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This article shared 6486 times since Wed Jul 7, 2004
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Smoldering movie star Pola Negri threw herself upon her lover Rudolph Valentino's open casket, sobbing, then fainting before the photographers, and inciting the enormous New York crowd to riot.

The mysterious beauty was born Barbara Apolonia Chalupiec on New Year's Eve, 1894, 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 auditioned 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. Eventually, Barbara recovered enough to audition for the Warsaw Imperial Academy of Dramatic Arts. She turned herself into Pola Negri, and made her stage debut in The Wild Duck.

Pola soon became one of Poland's leading actresses. She was signed to a contract with the Sphinx Film Company and in 1914 starred in her first motion picture, Die Bestie 񢇻). Then, her career was cut short again 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 her 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 Pola, signed her to a contract, and turned her into an icon. With her black hair, dark eyes, and intense expressions, Pola became a star in his movies, highly acclaimed in his film Slave of Sin 񢇾). During this time, she met and married Count Eugene Damski, of whose status Countess Pola used at every opportunity.

Her role in Madame Du Barry 񢇿), 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 񢈁), was also released as Gypsy Blood, appropriately titled just for Pola.

The success of the pairing of Negri and Lubitsch brought them to Hollywood with a contract at Famous Players. Once in the film capital, fan magazines announced that Pola and Gloria Swanson became bitter, competing rivals. In reality, they got along well. In 1923, Pola made her American movie debut in Bella Donna. That same year, exalted in her movie queen status, she divorced her Count. Soon, Negri's finer 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 񢈃), Forbidden Paradise 񢈄), The Charmer 񢈅), A Woman of the World 񢈅), and Good and Naughty 񢈆).

Exotic, dangerous, adventurous and passionate European women were at their peak of popularity in Hollywood during the 1920s, and the public loved them. Pola Negri's name became synonymous with worldly sophistication and movie glamour. Soon, she was earning $10,000 a week. Negri played her role as a star with enormous flair, often seen drowning in jewels while walking her pet panther on a leash. She popularized vivid red nail polish, turbans, and high Russian boots. Pola 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, whom she dumped 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. Thousands of curious people thronged the streets. 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, accompanied by a secretary and press agent. 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.' Pola posed dramatically for the photographers before throwing herself across the open casket, sobbing and fainting, and inciting the enormous crowd of loving, fanatical mourners to riot, breaking the windows of the funeral home and storming in.

Negri again stole the limelight at Valentino's Hollywood funeral, for which she had ordered a $2,000 bed of red roses with her name POLA spelled out in white roses at the center. 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 repeated her sorrow-drenched histrionics for several subsequent press conferences, and Photoplay Magazine announced that Pola would erect a glorious marble wedding cake to sit upon Rudolph's tomb. However, the confection was never built—Pola had 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 an almost divine right to be in their positions of power and glory, and basked in the rightful adoration of their fans. They were stars, and royalty too, and everyone was expected to treat them as such—or else. That same year Pola completed her two best movies, Hotel Imperial—the filming of which had been interrupted when she dashed to Valentino's funeral, and Barbed Wire.

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 she could only seek some refuge in her books and music, and would often 'retire' to her mansion. The public began to tire of her histrionics and melodramatic life, and her image became sort of a joke.

Pola's first sound film, Loves of an Actress 񢈈), was a disaster, attacked by the critics largely for her deep Polish accent. Next came The Woman From Moscow 񢈈) and Forbidden Paradise 񢈉), with little more success. Some exhibitors began refusing to use Pola's name in advertising her films. In 1931, Pola 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 again highly promoted, as though she was a new sensation, singing the song 'Paradise' in A Woman Commands. Overtly dramatic and excessively voluptuous, Pola's performance was ridiculed, although the song became a huge hit. She retreated to Germany to make films for 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 film Mazurka 񢈏), a sappy weeper about motherly love which he watched at least once a week, and overruled the barring of Pola. She was once linked to Adolph romantically, and when questioned of this in a 1936 interview she said, 'Why not? There have been many important men in my life. Valentino, for example.' Yet, Pola later successfully sued the French magazine Por Vous for 10,000 francs for spreading the rumor of the romance.

After Germany took France, Negri, living on the French Riviera, 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. 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, Pola 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 1980s, Negri posed in a black wig, exquisitely gowned and bejeweled, for famed photographer Horst.

In her book, Pola 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 Pola Negri lived her final days in seclusion. She refused treatment of a brain tumor for two years and died of pneumonia in San Antonio, Texas, Aug. 1, 1987. She was 93 years old

Sources: The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz, The Stars by Richard Schickel, Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger, The Movies by Richard Griffith & Arthur Mayer, Too Young To Die by Patricia Fox-Sheinwold, They Had Faces Then by John Springer & Jack D. Hamilton, Denny Jackson's Pola Negri Web site.

Steve Starr is the author of Picture Perfect-Deco Photo Frames 1926-1946, published by Rizzoli International Publications. A designer and an artist, he is the owner of Steve Starr Studios, specializing in original Art Deco photo frames, furnishings and jewelry, celebrating its 37th anniversary in 2004. Visit the studio at 2779 N. Lincoln where adorning the walls is Steve Starr's personal collection of over 950 gorgeous frames filled with photos of Hollywood's most elegant stars.

Photo of Steve Starr July 25, 2002, by Albert Aguilar. E-mail Steve at

A version of this appeared in Windy City Times in 2002.

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This article shared 6486 times since Wed Jul 7, 2004
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