Gina Lollobrigida, Howard Hughes and the longest seduction in Hollywood history
The Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida, who has died aged 95, was one of the last remaining stars of the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood. There were few other people alive who had been told by a half-admiring, half-envious Humphrey Bogart, who starred opposite her in Beat the Devil, that they made Marilyn Monroe look like Shirley Temple.
Her charisma, beauty and screen presence saw her become first one of Italy’s leading stars in the 1940s, and then to embark upon a Hollywood career that saw “La Lollo”, as she was nicknamed, become one of the most sought-after actresses of her generation. Little wonder that she was cast in the title role of a 1956 Italian romantic comedy that could be translated alternately as “Beautiful But Dangerous” or “The World’s Most Beautiful Woman”.
“La Lollo” swiftly acquired a reputation in her native Italy as getting whatever she wanted, on the grounds that she did not care for the blandishments of the industry. As she told Vanity Fair in 2015: “I refused when they offered me my first role. They insisted again. They asked my mother to convince me and said they would pay me one thousand lire. So I told them my price was one million lire, thinking that would put a stop to the whole thing. But they said yes!”
Her career then went stratospheric, in no small part because she regarded the people around her with justified contempt. As she recalled, “I was successful very early. I never had to ask for what I wanted. I just had to say yes, because they always offered me so much more. At one point, I had in my contract, in addition to 10 percent of the gross, approval of my co-star, the director, and the script. I had more publicity than anyone because I refused it—I didn’t care about it.”
Yet she met her match, or her nemesis, in Hollywood, after having established herself as the doyenne of the Italian film industry. The mogul Howard Hughes was an occasional film producer, who had been involved in scandal in 1943, when he had cast Jane Russell, the then-object of his infatuation, in the western picture The Outlaw: such was Hughes’s dual obsession with both Russell and micromanagement, the inevitable product of his OCD, that he even insisted on designing his own bespoke cantilevered bra for her, which the actress refused to wear on the grounds that it was uncomfortable.
However, it fuelled stories that Hughes was both ungovernably eccentric and irrationally fixated on the starlets that he cast in his films, and so when Lollobrigida came to his attention – apparently because he saw a publicity still of her in a bikini – he summoned her to Hollywood for a screen test in 1950. The actress agreed, if she could bring her new husband, the doctor Milko Skofic; in the event, Hughes only sent one planet ticket.
Her ever-understanding spouse encouraged her – “Go. I don’t want you to say one day that I didn’t let you have a career” – and she departed for Los Angeles, where, upon her arrival at the airport, she was collected by two of Hughes’s staff. (She later recalled – jokingly? – that “When I got off the plane there were already divorce lawyers waiting for me at the airport.”) She was taken to the Town House hotel, a luxurious establishment in the city, where she was installed in a suite, given a secretary, chauffeur, English tutor and voice teacher, and kept in the most gilded of cages. Like many other young women, she had become the de facto property of Howard Hughes.
As Lollobrigida later recalled, with commendable understatement: “I have to say that he was more interested in me as a woman than as an actress. He was possessive and did everything to keep me for himself.” This possessiveness even extended to Hughes not allowing her to be in the company of other men unsupervised; Lollobrigida, however, believed that this was “very funny”.
In total, she would spend two and a half months in the Town House hotel, where Hughes visited her daily. It became very clear, very quickly that his intentions were anything but professional. She told Vanity Fair that “Time and time he tried to get me! But he didn’t succeed. I wanted to be correct.” Hughes tried to lure her to his mansion, but she was having none of it, later saying “I didn’t dare go there because I would have been alone [with him] and I didn’t trust him that much… so I decided to come back.”
Yet when the multi-millionaire magnate was not trying, and failing, to seduce the actress, she was able to see his eccentricities and oddities up close. As she said, “He was very tall, very interesting. He had two jackets and one pair of pants that he wore every day – full of dust and dirt, like a worker’s. He hated being seen by the press, so we always went to very cheap restaurants and sometimes ate in the car. I spoke very little English then. Howard Hughes taught me the swearwords.”
Yet if Hughes was both parsimonious and publicity-shy, it came as even more of a surprise to him that his would-be protegée and lover had no interest in his vast wealth: “I said to him, ‘If you lose all your money, then perhaps I’ll marry you.’ Maybe he was surprised that there was one person who wasn’t interested in his money.”
Eventually, her ever-understanding husband requested that Lollobrigida return to Italy, and she prepared to head home. Before she could disappear, however, Hughes asked her to sign a seven-year contract with his production company, RKO Pictures. Increasingly keen to leave America, she signed the contract, which would in turn make it all but impossible for any other studio other than Hughes’s to hire her without being charged an exorbitant fee; this would also mean that her newfound American career would be a non-starter unless she worked for RKO.
Yet even once this contract was signed and she was back in Italy, Hughes’s ardent pursuit of her did not stop. For a total of 13 years, he kept trying to woo Lollobrigida through a mixture of charm and persistence. “He didn’t give up! He sent all his lawyers to see me. They played tennis with my husband.”
When Lollobrigida did return to America, to appear in the 1959 Frank Sinatra film Never So Few, Hughes’s lawyers were primed and ready; MGM, the studio behind the picture, had to pay him $75,000 for breach of contract. It soon became clear why Sinatra was so keen to have Lollobrigida appear opposite him. “He came to pick me up at the airport, waiting at the bottom of the stairs of the plane. He held a concert in my honour in Las Vegas. I was embarrassed by all of the attention, and I also felt a bit guilty. So I gave him two Dali watercolours.”
Her other admirers included the eclectic likes of Grace Kelly’s husband, Prince Rainier of Monaco (“He would make passes at me in front of her, in their home. Obviously, I said, ‘No!’ My God, at least do it carefully – not in front of her!”) and even the confirmed bachelor Rock Hudson. She acted with him twice in the Sixties, and said of him: “When we did our love scenes, he was quite normal. He liked me very much. I felt something … it was more than a kiss. He was the most adorable person I ever worked with.”
Since her acting career largely came to an end in the early Seventies, she instead worked in photojournalism and, latterly, in politics, where she stood for election for the Eurosceptic party Sovereign and Popular Italy. Yet she continued to be irritated by journalists’ questions about her supposed career-long rivalry with Italy’s other great star of her generation, Sophia Loren.
Lollobrigida said that “I was not looking for any rivalry against anyone: I was the No. 1”, but also stated “She and her press agents started this ‘rivalry’ with me – and she hasn’t stopped for 50 years. It was really boring for me. I had enough of that.” However, Lollobrigida was not averse to putting an elegant stiletto into her opponent, saying to Vanity Fair that “We made completely different careers. I wanted to be an artist more than anything else. I wanted a career on a high level.”
Lollobrigida may ultimately be remembered as a vivacious and fascinating personality rather than a great actress, with a private life as dramatic as any of the roles she played: even as late as 2013, she began legal action against a former lover who she claimed had announced, fraudulently, that he had married her, when in fact he had wed someone who was pretending to be her. She once announced that “I've had many lovers and still have romances. I am very spoiled. All my life, I've had too many admirers.”
Yet her feelings towards Hughes – perhaps the most significant of all these admirers – could be discerned from her comment that “My experience has been that, when I have found the right person, he has run away from me. I am too strong, too popular. Important men, they want to be the star – they don’t want to be in your shadow.”
Had Hughes been less domineering, he may well have been able to woo her. The ever-fiery, ever-brilliant “La Lollo”, however, proved that she was far more than just a trophy in the ever-expanding Howard Hughes directory of romantic conquests, but one of the most distinctive stars of the 20th century. And that, frankly, beats any cantilevered bra for its impact.