By Dan Jewel
February 22, 1999 12:00 PM

Over the years, Sophia Loren has inspired the most rapturous compliments. “You should have been sculpted in chocolate truffles,” Noël Coward once told her, “so the world could devour you.” Richard Burton longingly called her “as beautiful as erotic dreams.” Cary Grant, her leading man in Houseboat, was moved to propose marriage. So it is just a bit jarring to find the 64-year-old movie queen, whose sultry, Italianate looks once defined exotic beauty, puttering around the kitchen of her Geneva apartment in an apron, whipping up an apple tart and looking every bit the Food Network host. But Loren appears perfectly comfortable. “I’m in my element again,” she says.

It’s entirely understandable that Loren should savor the pleasures of private life, since they have been so often denied her. A Neapolitan waif who rose to become an international star, she has personified glamor for four decades, with her life’s operatic ups and downs—her controversial marriage, her movie triumphs, the theft of her jewels, even a brief imprisonment in Italy for tax evasion—breathlessly scrutinized in the popular press. But somehow she has come through it all with astonishing grace, brushing aside a recent heart scare to promote her new cookbook-memoir, Sophia Loren’s Recipes & Memories. And after a lifetime of struggles and scandals, both personal and naggingly public, she has found what she longed for: a measure of domestic tranquillity.

Loren’s career is far from over. Her earthy allure is intact (“I think it’s genes,” she says), and she dismisses any thought of plastic surgery. In 1994’s Ready to Wear, she did a steamy striptease for Marcello Mastroianni, and she still smoldered opposite Walter Matthau in 1995’s Grumpier Old Men—her biggest commercial success since El Cid in 1961. “I was a bit in awe of her,” says costar Jack Lemmon. “Forget her staggering beauty for a moment, if you can; she is an amazing actress.”

And her sense of herself remains fierce, as Grumpier director Howard Deutch learned while waiting to meet her for the first time in a Los Angeles restaurant. “The maitre d’ came over and said, ‘Ms. Loren is waiting for you in her car,’ ” he recalls. “I went outside, and she lowered her window and said, ‘Hi. You can escort me inside now.’ That’s when it dawned on me: This is Sophia Loren.”

But in recent years she has focused her life anew—on her husband, movie producer Carlo Ponti, 85, and their two children, Carlo Jr., 30, an orchestra conductor, and Edoardo, 26, a film director. Both sons currently live in Europe, but when they visit Loren and Ponti at their second home, a sprawling 40-acre ranch in Southern California, they happily gather together for a family dinner. “When you’re having coffee,” says Loren, “to linger, to say silly things and laugh, or maybe to have a very deep discussion—that’s what makes a family really close.”

Her brief hospitalization last August has made her cherish home life even more. During a visit to New York City, she was treated for an irregular heartbeat and spent a month recuperating in a friend’s apartment. How does she feel now? “How do I look?” she parries. “Everything is fine. What I had is not something very serious, but it’s kind of an alarm that rings.”

Isadore Rosenfeld, her cardiologist at the New York Weill Cornell Center, confirms that Loren does not have a chronic problem. In fact, he says, while tabloid headlines shouted, “Is Sophia Loren Dying?” she was cooking him veal and pasta. Still, Loren is trying to live more calmly. “I am a very emotional person,” she says. “I always fought in my life—to have my children, to have a family—and now, for God’s sake, I don’t want anything to happen to me.”

Bora Sofia Scicolone in 1934, the illegitimate daughter of aspiring actress Romilda Villani and engineer Riccardo Scicolone, Loren and her younger sister Maria, now 60, were raised in poverty in Pozzuoli, a seaside town near Naples. Loren was a skinny, painfully withdrawn child whose classmates nicknamed her stecchetto—”little stick.” During World War II, nights were spent cowering in a rat-infested railway tunnel during Allied bombing raids. “I was born old,” Loren once told a reporter. “I never really had a childhood. When I’m making a movie and have to appear sad…all I have to do is go back to my memories.”

But by 16, having matured into a buxom beauty, she was spotted at a Rome beauty pageant by the dashing Ponti, 21 years her senior. “I was impressed,” he recalls. “She is a physically classic woman. She was poor but noble.” He advised her to lose weight and get a nose job, but even at that age she had the strength to refuse—and Ponti relented. “He had to,” she says now with a light laugh. “I like my nose, even if it’s a little prominent.”

With his help—and the screen name Sophia Loren—her career took off. In 1955 she teamed with Marcello Mastroianni in Too Bad She’s Bad—the first of a dozen films they made together before his death in 1996. Despite speaking little English, Loren soon was cast as a peasant girl in the 1957 Hollywood epic The Pride and the Passion. She was a smash—particularly with costar Cary Grant, then 52 and married. According to Loren, the smitten star proposed marriage (though he later denied doing so)—but she turned him down. “I was very fond of him,” she says, but “didn’t think it was right. I don’t regret it. I’ve never regretted much in my life.”

Besides, she was already involved with Ponti, himself a married man. “I needed a father, a lover, a husband, a guide,” she said in 1958. “Carlo is all four.” For his part, Ponti thought nothing of their significant age difference. “Fifty years ago,” he says, “the woman was old before the man.”

The age gap was the least of their problems. Divorce was then illegal in Italy, so Ponti got one in Mexico, then married Loren in a 1957 proxy ceremony—in which his lawyers stood in for bride and groom. This, authorities declared, was not a proper marriage, and Ponti, in order to avoid bigamy charges, was forced into exile. Two years later the couple had their marriage invalidated and were able to return to Rome.

The media trumpeted every move in this romantic drama—and in that of her sister, who married jazz pianist Romano Mussolini, son of the former dictator, in 1962. (They divorced in 1970, and Maria now owns a hair salon in Rome.) Meanwhile, Loren was being typecast in Hollywood cheesecake flicks like Boy on a Dolphin, in which she spent most of her screen time in a wet skin diver’s outfit. By 1960, after a string of critical and commercial flops, her frustration was clear. As she memorably put it, “I am not a sexy pot.”

To prove her point, she returned to Italy. In the wrenching Two Women (produced by Ponti), she starred as a mother trying to shield her daughter from the horrors of war. The role brought her a Best Actress Academy Award in 1961—the only time an actress has ever won an Oscar for a foreign-language film. (Too nervous to attend the ceremony, she got the news by phone from Cary Grant.) The next few years were her own golden age in cinema. Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963) and Marriage, Italian Style (1964) confirmed her status as both an international sex symbol and a respected artist.

Her personal life, too, became less problematical. In 1965 she and Ponti became French citizens, and his first wife was granted a French divorce. On April 9, 1966, Loren and Ponti were finally married—legally—in a civil ceremony near Paris. Already 31, Loren dreamed of having children. After two miscarriages, she gave birth to Carlo Jr. in 1968 and four years later to Edoardo. From then on, her acting pace slowed as her priorities changed.

Since the birth of her children, Loren has published two cookbooks (the first was 1972’s In the Kitchen with Love), a beauty book and her bestselling 1979 autobiography, Living and Loving. She made millions with her (now defunct) “Sophia” perfume and eyewear line. And like Audrey Hepburn, Loren has served as a United Nations ambassador on behalf of the world’s needy. On a trip to Africa in 1992, says photographer pal Angelo Frontoni, “she went everywhere—in the jeep, in broken-down wagons, in old airplanes—and never had a bad word to say.”

Just as she seemed content to leave the spotlight behind, though, scandal took her public once more. In 1982, facing charges in Italy of underpaying taxes in the 1960s, Loren turned herself in and served 17 nights in jail before being released on parole. Treated as a normal prisoner—aside from having screaming fans outside the gates—she called the ordeal “the ugliest experience of my life.”

But the saddest experience came in 1991, when her mother collapsed and died in her arms at 82. (Loren’s father had died in 1976. “I didn’t feel any emotion,” she says. “He was not even a friend to me.”) Loren’s grief for her mother was immense. “She was there to care about me and caress me and cook for me, give me advice,” she says. “We’d sit on the couch and talk. It was so cozy. But that’s life. A chapter ends. You have to turn the page.”

For Loren, the latest chapter is in some ways the most gratifying. She increasingly neglected Hollywood to eagerly devote herself to the kind of home life she hadn’t known in her childhood. “She always gave priority to her family, to her husband, to love,” says Edoardo, who made his acting debut in the 1984 TV film Aurora—costarring Loren—and recently directed his first feature, Liv. Carlo Jr. is attending conductor’s school in Vienna and appears in concerts—which Loren is often too nervous to attend. “Once he has had success,” she says, “I’ll go, and it will be fine. I’ll be a hundred years old. That’s a joke.”

Loren’s relationship with Ponti has remained her bedrock. Not that it has been easy. Italian press reports frequently hinted of his dalliances with starlets, and biographer A.E. Hotchner, who spent six months interviewing Loren in 1978, found their marriage to be “kind of a business relationship.” In 1981, Loren was rumored to be involved with noted French doctor Etienne-Emile Baulieu, developer of the RU 486 abortion pill. Loren has denied an affair—but says she would have remained married in any case. “I don’t want my children to be destroyed by my selfishness or my husband’s selfishness,” she says. “So whatever could have happened, whatever did happen, I always chose for unity of the family, because that’s what really counts.”

Loren’s close friend Anna Strasberg, widow of the late acting instructor Lee Strasberg, disputes Hotchner’s account. “There’s a serenity” between Ponti and Loren, she says. “She watches what he eats, or she puts her hand on his shoulder to make sure he’s all right. You can’t see this and not know that there is a deep, deep love there.”

The couple spend most of their time in their five-bedroom Geneva apartment. Most mornings, Loren goes for a 90-minute walk; most nights, she is in bed by 8. To her, after years of living frenetically, this quiet pace seems ideal. But she isn’t ready to leave center stage just yet. She is in “the first talks,” she says, to star in a film from legendary Blow-Up director Michelangelo Antonioni. After all, she says with a smile, “people in cinema never really retire.”

Dan Jewel

Cathy Nolan in Geneva, Susan Christian Goulding in Los Angeles, Sarah Delaney in Rome and Eve Heyn in New York City