Actor Tony Curtis always enjoyed making his daughters laugh, even when they were on opposite sides of the world. “He was one of the funniest people ever,” Allegra Curtis exclusively confides to Closer magazine in the latest issue, on newsstands now. “He would call me and leave me a message like, “Allegra, this is Dracula. How long is your neck?”
His eldest daughter, Kelly Curtis, also has strong sentimental memories of her famous father. “I remember his cologne, Vetiver by Guerlain Paris, and his midnight blue velvet blazers,” she tells Closer. “He went through what we call his ‘Italian count’ phase.”
From the moment he arrived in Hollywood as an impossibly handsome young man, Tony knew how to be a charmer. He used his good looks, magnetism and prodigious talent to quickly become one of the most bankable actors of the 1950s and 1960s, starring in dramas (Sweet Smell of Success), comedies (Some Like It Hot) and epics (Spartacus).
“I think my dad’s greatest accomplishment is that he became a big star and was able to take care of his family,” says Allegra. “He had a wonderful way of bringing us an ll together.”
It couldn’t have been easy. The six-times-married star fathered six children, creating a big blended family. “If he had one sort of failing, I suppose it was with women,” Peter Golenbock, co-author of Tony’s 2008 memoir American Prince, tells Closer, explaining that once children entered Tony’s marriages, he would start to wander. “Tony admitted that.”
Daughters Kelly, 64, and Jamie Lee, 62, arrived during his marriage to Psycho actress Janet Leigh. Another two daughters, Alexandra, 56, and Allegra, 54, joined the family after he wed German actress Christine Kaufmann. “I was his fourth daughter, so I think when I was born he was like, ‘Oh my God, another one!'” laughs Allegra.
The actor finally got the sons he craved during his third marriage to The Last Tycoon actress Leslie Allen: Ben, 47, and Nicholas, who died tragically in 1994 at age 23. “[Tony] was completely devastated and immobilized by it,” confides Barry Paris, co-author of 1993’s Tony Curtis: The Autobiography. “He was incapacitated, what parent wouldn’t be? He adored the boy.”
His son’s death wasn’t the first tragedy in Tony’s life. Born Bernard Schwartz to Hungarian Jewish immigrants in New York, the future actor knew deprivation and experienced violence at the hands of his schizophrenic mother. At one point, he and a brother were handed over to the state because his parents couldn’t feed them. “He worshipped his father and loved his mother, but I don’t believe he ever felt taken care of by his parents,” explains Kelly.
Yet even as Tony grew up running with street gangs in the Bronx, he maintained his sensitivity and an artist’s eye for beauty. “He could describe a formation of a cloud and make you think,” says Allegra. “He was the one who taught me that it’s OK if men cry.”
Once he became a father, Tony felt his role was to provide. “He did what he was supposed to do from a financial standpoint, which was honorable of him,” says Jamie Lee. Though his absences from his children’s lives were frequent, Tony tried to pass on the self-determination he had used to get ahead in Hollywood.
Kelly, who Tony nicknamed “Number One” for being his firstborn, recalls that “he expected a lot from me as an adult. There was no arguing with him. I also learned humility and self-reliance from him, two of the most valuable lessons of my life.”
At other times, Tony could also be unexpectedly generous. “If I needed anything or I just wanted to talk, he usually made himself available,” Allegra says, remembering how Tony invited her to join him in Hawaii when he lived in the Aloha State during the mid-1980s. “I was 22 and didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself,” she says. “So he took me in and I went to college. That was the time when we were the closest.”
Tony spent the last decades of his life in Nevada. Married to horse trainer Jill Vandenberg, they operated a nonprofit refuge for former race-horses while Tony honed his skills as a painter. “My father was happiest when he was either performing on a movie set or alone in his art studio painting or creating his assemblage works,” Kelly says. “He was always happiest when he was creating.”
Even if Tony wasn’t an ideal family man, it didn’t matter in the end. When the star passed away in 2010 at age 85 following a cardiac arrest, he was buried with a pair of his son Nicholas’ baby shoes. “I know he loved me and my sisters and brothers deeply and we loved him with our hearts and souls,” Kelly says. “Ours was a deep bond.”
For this story and more, pick up the latest issue of Closer magazine, on newsstands now.