I Once Met… Roman Polanski Anne Sebba
It was the summer of 1973. I was 21, newly graduated and in my first job.
I was – how grand it sounded – a foreign correspondent for Reuters. When I joined, I assumed the only reason I had been offered a place on this prestigious graduate training scheme was because I spoke French, German and Russian. But clearly not, as Head Office decided to send me to Italy for my nine-month placement. Paris, Bonn and Moscow were, they told me, too dangerous for a young woman, but Rome – that was a much more suitable place for a woman in her first job as a journalist.
I had never been to Italy, not even on holiday, and spoke no Italian. But a total immersion course at Berlitz in Oxford Street would remedy that, I was briskly assured. And so, in May, off I went in my bright orange Renault 5 with all my worldly possessions packed in the back.
A flat was found for me in the Via Flaminia, ten minutes from the office, which was straight up the Via Del Corso near the Trevi Fountain.
This was surely la dolce vita, I thought, as we sat at our regular pavement table for lunch – for, although governments fell with alarming regularity, there did not seem to be any news that summer. I had a free weekend coming up – so I called a man I did not know, whose name I had been given by my older sister. He was an English film producer, living in a large villa on the Appian Way. ‘Why don’t you come for Sunday lunch?’ he asked. How I found my way (let alone the courage) to get from one ancient road to another in those pre-gps days I cannot recall. I arrived at a beautiful old farmhouse to find a table in the grounds, laid out for lunch for six, next to a swimming pool. The only other guest I can remember was Roman Polanski. Polanski, not quite 40 and almost as famous then for the gruesome murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate by members of the Manson gang as for his work directing Rosemary’s Baby (1968), was a hero of mine simply for having survived the Holocaust when his parents had not. It was just before his film Chinatown (1974) and three years before he was arrested and charged with attempted rape of a 13-year-old.
I can remember what we ate as Polanski, with his twinkly eyes, had a way of toying suggestively with the mountain of spaghetti strands on his plate.
But of the conversation I can remember nothing, because my memory was blotted out by what happened next. As soon as it was suggested that, given the hot sunny weather, we should all strip and dive into the pool naked, my mind became a blur. This was a leap too far for a sheltered English girl not accustomed to skinny-dipping. I knew I had to leave quickly while I was the only one still fully clothed. How lucky I had that car.
On Monday, I was asked about my weekend and casually let slip whom I had met. ‘But did you get an interview?’ I was asked. ‘We’ve been trying for ages.’
Was my fledgling journalistic career over before it had begun? (It wasn’t!)