Along with Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida and Claudia Cardinale, Elsa Martinelli was one of an elite bevy of super-glamorous Italian actresses who roamed the silver screen preying on their co-stars and audiences alike in the 1950s and ’60s. What they had in common was that they all managed to become household names for moviegoers in the US and internationally as well as in their native country.
But there are differences. The first is obvious to anyone even glancing at their photos. Elsa’s Italian counterparts were all maggiorate – buxom, earthy beauties who proved to be one of Italy’s great export successes. Elsa Martinelli’s looks on the other hand – high cheekbones, a lost-urchin face and a boyish figure – led to her being compared to Audrey Hepburn. As the sixties began to swing and fashions changed, Elsa’s chic style led to her being cast in a number of the hip movies of the day, leaving her contemporaries looking distinctly outmoded.
The other main difference is less easy to define but goes some way to explaining why Elsa didn’t make it big on screen in the way the others did. She looks gorgeous in her movies and her acting is fine but ultimately she lacks screen presence. She’s not the kind of actress around whom a director could really build a film and so it’s perhaps no coincidence that she was never cast in a Roman Holiday, a Funny Face or a Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
None of which prevented her from becoming a member of the international jet set, shuttling between Europe and the US, her career embracing fashion as well as film, and her friends and acquaintances including the likes of Aristotle Onassis, Maria Callas, Jacqui Kennedy, Gunter Sachs and Rudolf Nureyev. Indicative of her lifestyle is an article in the 18 February 1972 edition of The Daily Mirror, a UK newspaper, that reports that:
Actress Elsa Martinelli was called to police headquarters before dawn yesterday to answer questions about a drugs scandal that has shocked Rome. The move followed the arrest last week of playboy, Paolo Vassallo. Over half an ounce of cocaine is said to have been found in the battery of his car. Since then drug squad detectives have been questioning an international set of nightclub owners, businessmen and show business personalities. Miss Martinelli, a frequent visitor to a club owned buy Vassallo, was allowed to leave the police headquarters after an hour. She said last night: “I have nothing to be afraid of.”
Her life had started off in a very different milieu.
From rags to riches
To be a big movie star, you have to come from a pretty grim background, right? Well that does seem to be the case with many of the stars featured on aenigma and Elsa Martinelli conforms to that adage. She doesn’t exactly have it easy as she grows up. The story of her childhood and adolescence is recounted by Bill Strutton in New Style for Italian Stars, an article in the 19 December 1956 edition of The Australian Women’s Weekly:
Miss Martinelli’s success story is a real Cinderella one. She was born in Trastevere, the worst slum quarter in Rome. Her father was a railway worker who earned four pounds a week. At 12 she was already working, running messages for stores. “My eight sisters and I, we sleep all in the same room,” she said. “At 14, I take in washing. At 16, I become a fashion model.” It happened magically. On a sudden lavish whim, Elsa decided to buy herself a fine dress. She walked into the most elegant shop in Rome. Behind her she heard a woman’s voice exclaim, “But how beautiful you are!” She turned. It was Teresa Getti, the owner of the shop. “Would you like to be a mannequin?” It was as simple as that.
Elsa became the main wage-earner in her large family. She says, with a gay, sparkling wink, “Since little Elsa made good, the family eat good. I was good at washing clothes, and good at showing clothes. Now I am 21 and I want to be good at being an actress. But” – the eyes flashed – “I want to keep my clothes on to do it!”
With her career as a model on an upward trajectory, the glamorous Elsa naturally attracts a host of suitors and it doesn’t take her long to get hitched. Six months after Bill Strutton’s piece, an article appears in the 8 June 1957 edition of UK newspaper The Daily Mirror under the title, Elsa wed her count – in secret:
Elsa Martinelli, 22, the girl from the slums who became one of Italy’s top film stars, was married in secret yesterday. Her husband – the first – is handsome, wealthy Count Franco Mancinelli Scotti, 27, who comes from an ancient and aristocratic Italian family. He owns tobacco plantations in Southern Italy. The couple have often been seen out together since they met two years ago at a winter sports resort. They were married at a civil ceremony in the tiny independent State of San Remo. There may be a church service later. Only a friend of the Count and Elsa’s agent were present. At the moment Elsa is technically under sentence of eighteen months’ gaol for calling three police officers “an unmentionable name” in a car parking incident here. Here appeal against the conviction is expected to be heard soon. Till then Elsa is at liberty. After that – who knows?
In one fell swoop she’s made it out of the slums and into the jet set. Her marriage to the count produces a daughter but Franco’s mother is so furious about the marriage that she expels him from the ancestral palace in Rome. Perhaps that’s one of the pressures that leads the couple to divorce in 1960 and go their separate ways. But let’s return to Elsa Martinelli’s career.
Elsa Martinelli – model and movie star
Elsa’s account in The Australian Women’s Weekly of becoming a model implies that she made the transition to modelling overnight. That’s not the case. She embarks on her modelling career in 1951 but at that stage it’s a part-time occupation, not enough to pay all the bills let alone provide a comfortable lifestyle. So in 1953, she’s also working as a barmaid when she’s discovered by Roberto Capucci, an up-and-coming designer who asks her to model his first collection and introduces her to the world of high fashion.
It’s perhaps at one of his shows that she comes to the attention of Eileen Ford, co-founder of Ford Models. The agency provides the platform she needs to fulfil her potential and in no time at all she becomes one of the top models in Paris and New York. You can find a photo of her modelling at a fashion show at Romanoff’s restaurant in Los Angeles at Getty Images. And that’s not all:
She’s known as ‘The Witch’ – and she’s magic, too!
Italian beauty Elsa Martinelli has become known as “The Witch,” after Count Rudy Crespi described her “as flat as a plank with hair like a witch.” … As well as being Italy’s top fashion model, Elsa has shown promise as a film actress.
News travels fast. That’s a snippet from that August 20, 1955 edition of The Mirror, a newspaper published in Perth, Australia. Interesting that it draws attention to her unconventional looks. And yes, she’s already embarked on a career as a movie actress. So how does she make the leap from fashion to film?
Kirk Douglas (or his wife, depending on which version of the story you read) spots her on the cover of LIFE magazine. Except that’s not possible – Elsa doesn’t feature on the cover until the November 25, 1957 issue, which also contains a feature about her, Newest Eyeful from Italy. No, the Kirks must have been perusing the July 10, 1955 edition in which Elsa is the model featured in a fashion editorial called Promise at Portofino.
Anyway, Kirk casts her as Onahti, a Sioux chief’s daughter and the main love interest in The Indian Fighter (1955), his debut as a movie producer. It’s not her first movie role – the previous year she’s been seen in a couple of European films (uncredited in one of them) – but it’s a big step up. And it’s worth bearing in mind that the usual trajectory for Italian actresses is a good long stint in Italian films before receiving a summons from Hollywood.
At any rate, she’s now on the map, with The New York Times observing that, “In the brunette Elsa Martinelli, who plays the Indian lass with a minimum of words and a maximum of feline grace, Mr. Douglas has come up with a pretty photogenic newcomer.” And her unusual looks are doing her no harm at all according to Bill Strutton, writing in the December 19, 1956 edition of The Australian Women’s Weekly:
New Style for Italian Stars
Fresh from Italy comes the newest sensation of its film studios – Elsa Martinelli – to charge with her personal high voltage the star cast of a major new British film “Manuela.”
The angular and electric Elsa has shot brilliantly to fame, landing on a dizzy perch level with the adored Lollobrigida and her fabled rival, Sophia Loren. Mention these names to Elsa, and she snaps, “I do not wish to be compared with Lollo or Sophia! I do not have to do a strip-tease to be sexy.”
Just when everybody was beginning to conclude that Italy’s unique contribution to the world screen was a row of prominent prows and a vast repertoire of voluptuous attitudes, along comes the strange and compelling personality of Martinelli. She has a mobile, piano smile; an untidy hair-do with wisps straying about her neck; clothes that cloak her vital statistics; but a personality that arrests the attention the minute she stalks into a room. Along with Audrey Hepburn she heralds a new style in stars. Entirely individual, she is a person, not an exquisite arrangement of wonderful curves.
In spite of the likes of Audrey Hepburn and Elsa Martinelli, the 1950s continue to be dominated by the cult of curvaceousness, not least in Italian cinema where Elsa’s figure is probably one of the reasons she fails to make a real impact. The other is that she’s not the protégé of any of the industry’s movers and shakers, unlike Sophia Loren with Carlo Ponti, Claudia Cardinale with Franco Cristaldi, Silvana Mangano with Dino De Laurentiis and Rosanna Schiaffino with Alfredo Bini. Meanwhile, Gina Lollobrigida owes her career success in no small part to her husband Milko Skofic.
But come the 1960s, the eyes of movie directors and fashion editors begin to turn towards a more playful, elfish, slender look, as couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga observes in 1963 (quoted here in the 2 July 1963 edition of the Thanet Times, a regional UK newspaper):
Bosoms are out
If slim Italian beauty Elsa Martinelli of M.G.M.’s “The V.I.P.s” is anything to go by – and a stunningly convincing argument she presents – then the age of the pneumatic pin-up is on its way out. “It is the age,” says Paris fashion-setter Balenciaga “of the thin girl. In are elbow capes, padded jackets and short hems. Dresses may have deeply cut armholes above which shoulder seams are widened; stiff faille capes point down low at the back of slender low-cut dresses. Bosoms are out.”
Arguably the sixties are Elsa Martinelli’s heyday. She continues to be in demand as a top model, she’s cast in a number of the decade’s hip movies including Roger Vadim’s racy vampire drama Et mourir de plaisir (Blood and Roses, 1960), Elio Petri’s pop futurist sci-fi extravaganza La decima vittima (The 10th Victim, 1965) and Christian Marquand’s wacky sexploitation fantasy Candy (1968).
A woman of her times
Elsa Martinelli is a child of the sixties in the sense that she espouses the period’s mores and is prepared to stand up for her rights as a woman. In an article in the 3 March 1963 of the UK’s Sunday Mirror titled Now Elsa Martinelli defends ‘bed-without-wed’ – Brazen hussy or a modern St. Joan of sex-equality?:
Elsa Martinelli, in the most uninhibited interview I have had since Jayne Mansfield invited me to massage her thigh, agreed that either description could fit her. For Elsa, although still married to Italian Count Franco Mancinelli Scotti, now admits she is living as the wife of photographer Willi Rizzo.
She told me: “I no longer care who knows about this. Millions of women separated from their husbands are legally forced to live under the same circumstances, or go for the rest of their lives without love. In Italy alone there are more than two million. It is a terrible injustice. But in Italy, of course, there is little justice for women. The men make the laws, and Italian husbands are the most selfish in the world. If I go back to Italy now I can be put in prison. But I will not be a hypocrite. And I am not afraid. Already I have signed to make my next picture in Rome. Maybe I will go to prison.”
…Elsa warmed to her theme of hypocrisy as she continued: “Willi and I became lovers the second time we met in 1960. It was in St. Tropez. Do I think that is shameful? No, of course not. I only wish it had been the first time we met, but it was not possible. It is hypocrisy to pretend that there is any difference between making illegal love at the first, fifth or fiftieth time of meeting. If divorce was possible then Willi and I would have been married right away. There’s the hypocrisy of booking into separate hotel rooms in some countries. It’s no secret that we have unlocked adjoining doors. And if the maid knocks in the morning Willi goes back to his own bed. She knows what we know, but the pretence must be kept up.”
Elsa went on: “That is why our permanent home is in Paris. France is the only country where a man can go to an hotel with a woman who is not his wife, and they care only that they have passports. I suppose it is called living in sin, but I don’t agree. Living without love is the sin.”
Willi is Willy Rizzo, one of the top photojournalists at Paris Match. In 1968 he moves to Rome and “makes an honest woman” of Elsa Martinelli. They have a shared interest in furniture design which, for Willy, becomes a second successful career alongside photography.
According to IMDb, by the 1980s, Elsa was active as an interior designer in Rome while still making sporadic screen appearances, primarily in TV series. Described by the newspaper La Repubblica as “an icon of style and elegance,” Elsa Martinelli died on July 8, 2017 in Rome at the age of 82.
Want to know more about Elsa Martinelli?
The best collection of photos is Sophia’s photo stream on Flickr.
Of the two default sources, on this occasion IMDb has more to offer than Wikipedia. More interesting are the obituaries in The Guardian, The New York Times, Variety, and Irenebriation; also La repubblica (in Italian).
Offline sources are:
Elsa Martinelli’s autobiography, Sono come sono. It is, of course, in Italian.
Réka Buckley’s Elsa Martinelli: Italy’s Audrey Hepburn, published in the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol 26, No 3, August 2006.