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SOPHIA LOREN

sophiaBorn in a charity ward for unwed mothers in Rome on September 20, 1934, Sofia Scicolone was taunted throughout her childhood for being illegitimate. Her father Riccardo was married to another woman and refused to marry her mother Romilda, despite the fact that she was the mother of his two children (Sophia and her younger sister Maria Scicolone). Her mother, Romilda Villani, was a proud beauty who returned to her family home in Pozzuoli to live down her shame; in Catholic Italy then, being an unwed mother was not just a scandal, but a sin.

Growing up in the slums of Pozzuoli during the second World War without any support from her father, she experienced much sadness in her childhood. Until she left Pozzuoli, Sophia never slept in a bed with fewer than three family members. The resulting famine was so great that Loren’s mother occasionally had to siphon off a cup of water from the car radiator to ration between her daughters by the spoonful. During one aerial bombardment, Loren was knocked to the ground and split open her chin, leaving a scar that has remained ever since.

Romilda looked so much like Greta Garbo that people stopped her on the street to ask for her autograph. When she won a Greta Garbo lookalike contest at the age of 17—the prize being a screen test at MGM in Culver City—her mother refused to let her go. She was convinced that Romilda would be killed in America, because she believed Rudolph Valentino had been murdered there by the Black Hand. So Romilda later put all her ambition into her elder child, a gawky, unattractive, sullen girl until the age of 14.

Romilda entered Sophia in a beauty contest— Queen of the Sea and Her Twelve Princesses. They had no gown for her to wear, so Sophia’s grandmother pulled down one of the pink curtains in the living room—like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind—and made an evening gown. Romilda took Sophia’s scuffed black shoes and applied two coats of white paint to them. When they showed up, Sophia was intimidated by the more than 200 contestants in their real gowns, jewels, and flowers, but when it came time to parade in front of the judges, she comported herself with serene dignity. She was chosen as one of the 12 princesses, winning $35, a ticket to Rome, and several rolls of wallpaper, which the family happily used to cover the cracks in the plaster of their apartment caused by the wartime bombing. From that moment on, Romilda dedicated herself to her daughter’s career. “Everything that I dreamed of for myself has happened to Sophia. I live in her image.

Loren was encouraged to enroll in acting lessons and appeared in several ‘bit parts’ and minor roles until the late 1950s where Loren’s fivepicture contract with Paramount launched her career as an international movie star.

The ticket to Rome changed the trajectory of Sophia’s life. She found work as a model, appearing in fumetti, the Italian form of comicstrip- styled soap opera that ran in newspapers and magazines, using models whose dialogue appeared in little puffs of smoke (hence fumetti) coming out of their mouths. Sogno, one of the magazines she worked for, changed her name to Sofia Lazzaro—which they considered classier than Scicolone. She would spend much of her youth searching for a family name, beginning with using her first movie earnings to buy her father’s name for her illegitimate sister—in front of a notary, Romilda paid him one million lire (about $1,500) for the right, to ease Sophia’s sister’s shame of illegitimacy.

Soon Sofia Lazzaro would be renamed yet again, by the producer of a low-budget film called Africa Under the Seas, who wanted something “not so Italian,” with the non- Italian spelling of Sophia and the last name of Loren—inspired by the name of a popular Swedish actress at the time, Märta Torén.

But it would take eight years for the next name she acquired to be recognized legally—Mrs. Carlo Ponti.

When they first met, Carlo Ponti was a 38-yearold married father of two, a quiet intellectual who had studied law in Milan and negotiated contracts at his father’s law practice before becoming a movie producer. At age 19, she became Ponti’s lover.

He first noticed Sophia in the audience of a beauty contest he was judging and invited her to his office for a screen test. The cameramen didn’t know what to make of her irregular features—her nose was too long, her hips too wide. She was advised to get a nose job and lose weight, but she refused. Nonetheless, Ponti’s unerring instincts would soon prove right.

They fell in love, though she realized that part of his appeal was as a father figure. The absence of a father had been the cruel bane of Sophia’s childhood, so in Ponti she found a stand-in, as well as a lover and a husband and an astute manager of her career.

Sophia wanted desperately to become a mother. She had miscarried in 1963, just before she began filming the Milan segment of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, and again in 1967, soon after the London premiere of A Countess from Hong Kong. She discovered that she suffered from a hormonal imbalance that required estrogen shots.

With fertility treatments Sophia became pregnant a third time, and she was advised to undergo complete bed rest. She cloistered herself on the 18th floor of the Intercontinental Hotel near Lake Geneva, not even talking on the telephone. When she finally brought her first child, Carlo Hubert Leone Ponti Jr., into the world, in 1968, the only way to handle the international attention was to hold a press conference in the hospital’s amphitheater. Her bed was wheeled in, her infant at her side, while her husband and her doctor answered questions from hundreds of reporters.

Four years later, and again after months of bed rest, Edoardo Ponti was born. (Edoardo would follow in his parents’ footsteps to become a filmmaker, while Carlo Ponti Jr. inherited his grandmother’s considerable gift as a pianist. He is currently the music director of the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra.)

In 1960, Carlo and Sophia began to restore a magnificent 16th-century villa in Marino, in the Alban Hills, 13 miles from Rome. Pete Hamill described it as “painted chalk red, and set among 18 acres of rolling lawns, manicured hedges, fig trees and waterfalls, with a riding stable, an aqueduct, a tennis court, an orchard and a pool.” They spent the equivalent of $2 million to restore it.

In 1977 the villa was raided and searched by Italian authorities, after Ponti had let it be known that he was contemplating moving his film and business interests to Canada and Iran. Ponti’s files and personal papers were confiscated. He was being investigated for violating Italian law, which prohibited taking large sums of money out of the country without government approval.

That same year, Sophia attempted to bring artworks— including paintings by Picasso, Braque, de Chirico, and Canaletto—from their villa to their triplex apartment, across from the Hotel George V, in Paris. She was stopped at the Fiumicino Airport, in Rome, and was brought to tears by a police investigator who grilled her for nine hours about her husband’s tax and currency problems.

The paintings, valued at an estimated $6.7 million, were seized and turned over by the Italian government to Milan’s Brera gallery. In 1979, Ponti was convicted, in absentia, of smuggling $10 million in currency and art out of Italy, as well as the illegal possession of archaeological artifacts, and was sentenced to four years of “penal servitude.” He was fined 22 billion lire ($26 million). The confiscation of the villa in Marino was perhaps the cruelest cut.

He spent the next few years fighting the charges, from Paris, but their woes continued. In May of 1982, Sophia began serving a 30-day jail term for tax evasion, convicted of failing to pay $180,000 in supplementary taxes for 1963–64 (an error, she said, “due to a little mistake by a tax specialist. This man is now dead—may he rest in peace—but now I have to go to prison”). She ended up spending 17 days in the women’s prison at Caserta, 20 miles from Naples, taking her meals alone in her cell, while paparazzi camped outside the gates. Like the perpetually pregnant Adelina in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, who goes to jail for selling contraband cigarettes, Sophia left the prison in grand style, wearing dark sunglasses while four escorts carried her luggage to a waiting silver Mercedes. Speculation was that the Pontis were being made examples of because of their international fame, in the Italian government’s efforts to staunch the flow of wealth out of the country.

sophia2From the eighties onward, Sophia’s appearances on the big screen came few and far between. She preferred to spend the majority of her time raising sons Carlo Jr. (born 1969) and Eduardo (born 1973). Her only acting credits during the decade were five television films, beginning with Sophia Loren: Her Own Story (1980), a biopic in which she portrayed herself and her mother. She ventured into other areas of business and became the first actress to launch her own fragrance and design of eye wear. In 1982 she voluntarily spent nineteen days in jail for tax evasion.

These days Sophia divides her time between Switzerland and Los Angeles where she is close to her sons and their families (Eduardo is married to actress Sasha Alexander). Despite her position as showbiz royalty, she relishes her discrete, low-profile lifestyle, claiming throughout the years “Showbusiness is what I do, not what I am.” With a career that has already spanned six decades and been honored with 50 awards, Sophia Loren remains one of the most beloved and recognizable figures in the international film world.

Loren continues to see the world as a place full of beauty: “I always wake up early and jump out of bed—sometimes not wanting to, because one can always find an alibi not to exercise— and then I take a walk for an hour. And as I walk round the park I always think, ‘Maybe round the corner I am going to find something beautiful.’ I always think positively. It is very rare that you find me in a mood that is sad or melancholic.”

 

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