In new memoir, Carolyn Pfeiffer recounts the triumphs and trials of a young woman among the stars

Marfa resident and eminent film producer Carolyn Pfeiffer has written a strikingly personal memoir on her early career in cinema and life as a young woman living and working on films in Europe in the 1960s, many of which are revered classics to this day. Photography by Rick Guest.

MARFA — Marfa resident and celebrated film producer Carolyn Pfeiffer has led an uncommonly fascinating life — one that landed her among the upper echelons of cinema as a young woman. Her new memoir, Chasing the Panther: Adventures & Misadventures of a Cinematic Life, now provides a deeply personal documentation of that legacy, chronicling her entreé into film and the arts in 1960s Europe.

From horseback riding as a child through woodland trails in her hometown of rural Madison, North Carolina, to working as an assistant for actors Claudia Cardinale and Omar Sharif on films including Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard and David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, Pfeiffer’s memoir weaves tales of her personal tragedies and triumphs with historically significant events and cultural movements she witnessed. 

Carolyn, center, and Madison children. Pfeiffer family archive.

“I was in a magical world,” said Pfeiffer. “Those times were very special times and I just had the good fortune to find myself in that world and to be exposed to people that were so much more educated, accomplished and intellectual than I was, certainly when I arrived. I was a little country girl from North Carolina.” 

“But I was also a sponge,” Pfeiffer added. “I was fascinated by it all and eager. I’ve always loved art.” 

Pfeiffer’s rich past also consists of running a public relations company with clients including The Beatles and Alice Cooper in the Swinging London era, launching independent production and distribution company Island Alive Films, and a stint living and making films in Jamaica. Now 85, she has been residing in Marfa for the past 15 years. 

She came here, of course, to make a movie — and though that particular project never got off the ground, her time here has been creatively fruitful. Her house, where she has been chipping away at the memoir over the years, sits on the edge of town with views of the desert grasslands. 

When The Big Bend Sentinel recently sat down with Pfeiffer to discuss her new memoir, she sat on a couch beneath three of the first artworks she ever collected, primitive Sicilian paintings depicting biblical scenes in elaborate wooden frames — a style she was introduced to by Visconti who called them “people’s art.”

Claudia Cardinale and Carolyn at an Italian market. Carolyn Pfeiffer archive.

Due to the nature of Pfeiffer’s work interacting with larger-than-life characters in the movie business, it was regularly suggested she consider a memoir, she said — but that same access comes with a respect for the privacy of her famous colleagues, which at first gave Pfeiffer pause. Through her time living with Sharif and going in and out of dressing rooms with Cardinale as their personal assistants, Pfeiffer knew the individuals not as glamorous movie stars but as people, something that comes across in her anecdotes and reflections in the book.

“You see them at their absolute most vulnerable — like, stripped,” said Pfeiffer. “You are that close to them. You are that person, and that’s why I really never thought I would write a book, because you’re around everything, you see everything, you hear everything.”

Only when she began more seriously considering the importance of archival history and, to an extent, her own mortality — “not to be overdramatic here,” she says — was she ready to start the project, she said. 

The memoir — which was co-authored by Gregory Collins, a writer and filmmaker Pfeiffer worked with at the defunct Burnt Orange Productions out of the University of Texas — is years in the making, the result of a close collaboration, consisting of countless in-person, phone and email conversations and edits between Collins and Pfeiffer. Literary agents helped steer the direction of the book, which focuses on Pfeiffer as a young woman in her twenties and thirties after she moves to Rome from New York City. 

Young Carolyn. Photograph by Jens Peter Bloch.

“They all felt that the story was the story of this — I hate to use the word ingénue — Southern ingénue, going to Europe and really inadvertently finding her way into this world of moviemaking and then having the opportunity to learn and work alongside some of the greatest filmmakers working at that time,” said Pfeiffer. 

Early on, agents prodded the co-authors to broaden the narrative to include not only Pfeiffer’s adventures working alongside cinematic greats, but also her personal experiences during this pivotal time in her life, a process which required Pfeiffer to commit to being fully honest about everything she’d gone through as a young woman, she said. 

“I did not feel that things should be left out for any reason whatsoever, because that was my life,” said Pfeiffer. “It doesn’t mean that you talk about [painful memories] at a cocktail party. But if you’re sitting down to write your life story, I don’t know how you exclude them.” 

Carolyn and her daughter Lola in Hyde Park. Photograph by Anthony Wigram.

Reliving her most vulnerable, difficult moments — a sexual assault, the unthinkable loss of a child — for the book was harrowing, said Pfeiffer, but ultimately worthwhile, because those experiences are a part of her, and might allow readers, particularly young women, to learn from them.

“For me, the most important thing is really, if there was a reason to write the book, it was to share things with young women [they] might also go through — there’s a lot of stuff in here that girls deal with — to share my experiences and how I dealt with them,” said Pfeiffer. 

The vivid details and dialogue present throughout the memoir, aided by Pfeiffer’s saved letters and date book, allow the reader to be transported to her locales: the welcoming lunch table of the d’Amico’s, an Italian family with which she formed a strong bond, a glitzy party beneath the Great Pyramids of Giza she attended with Sharif, the 1968 Cannes Film Festival in which filmmakers, including Pfeiffer’s friend Geraline Chaplin, stormed the stage to protest a screening due to political turmoil in France.  

Pfeiffer also utilized the existing memoirs of her friends and colleagues, actresses Nathalie Delon, Claudia Cardinale and Romy Schneider, as guideposts, she said, and researched historical events with the help of interns from the publishing house to make her book as accurate as possible. 

“The combination of my personal experiences, memories, letters, and the research that we did, I hope we succeeded in creating a texture to place the story in a time and place,” said Pfeiffer.  

Particularly significant are Pfeiffer’s recollections of her conversations with contemporary writers, photographers and filmmakers of her time — as well as her lovers, each a creative in their own right — about their takes on art, architecture, literature and more, presented as artistic wisdoms once bestowed upon her that will now live on due to their inclusion in the text. 

“Art is a panther, cara mia, with fur and teeth and claws. Sometimes, if you get too close, if you make it personal, it puts its claws in you and it doesn’t let go,” writes Pfeiffer, quoting her boyfriend at the time, Masolino d’Amico. 

Carolyn and Omar Sharif on the set of Doctor Zhivago. Carolyn Pfeiffer archive.

Pfeiffer also discusses the burden of celebrity with thoughtfulness and clarity, recalling what it was like for famous actresses and actors she worked with to interact with the public, pour their lives into their roles and be at the whim of the powerful directors. 

“I was really writing about them as human beings and, as I point out, there’s something that sets really famous people apart,” said Pfeiffer. “They carry a slightly different load than the rest of us. I became very conscious of that very early in my career.” 

Pfeiffer and Collins were careful to respect the boundaries of those mentioned in the memoir, many of whom have public profiles, but also wanted to present an accurate story of her experience with celebrity and the myriad ways it affects individuals. 

“I have great empathy for actors because I’ve been around their process and I understand what they bring to it, the vulnerability they bring to it,” said Pfeiffer. “Even as a producer, I would say one of my strengths was understanding the talent, and that extends to the directors and writers too.” 

Courtesy of HarperCollins.

Her formative years on film sets in Europe where she was a part of a vibrant film scene in close proximity to actors, writers and directors led to her becoming a successful producer when she moved back to the United States, to Los Angeles, a portion of her life not covered by the book. 

Pfeiffer continues to produce films and was an executive producer most recently for Robert Irwin: A Desert of Pure Feeling, a documentary on the artist that will close out this weekend’s CineMarfa festival. 

The Austin Film Society will host screenings of three films involving Pfeiffer — The Leopard, Dancehall Queen, and Roadie — followed by book talks and Q&As in July, and similar programs will take place soon at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and more. 

Chasing the Panther: Adventures & Misadventures of a Cinematic Life, is available wherever books are sold. For those interested in the ghostwriting process, see Pfeiffer and Collins’ episode of the podcast “As Told To.”