On a beautiful day in Brooklyn two weeks ago, the Siren sat down in a cafe, opened a newspaper and read that Alida Valli had died at age 84--and felt real sadness, because her daughter is named Alida.
Little more than three years ago Mr. C. and I had a lot of fun discussing names for our boy-girl twins:
"Lucy and Desi."
"Bill and Hillary."
"Nixon and Agnew."
"Nixon and Agnew? which name does the girl get?"
and so forth. When we finally got serious I went through some old movie books and hit on the name Alida, because it is beautiful and unusual but also simple and pronounceable. (Hail Girish, the only one of my film-mad friends who responded to "my daughter's name is Alida" with "Valli" as fast as any game-show contestant.) David O. Selznick marketed his Italian find as just Valli, hoping to echo the single-name impact of Garbo. In this, as in so many of his later-life decisions, he was wrong, because her first name is the business.
The Siren treasures her small connection to Alida Valli, one of the few she has to the Golden Age. When I graduated college, I went to work at a literary agency. One of our clients was Oscar de Mejo, Valli's first husband. I loved his courtly voice and beautiful manners on the telephone, and (yes, I am this starstruck) I also loved the idea that he gave me three degrees of separation from Orson Welles. AND Carol Reed AND Alfred Hitchcock AND Gregory Peck.
So Alida it was, though I had seen only two of the first Alida's films. She made a lot of good movies, but is most remembered for three: The Paradine Case, a minor Hitchcock that the Siren still enjoys a lot; Senso, a legendary Visconti film that the Siren prays will be released soon on DVD; and The Third Man, without question the actress's defining role for audiences outside Italy (and probably inside Italy too).
Good lord she was beautiful, "head-swivelingly beautiful" as Martin Scorsese put it, so stunning that even the hideous raincoat she wears for most of Carol Reed's masterpiece can't douse her light. The opaque, rather chilly quality she had in The Paradine Case was antithetical to a true femme fatale and hurt the movie. But in The Third Man, it's perfect. Her character, Anna, is as hollow and burnt-out as Vienna. Her eyes show life only when Harry Lime is mentioned. That he's worthless doesn't matter; he is all that connects her to the emotions the war blasted away.
The original Alida had bad bumps in her admirable 100-movie career, including a false accusation of fascist sympathies (someone claimed she had an affair with Goebbels!) that almost kept her out of the U.S., a stint in Hollywood that didn't last long enough and a scandal that sidelined her for about three years after she returned to her native Italy. That's just the professional side, and it was fairly minor compared to what her personal life dished out. After the Nazis pushed into Italy, she laid low for a while to avoid having to do propaganda films. Her first love, a fighter pilot, was killed in action. Her mother was shot (though not mortally) by anti-fascist forces for suspected collaboration. The scandal that almost ended her career saw her confirming a man's alibi in a celebrated murder case.
Each phase of Valli's life found her picking up and moving on, to Hollywood after Europe was leveled, back to Europe when Hollywood turned cold, to the theater when movies proved scarce or unfulfilling. And, with confidence even many non-famous beauties don't possess, when the wrinkles began to come, Alida Valli let 'em come.
Mr. Campaspe has Mediterranean coloring, and when the Siren talked him into the name "Alida," she envisioned a daughter with Valli's dark hair and olive skin. In one of life's little practical jokes, my daughter is a green-eyed blonde, a different kind of beauty altogether. But as I read more about Alida Valli's life, I realize I dreamed of the wrong inheritance. My Alida would do better with just her namesake's resilience and grace.