Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Ingrid Bergman, Instrument of Evil

Through some undergrad film class, ennui-filled trip home, TCM-channel surfing, or a foray into dating a cinephile, I’m guessing you’ve seen Casablanca, Notorious, Bells of St. Mary, Joan of Arc, or the rather unfortunate adaptation of For Whom the Bell Tolls, all of which star Ingrid Bergman.

What you probably don’t know, unless your grandparents were really into telling you which stars were actually trollops (Dear Lana Turner, my granddad thought you showed too much skin!), is that the woman who starred in these films, Ingrid Bergman, endured a scandal that was larger, and had more profound effects, than Tiger Woods' and Tom Cruise's scandals combined.

The story is pretty straightforward: Ingrid Bergman was born in Sweden, married a much older doctor, had a child, and attracted notice for her Swedish films. David O. Selznick (the producer behind Gone with the Wind) went over to Sweden and shipped her straight to Hollywood.

When Bergman arrived in Hollywood, she refused to undergo the makeover that most Hollywood stars endured. She didn’t want a new name, didn’t want to wear thick pancake make-up, didn’t want to straighten her hair, and rejected all attempts to pluck her bushy Nordic eyebrows. But Selznick was a smart guy (he was, after all, the guy who managed to convince America that a Brit could play Scarlett O’Hara) and decided that Bergman’s image would be NO IMAGE AT ALL; the anti-image, the un-Cola of stars. Bergman was thus sold as the “Nordic Natural,” a beauty immune to Hollywood’s machinations.

Bergman then appeared in a series of films that helped buttress her image as pure, virginal, and the type of woman who would never make googly eyes at your boyfriend. Sure, her character cheated on her husband with Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, but,

a) She totally thought her freedom-fighting husband was dead

and (spoiler)

b) She gives Bogie up so the Allies can win the war.

Plus she played a NUN (I’m not talking a Sister Act nun, but a real, wimple-wearing, celibate nun) and Joan of Torched-on-the Stake-for-God’s-Glory-Arc. Which is all to say that Bergman seemed to mean one thing: an unsullied testament to the natural goodness of women the world over. The simplicity of Bergman's image was a huge part of her popularity, just as Jennifer Aniston's always-a-bridesmaid-never-again-Brad-Pitt’s-bride is a huge part of hers (right?). But it was also the source of Bergman’s "downfall," as will become clear.

In the late ‘40s, Bergman wrote an adorable letter to Italian Neo-Realist director Roberto Rossellini — a man known for womanizing, owning the shit out of the beret, and wearing sunglasses when most people in America were still squinting into the sun. But look at this letter — it’s clear this woman was a spectacular flirt:

Dear Roberto,

I saw your films Open City and Paisan, and enjoyed them very much. If you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well, who has not forgotten her German, who is not very understandable in French, and who in Italian knows only "ti amo," I am ready to come and make a film with you.

Ingrid Bergman

Dear Roberto! I AM READY! I will leave my husband and come to Italy to make a sexy black-and-white cultural commentary film with you!

Bergman was obviously hard to refuse (can you imagine Rossellini receiving this note? I picture immediate telegraphs to his Neo-Realism dude-bros: “Dear De Sica and Visconti, I got the Nordic Virgin!"). For the lead actress in his next film, Stromboli, Rossellini replaced his previous lover (Anna Magnani) with Bergman, and legend has it that Rossellini bet a friend he could bed her in two weeks, which may or may not be true but definitely makes the story better.

Rossellini apparently won that bet, because even before filming, the two were flirting in the way that people do when they know against-the-rules sex is in their immediate future. There’s a photo taken in Hollywood before they left for filming (when Rosellini came to visit, he stayed at Bergman's house) that just drips with tension and anticipation.

But once the affair started in earnest on-set in Italy — complete with photos of them holding hands — the shit hit the gossip mongering fan. Bergman denied rumors of pregnancy to gossip columnist/moralizing-old-biddy Hedda Hopper, even though she was at least three months along, and so when Hopper’s arch-rival Louella Parsons announced the pregnancy days later, Hopper retaliated by mean-girling and slut-shaming Bergman as thoroughly and frequently as possible. Ed Sullivan refused to allow Bergman on his show, and she was denounced on the floor of the United States senate as an “instrument of evil.” (Can you imagine? That’s like Michelle Bachmann decrying ScarJo for shacking up with Sean Penn, which, OK, yes, I can totally see happening.)

Bergman’s husband refused to grant her a quick divorce, effectively ensuring that Bergman would give birth to a “bastard child.” Of course, Bergman’s virginal image didn't mix well with “bastard child” and “Italian love affair.” And when an image and an action clash, scandal occurs. But the Bergman scandal was less, say, Evan-Rachel-Wood-dates-Marilyn-Manson, and more Tiger Woods-has-sex-with-dozens-of-prostitutes-and-leaves-the-tampon-in-the-parking-lot (remember that?). Because Bergman (like Woods) had refused to participate in image manipulation, her image seemed to mean one unified thing, rather than many complex things. In other words, her image wasn’t nuanced or detailed enough to explain why she’d run off with an Italian director and given birth to his child. There were attempts to do so after the fact — the husband was too old; she’d never really had a romance — but the damage was done.

But here’s the thing. This was the early ‘50s, and morals — and understandings of how a woman should behave — were changing. It wasn’t like sexing up Italians was commonplace, but as the Kinsey Reports, Marilyn Monroe, and the debut of Playboy would suggest, sex was increasingly visible, even speakable. But the revelation of Bergman’s own sexuality was, in 1950, just too fucking much. With that said, the scandal did effectively make sex speakable, if still “evil.” Discussions of whether or not she should be forgiven, whether between friends, within the fan magazines, or on the senate floor, were essentially discussions about what sort of behavior was and was not acceptable when it came to women.

Bergman fled America, made some more neo-Realist films with Rossellini, gave birth to the "bastard" and a pair of twins (including Isabella Rossellini), and didn’t return to Hollywood until the late ‘50s. Bergman’s scandal is thus a lesson to all flirts: beware Italian dudes, be even more wary of old biddy gossip columists, always (never?) let your employer pluck your eyebrows, make sure you tell contradictory stories about yourself to everyone you know so that when you do something outrageous it'll be somehow explainable, and if you’re going to exercise sexual agency, make sure you don’t do it in the early 1950s.

Anne Helen Petersen is a Doctor of Celebrity Gossip.  No, really. You can find evidence (and other writings) here.

42 Comments / Post A Comment


wow, this is fascinating--I had no idea!

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Not apropos of Bergman but of sexual mores in movies of the time, one of my favorite parts of The Third Man (1949) is how they don't really gloss over how the female lead was someone's girlfriend, with no caveats, not married, and not dead or morally bankrupt because of it. And really what an early time to present that message (or, I guess, lack of message)! The late '40s!!


Good article, I knew about the scandel but not the Senate denoucemnt, yikes.

So maybe that's why Ivory-clean child stars sex-out--they're just preparing to run off with Italians. Miley, you so smart.


In 1946, she was already a NOTORIOUS woman of AFFAIRS!



A lot of so called movie stars were just like her. see more here


More more more! Do Hedy Lamarr next!


@insouciantlover Yes! Please please please let "Classic Scandals" become a running series.



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@atipofthehat I know, right??? Also the part about her escaping her rich husband's island prison by drugging the maid and dressing in her clothes? Gah! So much awesome.

Anne Helen Petersen

@insouciantlover There will be others, I promise! Hedy Lamarr is so good, so is Lana Turner (which someone mentions below). The juice just never ends -- it's just mostly been forgotten. Clara Bow and the ENTIRE USC Football team? YES.


@insouciantlover That Clara Bow thing was a total lie, though. As was the story about her and her dog. The scandal sheets of the 20's were crazy.

Anne Helen Petersen

@Kakapo And by YES I mean IT DIDN'T HAPPEN, but people still believed it, which is what makes it so ridiculous. The scandal sheets (and gossip columnists) used innuendo and mis-information to bring down several stars with little to no factual basis. (The Fatty Arbuckle case is another one of these). The misinformation was re-activated by Kenneth Anger and the Hollywood Babylon books in the '60s/'70s -- Bow's family even attempted to sue.

Jen Alien-Spouse

@Anne Helen Petersen The Kenneth Anger books are so mean-spirited, aren't they? And the second one just devolves into rambling gibberish.

Katie Walsh

More "Scandals of Classic Hollywood" please! Lana Turner next?


Yes. More. Always more. I'd like to volunteer as Resident Expert on Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich's shared lesbian lovers.


@Katie Walsh Nancy Reagan: The mouth, the madness.

She was a retail whore

@zidaane Whoa. That's insane. It's sad that there were enough well placed and corrupt people to run a baby-snatching and child-abusing ring that large.

Princess Slayer

That letter is FANTASTIC.


Please please do one about how (allegedly) slutty Grace Kelly was. Also, I wrote my master's thesis on Britney Spears so, marry me, Anne.

Anne Helen Petersen

@clarkie Your masters thesis and my dissertation would have beautiful totally fucked-up babies.

JoAnn, Sidewalk Chic@twitter

My journalism professor, who's in his late 70s, told us this story in class about how America's social mores have changed in regards to sex. He said that growing up, all of his female relatives refused to see any of Bergman's films because of the scandal. I was pretty shocked because I loved her films and it seemed so tame compared to now.

I echo everyone's sentiments -- please do more Classic Scandals! Would love to see one on Grace Kelly and her (many?) paramours.

Anne Helen Petersen

@JoAnn, Sidewalk Chic@twitter As one of my former professors loved to say, "Grace Kelly LOVED SEX."

Fancy Mustard

Love this. My favorite vintage Hollywood love affair is Patricia Neal-Gary Cooper. Their backstory totally makes "The Fountainhead" watchable.

Anne Helen Petersen

@vealgirl TRUE! And my favorite fake Hollywood love affair is between Rock Hudson....and Rock Hudson's agent's secretary.


Yikes, gotta get an eye exam – saw the headline, quick;y scanned the article, but saw no pictures of...Classic Sandals. Duh! Did luv the recap, go Ingrid.

Pixie Bernard@facebook

This column is of such tremendous quality that not immediately following it with an exposé on Bennifer would be a scandalous waste of burgeoning talent.


Annie! Maybe you don't remember me, but I was in your TV and Culture class at Whitman in spring 2010. My name's Grace and I wrote my term paper on Stella and nerded out about alternative comedy all the time. Anyway, probably the wrong forum for this, but I loved that class, and I LOVE the Hairpin, and stumbling across this was just a wonderful surprise! Your writing is great.

Anne Helen Petersen

@kgh Duh I remember you, Grace, and you totally turned me on to Stella. Small world, and Hairpin is totally the awesomest. I even wrote it a love letter, which you can find on my blog (linked at the end of the piece). Hope all is well!

She was a retail whore

Please do Loretta Young! Her "adopted" daughter ploy influenced more than one soap opera, methinks.

Anne Helen Petersen

@taigan I always forget about Loretta Young! More than one starlette took the "adopted daughter" route, so that could be a good juicy post.


@Anne Helen Petersen Have you seen the pictures of the adopted daughter? She looked hilariously like Clark Gable from birth. Those ears....


Great story I knew about this scandal because Bergman's oldest daughter used to do movie reviews on WNBC and my mother would always mention it whenever she came on but not to this detail. Would also love to hear a full accounting on Lorretta Young's and Clark Gable's daughter I remember in an old interview the daughter stated as soon as she was old enough she was forced to have surgery to pin back her ears.


But what about the time Magnani THREW SPAGHETTI AT HER?


You should know that this is what pops up as the second link when you search "Ingrid Bergman Scandal" on google. I'm doing a mini-paper for a film class, not trying to get sucked into reading the Hairpin ;_;


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