How a quest for adventure took Georgia Durante on the ride of her life
By LY ANN PETERSON
Three tumbles and a bottoms-up skid turned a vintage 1973 Dino Ferrari into scrap metal once valued at $250,000. It turned the driver, stuntwoman Georgia Durante, into a legend. Not only did Georgia walk away from the heap, she nailed the move--a 180-degree turn at a high speed--the next day with an identical car.
Georgia, 49, is no coward. "I stopped 40 feet short of a sheared-off cliff," she said of the rollover. "The whole time I was thinking, 'Oh man. I smashed up a $250,000 car.' I never once thought about my life." For much of her life, Georgia had fleeting respect for herself. She was shattered as a 1969 high school senior when her brother-in-law Dick raped her. To the rest of America, she was its Kodak Girl, her polka-dotted image standing in 80,000 storefronts across the country.
By the age of 17, she was the most photographed girl in the country. Her successful modeling career that began when she was 12 splashed her beautiful face across magazines and commercials around the states. In her own eyes, she saw a used, worthless girl.
It wasn't until she became associated with the Italian Mafia in her hometown of Rochester, N.Y., that she felt somewhat safe. Her beauty initially attracted the attention of Sammy Gingello, future head of the Rochester Mob, who took the role as Georgia's surrogate big brother when he spotted her in a local club at the age of 13.
Sammy's favors included several beatings of men who paid unwanted attention to her. Sammy was even willing to kill Dick after he discovered who had raped Georgia. All Georgia had to do was give Sammy a nod, a move she could never make because she couldn't accept the violence.
Instead, she welcomed the attention of the Mafia men, who validated her worthiness by offering her protection and trust. "Back in that era, if you weren't a virgin by the time you were married, you were worthless," she said. "I really believe that that rape had a lot to do with the decisions I made. They (the Mafia) respected me."
Georgia soon moved to New York for her modeling career, promptly falling in love with club owner Frankie Conti. She witnessed her first Mob shooting at Frankie's club, serving as the victim's hospital escort and impressing the men with her maneuvering capability. Thus began her undercover career as a Mob getaway driver.
Georgia had honed her driving skills at age 12 when she would race golf carts on country club greens. She then progressed to stealing her parents' car for late-night rides, and eventually she began winning weekend drag races against the Rochester boys. By the time she reached New York, she was a master behind any steering wheel.
Frankie, however, had other plans for Georgia. Rather than deepen her involvement with the Mob, he suggested she return to Rochester to break away from them. So Georgia took a respite from New York City and returned home.
She married Tom during his two-week leave from the Army, knowing that prospects for a future with Frankie were shady. She became pregnant on her honeymoon with her daughter, Toni, but the marriage ended after two years. "Tom lives in his truck," Georgia said of his current situation. "I even knew then that he would never change. He would always be right where he was." The night she left Tom, Georgia met nightclub owner Joe Lamendola, who immediately declared he would marry her. She was a single, 19-year-old mother, and two years later Joe's prediction was validated. "I always felt more comfortable being married because I was always being hit on," Georgia said. "It was kind of safe to be in a relationship so I didn't have to deal with that." Instead, she began enduring brutal physical and emotional abuse from Joe, who repeatedly beat her and told her she was worthless. He held her over a balcony by her ankles to keep her from leaving, and twice he pulled the trigger of a gun loaded with one bullet to scare her into submission. "I always thought I'd be dead by 21," Georgia said. "You live every day like it's your last." Georgia's shaky confidence in herself slowly collapsed with each verbal sting and arm swing she suffered. "I had this 'Georgia Black' and 'Georgia White.' Georgia Black would just take over," she said. "There was so much trauma in my life, there was no more Georgia White. There was only Georgia Black." Though she made attempts to leave Joe, she was never successful until they were in San Diego, Calif., hiding from the New York Mob. "It was very, very hard, and I knew when I did it I could not go back," she said. "He had me believing all that stuff. My daughter and I would go sit on the beach, shivering. Sometimes we'd spend all night out there, waiting for him to calm down." Georgia gained the strength to leave Joe from her daughter. As he played tennis on a nearby court, Georgia watched Toni play with another girl. "It was the first time I'd seen her laugh for ages." Then, as the little girl's father played with her, Toni sat on the edge of the pool and watched with a longing expression on her face. "My heart just broke," Georgia said. "It was the first time I had seen her pain. I was so engrossed in my pain that I didn't see hers. "I just walked over there, took her hand, threw whatever I could in the car and drove off." She had $7 for both of them and no clue where to go. For a time, Georgia said she stole food from convenience stores to feed Toni and herself, but she wouldn't return to Joe for any reason this time. That was 1977. Today, Georgia is a successful, unmarried career woman living in Hollywood. "I live in a 4,800-square-foot home that I basically built myself," she said. "You can start with nothing and make something out of it."Healing the bruises
Georgia briefly married Richard Adray, a millionaire businessman who found more pleasure cheating on her than spending time with her. Nine days after their son, Dustin, was born, Georgia discovered his appetite for other women and drugs. The marriage ended less than four years after its beginning. Once again, Georgia was on her own. But this time was different. She began looking for career options outside of modeling, knowing she was nearing the twilight of her career. She then realized her first and ongoing love—driving cars--could earn her some money.
She trained as a stunt driver, outmaneuvering her teachers and excelling with a natural instinct for driving. After five years, she founded her own stunt driving company, Performance Two, Inc., which now employs 14 drivers Georgia personally trained. She and her fleet have recorded commercials for every major car company in the United States, as well as spots in England, Germany and Japan. "What the Blue Angels do in the air, we do on the ground," Georgia said. "There are only two other companies like mine in the country, and one other has been in longer than I have." She has doubled stars from Cindy Crawford to Priscilla Presley, working on more than 300 commercials and 20 motion pictures. Last week, she was in the Austin area filming a Chevrolet commercial with Bobby Unser Jr., one of the drivers who works with Performance Two. "I never really did think I would be doing this when I was 50," she said. "I'm not really into this for my ego. The car is the hero, not the driver. You do your job. You do it well. The minute you start showing off, you could be bending metal."
Georgia's ultimate challenge was penning her autobiography, "The Company She Keeps," which she began around the time her ex-husband Joe killed himself. "I did not start out writing a book," she said. "I did this for therapy. It's amazing how many women are coming out of the woodwork with this book." The book was released in October 1998, and Georgia has since become a staple for women's forums. She has been touring Texas, speaking to radio stations and women's shelters about her experiences, and she will appear at Round Rock's Hasting's Entertainment store Nov. 19 for a book signing and discussion. "I do a lot to raise awareness on women's abuse," she said. She plans to focus her next book on celebrities who've had abusive relationships. Betty Broderick, who was convicted of killing her husband, recently sent Georgia a letter from the state prison, asking to speak with her about the abuse Broderick's husband inflicted on her. Georgia said this could become her next book.Finding a voice
Almost half a century of adrenaline-fueled adventures and introspective searching have led Georgia to her current status: successful businesswoman, mother, homemaker, stunt driver, author and hero. She is not afraid to tell her story because "mostly everyone is dead or they're in jail for life," she said. "I'm also dating the ex-chief of the strike force." She speaking about criminal defense attorney Jim Henderson, former head of the Justice Department's Los Angeles organized crime unit and her boyfriend of three years. They met at a party where Georgia's date convinced Henderson to let Georgia decorate his home. When Henderson later spoke with her at her house, he told her he couldn't wait past the weekend to see her again. "I said, 'Maybe you should read my manuscript first and see if you still want to go out with me,'" Georgia said. They've been together ever since. She and Frankie, though living in different worlds on different coasts, continue their close friendship--"I'm going to be the best man at his wedding next month," she said. Now, she can comfortably say, "I like myself." Her job combines the danger she craves with the strength she possesses. She repeatedly stares at death and walks away from it. "I think that's probably what's exciting to me," she said. "I can cheat it just so many times."Georgia Durante Site