He went by the name of Jean Leon and was close friends with the legendary star, as well as with other classic Hollywood celebrities. The story of his life is stranger than fiction and absolutely extraordinary.
The value of silence
“What makes people strong is their ability to keep a secret,” said Jean Leon. No doubt he kept many, both his own and those of others. The most delicate among them: the last night of Marilyn's life (August 5th, 1962).
Marilyn most likely called him, because she wanted to dine at home. Jean Leon, owner of the famous La Scala restaurant, personally delivered one of her favorites: fettuccini. In fact, every dish on the menu was named after a star. One of the most memorable was, of course, the “Fettuccini Marilyn,” which, as one might expect, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was particularly fond of...
Jean Leon never said whether she was alone that night or, as was rumored, with Robert Kennedy. He might even have exaggerated the entire anecdote, given his love for embellishing a good story. At this point, however, you might be wondering how a guy from Spain ended up befriending all of Hollywood and calling himself Jean Leon.
Jean Leon was born in Santander under the far less glamorous name of Ceferino Carrión. His childhood and early adolescence were hard: First, he and his family lost their home in a fire in 1941 (they then moved to Barcelona). Then he lost his father and older brother in a tragic accident during World War II. Fleeing the poverty of his own country, he made his way to France where, after eight attempts, he finally stowed away on a ship bound for the United States.
From charismatic cab driver to owner of a legendary restaurant
A new life called for a new name—especially if your dream was to become an actor. He left Ceferino behind, along with the rest of his past. He reinvented himself as Jean Leon when he arrived in Los Angeles after a stint as a New York cabbie with the license number 3055. (Recognize the number?)
He met Frank Sinatra, who hired him as a waiter at his restaurant Villa Capri. Thanks to his charisma, ingenuity and artfulness, he eventually befriended The Voice and customers like James Dean, Dennis Hopper and Natalie Wood.
With his network of contacts in place, he set his sights on the next goal: opening his own restaurant. He and James Dean were about to do so—everything was ready to go—but the latter's untimely death cut their plans short. Eventually, Jean Leon got a loan from his brother-in-law and opened a restaurant that would become legend: La Scala. His knack for PR turned it into the “place to be,” an exuberant spot filled with stars night after night.
The celebrity who revolutionized the wine world
By now a well-known Hollywood figure in his own right, Jean Leon was already thinking up his next venture: creating his own wine for the La Scala clientele. He settled on the Penedès where his extravagant proposal—to plant French varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay—left everyone dumbfounded. Not only did he achieve his goal, but did so most successfully. It marked the birth of Jean Leon wines, made in Spain, but with French charm.
The year was 1963. If Marilyn had lived another year, she might have tried the wine, which would go on to enormous success in the US—so much so that it was chosen for Ronald Reagan's presidential inauguration in 1981.
Jean Leon died in 1996. He never realized his third dream: creating a second La Scala in Thailand, where he had moved after Hollywood's Golden Age came to an end.
The best way of exploring his fascinating life story is to visit the Jean Leon winery, where you can see an interesting exhibition of photographs and objects that belonged to its founder (and which capture the glamour of old Hollywood), go on a dramatized tour, enjoy a wine tasting, tour the vineyards and more. If you don't get the chance to visit, you can still check out the highly recommendable documentary 3055 Jean Leon by Agustí Vila.