It is said that beauty is a gift bestowed only upon the truly blessed. For Marisa Mell, this initial blessing eventually turned out to be a bitter curse. She was a dazzling sex symbol and a style icon in the swingin’ 1960s, but her career later dissolved into poverty and tragedy.
She was born on February 24, 1939 in Graz, Austria as Marlies Theres Moitzi; later changing her name to one that was easier for non-German speakers to pronounce. Marisa was stunningly statuesque at 5’8″ tall and had a perfect body to match. Her face was structured like some ethereal Roman goddess; with mesmerizing green eyes, prominent cheekbones and a defined square bone structure. There are many gorgeous women out there, but Marisa was special. She just naturally had that It quality and hypnotic screen presence. It was obvious that she would be a star, and the Queen of B- Movies.
Rise to Fame
Marisa’s father abandoned their family when she was young, and she was smothered by her mother’s attentions. They resided in a housing complex inside the school grounds where her mother worked. Marisa appeared in her first film in 1954, at the age of 15. She was educated at a nunnery, and briefly attended a school of commerce in Graz. From 1958 to 1963, she was married to an Italo-Swiss man named Henry Tucci, but there is zero information on what type of person he was or what their marriage was like.
As a child, Marisa idolized Greta Garbo. After seeing Garbo’s 1936 film Camille, Marisa decided she too wanted to become an actress. She admired Dorothy Dandridge and found her beautiful, and had a crush on German actor Curd Jürgens. Some of Marisa’s hobbies were painting and studying archaeology. Her childhood was described as lonely. She often wore black, and girls admired her beauty from afar. Marisa was never seen without a man on her arm because she hated being alone.
Soon enough, Marisa went to Vienna and attended the Max Reinhardt drama school for four years to learn how to become a stage actor. The first time her lifelong friend Erika Pluhar saw her, she thought “I’ve never seen such a beautiful girl. In the movies maybe, but never so close and real… I envied her haughty untouchability, this insurmountable aura of beauty. ” Eventually, Marisa was offered more film roles.
She played in a ton of mostly forgotten West German movies that no one has seen (including Edgar Wallace Krimi pictures), and was then cast in legendary British director Ken Russell’s trashy 1964 comedy flick French Dressing. Russell (a talented director when not harassed by penny-pinching producers) knew that his first feature film was garbage, and later described the production as “a very unhappy film as far as I was concerned.”
Regardless, the film got Marisa noticed outside of Austria. She was the new Germanic Brigitte Bardot. When she was invited to the 1963 Buenos Aires film festival, she tried to seduce Psycho star Anthony Perkins. Unfortunately for her, Anthony was gay and more attracted to Julian Mateos, her Spanish arm candy. She was living the good life. But due to a freak accident, her success was almost prematurely botched.
Calamities and Bad Luck
In 1963, Marisa suffered a horrible car accident while shooting in France. Comatose for six hours, she almost lost her right eye in the horrific collision, and required extensive surgery for two years to repair her damaged lip. Due to good surgical work, the effects were almost un-noticeable. She was said to have a curled upper lip after the accident, which somehow made her look even more beautiful. Marisa believed she survived because “God was on my side.”
After recovering, she returned to acting, moved to Italy and became a well known B-movie starlet. While filming the 1964 western The Last Ride to Santa Cruz on Spain’s Gran Canaria island, an athletic Marisa fell off her horse and suffered an intense nosebleed. She was rescued by a male passerby who immediately fell for her.
Marisa enjoyed the sunny climate and chic jet-set lifestyle of Rome over the austerity and gray cold of Austria. Her highest profile production at the time was Mario Monicelli’s light-hearted 1965 comedy Casanova ’70. She starred alongside Marcello Mastroianni, Virna Lisi and Michèle Mercier. She also played in the 1966 thriller Secret Agent Super Dragon, a lame James Bond knockoff that has the dubious honor of being featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and having a 2.3 rating on IMDB.
That year, Marisa was chosen to star as famed WWI spy Mata Hari in a lavish $800,000 Broadway musical adaptation, directed by Hollywood icon Vincente Minnelli. She was spotted by his wife Denise, through her photoshoots in magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.
After a disastrously embarrassing 1967 preview in Washington, the entire production was sacked. Lady Bird Johnson was in attendance that evening, and had sponsored the performance. Only later did the Minnellis realize that Marisa could not sing, and neither could she speak English. She had spoken to Denise only in Italian, and she was said to have gotten the role after having a lesbian affair with her.
Critic Ken Mandelbaum wrote that “the show ran well past midnight, scenery collapsed and the virtually nude Mell was accidentally spotlighted during a costume change.” Theater programmer Max Woodward, who witnessed the performance, stated that “at the end, she’s tied to a pole. And then after they shoot her, she reaches up and scratches her nose.”
Yikes. The debacle effectively ended Marisa’s chances at a Hollywood career, and she fled back to Italy to escape the backlash. She claimed that she didn’t want to become the property of any Hollywood studio anyways, because their restrictive “contract was a whole book. I think that even to go to the toilet I would have needed a permission.” Previously, in 1964, she had refused a lucrative seven year Hollywood contract.
Regardless, the failure stayed in Marisa’s heart forever. Whenever Europeans asked her about her time on Broadway, Marisa would lie that Mata Hari was a great hit in order to save face.
Success in Italy
In 1968, Marisa starred in what is arguably her best known film: Mario Bava’s campy action-crime extravaganza, Danger, Diabolik. Based on the Italian comic book series (fumetti), the film was Italy’s flashy and psychedelic answer to Batman, and featured a hip soundtrack by Ennio Morricone.
Marisa was cast as Eva Kant, the sexy and stylish girlfriend of the Italian criminal mastermind Diabolik; played by handsome and chiseled American film star John Phillip Law. Together, the two made a formidably attractive onscreen couple, and had electric chemistry that kindled a brief love affair offscreen.
The Eva Kant character was supposed to be blonde, so Marisa donned a very high-quality wig to play the role. Unlike the Eva of the fumetti, who dressed more conservatively and wore her hair in an up do; Marisa’s adaptation of the character called for more slutty and revealing outfits and long, flowing, golden hair. The film was an instant hit and a cult classic, and so was Marisa.
Initially, Catherine Deneuve was cast, but she was fired after a week of filming. Mario Bava lamented how she was too much of an “ice princess” and not sexy and uninhibited enough to play the role of Eva Kant. John Phillip Law said that she was nice, but they had no sexual chemistry.
Ironically, Catherine refused to perform the famous scene where she and Diabolik make love on ten million dollars of cash; but later starred in the explicit 1967 Luis Buñuel film Belle de Jour. It was of no matter, as Bava would find a new actress. His initial choice was Italian actress Marilù Tolo (fashion designer Valentino called her the love of his life), but producer Dino De Laurentiis liked Marisa much more. And so, the rest was history.
John Philip Law said that when he and Bava saw Marisa, “we knew everything was going to work out. We fell into each other’s arms on the first day, and had a really great relationship on — and off-screen, after a while.” The photogenic pair shacked up together, and even adopted a stray black kitten found on a beach in Anzio whom they named Diabolik.
The flame was fickle, and their affair ended after shooting wrapped. John was a notorious playboy, and Marisa wasn’t short of lovers herself. Fun fact: Diabolik the cat eventually became the property of Jane Fonda, and she took him back to Paris with her after she co-starred with John in the 1968 sci-fi cult classic Barbarella.
Marisa’s next film was 1968’s Anyone Can Play, a romantic comedy in which she co-starred with Virna Lisi, Ursula Andress and Claudine Auger (the latter two were famous Bond girls). Despite the cast of classic beauties, the film was a flop and faded into oblivion.
With 1969 came Marisa’s second most famous film; a giallo by infamous horror gore-exploitation director Lucio Fulci called Una Sull’altra (One on Top of the Other). While Fulci’s later films were mostly bloody and disturbing, this one was tame and restrained in comparison, and extremely well made. The film also has an outstanding jazz soundtrack by Riz Ortolani.
In this giallo classic, Marisa stars in a suspenseful double role, and again dons a glam blonde wig to play her character. It is very reminiscent of the 1958 Hitchcock film Vertigo, and explores the nature of infidelity, lascivious sexuality, morality, fate and mistaken identity.
In some countries, the film was released under the skeevy title Perversion Story. Her co-star was dashing French actor Jean Sorel, and the pair had fantastic chemistry onscreen. While he does not appear on Marisa’s long list of lovers, I bet my life that they smashed irl.
Dating a Bad Boy
In 1969, Marisa also suffered a miscarriage. The child had belonged to her boyfriend, an Italian nightclub owner, drug dealer, mobster and producer with aristocratic roots named Pier Luigi Torri. He was like the real life Diabolik, except uglier. Marisa and Pier Luigi dated on and off for six years from 1965 onwards, and he was her longest boyfriend.
Through Pier Luigi, Marisa accessed a world of wealth, parties, drugs, glamour, power, intrigue and excitement. He was a jet-set member of Roman high society, and an eligible bachelor whom many gold-diggers wanted to nab. He occasionally produced films; many of them being softcore pornos.
He could often be seen driving his Ferraris and Rolls-Royces around Monte Carlo casino, and gambled away millions of lira at a time. He owned several villas and beachfront properties, as well as one of the most luxurious yachts in the world. When Prince Rainier of Monaco propositioned Pier Luigi for his yacht, he turned the Prince down. From then onwards, Rainier had a flaming hatred of him.
It is presumed that Marisa met Pier Luigi through her friendship/fling with fellow Austrian actor Helmut Berger. Berger himself was having a gay love affair with director and nobleman Luchino Visconti, who was a permanent fixture in the Roman aristocracy. To be anybody in Italy, you had to navigate the complex social web of who’s who.
Pier Luigi, his producer friend Bino Cicogna and a man named Vassallo all co-owned Number One nightclub, the hottest place to be in Rome. Cocaine circulated freely among the clientele, some of whom came from the most prestigious families in Rome; as well as entertainment industry and political names.
In December of 1971, Bino was found dead in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He had supposedly committed suicide by placing a plastic bag over his head and sticking it in a gas oven, due to his despair over pending criminal charges and an addictive cocaine habit. But Pier Luigi suspected foul play.
Soon after, Number One nightclub was raided by cops and busted for cocaine. There is no doubt that Marisa used coke as well, but who didn’t at the time? As the cops began to close in on Pier Luigi, Roman tabloids went wild trying to link Marisa to the scandal.
In 1971, he fled Italy on his yacht to avoid the criminal charges pending against him. He escaped to Monaco, but bitter Prince Rainier ratted him out. After an arraignment in Nice, France, he was allowed to leave. Pier Luigi then escaped further to London. It is thought that his and Marisa’s relationship cut off around this point.
She stood by him however, until he was arrested once more in London for a $300 million dollar scam. Pier Luigi then ingeniously escaped Scotland Yard by crawling outside through a bathroom ventilation shaft, and then scaling the rooftops to safety.
He vanished for 18 months, but was re-arrested in New York 18 months later. Though he was extradited back to Italy and sentenced to seven years in prison, he never served any time. Pier Luigi went on to marry a different woman, had two children, and died in 2011 at the age of 85.
Where does this wild crime drama leave Marisa? The relationship took a major toll on her. Pier Luigi had a violent and abusive temper and often beat her. That could possibly be why she had a miscarriage in 1969. Regardless, she wanted to marry him and settle down. But that never occurred because he was too busy being an international criminal. The fiasco also murdered her reputation.
Thotting Around Europe
Still, Marisa did not learn her lesson and continued to date or have one night stands with many sleazy fellow actors. Her list of lovers is long and varied, and includes Alain Delon, Warren Beatty, Helmut Berger, Stephen Boyd, Robert Evans, Michel Piccoli, John Phillip Law, Roman Polanski, and even the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. And these are just the ones worth noting.
Her love affair with Alain Delon seemed to have been mostly one-sided. In her 1990 autobiography Coverlove, Marisa discusses the hook-up in gratuitous detail. Delon, however, never even mentioned Marisa in his own book. The two met in 1962 on a plane to Yugoslavia. She was immediately attracted to Delon, and described him as “passionate and animalistic” in the sack.
Unfortunately, Delon was a massive lothario (read: manwhore), and Marisa turned out to be just another notch on his list. But hey, this was the guy who broke Romy Schneider’s heart. Hilariously, Marisa claims to have had sex with Delon leading up to the press conference announcing his engagement to Francine Canovas (later known as Nathalie Delon), and after it!
Seduced and Abandoned
In 1971, Marisa met Stephen Boyd, the man who was perhaps the love of her life. Stephen was a handsome Irish rogue best know for his iconic role in the 1959 sword and sandal epic Ben-Hur. He was eight years older than Marisa, and had already broken a lot of women’s hearts.
She gave a detailed account of their passionate romance in her book, and described it as “so difficult, strange, beautiful and sad that I can hardly bear to think of it.” The pair first met on the set of the 1971 psychological thriller Marta. Marisa described the meeting as electric, and claimed upon first glance she realized that he was “the man of my life.”
Stephen, however, did not feel the same way and ignored all of Marisa’s advances, much to her chagrin. Even though the film had many sex scenes, she could not get Stephen to react. Marisa said the experience was “torture. I spent eight weeks showing him only my best side – sweet, cute, seductive, open, mysterious – everything! It was no use.“
Stephen resisted Marisa all the way through the filming of Marta with a will of iron. She was pissed, and never wanted to see him ever again. After all, which man in his right mind could resist Marisa Mell? Six months later, the pair returned to Madrid to shoot another film called The Great Swindle.
Marisa gave up her attempts to seduce Stephen. This time, it was his turn to try and put the moves on her. He began courting Marisa, and sent her roses and asked her out. She couldn’t resist, and jumped at the chance to go on a date with Stephen at a flamenco bar.
His glances made her “weak in the knees,” and she said that he “looked like a god.” After the date, they spent the night at Stephen’s place. It was clearly a satisfying lay, since Marisa described him as “just so awesome in his passion, his tenderness and his masculinity that I completely lost my head.”
Stephen admitted that he had initially rejected Marisa because he was scared of getting involved with a “dangerous woman” like her, and that he had just gotten out of difficult love affair. And yet, he snapped and proposed marriage that very same night. They decided to have a Gypsy wedding, probably for the shock value of it.
The couple went to a Gypsy camp in the morning, and rode in horse-drawn carriages. Marisa wore a silk dress and Stephen wore a linen shirt, and the observers sang and danced flamenco by a fire. During their wedding ceremony, the pair took a blood oath. A priest cut their wrists with a dagger, and mingled their blood together to bond them as husband and wife.
Eventually, they realized that their relationship had become too obsessive, so the superstitious pair went for a ritual exorcism at the 10th century Cathedral of St. Vicinius in the Italian village of Sarsina. The couple apparently felt that they had been “possessed by an evil demon. Our demon was our passion.“ A Catholic priest blessed them and recited the exorcism rites.
Marisa didn’t care if people thought they were crazy, and remarked “sometimes love is like a deadly disease, sometimes it makes you feel that you are damned for all eternity. Trying to explain the reasons for this is impossible. There are things in our lives that are too high for our philosophy.”
Soon after the exorcism, Stephen fell ill and decided to end the relationship. He had a high fever, but doctors couldn’t tell what was wrong with him. They believed it was a psychosomatic disorder caused by their love affair. He told Marisa “I must leave you, for I know full well that one day you will go. I could not endure it.“ She cried and begged him to stay, but he left on a flight to Belfast and she never saw him again.
After Stephen’s death in 1977, she claimed that his spirit often spoke to her from beyond the grave. She explained that “we both believe in reincarnation, and we realized we’ve already been lovers in three different lifetimes, and in each one I made him suffer terribly… But sometimes I have the feeling that he is speaking to me – from another world.“
I like the supernatural/occult touch to their romance, but it most likely dissolved due to Stephen’s inability to commit to Marisa. He was a player who constantly bragged about being an individualistic bachelor, and was not yet ready to be tied down by marriage. Nevertheless, the year-long fling was quite intense while it lasted and Marisa never forgot him and the memory of their ephemeral love.
A Fading Star
It was obvious by now that Marisa had bad luck with men. Should she have just avoided these toxic romances and focused instead on building her career? She once proclaimed that “movies are my life, and my life is a movie.” But she was also dismissive of her profession, stating “I have a higher goal than making one stupid picture after another.” Whatever that goal was, it never materialized.
In 1972, she played a small role in Umberto Lenzi’s Seven Blood-Stained Orchids, a gory yet dull giallo that has since become a B-movie classic. While it was not exactly Lenzi’s finest work, the film has some gruesome death scenes that stand out. Marisa is murdered by a killer wielding an electric power drill in the movie’s bloodiest sequence.
By the late 1970s, Marisa’s career hit a steep decline. She continued to star in films until her death, but most of them were D-list movies that were way beneath her talent level. Although she was only in her 30s, she appeared ten years older than her actual age. This was most likely caused by excessive drug use and hard living.
In 1977, she starred in her last notable film: Beast with a Gun AKA Mad Dog Killer, a shockingly explosive crime thriller that bordered on exploitation due to its violent and sexual content. She starred alongside her former lover Helmut Berger; who gave a hilariously over the top yet masterful performance as a sick and depraved criminal on the loose. They were still close friends offscreen, and often partied together.
The film was based on the antics of Italian mafioso Renato Vallanzasca; a criminal so perverse he once decapitated an informer during a prison riot. The movie perfectly captures the maniacal spirit of its subject, and is fast-paced and action-packed with an awesome soundtrack by Umberto Smaila.
Beast with a Gun was classified as a “Video Nasty” in the U.K., and declared an obscene film that could be confiscated by police if it were to be re-released in theaters. Quentin Tarantino later lifted the soundtrack and used some clips of Marisa and Helmut in his supremely unoriginal 1997 movie Jackie Brown.
Sadly, more tragedy struck that year in 1977. Marisa became a mother-to-be once again at 38 years old. She was photographed by paparazzi in Rome while heavily pregnant, and was accompanied by her Afghan Hound Rocco and actor Gianni Macchia. She looked to be in the late stages of pregnancy, yet she was still smoking cigarettes. Strangely, Marisa believed that Rocco was in the incarnation of somebody she once knew and had telepathic powers.
On November 26, 1977, Marisa gave birth to a premature baby girl she named Louisa Erika, after her mother. Sadly, her baby died the very same day. Marisa was heartbroken, and never attempted to have a child again. Neither did she ever reveal the identity of the father. Louisa Erika was buried in Rome’s Camposanto Teutonico cemetery; a graveyard reserved only for those of German descent.
A Dismal Downfall
Marisa’s life was on a steady downhill course. In the 1980s, she was almost a nobody. She was in her 40s, and producers now considered her too old to be a lead actress. She struggled to find work, and became mired in poverty and depression. Marisa drank and used drugs, and appeared in porno mags to churn out an income.
She was never shy about showing her body for money, but these were not the glitzy and tasteful Angelo Frontoni Vogue photoshoots she had started off with early in her career. These pictures were more on the vulgar side, and she was ashamed that she had to resort to nudie mags to make an income. In 1986, a cynical Marisa reflected back on her life and looks, stating that “I was never proud of my beauty, I was rather bothered by it. It was a tragedy. Every man wanted me, but no man wanted to keep me.”
Despite all her attempts to do so, she never found true enduring love. The whole world had wanted her, but when she grew old she was cast aside. When she lost her looks, she lost everything. Yet she was confident in herself and refused to get plastic surgery; something which is very admirable and rare in this day and age.
She was forced to return back to Austria so she could receive some much-needed welfare money. Italian porn directors had offered her roles, but Marisa refused to take that dark road. Outside of nude modelling, she tried to make money in other ways but wasn’t too successful at it. She was still friends with Helmut Berger, and he would often ring her doorbell late at night which annoyed her.
Marisa did poetry readings, starred in low budget independent movies, sang (she was terrible at it), and made art. She painted and drew, but her exhibitions were not very popular. In Christmas of 1991, mere months before she died; Marisa was back in Vienna and so desperate for money that she took a job as the cook of Father Laun, a pastor from Kahlenbergerdorf. When she died penniless, this kind priest paid for Marisa’s grave.
At Death’s Door
A lifelong smoker, Marisa was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 1991. She received many different treatments including chemotherapy, but none eased her symptoms. Some female friends took her a on a trip to India to cheer her up, since she was fascinated by eastern spirituality. Marisa enjoyed herself immensely, and began wearing saris back in Austria. She also started worshipping the Indian saint Sai Baba.
Marisa was a superstitious woman, and used alternative medicine to try and cure her cancer. She enjoyed parapsychology, tarot readings, necromancy and fortune telling. She was also a classic Pisces, stating that “I believe in astrology but I don’t need it…It ruins your nerves if you take it daily.” Marisa continued to have flings with younger men like a cougar until her health prevented it.
On May 16, 1992, Marisa finally succumbed to throat cancer at the age of 53 and died alone at the Viennese Wilhelminenspital. Her funeral was attended only by a few close friends. None of her former film colleagues showed up, or the many people she once knew in Italy. In the end, she had nobody who was truly there for her. It was a sad ending to a once illustrious life.
Actress and friend Christine Kaufmann remembered Marisa as “a strong woman with who you could eat spaghetti with at home, but could also appear with at high end cocktail parties where she would wear fragile golden shoes because she had very beautiful small ankles with a stunning face.” Sounds ideal.
Though most people only cared about her looks, Marisa was an intelligent woman on the inside. She enjoyed the works of Rainer Maria Rilke, Jean de La Fontaine and Honoré de Balzac, and her favourite novel was Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. She read poems by the medieval German lyricist Walther von der Vogelweide, philosophy by the Chinese Taoist Lao-Tze, and of course, she was into Friedrich Nietzsche.
Her favourite artist was Modigliani, and her most-loved classical piece was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2. Marisa was also a great cook, had a sizeable record collection (she liked Edith Piaf and The Beatles), and loved vodka and Winston cigarettes. Her favourite films were Bergman’s The Silence and Truffaut’s Jules and Jim.
In an interview from the 1960s, Marisa dismissed her sexpot image and described herself as “a very good girl” who is “shy, sensitive, ambitious, intelligent and good-natured.” Her dream role was to play Anna Karenina. She had yearned to becoming a serious actress, but was more often chosen for “sexy” roles. In her school days, she had considered herself an existentialist and wanted to become a philosopher. And instead, she is now beloved by geeky cult and exploitation fans for her exciting and glamorous B-movie roles and knockout face and bod.
Marisa’s close pal Erika Pluhar gave a touching eulogy for her deceased friend:
“You died in poverty. But maybe a little richer, I think, than when you were paid large salaries. When your body was being exploited and you didn’t have the strength to resist and look for love instead of competing. Who is the most beautiful in the whole country, this eternally pernicious question ruined your life too.”
Beauty made Marisa into a pop culture icon, but it also destroyed her. The callous Roman film industry she had worked for and gave all her youth to had discarded her once they considered her to be too old. She was an attractive mature woman and still a fine actress, but she wasn’t given the chance to prove it in her later years.
Marisa Mell was a gorgeous, smart and multi-talented actress who also partied hard and had a self-destructive streak. She loved with passion and gave all of herself to her relationships and performances. Sadly, her acting career fizzled out and she died of the terrible cancer that ravaged her body; alone and forgotten in a Viennese hospital.
Audiences now remember Marisa for her vibrant onscreen presence and striking one-in-a-million looks. But we should also remember who she was outside of her films, and the way she suffered and struggled with quiet strength and dignity. Marisa Mell is a tragic B-Movie Queen for the ages; the Austrian princess of sleaze, charisma, and style, and there will never be anyone like her again.