The High Life

David Selznick, Jackie Onassis, Princess Margaret, Elizabeth Taylor, Stavros Niarchos, Greta Garbo, Gianni Agnelli, Ari Onassis … Marina Cicogna was friends with them all, and took extraordinary photos of most of them. After the recent rediscovery of her photos, the Italian countess tells W what it was like to know them all.


When I was a kid, I used to be a photographer. By that I mean I used to take lots of pictures of people I knew. Some of them were not well known, and some of them were.

I was born with a golden spoon in my mouth. Before WWII, my mother’s father, Count Giuseppe Volpi, was one of the richest men in Italy. He owned railroads, electrical companies, hotels and nearly everything in Venice. He started the first film festival anywhere there in 1932. Every year, any star who came to the festival came to his party at the Palazzo Volpi. So whomever I wanted to meet, it was easy. I met Liz Taylor when she was on her honeymoon with Nicky Hilton; David Selznick became like my second father.

In 1951, when I was 17, I went to Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, New York. I stayed less than a year. My roommate, Barbara, was the daughter of Jack Warner. Over Easter I went with her to stay with her parents at their house in Los Angeles. Barbara went back after the break, but I stayed for a few months, because I couldn’t resist the fact that Jack Warner would say to me, “Tomorrow night, who do you want as your date at dinner—Montgomery Clift or Marlon Brando?” And they used to give these dinners two or three times a week. You think I was going to go back to Bronxville?

Communication being what it was then, it took about two months before my parents got a letter from Sarah Lawrence saying I had not come back. When they received it, they told me I had to return home immediately. I didn’t.

I went to New York, where I enrolled in Columbia University and photography school. My best pal was Monty Clift. He had a walk-up flat, with just a cot and hundreds of books. Rock Hudson and Farley Granger were also close friends of mine. They were all very different, but they had a problem in common: Big stars who were homosexual then had to live a lie from morning till night. That generally meant they had difficult lives.

Rock dealt with it in an easier way; he was a really nice, healthy, strong American boy. Monty was more of an intellectual. He was a much more tortured soul. He drank a lot. I think it was the lying that killed him in the end.

Most of my memories from that period are very happy. One day, in Los Angeles, Deborah Kerr, who became a great friend, called me up. Metro was letting her out of her contract to shoot a picture at Columbia [Pictures], where she’d never been. “It’s a thing called From Here to Eternity,” she said. “Why don’t you come to the lot with me?” So there was Monty, Burt Lancaster and then, walking around the lot, this unbelievable boy, John Derek [later the husband of Linda Evans and Bo Derek]. “Jesus Christ, this boy is beautiful,” said Deborah. “He’s prettier than Elizabeth Taylor.”

Today we do have some glamorous people in the world, but the thing that made life different then, mainly, was the freedom celebrities had. They could sit on a beach, go walking on a street or to somebody’s house and not be photographed. That era is dead. Today, of course, they are hounded by the press. So the kind of life I was able to photograph doesn’t exist.

In the Sixties, I moved back to Italy. I wasn’t at all interested in leading the life of a well-born girl. As it happened, my mother bought a share in a film distribution business. “You’re always seeing movies,” she said to me. “Why don’t you suggest the ones we should buy?”

The list of films we bought included The Pawnbroker, Belle de Jour and other blockbusters. So I started producing films—Once Upon a Time in the West; Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion; Brother Sun, Sister Moon; and many, many more. Wherever I put my hand, it seemed to work. I knew Federico Fellini well but never worked with him. He was a genius, but with him you were just a bank, like Luchino Visconti, my close friend. They didn’t need your ideas. The person who impressed me most in the film world was Pier Paolo Pasolini. He was pure, pure intelligence. But he also had this strange kind of saintliness. I produced two films with him—Medea and Teorema. But I never saw him except for work. He didn’t have a normal life. The saintly part of him hated himself for being a “sinner” and living this violent life at night. That’s why, I think, he wanted somebody to kill him. Finally it happened. [A male prostitute was convicted of the director’s 1975 murder.]

In 1972 my brother killed himself. He was my only sibling and just a year younger than me. It completely broke up my stability and my wish to work with my family. So I left everything and went to work for Charlie Bluhdorn at Paramount. It was disastrous. He turned down every film I wanted to make, one of them being Last Tango in Paris. He said he would only do it without Brando. Because he had a picture with Brando about to come out that he was not too sure of—called The Godfather. Ha-ha. Really funny.

A couple of years later, my father died, and I inherited some money. I was living with Florinda Bolkan, who was an important actress at the time.

I’ve always been of the idea that what you do in your bedroom is your business. I’ve had relationships with lots of good-looking guys—Alain Delon, George Hamilton. An attractive person is an attractive person. But it’s who you meet at a certain moment that determines who you are going to be. Florinda and I lived together for 21 years. We were very natural about being together; it was our life. She is one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met, and one of the nicest. Wildly private. Not always easy. Ask Ryan O’Neal.

We built two houses in Brazil, where she was from, and took an apartment in New York. It was the Seventies, the Studio 54 years. So I went back to being a playgirl, I guess.

One night, Florinda, Helmut Berger and I come out of a club, maybe four in the morning, and I see a huge limo. We look in, and it’s Ari and Jackie. Ari wants us all to go to some after-hours club, so we pile in the car. Jackie’s not very happy. I can’t remember where this club was, but I remember Ari saying, “They’ll stay open as long as I want them to.” So we get there and take a table. It was pretty crazy, but Jackie just sat back, very demure, very patient, till six in the morning. I could see she was annoyed, but she just put up with it.

I had been great friends with Ari and his first wife, Tina, and used to go on the Christina with them. But I also knew Maria Callas, whom he started seeing after a dinner I gave in Venice. Tina had a boyfriend at the time, so, as revenge, he took Maria. He didn’t really want to divorce Tina, but her father, who was a very important shipowner, was so offended when Ari took Maria to see the Greek archbishop that he forced her to divorce.

I didn’t see Ari so much when he was with Maria. I ran into him one day, and he said to me, “Ah! You never come to Skorpios anymore!” “Okay, I’ll come,” I said, “but I’ll bring my friends.” I brought Franco Rossellini, Helmut and Florinda.

The reason I had stayed away was that, while Maria was a wonderful artist, she was a boring woman, very bourgeois. When we got to the boat, Maria had a problem with the two boys being noisy and gay, and with all of us swimming nude. For us kids, she was a little annoying. But Franco and I convinced her to star in our film Medea.

Ari was great. He spoke six languages; he was a rascal, a pirate and did what he wanted. He liked the sea, and rough things, though he didn’t drink very much. That summer it was toward the end of his relationship with Maria, and they were screaming and yelling at each other in Greek. When he left her, she was very unhappy. But she rose to be this extraordinary, dignified lady in the last years of her life. A true diva, even in her private life.

Stavros Niarchos, whom I was also friends with, was another difficult man. He drank more, was less sure of himself and had more aristocratic tastes. He had to have the best pictures, the greatest homes. Ari couldn’t have cared less. What he had was the best.

They were very competitive, especially when it came to having the most glamorous women around. Eugenie, Tina’s sister, who was married to Stavros, was an interesting, wonderful woman. She was crazy about him, but Stavros pushed her too far; she became depressed and started taking pills. That’s what killed her. There were rumors that he had murdered her on their island, Spetsopoula, but in fact I think he tried desperately to revive her—that’s why her body had all these marks on it. Here they were, alone on his island. He must have gone crazy.

Another couple I knew very well was Gianni and Marella Agnelli. He was such a rover. She was always in love with this guy who was difficult to hold, so she would sometimes be resentful of his friends, because she thought they were pushing him to stay out late and misbehave. To me, Gianni and Marella were the best example of why a couple should stick it out. In their later years, they really had a life together; they were the most united couple. The reason is, they had so much in common—their background, education, nationality, many things. That’s the problem with some couples, like Ari and Jackie: They had absolutely nothing in common. Ari and Tina should have stayed together.

Most of these people are now gone, of course. Last year, after Pierre Passebon suggested I do an exhibition of my photos at his gallery in Paris, I was very skeptical. I said, “Pierre, you’re not going to sell one picture.” The day he started hanging them, he sold 20.

Preparing for the show, it was interesting to go through my drawers and rediscover the pictures. One of my favorites is of Garbo hanging from a deck on the Christina. She was one of the most natural, unpretentious people I ever met. She never talked about herself or her career. We used to go out to lunch whenever I came to New York, always the same place, Passy, on the East Side. She would have one vodka, maybe two. With two, she was really good.

After Karl Lagerfeld saw my exhibition, he said something to me that I thought was interesting, “There’s no nostalgia in these photos—just the facts.” And I think that’s true. I don’t feel particularly nostalgic about that period, although I like it better than this one. I just feel that I’m lucky to have lived during that time, and really enjoy it.

“Scatti e Scritti,” an exhibition of photos by Marina Cicogna, opens June 3 at the French Academy in Rome at Villa Medici.