New Yorker
Oct. 23, 1989
from Talk of the Town column

Mother and Daughter

Not long ago, on a brilliant and chilly fall morning, the actress Isabella Rossellini packed a big black suitcase and drove up to Middletown, Connecticut, with a filmmaker friend, to take some of her mother's things to the Ingrid Bergman archive at Wesleyan University. The trip took three hours, and at one point Isabella turned to her friend and said, "Mother kept everything, and when she died the four of us children - Pia, Ingrid, Roberto, and I didn't know what to do with it. I think Mother had complicated emotions about her things. When she knew that she was ill, she wrote her autobiography and organized her life. She arranged for her ashes to be scattered. Yet she didn't destroy all these things that she had kept, and she didn't decided exactly where she wanted them to go. It's as though a part of her wanted to close everything on her own terms and another part of her wanted to leave something open about herself for her children. One day, when Mother realized she was dying, she asked me to help her put some snapshots in order. As I was doing it, I thought to ask her something I had never asked her before why had she kept everything from all around the world, through three marriages and so many countries. She looked at me almost innocently and said, 'Of course, I always knew I was going to be famous.' It seemed so presumptuous. Not like her at all, and yet absolutely like her."

Eventually, the car pulled up to a small clapboard house on the edge of the Wesleyan campus, its lawn covered with red and yellow leaves. Isabella hefted the suitcase out of the trunk. It had little wheels on it, and she half carried, and half dragged it up to the door, and knocked. Two women appeared in the doorway Jeanine Basinger, the curator of the Wesleyan Cinema Archive, and Candace Bothwell, the associate curator. "Isabella!" they both cried together.

The suitcase fell with a thud onto the floor. "More things," Isabella said ruefully.

"Oh, Isabella, we were just looking at the collection," Jeanine said, lugging the suitcase into a homey living room decorated with a movie poster for It Happened One Night and with signed photographs of stars like Montgomery Clift and Cary Grant. A couch and a pair of armchairs, upholstered in gray, stood on opposite sides of the room, and in the middle of a wooden coffee table were neat piles of letters, programs.and photographs.

Isabella picked up a little leather book from the table. "Look, Mother's diary," she said, passing it to her friend.

It was a small diary, with Ingrid embossed on the cover in gold italics. On the inside of the cover was a little label that read "Fran Svanstrom & Co., Pappershandels Aktiebolag, Stockholm."

"We've translated the whole thing now, Isabella," Jeanine Basinger said. "We've photocopied it and placed the English translation alongside."

Isabella read from the photocopy, "'It was then that it dawned on me that theatre really was my work.'" She looked up. "You see Mother was fifteen when she wrote that. I told a psychologist what Mother had said before she died, and she said, 'Well, everyone thinks she's going to be famous. A million girls write at fifteen that the theatre is really their work, but they don't become famous.' So maybe that's the truth. Do you think that could be the truth?" She laughed. Leafing through the diary she picked out another passage; this time, the fifteen-tear-old Ingrid was imagining what her father might have thought about her taking up a career as an actress. "And he probably would not have forbidden me to go the thornstudded road toward the sky of the stars," she had written. Then Isabella read out a list of things that her mother had wanted for Christmas when she was ten : money, a toboggan, a flashlight, chewing gum, a diary, a monthly ticket for the tram, a blackboard, chocolate, clothes, a dog.

Most of the letters in one of the piles on the coffee table were from friends who had written to Isabella's mother at the time when the great, scandalous love affair between her and Isabella's father, Roberto Rossellini, was being worried over in the world's newspapers. There was a letter from Alfred Hitchcock. "After all nothing is permanent and people soon forget." he wrote. He signed it "Hitch", and added his signature drawing of himself in profile. "What an alarming letter! It's so non-reassuring," Isabella said. Then, there was a bombastic, rambling, loyal letter from Ernest Hemingway. "If they have a Roman edition of the Hollywood Reporter I will make a full page ad in it that will say Ernest Hemingway loves Ingrid Bergman and wishes to serve her in any way and endorses all her actions past present and future," he wrote, and he signed it "Mr. Papa". And then a gentle, perfect letter from Jean Renoir, urging Isabella's mother not to give up acting: "The cult of great ideas is dangerous and may destroy the real basis for great achievements, that is the daily, humble work within the framework of a profession."

Isabella and her friend began to sort through the pile of pictures, which had been taken by Ingrid's father, who was a photographer. There was one of Ingrid and her mother, who died when Ingrid was two, together on a window seat looking out over the Stockholm skyline. And a picture of the Bergman family all together: father, mother daughter. Then a picture from a year later Ingrid and her father together, Ingrid holding an old oval-framed photograph of her mother up to the camera. Isabella found a picture of Ingrid at about eleven with a short haircut, and her hand flew to her own head. "Look!" she said. "We have the same haircut. You know, every haircut I give myself she had once."

Meanwhile, Candace Bothwell had been carefully unpacking the big black suitcase. "Oh!" she cried out suddenly, and from the middle of the suitcase she held up an old, slightly tarnished Oscar.

"The Gaslight Oscar! Oh, Isabella, thank you," Jeanine said, and she walked over and set it carefully on the living-room mantelpiece.

Over lunch, Jeanine talked about the origins of the archive. "Frank Capra was a good friend, and he told me that he had all his papers and scripts, and no place to put them, so we took them in here. It's one of my sadnesses that Frank became too ill to visit us, since so much of the place has his spirit. He's the one who said, 'Make it like a home.'"

Isabella said, "Yes, that was just it. I came here looking for a place to put Mother's things and it didn't seem as though I would be giving them up. I'd visited other places, and they were like mausoleums. Or else they were so shocking. They offered to edit and publish my parents' love letters, just like that!"

"We look after things," Jeanine said. "We want to publish good books from time to time, of course, but basically we want to look after things. We have the Capra archive, the Bergman archive, the Kazan archive, the Eastwood archive, and the John Waters collection. I think that so far we have a key figure from each decade: Capra embodies the spirit of the thirties, Bergman the forties, Kazan the fifties, Eastwood the seventies, and John Waters the eighties. No one was home in American film in the sixties. God, I love paper. I think because there's something so vulnerable about it. You know, almost my first memory is of my family's house in South Dakota burning down, and how, when I went to jump out of the window, I had my box of paper dolls tight under my arm. That's my life image sitting out in the rain, but happy to have saved my paper dolls."

Isabella's friend has said that she would love to see Ingrid Bergman's old gowns, so after lunch everyone went upstairs into the archive itself to look at them. Candace brought out a long cardboard box. She opened it carefully, and folded back the tissue. Inside were beautiful dresses, lying one on top of another like the layers of a millefeuille. There was the dress that Ingrid Bergman had worn to collect the Oscar now on the mantelpiece downstairs - black crepe with suspender insets, tomato red with a rhinestone fern-leaf pattern, running all the way up the bodice. "It's so forties," Jeanine said. "As though they wanted her to have a Scandinavian look." Then, there was the dress that Ingrid had worn for the opening of Joan at the Stake in Italy - a fine white chiffon with a yellow bow in the back. The friend held it up to her body; it seemed a dress for a time as distant as the Sun King's court at Versailles.

Isabella was sitting on the floor and looking through a photo file marked "Rossellini family, 1950'.s" She found a photograph of all the Rossellinis: a two-year-old Isabella, with perfect china-doll features; her twin sister, Ingrid, looking somehow more solid and Scandinavian; their dapper four-year-old brother, Roberto. A golden family on a golden day. "Where are we here?" Isabella asked. "Can that be Italy? It doesn't look like Italy. But that's my wet nurse, Matilde, holding Ingrid, and I don't think she travelled with us."

"You had a wet nurse?" Jeanine asked. "Yes, she was wonderful. When my sister and I were born, mother didn't know what to do she couldn't nurse us both. So my father said, 'Get a wet nurse.' At first, Mother was shocked, but she came to love Matilde. The only miracle of my life is because of Matilde. I was in Toronto four or five years ago, doing a department store show for Lancome, and someone called out 'Isabella!' I saw a man, and I said, without thinking, 'Giuseppe.' It was Matilde's son, whom she had left behind when she came to us what we call in Italian my fratello di latte, my milk brother. I had seen him once, perhaps thirty years before, but somehow I knew him immediately. He had immigrated to Toronto, and now he was working in construction. So we called Matilde at home, Giuseppe and I. That's my only miracle."

Later, as the car began the long haul back down the parkway, Isabella looked out at the trees and falling leaves. "Halloween is coming," she said. "Last year, my little girl, Elettra, wanted to go trick-or-treating as Bambi's father. I thought she had made a mistake that she was confused. He's only in the movie for a minute, you know the father. But she insisted. I would say, 'You mean the mother, darling.' And she would say obstinately, 'No, I want to be Bambi's father.' And so I found someone in SoHo who made the most beautiful antlers for her. She looked so alarming and so beautiful, and now we have them - antlers. Maybe I'll give them to Jeanine."

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