After a decade as one of the biggest movie stars in the world, Ingrid Bergman began 1950 embroiled in the scandal of the century. The star of “Casablanca” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s” left her husband and child, had an affair with the Italian auteur Roberto Rossellini and gave birth to a baby out of wedlock.
The public backlash she faced – including her new films being boycotted across the U.S., getting banned from “The Ed Sullivan Show” and being condemned on the floor of the U.S. Congress – have been well documented. But largely unknown is the vitriol Bergman faced in private, the torrent of hate mail she received from former fans across months, even as she remained out of the public eye. Now 70 years late, the extent of that scandal is finally coming into picture thanks to a cache of 47 telegrams sent during the early months of 1950 and exclusively obtained by TheWrap.
Throughout 1950, the Stockholm-born star would receive telegrams and letters from people who felt betrayed that the innocent and pure actress they had in their mind – the only one who could portray Joan of Arc or a nun — was actually just a woman. They labeled her a whore, un-godly, un-American and worse. They even declared that the star would never be welcomed back to the U.S. or to her homeland.
For years, Bergman said little about the scandal in the moment and showed little remorse for her actions, ultimately calling the experience “absolute hell.” But the communications she received suggest just how much anger and abuse Bergman had to deal with behind the scenes.
“You are just a common adulteress, worse than a streetwalker. How can a mother bring such shame on her young daughter,” a telegram signed by “a former ‘fan’” wrote in February 1950, days after she gave birth to her son Renato Roberto Rossellini. “I hope that you will never darken our fair shores again as we have enough immorality without adding to it by your presence.”
“You are a dirty prostitute, you deserted your 12-year-old daughter and your husband, you have disgraced yourself and both of them. You bold rotten hoar [sic], you are a disgrace to womanhood,” another wrote. “Your daughter will suffer terribly for your putrid life. Are you crazy? How long will it be until you desert this new baby? As for old bald headed depraved Rossellini, to hell with him. You are a living disgrace to the whole world. Hope you will not be allowed to return to the good old U.S.A. Don’t want your kind over here.”
“The best thing for you to do would be to take an overdose of sleeping pills. That would please Robby and everyone,” another wrote in March 1950.
Bergman and Rossellini originally shared the telegrams with writer and humorist Art Buchwald, who in February 1951 wrote an article for Look Magazine that mentioned thousands of such fan mail in the wake of her baby’s birth and said that she was still receiving as many as 30 letters a week.
“Miss Bergman has saved all the letters she received while she was pregnant and after the baby was born. She has tried to answer all the friendly ones and she retains enough of her sense of humor not to destroy the others,” Buchwald wrote. “These included threats on her life, prayers for her salvation, poems of praise, anti-Catholic and anti-Italian obscenities, penciled notes of sympathy and printed and unsigned scrawls of disgust.”
But Look magazine didn’t publish the nastiest of the bunch, and to see the telegrams in their full context more than 70 years removed suggests she may have put up with worse than anyone realized.
“When I first read the telegrams, the first thing I thought was, ‘Oh, nothing’s changed.’ I’ve been guilty in the past of believing that it must’ve been easier for stars in Old Hollywood days than today,” Alicia Malone, a film critic, historian and host on Turner Classic Movies, told TheWrap. “We’re starting to have an understanding of the kind of power dynamics that happen with women in society and the way that we can put them up on a pedestal and expect them to be perfect and drag them down gleefully if they fall from grace.”
Ingrid Bergman was introduced to American audiences from Sweden in 1939 for an English-language remake of the film “Intermezzo,” and from there she would become one of the decade’s biggest box office draws. But by the end of the ‘40s, she grew tired of Hollywood movies and studio filmmaking and wrote to Rossellini to star in what would become “Stromboli” in 1950. The film is about a displaced Lithuanian in post-war Italy who agrees to marry an Italian ex-POW and live with him on an exotic, volcanic island. But the film in some ways mirrors the reality of her scandal when she’s shunned and treated with hostility by the island’s more conservative residents who see her as a foreigner and a loose woman.
“Dear Mr Rossellini, I saw your films ‘[Rome,] Open City’ and ‘Paisà’ and enjoyed them very much,” she wrote. “If you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well, who has not forgotten her German, who is not very understandable in French, and in Italian knows only ‘ti amo,’ I am ready to come and make a film with you.”
That note would kick off a five-year professional and romantic relationship between Bergman and Rossellini, an unusual pairing between a trained movie star and a neorealist auteur used to working with nonprofessional actors. And the scandal that erupted over their affair would keep her away from Hollywood and from any sort of success at the box office. Religious groups across the country would call on theater owners to ban “Stromboli” from their screens, with Bergman giving birth just days before the movie was meant to open. And it bombed hard, costing RKO an estimated $200,000.
Through it all, Bergman remained mostly hidden away from the public eye, with the New York Times writing on Feb. 3 that she “remained almost constantly in her apartment for the last two months to avoid publicity” ahead of her baby’s birth. As a result, the public began reading into the details of Bergman’s initial note to Rossellini – particularly that “ti amo,” Italian words she only knew because she said them at the end of “The Bells of St. Mary’s” — placing the blame of the affair squarely on her shoulders and saying that they would never let their children watch the work of an actress who “done the things you did.”
“You gave Rossellini the cue to wrong you,” one telegram read. “You played a bitter part Ingrid when you actually lived the ‘Stromboli’ role and bore a bambino.”
“I would not give up my Swedish ancestry or American citizenship for any old Italian,” another read. “You can’t be very intelligent to give up all you had for that.”
Some telegrams speculated that Bergman’s newborn was not Rossellini’s but still that of her husband, Dr. Petter Lindstrom. One surmised that maybe she and Rossellini “defiled the home” of Lindstrom right underneath his nose. And others gave undue credit to Lindstrom and his character without regard for Bergman’s side of the story.
Malone said the reaction is understandable for the era. “People seem to put a lot of blame on her as though she had actively gone to Italy to cheat on her husband and have a child out of wedlock. And the nature of time when this happened, post-war and early 1950s, there was very much a push for women to become housewives and mothers and they should be satisfied with that,” she explained. “She didn’t understand why the public was so interested in her private life. She saw herself as just being an actress, people should enjoy her performances or not enjoy her performances and save their criticisms for her work rather than what she was doing in her own life. So she stayed away from Hollywood because she didn’t want to go back to face that kind of criticism. She wasn’t sorry at all.”
Though Bergman had portrayed a prostitute in 1941’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” or a villain in 1945’s “Saratoga Trunk,” she was most associated with her saintly, pure parts in films like “Casablanca,” “The Bells of St. Mary’s” and “Joan of Arc.” So when the Rossellini scandal broke, the public felt “betrayed,” and it shows in the telegrams. “So many people, who knew me only on the screen, thought I was perfect and infallible and then were angry and disappointed that I wasn’t,” she later said. “A nun does not fall in love with an Italian.”
“You continuously let people write articles in magazine about how your husband and child came first. How you adored them, how ideal your marriage was, it was one that would last,” one note read. “All your publicity was written to lead fans to think of you as saintly, virtuous woman, wife and mother. Then your pictures, you had the affrontery [sic] to play sweet-faced nuns, Joan of Arc and other roles that made all the fans say ‘She is to be looked up to, kept on a pedestal.’”
Malone explained that part of Bergman’s appeal as a star came from the fact that she didn’t change herself for Hollywood’s standards. She didn’t have the glamour or sex appeal of a Rita Hayworth and refused to change her hair, face or appearance just for the public.
“All that added up to an image of her being quite natural and real and a mother with a child, a devoted woman, and that’s something that happens with women, especially at that time, she needed to be a wife and a devoted mother,” Malone said. “She always felt that acting was the most fulfilling thing in her life, and she wasn’t satisfied with just being a mother and a wife. I think that definitely rubs a lot of people the wrong way. And she was so public about it. She didn’t hide her affair, she didn’t hide her child, and she wasn’t apologetic. I think that played into the rage around her. I think people want women, when they do something wrong, to be very sorry for it.”
Love and Hate
Many of the telegrams flaunt an anti-immigrant prejudice toward the Swedish Bergman and the Italian Rossellini, saying that “we don’t want you here,” that she would not be allowed in the U.S. or that she was deserving of “banishment from your home, foster country and career.” One labeled Rossellini with the Italian pejorative “Dago” while another referred to the director as “Mossolini the spaghetti eater.”
Others slammed Bergman’s Roman Catholic faith as she sought a divorce through the church, with one signed by a “true Protestant” who said she would be ostracized by Sweden if she gave up the church. “Do you know the Catholics strung up the Protestants in the trees like so many apples and burned the Protestants by the thousands at the stake,” they wrote.
And some of the hate mail was simply nonsensical and crude, including telling Bergman to “get rid of Rausoline, the lousie lover” and another that wanted her to know “you stink a mile a minute.”
But for every negative message, Bergman also received many that were supportive, caring and thoughtful. She got telegrams from a reverend in a seminary, from a woman who described herself as an “invalid suffering from heart trouble” and from a man who wrote to her the day before he underwent brain surgery, “the outcome of which is doubtful.” Another wrote from Chile (requesting a signed photo). One enclosed a “medal” showing her support. And one college student wrote a brief note at the expense of missing “my first class.”
Fans said that they were astonished to learn how many people “believed themselves authorized to meddle with your private life” and that no one has the right to condemn Bergman as a “sinner.” Another woman chimed in to say that all the groups up in arms against Bergman were likely hypocritical “fat dowagers” whose own husbands have been cheating on them for years.
“You are a warm, intelligent, up-righteous, normally passionate woman, incapable of lies, deceit or duplicity,” another wrote. “If the women of today were half the woman you are, this world would be overflowing with lovely, normal, upstanding women.”
For months, Bergman was the target of Senator Edwin C. Johnson, a Colorado Democrat who accused Bergman of an assault on marriage and said that she was a “powerful influence for evil.” But she did have some supporters in Congress, including a trio of representatives who let her know that “in the midst of all the turmoil” she still had admirers. James Agee, “The African Queen” screenwriter and Pulitzer Prize winner, also said he was among the many friends who have “thorough sympathy” for the actress.
“It’s a cruel, embittering ordeal you’ve had to go through publicly, and you may well not realize how very many people, total strangers to you, there must be who wish you well and wish you could know they do,” Agee wrote to Bergman on Feb. 3. “I know plenty of journalists, in sympathy with both of you, who cannot say so as part of their work.”
Bergman would eventually return to Hollywood in 1959, but her career was never the same as it was in her 1940s heyday. Years later, Bergman would still be asked about her affair in talk show appearances and even faced backlash as she tried to return to Sweden for other roles. In 1957, she reunited with her eldest daughter, Pia Lindstrom, in Rome. After having twin daughters with Rossellini, including actress Isabella Rossellini, she and the director would later divorce, and Bergman would remarry again.
She agreed to star in “Anastasia” (1956), a performance that director Anatole Litvak felt could only be played by Bergman — and she won her second Best Actress Oscar for the role. She did not attend the Academy Awards that evening, but in accepting on her behalf, her close friend Cary Grant offered assurance that at least among her peers, all was forgiven. “Dear Ingrid, if you can hear me now or if you see this televised film, I want you to know that…everyone of us here tonight send you our love, our admiration, our congratulations and every affectionate thought,” he said.