Once, a long time ago, I encountered Ingrid Pitt down a dark alleyway. It was a most surreal experience and one I recount regularly in games of “famous people I’ve met” with friends. Some people don’t know who I’m talking about, while others go all reverent and misty-eyed (many of these people are men of a certain age), but the encounter left me with an indelible fondness for this actress and writer, so I was delighted to come across her autobiography.
Known mostly for her roles as vampires in several Hammer Horror films, Ingrid became a cult figure in the 1970s. Her striking looks and exotic accent made her stand out in an era of starlets, and indeed as her autobiography attests, she was far more than just a blonde bombshell. Born in 1937 in Poland, her father was a scientist who defied the Nazi war machine, and as a consequence Ingrid’s family were imprisoned in a concentration camp. Ingrid’s recollections of these early years are absolutely horrific, yet told with a matter-of-fact air that very effectively communicates the trauma these experiences had on a small child. Her mother bravely battled to keep Ingrid alive, and was clearly an incredible woman of great strength and determination. Their story fortunately had a happier outcome than most, as they survived the camp and were eventually reunited with Ingrid’s father.
As a teenager living in Berlin Ingrid was determined to become an actress, and had many misadventures with the communist regime in her efforts to do so. Eventually escaping Germany through her marriage to an American GI, she gave birth to a daughter, but when her husband left to go to war in Vietnam, Ingrid went travelling in the hopes of fulfilling her dream. More crazy adventures ensued as she lived mostly on her wits, with no money and a baby in tow, but she made her dream come true, starring alongside A-listers such as Clint Eastwood, John Mills, and Richard Burton. Her second marriage to an industry fixer, was one of convenience but backfired disastrously and she was effectively outcast, fleeing with her lover Tonio (later to become her third husband) to South America. But she fought back again to resurrect her career, becoming a writer as well as an actress.
Ingrid’s story is one worthy of a film in itself. It is a tragic yet funny tale, of a life full of bizarre occurrences, bite and resilience. She took the horror of the Holocaust and embraced the horror of gothic stories to counteract it; she lived a nomad’s life, refusing to be imprisoned by anyone. She comes across as a fighter, a risk-taker, and someone who knows the fundamental value of life and the importance of living it to the full. Her recollections on the movie industry are hilarious (such as a her spat with Elizabeth Taylor) and shocking (being assaulted by Orson Welles) and shine a very honest light on the misogyny of the time and culture. Ingrid has a distinct voice – not only in terms of her legendary accent, but in her casual, up-front way of speaking. I could imagine, reading her book, that she was sat right next to me on the sofa, telling me her tales with a glass of wine in one hand. She flits from one anecdote to another, mixing humour with righteous anger, and taking no sh*t from anyone. Ultimately her life story has inspired me – this little girl who witnessed so much atrocity, who survived, who stood tall, and fought back, really is an icon, and her name deserves to far more widely known. I feel honoured to have met her, however briefly. Rating: ****
Ingrid passed away in 2010, but her work continues. Several of her fictional works are due to be published, and a short animated film of her childhood experiences has been created.
Life’s a Scream: Heinemann, 1999, ISBN 9780434007622 (An expanded and updated version is available, published by Midnight Marquee Press, 2008, ISBN 9781887664547)