Negri, Pola (1894–1987)

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Negri, Pola (1894–1987)

Polish-born actress. Born Barbara Apollonia (or Appolonia) Chalupec or Chalupiec in Lipno or Janowa, Poland, on December 31, 1894 (some sources cite 1897 and 1899); died in San Antonio, Texas, on August 1, 1987; only surviving child of Jerzy Chalupec (a tin master) and Eleanora (de Kielczeska) Chalupec; attended a convent school; attended the Warsaw Imperial Academy of Dramatic Arts; married Count Eugene Dambski (a diplomat), in 1920 (divorced 1922); married Prince Serge Mdivani, in 1927 (divorced 1931); no children.

Selected filmography:

Slaves of Passion (1914); Beast (1915); The Black Book (1915); His Last Exploit (1916); Zona (1916); Students (1916); Arabella (1916); Zügelloses Blut (1917); Die Toten Augen (1917); Der gelbe Schein (The Yellow Ticket, 1918); Mania (1918); Die Augen der Mumie Ma (The Eyes of the Mummy, 1918); Carmen (Gypsy Blood, 1918); Das Karusell des Lebens (1919); Madame Dubarry (Passion, 1919); Comptesse Doddy (1919); Geschlossene Kette (1920); Das Marthyrium (1920); Sumurun (One Arabian Night, 1920); Marchesa d'Armiani (1921); Vendetta (1921); Arme Violetta (The Red Peacock, 1921); Die Bergkatze (The Mountain Cat, 1921); Sappho (Mad Love, 1921); Die Dame im Glashaus (1922); Die Flamme (Montmartre, 1922); Bella Donna (1923); The Cheat (1923); (cameo) Hollywood (1923); The Spanish Dancer (1923); Shadows of Paris (1924); Men (1924); Lily of the Dust (1924); Forbidden Paradise (1924); East of Suez (1925); The Charmer (1925); Flower of Night (1925); A Woman of the World (1925); The Crown of Lies (1926); Good and Naughty (1926); Hotel Imperial (1927); Barbed Wire (1927); The Woman on Trial (1927); Three Sinners (1928); The Secret Hour (1928); Loves of an Actress (1928); The Woman from Moscow (1928); The Woman He Scorned (1930); A Woman Commands (1932); Fanatisme (1932); Mazurka (1935); Moskau-Shanghai (1936); Madame Bovary (1937); Tango Notturno (1938); Die fromme Lüge (1938); Die Nacht der Entscheidung (1938); Hi Diddle Diddle (1943); The Moon-Spinners (1964).

The exotic actress Pola Negri was a publicist's dream when she landed on American shores in 1922. Already the veteran of a series of films by

the brilliant German director Ernst Lubitsch (1892–1947), she had captured the imagination of U.S. filmgoers with her starring role in Madame Dubarry (1919), which had crossed the ocean as Passion. While Negri's Hollywood films were not of lasting value, her dark, mysterious persona and colorful love life made her one of the most enticing and enduring personalities of the American silent era. Most of her memorable work, however, was done in Poland and Germany.

Born into impoverished nobility in 1894, Negri began life as Barbara Chalupec, in Lipno or Janowa, Poland, then a Russian territory. Her mother earned her living as a cook, while her father, a Slovakian immigrant tin master, became involved in Poland's fight for independence and was exiled to a Siberian prison in 1905. Somehow her mother found a way to send Negri to the Imperial Ballet School, although a bout with tuberculosis interrupted her dancing career. She then transferred to the Imperial Academy of Dramatic Arts, after which she enjoyed some success on the stage in Warsaw, acting under her new stage name adapted from Italian poet Ada Negri . Pola made her film debut as a dancer in Niewonica Zmyslow (Love and Passion), a movie she financed and wrote herself. This early effort led to a contract with the Polish Sphinx Company for seven films, all of which were directed by Alexander Hertz. Negri next turned up on the stage in Berlin, playing a harem girl in Max Reinhardt's revival of Sumurun (1916). At the time of her arrival in Berlin, the social, economic and political structures in Germany were crumbling, but the film industry was flourishing. Negri stayed on, distinguishing herself in the historical films of comic actor-turned-director Ernst Lubitsch, particularly Carmen (1918) and Madame Dubarry (1919), the latter of which was exported to the United States with great success. (Theodore Huff called her performance in the film "colourful" and "almost never equalled for vitality and emotional depth.") While rising to stardom, Negri was also married briefly (1920–22) to Count Eugene Dambski, the first of her two titled husbands.

As a result of the popularity of her German films, and possibly because of Lubitsch's growing world reputation, Negri was lured to Hollywood by Paramount, which offered her a large paycheck and star treatment. Arriving in 1922, she was cast as the murderous vamp in Bella Donna (1923), the farfetched tale of an adventurer who, after being forsaken by her lovers and her husband, walks into the sands of Egypt and is eaten by a panther. Moviegoers who flocked to see the German import were disappointed, although the public relations department at Paramount sweetened Negri's debut by inventing a feud between her and established studio star Gloria Swanson . Negri next appeared in a remake of The Cheat and in The Spanish Dancer (both 1923), followed by four films in 1924, including Forbidden Paradise, her only American film directed by Lubitsch. She then made an excursion into light comedy with A Woman of the World (1925), in which she played a scandalous titled foreigner who lands in a small Midwestern town to visit relatives. Despite her flair for drawing-room comedy, the brooding star seemed hopelessly out of place, a fact of which she was all too well aware: "There was no more call on my abilities as an actress than there was on one of Ziegfeld's showgirls," she later said about her treatment in America.

Negri's off-screen life was as closely watched as anything on screen; reporters followed her every move. A stormy romance with Charlie Chaplin, to whom she was briefly engaged, provided grist for the gossip mill, as did her exotic red nail polish and her Russian-style turbans and high boots. In 1925, she began a supposedly passionate affair with screen idol Rudolph Valentino, whose wife Natasha Rambova had just left him. In her autobiography, Negri's first dance with Valentino, which occurred just minutes after their meeting at a costume party, is recorded in lavish prose: "I did not look at him because I felt the beauty of his features was as deceptive as the matador's suit that covered his body," she wrote. "As the savage primitive beat emerged from behind the sophistication of the tango, the gilded drawing room walls receded and I felt as if we were on the edge of a jungle. Once more I was gripped by terror as Valentino's true sexuality reached out and captured me." (In fact, Valentino's true sexuality is generally agreed to have been homosexual.)

The reputed romance flourished until Valentino's untimely death in the summer of 1926, following his operation for appendicitis and gastric ulcers. In a dramatic outpouring of grief, Negri threw herself on Valentino's coffin, then fainted at the funeral. "How should I have behaved?" she wrote. "I simply reacted to despair in the only way of which I was capable—naturally and spontaneously." While her histrionics may have been sincere, the American press fairly crucified her in print. The public never took her seriously again.

Paramount, however, still had Negri under contract, and had to make what use they could of their tarnished star. Between 1927 and 1928, she appeared in seven films, the best of which were two directed by Mauritz Stiller: Barbed Wire (1927), an anti-war drama, and Hotel Imperial (1927), another war film which many consider the best movie she made in Hollywood. Her days at Paramount ended with The Woman from Moscow (1928), although by this time career considerations had taken a back seat to yet another ill-starred marriage. The new bridegroom was Serge Mdivani, one of three brothers who during the 1920s and 1930s made a career out of marrying as many actresses and heiresses as time and their good looks would allow. (David Mdivani married Mae Murray ; Alexis Mdivani married Barbara Hutton .) Serge was possessive and jealous, and the union was stormy from the start. The couple enjoyed a brief period of stability when Negri became pregnant and gave up working, but after she miscarried and took up her career once again, the relationship deteriorated. After Negri lost her fortune in the 1929 stock-market crash, Mdivani realized that his lifestyle would be seriously curtailed and left the actress for good. Negri pretty much avoided romance after that, except for a brief relationship with British millionaire and aviator Glen Kidston, to whom she was engaged before his death in a plane crash.

During the early 1930s, Negri worked in England and France. RKO tapped her for an American comeback in A Woman Commands (1932), in which she sang a beautiful rendition of "Paradise," but her deep speaking voice and heavy accent were unacceptable for talkies. In 1935, she returned to Germany, where she made another series of successful movies, beginning with Mazurka (1935), a film about mother-love that was said to have to been a favorite of Adolf Hitler. She continued to work in Germany during the Nazis' rise to power, provoking insinuations, some of which she attempted to address in her autobiography Memoirs of a Star (1970). In it, she disavowed a rumored relationship with Hitler, insisting that she had never met him. "I was no more responsible for the fact that I happened to be Hitler's favorite movie star than I was for the crimes committed by the inmates of Alcatraz, who had once voted me their favorite star." She also pointed out that Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels thought she was Jewish and had tried on several occasions to expel her from the country. Negri did not leave Germany until her homeland of Poland was invaded, when she joined the Red Cross in France. She returned to the United States on a re-entry visa in 1941 and made one more comeback attempt in the comedy Hi Diddle Diddle (1943), a backstage story in which she played a temperamental opera singer married to Adolphe Menjou. The movie failed at the box office, and the actress slipped into oblivion.

Pola Negri lived quietly in New York for several years, then resurfaced in Santa Monica, California, where she shared a residence with retired radio personality Margaret West . The two became well known in Hollywood for their extravagant parties and their art collection, although their exact relationship always remained something of a mystery. In 1958 they relocated to San Antonio, where West died suddenly in 1963. Negri was devastated by the loss, but found some solace in performing a cameo in the Disney children's adventure, The Moonspinners (1964). She spent her final years in ill health, but apparently harbored no regrets about her extraordinary life. "The past was wonderful: it was youth and exhilaration," she wrote at the end of her autobiography. "I would not have missed it for worlds. The present is tranquil; it is age and a little wisdom. … I would relinquish neither inner scars not external glories. … There is even a certain edge of triumph in the peacefulness of my present life." Pola Negri died on August 1, 1987.

sources:

Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes, eds. American National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Golden, Eve. "The Opportunist: Pola Negri on her (more or less) Centenary," in Classic Images. December 1997, pp. 4–7.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Lamparski, Richard. Whatever Became of …? NY: Crown, 1967.

Negri, Pola. Memoirs of a Star. NY: Doubleday, 1970.

Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1989.

Uglow, Jennifer S., ed. The International Dictionary of Women's Biography. NY: Continuum, 1985.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts