Over the course of my many years in New York, I met a lot of cool people, as well as a few oddballs. I have written about some of them in my chapter on Samuel French, but there are many more.
When I was the Editor at Samuel French, I used to get a lot of walk-ins, mostly actors looking for help in finding a scene to work on in class or a new monologue to use for auditions. Sometimes, playwrights would drop by and ask if I would read their work. Several years ago, I was called out to the reception area, and there stood a nattily dressed elderly gentleman who was about the best-looking geezer I had ever seen, with a full head of silvery white hair. He looked rather like Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., only shorter. “May I help you,” I said. “Mr. Harbison?” he asked. “Yes.” “My name is Guido Nadzo.” I was flabbergasted. “The Guido Nadzo?” I blurted out. “Yes,” he said. “I see you have heard of me.”
The name “Guido Nadzo” is something of a jokey footnote in Broadway theatre history. As the story goes, when George S. Kaufman was casting The Royal Family, which he co-wrote with Edna Ferber and which he directed, he travelled out of town (to Philadelphia, I think) to see a play featuring a young actor named Guido Nadzo, who had been recommended to him for the “juvenile role,” which is what they called the young man who was not the lead in those days. Supposedly, he sent the following telegram back to New York: “Guido Nadzo was nadzo guido.” When the story got around, young Guido Nadzo found himself such a joke that he had to give up acting. And here before me stood that very same Guido Nadzo.
Mr. Nadzo had written a play and asked if I would read it. I said I would be glad to, of course. Then, I couldn’t resist. I asked him about the story. He chuckled and told me that it was completely untrue. When the story started circulating, Kaufman contacted him and told him that he never sent such a telegram. Furthermore, he told everyone in the business that the story was untrue, even though he did not cast Nadzo in the play. Guido Nadzo continued his acting career until the onset of World War II, when he joined the Office of Strategic Services, serving there until the war’s end, at which time he decided he liked this line of work and remained — in his words – in “government service” until he retired. After the war, the O.S.S. became the Central Intelligence Agency. In other words, Guido Nadzo spent the second half of his working life as a C.I.A. spy.
We had a very pleasant chat. I have forgotten what Mr. Nadzo’s play was about, or even if it was any good; but I’d like to set the record straight about this strange myth.
Sometime in the early 1980s, I was sitting in my office one day when a guy from the Order Dept. came in to tell me that there was a woman who wanted to see me. I went out to the reception area and there she was. She appeared to be in her 50s, heavily made up, elegantly dressed, with curly black hair. “You wanted to see me?” I asked. “Mr. Harbison?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied. She stretched out her hand and said in a thick Italian accent, “I am a-Gina Lollobrigida.”
You may be too young to know the name, but not me. Gina Lollobrigida was an Italian film star in the 1950s and 1960s. In those days, foreign film actors were hot in Hollywood. Of particular interest to Hollywood were extraordinarily beautiful women, often referred to as “Sex Goddesses,” and Ms. Lollobrigida was one of the most beautiful. She came over here at pretty much the same time as another Italian Sex Goddess, Sophia Loren, and became just as big a star. She starred in several American films, such as “Solomon and Sheba” with Yul Brynner and “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell.” She was Esmeralda in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” with Anthony Quinn as Quasimodo. And there she was, standing before me.
I managed to stammer, “What can I do for you?” She told me that a Broadway producer named Harry Rigby who had recently produced Sugar Babies, a huge hit starring Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller, was looking for a play for her. Apparently, he had suggested that she come to see me, as even then I was known in the biz as a guy who knew a lot of plays. I immediately thought of Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tatoo, as the lead character, Serafina, is Italian. Politely, she shot that idea down. The reason? Williams wrote the play for his longtime friend Anna Magnani. Although she got cold feet and didn’t do it on Broadway (the role was played instead by Maureen Stapleton) she starred in the film version, which was one of her most famous roles. No Italian actress would dare go up against La Magnani. It would be like an American actor daring to appear in an iconic Brando role, such as Terry Molloy in “On the Waterfront.” Side note: a stage version of this film was presented on Broadway, with highly regarded young actor Ron Eldard in the Brando role, and this pretty much derailed his career, even though he was quite good.
I suggested a few other plays to her (I have forgotten what they were) and asked a guy in the Order Dept. to pull them. I offered to give them to her, but she insisted on paying for them. Then, we had a nice chat. She was absolutely charming and very intelligent. I asked her if she was still acting; but she said, no, she was now a highly sought-after photojournalist and a successful sculptor. I asked, was she worried about returning to acting after so many years? “Absolute-a-not!” she replied. She left with her scripts. I never saw her again.
While I was writing this chapter, I found out from Peter Hagan, an old friend and colleague who was an agent before he became the President of Dramatists Play Service, that his client, the great set designer John Lee Beatty, whom he still represents, was actually hired by Harry Rigby to design the set for The Rose Tatoo, to star Miss Lollobrigida, to be directed by John (“Joey”) Tillinger — so she must have changed her mind and did decide to do the play. The plan was to open out of town, play a couple of other venues and then open on Broadway. Then, she told the team that she had hired a top Italian fashion designer to design her costumes (which was common in the Italian theatre, apparently). Mr. Beatty told me that these were completely inappropriate for the American South, let alone the character; and, anyway, a costume designer had already been hired. Miss Lollobrigida was adamant that they must use her designer’s costumes. When they told her “no way” she ditched the production. What a shame. I think she would have been brilliant. She’s still alive, and will turn 93 this year (2020).
Shortly thereafter, Harry Rigby died – so that was that.