Porfirio Rubirosa was a man among men. A suave, roguish gentleman with an international reputation as a playboy, he kept company with the most powerful, influential and famous people of the 1930s, '40s and '50s. He was known for his powers of charm and seduction, which he used to bed beautiful women and befriend an elite jetset-Frank Sinatra, Joe Kennedy, Egypt's King Farouk. Even in death, largely forgotten by most of the world, Rubirosa still possesses the charismatic allure that made him a celebrity. Three decades after his death, Rubi-as he came to be known-caught the attention of one writer. Shawn Levy, like many others, has fallen victim to Rubi's spell.
Levy's most recent book, The Last Playboy: The High Life of Porfirio Rubirosa, chronicles the colorful life of Rubi, renowned in his day for his lavish exploits, not to mention his large penis. While researching his first book, 1997's King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis, Levy-best known locally as the lead film critic for The Oregonian-stumbled across four words strung together that caught his attention: "Dominican playboy Porfirio Rubirosa." The same phrase popped up while researching his 1999 book, Rat Pack Confidential. "I had no idea who he was other than that his name sounded like a samba riff," explains Levy.
In 1997, Levy first delved into the identity of "Dominican playboy Porfirio Rubirosa." What he discovered was the captivating, larger-than-life story of a man famous for being famous. "He became famous just as the era of audacious-celebrity-for-its-own-sake was blooming," writes Levy. "And the genius of it was that the reason for his celebrity, even if it were known, couldn't actually be spoken of-not firsthand, not out loud."
Part of Rubirosa's fame, as Levy explains, was attributed to the Dominican playboy's legendary penis-a reportedly massive member once described as looking like "Yul Brynner in a turtleneck." But aside from his genetic endowments, Rubi was known as a polo player, race-car driver, jewel thief and gigolo. He was the real-life version of the characters Cary Grant played in Alfred Hitchcock movies like Suspicion and To Catch a Thief. "Even with three other book proposals and a whole book in the intervening years, I hadn't lost the yen to tell this story," says Levy, who loves to spin a good yarn. "It's right up my street: power, slickness, villainy, sauce, heat, irony and a gallery of flashy, grotesque characters. And in the middle, a cipher: perfect."
Rubi, who was an on-again, off-again diplomat for the Dominican Republic and was closely tied to notorious dictator Rafael Trujillo, lived the sort of life that makes for the best fiction. And Levy, to his credit, understands the importance of making sure that the recounting of Rubi's exploits is as colorful and captivating as the man himself.
"Gumption and pluck and guts and fortune he had in surfeit, but his chief employment, the thing that ate his time, was creating out of whole cloth the image of himself," writes Levy. "He would become 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."
The Last Playboy, which hit bookstore shelves last month, has been receiving positive reviews in publications like The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly, which called the biography "both a fitting elegy for a forgotten boldfaced name and a thoughtful study of mid-20th-century Pan-American politics." Actor-filmmaker John Malkovich has optioned the book with the hope of turning Rubirosa's life into a film-the perfect vehicle for an actor like Javier Bardem, whose cinematic charm and good looks would embody the Dominican playboy.
As a critic and an author, Levy exists in two worlds, giving him an insight that better serves both of his identities. His scathing film reviews can be notoriously brutal, but coming from someone who engages in the creative process itself, Levy's criticism has a sense of authority that comes from the trenches. At the same time, he knows what "it's like to be hit on the chin by a review"-an understanding that keeps him grounded creatively. He knows what it is like to have his time wasted by self-indulgent or inept artists with little regard for anything beyond their own egos and personal gratification. "I should always be writing as if the reader's opinion of my words means something," he says.
Visit Levy's blog at www.oregonlive.com/weblogs/madaboutmovies