LEGENDARY VAMP TAKES A FINAL BOW : Pola Negri on Her Hollywood Heydays
“Please don’t write that I’m old,” said Pola Negri. “Just say that all my dear friends are dead.” Then, almost as an afterthought, she added, “I hope to go to California soon on vacation in July or August.”
She was never to make the trip alive. She died here Aug. 1, at what is believed to be age 87, of pneumonia. On Wednesday, she was entombed in Los Angeles’ Calvary Cemetery and Mausoleum and a memorial Mass was said at Bright Mount Catholic Church, which she had helped to establish. Negri had been prepared since 1959 for her death by obtaining a crypt next to her mother’s. The crypt had been inscribed with her name and date of birth (Dec. 31, 1899, although other records list her as being born in Poland in 1894), and even though there was no date listed for the year of her death, a close friend said that visitors to the cemetery often assumed that Negri had died. That’s how much of another era she was.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Aug. 12, 1987 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 12, 1987 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 2 Column 4 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
In a Sunday Calendar article about the late actress Pola Negri, it was stated that silent era film star Vilma Banky had died. In fact, the actress lives in seclusion in a Los Angeles area rest home. She is believed to be 89.
In a rare interview a month ago, the silent screen star was in her sitting room still weak from a recent bout with pneumonia, but ready to chat and enthused by the Pope’s coming visit to San Antonio. “Being a good Catholic and a Polish Catholic at that--you know we are both of Polish descent,” she whispered in an aside, “I am looking forward to this great homage. I hope I will be well enough to greet him personally.”
She signaled her round-the-clock nurse to prop her up as she received a visitor to her condo in the fashionable Alamo Heights neighborhood. There, in the personally appointed rooms, she had lived alone since the mid-1960s, except for ZiZi, her French poodle, which was given a “beautiful"--in her words--send-off when it passed on.
She was nearly totally blind and one eyelid was unable to close. As a result, she would not allow photographs. (Unlike Marlene Dietrich, Negri never felt that she had been photographed to death, and once told intimates that her portrait in Life magazine in the early ‘80s made “Mary Astor’s look like my grandmother.”)
“I’m probably the only one of the old stars left to celebrate the Hollywood centennial,” she said in a deep-toned, throaty voice that reminded one of the imperial Pola Negri, the vamp who captivated movie audiences throughout the ‘20s. It was as if she were holding court all over again, her spirits riding high on her past glories. “You will also be interested to know I was one of the first stars of the early movies. I came here from Germany as a great international star. Ernst Lubitsch and I created such a sensation in Germany, Europe and New York.”
Her dark exotic looks made men’s hearts palpitate and women imitate her exotic style from leather boots to trend-setting turbans. She would often play queens and courtesans and appeared in such films as Lubitsch’s “Carmen” and “Forbidden Paradise” as well as “Hotel Imperial,” “Barbed Wire” and “The Spanish Dancer.” Once movies with sound came in, Negri, unfortunately, went out. Her thick accent became her weak link, yet her final Hollywood movie and her first talking picture, “A Woman Commands,” included her signature song, “Paradise.”
“When I arrived in Hollywood (in 1923), Paramount was still near Hollywood and Vine, not at that glorious studio on Marathon Street,” the actress said. Paramount was only 11 years old at the time and was known as Famous Players-Lasky. (Surprisingly, of her 20 Paramount films, none are scheduled in the mammoth retrospective being held in Los Angeles to celebrate the studio’s 75th anniversary.)
Negri quickly found herself pitted against the studio’s reigning queen, Gloria Swanson. The publicity department did its best to make the screen divas into arch enemies. In fact, the feud so fired the press that Swanson filmed in the Astoria Studios in New York while Negri reigned on the West Coast.
After Swanson left Paramount to make her own films for United Artists, Negri was given a considerable raise in salary: $7,500 a week for the first year, $8,500 a week for the second year and $10,000 a week for the third and a European vacation. Even in romantic matters, the rivalry continued. Negri gained the upper hand at one point by landing a prince while Swanson had to settle for a count.
“We were competitors, the two queens of Paramount,” she said. “But actually we were always friends.” In 1950, when Billy Wilder was casting a silent-screen “type” for his landmark “Sunset Boulevard,” it was rumored that he asked Negri first and she supposedly retorted, “I’m too young to play a 55-year-old woman.”
Was that another publicity fabrication? “Yes and no. I was indeed offered the part by Wilder, but I was not in good health. I had pneumonia at the time. So I didn’t accept the part. But Gloria did. She had a great success with it. I loved the script. I knew she would be great in it.” Negri’s voice didn’t betray any hint of jealously as she lauded her former competitor.
Negri’s longtime attorney and confidante, Gilbert Denman, recalled in an interview that, “When Swanson donated all of her papers and memorabilia to the University of Texas in Austin, she called Pola and asked to come visit--imagine after all these years as rivals. She had some materials she wanted to share with Pola. They set up a date and Pola was besides herself preparing for their reunion. Sadly, Gloria passed on before they could meet.”
Commenting on the Negri’s meeting with a reporter, Denman said he was “surprised” she allowed it. “She gave her last interview in 1970 when her memoirs were published.” And although he described the actress as being in “very delicate health,” he said she was “spirited despite her frail appearance.”
Another of Negri’s close friends, Father Louis Reile, joined Denman in a bit of reminiscing over lunch at the St. Anthony Hotel. Reile headed San Antonio’s Hemisfilm Festival for many years and the organization had given Negri an award for her contribution to film in 1969--an honor equal only to the German Film Prize given to her in 1964 “for long and extraordinary achievement in the development of German film.”
Reile in turn has been the recipient of Negri’s largess, for she had donated personal copies of her silent film work in Germany and the United States (including the rarely seen German sound films she made in the ‘30s) to the cinema arts department at St. Mary’s University here.
Reile said: “She used to tell me that she abhorred going to San Simeon to visit her dear friend Marion Davies because she couldn’t get a decent drink. She loves Champagne. I guess being born on New Year’s Eve, you naturally get used to it.”
Negri also was offered the part of the queen mother in “Anastasia,” Reile said. “But she thought that the $15,000 they offered her was paltry in comparison to her usual fee. I believe she was also mentioned for the part of Pilar in ‘For Whom The Bells Tolls.’ But I understand that Hemingway wanted Katrina Paxinou for the part. So she didn’t pursue it.”
But during the interview, Negri claimed she couldn’t remember if the “Anastasia” offer actually occurred. But she added: “I was also offered the lead in ‘The Good Earth’ but I had returned to Germany and I couldn’t get out of my contract with Carl Laemmle and UFA. It would have been great for my career.”)
And what about Negri’s legendary affairs? She said she had “many” and with the most famous Hollywood leading men.
“Rudy was the great love of my life. I remember him with great regret. Somehow, the fates changed what wasn’t to be. You can’t rage with anger against it, and even though you love someone, you like to be with them and want to marry them and hope that it will all work out this time . . . but he died, just when we were engaged to be married.” Negri spoke in a rush of words. And somehow it seemed as if she still hadn’t accepted his death.
Several years ago, at a tribute to Rudolph Valentino given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, its president, Fay Kanin, read a telegram during the proceedings. “We miss beloved Rudy,” the wire read. “He was a true star. I applaud your homage. Signed, Pola Negri.” A gasp went through the celebrity-filled audience. Many turned to each other expressing surprise--not at the fact of what was said, but that Pola Negri was still alive. Negri remembered that moment: “When they read the telegram, everyone cried and gave me a standing ovation in absentia.”
Valentino’s career was on the skids when he met Negri. He had also left his wife, Natasha Rambova. Negri was well known and certainly matched Valentino’s flair for publicity and headline making. Hollywood veterans still quibble over the amount of money Negri spent on the widow’s weeds she wore as she accompanied his funeral bier back to Hollywood in 1926, or if the 1,000-rose floral display she put on the coffin spelled out “POLA.” (Negri gained news space and headlines throughout the world unequalled until Jackie Kennedy accompanied her husband’s body back to Washington some 40 years later.)
There was a bizarre finality to their love affair, however. She successfully sued Valentino’s estate for the $15,000 he had borrowed from her when he needed cash to create the illusion that he was financially independent during negotiations for a new contract.
When queried about Charlie Chaplin, she would only say that he was prone “to temper tantrums without a sense of humor about his personal life.” Once, after disappointing her by not attending her birthday/New Year’s party, he surprised her with an engagement ring.
It was, however, a raw unset diamond. Chaplin claimed that he hadn’t had time to get it mounted. Later, he broke the engagement--giving a story to the Los Angeles Examiner that would end up making him appear as the victim. The headline on March 2, 1923, blared: NEGRI JILTS CHAPLIN.
Negri ultimately got even.
Denman filled in the details of a story only sketchily recounted in Negri’s memoirs: “Pola never returned Charlie’s engagement ring. Instead, she gave it to one of her lovers and leading men, Rod La Roque, as a present. Chaplin challenged La Roque to a fist fight when he learned what Pola had done.” What isn’t in the memoirs is the fact that when La Roque got married to Vilma Banky, he had the ring reset into a woman’s engagement ring. “Poor Vilma never knew this and Pola didn’t put that in the book because both La Roque and Banky were still alive. But he died shortly after and she did recently, so now it can be told.”
Negri married Prince Serge Mdivani almost a year after Valentino’s death. It caused her a loss of popularity and her fan mail dwindled overnight. “They wanted me to remain faithful to Rudy’s legend. I refused.”
She then “retired,” taking the European vacation that Paramount owed her. (Actually, the studio didn’t renew her contract.)
Negri made 20 films between 1923 and 1928 for Paramount--only one was directed by her mentor, Ernst Lubitsch, “Forbidden Paradise.” In 1929, while living in France, she reportedly lost more than $5 million in the stock market crash. Her marriage to Mdivani soon evaporated (he had little money) and she miscarried.
She returned to film, making “Street of Abandoned Children” in England. Coaxed back to the States in 1932 by RKO, after successfully passing a sound test, she starred in a “A Woman Commands.” In the mid-30s, she returned to Germany, where she became an unwilling favorite of Hitler in such talkies as “Mazurka.” In it, she plays Vera, a blonde cabaret singer (whose husky voice recalls Dietrich) and she kills her daughter’s lover because the same man--a composer-pianist--once jilted her and ruined her career.
Today, the film hints of the direction Hitler’s Germany was heading at the time. The composer-pianist is, of course, Jewish. And the woman (read the Motherland) is ultimately freed for defending her daughter’s honor (read the German youth of that day). Negri described the film’s effect on the Fuehrer in her autobiography, “Memoirs of a Star”: “Its story of mother love would reduce this paradoxically sentimental monster to loud, slobbering tears.”
As Nazism rose, Negri snuck out of Germany and came back to the United States, landing at Ellis Island with a boatload of immigrants. She was waiting to be interrogated when a customs official recognized her and asked for an autograph. Later, she went on tour across the country raising money for the war effort. Her last film before her official retirement was a comedy “Hi Diddle Diddle” in 1943, with Adolphe Menjou. In 1951, she became an American citizen.
The estate of the late Margaret West, Negri’s longtime companion and her benefactor, provided her with a comfortable life during her later years.
It was shortly after World War II that Negri met West, a wealthy Texas cowgirl who appeared on the radio in the ‘30s in New York City. Stranded in New York after her flight from Nazi Germany, Negri had little money to live on, much less bring her mother Eleonora to the States. It was West who provided the means to that end.
Although West was married at the time and later remarried, it didn’t stop rumors from hounding them about their relationship. In her autobiography, Negri squelched the rumors: “No one could believe that we were closest friends, that nothing sexual was involved. Yet it is true. She was as close a friend as I’ve ever had.” In 1964, the year West died, Negri made what she called “a comeback” in in Walt Disney’s “Moonspinners.” She said she only took the part to forget West’s death.
For years, other rumors circulated that Negri was born under a Gypsy curse that had ruined her love life, that all her husbands or lovers had ultimately died untimely deaths. Negri quickly scoffed at the suggestion. “It was an invention of my publicity, dahling. “