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SUNDAY 21 JULY  2024

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The incredible day I missed a flight and landed up having dinner with La Lollo

ROBIN McGIBBON  pays a personal tribute to Italian movie star Gina Lollobrigida, who died last month, aged 95, for her kindness when she invited him to her home in the seventies.  

 

The first time I met Gina was at her sumptuous villa on the ancient Appia Antica road, on the outskirts of Rome, one warm summer afternoon in 1978. The fact that I was wearing a lightweight powder blue suit might seem irrelevant, but its significance – at least to me – will become clear. 


 I’d written to Gina, explaining that I’d launched a new-style publishing operation, in which I bankrolled celebrity books to manuscript stage, then negotiated publication rights with foreign publishers personally — saving 25 per cent commission to literary agents.


 I told her my first two books — an inside story of the Rolling Stones and one on classic Hollywood movies by Sammy Davis Jr — were being published in Britain and the U.S, and I felt her story had the ingredients of an international bestseller.


Gina was interested enough to invite me to lunch and, early the following Tuesday morning, I flew out of Heathrow, feeling good in the blue suit, and experiencing the usual buzz of excitement at meeting a global superstar.

 I found Gina charming, most welcoming, and as a beautiful as I’d imagined; certainly looking far younger than her age, then 51.


From the intimate details she revealed, over a luscious lunch she’d prepared herself, I was confident her book had the potential I’d envisaged and, around 6 p.m. I took a taxi to the airport, thrilled that my day trip to the Eternal City had gone so well.


 My buoyant mood didn’t last long. When I went to check in I was told I’d missed the last flight to London, and there wasn’t another until morning.  


 My first thought, after cursing my stupidity for leaving Gina so late, was to take another cab — to the city centre —and book a cheap hotel room for the night. The prospect of spending the evening alone didn’t appeal to me, so I decided to call Gina, explain what had happened, and invite her to dinner, as a thank you for making me so welcome that afternoon.


 Thanks to the taxi driver, I had a pocketful of coins, so I found a payphone and rang Gina. She sounded genuinely 

upset I’d missed my flight — and even more so that she’d been invited to a formal dinner party at a friend’s house and couldn’t accept my offer.


 I was about to hang up when she said: “Wait, wait. I shall make a call. Can you hang on? Have you money for the phone?”  I said I had, and for the next five minutes, maybe more, I listened ,with some embarrassment, I must admit, to Gina rattling on, in quick-fire Italian, clearly asking someone if I could join them for dinner.


LIVING THE DREAM: Gina Lollobrigida in the Indian-style den of her villa on the Via Appia Antica
in Rome, summer 2014. Vanity Fair      Picture by JONATHAN BECKER


Finally, she came back, saying it was all fixed: she was going to book me into the Grand Hotel, then pick me up at 8 p.m. and take me to meet her friends: she couldn’t bear the thought of me flying such a long way to see her and spending the evening alone.


I remember being concerned about cost; after all, the Grand was one of the most expensive hotels in the country. But I needn’t have worried: Gina had booked a modest single room, and after a relaxing, and much-needed, bath, I went downstairs to the bar where I was to wait until her chauffeur found me.


 One whisky sour later, he did, and we went to the hotel entrance where a highly-polished Mercedes was waiting, its engine purring quietly in the warm night air. The chauffeur opened a back door and there, sitting, regally, on the back seat was beautiful Gina, looking every inch the movie star, in a black evening gown, a silver stole round her shoulders and long, dazzling earrings.


 Not sure it was right to greet her with a peck on the cheek, I settled for a gentle handshake and a smile, trying to hide how self-conscious I now felt, being so inappropriately dressed for a formal dinner party

 I so wish I could remember all that happened the rest of the evening, but, 45 years on, I have no chance: to be honest, it was all rather overwhelming. What I do recall, hazily, is the venue — a large dining room in a substantial private residence — and a buffet of exquisite food, mainly curried, which a dozen guests ate at little tables seating no more than four.  


 It was all intimate and elegant and, I suspected, high society. Another time, I’d have lapped it up, but in my blue, off-the-peg suit I felt I stuck out like the proverbial.


 We were there three hours and Gina, bless her, barely left my side. She introduced me to most of the guests, one of whom, I do remember, was a count, and another was at pains for me to visit him at his home in Oman.

I remember thinking that the smell of the exquisite food was powerful, but the smell of money in the room was even stronger!


Unfortunately, our commitments meant Gina and I were unable to meet again until early the following year and when we did, it was by the most incredible coincidence.


 I was in New York, for the launch of the Stones book and, the morning after, I was having a late breakfast at the Drake Hotel, on Park Avenue, when I thought I should call Gina, at her home, just to say hello and apologise for not being in touch. A woman’s voice I didn’t recognise said: “Madame not here. She in New York.”

 “That’s incredible,” I said. “I’m in New York. Do you mind telling me where she’s staying?”

 “The Pierre,” the woman said.“Madame always stays at The Pierre.”


 I thanked her and put the phone down, quietly excited: I would call the hotel and invite Gina to lunch, as an overdue thank you for the kindness she showed me the previous summer.


 Gina was surprised, but pleased, to hear from me and said she’d love to have lunch. I picked her up from the hotel in a yellow cab and we went  to Cafe des Artistes, a restaurant I hadn’t been to but knew was popular among showbiz folk. Indeed several movies had been filmed there.


 I’d love to say that Gina and I collaborated on her autobiography and it became worldwide bestseller, but, sadly, it’s not the case. We had a long, delightful lunch and, once again, she was keen to reveal intimate secrets she promised to write about, particularly her unusual sex life. But that’s as far as it went. Like many actresses I encountered as a publisher, Gina was flattered to be asked to write a book, but preferred to talk, rather than write, about her life.