Remember restaurants back in the early 1990s when just as you picked up your fork to tuck into that seared Ahi tuna, the waiter would approach wielding a giant pepper grinder? “Would you like some fresh pepper?” he would ask, barging in on your hedonistic revelry.
Those out-sized pepper mills were not invented in 1990, in fact they were a feature of Parisian bistrôts in the 1950s and probably earlier. But in Paris no waiter worth his er … salt would interrupt the sensual communion between diner and plate. If you wanted some pepper you could ask for it. “Excusez-moi, monseiur? Le Rubirosa, s’il vous plait?”
“Rubirosa?” Isn’t “pepper mill” in French “moulin à poivre?”
Well, yes, and no.
Especially on Valentine’s Day, you might earn an extra smile from your French waiter if you ask for the Rubirosa. The sparkling jet-set of French society in the 1950s named the largest pepper mill in the house after Porfirio Rubirosa. A man who some might say was the original Latin Lover and was certainly the last of a dying breed, the international playboy.
In his 56 years he managed to marry 5 women (two of whom were billionaire heiresses), win polo tournaments on 3 continents, drive his Ferrari to victory in Formula 1 races, and take hundreds of lovers including Christina Onasis, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Eartha Kitt, Eva Peron, Gene Tierney, Veronica Lake, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, and Kim Novak, just to name a few. Oh, and did I mention he was a jewel thief?
A native of the Dominican Republic, Rubirosa began his career as an aide-de-camp to Rafael Trujillo. In that position he had unusual access to the dictator’s daughter. Flor de Oro. If Rubirosa had been the proverbial “man in the grey flannel suit,” then angling for the boss’s daughter might have been considered a good move. However, if the “boss” is one of the 20th Century’s most vicious dictators, it’s a good way to get yourself killed. In the first of many examples of his infinite capacity to charm, Rubirosa was allowed to marry Flor in 1932. They were transferred into the foreign service and posted to Europe.
Rubirosa was one of those people who always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. On a diplomatic mission in Germany he sat in Hitler’s box at the 1936 olympics; he represented his country at the coronation of George VI; during World War II he was in Paris, Vichy, Belgium, and the Netherlands. While in Europe he met the French movie star Danielle Darrieux, who became his second wife. Amazingly, Trujillo did not have Rubirosa killed for divorcing his daughter. Legend has it, they fought like cats and dogs and when Trujillo asked about this, Rubirosa defended the right of a Dominican man to beat his wife. In fact, Trujillo called Rubirosa “an excellent diplomat because women adore him and he’s a liar.”
After the war the Generalissimo sent him to Buenos Aires where he stayed during the Peron years and allegedly took Eva Perón as a lover. He was also in Havana during the fall of cuba to Castro. When Trujillo was assassinated in 1961 Rubirosa became a liason between the post-Trujillo government and the Kennedy administration.
At some point, he must have found himself in need of money. The jet-set lifestyle takes a lot to maintain, what with the polo ponies, the bespoke suits, and the Ferrari. So he divorced Danielle Darrieux and married one of the richest women in the world at the time, Doris Duke, heiress to billions (in today’s dollars) through her father’s tobacco company. He divorced her after about a year and a half, coming away with $25,000 a year in alimony (about 200,000 in today’s dollars).
It was after this he began his famous affair with actress Zsa Zsa Gabor. The courtship was like something out of a romance novel. He met her in a hotel elevator, invited her out, she said no, being already engaged. That very evening he moved into the suite next door and filled her room with roses. But their relationship was contentious. She refused to leave her husband George Sanders and marry him. During an argument about it, Rubirosa struck her. The next day she held a press conference at which she arrived wearing an eye patch. The headline in the New York Daily News read: “I said No, So Porfy Poked Me: Zsa Zsa” In some ways, they were perfect for each other, but it was not to be.
Next Rubirosa set his sights on Barbara Hutton, who as heiress to both the Woolworth and E.F. Hutton fortunes, was the richest women in the world at the time. They stayed married for 73 days and he got about $3.5 million for it which is about 27 million in today’s money. His last and longest marriage was to a 19-year-old French actress named Odile Rodin. Some say they were a very good match because she was almost as lascivious as he was; constantly out with her numerous lovers at glamorous night clubs, she may have actually succeeded at making Rubirosa jealous.
He died the way he had lived. In the early hours of July 6, 1965, after a night of partying in celebration of his latest polo championship he wrapped his silver Ferrari around a tree in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.
So how did he do it? He never had much money (of his own), it’s not like he was some European nobleman who had fallen on hard times; there were plenty of those around at the time. He did not climb particularly high in the diplomatic corps, most of his jobs were ahem, ceremonial. He spoke five languages and was always impeccably dressed, but there were others like that. What was Rubi’s secret? Well, remember that pepper grinder in the French bistrôt? It seems that Mr. Rubirosa’s chief attribute was one of endowment.
Cuban composer Eduardo Saborit wrote a song about him called “Que Es Lo Tuyo, Rubirosa” or “What Have You Got, Rubirosa.” Which had the following lyric: “Rubirosa has a thing/and I don’t know what it is/What could it be/ What could it be?/Rubirosa’s thing.” According to Rubirosa’s biographer, Shawn Levy, “when that moment in the song was sung, men on the dance floor would grab their pants around their knees, indicating a physical endowment that you couldn’t talk about out loud then, but which was legendary.” In his unfinished, tell-all, non-fiction novel Answered Prayers, Truman Capote describes Rubirosa’s best asset as “an 11-inch café au lait sinker as thick as a man’s wrist.” Rubi’s ex-wife, Doris Duke, told her godson, “It was six inches in circumference, much like the last foot of a Louisville Slugger baseball bat.”
Famously, Hugh Hefner calls New Year’s Eve “amateur hour” and usually stays at home. I feel the same way about Valentine’s Day. Who needs a special holiday to take your beloved out for a hot night on the town? For Rubi, every day was Valentine’s Day and so should it be for all of us. So wait for an evening when you won’t be overcharged for insipid food, make a reservation at the most glamorous place in town and don’t forget to ask for the Rubirosa.