It is 10 February 2012 and I am looking at photos and videos of Alfredo Cuomo who is in the midst of a sea of laughing young Indian Children at St Theresa school in Chennai. He has never looked happier or more content in the fifty years I have know him than he does among these children in India. Alfredo is not a visiting European in a distant land; he seems to be part of this group of children in an environment that he and Elena Cuomo have created. Yes, it is my dear friend Alfredo that I thought I knew so well but he has become another person. Not somebody who changed his profession or moved to another home, but someone who has changed his way of being and thinking. I marvel at what he has achieved and it makes me examine myself and think about what motivates and drives us in our lives. For Alfredo has left behind an enormously successful career in the world of cinema and television to devote himself to something far more challenging and rewarding. He found a way to use his success and fortune to help children who desperately needed him. Neither of them knew it when Alfredo and Elena made that momentous trip to explore India in 1999. What was the road that brought Alfredo and Elena to Chennai and the creation of the Cuomo Foundation?
Who is Alfredo Cuomo?
I first met Alfredo in Roma, 1961. I had just arrived from Hollywood to begin working as an agent representing many of those great filmmakers and actors working in Italy. The Italian Cinema was exploding with some of the greatest films and filmmakers in the history of cinema: Fellini, De Sica, Risi, Sordi, Mastroianni, Gassman, Vitti, Loren, Visconti, Pasolini, Antonioni, Goddard, Leoni and Ava Gardner…and in the middle of this renaissance of post war Italian films and La Dolce Vita was Alfredo Cuomo.
Alfredo, born and educated in Rome, chose to study law but was destined never to practice it. After law school he applied and was offered the highly sought after Fulbright Scholarship to study at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin USA. Wisconsin, the ‘land of lakes’ and subzero winters was Alfredo’s home and place of study for the next year. Alfredo loved the freedom of the USA and at the end of the year armed with flawless English he returned to Rome and was offered a position at the U.S. Embassy working in the press department, where he made contact with the world of journalism. But it only took a few months before the legendary film producer, Dino De Laurentiis, hired Alfredo to put his journalistic contacts and knowledge of English to work in the Italian film industry.
Alfredo’s intelligence and charm was going to be put to good use in the marketing and selling of these great new Italian films to an international audience.
The first film Alfredo worked on was in The Best Of Enemies (I Due Nemici) starring Alberto Sordi and David Niven, in a hilarious comedy about the clash of British and Italian cultures in WW2. It was produced by Dino De Laurentiis and directed by the successful British filmmaker, Guy Hamilton. The Best Of Enemies became one of the first post war international successes and turned out to be an auspicious debut of Alfredo Cuomo as whiz kid promoter of Italian Cinema. Alfredo, a handsome, dashing, energetic and brilliant young Italian whose destiny was to become part of the international film industry.
This was also the rise of the ‘paparazzi’ phenomena…and Alfredo knew the paparazzi and they knew him. Alfredo’s growing knowledge of photographers and photography helped him discover the way of using both the paparazzi and the new gossip magazines such as Gente, Oggi, Chi, and Grazia to promote films, almost like a scene out of Fellini’s 8½.
In those early 60s in Roma we were out most nights, the Via Veneto for watching celebrities, Piazza del Popolo for talking, arguing, drinking coffee, sambuca and grappa until the early hours of the morning. Hanging out with Clint Eastwood, Jack Palance, Anita Ekberg, Alain Delon, Robert Aldrich … Alfredo had great energy and a real curiosity about the world of politics. It was the time of the ascendency of the Italian Communist Party, MSI fascists, and of course the onslaught of American Culture. Alfredo had an all-consuming passion for cinema, the Arts and all things new.
From marketing and publicizing films it was not a big leap into the producing of movies. Alfredo's first film as a producer was Tepepa starring Orson Wells and Tomas Milian. From there he established a partnership with Italian filmmaker Dario Argento, American director George Romero and writer Stephen King. His output as a producer was successful and prolific; seven films that were international successes.
Alfredo’s final film as producer was award-winning Dogville by Lars Von Trier. It starred Nicole Kidman, Ben Gazarra, and Lauren Bacall.
While still producing, Alfredo found a way to fulfil the insatiable appetite of Italian Television by securing the Italian rights to over two hundred of some of the most outstanding American movies including the most successful film in the history of cinema, Titanic, by director James Cameron.
It was during this time that Alfredo began exploring and traveling the world: Yemen, Syria, Egypt, India, Cuba, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. At the same time developing his own skills as a photographer. It began as a hobby and developed into one of his passions. He began to build a world-class collection of art, sculpture, tapestries and masks. It reflected his eclectic and instinctive ability to identify objects that first and foremost gave him pleasure but would become a valuable international art collection.
As Alfredo and Elena travelled during the eighties and nineties their eyes were opened to the beauties of these remote and exotic countries and their unique cultures. It was out of these travels that Alfredo’s first photographic book was born: « I Love My India » published in 2001.
During this time Alfredo came to the realization that he wanted to share his success and wealth in some positive way. He felt that through education he might be able to make a contribution to society and children. He made several approaches to the Vatican but was unable to find a way to involve them. Alfredo did not want to just donate money to a charity but to create an initiative whereby he could deliver a project that would have education at it’s heart and benefit the children of the countries he had visited.
It was in 1999 that Alfredo and Elena travelled to India, a country they both loved. They arrived in Chennai, formerly known as Madras, located on the South coast near the Bay of Bengal in the state of Tamil Nadu. By coincidence Chennai is home to the thriving Tamil film industry made famous through the films of the great Sajajit Ray.
Escaping the crowded and noisy town, they strolled along the beach past fishing villages. Alfredo, carrying three cameras, was followed by a growing group of children. Dressed in school uniform, the children led Elena and Alfredo to an area where, standing side by side was a Hindu Temple and a pink coloured Christian Church. Entering the church they discovered it was full of children sitting on the floor for their lessons. It was at this moment that the idea of fulfilling Alfredo’s desire to promote education for children would become a reality here in India.
The priest told them that the children needed a dormitory as they also lived at the school, sleeping on the floor.
Alfredo contacted Father Thomas who was in charge of the school and began discussions about the possibility of building a dormitory where the students could live. Moving to a hotel Alfredo and Elena began developing their idea for separate dormitories for girls and boys within the compound of the church. Alfredo felt that putting some of the older members of the church into the dormitories would benefit the children in their development and studies. Under Alfredo’s supervision and with his sketches, plans for the buildings were drawn up. Alfredo and Elena stayed on to oversee the building and to make sure it fulfilled their expectations. In addition Alfredo created a programme of scholarships benefiting both the girls and boys for future University studies. Addressing the inequality of young girls position in Indian society was an important issue for them. Several years later many of the scholarship students went on to make their own contribution to helping the young. One in particular, Chitra who started at school when she was ten became an established a very successful computer software company and used her own money to set up a dental camp for young people.
Following completion of the dormitories, Alfredo and Elena proposed the creation of a separate school that would accommodate over one thousand Hindu and Christian students studying and living together. Alfredo would supervise the design of the building and with the condition that the Church could not sell the land for the next thirty years.
In 2001 the Cuomo Foundation was created to take control of all the projects. The overriding consideration was that the Foundation was not to act as a bank, but to create an organization with a heart and soul. The Foundation would create and supervise each project it undertook. Alfredo made the decision that the Foundation would be his full time work and he was never happier.
Alfredo was never without an idea for a new and exciting Cuomo Foundation project. During his travels Alfredo became interested in Buddhism and spent years studying their tradition and philosophy. It inspired him to publish « Land Of Gold », which gave him the opportunity to use his photography to express his feelings for the Buddhists.
And this brings me back to the photos of Alfredo and Elena at the school in Chennai.
Modesty, sensitivity, a huge capacity for love and generosity. A man of culture with a respect for the traditional but fascination with the new. Someone who was able to inspire young people and set them on the road to a better life.
These are some of the qualities that I recognize in Alfredo.
His passing in 2009 was a tragedy for Elena, his family and friends and the thousands of children he helped. But Alfredo wasn’t one for self-pity. When he learned he was ill he talked and planned with Elena for her succession in running the Foundation after his death.
Those of us who knew Alfredo are better people for his friendship and in Elena and The Foundation Cuomo his spirit and beliefs continue to better the lives of future generations.
Sandy Lieberson - awarded honorary C.B.E. (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) by Culture Minister Ed Vaizey in 2012 (click here to read about Sandy Lieberson)