"Imperious, Exotic, Mysterious"
She was born Apolonia Chalupec on December 31, 1895, in Lipno, Poland. She became Pola Negri: toast of two continents, rival of Gloria Swanson, lover to Valentino.
An only child, Pola's comfortable childhood was shattered when her father was arrested by the Russian Army and sent to a Siberian gulag. She and her mother moved to Warsaw, where she spent her childhood and early teens in poverty. With the help of neighbors, Pola auditioned for and was accepted into the Imperial Ballet, where she was a promising ballerina until the threat of tuberculosis cut her career short.
She auditioned for and was accepted into the Warsaw Imperial Academy of Dramatic Arts. Her triumphant debut as Hedwig in Ibsen's "The Wild Duck" brought her to the attention of the prestigious and daring Little Theatre of Philharmonic Hall. After a brief stay, Negri moved on to The Rozmaitosci, the national theatre of Poland.
It was at this theatre where Pola was first discovered by Max Reinhardt, who invited her to Germany to act. There, Negri found considerable success at the Deutsches Theatre—she also found Ernst Lubitsch, the director who became famous for the "Lubitsch Touch," the skillful blending of sly wit and innuendo that made it past even the strictest censor in the 1920s. Lubitsch introduced Negri to the head of Germany's Union Film Alliance and together they made a number of films together. It was their pairing in the hit film "Madame du Barry" that made them an overnight sensation.
"Madame du Barry" was released in the U.S. as "Passion," and booked for a one-night run. Instead, the film ran 2 weeks, effectively breaking the ban on German films and launching the U.S. careers of Lubitsch and Negri. Both headed for Hollywood.
In 1923, Negri signed a contract with Paramount, with a weekly salary of $3,000. Paramount Pictures spent a fortune to promote her, with advertising slogans such as "the woman who pays and makes men pay." Audiences loved her vamp roles, and soon her salary was raised to $10,000. Paramount made her the star of the celebrated films "Hotel Imperial" and "The Last Payment."
There Negri became an exotic attraction to Americans in her flamboyant roles for Paramount and off screen as well via the fan magazines of the day, which played up her free spirit, publicizing her personal romantic relationships with stars such as Charles Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino.
Negri with Charlie Chaplin
In her films, Pola's characters, as well as her screen presence, were distinctly European: sexy in every contemporary sense of the word; strong, earthy, passionate with a strong will. She considered acting her art form and said: "I don't care whether they love me or not. I don't care whether I am beautiful or not. I want a chance to act."
Negri caused a media sensation after the death of Rudolph Valentino in 1926 by announcing that they had planned to marry and following the train that carried his body from New York to Los Angeles, posing for photographers at every stop. At his funeral she fainted several times, and had arranged for a large floral arrangement which spelled her name to be placed on Valentino's coffin. Despite the wide publicity she attracted, many of Valentino's friends stated that Valentino and Negri had not intended to marry. They dismissed her actions as a publicity stunt.
Even though her film "Barbed Wire" (1927) received good reviews, the funeral greatly affected the potential this movie could have had on her acting career and damaged its box-office income.
After this incident, Negri's career began to decline. She had become so unpopular that Paramount refused to use her name in its advertising. Her style of vamp was beginning to go out of vogue, and silent films were in decline as talkies replaced them. Her thick European accent was an obstacle.
Her career in the U.S. ended just as fast as it started, and Negri, penniless, returned to Europe. In 1927, she married the Russian Prince Serge Mdivani, but divorced him in 1931. She said, "Love is disgusting when you no longer possess yourself."
In 1940, the Union Film Alliance came under Nazi control. Supposedly, Pola Negri was Adolph Hitler's favorite actress, and it was widely rumored (though never proved) that she had an affair with him.
In 1941 she returned to the United States and in 1951 became a naturalized citizen. She made only two films after that.
Negri lived her remaining years in relative obscurity. She maintained her flamboyant persona to the end of her life and was often compared to the Gloria Swanson character Norma Desmond from "Sunset Boulevard." She died in San Antonio, Texas, from a brain tumor in 1987.
Negri donated her personal library to Trinity University in San Antonio and gave a large collection of memorabilia, including several rare prints of her early films, to St. Mary's University there. She also left a large portion of her estate to St. Mary's, which established a scholarship in her name.
Pola Negri has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contribution to motion pictures.