Jean Salvadore has made just one job move in 54 years. Such loyalty
is only topped by her commitment to PR. Chris Barnett meets this genuine
and wildly popular ambassador of the industry.
Jean Salvadore may have started at the bottom, but she took her
orders from the top. As a 24-year-old PR rep for TWA in Rome, she had to
sit by her home phone at 2am every day, waiting for Howard Hughes, TWA's
eccentric billionaire CEO, to call from California. Lord help her if she
"Either Mr. Hughes or an aide called with the next day's instructions,"
she remembers. "I had to send $100 worth of flowers anonymously
every day to actress Jean Peters, his bride-to-be, who was in Rome
making a film. Or put Gina Lollobrigida on a flight to LA, because he
took a liking to her. Poor girl was insulted by his request."
Salvadore did more than meet, greet, and dispatch movie stars,
She actually did publicity. Hughes, who also headed RKO Pictures, wanted
her to tip the press that Ingrid Bergman was coming to Rome. But the
film's director, quite a lothario, screamed at Salvadore, "No publicity!
I've got to get Anna Magnani out of town before Ingrid arrives." When
she relayed the director's displeasure, Salvadore got an icy call from a
"You just remind Mr. Rossellini who is financing his film. And as for
you, young lady, make up your mind if you want to continue working for
Mr. Hughes or not." She got the message.
In 54 years, Salvadore has only had two PR jobs: 20 years with TWA, and
PR director for Villa d'Este at Cernobbio on the shores of Lake Como,
Italy, for the past 34 years. In three decades of telling and updating
Villa d'Este's 433-year-old story, Salvadore's PR skills helped
transform it from a neglected private villa into a fully booked,
exclusive resort for the powerful and prominent. Rooms that fetched
$30 a night in the mid-'60s now start at $400-$450
for a double room.
Salvadore mastered her craft with no formal training. When she joined
TWA, she was flown to New York for a six-day crash course in PR. The
late Gordon Gilmore, TWA's VP of PR, took her to her first cocktail
"He wanted to teach me how to hold a cocktail and a cigarette. But I
didn't smoke and never had a drink in my life, so I had water and an
olive in a martini glass," she recalls. Gilmore also introduced her to
important New York journalists. Salvadore caught on fast, learning the
art of making reporters look good to their bosses with exclusives and
fresh news angles - and by being a friend, not a flack.
Recently celebrating her 75th birthday and still putting in 10-hour days
at Villa d'Este, Salvadore is revered today as the quintessential PR pro
by magazine editors who have worked with her over the years. "Giovanna
has spent Thanksgivings with my family," says Pamela Fiori,
editor-in-chief of Town and Country. "She understands the value of
personal contacts, and is never heavy-handed. She's fun, but always
knows who she is working for, and that's critical in PR."
Millie Martini Bratten, editor-in-chief of Bride's, says, "Jean knows
how to bring a story to life, and has the patience to let it unfold so
you discover it. But she's always there to round out your knowledge, and
make your story more interesting." The New York Times' Florence
Fabricant adds, "Jean is not one of those agency types who spills out a
stream of releases. She nurtures deep, personal relationships, but never
I think of her as an ambassador for Villa d'Este, not its
Besides Gilmore's tutoring, Salvadore, who worked with the Italian
resistance during WWII, also credits her PR skills and savvy to her late
husband, Luca, a flamboyant Italian journalist who later headed PR for
the Rizzoli Publishing empire. He taught her to treat the press as
personal friends, and to nurture the relationships before the story is
pitched, and long after it runs.
That advice has served her well. "I always handwrite notes to reporters
and guests, because it makes all the difference in the world," says
"The human touch is most important in PR."
Villa d'Este may be the lap of luxury, but Salvadore works at a
cluttered desk in the sales office. There's a vintage portable
typewriter buried under magazines, but no computer. She's a legend among
writers and editors for her exhaustive research on their behalf.
She compiles a virtual dossier of clippings, photocopies, anecdotes, and
other little details. "Press kits should be customized with photos and
background that's appropriate for the publication," she advises.
Salvadore walks a fine line, though, in guarding the privacy of
high-profile guests and helping journalists. But she downplays herself
and her clout. She never introduced herself to Ricky Martin because "he
didn't want to be disturbed." She was also the only person at the resort
"allowed to speak" to Barbra Streisand, "who was very paranoid about
being recognized, but who is an awfully nice person."
Salvadore says she doesn't have to keep serious journalists away from
her celebrity guests. "Writers like Clive Irving of Conde Nast Traveler
never intrude, don't ask for anything, and act like regular guests."
Irving, Traveler's senior consulting editor and a co-founder, says
Salvadore is "a marvelous dame. She's helpful, but always lets me find
my own story, and that's much more interesting than having the PR person
trying to ram their story down your throat." Nancy Novogrod,
editor-in-chief of Travel + Leisure, insists PR pros could polish their
prowess by emulating Salvadore.
"She's cultured, genuine, and her skills are natural and direct. She
charms you, befriends you, and makes you care about what she values. She
understands the psyche of the American journalist and editor."
Salvadore, who lives in a book- and memento-packed cottage on the
grounds of Villa d'Este, is also an accomplished writer, albeit a slow
one. She spent 10 years ghostwriting a cookbook for the resort. Villa
d'Este Style, her coffee table book, is selling well, a year after its
debut. Novelist Joseph Heller wrote the introduction, his last piece
before his December 1999 death.
Salvadore has no plans to hang it all up. "Retire? I'm not even an
employee," she laughs. "I'm only a consultant." And she doesn't even
have a contract.
1942: Graduated Visconti, Rome (high school)
1944-1946: American Red Cross, Rome, information desk (where she mainly
served coffee and doughnuts to American GIs)
1946-1966: PR manager, TWA, Rome
1966-present: In-house PR consultant, Villa d'Este, Cernobbio, Italy.