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Lilli Palmer, Actress and Best-Selling Author, Dies

January 29, 1986|BURT A. FOLKART | Times Staff Writer

Lilli Palmer, the spirited and beautiful stage and film actress who in her middle years became a best-selling author, is dead at 71, it was learned Tuesday.

The elegant, always tasteful star of such films as "Body and Soul," "Cloak and Dagger" and "The Four Poster," the last with her former husband Rex Harrison, died in her Los Angeles residence on Monday.

Her second husband, the former Argentine actor Carlos Thompson, issued a statement through Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, in which he said only that services will be private.

No cause of death was given but Victor Ross, Miss Palmer's brother-in-law, said by telephone from London that he believed that the actress had suffered a heart attack.

In many of her American films she was seen as an exotic Viennese vixen, but in truth Miss Palmer was one of three daughters born to a Jewish surgeon and his actress wife in Posen, Germany. And Miss Palmer facetiously credited Adolf Hitler with her success.

It was Hitler's rise to power that forced her father to put her on a train to Paris, where she found herself in cabarets, putting to use the acting and entertaining skills she had learned in Berlin.

It was also there that she changed her name from Lillie Peiser to Lilli Palmer.

She was appearing at the Moulin Rouge when she was given a letter of introduction to film producer Alexander Korda.

"But I was too young and too fat," the diminutive actress said years later. Korda was not interested.

She made brief appearances in obscure British films in the mid-1930s and had achieved some stage successes in the provinces, where she met Harrison in 1939.

The following year, she and Harrison appeared in London in "No Time for Comedy" which enjoyed a lengthy run, unlike their marriage. It began in 1943 and ended in divorce in 1957. The marriage produced a son, Carey, and the tempestuous relationship was chronicled--to Harrison's horror--in her best-selling autobiography "Change Lobsters and Dance." The title was a paraphrase of "The Lobster Quadrille" from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."

The book included charges that Harrison had divorced Miss Palmer to marry actress Kay Kendall only because Miss Kendall had a fatal illness. It also discussed how Noel Coward had written a play ("Suite in Three Keys") for her and of her friendships and friendly banterings with Laurence Olivier, Greta Garbo and George Bernard Shaw.

Because of the book's style and wit, the critics found it more than just the prattlings of an actress, and their reviews helped swell sales to more than 1 million copies in several translations. (She had written the book in German and translated it herself into English.)

"I never thought it would interest anyone," she said after it was published in 1975. "I wasn't in a concentration camp. I wasn't violated. I was so lucky. When I got that kick in the behind from Hitler I thought it was the tragedy of my life. But it was the luck of my life."

But later, after the success of three novels, she told an interviewer that she was "a Scheherazade . . . a born storyteller."

Arrives in Hollywood

In 1945, she accompanied Harrison to Hollywood where he was under contract, and a film they had made together in England as "The Rake's Progress" was released in this country as "Notorious Gentleman." Its success put her in demand and she was cast opposite Gary Cooper in "Cloak and Dagger," a wartime spy thriller about the Office of Strategic Services.

She was to make a total of 50 films, among them "My Girl Tisa," the acclaimed "Body and Soul" in which she and John Garfield gave film-goers a look at the seamy side of boxing; "The Pleasure of His Company" with Fred Astaire in 1961, and "The Four Poster," for which she won the best actress award at the International Film Festival in Venice, Italy, in 1953.

Others included "The Counterfeit Traitor" with William Holden in 1952 and "The Boys From Brazil" with Gregory Peck in 1978.

Probably her best known American stage appearance came in 1950 when she played a beguiling young witch opposite Harrison in "Bell, Book and Candle."

She married the Argentine Thompson in 1957 and they had lived quietly on a hilltop near Zurich, Switzerland, where she both wrote and painted for the last 25 years.

There were occasional television and stage appearances (including a final TV role in the "Peter the Great" miniseries starting Sunday). But generally she had withdrawn from show business and its demands on her time, and boasted that "in 25 years we haven't given one party. The kind of life I live excludes friendships."

Thompson encouraged her writing by telling her that "you cannot any longer be an amateur writer. Approach writing as you did acting--single-mindedly."

The advice evidently bore fruit, for when her last novel, "Night Music" was published in 1983, Art Seidenbaum, then book editor for The Times, noted simply: "A writer is at work here."

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