Book Examines Life of 'Last Playboy'

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Portland Oregonian movie reviewer Shawn Levy talks about his book, The Last Playboy. It is a biography of legendary playboy Porfirio Rubirosa; he was a racecar driver, diplomat and absolute scoundrel — marrying rich women like Doris Duke and Barbara Hutton and taking a big chunk of money when they divorced.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Porfirio Rubirosa may have been the last of his kind, and many people may be glad about that. In the 1940s and '50s, he lived life as a playboy, before that term became an epithet. He romanced beautiful women, married rich ones, and merely dallied with hundreds more. He was celebrated among the rich, famous among the masses, pursued by paparazzi and for what, really? Porfirio Rubirosa was celebrated for being a tireless, faithless, fickle and indomitable lover of women, of wealth and of pleasure back when that needed no public apology. Shawn Levy, film critic of The Oregonian newspaper, has written "The Last Playboy: The High Life of Porfirio Rubirosa." He joins us from the studios of Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Shawn, thanks for being with us.

Mr. SHAWN LEVY (Film Critic, The Oregonian; Author, "The Last Playboy"): Hi. Thanks. Good morning.

SIMON: And aside from the obvious prurient interest, which I think also needs no apology, what interested you in this life?

Mr. LEVY: Well, to me it's just an amazing story. This fellow was a diplomat, a Formula One racer, a polo champion, a jewel thief, probably a bag man for one of the worst tyrants in history, perhaps a killer. He married heiresses and actresss. It was sort of like every fact I learned about this guy just made him sparkle more. And the fact that he was gone from public record and public memory, in many cases, made it sort of like, you know, uncovering a sunken treasure.

SIMON: Let's get the list of wives and lovers out of the way first, if we could. We're talking about five wives.

Mr. LEVY: His first wife was Flor de Oro Trujillo, the daughter of the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. They married virtually at gunpoint, although not for the traditional reasons one associates with marriage at gunpoint. That he dared show his affections to this woman was enough to nearly get him killed by her father. That marriage...

SIMON: He was in Rafael Trujillo's guard.

Mr. LEVY: Yeah, he was an aide-de-camp to the dictator and, you know, very proud of his uniforms and his boots and his equestrian prowess, and he made moves on the dictator's daughter which was, you know, virtually gambling with your life. And he won the gamble. He married the girl. They were eventually posted to Europe as--in the diplomatic corps where Rubirosa met his second wife, the French actress Danielle Darrieux, who is still alive, although she doesn't talk about him. He left her for Doris Duke, the American tobacco and hydropower billionairess, I guess, in today's money. That marriage lasted about a year and a half. When he'd spent what he'd gotten from Doris, he married Barbara Hutton, the Woolworth and E.F. Hutton brokerage firm heiress. That marriage lasted 73 days and netted him about $3 1/2 million in cash and prizes. And then he married a 19-year-old French actress who wound up being his widow after nine years.

SIMON: I'm exhausted just hearing--and we--now we didn't even take up the list of lovers which also includes some pretty famous names--Tina Onassis, Zsa Zsa Gabor, we could go on.

Mr. LEVY: Yeah. Eartha Kitt, Eva Peron, Gene Tierney, Veronica Lake. It's kind of amazing. These women passed through his hands. He had a reputation as a dangerous man and a lover at a time when the idea of the Latin playboy was in very high eclat in the United States and northern Europe, and he--you know, this is a guy from the Dominican Republic. This is not, you know, an heir to the Spanish throne or some Greek shipping magnate. He was born to no money. And really his claim to position was the fact that he was able to parlay one day's success into the next day's.

SIMON: What did he have? What was his fatal charm? Give us some sense of him.

Mr. LEVY: Well, there's a few things. He was a true sportsman. He raced Formula One in Le Mans, Sebring. He finished second at Sebring one year when he raced for the Lancha Team(ph). He was a polo player; won trophies on three continents. He was by all accounts, men and women, a completely charming conversationalist, a fine dancer, he spoke five languages. He was kind of ruggedly handsome. More Humphrey Bogart than Cary Grant. One of the secrets of his successes hinted at in a song that was popular during his heyday, a Latin song called "Qu es el Tuyo, Rubirosa?," "What Is It That Rubirosa Has?," and when that moment in the song was sung, men on the dance floor would grab their pants around their knees, indicating a physical endowment that you couldn't talk about out loud then or perhaps not even now, but which was legendary.

SIMON: Yeah. Let's just say that in a fancy restaurant when the head waiter brought over the large pepper mill, it was often called the Rubirosa.

Mr. LEVY: To this day, in fact, in Paris, if you ask for the Rubirosa, they bring out the big pepper cracker.

SIMON: I think the term `diplomat' might be a suggestion that he was some kind of Kofi Annan, which is not exactly the case, but the did have a career as a diplomat that brought him to Paris and Berlin during some very significant years.

Mr. LEVY: He served the Dominican Republic in Berlin in 1936 and sat in Hitler's box at the Olympics. He's--during the crowning of King George, he represented his country that same year. He was in Paris, Vichy, Belgium and Holland during World War II. He was in Rome after that. He was in Buenos Aires during the Peron years. He was in Havana during the fall of Cuba to Castro. And he was a liaison between the post-Trujillo government and the Kennedy administration. He was quite an active fellow, and the legend of Rubirosa is that he did no work, but, in fact, the paper trail that he left behind in archives in Santo Domingo, Washington, DC, and Paris, was pretty extensive.

SIMON: You know, sometimes when we interview somebody who's written a biography of someone noted, more than one biographer has said that to really write a credible biography, you have to like the person you're writing about. I wonder: Did you like him?

Mr. LEVY: You know, I did like him. There's a real sense of enjoying the moment, a true hedonism in the classical sense of the word, you know. Not a degenerate thing, but taking the pleasure in life. He's really an incredibly charming character. And without the obvious talents of a Frank Sinatra or a Mick Jagger, two people I've written about at length, who, you know, were also kind of not the nicest folks around, I think he was a gentler man than them, more of a gentleman.

SIMON: He died at, I believe, the age of 56. Wrapped his car around a tree early in the morning. He was married to a punishingly younger woman. He was of advancing years. He'd had a number of friends who had died in recent weeks in racing accidents. And you present a man who might have run his car into the tree as much out of anxiety and depression as he did after a long night of drinking.

Mr. LEVY: It's very possible and there were certainly rumors of that sort at the time. At the same time, you hear stories that there were new conquests in line, a potential sixth wife, and third fortune, so, you know, you take it in balance. I think my gut feeling is that it was an accident. I think this guy had so many lives that he had, you know, shed and escaped with that he probably felt he could have done some more.

SIMON: Shawn, very nice talking to you. Thanks very much.

Mr. LEVY: Oh, thank you so much for your interest.

SIMON: Shawn Levy, author most recently of "The Last Playboy: The High Life of Porfirio Rubirosa," speaking with us from the studios of Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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