When Villager Gianna Ragona-Suarez visited her favorite café on Rome’s Via Veneto a couple of years ago before the COVID-19 pandemic, she lamented at how different it was from the “old days.”
The waiter asked, “What can I get you?”
Gianna launched into a conversation about “Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton sitting to the right, and Paul Newman over there, and…”
“What can I get you?” asked the bored waiter again.
“He didn’t care at all about how it used to be,” she laughs. “He just wanted my drink order.”
Gianna started off in the “star” business doing bit roles in films being shot in Rome. Then she began designing clothing for popular music groups in the mid-1960s. Her first big group was The Lovin’ Spoonful, famous for hits like “Summer in the City” and “Do You Believe in Magic.”
Costume design began with getting inside the group. “Feeling their vibe,” as Gianna describes it. To get the vibe she traveled and socialized with the group.
At first, the group did not like the sketches and ideas, so Gianna ordered skins from Asia, cut and sewed them into vests with fringes and designs painted on the leather. Then, they liked what they saw.
“With The Spoons it was really easy,” Gianna recalls. “Their music spoke of bell bottom trousers and leather vests.”
Traveling with the band also meant meeting other headliners. One night in France, as she was hosting the Spoons and their record company executives in her suite, there was a knock at the door and three of the four Beatles (Ringo was MIA) showed up to hang with them, playing each other’s music and telling stories through the night. As the sun was rising, John Lennon suggested that they all go down and stand in the Mediterranean to enjoy the new day.
Proving that the six-degree rule applies, Gianna reminded John Lennon that her friend, Helen Anderson, with whom she roomed in Rome while playing the bit parts in movies, went to art school with him in Liverpool. Several years later, Helen invited Gianna to accompany her on a visit to Cynthia Lennon in Wales. (Cynthia and John had divorced by this time).
“Cynthia wasn’t very pleasant to me,” Gianna recalls. “I guess I represented the enemy – American – John was living with Yoko in New York at that time.”
So, she spent much of her visit with young Julian Lennon.
“He had posters of his father all over his bedroom walls and a guitar his father had given him,” she says.
Later in the ’60s, Gianna operated her own clothing boutique on 52nd Street in Manhattan.
“It was a hangout for entertainment industry people. People like Liza Minnelli – she’d help out helping customers when things got busy. Everybody was smoking pot. All you had to do was walk into my shop and breathe to get high,” she says.
But it was the burnout track.
“I’d finish work around eight and we’d all go to Studio 54 or one of the discos until the wee hours, and by 10 in the morning I’d be back at my sewing machine and start all over,” she says.
In 1971, she’d had enough.
“I locked the door, called the landlord, told him ‘I’m not coming back, you can have the inventory, I don’t want it,’” she says.
She joined Halston (famous as the designer of Jackie Kennedy’s “pillbox” hat) as assistant designer. Then she married and had two children.
“We lived on E. 62nd Street in Manhattan, which is a pretty decent neighborhood,” she says. “Then, one day when my son was about 10 months old, I saw a discarded hypodermic needle in the sand. I freaked out.”
The family moved to Greenwich, Conn., and remained there until the children finished high school.
On a trip to Italy with her husband, their car was rear-ended. The result was chronic back and neck pain. Then, her husband died on a business trip.
Gianna was devastated. A friend suggested yoga, which changed her life.
“The migraines melted away and I felt renewed and lighter in spirit,” she says.
Gianna began studying to be an instructor in 1997, teaching anywhere she could throw down a mat. Meanwhile she worked in the financial industry, putting her children through college. When they graduated, she set off for India, where she traced the 4,700-year history of yoga and took additional training to become certified as a yogi. She then became a full-time yogi.
Gianna’s first studio was on Amelia Island and, after six years there, she moved to The Villages, where she teaches yoga privately and Italian at the Enrichment Academy.
Her book, “Cosmic Readings for Hatha Yoga,” is a morning/evening inspirational work with readings and illustrations focusing on an essential or basic yoga pose for each week for a year. The readings and meditations are borrowed from sources such as The Buddha, The Dalai Lama and Gianna’s own original writings. The book is available on Amazon.
Gianna’s next adventure – post pandemic – is to return to Italy.
“We spent a few weeks at a villa in Sicily in 2019 – my daughter and her husband and two grandkids. And some of the people in my Italian class here have asked if I would lead an Italian tour for them. But we aren’t going to Rome,” she says adamantly. “The big cities are full of tourists. Rome has lost its glamor. The place is full of graffiti.”
Gianna has some plans for what she will do.
“We’re going to stay at farm BnBs, pick grapes and olives, have breakfast outside under a pergola, visit a Greek temple,” she says. “I’m going back to Sicily where life is like it used to be 40 years ago! I tell my students – if you want to go to Rome, you’ll have to go without me.”
John W Prince is a writer and Villager. For more information visit www.HallardPress.com. If you know of someone with a good story and a good book, contact him at [email protected].