about pop culture in her book “Tacky” and hosts a podcast called “Low Culture Boil.”

By the end of the 20th century it was a given that even a middling hotel, chalet or fitness club would have a Jacuzzi. Its craterlike form has been featured in teen dramas, ’70s crime movies and ’80s soap operas. A time-traveling hot tub was the basis for an entire movie. “Saturday Night Live” used them in a recurring skit, and among the most memorable scenes in “Scarface” was Al Pacino submerged in a bedroom hot tub. More recently, there was the tub-side class tension in the Oscar-nominated film “The Triangle of Sadness.”

But these days, the allure of the Jacuzzi is increasingly clouded. Like stretch limousines, refrigerators with ice dispensers, it has come to represent the aspirational lifestyle of a recent past. The hot tub is no longer as desired as, say, a Tesla, the latest pair of statement boots or a host of less tangible digital innovations. Its ubiquity seemed to make it less of a luxury: As the market grew, similar designs emerged, which all became known as “jacuzzis.”

While they sparkled when they were first introduced, they weren’t always without their problems. If a hot tub isn’t cleaned regularly, there is the risk of harmful microbes, mold and waterborne illnesses, such as Legionnaire’s disease.

Though some people bought hot tubs during the pandemic to stave off boredom during quarantine, they had become less of a magnet in recent decades. Perhaps it’s a problem of image: Jacuzzis, once fun, exciting and new, eventually became associated with a kind of suburban banality. In 2023 you’re more likely to find aspirational mood boards for cold plunges than bubbling Jacuzzis.

“For the first 30 or so years of its existence, the hot tub was an exotic object: you could transport a hot spring into your house,” Ms. King said in a phone interview. “And now we’re all just kind of like, yeah, you can do that. You can bring the hot spring into your house, but you can also get an infection from it if someone doesn’t clean it properly, and, in my circle, at least, nobody has the space.”

By the late 1970s, the Jacuzzi family was a dynasty divided. There were 257 family members associated with the business by then and as the company grew they started to hire outsiders for senior positions, changing the internal dynamic.

Their story was not without “blemishes and blunders,” as Paulo’s father Remo Jacuzzi, 87, son of Valeriano, wrote in his 2007 biography, “Spirit, Wind & Water,” explaining that “there were some dark moments in the Jacuzzi family history when a few family members made most of the decisions and the rest felt the repercussions.”

Candido increasingly became dictatorial in his leadership style, according to Remo’s book, and as was revealed later, had begun making deals behind his brothers’ backs and had made the executive decision to establish a holding company named JacBros in Switzerland in 1959.

“It seemed to some that Candido forgot that it was not he, but Uncle Rachele, who had founded Jacuzzi Brothers,” Remo writes, recalling an incident at a wedding where a guest innocently asked Candido if he was a member of the Jacuzzi clan. To which Candido snapped, “I am THE Jacuzzi.”

Tensions had been building under the surface for some time. In a 1961 lawsuit (with the memorable title) Jacuzzi vs. Jacuzzi, one half of the family sued the other, accusing Candido’s side of selling assets without proper consultation and stripping them of their pensions.

Courtroom proceedings began in 1967, more than five years after the complaint was filed. Some members found, to their great disquiet, that they were being trailed by private investigators hired by their own flesh and blood.

Indicted by a U.S. grand jury on five counts of income tax evasion, which had been flagged to the I.R.S. during the lawsuit, Candido fled first to Italy in 1969, then to South America. In a rare 1975 interview with Sports Illustrated, he lamented the decision to include nonfamily members on the board, who he felt had complicated matters. “When there were just us brothers, we’d put a bottle of wine on the table and solve our problems,” he said. “Today, there are too many of us to do that.”

They sold the business for $73 million in 1979 to the manufacturing conglomerate Walter Kidde & Company, and with it lost the right to use the family name on all future spa products. Roy Jacuzzi, a son of Candido’s brother Joseph, was the only person left from the original company.

While it pains Paulo to recall the events that led to this breakdown, he doesn’t seem bitter. “I think sometimes you need to clear the way for the next thing,” he said. “It was still good, but there were so many strings pulling at it. At that time they weren’t just doing bathtubs, or spas, gas grills, and propellers. They were also doing all these complementary lifestyle products. Their focus was gone.”

For several members of the family, including Remo — who had by that point been working for the firm for more than two decades — the company’s mission had strayed from its original purpose.

After working for Jacuzzi Inc.’s new owners for a couple of years, Remo left and in 1982 founded Jason International in an effort to return to the invention’s therapeutic qualities. Paulo, his son, later served as president for six years until 2021.

“For me,” Remo writes in his book, “a Jacuzzi is a person, not a machine. A Jacuzzi is a member of my family.”

At the Jason International factory in North Little Rock, Ark., it’s easy to see that, much like the family, the business relies on a particular rhythm.

“Behind Every Jason Bath Stands a Jacuzzi,” one tagline read. “A product so good I wish I could put my name on it,” was another, joined by Remo’s elaborate signature.

“We had a few cease-and-desist orders,” Paulo said, chuckling. His father, who has settled into a retirement home with his wife of 60 years, sent him to the library to read up on copyright law. “But there was nothing they could do. A “Jacuzzi” was a buzzword for hot tubs, and they couldn’t claim exclusive copyright.”

“It’s brilliant Remo was gutsy enough to put that on there,” said Sandy Morehead, the customer experience director of Jason, referring to the company’s tagline. He used to tell me it was the best money he ever spent.”

Paulo said: “You are selling the story, as well as a product, and that is a benefit when selling a commodity.” It made sense for the extroverted Paulo, who is the youngest of six children, to work front of house. “They were like, ‘We’re going to get him to tell the family story, and sell the product.’ My charge was make sure, beyond your generation, we carry forward your father’s legacy, and more importantly your family’s legacy, because it’s not just because of one man — it’s about the entire family.”

“We always used to joke that the Jacuzzi was my father’s seventh, and favorite, child, who could do no wrong,” said Paulo, who agreed to speak on his father’s behalf. “My father never said it out loud, but it was understood that family is the most important thing you have.”

This was why he took the top job at Jason in 2015 after years of working at an addiction center in Texas. “Besides,” he added, leaning forward and adopting an exaggerated Italian American accent, gesturing with his hand contracted like a closed tulip, “he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

Two years ago, Paulo felt he had reached a crossroads in his role at the family firm. Half of the family had already set up business in other industries, like Jacuzzi Family Vineyards.

Finally a decision was made, with Remo in agreement, to sell Jason International but keep shares in the company.

When Robert Easter, the president of American Industrial Brands, which bought Jason in 2021, first considered buying the company, he wanted to test the product. He had two Jason whirlpool baths installed in his office headquarters in northern Florida and soaked in both. He said that many of their customers now purchase the indoor whirlpool spas for therapeutic reasons, like the alleviation of severe eczema pain — a return to the Jacuzzi’s original purpose.

“Rome may have invented the bath, but it took a Jacuzzi to perfect it,” Mr. Easter said. “It’s an American story, but it’s also an international story.”

Ken, the boy who started it all, surprised doctors by living far beyond the age of 8, though he became wheelchair bound. He got married, earned an MBA and worked for a time as a Jacuzzi manager in Italy. He died in 2017 at 75.

Mr. Easter was conscious that he was buying not just another brand but also an entire heritage, and tried to put the family at ease.

This extended to the factory’s appearance. The front of the building was remodeled, and its faux stonework, veranda and locked wooden shutters over nonexistent windows resembles a villa. Built into the wall next to the front door is a colorful mosaic of the Jacuzzi family crest. Running through its center, almost like a spine, their self-appointed motto: “Aqua Vita Est.”

Water is life.

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