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Forgotten Hollywood: Pola Negri

Pola Negri was a larger-than-life actress who constantly made headlines about her personal life, which overshadowed the real talent she displayed in her movies.

The ultimate self-promoter, Negri was photographed walking her pet cheetah on the streets of Los Angeles, sporting red toenails, fur boots, and turban. She had numerous affairs that were all faithfully chronicled by the press, one of them with Charlie Chaplin. According to the Los Angeles Times “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.” They announced their engagement in 1922 but she broke it off when he said he couldn’t afford to marry her. She was also, briefly, a Countess and a Princess through short marriages: still a teenager, she married Polish army officer Count Dambski; later in life, she exchanged vows with self-styled Russian Prince Serge Mdivani.


She created the biggest furor for her histrionics at Rudolph Valentino’s funeral, where she had several crying jags and fainting fits over his coffin, claiming they had been engaged and that he was the love of her life. They had met at a costume party at Marion Davies’ Santa Monica home, where they danced the tango together a few months earlier.

The Polish-born beauty, the first European actress to be offered a Hollywood contract, is reported to have assessed her long career this way: “I was a star,” she said. “A real star—one of the kind who made the word important.”

Negri’s was a real rags-to-riches story. Born Barbara Apolonia Chalupiec on January 3, 1897, in Lipno, Poland. She was the daughter of a tinsmith who was arrested by the Russians and sent to Siberia for subversive activities when she was a child. She moved to Warsaw with her mother and, soon after, found herself aspiring to be a classically trained ballet dancer. They lived in abject poverty, the mother supporting them by working as a cook. The young ballerina joined the Imperial Academy of Ballet and earned herself a few lead roles until she developed tuberculosis and had to recover in a sanatorium. She joined the Imperial Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1913 and renamed herself – Pola, the diminutive of her middle name; and Negri, for the Italian poet she admired, Ada Negri. She received good notices for her stage performances and, around the same time, appeared in films.

Her first film was Slave to Her Senses, in 1914, a work that capitalized on her sexuality and beauty, traits she would use to her advantage in her whole career. German director Max Reinhardt saw her onstage in a performance of Sumurun, at Warsaw’s Grand Theatre, and invited her to Berlin to reprise her role in his revival, in 1916. She never looked back.

The German films she made – Carmen/Gypsy Blood (1918), The Eyes of the Mummy   (1918), and Madame DuBarry/Passion (1919) – are all collaborations with revered director Ernst Lubitsch. Exhibited outside Germany, those films made her an international star. In 1923, both she and Lubitsch were invited by impresario Jesse L. Lasky to come and work in Hollywood. Pola Negri signed with Famous Players-Lasky, now Paramount Pictures, for $3,000 a week.


Her American debut was in 1923’s Bella Donna. That same year she appeared in The Spanish Dancer, The Cheat, and Rosita. These were followed by Forbidden Paradise (1924, the last time she would work with Lubitsch), Flower of Night (1925), and A Woman of the World (1925), all performances that shaped her ‘vamp’ femme fatale persona. She became a rich woman, earning $10,000 a week at the height of her career, and lived in a mansion reportedly modeled after the White House.

Mauritz Stiller’s Hotel Imperial, released in 1927, was one of Negri’s big successes. But, as the era of silent movies drew to a close, Negri’s star began to fade.

In 1927 she went back to Europe and married Prince Mdivani in Paris, nine months after Valentino’s death, a move that did her no favors with her fans. When Mdivani cheated her out of her money she made her last silent film in England, The Way of Lost Souls (1929), and returned to Hollywood. In Mariusz Kotowski’s 2014 biography of her, this is what she says: “It is difficult for a foreigner coming to America…I had been told so much what not to do. It was particularly difficult for me, a Slav. My emotion seemed exaggerated to Americans. I cannot help that I haven’t the Anglo-Saxon restraint and tact.”

Negri’s first sound film, A Woman Commands, was released in 1932. While the film didn’t make money, the song she sang, “Paradise”, was popular enough to allow her to do a national singing tour. She recouped some of the money lost in the stock market crash of 1929.


With Hollywood offers few and far between, Negri went back to Europe to work, making Fanatisme (1934), her only French film. She went on to do Mazurka (1935), in Germany. Controversy followed the latter film when Adolf Hitler called her his favorite actress. She turned down an offer from Joseph Goebbels to make Nazi propaganda films and successfully sued a French magazine for floating the rumor that she had an affair with Hitler.

According to the obituary in the Los Angeles Times, Pola Negri returned to the States in 1942, now as a refugee. She blamed the war for the loss of her fortune and went on to make two more films in Hollywood – Hi Diddle Diddle (1943), with Adolphe Menjou and directed by Andrew L. Stone; and the Disney film The Moon-Spinners (1964), with Golden Globe Winner Hayley Mills and Golden Globe Nominee Eli Wallach. She was offered the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, but she turned it down. Gloria Swanson, her long-time Paramount rival, would win the Golden Globe award for that portrayal.


In 1951 she became an American citizen and, in 1970, she published an autobiography entitled “Memoirs of a Star.” Her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, as well as her hand and footprints at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, attest to her celebrity status.

Her later years were spent with Texas oil heiress Margaret West, who invited Negri to live with her in Los Angeles and, later, in her San Antonio mansion. West died in 1963. Negri, who had spent years suffering from a brain tumor she had refused to treat, eventually succumbed to pneumonia in 1987. She was 90.