Growing up poor and illegitimate in tiny Pozzuoli, near Naples, during World War II, Sofia Scicolone suffered from mites and lice and was so skinny that other children called her Sofia Stuzzicadente (toothpick). But she filled out and at 14 won a beauty contest, went to Rome and landed her first movie role—as an extra in Quo Vadis. Pushed along by an ambitious, Garbo-look-alike mother, she was billed in a dozen minor films as Sofia Lazzaro before deciding on the name Sophia Loren. Now 44, she looks back on a career of more than 75 movies, including The Gold of Naples, Two Women (for which she won a 1961 Oscar), Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, Marriage, Italian Style and A Special Day. In her newly published autobiography, Sophia: Living and Loving (Morrow, $9.95), written with A.E. Papa Hemingway) Hotchner, Loren focuses on her private life, including her early struggles, her marriage to Carlo Ponti, 21 years her senior, and the charges of “bigamy and public sinning” brought against them because Ponti’s divorce from his first wife was not recognized by the Church. She also talks about the recent charges of smuggling $12 million out of Italy (she was acquitted, Ponti convicted), her two miscarriages and the difficult pregnancies that produced two sons—Carlo Jr., 10, and Edoardo, 6. She also explains how the threat of robbery and kidnapping led the family to flee Rome for the comparative safety of Paris four years ago. Now on a U.S. tour to promote Sophia, she discussed her life and loves with Christopher P. Andersen of PEOPLE.
Isn’t 44 a rather young age to be writing your autobiography?
When I was 20 people were already writing books about me. Since then there have been at least 12 such books—none of which I had any particular control over and none of which was particularly accurate. With all the gossip that has been written about my family, my career and my marriage, the public has a very distorted image. So it seemed the right time to tell the things that are important to me—to write my truth—not because I think it’s the end of my life!
Why does your story begin and end with your father?
I saw my father only six times in my life. He was a great source of pain and humiliation for my mother, whom he seduced and abandoned, for my younger sister, Maria, who suffered terribly because he would not give her his name, and for myself. Growing up in a small town like Pozzuoli, it was the dream of my life to have a father. That is why I sought him everywhere—I made my best films with actors and directors like him and I married an older man like him. Despite all the bitterness, when my father died three years ago I felt only pity and love.
Then your husband, Carlo Ponti, was a father figure to you?
Yes. And so was Vittorio de Sica, my favorite director, and Cary Grant, whom I also loved. Carlo and my mother are almost the same age, and when I think about it, it does seem awkward. But I have always been attracted to older men, and I am very happy I married Carlo. He makes me feel protected.
How could you be attracted to men as different as Cary Grant and Carlo Ponti?
When I met Cary, I was 23. He had been my dream since I was a little girl—tall, handsome, charming, funny, gentle. Of course, Cary and Carlo have absolutely nothing in common—nothing! But I loved them both.
Would you have accepted Cary Grant’s proposal if Ponti’s divorce had not suddenly come through?
Yes, I would have married Cary Grant.
Peter Sellers has complained that you rarely mention him in the book. What was your relationship with Sellers?
We were never lovers. Look, I wanted to write a book about my life, not about my partners. I have made pictures with Marcello Mastroianni, Clark Gable, William Holden, Alan Ladd—lots of fascinating men—and they will all be in my next book. Peter Sellers would be the lead in that book because he is a great personality and I adored him. Also Alec Guinness; I was flattered by Alec’s kindness and his attention. But Sophia is only about the things that were important to me. And Cary was.
Do you still feel the effects of your childhood experiences during World War II?
During the bombing raids the whole population of our little town crowded into a railroad tunnel for safety. It was freezing, and everywhere there were crying babies, couples making love, people being bitten by huge rats, sickness, laughter, drunkenness, death. I used to have terrible nightmares, though no longer. But to this day I am afraid of the dark, and I always sleep with a little night-light on.
Do you have other fears?
I hate to fly—it’s not natural—but I have to. And when I decide to do something, I go all the way.
Do you feel that having a difficult childhood can be a blessing?
Yes, in the sense that you mature much earlier. You learn the facts of life fast. You are street-wise, people-wise, self-wise. The two big advantages I had at birth were to have been born wise and to have been born in poverty. As a result, I appreciate life much more. I try to tell my own children what it was like. But you can never really know unless you go through it.
Are you religious?
I consider myself very religious, though Carlo is not. I am a Catholic, but not a practicing Catholic. In times of despair, I pray.
After all the trouble you have had with the Italian government and the Church, are you bitter?
No. These are the laws of Italy, and they were bound to bring charges because we are known—to make an example of us. As for the most recent charges—you realize that I was absolved by the same court that convicted Carlo—we are not unique. You just never hear about the others.
Will you ever go back to Italy to live?
Maybe one day. I am an incurable dreamer.
Are you superstitious?
All Neapolitans are. I always wear something red—even if it’s sometimes out of sight—and carry a small red cloth packet containing rock salt. Broken mirrors, spilled salt, black cats—all these things are bad. I am more than superstitious. I am a witch.
What kind of witch?
I have eerie premonitions. Once I was invited to a gala ball in Brussels, and the day before I was to leave I had an overwhelming feeling of impending disaster. I canceled, and the plane on which I was to return crashed, killing all aboard. At our apartment in New York I was disturbed by a weird black shadow cast across my room. Early the next morning three armed bandits robbed me of every piece of jewelry I owned—$1 million worth. Two years ago in Paris I had a vision of a raging fire just before I went to bed. Hours later I was awakened in the predawn hours by cries of “Fire!” I bundled up the children, broke a window with my shoe and somehow got out onto the roof, where we were rescued by firemen.
Have you had any premonitions lately?
Not really, but if I did I wouldn’t tell—that’s a jinx!
How do you deal with stress?
Most people cannot sleep if they are upset. But when I get very upset I sleep. As a little girl I used to sleep for hours and hours, and my mother thought I was sick. But the more disturbed I am, the easier I descend into sleep, like a deer or a baby. I am like an animal, and this is the way I recuperate. The bed generates only good.
How do you rate your looks?
Okay—just okay. My nose is too long, my chin too short, my hips too broad. But together all these irregularities seem to work. On second thought, I rather like the way I look.
Do you mind aging?
Why should I? Everybody gets older—if they are lucky. When I was 25,1 played the mother of a 15-year-old girl in Two Women. My latest picture, and the one I am most proud of, A Special Day, marked a real change for me: the role of a dowdy, middle-aged woman, played without makeup. I would love more parts like that.
What roles do you regret not playing?
Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was a powerful dramatic role that I wanted to do very much. Who knows, maybe I will do it someday. I’d also like to do Anna Karenina on the screen. Garbo did a fine job, but I identify with Anna and feel my performance would have a quality of its own.
Why do you call yourself an amateur actress?
I have never felt like a professional, probably because I never really studied acting. When I come through quite well on the screen, it is always a surprise to me.
What kind of a mother are you?
Smashing. I like being with my children, and I try to provide them with an atmosphere of tranquillity—which I never had—to talk with them, to explain things to them. There is never enough love for children.
In the book you admit you cheat at poker. Is that really true?
I’m a terrific cheater. Poker is a beautiful game. I also am a professional Scrabble player. I’ve beaten people like Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, because I know the Latin roots of English words. They’re shattered when I win—and I always do.
Are you ever lonely?
Yes, of course. Especially when I am among a lot of people.