When she first met Ernest Borgnine in 1972, Norwegian-born Tove Traesnaes knew he’d been to the altar before, but not how often. After all, she says, “I wasn’t a big movie magazine reader.”
If she had been, she might have noted that reviews from his four previous marriages were not promising, to put it mildly. Ernie’s first mate, Rhoda Kemins, who bore him a daughter in 1953, divorced him in 1958, citing “irrational temper.” His second wife, actress Katy Jurado, came to blows with Borgnine in public before they split in 1963. No. 3, Ethel Merman, called their 38-day 1964 marriage “a big, fat mistake.” No. 4, actress Donna Ran-court, mother of Borgnine’s two other children, claimed that Ernie’s threats forced her to hire round-the-clock armed guards.
But after eight years with Traesnaes, the tough-guy actor is still as lovable as the comic cabby he plays in his latest film, Escape From New York. “He’s emotional and he does have a temper,” the 39-year-old Traesnaes says of Borgnine, now 64. “But I wouldn’t call him temperamental. He’s the deepest and most sensitive human being I’ve ever met.” Says Ernie: “I’m a new man.”
The two have established what seems to be a stable and profitable relationship, despite decidedly separate careers. She owns a California mail-order cosmetics company that grossed nearly $2 million last year, giving her an income that rivals Ernie’s. With more than 60 pictures under his 40-inch belt, he still averages three movies a year.
The mellowing of Borgnine is both noticeable and profound. Says one of Traesnaes’ best friends, Elaine Trebek, wife of an NBC game show host: “He has gone from the big, tough guy to a loving husband. He’s a pussycat with her. And in her business, though he is chairman of the company, he lets her make the decisions.”
It pays. Traesnaes’ four-year-old firm is called Tova9, a hokey combination of her name and the “9” of Borgnine. The company sells skin care products made from cactus extracts. Thanks in part to celeb customers like Ali MacGraw, Anne Bancroft and Franco Zeffirelli, Tova9 is booming. While Borgnine lends his support, it’s Traesnaes, as president, who runs the show. At night, she admits, “Ernie doesn’t always want to hear about it. He’ll say, ‘Cut it for a while. It’s my turn now, my time to be with you.’ So I watch it.”
After his last divorce, in 1972, Borgnine recalls, “I was so depressed, the last thing I wanted to do was to meet another woman.” But his close friend comedian Marty Allen thought otherwise and arranged for Traesnaes, who then had a makeup boutique in Las Vegas, to be Borgnine’s blind date at Allen’s birthday party. Recalls Borgnine: “We started talking. Next thing I knew, everyone was ready to go home—and we were still talking.”
Still, when Borgnine drove Traesnaes back to her hotel that night, he only shook her hand. “I kept wondering what was wrong,” Traesnaes remembers, but three months later Borgnine proposed. After an 11-month engagement, they married in Las Vegas in 1973.
Today they can talk about his past marriages philosophically. Traesnaes, herself divorced after a four-year marriage, figures that Borgnine has “had his share of bad luck. He’s been hurt so many times, and a man can only take so much hurt. But he’s never closed up.” Says Borgnine, “I never got married with the idea of getting divorced. I always wanted a happy home. Tove and I have trust and communication, two things I lacked before.”
Borgnine was christened Ermes Effron Borgnine in Hamden, Conn., where his father was a metallurgist. His mother, an Italian countess, took him to live in Italy as a child, but he returned in time to graduate from high school in New Haven. He joined the Navy in 1935, stayed in 10 years, and left planning to study refrigeration on the GI Bill. But he switched to acting when his mother reminded him, “You always loved to make a fool out of yourself.”
Within a few years Borgnine was on Broadway (in Harvey) and TV (in Captain Video). But his reputation was established in Hollywood when he triumphed in such wildly divergent roles as Fatso Judson, the sergeant who brutalized Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity, and the gentle, inarticulate Bronx meat cutter in Marty. The 1955 movie version of the late Paddy Chayefsky’s sentimental comedy led to an Oscar for Borgnine. He won even more fans as Lt. Comdr. Quinton McHale of TV’s McHale’s Navy (which ran from 1962 to 1966). His screen roles in recent years have tended to be in disaster or horror flicks like The Poseidon Adventure, Willard and The Black Hole.
Traesnaes was born in Oslo, where her father was a graphic artist and her mother a translator at the U.S. Embassy. Following her parents’ separation, she moved to the U.S. in 1953 with her mother. After high school she studied acting in Manhattan and landed bit parts as an extra in several movies. She soon developed a fondness for applying makeup rather than wearing it, and after marrying a New Jersey businessman she opened her own makeup center.
When the marriage failed, Traesnaes moved her business to Las Vegas to be near her mother. There, without even touching the dice, she got very lucky. One of her customers gave her a tip about a cactus-based face cream made from an ancient formula by a Mexican family. Two years after marrying Ernie, she went with him on location to Mexico and bought worldwide distribution rights to the products. Soon after, a free-lance writer friend of Borgnine’s wrote a story that said Hollywood stars were clamoring for Traesnaes’ “facelift in a jar,” available for $60 a bottle. “I couldn’t have dreamt that up if I wanted to,” claims Traesnaes. Orders flooded in—$56,000 worth in the first day alone.
Traesnaes was appalled because she had no way to fill the mail orders in the four weeks allowed by the Postal Service. But a quick trip to Mexico, where, she says, “I waved around some American dollars,” produced two and a half tons of the cream pronto. Then “Ernie and I and some friends worked day and night filling jars and getting them packed up,” she says. That year, 1977, Traesnaes grossed half a million dollars.
Borgnine’s work is more sporadic, so it’s he who rules their 14-room Beverly Hills roost. “It keeps me out of trouble,” chuckles the Borgnines’ gardener, maid and cook. During their free time he watches sports while Traesnaes listens to classical music. They socialize with friends like the Robert Aldas and Red and Alicia Buttons.
The Borgnine tranquillity will soon be tested, however. Traesnaes plans to introduce a Tova9 fragrance in department stores next spring, which will take her on the road for weeks at a time. Borgnine leaves L.A. this month for State College, Pa. to begin rehearsals for An Offer You Can’t Refuse, a one-man play in which he holds forth as a Mafia chieftain. If the show is a hit, Borgnine will tour for eight months.
But home sweet home will be there when they get back to L.A. Borgnine planned to sell his old place when he wed Traesnaes. But she liked its East Coast flavor and told Borgnine, “The house just needed to be loved.” He agrees. “That house,” he says, “has the biggest smile on its face, because two very happy people live there.”