Anita Ekberg was the busty blonde beauty from Sweden who melted film reels from Hollywood to Rome with her sizzling good looks. Major studios called her “Paramount’s Marilyn Monroe”. Tabloids dubbed her “The Iceberg”.
In the end, however, her fame faded just like her beauty. But not before she gave the world some sensational facts to gawk over.
Anita Ekberg knew that she was beautiful and she didn’t mind letting everyone know that she knew it. At the height of her fame in the 1960s, she stated bluntly in her sultry whisper of a voice, “I have a mirror. I would be a hypocrite if I said I didn't know I am beautiful”. Beautiful, yes, but certainly not well-behaved.
Anita Ekberg was born Kerstin Anita Marianne Ekberg in Malmö, Sweden in 1931. She was the sixth of eight children and, had it not been for her cool beauty and curvy body, she likely would have passed into obscurity. Thankfully, the world got to witness her talents in all their glory.
As a teenager, Ekberg worked as a model. She wasn’t even thinking about a career in Hollywood—far less filming one of the most iconic scenes in movie history. Fortunately, her mother knew that her daughter’s beauty required a stage and she convinced her to enter the Miss Sweden pageant.
As usual, mother’s know best and Ekberg’s mother put her on a trajectory towards stardom.
With her iceberg-melting hotness, Ekberg scorched the competition to win the Miss Sweden pageant. She went on to compete in the 1951 Miss Universe contest, becoming one of the six finalists. Even though she didn’t win the crown, she won something even more valuable; a contract with Universal Studios and the opportunity to become a massive star.
As a starlet, Universal gave Ekberg lessons in “drama, elocution, dancing, horseback riding, and fencing”. By her own admission, she took advantage of the studio system that spoiled her. She frequently skipped out on her drama lessons so that she could ride on horseback through the Hollywood Hills.
She did, however, manage to land one major role in those early days. The role of homewrecker.
At first, Universal relegated Ekberg to bit parts in films like Abbott and Costello Go to Mars and Take Me to Town. But it was in her off-screen part as Tyrone Power’s not-so-secret lover in the 1953 film The Mississippi Gambler that Ekberg really shone brightest. There was just one problem—Power was a married man.
As Power’s mistress, Ekberg had edged out another blonde beauty. Namely Power’s wife, the actress Linda Christian. But even as the outside woman, Ekberg flaunted her affair. She visited Power on his film sets and even met with his family in Cincinnati—all behind Christian’s back. Or, more accurately, right in front of her face.
There’s no doubt that Christian knew about her husband’s affair with Ekberg. Though Ekberg’s name didn’t appear once in Christian’s autobiography, she made it very clear that the Swedish vixen was, at least in part, responsible for the dissolution of her marriage. And as soon as she was done there, Ekberg moved on to the next man.
Once her contract with Universal ended (after only six months, mind you) Ekberg found herself in desperate need of a job. Or a man. Throughout the 1950s, she became famous as a pin-up model and carried on several highly publicized affairs with some of Hollywood’s hottest hunks—including one square-jawed Australian heartthrob.
One of Ekberg’s (many) romantic conquests included the Australian actor, Rod Taylor. At some point in the late 1950s or early 1960s, Ekberg dated and even became engaged to Taylor. Tragically, their relationship ended for reasons we’ll never know. But, eerily, the star-crossed lovers passed on within days of each other in January 2015.
Not all of Ekberg’s dalliances had a hint of tragedy to them. In fact, most of them were quite romantic (if a little scandalous). When Ekberg appeared alongside the Russian-born actor, Yul Brynner, in Artists and Models, the tabloids speculated that they were an item. It would seem, however, that Ekberg was just happy as long as the tabloids kept her name in print.
Later in her career, Ekberg confessed that she was not above the occasional publicity stunt. Case and point: New Year’s Eve 1956 at the Berkeley Hotel in London. As the Swedish enchantress made her way across the foyer with all eyes glued to her, she gave her fans more than they bargained for—but it was everything they wanted.
That night, Ekberg wore a tight dress that emphasized her curves with each step. But she took one step too many. Halfway across the foyer floor, her dress unzipped itself, revealing, as one eyewitness put, “just Anita”. But the Swedish pin-up had staged the entire thing with the help of a photographer who, of course, managed to snap just the right picture for the headlines the next day.
However, she wasn’t always so friendly with photographers.
In 1960, Ekberg caused a scandalous stir. A photographer snapped a picture of her kissing a married film producer in a nightclub. She was fine to let the whole incident go—it’s not like the producer was the first married man she had kissed. However, the photographer, Felice Quinto, followed her to her home. Ekberg then got right to the “point”—and dealt him a vicious strike.
The busty blonde beauty reemerged from her house, equipped with a bow and arrow. She drew back, took aim and released one arrow, striking Quinto in the hand. The stunned photographer bumbled around until Ekberg walked up and delivered a swift knee to his unmentionables. To Quinto’s credit, he did manage to sell the photographs.
Ekberg took her stunning beauty on a “whirlwind” tour of Greenland with Bob Hope. While she entertained the American troops stationed there, Hope gushed about her good looks to John Wayne who saw the potential in her that Universal Studios hadn’t. For Ekberg, this led to an exciting new chapter.
The country western film star signed her on the spot for $75/week. Once again, Hollywood was calling her name.
Ekberg finally managed to break into film in a real way as a contract actress with John Wayne’s production company, Batjac Productions. At first, she took on minor roles in television series such as Casablanca and Private Secretary. But none of those roles gave her the platform to really show off her, um, considerable assets.
Director Frank Tashlin cast Ekberg in the 1956 film Hollywood or Bust. The title of the film was a deliberate euphemism and Tashlin had specifically chosen Ekberg for her, shall we say, generous endowments. Finally, Ekberg had found a director that appreciated what she brought to the screen and, more importantly, to male audiences.
Unlike many starlets of the time, Ekberg was under no delusions about the source of her popularity. Particularly with male audiences. As Tashlin put it (rather bluntly we might add), Ekberg's success lay in “the immaturity of the American male...” Ekberg’s chest, in particular, defied all laws of gravity.
Standing at just 170cm tall, Ekberg’s proportions left some men scratching their heads—or drooling all over the theater. Tashlin, himself, confessed, “There's nothing more [comical] to me than...women, like walking, leaning towers”. The only one laughing, however, was Ekberg. All the way to stardom.
As her film career slowly gained traction, Ekberg became a fixture in the gossip columns—and not just as some man’s arm candy. Her voluptuousness earned her the nickname “The Iceberg” as a play on her Swedish roots. Instead of shrinking away from the moniker, however, Ekberg embraced this male attention and used it to her advantage.
Ekberg’s curvaceous body commanded attention whenever she was on the screen and she had no problem showing it off. In fact, she once explained, “It's not cellular obesity, it's womanliness”. As it turns out, her “womanliness” was more than enough to carry a major Hollywood film.
One of Ekberg's first big movies was Blood Alley—but by today's standards, she played a rather cringeworthy role. Not only was her part quite small, but she also played a Chinese woman named Wei Ling. Of course, that make-up wasn't fooling anyone. Thankfully, there were better opportunities on the horizon.
When Paramount Studios executives caught a glimpse of Ekberg, they thought that she could be the next big thing. They immediately found a role for her in which she could showcase her smoldering sensuality. The Swedish sphinx took on the role of the seductress Hélène Kuragin in visionary director King Vidor's epic War and Peace.
To promote the film, which already starred heavyweights like Mel Ferrer and Audrey Hepburn, Paramount wanted to put Ekberg front and center. They began marketing the blonde beauty as “Paramount’s Marilyn Monroe”. The gimmick clearly worked as the role proved to be Ekberg’s big breakout...even if she didn’t know her lines.
Ekberg’s physicality commanded the audience’s attention—they just couldn’t understand what she was saying. Because of her “whispery voice” and thick Swedish accent, the studio decided to dub her lines in War and Peace so she really was there just for her body. Perhaps the problem was that Ekberg was speaking to the wrong audience.
Playing off of her success in Hollywood, Ekberg returned to Europe to make films in England. European audiences warmed to her talents (presumably because they could actually understand what she was saying) and her star power grew even stronger. By 1956, tabloid gossip columnist Hedda Hopper leaked that Ekberg was making $75,000 per picture.
She would need all of that money for what happened next.
Ekberg quickly developed a reputation as being hard to work with. Despite not having the star power of someone like Greta Garbo, Ekberg had the ego. When her British-based studio tried to pick her up in a Humber Hawk, she tutted at the very thought and demanded a Rolls-Royce instead. And that was just the beginning of her diva-like behavior.
Ekberg’s British production company wanted to make their new star feel welcome in England. So they threw her a massive champagne party. Absolutely everyone who was anyone attended. That is, except for the girl of honor herself. Ekberg skipped out on the party and never really explained why. Perhaps she was getting busy with one of her co-stars.
While working in England, Ekberg met the British actor Anthony Steel. By all accounts, he was just as dashing as she was sumptuous with the papers describing him as “a glorious throwback to the Golden Age of Empire”. But there was nothing glorious or golden about the stormy, scandal-ridden relationship of these two mega-hotties.
Ekberg and Steel didn’t waste any time getting hot and heavy. They got married in 1956 while Ekberg was still working in Britain—and the drama started immediately after their “I dos”. In December of 1956, Steel found himself involved in a hooch-fueled, high-speed chase with the authorities.
The chase ended with Steel behind bars and Ekberg picking up the hefty tab.
In an attempt to spare them from further embarrassment, Ekberg drove to the station and bailed out her hunky husband. But, as the most attractive couple on planet earth, they could scarcely make a move without someone snapping a photo. Paparazzi captured Steel trying to hide his face as the couple scurried out of the station.
However, they could not flee from bad press.
When Ekberg and Steel traveled to Genoa for a film, they managed to make headlines again for all the wrong reasons. It seems that, as a married woman, Ekberg suddenly became quite the prude. When a photographer asked her to pose in a stunning negligee, she snapped back, “Certainly not! Why don’t you concentrate on my mind—not my body?”
Perhaps Steel’s overprotectiveness had something to do with it.
When Ekberg and Steel entered the elevator of their Genoa hotel, a young bellhop made the mistake of ogling the Swedish beauty. Enraged, Steel fired at the boy, “How dare you stare like that at my wife?” When they raised the matter with the manager, however, he coolly replied, “Looking at Miss Ekberg is one of Italy’s favorite occupations”.
Even though Ekberg started to complain about people appreciating her beauty, she couldn’t tolerate any other woman getting more attention. When Ekberg’s equally voluptuous stand-in, Ulla Lynn, posed for a magazine cover, the “Iceberg” became visibly upset and gave her the cold shoulder. She had a habit of going from cold to hot.
By all accounts, Ekberg and Steel had a tumultuous marriage. Fans and gossip columnists frequently spotted the couple dining at restaurants doing one of either two things: ignoring each other completely with icy indifference or making out so passionately so as to make onlookers blush.
Fortunately, the couple didn’t torment their fans (if they had any left) for long.
Ekberg decided to settle in Rome but returned to making Hollywood movies. While Ekberg continued melting reels with her sizzling body, Steel’s career stalled. Though the couple divorced in 1959, Steel kept getting into all kinds of trouble. In 1960, he disappeared for a whole week, launching a two-nation manhunt. He eventually resurfaced, claiming he'd gone to Rome to discuss a movie.
She didn’t need him anyway.
Ekberg’s most iconic role, the one that she was undoubtedly born to play, came in 1962 when she starred in Frederico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. The Swedish sensation rather appropriately played the role of “the unattainable dream woman”. The climactic scene in which she cavorts through the waters of Rome’s Trevi Fountain has become the stuff of film legend.
But filming La Dolce Vita left her with a chill.
Filming for La Dolce Vita took place in March, well before Rome’s notoriously hot summer season had a chance to warm the waters of the Trevi. To film the iconic scene, Ekberg had to stand in the freezing cold water for hours on end. By all accounts, however, she managed to temper her inner-diva and never complained about not being able to feel toes.
Unlike some people.
For once in her life, Ekberg wasn’t the biggest diva on a film set. La Dolce Vita’s male lead, Marcello Mastroianni, had to wear a wetsuit to stay warm while filming in the Trevi Fountain. But it’s not as though Ekberg wasn’t equally as frigid. “They had to lift me out of the water because I couldn’t feel my legs anymore,” she recalled about the experience.
Pretty soon after that someone else swept her off her feet.
Following her massive stardom that La Dolce Vita sparked, Ekberg had difficulty finding roles that she wanted. She found that, despite delivering a solid acting performance, “every producer or director” only “wanted [her] to recreate the same role”. Yet Ekberg found other consolations.
One of Ekberg’s 4 for Texas co-stars was the dashing Frank Sinatra. The tabloids quickly got to speculating that the Swedish sensation and velvet-voiced singer had taken their on-screen romance off-screen. In all likelihood, however, Ekberg had set her sights on another man at that time. And, perhaps, even another career.
Ekberg met and married fellow actor Rik Van Nutter in 1963—but she was far from her glory days. The actress’ career began a steady decline through to the 1970s. Eventually, she only managed to land small roles in ultimately forgettable European films that gained no traction in Hollywood. At least she had her marriage to find comfort in...or so she thought.
Anita Ekberg, like so many of her fellow blonde beauties from the 1950s and 60s, never found her prince charming. In one interview, she said about her marriage to Nutter, “Ours is a good marriage”. A short time after that, however, Ekberg accused Nutter of cheating her out of money in a business they co-owned.
Suffice to say, the marriage fell apart from there, ending in divorce in 1975.
Ekberg lived her later years in a villa outside of Rome with only two Great Danes to keep her company. Sadly, she was filled with regret. In one interview, she stated that she was happy not to have a child. But then, just six months later she ruefully confessed, “I would have liked to have a child[...]It didn’t turn out that way. That’s life”.
But that wasn't the worst part.
You see, Ekberg had dreamed of starting a family with the one real love of her life, Gianni Agnelli—the owner of Fiat. But sadly, they were the definition of star-crossed lovers. Despite Agnelli's marriage to Princes Marella Caracciolo di Castagneto, he carried on a secret affair with Ekberg. But they had to be as discreet as possible.
This undercover romance went on for many years, but as Agnelli was part of the aristocracy, the couple couldn't risk being photographed together. The few photographers who slipped through the cracks and caught illicit snapshots of Ekberg and Agnelli never stood a chance against the industrialist's lawyers.
Of course, Ekberg wasn't Agnelli's only dalliance. Though he remained married until his passing in 2003, he entertained affairs with big celebrities like Linda Christian, Rita Hayworth, and Jackie Kennedy.
Tucked away in her villa, Ekberg found that her luck had run out. “My last 10 years have brought nothing but bad luck,” she admitted. Shortly after her divorce from Nutter, thieves relieved her of her most valuable possessions, including “fur coats, jewels and silver”. A second break-in years later, along with a fire, left her destitute.
In her moment of need, Ekberg appealed to the Fellini Foundation to see if her connection to the famed director could help her one last time. Sadly, the Foundation had all but run out of money. But that wasn't her only source of suffering. Her Great Danes had also knocked her over by accident, breaking her hip and leaving her bound to a wheelchair.
She passed in 2015, at the age of 83, having lived La Dolce Vita.
In 2000, Ekberg divulged more details about her marriage to Anthony Steel. Her claims were eye-brow raising. She complained that he would often disappear at night, only reemerging the next morning. But that was nothing compared to their third night together when she arrived home to “find him swinging from the lights like an ape, smashed out of his mind”.
James Bond producer, Albert Broccoli, considered two women for the role of Honey Ryder, the first Bond girl. For reasons that we’ll never really know—but likely haunted Ekberg to her grave—Broccoli opted for the Swiss-born Ursula Andress instead. She knew that the decision signaled the beginning of the end of her career.
In a cruel twist, Ekberg had to star alongside Andress in the 1963 film 4 for Texas. The raunchy romp turned out to be a battle of the blondes. Both Ekberg and Andress had to audition in their birthday suits for their respective roles—a first for Hollywood. Our research would indicate that Ekberg walked away as the clear winner.
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