Pola Negri, ‘Vamp’ of Silent Films, Dies

Times Staff Writers

Pola Negri, the silent screen “vamp” whose passion on film was more than matched by highly publicized off-screen love affairs with Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino, has died in a hospital in San Antonio, Tex.

A spokeswoman for Northeast Baptist Hospital, where Miss Negri was being treated for pneumonia, said the actress died in her sleep Saturday.

Funeral services were pending Sunday. Miss Negri had expressed a wish to have a Mass said for her at Our Lady of Czestochowa Church in San Antonio, and again at a later time in Los Angeles, where she wanted to be buried next to the grave of her mother.


She had no living family.

Miss Negri’s age was listed as 87, in accordance with a story originated by a studio publicity department that said she was the “last child born in the 19th Century--born a few minutes before midnight in the final hours of 1899.”

Other biographies over the years, however, stated the year of her birth as 1897, 1894 and 1901.

And Miss Negri admitted to an interviewer in the 1970s that “my birth date has gotten later and later over the years; a lady’s prerogative, I believe.”

All sources agreed, however, that Miss Negri was one of the first women in Hollywood to rate the accolade that is now bandied about off-handedly in reference to virtual unknowns.

“I was a star,” she said. “A real star--one of the kind who made the word important.”

And there could be little argument.

Renowned throughout ensuing decades as the jet-haired, smoky-eyed beauty who enticed men to their ruin in film after film, Miss Negri set a pattern never entirely discarded for exotic cinematic femmes fatales.


“I was the first,” she said. “And I was the best.”

Born Barbara Apollonia Chalupiec in Janowa, Poland, Miss Negri in later years would tell various interviewers that her parents were a Polish noblewoman married to a Gypsy violinist; a Gypsy queen married to a Polish revolutionary, and a Polish revolutionary couple, who were sent to Siberia for fighting against Russian domination of their homeland.

In any case, Miss Negri said she began her professional career in her early teens, dancing and later acting in Warsaw theaters, where she acquired the professional name that she said was a combination of the intimate form of “Apollonia” and the family name of the Italian poet, Ada Negri.

Before she was 20, Miss Negri was a star in the young and primitive Polish film industry, which used a rooftop for a studio and filmed with natural light.

She moved to Germany during the latter months of World War I, to work with the legendary stage director Max Reinhardt. But the actress also gained international fame there, making lavish, historical costume films under the artful direction of Ernst Lubitsch.

By 1922, Miss Negri was ensconced in a rented Hollywood Boulevard mansion with a staff of four--”We lived modestly in those days,” she later commented--and a Paramount Pictures contract worth $3,000 a week.

The late Gloria Swanson ruled Paramount when Miss Negri arrived and the two had a strained relationship, due primarily to a supposed feud kept alive by the studio for publicity purposes. The two stars once appeared at a gala dinner wearing identical “original design” gowns--whether by chance, or by studio design, remains unknown.

One of the first foreign beauties to be imported by Hollywood, Miss Negri’s mysterious, European allure appealed to the American public. Critics were charmed and praised her acting. But they also frequently remarked that Miss Negri’s talent exceeded her film roles.

Though she was exotic and sensual poised atop a pyramid of publicity--the private Pola Negri professed always to be obsessed with her Roman Catholic faith, devoted to her mother (who lived to be 93) . . . and to seclusion.

She was described variously as “aloof,” “mysterious” and even “snobbish.”

But Miss Negri, who always considered herself a serious actress, defended her behavior by saying that she was absorbed in her work and needed rest and quiet when away from the cameras.

“I am devoted to my public and to my art” became for her what “I want to be alone” was for Greta Garbo.

In the silent-film era of the 1920s, Miss Negri specialized in emotional portrayals of queens and courtesans torn by love in “Bella Donna,” “Forbidden Paradise,” “Hotel Imperial” and 17 other lush, big-budget dramas.

The press, responding to adroit public relations ploys, avidly reported Miss Negri’s quarrels over art with producers and directors, her supposed engagements to assorted millionaires and celebrities--and lawsuits by jewelers and innkeepers over unpaid bills.

The actress popularized painted toenails and turbans and her collection of expensive, showy jewelry was famous.

But it was her love affairs that produced the true gold of publicity bonanza.

Miss Negri once remarked that she always married the men she did not love, never the ones she did. Her unloved husbands included Count Eugene Damski, a dashing Polish Army officer whom she married as a teen-ager and rarely saw, and Prince Serge Mdivani, an impoverished Russian who pursued her across the United States by train and across the Atlantic by ship after she became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

Miss Negri’s first Hollywood romance, with Chaplin, was her most tempestuous. It was covered from start to finish by the press, which at one point camped in her living room when Chaplin refused to leave the house after a quarrel.

‘The Supreme Man’

There were numerous affairs, rumored and actual, with other men, including actor Rod La Rocque. But Miss Negri later said Valentino, for her, represented “perfection . . . the supreme man.”

The night they met at one of Marion Davies’ famous costume balls at Miss Davies’ Santa Monica beach house, they danced the tango as every eye followed them. Miss Negri thought Valentino melancholy, but he sent roses and came to her home for dinner, and they announced their engagement in 1926.

Five months later, Valentino was dead.

Miss Negri went into seclusion, spending months in a rented beach house and later leaving Hollywood. She married Mdivani on the rebound, and then blamed the “Valentino cult” for the box office failure of her next two films, failures that led Paramount to cut her salary, which by then had reached $10,000 a week.

Miss Negri said she was being “punished” for marrying another man, instead of dedicating her life to Valentino’s memory.

She did not marry again after her divorce from Mdivani in the early 1930s, and she had no children.

And Miss Negri did not make another American film until the unsuccessful talkie, “A Woman Commands,” in 1932, which she followed with a vaudeville tour, sharing the bill with George Burns and Gracie Allen and a brash new comic named Milton Berle.

Despite her insistence that she had left Hollywood because of unhappiness with her life there, and not because of professional problems, the 1930s proved a trial for the Polish star.

Miss Negri had made, and kept, a fortune during her Hollywood years, but most of it disappeared in the stock market crash of 1929. The actress was able to recoup some of the losses by starring in German films of the mid-1930s.

But this became an embarrassment in later years when it was charged that she had worked willingly for the Nazis. Miss Negri later won a libel judgment against a French magazine linking her romantically with Adolf Hitler, saying she had never met the dictator.

In 1941, she returned to the United States--as a refugee--saying her money and property were tied up and unavailable to her because of the war. Press reports of the era categorized her as “destitute.”

Her only film during the 1940s was the comedy “Hi Diddle Diddle,” made two years after she returned to America.

Fortunes Turned

But her fortunes turned when she was befriended by Margaret West, a wealthy Texas woman who had once sung Western songs on the radio and liked to dress as a cowgirl. She invited Miss Negri to share her San Antonio estate, her homes on Santa Monica beach and in Bel-Air, and her fondness for travel.

Miss Negri became an American citizen in 1951, and the two women remained devoted companions until Margaret West’s death in 1963.

In her 1970 memoirs, Miss Negri made a point of saying she and Margaret West had not been lovers.

“It was difficult,” she wrote, “for some of the so-called sophisticates to understand that there had not been . . . the slightest tinge of the sexual to what we shared together.”

Miss Negri made a brief but triumphant return to the screen in 1963, with a featured role in Walt Disney’s “The Moonspinners.”

She met the press at the start of filming in London like the movie queen that she once was, with a cheetah on a silver leash trailing behind her. Reporters called her “a stunning 66--without benefit of a face lift.”

Preferred Quiet Life

But Miss Negri did not pursue the renewed career offered her at that time, saying she preferred the quiet life she had found with her friend and companion in Texas.

She spent her later years living quietly in San Antonio, where she had a circle of friends and was active in cultural, charitable and religious organizations.

Speaking to an interviewer in those years, Miss Negri said she remembered the past well, but lived for today and would not change any of her “scars and glories” if she could.

“I have wept and laughed,” she said, “been foolish and wise. There is even a certain edge of triumph in the peacefulness of my present life.”

But she could still be imperious.

“Two or three months ago,” attorney Gilbert Denman recalled, “she was in the hospital and I found her a substitute doctor, because her personal doctor could not be found. He looked like a teen-ager. She had put on her form for occupation: retired actress. The doctor obviously did not know her.”

And her reaction was immediate:

“She raised up in her bed,” Denman said, “and cried out, ‘I was the greatest film actress in the world!’

“And you could see that she believed it . . . and so did he.”