Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Pola Opposites

"Damn sympathy! 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." - Pola Negri

"The biggest phony in Hollywood, dahling! A lying lesbo, a Polish publicity hound. Had a mustache and couldn't act her way out of a paper bag!" - Tallulah Bankhead on Pola Negri

Whatever you may think of her, Pola Negri was, for a brief time, a Very Great Star. Born in what is now modern-day Poland, Negri originally came to prominence in German films, then was offered a contract with Paramount in 1922. Negri's exotic glamour and theatrical mannerisms caught the public fancy, and she became the closest thing the reigning Queen of the Paramount Lot, Gloria Swanson, could call a rival. In fact, their fan magazine-created "feud" was even bigger than the later battles between Bette and Joan! Although friends and colleagues of both ladies (and Negri and Swanson themselves) confirmed that, while never bosom buddies, the two divas were never mortal enemies, their supposed mutual hatred made for much better copy. One oft-told tale had the silent screen queens cat fighting -- with real cats, each one's pet mauling the other!

Gloria Swanson with a gift from Pola Negri?

Negri was also infamous for her allegedly torrid romance with Rudolph Valentino, which may or may have not included his desire to marry her. Valentino's sudden death in 1926 also spelled the death knell for her career, as her flamboyant display of grief, real or enacted, left many in Hollywood shaking their heads in disgust -- and if you can get Tallu to shake her head in disgust, that's saying something!

Pola Negri arriving at Valentino's funeral

Negri made her entrance at Campbell's Funeral Home in New York (later the frenzied scene of Judy Garland's last public appearance), dressed in $3000 worth of mourning robes, flanked by bodyguards who supported her as she stumbled and collapsed. She struck poses for the assembled photographers, then dramatically flung herself on Valentino's open casket, wailing and weeping. It became too much for the already near-riotous crowd of thousands of "fans" outside of the funeral home; following Negri's suit, the shrieking masses stormed the home, breaking windows, trampling flower arrangements, and clawing at Valentino's casket. This tour de force performance was repeated endlessly: Negri accompanied the body back to California by train, posing outside of the rear car for photographers as she sobbed and fainted on cue. For the Hollywood funeral, Negri had a $2000 arrangement of red roses, with white roses spelling out "POLA" in center, placed on the casket. Once again, she repeated her crying and fainting routine, as the cameras clicked away.

Happier times: Rudolph Valentino and Pola Negri at the wedding of Mae Murray and Prince David Mdivani

Even for the time period, when the public expected their movie stars to be outrageously larger-than-life, Negri's behavior was considered in poor taste. However, either in spite of the skeptical and negative press, or in a stubborn attempt to refute it, Negri continued to insist that Valentino had been the love of her life, for the rest of hers. Infamously, she once waxed rhapsodic about Valentino's culinary skills, and inadvertently gave the press one of her most quotable howlers: "I will never share with anyone the secret of his...meat sauce."

After that, Negri's once-glittering career went into sharp decline. Her marriage to Prince Serge Mdivani (whose brother, David, had married Negri's good friend Mae Murray) attracted much attention -- but, in the wake of her professed fanatical devotion to Valentino, much of it was scornful. The Wall Street crash of 1929, in which Negri lost much of her fortune due to Mdivani's mishandling, and the advent of talkies, closed the curtain on her Hollywood career. She retreated to Europe, where she made a handful of films, including the acclaimed Mazurka (1935) in Germany. It was reputedly one of Adolph Hitler's favorite films; this, coupled with some cobbled-together bits of gossip, led to the incorrect story that Negri and the dictator were lovers. The story was actually printed as fact in a French magazine, which led a furious Negri to file a libel lawsuit, which she won.

Eventually, Negri returned to Hollywood, but remained in semi-retirement. She, along with Mae Murray and Mary Pickford, were among the actresses approached by Billy Wilder when he was casting the role of faded silent star Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. Mary Pickford adored the story, but demanded that the role of Joe Gillis be made practically invisible, with Norma always at the center of attention. Mae Murray, for her part, threw Wilder out of her home. And Wilder recounted that Negri "threw a tantrum at the mere suggestion of playing a has-been." The role, of course, went to Negri's old rival, Gloria Swanson, who revitalized her career in the process and won perhaps even greater fame than in her 1920's heyday. For her "comeback" vehicle, Negri waited another fourteen years to do the pleasant Disney thriller-comedy, The Moon-Spinners (1964), with Hayley Mills.

Negri's return to the screen was greeted politely, if not rapturously; and subsequent offers never materialized. As one wag put it, "Demand was small for elderly ladies who looked like Vampira crossed with Marilyn Manson." She retreated to San Antonio, Texas, where, even in retirement, Negri continued to cause scandal and gossip: she lived with her best friend, oil heiress Margaret West, causing many to speculate that the ladies were more than mere friends. In her own, not-entirely-candid autobiography, Negri wrote, "It is difficult for some of the so-called sophisticates to understand the there had not been until then, nor would there ever be in the future, the slightest tinge of the sexual to what [Margaret and I] shared together." The rumors, however, continue to persist to this day.

Pola Negri went out as would be expected: as a drama queen to the end. Near death, suffering from pneumonia and a brain tumor, she was attended by a handsome young doctor who didn't register any recognition of her name when he looked at her chart. Indignantly pulling herself up into a regal, upright position, Pola Negri demanded, "You don't know who I am?!?!" She died on August 1, 1987. Her body was placed on view, clad in a gold chiffon gown and a matching gold turban.

The first person to recognize Pola's Polish profile as our latest Mystery Guest was the somewhat-mysterious-himself Iván! For him, we have discovered the recipe for Rudy's "secret" spaghetti sauce so that you, too, can share his meat. As always, thanks for playing, darlings!

Rudolph Valentino's "Secret" Spaghetti Sauce

2 Tablespoons olive oil - divided use
1 large onion - diced
1 and 1/2 cups sliced mushrooms
1 (8 oz.) can tomato sauce
1 (8 oz.) can tomato paste
1 (16 oz.) can whole tomatoes, chopped and undrained
1 pound Italian sausage
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon oregano
1 tablespoon rosemary
1 (2 oz.) can anchovies

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in skillet over low flame, cook mushrooms and onions until soft, adding a little water to pan while cooking so contents don't over-heat. Set aside.
In a large Dutch oven pot, combine the tomato sauce, paste and whole tomatoes, along with cooked mushrooms and onions, reserving skillet to cook meat. Simmer over very low flame.

Add 1 tabespoon of oil to coat skillet and add Italian sausage (depending on grade of Italian sausage, meat may need to be removed from casing and crumbled.) Cook over a medium flame and brown sausage.

While sausage is cooking, add 1 heaping teaspoon minced, fresh garlic or the equivalent of dry garlic powder, stirring constantly to combine.

Add the cooked meat, undrained, to the sauce pot, along with oregano and rosemary, continuing to simmer. Add 1/2 cup red wine to the skillet and heat for a few minutes over low flame to 'de-glaze' the skillet, using a spatula to move the wine around and release all of the bits from the pan. Add this to the sauce.

Add 1/2 can of anchovies, stirring vigorously until combined into sauce. Simmer 10 minutes, taste for flavor and desired taste, and add two more anchovies, repeating step if desired.

Simmer sauce for 30 more minutes.


  1. What a vamp. Great bio and delicious pictures.

  2. Such a terrific post. I always so enjoy your large images and the bio of this intriguing era. What a fun time to have lived then but only I guess if one had the wealth of these vintage stars. Gushing over your blog is easy to do, your one of the best!

  3. Thank you, TJB, Im can't wait to try Valentino's meat sauce! hahaha!

  4. The 20s are such a forgotten era now, those stars and films. Its almost like looking back at ancient Egyptians - as so little of that 20s era has survived, apart from the houses - as with the arrival of the talkies and the 30s and those new stars like Garbo and Dietrich, Pola and her gang were consigned to the scrapheap. One trusts they had put enough by.... Gloria was the smart one, but it was nice to see Pola in the Disney film.

  5. Fabulous post! An inspiration to drama queens everywhere! *Blow kisses*
    xo r

  6. EXCELLENT POST! i especially like the quote about Vampira/Manson look alike! LOL

  7. TJ, brilliant post, which has prompted me to do 2 things.
    1. Read Pola's memoirs
    2. Try Rudolph's meat sauce

  8. After seeing that photo of Rudy in his toreador outfit, I'd have flung myself on his casket too!

  9. Amazing she made it to her 90s. Something tells me she kept the coal black hair to the end, brain tumor or not.

  10. It never ceases to amaze and amuse me that exotic, mysterious, magnificent Pola spent the last of her life in San Antonio!

  11. Wonderful post...and thanks for the recipe!

  12. My first thought is that she might have carved a psycho-biddy niche, if she'd hooked up with someone like Roger Corman. I don't know enough about her to judge whether she could really act or not, many of the silent screen performers didn't transition well in that area. It's strikes me as rather sad the her career is known mainly for over the top grieving at a funeral.


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