Carolyn Pfeiffer was there for some of the greatest moments in cinema and (almost) music

The Marfa resident shares intimate stories about herself and the stars she’s worked with in the book “Chasing the Panther: Adventures & Misadventures of a Cinematic Life.”

By Laura RiceMarch 21, 2024 9:07 am, , , , ,

For decades, discretion was central to the way Carolyn Pfeiffer lived her life. She worked with some of the most well-known performers in film and music, and she didn’t want to betray their trust.

Now, she’s opening up – not to scandalize anyone but to add her own voice the record – in the book “Chasing the Panther: Adventures & Misadventures of a Cinematic Life.”

“It is, in fact, the story of my life – my young life, I should say,” Pfeiffer said.

Her life didn’t begin all that glamorously. She grew up in the small down of Madison, N.C. But, she says, by the time she was in college in the 1950s, the greater world was beckoning.

A black and white photo of children in the 1940s.

Pfeiffer, center, with other children in Madison, N.C. (Pfeiffer family archive)

“New York was calling,” Pfeiffer said. “New York was the glamorous place it was in all the magazines.”

So she booked a train ticket and lucked in a job. But it was what happened outside of office hours that really inspired her.

“New York was amazing at that time because there were so, so much going on,” Pfeiffer said. “Like going to The Five Spot to hear Thelonious Monk, hearing Allen Ginsberg read poetry … I think it was the second Newport Jazz Festival with all those amazing musicians.”

But a couple of friends and her uncle told her she really needed to visit Europe. So she did, beginning in London and later taking the train to Rome.

“And that’s when life really started for me in Europe,” Pfeiffer said. “I fell in love with an Italian boy.”

That boy’s mother, it so happened, was a woman who earned the nickname of the Grand Lady of Italian Cinema, Suso Cecchi D’Amico.

“They really took me in as one of their own,” Pfeiffer said of the family. “And then I got – my first job because I was introduced by them to Claudia Cardinale, who was at that point a rising star.”

A black and white photo of two smiling women looking at produce in a busy, outdoor market.

Cardinale, left, and Pfeiffer at an Italian market. (Carolyn Pfeiffer archive)

“And after that I never looked back,” Pfeiffer said. “It’s been movies for more than 60 years.”

Pfeiffer assisted Cardinale and practiced English with her. Around that time, Cardinale was offered one of the first big roles of her career: “The Leopard” with director Luchino Visconti.

Then, Pfeiffer said, a call came in asking Cardinale to play the muse in “8 ½” with director Federico Fellini.

A black and white photo of two women in a backstage area.

Pfeiffer, left, and Cardinale on the set of “8 1/2.” (Photo by Gideon Bachman, 1962 Cinemazero Images)

“They were the two great Italian directors,” Pfeiffer said. “To be offered these stellar parts was just an utter career-changing opportunity. The only problem was that the films overlapped a little bit.”

Pfeiffer said “8 ½” began filming first but went over schedule. It was time for Cardinale to begin on “The Leopard,” but her work with Fellini wasn’t finished yet. And there was another problem: Fellini had lightened Cardinale’s hair.

We get to Sicily, and Visconti walks into the room and he said, ‘No, no, no, no, this is not going to do. Angelica is Sicilian. We have to darken her hair,’” Pfeiffer said.

But Pfeiffer said the process at that time would have been highly destructive to Cardinale’s locks, if not her health. Neither director would budge, she said.

“And finally the decision was made to part her hair from ear to ear and the front part would go to Visconti and the back part would go to Fellini. And they made false pieces for the back or the front depending on which film she was shooting,” Pfeiffer said. “I mean, it was very, very schizophrenic for a while. She was a champ about it. But it’s one of those moments in life that are unforgettable if you were there.”

The last film Pfeiffer did with Cardinale was “The Pink Panther.”

“And that was her first English-language film,” Pfeiffer said. “And she did fine in it with Peter Sellers and David Niven and, you know, a wonderful cast. So I would say that was the most important contribution I made to her.”

At the insistence of a friend, Pfeiffer later went on to work with Omar Sharif. She was his assistant when he got the call to star in “Doctor Zhivago.”

“Like any film, almost any film, there’s always something to say about it,” Pfeiffer said.

A black and white photo of a woman helping a man light a cigarette.

Pfeiffer, left, and Omar Sharif on the set of “Doctor Zhivago.” (Carolyn Pfeiffer archive)

In this case, it was a scene shot during a snowstorm as the characters are leaving Moscow on a train.

“And a woman with a baby is running alongside the train and hands the baby up to Zhivago to take it to safety, and then she’s trying to get up,” Pfeiffer said. “Well, when we shot the scene for real, the woman actually slipped and fell under the train. And we were all sure that she’d been sliced in two. But, miraculously, she somehow got lodged between the rail and the platform. And she survived without serious injury.”

Pfeiffer and a friend then decided to start a public relations company.

“I left Omar,” Pfeiffer said. “I was afraid he’d be mad at me. But he said he understood and he was happy for me; as long as [he] was [our] first client, I could go.”

She relocated to England and helped represent clients including Sharif, Geraldine Chaplin, Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli and Robert Altman.

Liza Minnelli and Pfeiffer in Positano, Italy. Pfeiffer’s daughter is being carried, behind. (Carolyn Pfeiffer archive)

Then, one day, they got a call from a man working with Brian Epstein. And that was the beginning of working with the Beatles.

“And one of the great angsts of my life – I was out of my office – I go back to the office and they say, ‘they’ve been looking everywhere for you, Carolyn, the boys are on the roof … And it was the famous last concert, the famous rooftop concert that the Beatles did. And they said, ‘they want you there immediately’ and so I went running there and they had just wrapped and I missed it. And I will go to my grave lamenting that.”

Later, she represented Paul McCartney and Wings.

Still, her life wasn’t easy.

“Towards the end of my European stay, which was 16 years, I lost a child: my daughter died,” Pfeiffer said.

A black and white photo of a woman holding an infant dressed in knitted clothes.

Pfeiffer and her daughter, Lola, in Hyde Park. (Photo by Anthony Wigram)

She said she reached a point where she felt she needed to return to the United States and start afresh.

Stateside, she worked with Altman again. Later, she managed Alice Cooper and helped him kick off his European tour. She recalled working with a promoter who had an idea to fill up an arena.

A black and white photo of two people with a ferris wheel in the background.

Pfeiffer and Alice Cooper at a London fair. (Carolyn Pfeiffer archive)

“Richard Avedon had taken a photograph of Alice naked with his privates covered with a boa constrictor,” Pfeiffer said. “So Shep [Gordon] had it blown up – and hired a flatbed truck with a billboard of naked Alice with the boa constrictor. And the instructions were to break down in central London to the driver no matter what happens. Blocked traffic in all directions. And so that’s what happened. And my job was to make sure that all the press and the news and the TV news outlets were aware that this was happening, so it would get complete coverage.”

She said the stadium sold out.

But, before long, something else was tugging at her again.

“It all comes down to wanting to make movies,” Pfeiffer said. “And by then, I felt ready to produce.”

Again, she says it wasn’t always easy – but that didn’t stop her.

“I am third-generation working woman,” Pfeiffer said. “I just didn’t accept at all that that women couldn’t do most of the things – that men can do.”

A black and white photo of three people standing in the wind.

Pfeiffer, Shep Gordon and Alan Rudolph on the set of “Roadie.” (Photo by Joyce Rudolph)

The University of Texas at Austin took notice and asked Pfeiffer to start a program there. Then, working with another program at UT, she found herself in Marfa.

“When I got here, the light and the space just blew me away,” Pfeiffer said.

And when the time came to move on from UT, she remembered it.

“I really didn’t want to go back to L.A.,” Pfeiffer said. “By this time, I’m 70 years old, and I had grown up in a small town, and I loved small towns.”

So Marfa is where she’s stayed.

Looking back while making this book, she recognizes all of her wonderful opportunities. But she also revisited the hardships.

“I’ve had quite a lot of loss in my life,” Pfeiffer said. “My daughter died young, my first daughter. My husband died young.”

She says if there’s a message that she hopes that comes across in the book, it’s this:

“If you can just get through it, there’s always going to be something nice and interesting on the other side, and you just have to keep going,” Pfeiffer said.

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