Screen siren who made Marilyn look like Shirley Temple: Gina Lollobrigida drove men from Howard Hughes to Fidel Castro crazy with lust, and feuded with Sophia Loren over who had the bigger bust. But anyone who crossed her felt the lash of her tongue
- Gina ‘La Lollo’ Lollobrigida passed away today aged 95 in a Rome private clinic
- She was described as the Mona Lisa of the 20th century and ‘busto provocante’
- Gina was one of the leading stars of Italian cinema in the 1950s and 1960s
After a life lived at very full throttle, the great Gina ‘La Lollo’ Lollobrigida would have been forgiven for wanting to spend her latter years a little more quietly.
Perhaps tending her roses, or lying gracefully on one of her many chaises longues and reminiscing about a movie career starring alongside Frank Sinatra, Errol Flynn, Burt Lancaster, Sean Connery and Yul Brynner, her global fame and acclaimed beauty.
She was described as the Mona Lisa of the 20th century, the ‘temptress of the Tiber’ and the ‘busto provocante’ and drove everyone including movie mogul Howard Hughes, Prince Rainier III and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro berserk with lust.
But Gina, who passed away today, aged 95, in a private clinic in Rome, was never really the sort to live quietly away from the headlines.
Italian actress Gina ‘La Lollo’ Lollobrigida passed away aged 95, in a private clinic in Rome
She had no interest in downsizing her astonishing pink mansion (complete with flock of white storks and extraordinary art collection) or her equally impressive wardrobe. Instead, she celebrated the beginning of her tenth decade by attending a massive party thrown for her by the city of Rome and a seven-tier cake twice her height.
When out on the town, she would be adorned in shimmering haute couture — lemon yellows, baby pinks and sky blues — and so many jewels and sequins she bowed down under the weight.
She talked often and enthusiastically about her many lovers — many of them much, much, younger.
She swept in and out of court for a series of bizarre and very public legal disputes, including one about whether she had or had not married a lover who was 34 years her junior. As she put it herself in one of her final interviews: ‘All the things I did, I did with my heart. I am always busy.’
And, just last year, a few weeks after her 95th birthday, she made a second (unsuccessful) foray into Italian politics.
She also never quite grew out of her brilliantly silly feud with fellow Italian Sixties screen siren, Sophia Loren, who once dared to declare herself the ‘bustier’ of the two and was smacked back by Gina with the damning line: ‘We are as different as a fine racehorse and a goat . . . I am the No 1.’
But to be fair — and sorry, Sophia — Gina was right. Because back in the 1950s and 1960s, she was quite possibly the most famous Italian on the planet. And definitely — with her exquisite face and unfeasibly voluptuous, 36-22-35, hourglass figure — the sexiest.
Humphrey Bogart once said she ‘made Marilyn Monroe look like Shirley Temple’, for goodness’ sake. Even Rock Hudson, her co-star in Come September (1961) and Strange Bedfellows (1965), who would later come out as gay, was not immune to her sexual charms. ‘When we did our love scenes, he was quite . . . normal. He liked me very much. I felt something . . . it was more than a kiss.’
Pictured: Gina Lollobrigida and American actor Rock Hudson at the studio party in 1965
Gina Lollobrigida (pictured left) with American actress Marilyn Monroe (right) in 1954
Rock was not alone. Gina seemed to generate a sort of madness wherever she went.
When, at the height of her fame, she arrived in Argentina for a visit, she was greeted by a crowd of 60,000 fans, which included the country’s dashing president, Juan Peron. In London, hotpants went on sale embossed with her name embroidered across the rear in sequins.
Meanwhile, back home in Italy, her compatriots named a brand-new lettuce — the lollo rosso — in homage to her iconic curly up-do. And newspaper Il Messaggero didn’t exactly hold back in describing her as ‘opulent, carnal, bewitching, earthy, vital, vibrant, elegant, imperial, an ambassadress of Italian glamour to the world’.
None of which seemed to faze Gina — ‘I’m a symbol of Italy. I’m the mother of Italy,’ she liked to say, from her ten-bedroom palace in Rome.
But, even so, it must have felt light years from her very modest childhood in the small town of Subiaco near Rome, where her father was a furniture manufacturer who travelled by donkey and where she spent her teenage years avoiding World War II bombing raids before studying sculpture at Rome’s Academy of Fine Arts.
Gina Lollobrigida and her boyfriend Javier Rigau attend the 2005 Red Cross Ball in Monaco
Gina, pictured in 2014, went from furniture maker’s daughter to international film star, with forays into sculpture, photography and politics
Because the irony was, Gina never particularly wanted to be an actress. Her passion was art: sculpture and drawing.
But she was spotted by a talent scout, offered an audition at Cinecitta — the Italian version of Hollywood — and was signed up by an Italian film company which cast her as a wild mountain girl who resisted the advances of a police chief.
At first, she wasn’t keen. ‘I refused when they offered me my first role,’ she said. ‘I told them my price was one million lire, thinking that would put a stop to the whole thing. But they said yes!’
Soon after, she came third in a Miss Italia beauty pageant and, in 1949, married a Slovenian doctor, Milko Skofic, seven years her senior, who became her manager and with whom she had a son, Milko Jr, born in 1957.
She was one of the leading stars of Italian cinema in the 1950s and 1960s
Milko was perhaps rather more ambitious than his wife and happily took a set of publicity shots for a magazine of her looking particularly good in a bikini that caused quite a stir when Howard Hughes saw them 6,000 miles away in Hollywood.
Hughes — the richest tycoon in the world at the time — was like a man possessed. He tracked Gina down, offered a screen test and a free trip for her and her husband to Hollywood and, in the event — surprise, surprise — sent just one ticket for Gina.
And then, from the minute she arrived, he did everything in his power to bed her. He had divorce lawyers waiting at the airport, wooed her with a suite in a luxury hotel with a secretary and chauffeur and, for three months, visited her daily, bombarding her with pass after pass. Today, he would clearly fall into the #MeToo category.
But, in retrospect, Gina always rather regretted fending him off quite so effectively.
‘I was too innocent at the time,’ she said. ‘I later realised he was a very interesting man. More interesting than my husband.’
And so, after just three months she signed a contract and returned home, determined to avoid Hollywood and work mainly in France and Italy — making films such as The Wayward Wife and Bread, Love And Dreams.
It was her first well-known English-language movie in 1953 — opposite Bogart in John Huston’s Beat The Devil, and shot on the Amalfi coast — that was the beginning of a series of starring roles alongside the world’s most glamorous men.
Errol Flynn in Crossed Swords; Anthony Quinn in The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis in Trapeze.
She was a fantastically hard worker — during the 1950s, often making a film a month — and got on with all of her extremely appreciative co-stars, but for Frank Sinatra.
‘Zero sense of humour,’ she declared after he was regularly late on set and was clearly shocked and sulky when she ticked him off.
For Gina was never the sort to bite her lip and keep her own counsel. As well as giving old Blue Eyes the hairdryer treatment, she would be outspoken in interviews, claiming women pretended to be stupid in front of men and insisting she had no problem with being objectified as a sex object — ‘Why should I be offended? It’s not an insult,’ she said.
Gina never particularly wanted to be an actress. Her passion was art: sculpture and drawing
She was also ballsy. So when, in 1965, she was caught out for not paying £4,000 taxes in California and state officials seized her jewellery, she hit back: ‘I never knew I owed any taxes. Even the Mafia gives at least one warning.’
And later, when she was criticised in London for wearing a tiger-skin coat, she insisted the coat had taken ‘only’ three tigers to make. ‘What can I do? The tigers in my coat were already dead.’
She was also an enthusiastic litigator and was in and out of court from the 1950s about everything from a dispute with a New York restaurant to whether some bright studio lights had rather penetrated her nylon ‘scanties’.
At one point, she had four concurrent lawsuits running.
Not that it did her any harm. Maybe it was because she had never yearned for acting superstardom. But certainly, back in the day, the less she seemed to care, the more the studios offered her. ‘At one point in my contract I had 10 per cent of the gross profits, approval of my co-star, the director, and the script,’ she once said.
Meanwhile, for all Hughes’s relentless pestering, he got nowhere. Gina’s name was, though, romantically linked with President Sukarno of Indonesia and Fidel Castro — more in a minute on him.
But it was a brief affair with Christiaan Barnard, the South African heart transplant pioneer, that finally did for her moribund marriage.
Pictured: Miss Lollobrigida, starring in 1959’s Solomon and Sheba, drove men crazy with lust
Not that she seemed too bothered, as she filed for divorce in 1971 the minute it was legalised in Italy and declared: ‘A woman at 20 is like ice. At 30 she is warm. At 40 she is hot. We are going up as men are going down.’
Maybe. But for all her heat, by the late 60s, her career was on the wane and the parts were drying up. Her last major film — alongside David Niven in King, Queen, Knave, in 1972 — was fraught with difficulties. There were tantrums, rows, halts in production and very mixed reviews.
For any other bombshell beauty of an actress, the end of a career and a few wrinkles and dimples might have spelled total disaster. But not Gina.
The actress snapped at the Hotel Carlton after arriving with four Dalmatians during the 25th Cannes International Film Festival in 1972
She simply returned to her first love of art and reinvented herself as an accomplished sculptress, photographer, occasional aspiring politician and, briefly, journalist. And, in 1974, she wrote a personal letter to Fidel Castro in Havana which, somehow, persuaded the Cuban dictator to agree to an interview.
Four days later she was on a flight out to Cuba with ‘eight cameras, 200 rolls of film, ten pairs of new blue jeans, a sound technician, a cameraman and a U.S. girlfriend’.
As she once put it: ‘My friend and I were sunbathing nude in the garden of the residence when a man appeared and announced the presence of Fidel. He smiled at me, pretending not to notice my scanty clothing. He shook hands with me, welcoming me to Cuba.’
She never did confirm whether she and Fidel had an affair. Though she described him as ‘extremely human, warm and hypnotising’ and stayed rather longer than anticipated.
Whatever, it was a great coup, gave her fantastic publicity and helped launch a very successful photographic career.
So, given all Gina’s guts and grist and bullish brilliance, it seems a shock and a shame that her last couple of decades were rather mired and marked by unwise and unguarded relationships with much younger men who, while she was appreciative of them — ‘I have always had a weakness for young men’ — were themselves clearly in it for something other than her once hourglass figure.
Humphrey Bogart once said she ‘made Marilyn Monroe look like Shirley Temple’, for goodness’ sake
First, there was that hullaballoo with Javier Rigau y Rafols, the tall, charming Spaniard 34 years her junior who claimed they had been in a relationship for two decades before marrying in 2006. Something that Gina later bizarrely disputed and went back to court to deny, but lost.
Then, soon after, she was seemingly targeted by an even younger man. This time a pretender called Andrea Piazzolla, just 27, who first made himself indispensable to her and, once he’d won her confidence, allegedly started siphoning off her multi-million-pound fortune to spend on cars, and houses and anything else he fancied.
Poor Gina. Because, of course, we should not be focusing on young men preying on a woman who never quite found the love she had hoped for. But instead, on La Lollo and her extraordinary beauty and siren sex appeal, her sense of humour. Her ability to reinvent, to keep up the glamour and the style and couture well into her 90s and to not give a damn.
Even when, arguably, she really should have done. Because they don’t make women like La Lollo any more.