Film: S T A R R L I G H T
By Steve Starr
Smoldering movie star Pola Negri threw herself upon her lover Rudolph Valentino's open casket, sobbing and fainting before the photographers in a performance that incited the enormous New York crowd of onlookers to riot.
The mysterious beauty was born Barbara Apolonia Chalupiec, reportedly on New Year's Eve, 1896, of gypsy blood in Janowa, Poland. In 1905, her father became involved in his country's fight for independence and was soon exiled to a Siberian gulag, never to be seen again. Barbara's comfortable childhood disappeared, and she and her mother moved to the slums of Warsaw. Mama Chalupiec worked as a cook while her brooding child grew up in poverty. To pass the time, the young girl taught herself to dance.
In her teens, with the encouragement of her neighbors, Barbara auditoned for the St. Petersburg Imperial Ballet, and was accepted. She became an accomplished ballerina, making her debut as a cygnet in Swan Lake. Later, she was a lead dancer in a production of Coppelia. Chalupiec was on her way to stardom when, suddenly, she was stricken with tuberculosis.
Her exciting career came to a halt. Eventually, she recovered enough to audition for the Warsaw Imperial Academy of Dramatic Arts, where the beauty turned herself into Pola Negri, and made her acting debut in The Wild Duck. Pola Negri soon became one of Poland's leading stage actresses. She was signed to a contract with the Sphinx Film Company and in 1914 starred in her first motion picture, Die Bestie (1915). Then, her career was again cut short by the outbreak of World War I, and once more she and her mother were thrown into financial despair.
In 1917, famed producer/director Max Rheinhardt invited Negri to star in his stage productions in Berlin, where she first appeared as the slave girl in Sumurun. There, the famous film director Ernst Lubitsch discovered Negri, signed her to a contract, and turned her into an icon. With her black hair, dark eyes, and intense expressions, Negri became a bigger star in his movies, and was highly acclaimed in his film Slave of Sin (1918). Negri then met and married Count Eugene Dambski, and used her title of “Countess Pola” at every useful opportunity.
Her role in Madame DuBarry (1919), made her an international sensation. First National Pictures bought the rights to the film and brought it to the United States under the title of Passions for a one day showing in the Capital Theatre. However, its popularity kept it running for a couple of weeks and broke the U.S. ban on German films. Her next film, Carmen (1921), was also released as Gypsy Blood, appropriately titled just for Pola.
The pairing of Negri and Lubitsch was very successful. In 1921, Hollywood star Mary Pickford brought Lubitsch to Hollywood to direct her film Rosita. Pola was invited to the film capital the following year with a contract at Famous Players, and, exhalted in her status, divorced her Count. Fan magazines announced that Pola and reigning movie queen Gloria Swanson became bitter, competing rivals. The outrageous stories of their feuds helped sell the movie rags, though in reality, they got along well and even dined at each other’s homes.
In 1923, Negri made her American movie debut in Bella Donna. Negri's fine acting abilities seemed to dissolve. She became more of a mysterious, alluring personality, drenching herself in her own publicity, and continuing to entrance her public with sultry roles in films with provocative titles such as The Cheat (1923), Men (1923), Forbidden Paradise (1924), Hollywood (1924), The Charmer (1925), A Woman of the World (1925), Good and Naughty (1926), The Woman on Trial (1927), Loves of an Actress (1928), and Three Sinners (1928).
Exotic, dangerous, adventurous and passionate European women were at their peak of popularity in Hollywood during the 1920's, and the public loved and embraced them. Pola Negri's name became synonymous with worldly sophistication and movie glamour. She was earning $10,000 a week, and played her role as a star with enormous flair, often seen drenched in jewels while walking her pet panther on a leash. She popularized vivid red nail polish, turbans, and high Russian boots, and made it known to all that she wished to be referred to as Madame Negri.
Madame Negri often made headlines with her stormy engagement to Charlie Chaplin and then dumped him for an affair with the world's most famous male star, Rudolph Valentino. Her relationship with the screen idol further enhanced her image as a sex goddess. When Valentino died in New York in 1926, Negri made headlines as she ran from her movie set and rushed across the continent to be at his side, ludicrously publicizing her grief in outrageous displays at his public wake. Eighty thousand people thronged the streets to file past the windows of the Frank E. Campbell funeral home.
Dressed in the most opulent mourning costume she could conjure, dripping in $3,000 worth of black fabric, Madame Negri arrived with bodyguards supporting her emotionally distraught body, accompanied by a secretary and press agent. In the Gold Room, crying loudly to reporters how she had recently promised her hand in marriage to Rudy she lamented: "My love for Valentino was the greatest love of my life. I loved him not as one artist loves another, but as a woman loves a man." Negri posed dramatically for the photographers before throwing herself across the open casket while sobbing and fainting, and inciting the enormous crowd of fanatical mourners to riot, breaking the windows of the funeral home, storming in and injuring themselves as they damaged floral displays with a disgraceful demonstration of adulation and necrophilia. Unknown to Negri, and everyone else, it was not Valentino they caressed in the casket, but a lifelike wax replica of the “Great Lover”, whose adored body was laid out in the dark, safe environment of a rear room.
Negri returned to Hollywood on the train carrying Valentino’s casket, which stopped at every major city where she positioned herself outside on the rear car and cried and fainted for photographers and fans. When they sometimes missed a shot, Negri obligingly became overcome with grief once more and fainted again. For Valentino's Hollywood funeral, Negri ordered a $2,000 bed of red roses with her name POLA spelled out in white roses at the center, large enough to be easily read in the news photos of it covering his bier, which were printed throughout the world. To make sure none of the thousands of onlookers could mistake her sentiments, she shrieked relentlessly and again fainted away in her new $13,000 costume. Negri subsequently repeated her sorrow-drenched histrionics for several press conferences, and Photoplay Magazine announced that the distraught star would erect a glorious marble wedding cake to sit atop Rudolph's tomb. However, the confection was never built, for Negri found another man to ease her sorrow.
In 1927, Madame Negri married Prince Sergei Mdivani, making her the sister-in-law of her other movie rival, the dazzling Mae Murray who the year before had married Sergei's brother, Prince David Mdivani. The Princesses Pola and Mae thought of themselves as way beyond mere mortals. They felt they had a divine right to be in their positions of power and glory, and basked in the rightful adoration of their fans. They were film stars, and royalty too, and everyone was expected to treat them as such…or else. That same year, Pola completed her two best movies, Barbed Wire, and Hotel Imperial, the filming of which had been interrupted when she dashed to Valentino's funeral.
Negri also made enemies in Hollywood where she denounced the industry as a cultural wasteland, declaring her contempt for all it represented. She often announced to the press that her only refuge was her books and music, and she would often "retire" to her mansion for respite. The public began to tire of her melodramatic life, and her image became a sort of joke.
Negri's film, Loves of an Actress (1928), was a disaster, and attacked by the critics. Next came The Woman From Moscow (1928) and Forbidden Paradise (1929), with little more success. Some exhibitors began refusing to use Pola Negri's name in advertising her films. In 1931, Negri was dumped by her Prince Sergei after she accused him of mishandling her investments during the stock market crash of 1929. Her sister-in-law and debt-ridden former star Mae Murray would be dumped by her Prince David two years later.
In 1932, Negri was signed by RKO Studios and highly promoted in her first sound film, as though she were a new sensation, singing the song "Paradise" in A Woman Commands. Overtly dramatic and excessively voluptuous, Pola's performance was ridiculed, although her singing was fine and the song became a huge hit. After an illness with appendicitis and the removal of her appendix, the studio dissolved her contract. She was invited to Germany to star in a sappy film about motherly love, Mazurka, and signed a new contract with the UFA (Union Film Alliance) Studios which was soon controlled by the Nazis.
Later, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels ordered her barred from the industry when he suspected she was part Jewish. However, Adolph Hitler was highly enamored of her first German film, which he watched once a week as it made him cry, and overruled the barring of Negri. She was once mistakenly thought to be linked to Hitler romantically, and when questioned about this in a 1936 interview, she stated, "Why not? There have been many important men in my life. Valentino, for example." Yet, Negri later successfully sued the French magazine Pour Vous for 10,000 francs for spreading the rumor of the romance.
In the late 1930’s, Negri settled into living on the French Riviera. In 1941, after Germany invaded France, she fled back to the States, penniless. In 1943, she made Hi Diddle Diddle, which did little to revive her popularity. In 1948, her career seemingly over, Pola met wealthy oil heiress and retired radio personality Margaret "Margo" West. They moved to Santa Monica, where they lived together for years, collected art, and became social divas in Hollywood. In 1951, Pola became a U.S. citizen, and in 1957, the couple relocated to West's hometown, San Antonio. When Margo died in 1963, she left her enormous fortune to Pola. The next year, 1964, Negri made her final film appearance in The Moonspinners.
In 1970, Negri published her entertaining, popular autobiography Memoirs of a Star, in which she shaved a few years off her age, changed the city of her birth to Lipno, and romanticized some of her childhood days and adult experiences. In the early 1980's, Negri posed in a black wig, exquisitely gowned and bejeweled, for famed photographer Horst.
In her book, Negri wrote "The past was wonderful; it was youth and exhilaration. 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 nor external glories. There is even a certain edge of triumph in my present life".
The tempestuous Negri lived her final days in seclusion, and refused treatment of a brain tumor for two years. A handsome doctor who was attending her did not seem to know she was, and Pola somehow pulled herself upright in bed and into a movie star pose to ask of him, “You don’t know who I am?” Pola Negri died of pneumonia in San Antonio, Texas, August 1, 1987. Her star on the walk of fame is at 6933 Hollywood Boulevard.
Steve Starr is the author of Picture Perfect-Art Deco Photo Frames 1926-1946, published by Rizzoli International Publications, 1991. A photographer designer, artist, writer and chronicler of movie stars, he is the owner of Steve Starr Studios, specializing in Art Deco photo frames and artifacts and celebrating its 39th anniversary in 2006. Steve Starr's personal collection of over 950 gorgeous, original Art Deco frames is filled with photos of Hollywood's most elegant luminaries.
Starr's column, STARRLIGHT, about movie stars of the 1920's, 1930's, and 1940's, appears in various publications, including Entertainment Magazine Online, the Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine, and the Windy City Times.
Visit www.SteveStarrStudios.com where, in THE STARRLIGHT ROOM, you can view many of his framed personalities. At the Studio, read STARRLIGHT stories, and enjoy his collection of autographs, letters and photos he has received from some of his favorite stars. In person, you can visit the Steve Starr Satellite Studio at the beautiful Ravenswood Antique Mart, 4727 N. Damen Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 60640.
STARRGAZERS - Radiant Photography by Steve Starr is available privately and for events, and at particular locations in Chicago including the beautiful Rumba Restaurant and Night Club, The Seneca Hotel’s Chestnut Grill and Wine Bar, Cornelia’s Restaurant, Katerina’s Nightclub, the Cabaret Cocktail Boutique, the Kit Kat Lounge and Supper Club, the Club “3160,” the Baton Show Lounge, and the Whitehall Hotel’s Fornetto Mei where Starr will photograph you and your friends, print, sign frame and deliver your photo to you on the premises. For information and current schedule phone 773-463-8017. You can email Steve at [email protected]
Photo of Steve Starr at the Whitehall Hotel, January 28, 2006, taken by NBC New Director Harold “Sandy” Whiteley