Denise Hale sips espresso in a fine porcelain cup while holding court in a jewel box alcove adjacent to the living room in her grand Russian Hill home. Witnessing this scene firsthand is like taking a trip through time with the woman who’s had a front row seat at everything. Born in Serbia and raised by her wealthy grandparents in Belgrade, Hale fled the Nazi and Russian occupations for Italy after World War II. At age 19, she married an Italian mogul whom she divorced in her early twenties. Then, movie director Vincente Minnelli whisked her off to Hollywood, where she quickly became a leading lady in a rarified social scene, attending the most famous parties (think Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball) and befriending movie stars, diplomats, writers and artists. (One of her biggest regrets: That third husband Prentis Cobb Hale dissuaded her from having friend Andy Warhol paint her.) All told, it wasn’t until she met Prentis, a San Francisco businessman, that she found true love and happiness. They were together 27 years until his death in 1996. With her classic signature style and exquisite jewels — she wears them day and night, the bigger the better — Hale remains as elegant and regal as ever. But don’t cross her. As she likes to say of herself, “I do or I don’t,” meaning: I either like you or I don’t. With Hale, there is little room for ambiguity — and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
By all accounts, you’ve lived a kind of fairy tale life. Is that the way you see it? No, it was not a fairy tale. It was a fairy tale on one side and a nightmare on the other. [I was] a child of privilege with grandparents who took me to Baden-Baden before the war and then the Nazis declare war over Belgrade with bombardment. And you lose everything. Everything is taken from you. … Nobody in this country will ever understand what it means to be under Nazi occupation.
Do you have vivid memories of the occupation? You never forget. Terrible memories linger on. You never forget the middle of the night, the cars of the Nazis, the Gestapo always came early in the morning. You hear them. Crashing the doors, yelling and screaming. Guns, guns, guns and then silence. And always someone was dead. … And, after that, Communists came and it was even worse … so, I decided to take off … child of privilege, then disaster, disaster, then you are alone. You’re beautiful, young, alone, and no papers.
And, you escaped with a relative … My second cousin and I — we were both children — decided to take off. We were on the third day on the [Adriatic] Sea in a little rowboat — crazy — when a commander on a British Navy minesweeper saved us, even though Malta gave instructions that refugees were not to be picked up. But he made a decision and took a chance and saved our lives. I kept in touch with him until his death and his daughter and son-in-law came to see me, two years ago, in London. I knew his granddaughter, too.
You fled Serbia for Italy. What happened when you got there? We were taken to a refugee camp in Bari. I was in three different camps. I was a displaced person with no papers. It was terrible. I was hungry. I remember hungry. … And then I met my first husband in Rome. I was not yet 17 years [old]. He was the richest of my husbands. We traveled the world. When I was 19, I went all around Asia and South America. But, he was a monster. There’s always a price to pay. … I left him for somebody else.
Then you married your second husband, film director Vincente Minnelli … Yes, I met him in my apartment in Rome. My dear friend [Betty] who was married to Sam Spiegel, the movie producer, wanted to introduce me to Vincente. I said, “Look, I just divorced my husband so no, no, no, NO thank you.” … Then she was staying in my apartment while I was in Asia and she sends a telegram saying I must comeback. And I was ready to come back. When I arrived at my apartment, there he [Vincente] was. She says, “Oh, I would like to introduce you to a friend of mine.” And I said, “I’m going to go straight back to Asia.” She didn’t say anything. … And, you know, six months later, I was married.
And you moved to Hollywood. Yes, from Rome. I only move for husbands. … We were married in Palm Springs at Anne and Kirk Douglas’ house and Laurence Harvey was the best man.
Once in Hollywood, you became part of the glitterati. What was that like? It was wonderful. I was quickly accepted by the top ladies. … If they like you, you were fine. You see, my mentors were there. Mrs. Samuel Goldwyn was [part of] the most exclusive [group] and the only person they accepted before me — ten years before me — was Anne Douglas. Nobody in between. Lew Wasserman’s wife was a great friend of mine … and Ann Warner [wife of Jack Warner]. She always had butlers with tails. Nobody else in Beverly Hills had that. You see, I had been meeting people [around the world] since I was 20 years old so I already had lots of connections [when I arrived]. And they liked me because I knew how to behave.
Were you happy with Vincente? Oh, yes, yes. I was not in love with Vincente, but I loved Vincente. We had a wonderful life. I was miserable with my first husband. … [Vincente and I] had the best time. He was extremely entertaining, knowledgeable, easygoing. He and I got along beautifully. The only thing was, I was not in love with him.
Do you still have a relationship with Liza Minnelli? Yes, I am very fond of her and always will be. She came to my birthday party in New York a few years ago. … You know, she told the story in Vanity Fair of how we first met. Her father was doing a movie in Paris and she arrived [on set] and was not properly dressed. She was apologizing for her appearance saying, “Excuse me, excuse me…” and she remembers me looking at her and saying, “We will fix tomorrow.” That was my comment. Next day, I took her to get her hair cut and bought her proper clothes for a 15-year-old.
How did you meet Prentis Cobb Hale? I met him in 1966 at a dinner party at Doris and Jules Stein’s house. And then we met again two years later in that same house. And, can you imagine, he didn’t remember me. My ego! Then, at dinner he turned to me and said, “Oh, Mrs. Minnelli, I remember now.” And, I said, “It’s too late, Mr. Hale.”
But you gave him a second chance … Yes, for some mysterious reason, I would think of him.
What was it about him? I don’t know. Look, the Greeks wrote about it. The Romans wrote about it. The French wrote about it. What is it about attraction? … It’s chemistry. Something very strange. After our previous meeting at that same house, [Prentis] changed the place cards [to sit by me]. Can you imagine? That was in February and from February until May we talked on the phone four or five times a week. And then we met again in May; by November, we knew we were in big trouble. It was the strangest thing ever.
You were living in Los Angeles at the time and he in San Francisco and you both were married. That must have caused some trouble. Naturally. Lots of trouble. There’s always a price to pay. And the thing is, we looked at each other on our 20th anniversary and we said, “We didn’t make a mistake.” And, we stayed together all our life — 27 years.
What kept you in San Francisco? I was happier here. Where would I go?
Have you ever been tempted to marry again? No, I’m very independent. I don’t need men. I have men friends. I have great men friends.
You attended Truman Capote’s famous Black and White Ball in 1966, and he was at your wedding to Prentis in 1971 — as was John Wayne. You were close to Andy Warhol, C.Z. Guest, Marietta Tree [U.S. Representative on the United Nations Commission on Human Rights under JFK], Susan Mary Alsop [wife of columnist Joseph Alsop]. What is it about you that attracts these luminaries? I’m just myself. In my life, it’s do or don’t with me. I do like you or I don’t like you. If I like you, I want to know you better. If I don’t like you, I’m going to say, “Hello, hello.” And the rest, who cares? I’m always polite to everybody. … And I demand from my friends good manners.
You spend a lot of time at your ranch in Sonoma County — a real working cattle ranch. This is an entirely different you from the public you, isn’t it? My ranch is my life. Prentis was always very amused because he never realized how extreme [I am]. … I’m extreme. I go to the ranch. I never leave the ranch. … I like silence. I don’t have neighbors. You see, my strength is I don’t mind being alone with my memories.
But this is a real working ranch … Oh yes! We have 6,000 acres. I’m in charge. I’m dealing with fences and — do you know how much fence is [required for] 6,000 acres? And once in a while I have to give a reality check to the men [working on the property]. I never raise my voice, but sometimes I have to tell them, “You know, we have a problem.”
How do you want to be remembered? The little girl from Belgrade who was always outside of the box and who knew how to behave. I have a deadly Serbian memory and loyalty to my friends. I lived my life, my way. And then, destiny gave me something very few people have — the love of my life.
Janet Reilly is the Gazette’s co-owner and monthly columnist. She is also the former executive producer and on-air television host of “The Mix With Janet Reilly” for NBC Bay Area.