When Gina Lollobrigida met Imelda Marcos

‘Where there is money there is no love … only war’—according to fans gathered at the actress’ funeral

Time-worn cover of Gina Lollobrigida's book, copies of which were hardly distributed (Contributed photo)

A sexy Gina Lollobrigida and a dashing Rock Hudson in ‘Come September’

Italian actor Gina Lollobrigida, considered one of the last of the icons of the golden age of Hollywood, was laid to rest January 19.

She died Monday Jan. 16, 2023 at the age of 95.

Gina Lollobrigida in the 1957 film ‘Trapeze’

Also described as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” she is associated with such films as Beat the Devil, the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Crossed Swords.

Her leading men included the Hollywood icons Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra, Rock Hudson and Errol Flynn.

Bogart was quoted to have said Lollobrigida “made Marilyn Monroe look like Shirley Temple.”

Her supposed rival, the great Sophia Loren, was “shocked and saddened” by her demise.

Italy’s Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano wrote on Twitter: “Farewell to a diva of the silver screen, protagonist of more than half a century of Italian cinema history. Her charm will remain eternal.”

Lollobrigida’s coffin was borne out of the church to music played by a brass band from the Bersaglieri, a unit of marksmen in the Italian army’s infantry corps. The music was apparently a tribute La Bersagliera, the character she played in one of her most popular films.

She was buried in Subiaco, a town in the mountains east of Rome where she was born.

Very few know that early in her youth in Rome where the family settled after the end of World War II, she took up singing lessons and studied painting and sculpture.

Her appearance in The World’s Most Beautiful Woman (also known as Beautiful But Dangerous, 1955) got her the first David di Donatello for Best Actress award (Italy’s equivalent of the Oscars).

In this 1955 film,  she portrayed the life of the Italian soprano Lina Cavalieri, singing arias from Tosca believed to be with her own voice.

She even had short-lived stints in theater.

After winning third place in a Miss Italy pageant in 1947, Lollobrigida played a part in the comedy Santarellina by Eduardo Scarpetta at the Teatro della Concordia of Monte Castello di Vibio, considered the smallest Italian theater  in the world.

She was famous in the ‘50s appearing opposite film greats, such as Anthony Quinn (1915-2001), Burt Lancaster (1913-1994), Errol Flynn (1909-1959) and Rock Hudson (1925-1985).

She was nominated for the Golden Globe awards for various films, the most notable of them Come September.

She shone in the  Italian romantic comedy Bread, Love and Dreams (Pane, amore e fantasia, 1953) and received  a BAFTA nomination.

La Lollo—as she was known—shone in the ‘50s and faded in the late ‘60s.

Gina Lollobrigida, in file photo, with her portrait of Fidel Castro. Photography became her passion later in life.

In the ‘70s, she turned to photography and had scoops photographing the likes of Fidel Castro and Maria Callas, among others.

Then she came across the stories of so-called “pre-historic Tasadays” in the Philippines.

At this stage of her life, stories about her rumored liaison with younger men surfaced.

We are going up as men are going down’

She was quoted to have said, “A woman at 20 is like ice. At 30 she is warm. At 40 she is hot. We are going up as men are going down.”

She was also a late-bloomer politician who sought seats in the European parliament.

In the mid-‘70s while jetsetting with Cristina Ford and Van Cliburn, La Lollo met the most famous politician of them all, Imelda Romualdez Marcos.

The then first lady got the Department of Tourism to commission the celebrated photographer to write two coffee table books—one on the Philippines and another on Manila.

(It turned out that the international sex symbol-turned-photojournalist was more interested in shooting the Tasadays as descendants of the Filipino race. They were falsely identified as “forest dwellers” and was supposed to have been discovered in the early ‘70s. Years later, the Tasaday story would be exposed as a hoax.)

In 1975, with La Lollo in Manila, writer Carmen Guerrero Nakpil was assigned to do the book introduction.

La Lollo on the cover of Manila’s early glossy magazine Ginoo (Contributed Photo)

When the actress arrived in Manila in the mid-‘70s, she was given the VIP treatment, with an impressive escort of  soldiers (goodlooking, the story went) in her forays in Mindanao. She was put on the cover of the early glossy Ginoo Magazine showing her photographing her Philippines subjects.

On that trip, Lollobrigida became a neighbor on campus of poet/actor/director Frank Rivera at the Mindanao State University Ranao View Village in Marawi City.

According to Rivera, a visiting professor at the time, there were six campus cottages at MSU. He was assigned to Cottage No. 2. Lollobrigida occupied Cottage No. 3.

Recalled Rivera in his Facebook: “I was really excited when I learned that La Lollo was visiting MSU. I grew up sneaking in the local cinema in Paete, Laguna, to watch her sexy movies. She was very beautiful. (But my all-time favorite was Audrey Hepburn.) Of course, she had a close rivalry in the sexy department with another Italian star, Sophia Loren, who became one of my favorite actresses after watching her in Two Women.  I thought Gina never came close to Sophia in the acting department. But my fondness for La Lollo did not diminish. I awaited her arrival excitedly. The thought of rubbing elbows with an internationally-acclaimed beauty overwhelmed me. The whole morning of her arrival at Cottage #3, I stayed in the balcony of my cottage #2 in a flashy Maranao outfit, while working on my macrame project then. I even asked the Kambayoka boys who were staying with me in the cottage to don their Maranao costumes from the Kambayoka wardrobe.”

She arrived in a van escorted by burly and goodlooking military men, Rivera continued, followed by two military trucks of armed men.

Rivera’s first personal encounter with La Lollo, written in his FB post: “She was a sight alright, glistening under the sun, but was I disappointed! She has turned into a big woman and her heavily made-up face was so big she looked like she was hiding behind a mask like the ones we used in Kambayoka plays. She noticed us in our flashy outfits (we were vigorously waving at her from the balcony), she winked, and with the huge camera she was holding took snapshots at us. Then she and the group of military men disappeared into Cottage #3.

“Later a muscular escort came out by the bamboo fence that separated our cottage and asked if we were members of the Darangan Dance Group. I said no, we were not.”

The Kambayoka group was scheduled for a pictorial on another day, separate from the Darangan Group. Rivera instructed the members to choose their best outfits from the wardrobe.

The Kambayoka pictorial never happened.

Someone in the group asked Rivera, “Was she a good actor?”

He answered: “Sophia Loren was the better actor.”

In her book, Legends & Adventures, Nakpil recounted her encounter with the actress. She wrote that the international sex symbol was able to wangle a “whale of a contract befitting her stature as the ‘sexiest woman alive.’”

The book contract was between the Italian sex symbol and the PNB represented by its president Panfilo Domingo.

Nakpil recalled that her task was to provide the text and then to fly to Italy to supervise the printing in Florence.

Nakpil described her first project meeting with Lollobrigida: “She had clearly seen better days, but she was still magnificently attractive, with huge, long-lashed eyes, a head of dark curls, the famous bosom and small waist.”

The writer noted how the Filipino men in the meeting were evidently swooning over her.

As Nakpil showed her the text of the volumes on the Philippines and Manila, the Italian Hollywood star complained: the text did not seem to match her photos.

The writer gave the movie star a piece of her mind. “Your photos are all about a Stone Age tribe in the jungles of Mindanao, about half a dozen aborigines, and this book is supposed to be about 45 million Filipinos who don’t live in trees.”

The actress said her book had a different market and that Europeans were not interested in Filipinos living in high-rise buildings and driving European cars on superhighways.

Nakpil insisted that the book had to tell truthfully that Filipinos didn’t live in caves.

‘My irritation was aggravated by the dark freckles on Gina’s décolletage’

Nakpil couldn’t hide her irritation at how La Lollo wanted the book to look like a project. “My irritation was aggravated by the dark freckles on Gina’s décolletage, the four sets of eyelashes she wore above and under each eye, and the wormy varicose veins on her legs visible only when she raised her long skirts. I refused to change a word of my text, and it was not so much feminine envy as patriotic indignation. I was the librettist, the one who would supply the words for the operatic arias of her art photographs and that made us natural enemies. She had the imperiousness and arrogance of a Hollywood film star who expected adulation and subservience with one blink of her fantastic eyes and a pushy delivery that antagonized me with its comical Italian accent. I annoyed her because I remained unimpressed and was critical and argumentative, suspicious of her manipulative strategies.”

The writer and the celebrity photographer clashed every time they met to discuss the project in the actor’s Bel Air home.

Indeed, the stage was set for a cultural battle between the writer and the actor commencing in Manila and ending in Florence where the books were to be printed.

Nakpil’s concern: why were there more photos of the Tasadays than of the ordinary Filipinos living outside the forest?

Observed Nakpil: “There was preponderance of people who were naked, with not even a G-string or a loincloth between them and the camera lens.”

In the Florence printing press, the Italian press workers suffered culture shock. They couldn’t believe that Nakpil was a Filipino and insisted that the writer must have been of Spanish origin and that Filipinos were as short as  pygmies. The writer lost her patience and yelled at the Italian printers: “Who are you calling a pygmy?” looking down her nose. She knew then that the bias came from Lollobrigida’s photos of the Tasadays.

Meanwhile, the books on Manila and the Philippines carried Nakpil’s unexpurgated text which dealt with the history, geography, economy and the character of the diverse Philippine population.

Lollobrigida got around to writing her own epilogue at the end of the book.

Despite the lack of official approval, 60,000 copies of the books were copyrighted in Liechtenstein and printed by Zincografia Fiorentina in Italy in 1976.

Project overseer Marita Manuel also disapproved rushes for the proposed film project that would go with the books.

PNB withheld payment for Lollobrigida. PNB president Domingo argued that the books were not representative of the Philippines as stipulated in the contract.

As counter move, Lollobrigida sued Mrs. Marcos who approved the book contract

As counter move, Lollobrigida sued Mrs. Marcos who approved the book contract.

Domingo negotiated during the court hearing and the actress got only one tenth ($400,000) of the $4 million contract.

Books were delivered to Malacanang but were never distributed. Mr. Domingo kept 10 copies for his friends. Nakpil got a copy of her version The Philippines, with front and back covers of the T’boli maiden in her hand-woven, beaded costume and a copy of Manila, with Mrs. Marcos at the CCP entrance.

Lollobrigida’s Philippine photographic excursion using fake “forest dwellers” was the subject of a 2014 London exhibit of Pio Abad—an artist gaining a following here and abroad for his cutting-edge, relevant, if biting, art, and who happens to be the nephew of acclaimed visual artist Pacita Abad—called My Dear, There Are Always People Who Are Just A Little Faster, More Brilliant and More Aggressive.

The description of the exhibit says it all: “Abad uses the confluence of characters in this bizarre episode to reflect on the attempts of Imelda to create an image of civility during the onset of Martial law with the Tasaday and Lollobrigida fully encapsulating the absurd spectrum of characters made complicit in the weaving of this narrative. By transposing this narrative onto a silk scarf, Abad reconfigures this grand vision into a domestic one as he attempts to create what he calls ‘ergonomic representations’ of the complex network of political and artistic alliances, fraudulent ideologies and intimate, often petty, histories that have shaped our notion of Philippine modernity.”

Lollobrigida’s art merged with her real life on her last day in Rome on January 19.

Present in the funeral procession were two estranged ex-husbands, Francisco Javier Rigau and Dimitri Skofic, and her estranged son, Milko Skofic.

Preceding her death were ugly legal battles between her and two ex-husbands and between her and only son, Milko.

Milko and Dimitri Skofic accused Lollobrigida’s assistant, Andrea Piazzolla, 34, of stealing her wealth.

In 2021, the Skofics won a legal battle, with a supreme court judge ruling that Lollobrigida needed a legal guardian to protect her estate.

 ‘I have the right to live and die in peace’

She broke down in tears during an appearance in a TV show in November 2021 as she divulged details of the inheritance dispute. She implored her TV audience, “I have the right to live and die in peace.”

A Rome newspaper revealed that the actor’s assets included properties in Rome and Monaco, as well as a trove of jewelry, artwork and antique furniture.

Lolobrigida’s lawyer observed: “The feeling is that the majority of people at the funeral will be there for their own interest and not for their affection towards Gina Lollobrigida.”

Fans who gathered outside the church agreed. “Where there is money there is no love … only war.”

It was like the war she declared on Mrs. Marcos when she took the latter to court over a book project that cost $4 million and she got only $400,000 after she didn’t comply with the stipulation in the contract (the book didn’t reflect the Philippines as written by Mrs. Nakpil).

But for her colleagues, La Lollo was beyond her fame and disputed wealth.

Maria Teresa Battaglia, an actor who starred in a film by the late director Federico Fellini, said: “Gina was exceptional and achieved everything through her own hard work.”

Referring to Lollobrigida once dubbed “the most beautiful woman in the world,” Battaglia said: “I never once saw her not looking beautiful.”

In the ’50s, writer Carmen Guerrero Nakpil with then President Ramon Magsaysay during the inauguration of the National Press Club

About author


He’s a freelance journalist who loves the opera, classical music and concerts, and who has had the privilege of meeting many of these artists of the performing arts and forging enviable friendships with them. Recently he’s been drawing readers to his poems in Facebook, getting known as the ‘Bard of Facebook.’

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