Jose Luis de Vilallonga

Actor, writer and bon viveur
Click to follow
The Independent Online

José Luis de Vilallonga y Cabeza de Vaca, Marqués de Castellbell, Baró* de Segur, Maldá y Maldanell, Grande de España, writer and actor: born Madrid 9 January 1920; married 1945 The Hon Priscilla Scott-Ellis (died 1983; one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1972), 1974 Syliane Stella Morell (one stepson; marriage dissolved 1995), 1999 Begoña Aranguren; died Port d'Andratx, Spain 30 August 2007.

José Luis de Vilallonga, left-wing aristocrat, screen actor and bon viveur, played the dashing Brazilian multi-millionaire who wooed Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's. The movie's star, Audrey Hepburn, chose him for the role. It was the one of the high points of an acting career that included more than 70 films. In 1994 his artistic achievements were recognised by the French government, which appointed him to the Légion d'honneur.

Vilallonga also wrote several books of fiction and memoirs, and the authorised biography of King Juan Carlos. Leading a glamorous life that was picked over by Spain's voracious gossip magazines for decades, Vilallonga enjoyed all the pleasures and privileges his high birth afforded. His father was Salvador, Marquis of Castellbell, one of those Spanish aristocrats with the title of Grande or Grandee, and his mother the daughter of the Marquis of Portago.

Educated in France, Vilallonga bred polo ponies and racehorses in Argentina, conquered beautiful women of the international jet set, including Zsa Zsa Gabor's sister, cruised on the finest yachts, rubbed shoulders with the Onassises, the Kennedys and the Rothschilds, and was renowned for his indolent air and lanky elegance.

His early childhood was inauspicious, however. He spent his first two years in a Munich clinic where he overcame an intestinal complaint that he had been born with. He backed Franco's Nationalist rebels in the Civil War in 1936 at the instigation of his austere father, who prodded him to join a Fascist firing squad at 16 "to toughen him up", and where he shot people daily. His experience left him "painfully confused" until, in 1946, the Catalan writer Josep Pla urged him: "Write, young man, write."

He settled in Barcelona and contributed to the magazine Destino and the newspapers El Noticiero Universal and Diario de Barcelona. He launched upon, then abandoned, a diplomatic career, and moved to Britain. His first novel, Las Ramblas terminan en el mar ("The Ramblas end in the sea"), in 1954, displeased the authorities, who banned him from Spain.

He decamped to Paris, returning home only after Franco's death in 1975. In 1958 he made his acting début in Louis Malle's Les Amants (The Lovers). In 1961 he played José da Silva Pereira, the man Holly Golightly planned to marry in Blake Edwards's classic Breakfast at Tiffany's. There followed minor roles in dozens of films, including Federico Fellini's Giulietta degli Spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits).

He interviewed politicians and personalities for Paris-Match, Marie Claire and Vogue, and contributed to Barcelona's daily La Vanguardia; the soft-porn scandal weekly Interviú – with a racy column entitled "Letters from Paris" – and edited Spain's version of Playboy.

Vilallonga dropped his association with the far right and moved towards socialism, but never rejected his family's monarchism. In February 1981, days after a failed military coup in Madrid, he joined the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party, and became known as the "Red Marquis". He kept a photo of the Socialist leader Felipe González in his office.

Vilallonga's best-known book, his authorised biography of King Juan Carlos, appeared in 1993 and sold 300,000 copies in six weeks. El Rey ("The King") was based on 27 hours of taped conversations held while the monarch was recovering from a skiing accident. It was an insider's account of Juan Carlos's role in Spain's transition from dictatorship to democracy.

He was married three times: first to Priscilla Scott-Ellis, daughter of the 8th Baron Howard de Walden, whom he divorced in 1972; then to the French fashion expert Syliane Stella Morell in 1974. They were divorced in 1995, but Syliane cared for him as his health failed, and was with him when he died. In October 1997 he broke off a relationship with María Vidaurreta, and in 1999 married the journalist Begoña Aranguren, from whom he separated in 2002.

Elizabeth Nash