The last time I saw Edoardo Ponti, he was thirteen years old. I was working as a publicist for the CBS Television Network, and spent some time with him and his older brother Carlo on a set in Toronto over several hot summer days. We chatted about young boy things, all of us waiting for the director’s voice to crackle “Cut! Moving on!” over the second AD’s walkie talkie, so we could move around freely. Eduardo was shy, soft-spoken, and extremely polite. The movie being filmed was Courage. The star was Edoardo’s mother, Sophia Loren.
This past April, I met Ponti again at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, where he was reading from his recently published book of poetry, “Letters From A Young Father,” [Xeno Books, $16.95, www.redhen.org ]
The collection is forty letters written ten years ago as a gift to his unborn son, about love, life and memories. He wrote a letter for each of the forty weeks before his son would come to term, covering the hopes and fears of a young father, and also those of the boy who was Loren and film producer Carlo Ponti’s son—who he was then and who he aspired to be with his first child. (The epigraph suggests what may have been Ponti’s complicated relationship with his famous father: “To Papá, I tired so hard to turn you into the parent I yearned for…I never took the time to appreciate the father you were.”)
Ponti never meant for the poems to be published until a poet friend asked if he could submit them for consideration, and much to his surprise and delight, the personal thoughts became “Letters From A Young Father.” Ponti hopes the collection will resonate with his son and daughter when they are ready to be parents, and because each entry is so personal, these are letters that will resonate with any parent who might want to share with their children. [Here’s a charming interview Ponti did for the book’s publication: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGQ72Xdrk3U]
The poems are lovely, evocative, revealing, heart-breaking, funny, emotional and beautifully crafted and Ponti read them beautifully to those assembled under the Festival tent. I was glad to have the chance for a brief private chat with him afterward. I re-introduced myself and though he didn’t remember me, he had excellent recall of the movie, where it was shot, and even the director, not surprising due to the fact Ponti himself is a director. I shared with him some of my most cherished memories of working with his mother, which made him smile. We shook hands, and he thanked me for telling him some of what I remembered.
I remember being terrified to meet Loren. I’d hoped I’d have the chance but not exactly the way it happened. I knew she didn’t want me on set, that she was unhappy with everything, and was refusing to do any publicity for the film during production…trust me, this is a PR person’s nightmare. But I squared my shoulders and headed to Toronto to try and fix things. That was my job. I was the fixer.
I was told to sit in the corner of that day’s hotel set, not to approach her or speak to her by very nervous producers. I did as I was told and tried to stay out of her eye line.
When she finished her scene, she looked right at me, walked over, and said: “You wanted to speak with me?” I was stunned that she was able to pick me out, kind of a “which thing doesn’t belong?” awareness.
She led me to an empty room, sat on the bed, patted the space next to her, and basically said, “Yes?” I launched into my pitch, explained the press that I needed done and why, all the time looking into cat eyes of gold. I’ve never seen anyone with that color eyes before or since. I kept my voice steady, but I was intimidated. I was bargaining with an icon.
I kept it short, and when I was finished, she said, simply: “All right.”
And she was true to her word. She was wonderful. In the time we spent together before and after press set visits, we talked about Carlo Ponti, the man she married, and Cary Grant, the other man in her life. Seriously, Cary Grant. About what it meant to be in love, when it worked and when it didn’t. She was taken with the fact I was adopted, given her very painful childhood—she was an illegitimate child and her father abandoned her mother. I think, with that revelation, she really saw me.
One day on our Canal Street location, I was summoned by her Italian glam squad (the hair and makeup team). I had been told they only spoke Italian, but I didn’t believe it, and I never spoke carelessly in front of them (though many in the crew did). In flawless English, I was told: “Sophia would like to see you in her trailer.” Of course, I was worried something was wrong—Entertainment Tonight was on the set covering her every move that day, so you just never knew, and frankly, you don’t typically get summoned to be congratulated on the great job you and the network are doing. Instead, she welcomed me inside and said: “I want you to walk with me to the set so you Mother can see you on television.”
So we made the trip to set together, arms linked, conversing about absolutely nothing important. She walked as slowly as possible while ET shot the requisite B-roll. I don’t recall that the shot made the final piece, but this gesture meant the world to me. (She did eventually get to meet my mother when filming moved to Kennedy Airport in New York, very close to my childhood home. For hours, Loren rode an escalator up and down, up and down, and my mother, not fairy-dusted with the magic of Hollywood like her daughter, asked when she could go home. “This is boring,” she said, and yes, that’s often what filming is like. When Loren finally had a moment, she came over to us and I made the introductions. She clasped my mother’s hand and said: “You raised a lovely daughter.” My mother beamed. I blushed.)
At the end of the lengthy shoot, on location near her home in Florida, she supervised the preparation of a multi-course midnight meal for all of us who had been with the production from the beginning. Fresh fish, pasta, salad, chocolate cake. Barefoot, hair flowing freely, she made us all feel at home in her gorgeous 360 degree waterview penthouse. I sat on an overstuffed pillow on the floor of her living room, chatting with other cast members. She came and sat next to me, joining in the conversation, dark hair in a loose cloud around her face, bare legs tucked under her dress, companionably picking chocolate shavings off my dessert plate, sharing wrap party stories. I remember floating outside myself because the moment was so hard to grasp.
Several years later, I was on a flight to Los Angeles and word trickled back to those of us in steerage that Sophia was on the plane. I asked the flight attendant if she could do me a favor, and handed her an unopened jumbo pack of chewing gum, hoping she could give it to Ms. Loren. I knew about her habit. After we landed, I threaded my way from economy into first class to deplane. I looked down and saw a seat littered with chewing gum wrappers. I smiled.