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Ingrid Bergman’s scandalous affair with an Italian director caused a U.S. Senator to denounce the star as a “powerful influence of evil”

E.L. Hamilton
 Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

In the 1940s, Ingrid Bergman was one of the most revered actresses in Hollywood. With deep longing, America believed in the saint-like luminescence that the Swedish star brought to such iconic roles as vulnerable Ilsa in Casablanca and the wife losing her mind to her sadistic husband in Alfred Hitchcock’s Gaslight, for which she won an Oscar.

So when the married Bergman had an affair with a womanizing Italian director and bore him a child out of wedlock, America was scandalized. The affair was so vilified that a U.S. senator took to the Senate floor in 1950 to denounce the star as a “powerful influence for evil.”

Behind Bergman’s pristine façade, she was ambitious, driven, and willful. She smoked, drank, and had affairs—as did many of her male co-stars, but women were held to different standards.

Though she was a popular success, Bergman longed to make more serious work, and wrote to Italian neorealist director Roberto Rossellini. For his part, he hoped to capitalize on her tremendous box-office draw. Neither quite anticipated how negatively the public would react to their unconventional union.

Bergman with Rossellini

Bergman with Rossellini

In 1949, Bergman and Rossellini set off for an island off the Sicilian coast of Italy to film Stromboli. They had already flown into each other’s arms.

Bergman was married at the time to a Swedish surgeon, Dr. Petter Lindstrom, with whom she had a 10-year-old daughter, Pia. Rossellini was separated from his wife, Marcella de Marchis, but had had a public affair with the sultry actress Anna Magnani.

Excerpt from the Pin-up photo in Yank, the Army Weekly

Excerpt from the Pin-up photo in Yank, the Army Weekly

Bergman wrote to Lindstrom asking for divorce, but her angry husband declined to cooperate. Soon she would be pregnant with Rossellini’s child. As public whispers about her affair became louder, Bergman was forced to acknowledge the breakup of her marriage.

On August 5, 1949, her publicist released a press release in her name, according to People magazine: “It was not my desire to make any statement until the conclusion of the picture I am now making. But persistent, malicious gossip, that has even reached the point where I am made to appear as a prisoner, has obliged me to break my silence and demonstrate my free will. I have instructed my lawyer to start divorce proceedings immediately. Also, with the conclusion of the picture it is my intention to retire into private life.”

Rumors of her pregnancy were reported in Italian newspapers, and the American gossip queen Hedda Hopper came to see for herself. Bergman and Hopper had lunch together and Hopper asked point-blank, “Are you pregnant?”

Bergman, who was tall and athletic, dodged the question by asking, “Do I look it?”

Ingrid Bergman

Ingrid Bergman

Hopper printed Bergman’s denial, but that only delayed the scandal. By December, news was out, with headlines in L.A. shrieking, INGRID BERGMAN BABY DUE IN THREE MONTHS AT ROME. The tabloids rained down invective.

“The experience of having my mother go from being a saint to a tramp in a few days was traumatic,” daughter Pia told People magazine in 1986. “Both my father and I suffered a tremendous sense of loss. The publicity was monstrous. I think she went through the rest of her life carrying a profound guilt.”

During her pregnancy, Bergman became a lonely hostage to paparazzi camped outside her apartment. Roberto was off working on another film. On February 2, 1950, she gave birth to a boy, Robertino.

Bergman and Rossellini’s film Stromboli opened in theaters in February 1950 and promptly bombed.

The very next month, the conservative Senator Edwin C. Johnson of Colorado denounced Bergman and Rossellini on the floor of the Senate. He proposed a bill intended to ban actors “guilty of immorality and lewdness” and “moral turpitude” and to decide a movie’s approval for licenses based on the “moral compass” of its producers. He called Rossellini a “love pirate and a home wrecker.”

United States Senator Edwin C. Johnson

United States Senator Edwin C. Johnson

Senator Johnson seemed to take Bergman’s affair personally. “Clearly what outraged Johnson about Bergman’s ‘unconventional free-love conduct’ was his intense disappointment that she had not lived up to the ideal she obviously was,’” wrote David Smit in Ingrid Bergman: The Life, Career and Public Image. “Hollywood’s sweetheart … [is] a celebrated international figure, who has started a crusade against the holy bond of matrimony.”

Though Bergman didn’t immediately secure a divorce in the U.S., she was able to divorce and remarry by proxy through the Mexican court system. And so on May 24, 1950, she and Rossellini exchanged vows. She finally was granted a divorce from Lindstrom in November 1950. He won primary custody of Pia.

Their passionate affair didn’t translate into a successful marriage. Rossellini wanted her to stay home. Without work, Bergman was bored and listless. He soon returned to his privileged womanizing ways. He spent money incautiously, and soon they faced mounting debt. She wanted to go back to work, he jealously refused to let her work with any other director. They fought often and bitterly. She fell into drink. Their films together bombed.

Publicity photo for film Gaslight (1944)

Publicity photo for film Gaslight (1944)

Bergman gave birth to twin girls in June 1952, but by the time the girls were 5, their parents had separated. Rossellini battled for and won custody of the children.

By then, outrage had died down. Bergman returned to acting. Anastasia wasn’t a tremendous hit, but the public was so glad to have the Swedish star back that she received a standing ovation when she won the Best Actress Oscar in March 1957. “I’ve gone from saint to whore and back to saint again, all in one lifetime,” she said, according to her biography.

Related story from us: Paul Newman was delighted to learn he’d landed on President Richard Nixon’s “enemies list”

Bergman married the Swedish producer Lars Schmidt in 1958. Their marriage would end in 1977, when he had an affair and his mistress bore him a child, though by then an out-of-wedlock baby was congratulated not castigated. No senators denounced him.

Bergman died from breast cancer on her 67th birthday in 1982.

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