Welcome to Vintage Paparazzi.

Sophia Loren: “I Don’t Want Pity”

An official studio biography begins: Sophia Loren was born in Rome on September 20, 1934. Actually, the truth can’t be printed, for she came from Hell. A part of it is still locked deep inside Sophia Scicolone—that’s Sophia Loren’s real name—and it will stay locked there. But there is no bitterness in the large almond-shaped eyes. Sometimes there is sadness; sometimes, the flicker of fear. At other times a childlike wonder. Always, there is the strength and determination. “I have had a very hard life,” she says today. “Beginning when I was born, while I was growing up and after. But I don’t like to talk about it. I don’t want to have pity on myself. I’m always aware of pity and I want to avoid that.

“You see, it was important for me to have this hard life . . . basically it was important to have it for my work. It gave me a strength to do things . . . to reach a goal that some people never reach.” The words come from the lips of Sophia Loren. They come from the heart of Sophia Scicolone.

Paramount has provided Sophia Loren with luxurious diggings to come home to when she leaves the DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS set, reports one columnist. But Sophia’s used to luxury. She left a lavish ten-room apartment in Rome. To have almost anything to come home to was a luxury for Sophia Scicolone. She can remember the railway tunnel in which she and her family and the rest of the Italian town of Pozzouli slept for protection from the air raids when the war came. And if it is not a bitter memory, she reasons, why should it be? The crowded tunnel kept her and her family safe from the bombs, didn’t it? And when, along with the other townspeople, they emerged at four a.m. to let the first train pass, she could look up and find that the sky hadn’t fallen after all . . . find it still there, sprinkled with the diamond-like magic of the dimming stars. From near-suffocation, she could walk into the freshness of the dawn. For Sophia Scicolone there was a special joy in coming home . . . the joy of discovering that somehow her home had escaped destruction.

Sophia Loren has one of the most expensive and exciting wardrobes in Hollywood. And the shoes in her closet number over sixty pair. Sophia Scicolone rarely wore shoes. Too often, she had none. Even in the winter. She thinks back to the little blue dress that carried her through the war, and of her mother’s anxious eyes as the dress was worn into little more than a rag. “We must find you another,” said her mother. And then she sighed, “But where?”

Where was Mama Romilda’s own near-bare closet. She took her prize possession, an old camel’s hair coat, and from it cut the dress which Sophia was to wear for the next two years . . . letting down the hem time after time, as she grew.

No money for bread

It has been estimated that Sophia Loren will have earned over two million dollars by the time she is twenty-five. Sophia Scicolone can remember her mother’s pitiful wages as a piano teacher, and the long stretches when the whole family was out of work. She can remember when there was no money to buy bread . . . and times when there was no bread to be bought for all the money in the world. “We were so hungry,” Sophia says “that we were hardly human. We were all like animals.”

Sophia Loren was seen dining at Romanoff’s the other night. And how this girl can stow away the food! For Sophia Scicolone, soup flavored with pumpkin pulp and boiled dried chestnuts were treats. Her usual diet was farinella, a sort of ground corn like that given to chickens. Mostly there was the rationed black bread, with its center of soft black paste. At first she and her sister Maria would eat only the crust . . . trying to ignore the rest. “Look! See what I can make!” came the cries as the little girls shaped dolls and animals from the black stuff and put them in the sun to dry. But then their hunger would become so great that they would finally, sadly, eat the little statues they had made.

Sophia Loren receives thousands of letters each week from would-be suitors. From the boys of Pozzouli, Sophia Scicolone drew only jeers and taunts. And the dreaded name of Stecchetta, or Little Stick. What was worse, the name was deserved. Her body had become incredibly thin from lack of proper food.

No choice

So the Little Stick resigned herself to her fate. She would have a career. She had no choice. She was too ugly for marriage . . . no man in his right mind would propose to skinny Sophia Scicolone.

Stanley Kramer predicts that Sophia Loren will “explode within the next two or three years as the world’s greatest actress.” Sophia Scicolone learned how to act from life . . . and the results are reflected in her performances.

While life prepared her for her future roles, it also gave her the courage to overcome career difficulties. When Stanley Kramer contacted her about the part in The Pride and the Passion, Sophia was just beginning to learn English. Could the girl handle the assignment? “When you are ready to shoot the picture, I shall be ready to speak the lines in English,” she assured him. And she was.

When she was cast in Legend of the Lost with John Wayne, the company locationed in the Sahara Desert. “The Sahara Desert is not the romantic place you read about,” says Duke. “It’s merciless country—and there can be a change of temperature of a hundred degrees between early morning and noon. We were quartered in a place that had a hotel with nine rooms. We had a company of a hundred and fifty people. We had to build a tent city. Sophia took it like a trouper. Matter of fact, she got a big kick out of it. That’s only one reason we like her.

“Furthermore,” says Duke, “we have every reason to be pleased with her work, and the way she worked. The place was dirty and miserable, but she allowed herself to be pushed around. She let us shoot her the way she would naturally be under such circumstances. There was no carefully combed hair. She was hurt three times. Once she sprained her ankle. Another time she slipped on a rock and took the skin off her leg. We didn’t know about it until later. She didn’t tell us until we’d finished shooting for the day and someone noticed her limping.”

But she didn’t whimper; she didn’t complain. Tears aren’t for trifles; tears are for real pain. . . .

Sophia’s pain began a few days after her birth in Rome’s POLIOCLINICO HOSPITAL. Just as she was beginning to live, she nearly died. She developed acute enterocolitis and when treatments seemed of no help, the doctors advised a change of climate. It was then that Mama Romilda took her daughter back to her own home in Pozzouli.

The Villani home was crowded, and there was no spare space for a nursery. For that matter, there was no crib. Sophia slept with her grandparents, in the warmth of their great bed. And as the months passed, she grew stronger in the sun of southern Italy.

Ricardo Scicolone, her father—who hadn’t bothered to marry her mother—was with them fairly often. “His presence,” says Sophia, “encouraged my mother to hope for the future, to hope they’d be man and wife.” But when Sophia was three, around the time of Maria’s birth, Ricardo returned to Rome. To marry another woman. He never came back.

I am going to beg”

Sophia started elementary school at the age of five. She was a daydreamer. “I was also undisciplined,” she smiles, referring to her favorite occupation—hiding schoolmates’ notebooks. “If there was an uproar in the classroom, it was logical for the nuns to assume that I had started it.”

She was in the second grade when the war came. She screamed with delight when she first saw tracer bullets. “Mama, look at the little balloons!” But mama grabbed her daughter’s hand and hurried her along to the nearest shelter.

There were two or three air raids each night. And each night when the warnings came, the family would jump up, scramble to dress and rush to the shelter of the tunnel . . . carrying whatever they could, in case they might return to find their home gone. Eventually, Romilda announced that they would spend entire nights in the tunnel. People began to stand in line at three in the afternoon to be assured of having a place to sleep.

In the summer of 1943, the civilians of Pozzouli were warned to evacuate their town and the whole family went to Naples to stay with relatives. In Naples, there was no water. Civilians would wait for hours beside the few public fountains that did work, grateful to get just a few drops to drink. It was a day for celebration when a cousin came home with his glass nearly full. The entire Villani family shared it . . . each person taking only a few sips.

In Naples the supply of bread became exhausted. One morning, when Romilda could no longer bear her children’s cries for food, she told them, “I am going out.”

“Where, Mama . . . where . . .?”

She stopped in the doorway and turned back to face them. “I am going to beg.”

“She went out,” Sophia remembers, “and she returned later with a little piece of bread and a small piece of cheese. A passerby had taken pity on her.”

Eventually, when the Allied troops arrived to occupy Naples and the surrounding countryside, Romilda and her family returned to Pozzouli. Their apartment windows were broken and their furniture had been smashed into little pieces. But the four walls were standing, and they seemed the most beautiful walls in the world.

When the GI’s came to Pozzouli, Sophia and Maria were among the many children they adopted as pets. The soldiers gave them candy bars and chewing gum, taught them American slang and songs. It was from the GI’s that Sophia first learned of Frank Sinatra. She never dreamed that one day she would be his co-star. Neither did the soldiers. Back in the States, they simply wondered what would become of the skinny eleven-year-old . . . the child the other kids called Stecchetta.

The Little Stick was ashamed to go out, even to school. Especially to school, where her classmates waited to tease her. It seemed forever before her body began to take some sort of shape—but when it happened, the shape was quite breathtaking.

Five days before Sophia was fifteen, Romilda read of a beauty contest to be sponsored by the press club of Naples. The winner of the contest would be called Queen of the Sea. The title itself was unimportant. It was when Romilda scanned the list of prizes that she made up her mind and broke the news to the family.

“My granddaughter will enter no beauty contests,” stormed grandmother.

But Romilda won them over. In view of the possible rewards, how could Sophia afford not to enter? So grandmother searched through her belongings and found a piece of pink faille. She had little knowhow when it came to sewing . . . “but a great deal of love went into the dress she made for me,” says Sophia.

At the first fitting, Sophia looked down at her feet and moaned. She did not have the proper shoes, and there was no money for a new pair. “I’ll make the dress longer so the shoes don’t show,” said grandmother. And when she had finished, the hemline trailed the floor.

The next problem was in leaving town without the neighbors knowing. Sophia tucked up her skirt so that it wouldn’t show beneath her overcoat. The entire family, trying to be inconspicuous, slipped down to the station, where Sophia and her mother caught the local train for Naples.

Sophia was not elected Queen, but she was selected as one of the twelve Princesses of the Sea . . . and she came home with an armful of prizes: a picture, four books, a tablecloth and a roll of wallpaper . . . and 20,000 lire. Approximately $32.00. The new wallpaper did wonders for the living room and the money saw the Villanis comfortably through the next winter.

Yet Sophia was unhappier than ever. Word of the contest results had reached Pozzouli. When she returned to school, the children laughed at her, calling her Princess, and kneeling to kiss her hand. Each morning her mother had to take her to school and leave her at the classroom door. Otherwise, Sophia wouldn’t go anywhere except for occasional trips to Naples for drama lessons.

Her unhappiness increased . . . her mood was almost always one of depression. In May of 1950, her mother announced that she would take her away from Pozzouli. With what was left of the contest money, about $3.00, they bought two third-class one-way tickets to Rome. “We had a very tough time at the beginning,” Sophia remembers. “We had no money, no friends. We found an inexpensive little room, then went to look for work. We had to find it. We didn’t have the fare back to Pozzouli.”

Once settled, they climbed aboard the blue tram which went to Cinecitta, the film studio where Quo Vadis was being shot. At the gate it was obvious that at least half of Rome was looking for work as extras. They joined the crowd. “We were looking for bread, not glory. We felt lost, hopelessly confused. We didn’t think we had a chance of getting in.”

Hoping to find work

A few hours later, they found themselves in the crowd standing before director Mervyn LeRoy. He beckoned to Sophia and she went over to him. He spoke to her in Italian. “Can you speak English?”

She knew little about the film industry, but she realized that a line of dialogue would mean more money. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, yes!” It was the only English word she knew, except for some GI slang phrases, which didn’t seem appropriate.

LeRoy pointed to a line in the script and asked her to read it. There was no slipping into the crowd to find a quick translation. She looked at the print, her face turning pink with embarrassment. She began to stammer. LeRoy smiled a sympathetic smile, and sent her back into the mob.

It was then that Sophia vowed she would learn to speak English right away. The next time she was asked if she knew the language, she would be ready.

Sophia and Romilda were selected as extras for night scenes. Both were pleased when Sophia was given a place near the camera. They had no way of knowing then that none of the other extras wanted to be so close, that by avoiding closeups, they stood a far better chance of being in other scenes.

Mother and daughter spent two nights before the cameras. Between them they earned 21,000 lire. “We must stay here, Sophia,” her mother said firmly. “We mustn’t leave Rome.”

It was Sophia who stayed.Word came that Sophia’s little sister Maria was ill with typhoid and Romilda rushed back to Pozzouli to take care of her. Their money went for doctors and medicine . . . and it went quickly. And each day, Sophia—not yet sixteen—made the trek to Cinecitta to spend hours in front of the gate, hoping to find more work as an extra. Sometimes succeeding.

More elegant than she had known

When her mother returned from Pozzouli, bringing Maria with her, they set out to look for beauty contests. And when a Miss Italy competition was announced, Sophia was one of the first to enter.

The officials didn’t care for her name and suggested that she change it to Sophia Villani. They did like her type . . . an “unusual, interesting type.” Another girl became Miss Italy. The jury made up a brand new title for Sophia . . . Miss Elegance.

Again, the contest prizes helped. Sophia went back to extra work and decided to have a go at modeling. Her goal was romance magazines . . . books that ran picture stories, with the dialogue written above the actors’ heads. The stories took days to photograph and meant steady employment. For a while, at least.

At first, the editors were less than enthusiastic about Sophia. “You don’t know how to pose,” they told her. “You cannot make the faces.” She learned. And then the editors, unhappy with her name, persuaded her to change it to Sophia Lassaro, hired her, paid her 30,000 lire, $44.00, for ten days of shooting.

She posed for a number of the stories before the executives regretfully told her that they needed new faces and she found herself out of work again. Sophia, Maria and Romilda moved from their cheap room to even cheaper quarters. And Sophia prayed that someday she would be able to give her family a better kind of life.

Her first important movie role was in a film called White Slave Traffic, and the studio paid her 250,000 lire. The sum staggered her.

Next she was interviewed for the leading feminine role in a documentary film, Africa Under the Sea. “Can you swim?” the studio executives inquired.

Sophia remembered the Quo Vadis incident. But in this case, happily, there was no water in sight . . . no test to be passed before she would have a chance to learn to swim. Sophia couldn’t so much as float . . . but she could learn. And quickly. “Yes . . . oh, yes, I can swim.”

Africa Under the Sea was followed by Aida. The director of Aida liked Sophia’s work and spoke of her to producer Carlo Ponti. Ponti came to the set to talk with her and when their conversation ended, he offered her a contract. With a regular income assured, she made a down payment on a four room apartment, and moved in with Romilda and Maria.

In an incredibly short period she made almost thirty pictures.

When Stanley Kramer arrived in Europe to search for a leading lady for The Pride and the Passion, someone took him to see Woman of the River. He saw only Sophia. “That’s the girl,” he said.

Today, when she says, “I have had a hard life . . .” there is no self-pity in her eyes, but there is pain.

She longs for the day

Several weeks after the party Sophia left for Hollywood. Her friends noted her nervousness at the thought of the new venture. One friend explains, “She’s still shy. Every moment. And a little afraid. It’s not exactly a fear that she won’t be able to do a thing. She knows, somehow, she’ll manage. It’s a fear of something new, the unknown.”

Sophia will manage in Hollywood the way she managed when she made her first American picture. “I remember her first scene,” says her friend. “They were shooting her dancing a Flamenco. It really scared her. It was the first time she had worked with an American crew and American people. And there were Spanish people, Flamenco experts, all around. She was as frightened as a little child in the dark. Yet when the music started, and she began to dance, she was absolutely fantastic.”

The past . . . and the future

Some say that in time Sophia Loren will forget the existence of Sophia Scicolone. But when she remembers the past, and considers the future, Sophia smiles at the thought. She thinks of the little girl who was heartbroken because she was too ugly for marriage. She thinks of the child who won an acting career . . . and of the rewards. And she thanks God for His goodness.

Forget Sophia Scicolone? She smiles as she longs for the day when she will become a wife and mother . . . and give her children the things she never had. Sophia smiles, for she knows that when that day comes, it may be easier for Sophia Scicolone to forget Sophia Loren.



Watch for Sophia in Paramount’s DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS, UA’s A LEGEND OF THE LOST, Columbia’sWOMAN OF THE RIVER and STELLA.



No Comments
Leave a Comment