The Life of Pola Negri

Whenever one is interested in silent film, they inevitably come across the name, “Pola Negri”. What they find is an exquisitely beautiful woman with jet black hair.  Most of the time she is just overlooked and praised for her looks or remembered for her misunderstood displays of emotion in a funeral. What some don’t see is a life filled with struggles that were overcome by amazing resilience. Her films are discovered and watched as they entertain the viewer….but isn’t anyone a bit curious of what her life must have been like? How she came to be the well-known silent film star?


I know how it was; to want to know more about the actress who played that funny or serious role in that movie I decided to watch some night. As I saw her, I thought and imagined how her life must’ve been like in those old days. Did she deal with many insecurities, regardless of her beauty? Did she ever give a thought to this certain subject? Did she ever experience this or that? To know more about her life of ninety years, I read about her as much as I could and really got to picture her living through all those times that required something as much as tears, loss of breath and a smile.

Today I hope to feed the curiosities of some by telling the story of my favorite star in my own wording.

Apolonia Chalupiec was born on January 3rd, 1897, in Lipno, Poland. She was not born on 1899, as she used to so love to say. Her mother, possibly one of the closest people to her throughout her life, Eleonora, was a woman in her early thirties who had defied her family by marrying a man she truly adored, Jerzy Chalupiec, who was ten years younger. He was a Slovak who did not try hard to capture the heart of Eleonora because of his great charm and looks. They got married in 1892 and had two children who sadly died early in age. By the time they had Pola, they did everything they could to not let any sort of harm come to her. Her health was delicate even as a child.

Lipno, Poland.
Lipno, Poland.

The first years Pola Negri could recall was living in Lipno with her mother and father in a boardinghouse where Jerzy’s mother and brother also lived. The family was stable and got along well. Her father had worked as a tinsman and her mother stayed at home. Pola was spoiled mostly by her father as he came every day with a gift for her. These years were possibly some of the best in her life.

She often dreamed she would amount to something in her life, other than being a simple housewife and birthing children. There was a spark within her that foreshadowed the notoriety she was to receive. She didn’t have a lot of playmates since she didn’t really get along with her schoolmates and had no siblings. She would give her toys to other children and choose to climb trees instead. Oh, yes, she also used to sneak to a dark garden during the summertime. Pola’s childhood revolved a lot around nature.

Things started to get suspiciously bad when her father started to be not be as home as much. His excuse was his work and his mother said he had a mistress. For all of Pola’s life, he had cared for her more than his own life. Even when she fell from a tree and was to surely end up blind, he bolted all the way from work to take her to a surgeon in Germany. She kept her sight.

But Pola recalled the arguments between her parents became more frequent as she had no idea what they were about. She must have been around seven. The thing is that by this time Poland had been under Russian rule and Jerzy was known for speaking out against oppression. As a teenager he was known for getting in trouble for rebelling against Germany in his country. Something Pola never forgot was the day she saw her father getting arrested and sent to a horrid prison in Warsaw. All his belongings were in possession of the government. Eleonora must’ve been frantic but at least she kept her house and things, for they belonged to her.

Things worsened and soon they started to run out of money. They thought a little poverty wouldn’t be much but it life itself did not live up to their expectations. Jerzy’s mother and brother went back to Slovakia since they were also outspoken against oppression. The house was sold and they moved to the slums in Warsaw. Eleonora tried to run a grocery store but it was hard to put bread on the table at the end. Pola’s paradise with tree climbing and flowers and Father was soon over.

They lived in one space in an attic and shared it with other people who also struggled. They had to go to the courtyard to use the bathroom. They had no privacy. Not even a mirror!

Pola meanwhile attended a Catholic school where she received nothing but abuse. Her classmates would “spill” paintings on her clothes, make fun of her long pigtails, and mock her for her poverty. I believe they were jealous because Pola was so very different even back then. She had country clothes from the days where her life was merry and theirs must have probably been plain ugly. Now she must have thought of this period of her childhood when she starred in the 1927 film Barbed Wire.

The sad thing is that Pola couldn’t tell her mother of these things because she had enough burden on her shoulders already.

But the discovery of her talents must’ve been worth the waiting when a young couple in her neighborhood saw her playing outside and took notice of how good of a dancer she could possibly be.

They immediately recommended the idea that she could be a ballerina! At first Eleonora was skeptical but then agreed. Pola was going to be a dancer.

On the way to the academy Pola had so many thoughts and worries going around her head and was even nauseous! Luckily, she got admitted for being such a pretty child and for appearing so timid. They saw her potential. Oh, and by the way, she did throw up before entering.

It’s so sad that there aren’t any pictures of Pola as a young child.

The academy let Pola express herself as how she wanted to be. She could be a swan like the ones she saw by a bridge during Spring. She would rehearse for hours, would come home exhausted, and get back to rehearsing in the afternoon. It was a tiresome process that would ready her for something better.

During this time, she saw her father again. She had not seen him since he had been arrested by the guards. It was right after her Communion and she sobbed loudly on the way. What caused the incessant crying was that her shoes had ripped apart during the ceremony. Her mother told her to not be so affected by small tragedies since she could already overcome the large ones.

The memory of seeing her father in a rectangular jail cell with no privacy must have had an indelible place in Pola’s memory. He was so different from what she had remembered. They were both indifferent to one another. He appeared old and tired and sick. The only thing she could still recognize of him were his eyes. They were sad. To him, she was no longer the young child he used to carry. It was at the point where Pola embraced and kissed her father through the bars as they dragged her away that Pola knew her father would never be the same again.

The last time she saw him was on the day he would be sent to a prison camp in Siberia. In chains, Jerzy Chalupec carried Pola Negri and kissed her for the last time. Her tears swam down through his beard. Eleonora also embraced him and nothing was said. She missed Pola’s dance debut in Swan Lake.

After being in a successful production of Coppelia, Pola started to cough persistently, have chest pains, and have fevers. This was during a cold spring.

Pola was told she had to stop dancing at once but she knew it was forever. No lies would ever change that fact. The head of the dramatic school arranged for her to stay in a sanatorium until she recovered. He was such a sweetheart by believing in her talents and paying for her expenses when her mother could not. Pola spent three months recovering in the sanitarium and in the very beginning she was nearly assured she would not make it. No dancing forever meant condemnation. For a moment she actually preferred death instead. Yet she kept on living just because she knew she had to. There was something coming for her in just a little while.

Pola Negri when she was thirteen.
Pola Negri when she was thirteen.

In the middle of her stay, she discovered a volume of poetry by the poetess Ada Negri. Pola was so touched by her words that she was nearly in tears because she could relate to the struggles in the poem regarding poverty, loneliness, tragedy, and loss of hope. She read them aloud to the other people staying there. It was some sort of youthful catharsis for her as she felt the ardent passion as each word was mouthed. She decided to change her name and knew what was to be done. She would become an actress.

When she returned to the academy she started acting and took private acting classes along with some arithmetic.

At first, Pola’s mother and the director of the academy who paid for her stay at the sanitorium, Casmir de Hulewicz, did not approve of her new career of choice. So what she decided to do was to audition in the academy of dramatic arts under the pseudonym Pola Negri (Pola being her middle name) and was accepted as the director and her mother approved. This is when the career of Pola Negri officially started.

Pola graduated from the Warsaw Imperial Academy of Dramatic Arts at age 17, which was in 1914. Her also successful performance for her graduation was as Hedwig in The Wild Duck. She was obviously an overnight success and even got offers that led to bigger ones. Pola was a theater icon. It’s amazing how much work she had done by such a young age. That is why one should never refrain from hoping and working for their dreams.

Pola when she was seventeen.
Pola when she was seventeen.

Film offers came around and Pola soon signed a contract to star in films in Sphinx Film Company. Her very first movie was Slave To Her Senses (Niewolnica Zmyslów) which was released on that same year. By now she was acting in films by day and performing in the theater at night. She was working hard (for a teenager) in order to reach her goal. She was going to be a famous actress and her name was to be globally known.

Max Reinhardt, a well-known theater director, was thinking of remaking his version of Sumurun and was in need of a new young actress. His assistant director had directed his own version back in Poland and recommended Pola. She eventually got the role. Reinhardt was to lead her to greater successes thereon.

Now in Germany, Pola was offered more film roles thanks to her success in Poland. She began to make a few films with an independent German film company called Saturn Films. Now nearly all of those films from that period are lost. Those that survive are known to be extremely rare. That is when she signed a contract with the memorable UFA, Germany’s biggest movie studio.

Pola now had to adapt in this new country and even learn German! She was quite lonely and the transportation to the film studio was not great. She had to do a lot of walking. Her mother had stayed in Poland with a lad that had accepted to care for her after Pola asked. Now her life was officially beginning in the country that was to give her the finest opportunities and fame. In this period she made films such as Mania and The Yellow Ticket, which still survive today.

She made her first film with Ernst Lubitsch by 1918 and it was called The Eyes of Mummy Ma. It’s an early horror film with Arabian themes and, in my opinion, Pola is not yet at all grown up and still adorably resembles a child. At the end of the scene Pola falls down the stairs and she almost died when the shot was taken. Lubitsch screamed at her and so did Emil Jannings but she did it anyway. The fall could’ve broken her neck.

She met Ernst Lubitsch, possibly the greatest director she ever had through her career, in the production of Reinhardt’s Sumurun. He’s the one who urged UFA to let him direct a picture starring her, already knowing that this youngster had the hunger for artistic recognition.

Then for the next few years, Pola famously starred in films directed by this man, which let people know how special this woman was. She acted seductively on the screen giving a sensual vibe to the viewer. She was really the first who did this, which is why she became so famous at the time. Her exoticism was a mystery to many but they didn’t care. They loved the woman who played so many peculiar characters on the screen.

She was a relief to many at the time of the end of the First World War. Germans needed a distraction from their war-torn country. While films from other countries were censored, they only had those ones made in Germany, and there weren’t many, because most of the funds went to the armies. In a private premiere of Carmen, Pola and pretty much everybody heard bombing coming from outside but thus chose to ignore. The picture ended up being a great success.

Harry Liedtke next to his frequent co-star, Pola Negri, in Carmen.
Harry Liedtke next to his frequent co-star, Pola Negri, in Carmen.

Pola’s life changed for the better at first (passion-wise) when she was allowed to go to Warsaw to visit her mother. The only way she was allowed was if she brought a print of her first ever film, Slave of Sin, and buy an interest. She had already completed Sumurun and it had been easy because she had performed it on stage so she agreed. She just wanted to see her mother.

Everything ran along fine in this visit. The lad Pola left in charge had taken good care of Eleonora and she was fond of him. But Eleonora had big news after Pola asked her to go to Germany with her.

Eleonora told her daughter that her father had been released from prison. After all those years he had finally obtained his freedom!

The thing was that he refused to see both of them for stupid unknown reasons. Maybe it had been too long and he didn’t want to face his past. He must have been proud of his famous daughter. Eleonora assumed that he got a mistress and started his life anew. This must have affected Pola immensely. Not having had her father around must’ve contributed to her poor choice in men.

Pola in her memoirs recalls thinking much about love when she was riding the train back to Berlin. She was around twenty-two already and had not experienced any forms of romance at all. She had success and a career but something was missing. She wanted to feel what her mother did for her father. Just to experience a tinge of passion. She became enamored with the idea of love.

The train soon stopped at Sosnowiec, a city in Poland, for the officers to do their routine inspection. They saw the cans of film of Slave of Sin and taccused Pola of smuggling because she did not have a license.

She was pushed into the office for an interrogation and she faced a handsome officer, Count Dambski.

I turned to face an extraordinarily handsome young man in his mid-twenties. He had lively blue eyes and carried himself with such awesome military bearing that he seemed taller than his medium height. He looked at me with a friendly smile, and I could feel my anger receding.

Memoirs of a Star

This man was the exact archetype for Pola’s idea of love. He was very charming and incited strong romantic desires in her. He ended up clearing her of any charges and asked her to dinner. The film was sent to Germany thankfully.

The date went well and all Pola really talked about was about her desire to be a mother and wife. She said she found him easy to talk to, which fed her with more illusion.

About the next day she could not stop thinking of him. This was her first real romance and it must have been incredibly exciting.

Pola practically ran to Poland when she found out he was in Warsaw and followed her infatuation. She wanted to know if the letters between them were real after all. He met her mother and Eleonora immediately approved. He must have had such an immaculate, irresistible manner.

She was already shy to proceed anything further with him, as she was not like the characters she played. She finally got enough courage to ask him to do something she had never done. A simple kiss. He was bidding good-by to her at the station as she was to return to Germany. She got more than what she expected.

He took my face between his hands and kissed me gently. The gentleness deepened into passion, as his arms slipped down to wrap tightly around my body. His mouth brushed my cheek as it sought my ear to murmur my name before pressing forcefully against my half-parted lips. My eyes were closed but there was no darkness. The fireworks I had longed for exploded like a thousand colored lights beneath my lids. There was an almost painful pressure in his firm lips, but I never wanted it to stop. This had to be love!

This was lust speaking for Pola as this first kiss had been truly fantastic for her. She saw him as a figure of Love.

Two weeks later a letter arrived from Eugene Dambski asking her to marry him. Pola immediately accepted.

They married in Sosnowiec on November 5th, 1919. Pola didn’t have the best feeling when she got married. Not many people attended; only Pola’s mother and some of Dambski’s relatives. He was bothered by the weather and told Pola he just wanted to get it over with. This was the man who so enchanted her on the train.

The wedding party did not improve Pola’s spirits. She felt isolated. Everything was about Count Dambski and his colleagues and friends and family. Eugene’s teen sister, Ludmilla, was his favorite and sorted out all his affairs. She would not let him breathe and he did not mind. Pola looked at her husband but did not feel those fireworks or tinges of passion anymore. They still kept ignoring her. “I was beginning to feel like an uninvited guest at my own wedding.”

In the wedding night, Pola tried to speak to him as his friends did but he just brushed it away with some excuse. He preferred to talk to his sister who was like a bee clinging to honey.

To add more to the romantic mood of this night, the little sister led the way to their room as if her big brother was to have a slumber party with Pola. Ludmilla topped everything by telling Pola she was to sleep in “the bed she was born.” Ah, jealous sisters.

The wedding night lacked any sensual passion that is usually shared with a newly married couple. It was abrupt, painful, and cold, according to Pola. She cried all night when he went to sleep and he did not bother to hear.

The marriage crumbled pretty fast. Pola was not allowed to be the wife she wanted to be. She was not even allowed to do cook or clean around, for Ludmilla took care of everything. Pola soon felt she was not needed and only used as an object of pleasure. He did not realize she was a young woman. Boredom ensued very quickly.

But her films never left her. Ernst Lubitsch came looking for her and convinced her to go back to Germany. Dambski didn’t even say good-bye.

She went back to Warsaw after shooting another movie to discover her father had been killed in battle against the Russians; again for being the rebel that he was. Pola had already learned to overcome large tragedies but this must have hurt her nevertheless.

A little while later Pola became acquainted with a man named Wolfgang George Schleber, who she preferred to call Petronius. They hit it off immediately from the moment they met. He became Pola’s lover pretty soon and he spoiled her with jewels and puppies but also educated her in matters such as art, culture and music. He introduced her to many things, including real Love, and made Pola a very happy woman during that period. Before, all she had was her solitude and work. He was a really good boyfriend to Pola and could have married her if Count Dambski hadn’t so adamantly refused to a divorce. Their relationship wasn’t at all perfect. There were jealousies….Such as Pola driving miles at night from her film set to see if he was with another woman….as he later apologized with a diamond ring and a puppy. He got jealous if she danced with another man instead. All in all, they had a great deal in common and I think they had a good relationship.

Besides the business with relationships, Pola was making her biggest hits and my personal favorites. She often played women with doomed fates in most of her films. She played a temptress in Sappho and got what she deserved. Her films fared well in Germany but they were not exactly doing amazing internationally.

It wasn’t until Madame Dubarry that she got the fame she deserved. Production was strenuous having to be around the same people all day, including Emil Jannings who would never stop complaining. Pola had prepared for her role though. Overall, the film was a GREAT success and even banned the ban of German films across Europe and America. Charlie Chaplin became besotted with Pola after seeing it and he was even nervous when he met her.

He wrote in My trip abroad:

Pola Negri is really beautiful. She is Polish and true to the type: beautiful jet-black hair, white, even teeth, and wonderful coloring. It is such a pity such coloring does not register on the screen. She is the center of attraction here, what a voice she has! Her mouth speaks so prettily the German language. Her voice has a soft, mellow quality with charming inflections. When offered a drink, she clinks my glass and offers her only English words, “Jazzboy Charlie”.

In Madame Dubarry.
In Madame Dubarry.

She got also got crazed amounts of fan mail, including a letter from a young Rudolph Valentino.

The film received great enthusiasm and its first screening in New York was a rave and got Pola instant offers to come to America. Her relationship with Petronius became strained because she still could not get a divorce from Dambski. Pola accepted a film contract in America still thinking she would be with Petronius. He didn’t even go with her to the train station. She divorced Dambski in 1922.

Pola had just completed her last film with UFA called The Flame, which was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, who was also going to America. Production was difficult and tense because of differences. It was probably good that they took a break. It sounds like an interesting film. Only a fragment of it survives.

Pola was still saddened over Petronius on her way to America but, once she came, she was greeted by a mass of Polish-Americans and the press praising her and celebrating her long-awaited arrival.

Arriving to America on September 12th, 1922.
Arriving to America on September 12th, 1922.

She was treated like a queen and she relished it. The fame felt good….when it wasn’t led astray with falsities. Her first American movie was Bella Donna and all had waited for this grand debut in a new country. She was cast as a vamp, as she would continually be in most of her roles. On that year she also made The Spanish Dancer, also casting her as a gypsy yet again.

On that same month she encountered Charlie Chaplin again when both of their cars hit each other. She was annoyed at their encounter and gave him sarcastic responses. He appeared to be rather besotted with Pola.

The grand “romance” with Charlie Chaplin began with telephone calls and roses and waking her up at two am with a serenade. Pola decided to give him a chance because he made her feel alive and appeared like a nice person. The apparent thing is that he wanted to control her as he did with other women but Pola would not allow. They would argue about many things, including politics. He became upset if she sounded more intelligent than him in public. He proposed to her on that year after being late and gave Pola a stone worth $15,000 dollars. The engagement soon ended due strong differences. Pola did not love him or found him physically attractive. I think he must have loved her and ended up in a lot of pain. It was known that he would later talk bad about her to the press.

Charlie Chaplin and Pola Negri.
Charlie Chaplin and Pola Negri.

She had meanwhile been making films in Paramount Studios with Famous Brothers Lasky and was still a big sensation, besides the stormy affair with Chaplin. She appeared in a remake of The Cheat in 1923, which is now lost, casting her again as another exotic woman.

This is the time when the apparent “feud” with Gloria Swanson started happening. It was a fact that Gloria was the most famous lady on the lot before Pola’s arrival. Publicity wanted to stir up so much drama that they wrote in magazines all these laughable lies. They weren’t funny for too long because people started believing these things. Gloria would put cats all over the lot knowing Pola was superstitious…..They arrived to the same place and competed by having better outfits…These were all lies. Pola Negri and Gloria Swanson were just acquaintances and that’s it.

Pola was not entirely pleased in Paramount. They changed her entire look, even making her have a bobbed haircut. She didn’t even look her European self anymore. She was given a Japanese bungalow so she could change and get ready for shooting without even asking her. She was not given a lot of freedom.

The good stuff that started happening was that she bought a mansion in Beverly Hills and became the richest woman in films. Her house was designed after the White House. She lived right next to Ernst Lubitsch. She would ride limousines of different colors (white and black), make her doorknobs be golden and make rose petals be thrown on the path she was walking. Her hard work paid off luxuriously. She deserved it.

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The image Paramount was putting for her was getting old so Pola went to back to her German days by collaborating with Ernst Lubitsch in Forbidden Paradise. She got the idea from a novel she was reading about Catherine the Great and ran across her lawn to Ernst Lubitsch’s and yelled for him to come out. The movie is incredible and has that Lubitsch touch everyone knows about. Pola is a fiercely independent woman once again and lures men to their doom; well, not exactly. It is one of her best films she made with Lubitsch and possibly in America. Production was still a little hectic with Pola and Lubitsch arguing every now and then. There was a moment when Pola refused to walk down the stairs in one scene, fearing the dress might get caught in a handle and would break her neck. Lubitsch raged as she kept refusing. He stormed off and came back wearing the dress and dashed down the stairs. This would be their final collaboration together.

Adolphe Menjou and Pola Negri in Forbidden Paradise.
Adolphe Menjou and Pola Negri in Forbidden Paradise.

She also appeared in movies such as Lily of The Dust, Shadows of Paris and Men, which did well at the box office, but are now lost. Only six of Pola’s American films survive, which I am very thankful for. Yet reading reviews from the films she made then makes one want to see them on the screen.

Now Pola Negri had what she desired as a child. She was famous, surely talented and beloved. She tried to stay away from relationships because she wanted to focus on her career as her films did excellent and the public loved her all the more.

She was disillusioned with her relationship with Rod La Rocque, her leading man in Forbidden Paradise. She liked him for his physicality and charms, but he often threw fits. Some of these sometimes turned violent. For his birthday Pola gave him the stone Chaplin proposed to her with after finding it in her jewelry box. When Chaplin heard of it, he challenged him to a fight.

It wasn’t until 1925 when she met Rudolph Valentino in a party thrown by Marion Davies. He had wanted to see her for a long time but she never really wanted to. Something was possible forewarning her. When they met she felt dominated by his sexuality after they danced. He was the epitome of something masculine she had for long searched for. He was something new. She tried to stay away but, after seeing each other for the second time and dancing, they became lovers.

By 1926, they were a much loving couple and the relationship was impassioned for them both. Valentino was getting over a divorce from his second wife and Pola was in love with another man again. They were everywhere on the magazines and everyone applauded their love. They were a perfect match.

Rudolph Valentino and Pola Negri.
Rudolph Valentino and Pola Negri.

For the time they were together, nothing ever really went wrong, only a few jealousies, which they later got over thanks to their love. They would often hang out in Falcon Lair, a house Valentino was motivated to decorate after he started dating her. She even helped him pay some of his debts.

That summer of 1926 was something Pola never forgot. They attended the premiere of Son of the Sheik and received grand, positive attention. Those were one of the last times they would have together.

On August 23rd, he had to go on a tour advertising his films and bid Pola good-bye for the last time at the train station. By August 24th he was dead from complications of a surgery. When Pola heard the news she fainted and had to be given loads of barbiturates.

The funeral is what most people associate Pola Negri with. She wore expensive mourning clothes, yes, but this was her style. She had the money so why couldn’t she wear them? She barely had any clothes growing up. The reason she cried so much and loudly was because this is how she mourned. Pola had learned to overcome large tragedies but this had been too much for her. They were probably going to get married because they were in love, regardless of what the public said.

People who say Pola did this for publicity are wrong. It is probable that they don’t even know her life story and still choose to misjudge her. The last time she really saw Rudy Valentino was when she kissed his coffin as he was then entered in the crypt.

She had fainted on the set of Hotel Imperial when she heard the news of his death and had still go back to work. She did this so with a sad spirit but work always did help. Years and years later she would say Rudolph Valentino was the love of her life.

She made another great movie the year after that. It was called Barbed Wire and she gives of one her most heart-wrenching performances. You could see her real emotions in her eyes, as one could assume that her sadness let her act more expressively in the film. It did well with critics but people were somewhat disapproving with her because of her behavior in the funeral.

She married a Georgian Prince named Serge Mdivani, who was the brother of her friend may Murray’s husband and who ended up stealing her fortune, six months later. He had seemed kind in the beginning….Very soon after this, every film she made was a box office failure. She even started to receive hate mail. It’s as if they all turned on her and forgot of how they kindly welcomed her in America and praised her artistry three years before.

Mdivani was a greedy, self-sufficient man who felt angered whenever he was not given attention or what he wanted. He had to wait on the set of Pola’s films and sometimes would even be jealous and yell at Pola because of her scenes with a leading man. He became enraged when someone called him Mr. Negri.

Serge Mdivani and Pola Negri on their wedding day.
Serge Mdivani and Pola Negri on their wedding day.

Pola chose to end her contract with Paramount and go in full retirement after she discovered she was pregnant. Serge had handled her real state affairs and off they moved to a château in France. So, it was farewell to future mommy Pola. The exotic image the studio had made of her was slipping anyway since people now preferred “It” girls like Clara Bow.

The first few months with Serge were pleasant for Pola. She did not need to worry about movie contracts or schedules because she would devote her time to her child. Serge, on the other hand, would ask her to lend him money so he could gamble. Yes, he was living off her fortune.

One day they were strolling by their house when a roar of thunder struck the nearby tree, sending them both running back to their home. Pola felt some pains and after some time she learned she had suffered a miscarriage. Pola sunk into a depression for months and took up drinking. She felt she had failed as a woman, wife and mother. She put all faults on herself while Serge was somewhere else squandering her money.

Then the dreaded Crash of 1929 happened and Pola lost nearly all her fortune because her precious husband had mishandled all her business affairs in the most foolish way possible. After this he was quickly poof! They divorced on 1931.

Now alone, Pola learned she had to work in order to make some money again. She knew she had to come out of retirement. She had gotten fantastic film offers since the Crash; even one that required her to appear topless for a scene, but Serge forced her to refuse. Now he was out of the map so Pola accepted a film offer from England to film her last silent film, A Woman He Scorned. That’s a dramatic film with a sad touch but highly recommended to people who want to see more of her films. This film was successful enough to even let Pola sing in a big coliseum in London.

She knew her voice was firm and melodious and talkies didn’t sound too bad. She went back to America and decided to star in A Woman Commands, her first talkie. She sings a purely beautiful song in the film called “Paradise”.

After filming had been done, Pola collapsed right on the studio lot. She was rushed to the hospital and had to get emergency surgery for appendicitis. She thought she would die as nuns were singing in her room and candles brightened the room…During her recovery stay in Beverly Hills, she met Albert Einstein and they both criticized Hitler in German for hours.

A Woman Commands was not really a hit but the song “Paradise” sure was. Pola did vaudeville all over the country and performed it. The critics criticized Pola because of her thick Polish accent.

She went to France to star in a French talkie (as she was fluent) called Fanatisme which did her much good financially along with some theater she did in America once she returned.

She was convinced to star in Mazurka by UFA and it turned out to be the most successful film in Germany back then. Pola was drinking heavily and would have one bottle of whiskey a day. In her closet at least twelve bottles were found. She never acted drunk so she knew how drink moderately so it wouldn’t interfere with her work.

Mazurka is a preciously melancholy film. Pola does sing some of my favorite songs in here, such as “Nur eine Stunde” and “Ich spür in mir “. It has a tragic story that would easily bring tears to ones eyes. Hitler was known to watch it in nights of insomnia and weep.

Pola very quickly became famous among Nazis even though she was never friends with them or supported their beliefs. She is also known now for being a famous actress in Third Reich films….By the way, she NEVER let any of her films have Nazi propaganda in them. I am so proud of her because of that.

She made films with UFA (controlled by the idiot Joseph Goebbels) from 1935-1938 and many of them also shaped her singing career.

The majority of these films are now extremely rare having been big successes. The one easiest to find is Mazurka, which is one of the best foreign films I have ever seen. It has such exquisite direction and Pola feeds the performance by being capable to make the viewer feel any emotion she feels. The others I have seen on VHS online. I say again….they should really be released on DVD already.

Now that UFA was controlled by Goebbels, he felt free to make her life hell. He banned her at one point from films for having her trusted Jewish secretary of many years, Paola. Apparently Hitler let her stay by making some sort of reprieve….

Pola was now making films with UFA and living in France….but then the Nazis became more oppressive. When Pola was shopping in France, loud bomb raids in Paris scared the living wits out of her. An old friend in Poland had been killed by Nazis. She had to leave.

Her last movie for UFA was Night of the Decision (Nacht der Entscheidung). After this she asked the people at the studio for a short vacation. She was given permission but had to hurry because she knew they were suspicious of her after they discovered her father’s Slavic ancestry. She packed a suitcase of the most important things and left all her luxury behind, such as furs and jewels. When she failed to return, the UFA guys showed up at her house asking why she was taking so long to return. They wanted her to make a film with Nazi propaganda, not caring for what she said. She had to fake an illness, wrapped in a blanket, and get fake notes from a doctor. They threatened to fire her if she didn’t return and she still refused. Once safe, she ran to Portugal and waited three weeks to board a ship to New York. She arrived in 1941.

This time she wasn’t received with the press and adoring fans. She was held up in Ellis Island to get her documentation checked. Her mother had stayed in France.

Pola was now safe but the press still had a grudge towards her. They wrote that Pola had been involved with Hitler because he had been such an adoring fan of hers.

After clearing up this ugly business, Pola realized she didn’t have a lot of money anymore and needed to go back to work. She got offers from Paramount wanting her to be in movies that weren’t for her as she declined. She was living in a hotel in New York and had to sell some of her remaining jewelry to pay off the rent. She was desperate for work…She was nostalgic of the twenties and her days of wealth.

It wasn’t until 1943 that she got a good part in a comedy called Hi Diddle Diddle. It’s one of the strangest, funniest films I have ever seen and I think Pola was excellent in it. She played a prima donna singer who thought she was the ultimate best of them all and was obsessed with Wagner (like Ludwig of Bavaria). Her husband in the film is Adolphe Menjou, who had been a frequent co-star back in the twenties. What I love about her in that film is that I can hear her speak English clearly with her attractive accent and all those outfits she wore! Something I have always loved about Pola Negri is how she dressed in her films and looked in those clothes.


The film received positive reception but didn’t get her offers she wanted. Studios wanted her to play roles like in this one. She would not be typecasted.

She succumbed to debt again some time later and had to rent an apartment in New York and fell into a deep depression she would call “idleness”.

As Pola was leaving church, she was called by a woman she could not recognize. Her name was Margaret West. She would be to save her from falling in a void of idleness.

They had met some time before but were never really acquainted. They became friends almost instantly! Margaret was a very kind friend. She helped Pola pay off her debts, bring her mother to the United States, and even study for her citizenship test. Margaret was a rich oil heiress and was known for being the first person to play country music when she did radio.

They moved to San Antonio, Texas, and that’s where Pola lived for the rest of her life. She was already retired and was very involved in the community, especially the Catholic church. Sometimes living with your best friend can be life-saving.

Margaret even helped Pola mourn for the loss of her mother, which affected her greatly. In her memoirs, Pola says she would sob every moment she was alone.

Pola Negri and her mother back in the twenties.

 Finally, things were okay for Pola again. She had stable housing, someone to talk to and felt satisfied with her life.

Pola was already retired when Walt Disney asked her to come out of retirement by 1963 to play a role in The Moon-Spinners. Pola immediately refused until Margaret convinced her to agree. She was dying and Pola was already distressed enough by the frightening thought of being alone on the planet. She remembered she had made a favor to Walt Disney back in the twenties and that they were old friends. She traveled to England for two weeks to shoot her small part in the film and received a lot of press attention when she appeared with the cheetah from the film in a conference.


This is the only time Pola ever appeared in color. Her appearance in the film is small but quite substantial. Someone who has seen the film can still recall the presence of Madame Habib and all her jewels. The film is a good delicious mystery that will make you go to Greece and run around with Peter McnEnery and Hayley Mills.

Back home she felt lonely again but learned to live through it. She was waiting for the day she would join her friends in the other side.

On 1970, Pola released her autobiography called Memoirs of a Star, which helps one understand her life more in a detailed and emotional manner. The entire thing is not true but the most important factors are believable. She got help from ghostwriter A.A Lewis.

For the rest of her life, she remained in San Antonio and her health began to fail, especially her eyesight. She received one award from Germany celebrating her contribution to its early films. She rejected any more film offers. Donated films from her personal collection and still attended church regularly, as she was once again a very devout Catholic.

In 1980, she received her last media appearance in Life magazine in an article about silent movie stars. She talked of Rudolph Valentino. She only got a paragraph of mention.


Pola Negri lived to be ninety years old. She died on August 1st, 1987. She had been struck with pneumonia and even had a tumor which had refused to treat for two years. The doctor who attended her didn’t recognize her name and she exclaimed, “YOU DON’T KNOW WHO I AM??” from her deathbed, with one blind eye.

She was a woman nobody can ever forget. She served a purpose for this world and gave herself an opportunity to fascinate its inhabitants with her art. I could look at her and reflect on everything I’ve watched and read of her and feel immensely proud. She survived wars, film careers, defamation, heartbreak, death and the pains of success. Her life itself was like one of her films, only that she was not conscious of her acting. She was glad to have lived it.

Would I change any of it-the triumphs or the tragedies? I wondered. Perhaps some details. But nothing, nothing, if it meant giving it all up. I would relinquish neither inner scars nor external glories. I have wept and laughed, been foolish and wise. There is even a certain edge of triumph in the peacefulness of my present life.

I may occasionally miss the glittering personalities of my past, but the close friends of my present are infinitely more real.

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 am grateful to have survived long enough to have experienced it.

Long live Pola Negri.
Long live Pola Negri.

This was my contribution to the Anti-Damsel Blogathon. It was very fun to do it, though it took time. There are loads of entries in the roster about iconic women in early Hollywood!


11 thoughts on “The Life of Pola Negri

  1. Thank you so much for writing about Pola and her remarkable talent. We share the same favorite actress and so I was very happy when you volunteered to write about her for the event. What a magical presence and what an amazing life!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve been reading a bio of Gloria Swanson, and the feud between her and Negri is hilarious. It started off as fake gossip, but seemed to turn pretty real. I imagine it didn’t help that they had some of the same lovers (like La Roque). Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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