Born Barbara Apolonia Chalupiec to a poor Polish family, Pola Negri was one of the greatest Hollywood stars of the Twenties and at one point the wealthiest woman in the film industry.  A master of self-promotion, her hysterical behaviour at Valentino’s funeral and her supposed feud with rival silent movie actress Gloria Swanson kept her on the front pages as much as her acting and femme fatale looks. 

The woman sobbing hysterically and ‘fainting’ several times at film star Rudolph Valentino’s funeral was his ex-lover, Hollywood actress Pola Negri. Just days before she had caused a media sensation when she announced they had planned to marry. As a publicity stunt she had followed the train that carried his body from New York City to Los Angeles, posing for photographers at every stop.

Negri allegedly kept Valentino’s picture on her bedside table until her death, always insisting he had been the great love of her life, however her outrageous behaviour alienated most of Hollywood as well as her fans. It was the end of her Hollywood career, the era of the vamp was over.

Pola Negri was born in Poland in 1897.  Her father had been arrested by the Russians and sent to Siberia, so her mother struggled to provide for the family on her own. Living in extreme poverty in Warsaw, Negri trained as a ballet dancer until she fell ill with tuberculosis. Turning to film and adopting the stage name Pola Negri after the Italian poet Ada Negri, Pola starred in a range of Polish films.Negri1

Her success allowed her to move to Germany where she starred in internationally successful films which in turn opened up work in Hollywood.  After landing a contract with a Hollywood studio, Negri moved to the US in 19 22. With her exotic style of glamour, adapting the typical vampish look of heavily kohled eyes, bright red lips and coquettish short crop, Negri quickly became a star. She also attracted considerable attention from her male co-stars and had affairs with both Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino.

One of the most popular Hollywood actresses of the era, and certainly the richest woman of the movie industry at the time, Negri lived in a palace in Los Angeles, modelled after the White House.

barbara-apolonia-chalupiec-pola-negriHaving already alienated her fans and studio bosses with her erratic behaviour and publicity stunts, Negri lost much of her fortune in the stock market crash of 1929. She also failed to make an impact in talkies due to her heavy Eastern European accent. Once the Hays Code was introduced in 1930, prohibiting ‘lustful kissing’ and ‘scenes of passion’ in film, Negri’s Hollywood career was well and truly over. “They went from Pola to Polaroid.” she said famously.

Disillusioned and divorced from her second husband, she returned to Europe where she made a few films in England and Germany. Negi eventually settled in Germany and worked for Goebbel’s UFA film studio. Her 1935 film Mazurka was hugely popular in Germany and supposed to have been one of Hitler’s favourite films. Nevertheless, she was forced to flee Germany after she was alleged to be of Jewish ancestry, and in 1941 she returned to the US.

AnIn 1950 director Billy Wilder asked Negri to play the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.  Negri was infuriated by the suggestion that she play the role of a has-been.  The role went to her old rival, Gloria Swanson, who received great critical acclaim for her performance.

Now a US citizen, Negri spent the rest of her life in San Antonio, Texas, with her companion, Texan heiress and composer, Margaret West. She maintained her flamboyant persona to the end of her life and was often compared to Norma Desmond, the character role she had famously turned down.

3 Responses

  1. Michael

    Lena, thanks for your great article about Pola Negri. I found it very interesting about your fathers connection to her and how you finally were able to piece it together. The picture of the woman clutching her pearls with the hat is not Pola but someone else. I am not sure who it is but others have used it saying it was Pola too. You can tell by the signature on the picture, even though I cannot read it, that it is anothers name. Thanks again for your article. Michael

  2. Darillyn Lamb Starr

    Very nice article on Pola! I have read her autobiography, which I assume you must have, too. I just learned that Sumurun is available on Youtube. If you haven’t seen it, I thought you might like to. Also wanted to mention that the photograph of the woman grasping the beads around her neck isn’t Pola, but Norma Talmage.