Fact vs. Fiction in the Discovery of a Star: Press Agent
Hyperbole Misses Dramatic Story of the Finding of Alida Valli
By Howard Taubman
New York Times, January 11, 1948 page X5
Why is it that press agents -- some press agents, in Hollywood and out -- try
to invent pretty stories when the truth is the better yarn? Take the
"official biography" of Alida Valli, as a Selznick Studio handout recalls it.
The fact that her first name is never mentioned may be indulged as harmless
pretension. But what is harder to grasp is why a story that would make
good publicity is passed over completely.
Film fans know by now, of course, that Alida Valli is the new star from
Italy whose first American film is THE PARADINE CASE. If you have not
heard yet that David O.
Selznick discovered and brought her here, let us quote from the studio
"It was late in 1945 that
David O. Selznick, after seeing several of her pictures, began
negotiations to sign her to a contract. *** His decision came swiftly; if
Valli could be brought to America, he would bring her. But the
execution of that decision, its breaking down into probabilities and
practicalities, required just short of one year, during many months of which
the Italian actress was not even aware she was under consideration.
She did once, in Rome, hear that an unidentified film maker had her under
consideration, but she dismissed the rumor as improbably while quite
candidly admitting that she would not be reluctant to go to Hollywood."
Let us see how this account squares with the facts, some of which I know
because I was in Rome during a good part of 1945 and had a small, anonymous
part in breaking down the producer's decision "into probabilities and
practicalities." I claim no credit, but the man who deserves a great
deal and who gets none in the handout is David Golding, then managing editor
of the Mediterranean edition of The Stars and Stripes and now working
in London for Sir Alexander Korda.
The handout speaks of "late in 1945." Well, the first approach to
Miss Valli occurred in June, 1945. On a visit to Paris early that
month, Golding had encountered his friend, Walter Gould, foreign manager for
United Artists. Gould had
recently accompanied Neil Agnew, Selznick executive, to see Miss Valli in an
Italian movie showing in Paris. Agnew had liked her work and had
wondered how she could be reached. Gould thought of Golding, who was
asked to do what he could.
Back in Rome, Golding told me about the assignment to snare a movie
actress named Alida Valli for
Selznick and asked me to
help, partly because I was his friend, but chiefly because my Italian was
not quite so bad as his.
The first task was to find Miss Valli and this was done by a resourceful
Italian secretary employed by The Stars and Stripes. In a few
days Miss Valli and her husband, Oscar de Mejo, pianist and composer, called
at our office on Via del Tritone. The Italian girl had told Miss Valli
that Golding wanted to discuss a Hollywood contract, but if the actress had
a notion that this might be just a GI gag, who could blame her?
Whatever Miss Valli thought of us at that first meeting, we doubted that
she was, indeed, a film star. She was good-looking, all right, and her
eyes had that photogenic something, but she was dressed simply, almost
plainly, and she had none of the gaudy, glamorizing patina that an American
comes to associate with a movie star.
At that first meeting Golding mentioned Selznick to Miss Valli. He
even had Grayson Tewksbury, Stars and Stripes photographer, make some
portraits of her, and told her that they would be forwarded to the Selznick
office in the United States, which was done.
At The Stars and Stripes billet, there were frequent showings of
the latest American-made movies on 16 mm. film, and Golding invited Miss
Valli and her husband to them. Miss Valli accepted eagerly; it would
give her a chance to become au courant with our movies and help her to learn
I remember vividly Miss Valli's first visit to our billet for a movie.
It was a muggy June night and, with rain threatening, the movies were shown
in a wide, fourth-floor corridor instead of on the roof. Her arrival
was the occasion for whistling and wisecracking; to our buddies she was just
an attractive gal. But the Italian help recognized her and buzzed with
excitement; it was our first intimation that she was some pumpkins in Italy.
The first picture was a play-by-play filming of a football game -- the
1944 Army-Navy game, I think -- and it went on interminably. It bored
most of the Americans; Miss Valli must have wondered about American ways.
The feature was a musical, an abomination whose name I have mercifully
forgotten, but Miss Valli thanked us as though she had seen the ten best
pictures of the year.
Thereafter she rarely missed a movie, although getting her and her
husband to our billet from her home at the other end of town proved, on
occasions, to be a task that tested our ingenuity. Transportation was
one of the grave problems for civilians in Rome, and Miss Valli was able to
obtain a car only at odd intervals.
Transporting an Italian actress and her husband could be palmed of as
business only a couple of times. After that we had to plead and cajole
officers for the use of a jeep, and at times we were not above borrowing
one, when the authorities were not looking, for the run to and from Miss
The actress and her husband were grateful, though they were not aware of
the problems of jeep borrowing. They also came to our dances, and
since she did not put on airs, she and her husband were accepted as friends
of most of the men of our Army unit.
Miss Valli did not talk much about her career. If you questioned
her she told you she had been born in Pola, the port on the Istrian
peninsula, but she was more likely to linger on memories of Como, where her
family moved in 1928 and where she grew up and was educated. She went
to Rome in 1936 and started her moving-picture career in lead roles in 1937.
She did not talk much about those pictures, except to observe that she had
made about thirty.
Some of us asked her one day whether we might not see one of her Italian
films, and she arranged for a special showing in a tiny preview studio.
The movie was a thing called NOI VIVI (WE, THE LIVING). It was a miserable
job mechanically, and the little studio was stifling. We got out of
there after one reel, willing to concede that Miss Valli's eyes had that
come-hither look and her voice a subtle resonance, but we wondered whether
her reputation had been built on these things alone.
Golding and I discovered how big a star she was one night when we went
with Miss Valli and her husband to a street carnival; she was besieged by
autograph hounds and we never did get around to the rides and trials of
During the entire summer we talked constantly with Miss Valli about
Selznick and Hollywood.
Shortly after he met her, Golding induced Miss Valli to sign a three-month
option giving Selznick
first call on her services in America. When that was about to expire,
Golding got her to extend it, even though another American filmmaker was
showing signs of interest. She had a two-year contract with an Italian
company, and we spent hours discussing ways to obtain a release, with
Golding in frequent correspondence with Selznick officials about terms and
procedure. If Alida "was not even aware she was under consideration,"
someone has had a fearful lapse of memory.
In September, 1945, Golding started home and was mustered out of the Army
early in October. He kept his finger on the Valli negotiations through
his former Italian secretary. I know he conferred with Agnew, because
I was in Agnew's office with him once when he did. On that occasion he
told Agnew that Miss Valli would be another
In any event, negotiations were carried on and completed by Selznick
representatives in the following months. When Miss Valli stopped in
England in December, 1946, on her way to the United States, Golding was at
the airport to meet her, with Jenia Reissar of the Selznick staff.
Golding, who was working then in London for
Samuel Goldwyn, introduced
Miss Valli to Goldwyn's
son, and he recalls that Miss Reissar was worried that the
Goldwyns would try to nab
her before she got to Hollywood.
Alida Valli is being hailed as the latest
Selznick star. For
my part, I would not -- and could not -- diminish
The studio handout, however, might have acknowledged the part an ex-GI
played in helping add another star to Mr.
crown, if only because it may be a story. As for the ex-GI, maybe it
was payment enough to be a momentary power behind the scenes.
© 1948 The New York Times.