Seductive Facts About Pola Negri, The Original Femme Fatale

Rachel Seigel

Pola Negri was a famed actress during the Golden Age of Hollywood. A maneater with expensive tastes, Negri’s exotic looks and sensual charms came to define the “femme fatale.” Sadly, her tragic life was just as dramatic as her films. From her steamy bedroom habits to her turbulent personal life, here are facts about Pola Negri, Hollywood’s dark starlet.

1. We Used to Be Something

Pola Negri was born on January 3, 1897 in Lipno, Poland to a washerwoman mother and a tinsmith father. Her parents were often in dire straits, but according to her, they were actually “impoverished nobility” whose relatives lost their fortune after supporting Napoleon Bonaparte. Lost princess or not,  Negri’s childhood was hugely traumatic.

Pola Negri FactsWikimedia Commons

2. Finding Her Place

Negri’s first films trademarked her as a femme fatale, and it’s easy to see why. She was darkly beautiful, a talented dancer, charming, and exotic. She used that to her advantage, taking on roles like the highly sensual title part in the 1919 film Madame Du Barry, which was actually her ticket to Hollywood.

3. Breaking Barriers

After WWI, many countries banned German films, but Madame Du Barry was so popular in Europe that its distributors risked it all and brought it to the US, ending the isolationism of the German film industry. They simply called it a “European” film, renamed it Passion, and strategically omitted the name of the German director.

4. I’m Ready for My Close-up

When Negri made it to Hollywood, she could barely speak English and had a heavy Polish accent that she kept for the rest of her life. In one famous incident, the vain starlet DEMANDED a close-up from her director by saying “Make da beeg face—Make da beeg head.” As you’ll see, this glorious—and hilarious—audacity became a Pola trademark.

5. Glamour Queen

Once in Hollywood, Negri set a number of fashion trends, many of which remain popular today. She loved headwear, especially turbans, wore fur boots, and painted her toenails bright red. She also set fashion on fire when she decided to dye her white satin shoes to match her outfit, inspiring regular women to do it too.

6. Rebellious Tendencies

Negri’s Slovak father had a long-standing history as a revolutionary, fighting first against the Hungarian and Austrian authorities in Slovakia, and then later against the Russian rule over Poland. His actions ruined the family. Whatever he was up to, his luck finally ran out, and the Russians carted him off to Siberia. Unsurprisingly, this had devastating consequences.

7. Things Fall Apart

According to Negri’s memoirs, after her father’s arrest, the government confiscated their belongings. Unable to wait for the verdict in her father’s case, she and her mother were forced to sell everything else they owned. Even worse, according to some versions of the story, they had to stand and watch as the government burned down their home.

8. A Different Education

According to most accounts, Negri and her mother fled to Warsaw, where their accommodations were dirty and dangerous. “Ladies of pleasure” came in at all hours through their building, with strange men following them. Little Pola apparently grew very curious about these goings-on, so maybe it’s no wonder she wielded her sensuality like a weapon later in life.

9. Keep ‘Em Wanting More

During her voyage to America, Negri’s agent disapproved of her spending so much time in her cabin and asked her to make a few appearances, if only for publicity. Negri’s response was iconic. She refused, saying, “All you have to do is to say you want to be alone, and the whole world thinks you are exotic and glamorous.” Hey, it worked for Garbo!

10. A New Chapter

Somehow, Negri’s mother managed to scrape together enough money for Negri to attend the Warsaw Imperial Ballet when she was a girl. According to the school’s ballet mistress, there was something about her that just compelled an audience to watch her, and only her. Negri’s black hair, grey eyes, and pale skin really made an impression on people.

11. Moving on up

Negri continued to excel in ballet, and joined the even more prestigious Warsaw Ballet Company. With it came her first solo role as the “Dancing Doll” in Coppelia under the renowned choreographer Michael Folkine. Her stunning debut not only earned her high praise, but also the attention of Casimir de Hulewicz, a wealthy and important Ukranian patron.

12. A Bump in the Road

Negri was ecstatic at her success—but one day, everything unraveled. She contracted tuberculosis and, even though de Hulewicz bankrolled her recovery, her lungs never recovered enough to professionally dance again. Negri never got over the loss. Even at the height of her fame, she admitted, “I would be willing to trade places with the poorest ballet dancer in the world.”

Pola Negri FactsGetty Images

13. By Any Other Name

The glamorous Pola Negri’s real name was actually the humbler “Barbara Apolonia Chałupec.”

14. A Change in Direction

With dancing permanently off the table, Negri had to come up with a new plan to support herself and her mother. She fell in love with acting after seeing a production of Cinderella with her class at school, and she knew it was for her. She was so confident in her abilities, she even re-enacted the play the next day for her friends who’d missed it. Now that’s…confidence?

15. Overcoming Obstacles

There was just one major obstacle standing in the way of Negri’s acting dreams: her mother. Eleonora was strongly opposed to the idea, not believing that Negri’s was in good enough health. She refused to give her permission to apply to the Imperial Academy of Dramatic Arts, but this didn’t matter to the headstrong Negri.

16. A Sneaky Solution

An act of rebellion gave Negri the iconic name we know her by. Since applying to the Academy with her own name meant risking her mother’s wrath, Negri adopted a pseudonym for her application. She already had “Pola” from her full middle name Apolonia, but she took on the last name “Negri” from the female Italian poet Ada Negri.

17. A Slight Exaggeration

This was only the first recorded instance of Negri bold-faced lying to get her way. When she inevitably got into the drama school, the 14-year-old claimed she was actually 17 so they would admit her. Not that it didn’t work out. Once there, she completely threw herself into acting, and her graduation performance earned her several offers to join major theatre companies.

18. Setting Her Sights Higher

Being a theatre star was great and all, but what Negri really wanted was to star in films. As per usual, what Pola wanted, Pola got. Director Aleksander Hertz noticed her while she was on stage, and offered her a role in one of his movies. She made her film debut in 1914 in the drama Slave of Sin, and her movie career only heated up from there.

19. That’s Countess Negri to You

It only makes sense that the brash, beautiful Pola Negri married into nobility. In 1919, authorities detained Negri at the border while she was travelling between Warsaw and Berlin. Outraged, she demanded to see the agent’s superior officer. The men dutifully brought the bratty starlet to see the man, and she prepared to unleash her fury—until she actually saw him.

20. Smitten Kitten

The commander was none other than the dashing Count Eugene Dombski. His good looks were reportedly so undeniable, they stopped Negri in her tracks with the exclamation: “My God! I love him.” When Dombski cleared up Negri’s problem, she rewarded him by agreeing to a date. After this meet-cute, the pair corresponded through letters, and their infatuation turned to love.

21. Absolutely Yes!

After a whirlwind romance and an adventurous getaway, Dombski finally sent Negri a letter with a marriage proposal. Over the moon and obsessed with her suitor, Negri eagerly jumped at the chance to turn herself into a Countess. Unfortunately for her, their marriage was very far from the fairy tale she imagined.

22. Incompatible

Negri should have gotten to know Count Dombski better before marrying him. Turns out, they were utterly incompatible: He was often away and had no interests other than his job. But that wasn’t even the worst part. Though on the outside he seemed chivalrous and honorable, his actions in the bedroom were much different.

As Negri later confessed, “In bed, I was not his wife sharing the pleasures of marriage. I was simply an object at which he hurled his passion.” Oof, girl.

Pola Negri FactsGetty Images

23. A New Love

The sensual, seductive Negri knew her worth, and also knew when her man wasn’t respecting it. So she came up with the perfect revenge. She abandoned the Count and took up with the German millionaire Wolfgang George Schleber instead. Schleber gave her a taste for the finer things in life and, unlike the Count, he was an amazing lover. But Dombski didn’t take his wife’s betrayal lightly…

24. Boy, Bye

When Negri’s first husband Count Dombski heard that his wife was abandoning him, some sources say he threatened her at gunpoint and told her she had to give up acting and stay in their marriage. Do you think Negri listened to him? Of course not. She just waited until he was asleep and then took off on the next train to Berlin.

25. A New Audience

While Negri’s first movie may not have been a blockbuster, it was successful enough that Hertz signed her to a studio contract. She went on to make a series of films with him, some of which played in German theatres. This exposure presented her with the opportunity to move to Berlin and then Hollywood, and a movie star was born.

26. New Girl on the Block

When Negri arrived on the Hollywood scene, American actress Gloria Swanson was enjoying top-dog status on the Paramount lot. Meanwhile, Negri was beautiful, exotic, and a runaway Countess to boot, and according to news articles from the time, the two had a rivalry that made Joan Crawford and Bette Davis look like besties.

27. Like Cats and Dogs

One publication claimed that the bad blood between Swanson and Negri got so heated, it even gave new meaning to the term “cat fight.” Knowing of Negri’s superstition about cats, Swanson reportedly let loose some felines on Negri’s set one day, causing the starlet to lose her concentration and freak out. For her part, Swanson denied the whole thing. Well, she would, wouldn’t she?

28. Battle Royale

For the Hollywood divas of the 1920s, being a star wasn’t good enough. They also battled each other to see who could achieve the highest-ranking royal title. This only fueled the fire of the rivalry between Negri and Gloria Swanson, who upped Negri’s Countess title by marrying a French Marquis in 1925. Top that!

29. Here Come the Talkies

The popularity that Negri had enjoyed as a silent film star dwindled rapidly when sound films rose to prominence. Studio executives thought that her thick Polish accent and deep voice just wouldn’t work well with English dialogue. She made her last silent film in 1929, which marked the end of her apex in Hollywood.

30. You Can’t Do That Here!

There was another reason Negri’s fame floundered. In 1930, Hollywood adopted a set of rules of conduct known as the Hays Code, which censored any perceived immoral and lewd content from the screen. Unfortunately for Negri, these strict new regulations outlawed the kinds of roles that she was famous for, and severely impacted her ability to find work.

31. Her Great Love(r)

After a string of unsatisfying lovers, Negri found a man to match her ravenous appetite: The famous “Great Lover” Rudolph Valentino. They met at a party, and she wrote in her memoirs that she found him so “passionately overpowering” that they became lovers the second time they met. Sadly, they were doomed to a heartbreaking end. 

32. Goodbye, My Love

In 1926, Valentino met his end from a nasty perforated ulcer at the tragically young age of 31. Negri must have been shocked to hear the news, and the world mourned with her. His passing caused mass hysteria among his fans, and his funeral incited riots on the streets of New York…but nothing was more disturbing than Negri’s behavior (more on that later).

33. The Role That Got Away

Negri’s biggest mistake came much later in her life. Gloria Swanson’s performance as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard earned her an Oscar nomination, but the role nearly went to Pola Negri. Director Billy Wilder reportedly asked her first, but either changed his mind or she refused him, saying she was “too young to play a 55-year-old woman.” The kicker? She was 53 when he asked.

34. Hollywood Royalty

Love of her life or not, Negri sure moved on fast from Rudolph Valentino. Less than a year after his passing, the femme fatale went back and one-upped Swanson again by marrying into even better royalty. This time, it was Georgian Prince Serge Mdivani. But little did Negri know, her new husband was hiding a very dark secret. 

35. For Better or Worse

As it turned out, Serge Mdivani wasn’t really a prince; he just called himself a prince. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. The whole Mdivani family soon became infamous as the “Marrying Mdivanis” because they would stop at nothing to marry the most wealthy and glamorous people of their day. That’s right, our player Pola got played.

36. Trouble in Paradise

Negri’s marriage to Mdivani was hardly the fairy tale that she first assumed it was. He loved to gamble, and before they even left for their honeymoon, he was making regular visits to a casino in Vigny, where he became extremely good at losing money. She should have taken that as a bad sign of the things to come.

37. Keeping the Peace

After the honeymoon, Negri went back to work, while Mdivani had a brand-new complaint. He felt he was “losing face” because people thought of him as “Mr. Negri.” To appease him, she funded a real-estate business for him with an office on Wilshire Blvd. He blew all of those funds on bad investments, so yeah, that wasn’t the best idea.

38. The Final Straw

While married to Serge, the most harrowing moment of Negri’s life happened. One day, she discovered she was pregnant with his child, and they immediately packed up from Hollywood to start nesting in a more quiet life in France. Tragically, Negri ended up miscarrying the baby, and responded to the loss with drinking and partying.

39. I Ain’t Saying He’s a Gold Digger

The end of Negri’s relationship with Mdivani was also the beginning of her doom. In 1929, the troublesome pair reconciled for a brief time, only for the stock market to crash on the infamous Black Thursday in October. There’s no easy way to state this: Negri lost everything. And when the gold-digging Mdivani found out, she lost him, too. Ouch.

40. Signature Song

In Negri’s first sound film A Woman Commands, she performed a song called “Paradise.” The film ended up being a flop, but it wasn’t all bad news. The song was a high point in the film, and it landed her the chance to embark on a vaudeville tour, where she received a much more enthusiastic response from audiences.

41. Making a Comeback

Negri retired from making movies after 1943’s Hi Diddle Diddle, complaining that all of the roles she was getting in the mail were unoriginal and imitative of that film. More than 20 years later, Walt Disney himself coaxed her out of retirement for his film The Moon-Spinners. With the Mouse asking, how could she refuse?

42. You’ve Gotta Have a Gimmick

Always one to know how to make headlines, Negri proved that she hadn’t lost her flair for the dramatic while she was trying to drum up interest in The Moon-Spinners. She pulled the publicity stunt to end all publicity stunts. While staying at a ritzy hotel in London, she swanned out to the waiting press with her pet cheetah on a leash. That’s one way to make an entrance.

43. Don’t Get Too Cocky

Even as a girl, classmates remembered that while most of her schoolmates were hoping to make good marriages, all Negri cared about was getting noticed. Her penchant for the spotlight even got her bullied by the other girls, who pulled her long black braids and tied them to fences as punishment for her ambitions.

44. Making Things Interesting

In the original script for The Moon-Spinners, Negri’s character was supposed to have a mere domestic cat, but Negri didn’t think that was nearly interesting enough. Instead, she was the one who suggested they spice up her role and use a cheetah instead. She totally pulled it off, and the change suited her larger-than-life personality.

45. Roomies

Upon returning to the US at the onset of WWII, Negri became reacquainted with the heiress and vaudeville actress Margaret West. The pair became close friends and housemates, living together in Los Angeles, where they collected art and apparently threw fantastic parties. But some said there was more to their relationship than met the eye.

46. Just Friends?

Biographers have fiercely debated the true nature of Negri’s relationship with West, with many suggesting that they were a romantic couple. Negri always denied the claim, saying that people just couldn’t understand that they were never in any kind of bedroom relationship. However, Negri did get a significant portion of West’s money when she passed on.

47. No Regrets

Negri died on August 1, 1987 from pneumonia. According to her autobiography, the legendary femme fatale had zero regrets about the life that she had lived. As she wrote in it, “The past was wonderful: it was youth and exhilaration…I would not have missed it for worlds.” How many of us really get to say that?

48. What Lurks Beneath

Though Negri officially died of pneumonia, the true cause of her death was much more disturbing. The illness was actually secondary to a brain tumor, the pneumonia just happened to get to her first.

49. I Did It First

Sadly, Negri’s first few films didn’t make it out of WWII, but one of her films, 1917’s The Polish Dancer, managed to survive, since an American film distributor bought it in 1921. It also had the distinction of being the first Polish film to get a showing in the United States, which means Negri really is a piece of history.

50. The Cursed Ring

Some say that the decline of Negri’s career had less to do with talkies and more to do with curses. In the 1920’s, Negri’s old lover Rudolph Valentino bought a ring, got sick, and later passed on while wearing it. Then, when Negri took possession of it, she too became sick. Although she recovered, her film career kept tanking. To this day, people claim the ring was responsible.

51. On Again/Off Again

One of Negri’s most famous lovers was Charlie Chaplin. The tabloids went wild when they learned about their relationship, immediately speculating that the “King of Comedy” and the “Queen of Tragedy” were secretly engaged. After all, Negri had put a “marriage clause” in her contract that allowed her to walk off set if she tied the knot. But Chaplin and Negri hid a secret behind bedroom doors. 

52. Stone Cold Woman

Around 1924, Negri unceremoniously dumped Chaplin. Though the media ran shocked “CHAPLIN JILTED” headlines, Negri revealed the real reason for the split. Chaplin was “an inept lover” who couldn’t handle her in bed. She claimed that he proposed marriage and she broke it off, finding him more mentally exciting than physically. Burn!

53. You Don’t Know Me?

In the final days of her life, Negri’s vanity never waned. A handsome young doctor was treating her, but he didn’t immediately recognize her name. In true movie star fashion, she allegedly pulled herself up and indignantly asked, “You don’t know who I am?!” Who knows whether he did or not, but he probably wished he had.

54. Okay, But What About Me

When Rudolph Valentino passed on, Negri tried to grab the spotlight from his cold, dead hands. Like, literally. At his funeral, horrified Valentino fans watched on as Negri made the day all about her. She theatrically sobbed through the service, fainted on his coffin, and proclaimed to anyone who would listen that he had proposed to her. And she wasn’t even done yet. 

55. Dearly Beloved, We Are Gathered Here for ME

Negri’s piece de resistance at Valentino’s funeral was a “small,” touching tribute to…herself, of course. According to actor Ben Lyon, on the day of the service she demanded that attendants place an enormous flower arrangement on his coffin, which read out “P-O-L-A.” That’s our Pola, always so subtle and so restrained. After these antics, her popularity dipped and never recovered.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25,26, 27, 28, 29

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