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The bitter life of Anita Ekberg who scandalised the world and scared the Pope

  • When Federico Fellini met the Swedish actress Anita Ekberg in 1959 by the Spanish Steps in Rome, he had “that sense of the marvellous, of a hypnotic stupor, of the disbelief one feels confronting exceptional creatures like a giraffe, the elephant, the baobab tree”. He didn’t stop there, comparing her variously to “a powerful panther playing the mischievous young girl”, “a lioness proud of her good health” and “a shark emanating the heat of a summer day”. It was as if her sexiness went beyond what was plausible for a human, and belonged rather to Nature. With her, Fellini apprehended for the first time “the platonic reality of things”. “So,” he said to himself, “These are the earlobes, these are the gums, this is human skin...” “She was a horse!” chimed in Fellini’s friend, Tullio Kezich, in his set diary of La Dolce Vita. It was a chilly March night when they filmed the famous frolic in the Trevi fountain, but Ekberg, said Kezich, “plunged into that cold fountain without hesitation or fuss. She was so Swedish and healthy.” No animals for her jealous co-star Marcello Mastroianni, who had drunk so much fortifying vodka that he was barely able to stand up in the fountain – he said Ekberg reminded him of a Wehrmacht stormtrooper. The Nazis would have been delighted with the way 1950s Hollywood billed the über-Aryan Ekberg as “the volcanic Valkyrie”. Born in 1931, the sixth of the Malmö harbourmaster’s eight children, she left school to become a model (to her strict Protestant parents’ distress) and was crowned Miss Sweden in 1950. The prize was two frocks and a trip to Atlantic City for the Miss America pageant. Ekberg didn’t speak a word of English, but was taught to trout pout by the modelling agent Eileen Ford – “All the good models look like fish today,” Ford advised – and got a starlet contract at Universal, who offered her lessons in elocution, drama, dancing and riding; she declined all but the last. Howard Hughes, with whom she was having an affair, wanted to change her nose, teeth and name; she refused that too. With her first pay cheque, she bought a mink stole (“I was tremendously spoiled”) and whizzed around Hollywood in a white Jaguar “laughing at bad jokes”. She made enemies of the press, who called her Anita Iceberg, and of a stripper called Evelyn “Treasure Chest” West, who pelted her with tomatoes during her own nightclub act because she thought Ekberg had sneered at her bosom.