Germaine Hélène Irène Lefebvre was born in Saint-Raphaël, Var, France on January 6, 1928 to a middle-class family. As a teenager, she studied languages at the famous Beaux-Arts in Paris, but after the war in Europe ended, she was pressured by her family to get a job as a teacher. Instead, she went to work in a bank, but it didn't last long. A tall, strikingly beautiful woman with grey-blue eyes, (director George Cukor once said, "The camera has a love affair with her face,") she was discovered by a photographer while riding in an open carriage in Paris when she was 17. Soon after, she became a fashion model for Christian Dior and Givenchy. Around this time, she changed her name to a single word - Capucine, which is the French name for the nasturtium flower. She later told a reporter, "I hated Germaine and changed it when I became a model. Somehow the name just stuck - and here I am." She also became friends with another model and dancer named Audrey Hepburn, and the two were roommates for a time. Their friendship would last for the rest of Capucine's life.
Modeling led to film offers and Capucine made her cinema debut in the 1949 film Rendez-vous de Juillet, where she met actor Pierre Trabaud. The two were later married in 1950, but the marriage only lasted a year. Capucine would never remarry, although she would be linked with several famous men, including the film producer Charles K. Feldman. One day in the 1950s, Capucine decided she was bored and hopped on a transatlantic plane on the spur of the moment. "My modeling jobs took me around the world and gave me a great urge to travel. So I came to New York." Once there, she immediately got modeling work and met Feldman. The two began an affair and Feldman took her to Hollywood to study acting under Russian actor-producer Gregory Ratoff and to improve her English.
After studying for two years, Capucine was signed by Columbia, beating out 100 other contenders for the co-starring role opposite Dirk Bogarde in Song Without End (1960). She received the news from producer William Goetz on April Fool's Day. "All I could say was: 'Ha, ha. What a lousy April Fool's joke.'" Goetz had chosen Capucine for her looks, later describing his discovery as being a natural, "You can teach a girl to act but nobody can teach her how to look like a princess. You've got to start with a girl who looks like a princess - now that Grace Kelly no longer is with us."
The acting lessons with Ratoff paid off. Although Capucine found acting in a foreign language a challenge, she became more confident during shooting. "I was very cold in the beginning, but I warmed up as the picture progressed. That's the way we shot it. I was more than a little tense. [...] I got much better as we went on." For her Hollywood debut, Capucine received a Golden Globe nomination as Franz Liszt's lover, the Russian Princess Carolyne Wittgenstein.
She was next cast as a prostitute who falls in love with John Wayne in North to Alaska (1960), but it was not a pleasant experience. Her lover, agent-producer Charles Feldman had given Capucine the role in his attempt to make her a big star, but Richard Fleischer, who had been Feldman and Wayne's first choice for director (he was later replaced with Henry Hathaway), thought her miscast. "Her English, like her experience, was minimal. [...] Although she was beautiful, there was no spark of personality to back it up. I wondered how this bland, rather shy beauty was going to portray a spirited prostitute in an Alaskan whorehouse opposite John Wayne." Stewart Granger, who co-starred in the film agreed with Fleischer's assessment, "I hate to bad-mouth a lady. Capucine was not very good - let's just leave it at that."
To be fair, Capucine was unhappy with the part, saying, "I knew my role was window dressing. It was not a splendid role." She was also unhappy about working with John Wayne and complained about his ego. "It was a John Wayne picture. He knew it, and he expected everyone else to know it." She was also surprised that he wore a toupee and lifts in his shoes to make him taller than his already impressive 6'4." Despite the unpleasant experience, North to Alaska was a box office hit.
Her next Hollywood film, The Lion (1962), costarred Capucine with William Holden, who immediately fell in love with her. Holden called her "the most beautiful woman in the world," and the two began a long affair. Holden was still married to actress Brenda Marshall and a good friend of Charlie Feldman. The affair made him feel tremendous guilt, which affected his health. After Capucine appeared as a prostitute pursued by both Barbara Stanwyck and Laurence Harvey in Walk on the Wild Side (1962), she moved to Switzerland, where Holden would follow her.
The Pink Panther (1963) was intended to be the first of a film series for David Niven, with the British actor playing Sir Charles Litton, a gentleman jewel thief. However, it was Peter Sellers, as the bumbling French detective Jacques Clouseau, who stole the film and the series from Niven. The Pink Panther was directed by Blake Edwards and shot in Europe, with Sellers, Niven, Robert Wagner and Ava Gardner in the original cast, but when Gardner made too many demands for perks like her own chauffeur, make-up man and a private villa during filming, she was replaced. Janet Leigh was offered the role, but she had just remarried and wasn't immediately available for work. Instead, Capucine, who was now living full-time in Switzerland, played the beautiful Madame Clouseau.
Another film with Holden, The 7th Dawn (1964) followed and the couple broke up afterwards, although they remained good friends. When Holden died in 1981, he left Capucine $50,000 in his will. Capucine remained in Europe, where she made films of varying quality, including a reteaming with Peter Sellers in What's New Pussycat? (1965), playing a character named "Miss Lefebvre," her real name. Her last film of note in the '60s was Fellini's Satyricon (1969). After that, Capucine made few American films, concentrating on European productions throughout the '70s.
Pink Panther co-star Robert Wagner was able to get her a guest star appearance on his television show Hart to Hart, which co-starred Stefanie Powers. Powers had also been involved in a long romantic relationship with William Holden. Instead of being jealous of each other, Powers and Capucine became friends. Powers wrote in her autobiography, "Cappy and I had loved the same man, at very different times and under very different circumstances, but it never got in the way of our enjoying each other as friends."
The same year that Capucine worked with Wagner, she also returned to the Pink Panther franchise with two films, Trail of the Pink Panther (1982), in which she returned to her role of the former Mrs. Clouseau, now married to David Niven's character, Sir Charles Litton, and Curse of the Pink Panther (1983) with Robert Wagner. Following this, she appeared on Murder, She Wrote and a few TV mini-series before returning to Europe.
Capucine had long suffered from manic-depression and, over the years, had made several attempts at suicide. By 1990, her career had been reduced to sporadic work and she was living alone in her penthouse apartment in Lausanne, Switzerland. On March 17, 1990, Capucine, who was described by the police as ill and depressed, leapt to her death from her eighth-story home. Her only known survivors were her three cats. Ironically, it would be Audrey Hepburn, another of William Holden's ex-lovers and a good friend of Capucine, who telephoned Stefanie Powers to tell her of Capucine's death. Powers later wrote, "Cappy harbored hidden emotional demons. She fought the best she could until, in the end, she was overwhelmed by a feeling of life's futility."
by Lorraine LoBianco
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