Already a movie star in her native Sweden, Ingrid Bergman became an instant sensation for David O. Selznick in Hollywood and the number-one box-office star in the world. But the most dramatic event in her life took place off the screen when she made a film in Italy and began a passionate romance with her director, Roberto Rossellini. The scandal that followed left her exiled from America, ostracized by Hollywood, vilified in the press, denounced by clergy, censured in the U.S. Senate -- and separated from her young daughter. She was able to make films only with Rossellini.
In the words of those who were involved, Chandler describes Bergman's life before, during, and after the scandal. Among those Chandler spoke with were Alfred Hitchcock, George Cukor, Sidney Lumet, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Greta Garbo, and Liv Ullmann. She spoke with Roberto Rossellini; their twin daughters, Isabella and Isotta Ingrid; Rossellini's son, Renzo; Ingrid's daughter Pia Lindstrom; and others who knew Ingrid well. This extraordinary access makes Ingrid: Ingrid Bergman, a Personal Biography the most perceptive and revealing book ever written about the charismatic Hollywood legend.
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I'll be Mother," Ingrid Bergman said. She picked up the ornate silver teapot and poured.
I was having tea at director George Cukor's Cordell Drive home in Hollywood with Cukor and Ingrid Bergman. Cukor had directed such films as The Philadelphia Story, A Star Is Born, My Fair Lady, and Gaslight, the film he did with Ingrid Bergman. There was a plate of rich butter cookies on the tea table, which indicated Cukor knew Ingrid well.
Cukor said, "The girl always likes to make herself useful. She has such good manners. Usually. I remember once, when we first met, she talked back to me."
"Oh, George," Ingrid pouted, "I never, never would have been rude to you."
"I had my way of chatting with actors between takes, giving them little bits of advice, perhaps a bit of encouragement to help them stay involved. On Gaslight, I offered some tidbit of un-thought-out wisdom to Miss Bergman here, and she gave me such a look. What a look! Then, quite unemotionally, she said to me, 'You already told me that.'
"I said, 'So I did.'
"'Well, I must be more careful with this young Swedish girl,' I thought.
"Then, I rethought it.
"No, she'll have to be more careful with me. She'll have to get used to the way I work. She did. And we became the greatest friends."
Ingrid said, "Yes, that's true, except I never said what you said."
"You see?" he said to us. "She hasn't changed a bit.
"Ingrid was not overawed by me, then or now. No reason why she should have been. But some were. I suppose because I was their director."
Cukor said it to me, "Can you imagine that our girl here made films in five languages?"
"And I spoke a bit of Chinese, too, in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness."
He asked her how she managed to speak so many languages so well.
She laughed. "By not speaking them so well. I admit I am very fluent in Swedish. I believe I have been able to speak the other languages as well as I do because I have such a fervent desire to communicate."
I asked her in what language she thought. She answered, "I think in the language I am speaking in. It's the only way."
"And when you are alone and thinking by yourself?" I asked.
"English. It seems strange. Everyone would expect me to think in Swedish, my first language, but from the time I learned English, it became my thinking language. I just found it worked better for me."
Cukor said he could never learn a foreign language because he was too shy. Ingrid was astounded.
"You, George? I would have said you never had a shy moment in your life. As for shyness, I am the shyest person in the world. When I was a girl, I was famous for my blushes. If anyone spoke to me or even just looked at me, I changed color. But that was when they looked at Ingrid. Acting, I could be someone else. That someone else had no need to blush. That character was thrilled to have an entire audience watching, even millions."
"I can understand that, my dear. Even as director, I have to play a part, and going into the part of the director allows me to say things that, as George, I would be too self-conscious to say. My public person and my private person are always both there."
"Mine, too," Ingrid agreed. "My private self and my public self are one and the same. They both love being an actress. I feel most like myself when I am playing someone else.
"But sometimes my private self gets in the way by being so very much concerned with finding and holding on to love."
"Looking for love is tricky business," Cukor concluded, "like whipping a carousel horse."
Ingrid said, "The way I see myself in my personal life was best expressed for me by Jean Cocteau: 'The dreamer is the guest of his dreams.'"
Ingrid mentioned to Cukor that he had influenced the choice of a name for one of her twin daughters. "I don't think I ever told you, but I remembered that you had said you liked the name of the French actress Annabella. Do you remember, George?"
He did not appear to remember.
"I was trying to think of a name that began with an I, and the name Isabella popped into my mind. That was how my Isabella got her name."
Cukor, obviously pleased, said, "Well, that makes me rather a godfather. Even if Annabella didn't start with an I, I take full credit."
"You were a godfather to all your actors," Ingrid said. "You always loved actors."
Cukor corrected her. "Not every one of them."
"Roberto [Rossellini] did not like actors," Ingrid continued. "At the beginning, I didn't know that. When he first told me, I didn't believe him. Later, I found out it was true."
"I'm sure that it wasn't true about you," Cukor said.
"That was what I assumed," Ingrid said. "Maybe in the beginning, it was true that he didn't mean me. Later, I'm not certain.
"When I worked with my husband, I didn't wish to be thought of by him, or anyone, as his wife. I wanted to be just one of the actors. It was a problem, though, for me that there weren't many actors there. Professional actors, I mean.
"When I first saw Open City, I was so thrilled that Roberto was able to get such natural performances, not actor-like performances. I learned on Stromboli how he did it. He didn't use actors. His actors weren't actors, only people, well selected. And he had to film them quickly before he ran out of film and money, which he was always short of."
Cukor said, "You adjusted so well to your life in Italy, but there must have been something you missed...."
"Many things, George, but I'll tell you one you would never guess."
"I won't even try."
"Corn on the cob. When I first saw people in America eating it, they looked like they were playing harmonicas. It was so funny-looking, it made me laugh. Then I tried it and I learned right away how to do it. It tasted so much better that way, but it tasted best eaten in private with a bib or a towel, so I didn't ruin my clothes."
After we had tea, Cukor, knowing that Ingrid loved champagne, opened a bottle. We clicked glasses, and Ingrid said, "Here's lookin' at you, kids."
"That little film of yours was done by another Hungarian, Curtiz," Cukor said. "I'm Hungarian, you know. Anyway, my family was."
"Would you believe, George," Ingrid said, "that Bogart and Paul [Henreid] and especially me believed that Casablanca was a little picture, a waste of our time?"
"I wish someone had asked me to waste my time on Casablanca," Cukor said.
"Do you know what I especially love about you, Ingrid, my dear? I can sum it up as your naturalness. The camera loves your beauty, your acting, and your individuality. A star must have individuality. It makes you a great star. A great star."
"I think film is in my genes," Ingrid said. "I love the camera. My father had a photographic shop in Stockholm, and from the day I was born, he took pictures of me with a still camera, and movies, too. Sometimes I feel the movie camera is my friend or even a relative.
"I believe my father well might have gone into Swedish films had he lived longer. He might have become a famous cinematographer. He saw unlimited potential in those early cameras. When he used his camera, he and the camera became one.
"George, you worked with Greta Garbo. Can you tell me why she retired from films when she was so young? I could never do that. My vision of myself is very, very, very old in a film playing the oldest woman in the world, or on the stage in a children's theater, cackling in the part of an old witch. Witches are such great fun to do. You're never too old to be a witch. And no one can accuse a witch of overacting."
"In answer to your question, I don't think Miss Garbo ever retired," Cukor said. "That implies a real decision. I don't believe she did that. I think she just waited, and she waited too long. She had grown accustomed to being in great demand, but when the demands were softer, she didn't notice. She wanted the perfect part, but Ninotchkas didn't grow on trees. That's a film my friend Ernst Lubitsch made that I would like to have made. 'Garbo laughs' is how it was advertised. Well, of course, she laughed, and of course, she cried. No porcelain figure she!
"I think she was sorry she didn't make more films, but she thought she wanted a holiday. We've all been tired and thought we wanted a long vacation when all we needed was a few days off, but didn't know it.
"I think Miss Garbo wasn't hungry enough. She didn't need to work. She'd been a very poor girl in Stockholm, and she had not dreamed big. Then, everything rather came to her. Because of her natural attributes, we all adored her and wanted to help her.
"She earned a lot of money, and it was well invested for her. When she went shopping on Rodeo Drive, it wasn't for dresses or for jewelry; it was for Rodeo Drive. She owned top real estate, fine art, and jewels, too. She didn't have to spend much money because everyone wanted to pay her way. But she could be very picky. She was also a bit lazy, I suspect.
"She used to tell me she was thinking about returning to the screen, and I feel she was thinking about it. But that's where it stopped. She was doing her thinking on someone's yacht.
"I've always meant to tell you," Cukor said to Ingrid, "I think you were marvelous in A Woman's Face in Sweden. When I was making the film here with Joan Crawford, I watched your performance several times."
"George, is it true you thought of using Hedy Lamarr for my part in Gaslight?"
"No, I never did. From the moment I came to it, I never heard that. I understand Miss Lamarr thought so, but that was before I came to the project.
"I don't know if I made it clear at the time how much I thought of your performance in Gaslight. I felt certain you would receive an Oscar nomination at least, and I believed you were going to take home Oscar, which you did."
"You were always encouraging, and I loved receiving my first Oscar," Ingrid smiled, savoring the memory. "It was wonderful, and I owe it to you, and to Charles Boyer and Joe Cotten, and others. So I wouldn't want to give it back, but I do think the Oscar really goes to the part you play more than to the actor or actress. I was lucky to be given the part that won the Oscar."
"The truth is," Cukor said, "a director wins an Oscar for a writer's script and actors' performances. Who helped you most to become an actress, and how did you learn to act?"
"The first part is a simple answer, George. My father. He loved me, he loved the arts, and he constantly encouraged me. I don't know where I'd be without him, but it surely wouldn't be here in your beautiful home today. As for how, I began as a little girl, studying acting by watching people. I always felt it was the best way."
Cukor mentioned a book I was writing, about people who loved their work and who did not work just for fame or money, but who did what they did because the creative work was what they wanted to do. Ingrid said that was what she really wanted to do. "Me. That's me. I'm one of those. I love to act. I'm never happier. I would pay to do it. Wouldn't you, George? Pay to direct?"
"I'd have to think about that," Cukor said, and then hesitated a few seconds. "I've thought. How much would I have to pay?"
I was introduced to Ingrid Bergman by George Cukor to talk about plans for the Friends of the Cinémathèque Française, an organization in America that could help its founder, Henri Langlois, in his film preservation work. While the Cinémathèque Française was based in Paris, it was appreciated worldwide. Both Ingrid and Cukor were passionate about film preservation.
Ingrid became an early member of the board along with Lillian Gish, Gloria Swanson, Otto Preminger, Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, King Vidor, Vincente Minnelli, Darryl F. Zanuck, and, of course, George Cukor.
She believed that her films, such as Gaslight, Casablanca, The Bells of St. Mary's, would not have problems in being preserved, so that people in the future would have no difficulty seeing them. "We certainly don't have to worry about Casablanca being preserved," she said.
She felt, however, that the films of her former husband, Roberto Rossellini, were threatened and would have great difficulty surviving. "They were 'art films,'" she said, "and so did not have the big-money support and rich champions to look after them. And Roberto was not a diplomat, especially after the film was completed. There were often difficult relationships, bitterness, court cases..."
Langlois and Mary Merson at the Cinémathèque Française greatly respected the work of Rossellini. Langlois, calling him "a monumental talent," wanted to safeguard not just the feature films, but the documentaries and every scrap of film cut or discarded from anything Rossellini had ever done. Mary Merson had commented on the man rather than the director. "No woman who met him could resist him, and she had to fall under his spell, helpless."
Ingrid said, "Roberto could not have had greater film fans than those two, but they were always without money. Rome: Open City and Paisan will always be there. But what about the others?"
"We don't have to sell ourselves on what we're already sold on," Cukor said. "And I don't think we have to sell anyone. We just have to let them know what we're doing."
"And soon. Immediately," Ingrid said. "Films are dying every minute, especially my poor Roberto's work. I'm not worried about my big Hollywood movies. And even my Swedish films are, I understand, safe in Sweden, but the films of Roberto...Rome: Open City and Paisan are in the archives, but maybe some of the prints aren't so very good. The other films, the ones we made together, and all of the others of his, they have been brutally cut by other people. Roberto wasn't powerful enough to get the final cut."
As Ingrid was about to leave, I said that I was so pleased to have met her. She responded, "I feel sometimes people are disappointed when they meet me because they are expecting Ilsa from Casablanca, and instead they get Ingrid from Stockholm.
"I suppose some of me was in Ilsa, because an actress does draw upon her feelings and her experiences when she brings to life a character like Ilsa." She added wistfully, "Ilsa never grows old, nor fat."
Ingrid looked down at the cookie plate, seeing that it was empty. "Oh, George! I've eaten all of your cookies."
"All the better for me," Cukor said.
After she had left, Cukor said, "She has a great sense of fantasy. Sometimes this works in her favor -- in the films and on the stage.
"In real life, it may have been her undoing. She has such an innocence and openness to life. She's very trusting. She's a romantic who fell in love intensely.
"Garbo was the most artificial actress anyone could imagine, a style that came from silent films, somewhat from the theater, and it was also her own unique persona. It was well suited to her and to her time until her time was up.
"I liked Garbo very much as an actress and a person, but I loved Ingrid personally and professionally. I would use the word 'stylized' to characterize Garbo; as for Ingrid, she was a natural.
"Three strokes of a hairbrush, and her shining hair was perfect. She washed it herself. No other actress I've ever known would or could do that. Nothing about her was ever 'fixed,' because she had been so blessed that everything about her was perfect."
Cukor had directed Garbo in Camille and Two-Faced Woman, and she often visited him. After her retirement, Garbo sometimes asked Cukor if he thought she should make another film. He refrained from encouraging her even if he might have been the director. "It would have had to be entirely her decision because it was almost impossible to attain the heights to which she had previously ascended and occupied as her due.
"Garbo was considered very aloof. Everyone agreed, although I must say she wasn't ever aloof with me. It was her personality, true, but there was more to it than that. Take Robert Taylor, who really was a very good Armand to her Camille. He was so handsome and, especially, he was so young, which made believable romantic foolishness. They were always casting Armand too old, which made it hard to swallow.
"Garbo did everything to help Armand for the film, but she didn't seem to want to know Robert Taylor. Well, he was a bit crushed, but she had her reasons, which worked for her.
"Perhaps it was a holdover idea from silents. She liked to imbue her co-star with romantic qualities and to make up stories about him that would help her see the person in the right way. Garbo didn't want to know the real Bob, just in case he might say something like, 'Miss Garbo, it's such an honor to be here with you. I've always admired your work,' et cetera. Ugh! Worse yet, he could have added that he watched her when he was a boy.
"Ingrid, exactly the opposite, knew the names not just of co-stars, but of every bit player and every technician. She knew the names of their children, and she shopped for holiday remembrances or sometimes gave away her knitting. I, myself, have two scarves which I wear, one at a time."
When Ingrid and I continued our conversations in a room at the Beverly Hills Hotel a few days later, she said the first subject she wanted to talk about was Roberto Rossellini and Open City and Paisan, and the other films she made with him, and that whatever I wrote she hoped I would talk about him, too, and his masterpieces. "He was a very great director, one of the greatest," she said, "and I hope that one day he will be more generally appreciated, as he deserves to be."
Then, her serious tone gave way to a more playful, even mischievous one. "Would you like to see a trick?" she asked me.
She took hold of the tablecloth and pulled it out from under the dishes. I was glad I hadn't poured the coffee yet. The water in the glasses, however, hadn't spilled.
"It's just a trick, you know," she explained. "The important thing is that you do it with certainty. If you think you will break the dishes, you will. Fear makes your hand unsteady."
I asked her how many dishes she had broken before she mastered the trick.
"Not many. I learn quickly. I never break any dishes anymore. Once this kind of trick is mastered, it is for forever, like riding a bicycle or swimming.
"Tell George [Cukor]. He'll think it's funny. Tell him how well I did it, and that I promise I will never do it at his house. His dishes are too beautiful. And he doesn't have the right kind of table."
Copyright © 2007 by Charlotte Chandler
Table of Contents
Ingrid and Sweden
Ingrid and Hollywood
Ingrid and Italy
Ingrid and the World
Ingrid and the Final Years