“The two big advantages I had at birth were to have been born wise and to have been born in poverty” – Sophia Loren.
CHARLIE CHAPLIN once remarked, “Out of chaos comes the birth of a star.” A product of the slums himself, Chaplin was referring to the rise to fame of his friend Sophia Loren, the earthily sensual Italian cinema goddess, who was so impoverished as a child of the war-torn streets of the seaport town of Pozzuoli, Italy, that the other children called her Sofia Stuzzicadente (“Sofia the toothpick”). It would prove an ironic taunt, considering Loren’s initial exploitable and bankable appeal stemmed from the lush curves and voluptuous breasts she developed when puberty hit with a vengeance. Struggling against the stigma associated with being born illegitimate in staunchly Catholic Italy, Loren barely survived World War II: to avoid bombing raids, she took refuge in train tunnels and lived with the constant specters of cold, starvation, and sickness—not to mention the danger of the 4:30 a.m. train from Naples arriving off-schedule.
Sofia’s first taste of glamour came at fourteen when she was crowned one of twelve “Princesses of the Sea” in a beauty contest, an honor for which she won a railroad ticket to Rome, several rolls of wallpaper, a tablecloth with matching napkins, and 23,000 lira (about $35). Encouraged by this glimmer of success, her mother relocated the family to Rome, where Sofia snagged her first role as an extra in an American feature, Quo Vadis. The tide turned in her favor when she met producer and future husband Carlo Ponti while competing in another beauty contest. Though she placed a disappointing second, Ponti gave her a screen test, and after he overcame his initial aversion to her nose and robust hips, he advanced her career in a succession of low-budget Italian productions.
Sofia Lazzaro becomes Sophia Loren
Sofia Lazzaro, as she was then known, became Sophia Loren in 1952 when she landed a substantial part in the film Africa Under the Seas; her new surname was borrowed, with a slight modification, from Swedish actress Marta Toren. Her first plum assignment, in Aida, required her to sing over diva Renata Tebaldi’s vocal track; the plum role dropped into her lap when glamour-puss Gina Lollobrigida backed out of the project because she deemed lip-synching beneath her star status. A press-generated “Catfight, Italian Style” ensued—impressive measurements were drawn like swords in an unremitting press war over breast size. Finally, in director Vittorio de Sica’s The Gold of Naples, Loren found the career launching pad that she needed to leave behind, once and for all, her former life as a skinny little girl from Pozzuoli.
Loren then made a much-publicized, though temporary, leap to Hollywood. She signed a contract with Paramount for her first English-speaking role, in The Pride and the Passion. Once on the set, she fell in love with co-star Cary Grant. Though she had been involved romantically with Carlo Ponti (he was married with two children) from the age of eighteen, Loren had suffered through years of frustration while he attempted to obtain an annulment from the church.
In 1962, Ponti finally secured a divorce from his wife and a subsequent marriage by proxy to Loren in legal proceedings in Mexico, ironically just days before Sophia’s fairy-tale cinematic marriage to Cary Grant in the movie Houseboat. Ponti’s finaglings were later rendered invalid by the Vatican, and the two were forced to live first as exiles and then as secret lovers in Rome to avoid excommunication. They ultimately subverted the Vatican’s pronouncements of bigamy and concubinage by becoming citizens of France and remarrying legally in 1966.