This is great! Heh heh. Un petit problème. How do I get down?
French actress Danielle Darrieux fools around on a trapeze crossbar in this unique 1936 publicity shot made for her role in Jacques Deval’s Club de femmes. Darrieux began her film career in 1931 and was onscreen as recently as 2010.
Traveling a road without an end.
A couple of days ago we did a post of Mexican film magazines and basically, we knew none of the cover stars. But we were curious, especially about the interestingly named Viviane Romance, and decided to dig a bit more deeply. Born Pauline Arlette Ortmans in 1912, her career began in 1925 at age thirteen, when she danced at the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre in Paris. The next year she scored a spot as a Moulin Rouge dancer, and at sixteen moved on to dance at the famed Bal Tabarin nightclub. At eighteen she entered and won the Miss Paris pageant but was stripped of her title when she was found to be pregnant. However, the scandal generated headlines and she parlayed the notoriety into a film role in 1935’s Princess Tam Tam, which starred American dancer Josephine Baker. In 1936’s La belle équipe, she played the role of a young woman who destroyed the friendship of co-stars Jean Gabin and Charles Vanel. The film was a hit, and a series of bad girl roles followed in Naples au baiser de feu, La Maison du Matais, Prisons de femmes and Le puritain. She had become one of cinema’s first femmes fatales.
When the German army swept into France in May 1940, Romance found herself caught in a dilemma. The Nazis were eager to create a veneer of normalcy. That meant they were willing to allow the French film industry to function, though under the auspices of their Propagandastaffe, which would censor any content deemed disrespectful or harmful toward Germany. Faced with the choice of working for the Nazis or retiring—which might not have been allowed without serious consequences—Romance chose to continue performing, and starred in Vénusaveugle, Feu sacre, Une femme dans la nuit, and Cartacalha, reine des gitans. In the last, she sang the hit song “Chanson gitane (Sur la route qui va).” It’s worth pointing out that Romance wasn’t alone in her decision to perform for the Nazis. Many of France’s top stars, including Danielle Darrieux, Junie Astor, René Dary, Suzy Delair, Albert Préjean and others did the same. In most instances, some type of pressure was brought to bear. For instance, in Darrieux’s case, the Nazis had imprisoned her husband Porfirio Rubirosa, and her acting was the price for his freedom.
But of course, giving the Nazis an inch meant they would take a mile. Ever vigilant for propaganda opportunities, party officials pressured Romance, Darrieux and the other actors into traveling to Germany for a highly publicized visit to several Berlin film studios. Newspapers and newsreels touted the appearances in a blatant attempt to burnish the Nazis artistic bona fides. For the segment of French citizenry opposed to the occupation, the actors had crossed the line. It was one thing to continue working—everyone needed to do that. But to allowthemselves to be used to legitimize the Nazi agenda was an entirely different story. When the Germans were finally expelled from France in 1944, Romance was thrown in jail. We don’t have much information about this event. We can only say she was eventually forgiven—officially at least—for what many perceived as her feeble level of the resistance to the Nazis.
After the war, Romance immersed herself in work, making eight movies in the next three-plus years. In 1949 she played the role of Bella in the film Maya, for which you see the promo art at top. Her performance was lavishly reviewed—she was the toast of Paris again. Romance worked steadily through the next decade until her star began to dim in the early 1960s. She grappled with financial difficulty in the mid-1960s, and at one point had to sell off her possessions to survive. She made her last film, Nada, in 1974, and died in 1991 in Nice, on France’s Côte d’Azur, at age seventy-nine.
It would be journalistically tidy to write that Viviane Romance lived a life that somehow embodied her stage surname, but it would also be glib and untrue. The scandal of unwed motherhood, the climb up the ladder while still just a teenager, the shadow of Nazism over the prime of her career—none of it can be romanticized. Nor can her three failed marriages. If anything, Romance was like the narrator of the song she once memorably performed, “Chanson gitane.” That woman was strong enough to pass “with a noise of horses” but fragile as “a shiver of tinsel.” Like Romance, she set out too early on a road that was always incomplete.
French actress Danielle Darrieux, circa late ’40s.
He had a lot in common with the guy on those Dos Equis commercials, except he was real.
Today we’re back to the top dog of classic tabloids, the always-titillating Confidential. The above issue is from fifty-five years ago this month, July 1954, and as always the cover promises scandalous inside scoop—this time on champs, presidents, and filthy rich heiresses. But it’s the unassuming banner on the Rubirosa murder case that interests us, because it refers to none other than Porfirio Rubirosa, and if you’ve never heard of him, then prepare yourself to meet (cue grandiose flamenco chords) The Most Interesting Man in the World.
Rubirosa was born in the Dominican Republic in 1909 but raised in France, where his father, an army general, had scored the chargé d'affaires position at the Dominican consulate in Paris. When the young Rubirosa was seventeen he returned to the Dominican to study law, but enlisted in the military before finishing. In 1932, after a weeklong courtship, he married a seventeen year-old girl named Flor de Oro Trujillo, who happened to be the daughter of mass-murdering military dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina. For normal men, rush-marrying a dictator’s little flower would result in a one-way ticket to the torture chamber, but for the charming Rubirosa it meant a diplomatic post in Berlin.
In 1935, Rubirosa’s cousin, Luis de la Fuente Rubirosa, was accused of assassinating exiled Dominican politician Sergio Bencosme in New York City. It was Rafael Trujillo’s work, but de la Fuente Rubirosa was the triggerman, and Porifirio was suspected of being an accomplice. That’s the murder Confidential references, and if you’re asking yourself why they cared about it nineteen years after the event, it’s because by then Rubirosa was very famous. But we’ll get to that.
Rubirosa had developed passions for polo, racing, gambling, and other expensive upper crust pursuits. He excelled at all of them. Perhaps the only thing he wasn’t good at was fidelity, which led to his divorce from Flor in 1937. But his sheer magnetism—or perhaps the fact that he was a valuable hired gun—kept him in dictator dad’s good graces, and he continued to receive diplomatic posts. When World War II swept across Europe, Rubirosa made a stack of money selling Dominican exit visas to fleeing Jews. At some point the Gestapo imprisoned him, but he was released after six months. After that, he was allegedly recruited as a political assassin.
In 1942 he met and married the French actress Danielle Darrieux, who you see above. From then on Rubirosa traveled in cinematic circles, which meant a more public profile. A consequence of this was that tidbits of his personal life began to leak out. Suddenly everyone knew he was a great lover, and that he had a penis measuring anywhere from eleven to fourteen inches, depending on whom you believed. After a while the slang term “rubirosa” became popular in France. They used it to refer to the giant pepper grinders in restaurants, and still do to this day.
By now there were open questions about Rubirosa’s racial background. He was very dark, and was often described as “nut brown.” Rumors spread that he was part black—a devastating accusation in the 1940s, and one still used very effectively as a smear even in today’s supposedly post-racial age. But Rubirosa handled the gossip with the panacheyou'd expect from The Most Interesting Man in the World—he never addressed it all, at least not in public. His silence basically amounted to: “So what if I am?” And if the rumors bothered him, he surely derived ample compensation from the fact that legions of female admirers who’d heard about that pepper grinder of his didn’t care.
Because of the ease with which he was able to meet and bed women, Rubirosa found it impossible to remain faithful, even to an elegant beauty like Danielle Darrieux. They divorced in 1947, and the high-profile involvements began to pile up. There was Dolores del Rio, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, Soraya Esfandiary, Veronica Lake, Kim Novak, Doris Duke (who happened to be the richest woman in the world), and Barbara Hutton (who was the second richest woman in the world). He fooled around with his first love Flor during his marriage to Duke, and with Zsa Zsa Gabor during his marriage to Hutton. When Duke divorced him he walked with $500,000, a string of polo ponies, some sports cars, a converted B-25 bomber, and a 17th century house in Paris. When Hutton divorced him—after only five weeks—he added a coffee plantation in the Dominican, another B-25, and $3.5 million to his holdings.
By now he was a professional celebrity. He was friendly with Joe Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, and Sammy Davis, Jr. One night in Paris, after teaching Davis how to properly kiss a woman's hand, the two went out to perfect the technique by flirting with women on the Champs-Élysées. Frank Sinatra once asked Rubirosa, “Rubi, have you ever held a full-timejob?” Rubirosa reportedly answered, “Women are my full-time job.” At some point he met Ian Fleming, and the novice writer came up with the great idea of basing a character on Rubirosa—a certain spy named James Bond.
Rubirosa’s fame made him tabloid fodder, and the scandal sheets dutifully tried to dig up dirt on him. They went back to the racial stuff, and whispered about that nineteen year-old New York murder. But the rumors that he had been an assassin just fed into his growing legend. He seemed to know everything, was one of the boys, one with the girls, and had already done more than most men manage in a lifetime. Truman Capote saw Rubirosa’s cock and rated it eleven inches. A female acquaintance pointed out a size twelve loafer in a shoe store and said Rubi had it beat. Rubirosa partied his way from Hollywood to Rome to Monaco, and wherever he went local women hung around his favorite hotels and bars, hoping to meet him.
He was racing his Ferrari professionally, and competed twice in the 24-hour race at LeMans. He was also looking for a relationship that would last, and in 1956 he married for the fifth time to actress Odile Rodin. She was nineteen and he was 42. He had mellowed—not a lot—but just enough to remain faithful. The marriage seemed to work. He was still boyish and exciting, and his biggest asset—that famous pepper grinder—showed no signs of diminishing with age. He began working on his memoirs. He was still young for that, but he had lived so much.
In 1965 Rubirosa was part of a team that won the Coupe de France polo cup. He spent the night of the victory celebrating at a Paris nightspot called Jimmy’s, then headed home in his Ferrari. The roads werewet, and he was a little drunk. He lost control of the car and died in a fiery crash. The Most Interesting Man in the World was gone—literally burning out rather than fading away. He never finished his memoirs, and today the closest the world has to a Porfirio Rubirosa is a fictional character in a Dos Equis commercial.
More than almost any man of his era, Porfirio Rubirosa represents the lost glamour and mystery of a time that can never be reclaimed. He was the product of a more innocent and refined—yet also crueler—age. Reading about his life is like reading about an event you’d give anything to have witnessed, even if it would have been dangerous to be there. Rumor has it a few Rubirosa-based scripts are floating around Hollywood. Supposedly Antonio Banderas has rights to one, and wants to play the lead role. Maybe it’s a lack of imagination on our part, but we don’t see it. There is no shortage of legends in history, but we can’t think of one whose shoes would be more difficult to fill. As much as we’d like to see a Rubirosa biopic, our advice is this: if it’s better to burn out than to fade away, maybe it’s also better to never try and rekindle the flame.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1940—Trotsky Iced in Mexico
In Mexico City exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky is fatally wounded with an ice axe
(not an ice pick) by Soviet agent Ramon Mercader. Trotsky dies the next day.
1968—Prague Spring Ends
200,000 Warsaw Pact troops backed by 5,000 tanks invade Czechoslovakia to end the Prague Spring political liberalization movement.
1986—Sherrill Goes Postal
In Edmond, Oklahoma, United States postal employee Patrick Sherrill shoots and kills fourteen of his co-workers and then commits suicide.
1953—Mohammed Mossadegh Overthrown in Iran
At the instigation of the CIA, Prime Minster of Iran Mohammed Mossadegh is overthrown and the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi is installed as leader of the country.
1920—U.S. Women Gain Right To Vote
The Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution is ratified despite heavy conservative opposition. It states that no U.S. citizen can be denied the right to vote because of their gender.
1958—Lolita is Published in the U.S.
Vladimir Nabokov's controversial novel Lolita, about a man's sexual obsession with a pre-pubescent girl, is published in the United States. It had been originally published in Paris three years earlier.
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