THE LAST PLAYBOY
The High Life of Porfirio Rubirosa
By Shawn Levy
Fourth Estate. 356 pp. $24.95
It is a measure of how rapidly celebrity waxes and wanes that Porfirio Rubirosa, who was all over the gossip columns for about a quarter of a century, is now almost entirely forgotten. Married five times -- once to Doris Duke and once to Barbara Hutton, two of the richest and most famous women in the world -- and "known for his sexual prowess," he was celebrated as the ultimate "Latin Lover" from World War II until his death in 1965 at the age of 56, when he smashed his silver Ferrari convertible into a chestnut tree at the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.
It was the way to go, all right: alone, at high speed, in the city that symbolizes glamour, wealth and style. Rubirosa had all three in spades, though the wealth mostly was others', lavished upon him by women -- his most famous lover, Zsa Zsa Gabor, called him "a kept man" -- or others who found him amusing or useful, or both. Among the latter was Rafael Trujillo, the merciless dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rubirosa's native country, who against his better judgment permitted Rubirosa to marry his daughter, Flor, and then after their inevitable divorce kept him on the payroll in various assignments, because he "had come to rely . . . on Rubi's contacts, renown, and blend of palaver and charm as tools of diplomacy," as Shawn Levy puts it in The Last Playboy .
Whether these assignments included murder, or accessory to murder, is unclear, though he hung around with numerous unsavory types and was in the vicinity when some of Trujillo's more articulate opponents were rubbed out. Mainly, though, Rubirosa wanted to make love, not war, to play polo and race fast, expensive cars, to drink champagne and eat caviar and party into the night. "Your profession is being an entertainer," he once told Sammy Davis Jr., "mine is being a playboy." He was the ultimate of that breed, "the most singular sort of juggler: twirling the hoop of Trujillo with one ankle, tossing the batons of his many women in his hands, spinning an active sporting life on top of his head, always well liked, always noticed upon arrival, always impeccable in dress, speech, mien, and manners, a marvel, a star."
That is the judgment (and the prose style) of Shawn Levy, movie reviewer for the Portland Oregonian and author of Rubirosa's first full-dress biography, The Last Playboy . By his own admission, Levy "had no clue who Rubirosa was" when he encountered the name while researching earlier books on Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra, but this is scarcely surprising since Levy was born only four years before Rubirosa died. But in the decade since Levy first came across Rubirosa, he's learned plenty. Though Levy's prose leaves a lot to be desired -- he leans toward the cute, the arch, the melodramatic and the clichéd -- he's a bulldog researcher, and many of his judgments are astute. It's quite unlikely that The Last Playboy will restore Rubirosa to anything approximating the éclat he once enjoyed, but it's an entertaining, informative book about a man who, for all his shortcomings, really doesn't deserve to have fallen into one of history's many black holes.
Rubirosa was born in 1909 into a prominent if not unduly wealthy Dominican family. His father was a respected general and patriot whom his son admired but in almost no way emulated. Porfirio was born to play -- "Work?" he said once. "It's impossible for me to work. I just don't have the time" -- and he soon proved prodigiously skilled at it. He was a "nightclubber, cuckolder, kept man, gigolo, scene maker, skirt chaser," and he delighted in it. He seems to have been completely without shame or self-doubt. "I am, and will always be, a man of pleasure," he said, and he pursed pleasure endlessly and singlemindedly. In particular, he pursued women, who found him absolutely irresistible: "He picked up checks; he had courtly manners; he kept the party gay and lively; he was attentive to women but made men feel at ease; he was smoothly quick to rise from his chair when introduced, to open doors, to light a lady's cigarette . . . : the quintessential chivalrous gent of manners."
Into the bargain, he was supremely well endowed: "There is no way around saying it out loud: The man was well-hung, hung, indeed, legendarily, his superhuman endowment a calling card that recommended him to circles into which he might otherwise never have gained admittance. Women heard about it, wondered about it, whispered about it, had to see it . . . and who was he to deny them?" The rest of what Levy has to say about this matter probably shouldn't be quoted in a family newspaper; suffice it to say that Rubirosa knew how to get the job done and had the equipment to do it.
Obviously, this attribute had something to do with the legend that wrapped itself around him during his lifetime, but there was more to him than that. He was the veritable mold and glass of fashion, who possessed an "internationally recognized eye and sense of style." His attire, carefully chosen and worn with panache, ranged from the formal to the casual with artful blends of both. By the time he reached his mid-forties he "was still lean, firm, narrow-waisted." Of mixed racial ancestry, "with café au lait skin and hair described as somewhere between wavy and kinky," he "was careful with his skin," limiting his exposure to the sun because, it seems, he understood that dark skin might exclude him from the circles he favored. His hair "was impeccable: tastefully flecked with gray, immaculately groomed."
He was smart, fluent in five languages and an interesting conversationalist, and by the time he reached his maturity he possessed not inconsiderable diplomatic skills. At various times he was Trujillo's emissary to Rome, Brussels, Havana and many other capitals of varying degrees of importance, but he never really developed his intellectual powers. Though Levy does not inquire into the matter, he leaves one with the sense that there could have been a lot more to Rubirosa if he'd cared about more substantial things than pleasure, but he lived the life he chose, and however frivolous that life was, he lived it well.
The period of his peak celebrity, the 1950s, was also when the machinery of gossip and publicity as we now know it was being perfected. "Respectable" gossip magazines such as People and US had not yet come into being. The market was cornered by seedy publications such as Inside Story, Exposed, Uncensored and, most notoriously, Confidential; Rubirosa was rich fodder for all of them. They called him "ding dong daddy" and regularly reported on his marriages, his affairs, his liaisons. He hobnobbed, as the gossip writers put it, with the rich and famous and the powerful as well; he was occasionally in the company of John F. Kennedy, for example, until the White House figured out that his association with mob figures didn't exactly burnish the presidential image. Precisely how deep his mob connections ran is a mystery, but the nightspots he frequented often were owned and/or patronized by the Mafia, and in some eyes Rubi was Mafioso by association.
Among the other egregious types with whom he hung out were Juan and Eva Peron. He loved to play polo, and Argentina, then as now, was a major center of the sport. It was "widely suspected that he had more than just a traditional statesmanlike relationship" with Eva, to whom he once somewhat ostentatiously handed a check for $1,500 made out to one of her charities. A diplomat who was in attendance later said: "We'll be able to boast to our grandchildren that we assisted at an unprecedented event -- the only time in recorded history that a pimp ever gave money to a harlot."
From this vantage point that seems a trifle stern, to Rubi if not to Evita. There were times when he operated on the shady side of the law, but he wasn't really a crook, he was a supremely gifted mooch. He lived as well as he did mainly because very rich people were happy to hand him a lot of money in exchange for his company, whether in bed or at the dining table. It was their money to do with as they wished, and if they wished to hand it over to Rubi, more power to him. His life may have been frivolous, but it wasn't wasted. After all, at least in my own youth, which coincided with his period of greatest éclat, "Rubirosa" was a common synonym for "Casanova," and that is nothing to sniff at. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.