Pola Negri’s “exotic” looks and sensual charms made her THE femme fatale during the Golden Age of Hollywood. She carried an air of mystery—and used it to hide her behind-the-scenes scandals. From her steamy bedroom habits to her turbulent personal life, this is the story of Pola Negri, Hollywood's dark starlet.
Pola Negri was born Apolonia Chalupec in 1897 in Lipno, Poland. Her mother was a washerwoman and her father a tinsmith—but it hadn’t always been that way. According to Negri, her mother had been nobility but had lost everything after supporting Napoleon Bonaparte. However, as we’ll learn, Negri was prone to spinning melodramatic tales about herself—and this woeful tale might have been another one of her fabrications.
But whether she was actually a lost princess or not, Negri's childhood was hugely traumatic.
Negri’s 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. This had dire consequences. His actions ruined the family and when his luck finally ran out, the Russians carted him off to Siberia—but the punishment didn’t stop there.
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 house.
With nothing to their name and no home, Negri and her mother fled the city that had only shown them heartbreak.
They landed in Warsaw—but this was no happily ever after. Negri’s mother found work as a cook, but they lived in a total dump of a building. "Ladies of pleasure" came through at all hours, 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.
There was one bright spot in Negri’s life at this time. She found she had a talent for ballet, and Warsaw’s Imperial Ballet Academy accepted her as a student. Negri started with smaller parts before eventually winning a solo role. Her path to success seemed guaranteed—until life got in the way again.
Negri was due to reach the top of her class—until tragedy struck. She contracted tuberculosis, which forced her to stop dancing immediately. As if that wasn’t bad enough, she had to leave everything she knew behind and spend three months in recovery at a sanatorium in southern Poland. Despite the time she spent there, she never fully recovered—and it broke her heart.
Later, at the height of her Hollywood stardom, Negri still regretted the fact that she’d had to give up her first love, ballet. She even said: "I would be willing to trade places with the poorest ballet dancer in the world". She took on her pseudonym, Pola Negri, while at the sanatorium. Perhaps she thought a new name could break the curse of her disastrous past—but as we’ll see, it wouldn’t be that easy.
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. Other girls pulled her long black braids and tied them to fences as punishment for her ambitions. Of course, after all she’d been through, this just made Negri more determined.
When Negri returned to Warsaw after her convalescence, she looked for—and found—a new direction. She wanted to act. Negri arranged to audition at the Warsaw Imperial Academy of Dramatic Arts, confident she’d get in. This time, though, there was a major obstacle standing in the way of her acting dreams.
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Negri was sure she’d found her path in life—but when she told her mother, she got an unpleasant surprise. Eleonora was strongly opposed to the idea, not believing that Negri was in good enough health. She refused to give her permission to go to the Imperial Academy of Dramatic Arts, but this didn't matter to the headstrong Negri, who came up with a devious plan.
Since applying to the Academy with her own name meant risking her mother's wrath, Negri remembered the pseudonym she’d come up with at the sanatorium and used it to apply. That wasn’t the only lie she came up with, either. The 14-year-old also claimed she was actually 17 so they would admit her.
Once there, she completely threw herself into acting. Her graduation performance earned her several offers to join major theater companies.
Success on both stage and film followed in Poland—but as the violence of WWI crept toward Warsaw, Negri had to make a heartbreaking decision. She had to leave her home once again to escape the fighting and start over again in Berlin. Luckily, it was a blessing in disguise. She’d made enough of a name for herself in Warsaw that studios in Berlin were clamoring to work with her.
There was a film contract with her name on it, exciting roles, and new people dying to meet her in Berlin. She was finally a star.
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. Not only did she use it to her advantage, but it drew men to her like flies, both on- and off-screen. In particular, director Ernst Lubitsch had his eye on her. He was working with one of the biggest studios in Germany, but he was still a relative newcomer, making comedies for them.
He wanted to take more risks and make an elaborate drama—and Pola Negri was just the woman he wanted to lead it.
Lubitsch and Negri’s relationship was symbiotic: He was going to make her a leading lady, and she was going to take his career to the next level. Their first film together, The Eyes of the Mummy, was not only a huge hit, but also added to Negri’s mysterious image. More collaborations followed, capitalizing on Negri’s raw sensuality and Lubitsch’s ability to use innuendo to evade censors—but their most scandalous work was yet to come.
Lubitsch’s next big work was going to be a historical drama based on the life of Madame Du Barry, King Louis XV’s final royal mistress. And who better to play a temptress than Pola Negri? While the director and star had made hits before, this one was different. Lubitsch’s skill, Negri’s talent, and the scandalous subject matter caught the attention of some very important people—and that wasn’t the only thing going on in her life.
In 1919, authorities detained Pola Negri at the border while she was traveling 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.
The commander was none other than the dashing Count Eugene Dabski. His good looks were reportedly so undeniable, they stopped Negri in her tracks with the exclamation: "My God! I love him”. When Dabski 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.
After a whirlwind romance and an adventurous getaway, the Count 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.
Negri should have gotten to know the Count 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.
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 Dabski didn't take his wife's betrayal lightly...
When Negri's first husband Count Dabski 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. And the timing could not have been better.
Negri and Lubitsch’s film Madame du Barry had come out just a month before her disastrous marriage to the Count. And while she was busy fighting with her new husband, the film had gotten some serious attention all across Europe. The distributors wanted to take it to Hollywood—but there was just one problem.
After WWI, many countries had banned German films. Well, someone had to break the rules—and who better than Pola Negri?
Ultimately, the distributors came up with a plan to get Madame Du Barry into the US. They said it was simply “European”, renamed it Passion, and strategically omitted the name of the German director. The gamble paid off, and the release of Passion ended the isolationism of the German film industry.
It also, of course, introduced the glamorous Pola Negri to a whole new audience—and they fell for her charms just as quickly as European audiences had.
There was demand for more Negri-Lubitsch collaborations—and the creative duo was all too happy to provide. Because of the success of Passion stateside, Hollywood began to see European films, especially the popular films coming out of Germany, as a threat. Well, you know what they say: if you can’t beat ‘em, poach ‘em.
Hollywood wouldn’t have to compete with the work of Negri & Lubitsch if they were the ones hiring them, and so, they made a groundbreaking move. Paramount Pictures offered Negri a $3,000-a-week contract. She was Hollywood’s first “import” from continental Europe. Though she was certainly not the last, there were huge expectations on her to make her mark in the US as she once had back home. But first, she had to get there.
The press in Europe had been hounding Negri long before she signed her contract with Paramount—and the new attention just made everything worse. On top of that, her travels to premieres across the continent had separated her from her lover, Wolfgang George Schleber. She hoped that a divorce from the Count would mean that she make things official with Schleber. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late.
Negri had begged Schleber to come see her or spend a weekend away with her, but he kept finding reasons to bail. He told her he’d meet her in Paris before she had to leave for the US, but when the time came, he never showed up. She was devastated—but the heartbreak didn’t stop there. The night before she was due to go, the Count sent her divorce papers.
He’d met a Danish woman and intended to marry her. Not one but two men had dumped her, and she was going to lose her Countess title. Oh, and she had a few weeks at sea to look forward to.
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. Of course, she had pretty good reason to want to be alone—but she hid it well. She told her agent, “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!
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”. This glorious—and hilarious—audacity became a Pola trademark, but it didn’t always go over well.
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. It didn’t take much for the two to turn against each other.
One publication claimed that the bad blood between Swanson and Negri got so heated, it even gave new meaning to the term "cat fight”. Negri was superstitious about cats, so 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. But it didn’t stop there.
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. Negri’s past as a countess was well-known in the industry and this set Swanson off. She ultimately one-upped Negri’s Countess title by marrying a French Marquis in 1925. But there was more to the feud than just a healthy sense of competition.
The papers went wild publishing stories about the ongoing rivalry between Negri and Swanson—but there was something that they didn’t know. It was pretty much completely fabricated. As one of Negri’s friends later revealed, it was a “a mélange of cooked-up jealousies and quarrels”. After all, Paramount had invested a lot into Negri’s career, even though relatively few of her movies had made it stateside. Any press is good press, right?
Negri may not have needed publicity stunts anyway, as she made her mark in Hollywood seemingly effortlessly. She set a number of fashion trends, many of which remain popular today. Negri 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.
Negri was definitely an attention-getter—and it wasn’t just the fashion-forward who sat up and took notice.
Despite the fact that her one-time lover Wolfgang George Schleber had refused to see her before she left Europe for the US, she still held on hope that they could work things out. Even after she arrived in Hollywood, she wrote him letters. But eventually, Negri had to face the facts. It was over. And well…what’s that saying about the best way to get over someone?
Negri wasted no time when it came to rebounding—and she went big. One of the first stars to welcome her in Hollywood had been Charlie Chaplin, who she’d met earlier when she still lived in Germany. Soon enough, their relationship went from platonic to romantic—but the fact that they were two of the biggest stars in Hollywood didn’t help things.
When the tabloids found out that Negri and Chaplin were seeing each other, they went wild. They immediately published speculation that the “King of Comedy” and the “Queen of Tragedy” were secretly engaged. It was good publicity, but the news made her bosses at Paramount sweat—and for good reason.
Negri might have technically been a Hollywood newcomer, but she was as sly as they come—and she was also a hopeless romantic. That’s likely why she’d insisted on a “marriage clause” in her contract with Paramount. Sure, she was dedicated to her career, but after her disastrous romances with the Count and Schleber, she was also ready to give it all up for love if she needed to.
The clause stated that she’d have the option to walk off-set if she tied the knot. But as it turns out, she wasn’t about to invoke it anytime soon.
Around 1924, Negri unceremoniously dumped Chaplin. Though the media ran shocked "CHAPLIN JILTED" headlines, Negri revealed the real reason for the split. She said that Chaplin was "an inept lover" who couldn't handle her in bed. Negri claimed that he proposed marriage and she broke it off, finding him more mentally exciting than physically. Burn!
Negri had an enviable contract with one of Hollywood’s biggest studios, which made her one of the richest women in town. She lived in a mansion that looked like the White House, and the studio sought to capitalize on her fame and talent by pairing her with their best actors and directors. Still, ever the shrewd businesswoman, Negri grew suspicious of her superiors and their plans for her career.
Unsure if Paramount was using her correctly, Negri came up with a plan of her own. She wanted to work with Ernst Lubitsch again. It was the right move and the film they made together, Forbidden Paradise, became a critical darling. And success wasn’t the only thing it brought to her. She also fell in love with her co-star Rod La Rocque.
It was yet another high-profile romance—the kind that, as we’ll see, would come to eventually backfire on her.
Rod La Roque didn’t last long, and after a string of unsatisfying lovers, Negri finally found a man to match her ravenous appetite: The famous "Great Lover" Rudolph Valentino. Well, famous yes—but at the same time, he was suffering a career low. His star had faded, he hadn’t had a hit in a few years, and he was just out of a seriously messy divorce.
Of course, dating one of Hollywood’s biggest stars was a great way out of that—but Valentino had no idea just what he was getting into with Negri.
Negri and Valentino met at a costume party, and the attraction was instant. She later wrote in her memoirs that she found him so “passionately overpowering” that he covered his bed in rose petals for her and they made love all night. While it may sound like something straight out of a romance novel, there was more to their relationship than met the eye.
Valentino wasn’t the only one suffering a career low. The trend for starlets in Hollywood had gone from vamps like Negri to fresh-faced ingenues like Clara Bow. The relationship with Valentino was a great way for Negri to stay in the public eye. Before long, there were ginned-up stories about a potential elopement.
Ultimately, Negri made a plan to go back to Germany for four months to resurrect her career—but what about Valentino?
Negri made a grand statement about her relationship with Valentino, calling their four months apart a “supreme test of love”. She really does have a flair for the dramatic. Negri returned to Hollywood in 1926. Though neither admitted to an engagement, it looked like they did reunite—but this time, their union was doomed to a heartbreaking end.
Valentino suddenly collapsed in August of 1926. Doctors rushed him into surgery, and the prognosis was hopeful. But then, Valentino took a turn for the worse and died of a perforated ulcer at the tragically young age of 31. When Negri received the call about what had happened, she collapsed in her hotel. As the news broke, the rest of the world mourned with her—well, at least they did at first.
Valentino’s death caused mass hysteria among his fans, and his funeral incited riots on the streets of New York. Negri had rushed from Hollywood to get there—but what happened next blew up in her face. At his funeral, horrified fans watched 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.
Negri's piece de resistance at Valentino's funeral was a "small," touching tribute to...herself, of course. 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. Well, there were some brutal consequences for this behavior.
There were quite a few factors affecting Negri’s career at this point. For one, there was the introduction of talkies. 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.
But of course, those were studio executives—the press and fans were another thing.
Some say that the decline of Negri's career had less to do with talkies—and more to do with curses. In the 1920s, Negri's lover Rudolph Valentino bought a ring, and soon after, he got sick. He was actually wearing it when he passed on. 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.
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.
Ultimately, one of the biggest blows to Negri’s career came from her behavior at Valentino’s funeral. People had always loved her melodramatic side, but the flowers and the emotional outbursts had just been too much. Then she went and topped herself.
Negri produced a note that she claimed Valentino had dictated to his doctor in his final moments, stating he was thinking of her. Her enthusiasm for revealing the note to the press and public only made her story seem less believable. She’d gone so far that it had all seemed like it wasn’t genuine—and her next move didn’t help that impression at all.
Pola Negri claimed that Valentino had been the love of her life—yet she sure moved on fast. Perhaps the final nail in the coffin for her public image was the speed of her rebound. Less than a year after losing Valentino, Negri got engaged again.
In fact, the femme fatale went back and one-upped her old “rival” Swanson by marrying into royalty again.
This time, it was Georgian Prince Serge Mdivani. But little did Negri know, her new husband was hiding a very dark secret. 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.
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.
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—but the worst was yet to come.
While married to Serge, the most harrowing moment of Negri's life happened. When she discovered she was pregnant with his child, 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.
Their relationship was in shambles—but they still might have had a chance, if not for one thing.
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. When the gold-digging Mdivani found out, she lost him, too. Ouch.
Negri was done with Mdivani and Hollywood was done with her—but she still had her fair share of scandal. During her divorce, a painter sued her, claiming she hadn’t paid him for a portrait. The strange part? She’d told him she wanted to include a figure representing Valentino’s ghost in the background of the painting. Give it a rest, lady!
Negri found some success back in Germany—but there was just one problem. Her movie Mazurka became one of Hitler’s favorite films. Soon enough, tabloids printed rumors of an affair, which resulted in a lawsuit from Negri. She went to France, but when Germany invaded, she fled Europe and went back to the US one more time.
Upon returning to the US at the onset of WWII, Negri became reacquainted with 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.
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.
Negri’s final comeback was in Disney’s 1964 film The Moon-Spinners. 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 film. 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.
Negri died on August 1, 1987 at the age of 90…ish. Remember, Negri had a penchant for fudging the facts a little. Though the officials listed the cause as pneumonia, the true cause of her death was much more disturbing. The illness was actually secondary to a brain tumor—one that she’d refused treatment for. The pneumonia just happened to get to her first.
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.
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