January 6, 1928 – Capucine:
“Men look at me like I’m a suspicious-looking trunk, and they’re customs agents.”
Of all the beautiful famous mononymous people: Cher, Sting, Rolfe, Lizzo, Björk, Awkwafina, Madonna, Drake – for me, of all of them, Capucine was the most beautiful. Blake Edwards directed her in The Pink Panther (1963), and he called her “part Mona Lisa. That smile“. She modelled for Christian Dior in Paris, and he wrote: “…old eyes, her eyes were impervious“.
Most people probably don’t know Capucine at all, but if they do it is from the Pink Panther films, where she plays Inspector Clouseau’s wife, who can afford her conspicuous head-to-toe Yves Saint Laurent because she has been lifting jewels behind his back. The role of Madame Clouseau was also stolen, from Ava Gardner, who was dropped when she became too demanding. Capucine made a better model for the film’s wardrobe anyway.
In case you are under 60 years old, The Pink Panther is a comedy-mystery film franchise with 11 installments and counting, featuring a French police detective, the inept Inspector Jacques Clouseau. The role of Clouseau was originated by and is strongly associated with Peter Sellers. Most of the films were written and directed by Edwards, with theme music composed by Henry Mancini. Elements and characters inspired by the films were adapted into comic books and a successful animated series. The series gets its name from the eponymous pink diamond that is an enormous size and of great value. The diamond is called the “Pink Panther” because the flaw at its center, when viewed closely, it resembles a leaping pink panther.
She is funny and charming in What’s New Pussycat? (1965), written by Woody Allen, his first produced screenplay. She plays opposite Allen, Sellers, Peter O’ Toole, Paula Prentiss and Ursula Andress.
Capucine was born Germaine Hélène Irène Lefebvre in Saint-Raphaël on the Côte d’Azur in 1928. She left her small village for Paris at 16 years old, became a successful fashion model working for fashion houses Givenchy and Dior, discarded her name, taking the French word for nasturtium), and met Audrey Hepburn, who would become her best friend. Working as a cruise ship model in 1952, she shared a cabin with a teenage dancer called Brigitte Bardot.
Capucine was not really a great actor. Laurence Harvey called her “ghastly”, but she had a gift for physical comedy. In The Pink Panther, she strips in an elevator as her pursuers run up the stairs, and emerges in total disguise as the door opens, then grins when she realizes she’s fooled them. Capucine was talented at switching from dignified to undignified and back again.
The Hollywood studios seemed to think she could fill the Grace Kelly slot after Kelly became actual royalty. William Goetz, the producer who gave Capucine her big role, as a Russian princess Song Without End (1960), a biopic of composer Franz Liszt. It was directed by Charles Vidor, who died during the shooting and was replaced by George Cukor. The star, Dirk Bogarde said of her acting debut:
“You can teach a girl to act but nobody can teach her how to look like a princess. You’ve got to start with a girl who looks like a princess.”
The press nicknamed her “the haughty heron”. In 1968, Capucine told Italian Vogue she wished she didn’t always have to be elegant, that she longed to play:
“… a dishevelled woman, but since the directors know I was a model, it is obvious that they can’t see me as anything else.”
In 1965, she told Time magazine:
“Sometimes I feel I would like to cut loose and start throwing pies.”
For someone intended to take to place of Grace Kelly, Capucine’s own life turned out to be quite uncharmed. Beauty was her strength, but it was also a limiting factor.
As she grew older, she felt unable to face the façade required, and stopped going out. The roles of countesses and princesses dried up. Gay director Luchino Visconti turned her down for Tadzio’s mother in Death In Venice (1971), a part Bogarde recommended her for, because:
“She has a horrible voice and too many teeth. She looks like a horse, a beautiful horse, I know that, I was a trainer. I know all about horses, but I don’t want a horse.”
Capucine was also deeply depressed. Hepburn saved her life when she took an overdose of pills, but in 1990 she threw herself from the roof of her apartment building in Lausanne. If she hadn’t, she would have been 92 years old today. She left $100,000 apiece to UNICEF and the Red Cross, in honor of Hepburn; her ashes were scattered by gay fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy.
The police said an investigation left no doubt that she committed suicide. Neighbors said she had led a reclusive life with her cats, hardly ever leaving her apartment.
When Capucine died, little was known about her. Her obituaries couldn’t even agree on the number of cats she left behind. Maybe this was because she had been looked at all her life, rather than listened to. It was also her habit of gently fictionalize her life. Arch in interviews, she invented new dates of birth, and she rarely bothered to correct misinformation printed about her.
Her love affairs were gossiped about. There was producer Charles K. Feldman, and her co-stars William Holden and gay Bogarde, who said she was the only woman he could ever have married. It was never clear if any of these romances were real. Capucine:
“What is social, they want to make seem sexual.”
It was Feldman, who, in 1957, spotted Capucine while she was modeling in New York City. Feldman put her under contract at $150 a week. He brought her to Hollywood to learn English and study acting.
The truth is that Capucine, who played Barbara Stanwyck‘s love interest in Walk On The Wild Side (1962) and kissed the doe-eyed, honey-blond beauty Suzy Kendall on the lips in Fräulein Doktor (1969), was bisexual. George Jacobs, Frank Sinatra‘s personal assistant, wrote she was one of the very few women who wouldn’t give in to his boss. Bisexual actor Laurence Harvey, the male lead in Walk On The Wild Side, said of her:
“Kissing her is like kissing the side of a beer bottle.”
Boze Hadleigh, the talented writer whose books cover LGBTQ culture and Hollywood History, interviewed Capucine for his book Hollywood Lesbians (1994). She told him:
“Most Americans think it’s either 100 per cent heterosexual or 100 per cent homosexual. It’s much more complex than that. Look at ancient Greece.”
When asked if she would describe herself as straight, she told Hadleigh:
“Oh, I wouldn’t. But if the publicity people would see a need to say that, I don’t care… most publicity is not true.”
Federico Fellini, who cast her in his Satyricon (1969) said of Capucine:
“She had a face to launch a thousand ships, but she was born too late.”
Perhaps. But would more recognition have made her happy? We will never know. Capucine was often described as “sphinx-like” in life, and now, in death, she really is. She left behind her work in 36 films and 17 television productions made between 1948 and 1990.