Passing San Lorenzo, the famous restaurant, the other week, I was reminded of a pleasant lunch there, years ago, with a charming American lady: Louise Collins, widow of Peter. She had been to Silverstone a few days earlier and had not really known what to expect, inevitably wondering if it would spark memories of another time.
“When Peter won the British Grand Prix in 1958, it was a perfect day. The weather was great and Silverstone had an English garden party atmosphere. He took the lead from Stirling at the start and led all the way. Wonderful.”
Now, though, Silverstone triggered nothing in her mind. “It was fun, but it was like a whole different place. I always sat on the pit counter, and did my lap chart, and the cars were right there in front of you; now there’s this wall between the pits and the track.”
At Silverstone there had been a party celebrating the publication of Chris Nixon’s biography of Collins and Mike Hawthorn. These days Louise lives in Connecticut, and the book had caused quite a stir when one day she took it to work. Not all her colleagues appreciated she had been married to a great racing driver — nor been a Broadway star, in her maiden name of Louise King.
“I was in The Seven Year Itch with Tom Ewell, who had made the movie with Marilyn Monroe. Theatre was always my first love — in fact, I turned down a Hollywood contract because it would have precluded stage work. About a year later I met Peter, and a week after that we were married.”
At once, Louise was pitched into a new way of life, and she embraced it. “It really wasn’t that different, in many ways. I’d toured with different plays, and those circumstances lead to instant friendships, if you like, so I was used to that kind of thing — accepting a new family.”
Collins with Louise before that fateful 1958 German GP
Grand Prix Photo
At the time her husband was Ferrari’s number one driver, and very much his favourite. “Ferrari looked upon him as a kind of surrogate son,” she said, “and it was the same with Laura — Mrs Ferrari, that is. They had lost their only son, Dino, and they kind of adopted Peter.
“Ferrari always seemed a tragic character to me. And Laura — there was one powerful woman! There was something sinister about her, and she was very heavy going. She was kindly to me, but I never saw any humour at all. She always wore black, very forbidding, and she and Ferrari went to the cemetery every day.
I don’t mean to sound hard, but it struck me as very theatrical somehow. Losing their son understandably clouded them, but there seemed no end to it. Eventually Peter went to see Ferrari and, in effect, told him to snap out of it. It made him angry that he was neglecting the factory, spending so much time in this mourning.
“People couldn’t believe anyone would have the guts to say something like that to Ferrari, but he accepted it, and was much brighter after that. It was around then he loaned us a villa near Modena. And he got involved with quite a few younger people at the same time…”
Louise chuckled at the memory. It was always said, after all, that Ferrari pursued the ladies at least as fervently as grand prix victories.
“I knew things had changed one day when I was driving through Modena. There was Laura in a polkadot dress! And that was about the time we heard Ferrari was keeping this girl in Florence or some place. She had been Luigi Musso’s girlfriend.”