Palmer, Lilli (1914–1986)

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Palmer, Lilli (1914–1986)

A refugee from Nazi Germany who became a noted film and stage actress, writer, and painter. Name variations: Lilli Peiser; Maria Lilli Peiser. Born Maria Lilli Peiser on May 24, 1914, in the German city of Posen (now Poznan, Poland); died of cancer on January 27, 1986, in Los Angeles; daughter of Dr. Alfred Peiser (a surgeon) and Rose (Lissman) Peiser; attended Ilka Gruning School of Acting, Berlin, 1930–32; married Rex Harrison (an actor), in January 1943 (divorced 1957); married Carlos Thompson (an actor), in 1957; children (first marriage) Carey.

Made first stage appearance (1932); exiled in France (1933); exiled in Britain (1934); made first film appearance (1935); met Rex Harrison (1939); emigrated to U.S. (1945); made first American film (1946); endured Carole Landis affair (1948); made first appearance on Broadway (1949); started New York television program, "Lilli Palmer Presents" (1951); made first German film (1954); met Carlos Thompson (1955); divorced Harrison and married Thompson (1957); held first art exhibit, London (1965); published autobiography (1975); wrote first novel, The Red Raven (1978).

Selected filmography:

Crime Unlimited (UK, 1935); Secret Agent (UK, 1936); The Gentle Sex (UK, 1943); English Without Tears (UK, 1944); The Rake's Progress (UK, 1945); Cloak and Dagger (US, 1946); Body and Soul (US, 1947); The Four-Poster (US, 1952); Feuerwerk (Ger., 1954); Anastasia—Die letzte Zarentochter (Ger., 1956); Madchen in Uniform (Ger., 1958); But Not For Me (US, 1959); Conspiracy of Hearts (UK, 1960); The Pleasure of His Company (US, 1961); Le Rendezvous de Minuit (Fr., 1961); The Counterfeit Traitor (US, 1962); Miracle of the Wild Stallions (US, 1963); Operation Crossbow (UK, 1965); Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (UK, 1965); Oedipus the King (UK, 1968); Lotte in Weimar (E. Ger., 1968); The Boys from Brazil (US, 1978); The Holcroft Covenant (UK, 1985).


No Time for Comedy (1940); My Name is Aquilon (1949); Caesar and Cleopatra (1950); Bell, Book and Candle (1951); Suite in Three Keys (1966).


(autobiography) Change Lobsters—and Dance (1975); (novel) The Red Raven (1978); (novel) A Time to Embrace (1980); (novel) Night Music (1982).

A woman of broad interests, Lilli Palmer was an important film and stage actress in the United States and Europe in the three decades following World War II; she was also an accomplished novelist and painter. As both a successful performer in her own right as well as the wife of renowned actor Rex Harrison, she was an acquaintance, and sometimes friend and confidante, to many leading figures in the arts and international society of her time, including Helen Keller , Noel Coward, and George Bernard Shaw. Despite her later achievements, as a young German woman and aspiring actress of Jewish extraction, Lilli Palmer found her life entangled with some of the most tragic and painful events of the 20th century. Her years as a refugee and her subsequent return to Germany loomed large in her own assessment of her life.

The year of her birth, 1914, saw Europe plunged into the prolonged trauma of World War I, in which her father, a noted physician, served with distinction in the German army. The close of the war brought territorial losses to Germany, including the family's home city of Posen which became a part of Poland. During the mid-1920s, after a period of agonizing postwar unrest marked by failed attempts at revolution by forces on both the extreme right and the extreme left, Germany enjoyed a brief era of renewed stability and prosperity. Her family prospered once again in their new home in Berlin.

The onset of the great global economic crisis in 1929 shattered Germany's recovery and discredited the recently established parliamentary government of the Weimar Republic. German life witnessed the growing strength of Adolf Hitler's Nazi party with its message of open hatred against the Jewish population of Germany. For a time, a privileged schoolgirl like Lilli was able to concern herself with crushes on her teachers, relations with her playmates, and early ventures on the school stage. When Hitler came to power in the first months of 1933, however, individuals like Palmer and her family were among the first to be affected.

Lilli Palmer was born Lilli Peiser in the city of Posen, then in the eastern portion of the province of Prussia, on May 24, 1914. Her mother Rose was an aspiring actress who had given up her stage career to marry Alfred Peiser, the young doctor with whom she would live in middle-class contentment for a quarter of a century. The second of three daughters, Lilli grew up in Berlin in the 1920s where her father was by then chief of surgery at a major hospital.

As she recalled in her autobiography, "There was never any doubt in my mind that I would become an actress." She fought off her father's urging that she follow in his footsteps to become a physician. Instead, she reveled in putting on informal plays with her friends at grammar school, such as their version of Fritz Lang's film The Nibelungs. At the age of 16, she prevailed upon her father to let her start attending high school in the mornings while she spent her afternoons at a drama school. She graduated in the spring of 1932 with a contract to perform at the Darmstadt State Theater.

The young Jewish actress was blissfully unaware of the political changes about to sweep away her family's position and her own ambitions for a career on the German stage. The operetta in which she landed her first good role opened shortly after Hitler became the head of Germany's government in early 1933. "Now that Hitler was actually in power," she later recalled thinking, "he would surely realize how complicated everything was and stop screaming." In short order, however, her new contract with the Frankfurt Opera was canceled. Her final appearance at Darmstadt took place in a poisonous atmosphere: the local Nazi Storm Troop leader threatened to disrupt the performance. Only word that her father was a decorated veteran of World War I persuaded him to allow the play to go on without interruption.

With no future in prospect on the German stage, Lilli left to join her sister Irene Peiser in Paris. The two young refugees survived by singing in small-time cabarets, improvising costumes from raincoats. With Germans unwelcome in France, they presented themselves as "The Viennese Sisters." In early 1934, they returned briefly to Germany on the occasion of their father's death. The growing isolation of families like theirs was evident in the fact that the Peisers' youngest daughter had been forced to leave the school that each of her older sisters had attended. In a more profound tragedy five years later, Palmer's Aunt Cilly committed suicide just before Nazi police agents of the Gestapo could arrest her.

Back in Paris, Palmer's luck changed. During one of her nightclub appearances, she attracted the attention of executives from the Disney film company. A series of crucial introductions followed: to United Artists executives, to film star Douglas Fairbanks, and to the British film producer Alexander Korda. Fluent in English—her father had insisted that she learn it as a child—she crossed the Channel with high hopes. In 1934, she began work on a cluster of films in Britain. She soon acquired one of the most precious possessions for a refugee in Europe in the 1930s: the right to live and work permanently in Britain.

Two individuals helped to shape her life and career over the next decades. Drama coach Elsa Schreiber took the young novice in hand and taught Palmer the techniques of acting. In 1939, at the start of World War II, she met the English actor Rex Harrison. She had recently ended a long-standing relationship with Rolf Gerard, a painter and medical student. Married with a young son, Harrison was separated from his first wife Marjorie Thomas .

The courtship of Lilli Palmer and Rex Harrison coincided with the early portion of World War II, and both were witnesses to the Battle of Britain. Driving around the countryside near London, they looked up to see British and German fighter planes battling for control of the sky. With his help, she obtained desirable roles in the English theater. The two appeared together in plays given in morning and afternoon performances designed to take place when German bombers were least likely to attack.

In January 1943, Harrison and Palmer were married, and, shortly thereafter, Lilli discovered she was pregnant. She continued as a film actress during her pregnancy, but the war was a constant factor in her life. As an enemy alien in wartime Britain, the young actress was refused permission to drive an ambulance. She was restricted in the distance she could travel from home without police permission, and she had to be at home by midnight.

There was personal danger as well. In 1943, a bomb landed in her garden, leveling her home and causing her a minor injury in the form of a cut wrist, but leaving her pregnancy unaffected. A few months later, her baby, a son named Rex Carey Alfred and known as Carey, was born in the midst of the great incendiary bombing raid of February 19, 1944. Less than four months later, a German V-2 bomb landed outside the Harrisons' home in Buckinghamshire. Carey, who was in a baby carriage on the house's terrace, survived the blast only because he was sheltered by a mass of shrubbery.

Did I ever imagine then how things were going to turn out? No, Thank God…. Just as well one doesn't know in advance.

—Lilli Palmer

Harrison was released from service in the RAF in 1944, and the two of them began touring to entertain Allied troops. Immediately after World War II, Palmer accompanied her husband to the United States where he was to star in an adaptation of Margaret Landon 's book Anna and the King of Siam. Palmer was cast to star opposite Gary Cooper in the film Cloak and Dagger, a story of World War II espionage in which she played an Italian resistance fighter. Her career was overshadowed by her husband's, however; Anna and the King of Siam became a notable hit, while Cloak and Dagger was a critical and box-office failure.

The two foreigners soon found their initial encounter with the American movie community, as well as the surrounding curiosity of American journalism, personally unsettling. It began when Rex Harrison became involved with an American movie actress, Carole Landis . A veteran of four marriages and an affair with producer Daryl Zanuck, Landis had no promising future in films, was in financial difficulties, and apparently expected Harrison to leave his wife in order to marry her.

When Harrison finally apprised Palmer of the situation, she "withdrew from the battlefield" and departed temporarily for New York and her sister Hilde Peiser in the summer of 1948; upon her return, she found her husband entangled in a major scandal and around 50 photographers waiting in front of their house. Carole Landis had committed suicide on the night of July 4 after dinner with Harrison. He discovered her body when he came to see her the following day. Local newspapers pointed to Rex Harrison as the villain of the event, casting him as a haughty Englishman who had led a troubled young American woman into a fatal relationship. In an effort to stop the vicious rumors, Palmer and Harrison granted an interview with local journalists only to see themselves portrayed as callous foreigners. They left Hollywood under a cloud: one gossip columnist claimed the Harrisons were evading their creditors; anonymous hate mail followed them to New York; Hedda Hopper , one of the most influential of the Hollywood columnists, proclaimed, "Rex Harrison's career is dead as a mackerel."

The couple began a new stage in their artistic careers in the New York theater. With the help of her old coach Elsa Schreiber, Palmer achieved critical acclaim in My Name is Aquilon, a play that ran briefly. But at first it was Rex Harrison who was rewarded with a hit, Anne of a Thousand Days, and a Tony for his performance. Tapping the dramatic technique she had learned from Schreiber, Palmer saw her American stage career come alive with her performance as Cleopatra in George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra. The drama critic of The New York Times noted that "her Cleopatra is nothing short of ideal."

The two actors had been close to poverty during the wartime years in London, and their stage successes brought them a welcome prosperity. In 1949, they built a house on the Italian Riviera at Portofino. Their circle of guests ranged from Greta Garbo to the Duke (Edward VIII) and Duchess of Windsor . The former English king, whose mother Mary of Teck (1867–1953) had been a German princess, liked to recite German poetry to Palmer and to chat with her in her native language.

Along with her husband, Palmer starred in the Broadway hit Bell, Book and Candle in 1950. It was the first time they had done a stage play together since 1941. One critic commented on the realism of their love scenes together, noting that "it is reassuring to know they are married in real life." She took on the added responsibility of her own program, "Lilli Palmer Presents," in the new medium of television. It was a weekly 15-minute talk show in which she let her own European background dictate the telecast's contents. "I told Americans about everything under the sun that interested me," she said; the topics ranged from Finnish saunas to the love life of George Bernard Shaw.

Success in New York led to new movie offers. The prospect of returning to the scene of so much painful publicity back in 1948 was alarming. Nonetheless, Palmer and Harrison decided to risk it. "Armed to the teeth" with advice from American friends who were conversant with Hollywood, they returned to the West Coast in 1952. They discovered that yesterday's scandal had been largely forgotten. For the press, as she later wrote, "we simply didn't exist" until Rex Harrison's smash success in My Fair Lady in 1956.

In 1954, Palmer returned to Germany to make her first film in her native language. The offer had come from Erik Charell, an old friend who had produced the operetta in which she had made her stage debut in the early 1930s. Shocked and uncertain at the opportunity to return to her native country, she put her hesitations aside when her brother-in-law, the British prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, told her it was her obligation to go. "Bridges have to be built," he insisted.

The returning refugee found her stay both intriguing and unsettling. Among the film crew, she encountered former Nazis as well as innocent victims of the war's violence. She wondered how she would have behaved if her family had been acceptable Aryans and welcome members of Hitler's society. When a director from the same Frankfurt theater that had ousted her 20 years before asked her to appear on his stage, she concluded simply, "I'd come full circle." From this point onward, she accepted a number of roles in German films, although none gave her the scope for a memorable or distinguished performance.

While Palmer was in Germany, Harrison stayed in London making a film. There he fell in love with the English actress Kay Kendall . In short order, Palmer's marriage with Rex Harrison collapsed. She later recalled that the wartime years of their marriage and the period immediately afterward had been deeply satisfying: "We had seven years of true happiness together." Nonetheless, Palmer had faced and accepted Harrison's romantic entanglements without open protest since their days in Hollywood. This affair was different, and Harrison's tie with Kendall in the years from 1954 through 1956 signaled his apparent abandonment of the marriage. Palmer's despair was so evident that in 1956 a sympathetic friend played matchmaker and put Palmer in contact with the Argentine movie actor Carlos Thompson. Thompson had piqued her interest in a casual meeting at a Hollywood party the previous year.

Palmer's future with the man who was to become her second husband was complicated by the remnants of her first marriage. At the close of 1956, Harrison learned that Kendall was dying of leukemia. The doctor supervising the case met with the Harrisons and urged them to make provisions to care for the stricken young actress. As Palmer described it in her autobiography, she urged Harrison to marry Kendall. "You've got to consider it like a war mission. You've got to do it." He himself concluded it would be best not to inform Kay of her fatal illness. The situation took a complicated turn when Palmer received an impulsive plea from Harrison. Desperate for emotional support, he asked her to promise she would leave Thompson and return to him after Kendall's death. As she wrote, she was unable to say no and to let him "cope alone, unaided, and in total secrecy." Instead, she said, "I lied and pledged myself to return to him when all was over." In short order, she filed for divorce to end her marriage of 14 years, Harrison married Kendall, and Palmer married Thompson. Three years later, after Kendall's death in September 1959, she wrote a final letter to Harrison, ending their relationship permanently.

In the following two decades, Palmer continued her career as a film actress. She returned to Hollywood for a number of undistinguished parts opposite stars like Clark Gable and Fred Astaire. In 1962, however, she gave one of her most memorable performances as the doomed German resistance figure Marianne von Mollendorf in The Counterfeit Traitor with William Holden. Meanwhile, she exhibited her artistic versatility with showings of her paintings. Her interest in the visual arts dated back to the close of World War II, but it was only in the mid-1960s that she got up the courage to display her work in London. Starting with a one-woman exhibition at Tooth's Gallery in 1965, she found a favorable response from both art critics and buyers; each group declared in its own way, "She's a painter."

In the following decade, she became a writer as well. Her autobiography, originally published in German, was released in English as Change Lobsters—and Dance. The book became a bestseller and was praised as a thoughtful outsider's view of Hollywood when it appeared in 1975. She followed it up with three novels over the next eight years.

From the late 1960s onward, Palmer and her second husband lived and worked primarily in Europe, with Carlos Thompson achieving notable success as a writer and historian. Her last U.S. movie appearance came in 1978 in The Boys from Brazil. This time the distinguished leading man with whom she appeared was Laurence Olivier.

Palmer's relatively quiet career, in which she combined film, television, and occasional stage appearances with her writing and painting, was disrupted once by a bitter public squabble with Harrison. In 1974, he published an autobiography entitled Rex. The former couple had had only meager contact over the years, coming together on a rare occasion in 1971 when their son Carey was married. Nonetheless, she found herself outraged at the way in which he had virtually left her out of his account of 14 years of his life.

Palmer decided she had to respond. The German version of her own autobiography had already appeared. Her book told of Harrison's affair with Landis but it omitted the story of Kendall's role in the breakup of their marriage. Now she included the Kendall episode in the English version of her book. Harrison publicly criticized her for doing so and denied he had planned to return to Palmer after Kay Kendall's death. She answered by announcing that she had kept his letters from the years of Harrison's marriage to Kendall, and she threatened him with legal action if he continued to defame her.

Film historian David Shipman characterized Palmer's movie career in 1970 by noting that she "never quite got the right breaks in Hollywood and she usually had to make much out of little." Nonetheless, she made film appearances in four languages and her acting career stretched for nearly 50 years, from her first appearance in an obscure British film to her role as Natalya Narishkina , the mother of Tsar Peter I of Russia, in a 1986 television mini-series entitled "Peter the Great." Lilli Palmer died of cancer in Los Angeles on January 27, 1986.


Burgess, Patricia, ed. The Annual Obituary: 1986. Chicago, IL: St. James Press, 1986.

Moseley, Roy, with Philip and Martin Masheter. Rex Harrison: The First Biography. London: New English Library, 1987.

Palmer, Lilli. Change Lobsters—and Dance: An Autobiography. NY: Warner Books, 1976.

Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years. NY: Bonanza, 1970.

suggested reading:

Eyles, Allen. Rex Harrison. London: W.H. Allen, 1985.

Harrison, Rex. A Damned Serious Business. NY: Bantam Books, 1991.

——. Rex: An Autobiography. NY: William Morrow, 1975.

Neil Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California

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Palmer, Lilli (1914–1986)

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