Mara’s Apartment on the Piazza Navona – by Hartley Pleshaw

January, 2005

Somewhere, in that vast horror of newspapers, magazines and books I call my apartment (“A library that vomited,” as I once described it to a friend), is my most valued possession. It doesn’t look or seem like much: an 8 X 10 white index card—no decorations, no fancy printing. Just a white index card, with this brief message written in black ink:

Dear Mr. Pleshaw:

Thank you very much for your very affectionate letter.

I will treasure it.

Fondly, Sophia

That’s it. And I wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world.

Sophia Loren is now seventy years old. One would think that, in a world gone mad, and getting more insane by the minute, more attention would be paid to the life and longevity of an Academy Award winning actress, a devoted humanitarian and, in the opinion of many (including, most definitely, myself), the most beautiful woman who ever lived. But, in this world gone mad (as much with banality as brutality), few seem to care.

Yes, Sophia is one of the world’s biggest “celebrities,” but in today’s world, that counts for little if you commit the unforgivable sin of living past the age of thirty (much less seventy!). Britney Spears’ husband-of-the-week, the latest glorified karaoke singer, the latest tantrum-throwing “reality show” curiosity—that’s who we care about these days. The world now panders to people who think cheesy ‘80’s pop music is “classic rock.” May God have mercy on us all.

Then, of course, we have the other extreme: the “dead immortals,” as Yogi Berra or Sam Goldwyn might call them. Elvis and Marilyn, front and center. Especially, for present purposes, Marilyn. With Marilyn Monroe safely dead, we can worship her all we want. (It’s been that way ever since the very day she died, when the Hollywood which killed her clamored to be let into her funeral.) We can project our fantasies on to her, secure in the knowledge that a real, live human being will never spoil our fun.

Alas, we’re just not obsessed with the live Sophia the way we are with the dead Marilyn. Sophia Loren has also inspired more than her share of fantasies (a fact I can personally attest to), but there was and is no Hollywood plastic beneath the unspeakably beautiful exterior. Beautiful though she was and is, she was also real. She was never a camp-cult object. She never turned her private life into a media circus. She opted for class and style when cheap vulgarity was in vogue. (Excuse me–Was?) Sexy though she was—and they didn’t come any sexier—Sophia’s sense of realism never failed her.

Like her friend Charlie Chaplin, she became rich, famous and glamorous, but she never forgot where she came from. Born out of wedlock (in a time and place where such a situation condemned one to the vilest abuse and contempt), raised in dire poverty, forced to spend her formative years in a literal war zone, Sophia would fiercely resist all attempts to Hollywoodize her, both on-screen and off. All of which made her beauty and sensuality that much more powerful.

When it came to sex, Sophia Loren had it all. She emerged in the 1950’s, when you had to be one or the other: Monroe, Bardot or Mansfield at one extreme, (Audrey) Hepburn, Kelly or Bergman at the other. (It helped to be blonde, too.) Only Sophia and Elizabeth Taylor crossed the lines—and how. Both combined raw, earthy sexuality with impeccable elegance. (An elegance Liz lost when she turned her private life into a media circus—in stark contrast to Sophia.)

Beyond the beauty, there was the (much underrated) talent. That Sophia could combine Monroe and Magnani in one persona was remarkable enough; that she mastered both comedy and drama, in roles ranging from brutalized rape victim to fun-loving prostitute, was one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of cinematic acting.

 For me (and for virtually every heterosexual man in the world with legal eyesight), Sophia’s greatest role was that of Mara, Rome’s most beautiful (and, presumably, most popular and expensive) call girl in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. In what many consider the single sexiest scene in the history of cinema, she performed a striptease-to-end-all-stripteases for Marcello Mastroianni. At the very last second, the devoutly Catholic Mara remembers her “holy vow” of celibacy, and the fun abruptly ends.

The font of supreme erotic joy, a “Goddess of Eternal Beauty” (in Mastroianni’s character’s words)—but also a person who will never surrender her dignity, or compromise with her values or beliefs: that’s Mara. And that’s Sophia Loren.

Happy birthday, Sophia. Thank you for (along with so much else) showing us Heaven on Earth: Mara’s apartment on the Piazza Navona.