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Pola Negri, 'Vamp' of Silent Films, Dies

August 03, 1987|TED THACKREY Jr. and GERALD FARIS | Times Staff Writers

Miss Negri once remarked that she always married the men she did not love, never the ones she did. Her unloved husbands included Count Eugene Damski, a dashing Polish Army officer whom she married as a teen-ager and rarely saw, and Prince Serge Mdivani, an impoverished Russian who pursued her across the United States by train and across the Atlantic by ship after she became one of Hollywood's biggest stars.

Miss Negri's first Hollywood romance, with Chaplin, was her most tempestuous. It was covered from start to finish by the press, which at one point camped in her living room when Chaplin refused to leave the house after a quarrel.

'The Supreme Man'

There were numerous affairs, rumored and actual, with other men, including actor Rod La Rocque. But Miss Negri later said Valentino, for her, represented "perfection . . . the supreme man."

The night they met at one of Marion Davies' famous costume balls at Miss Davies' Santa Monica beach house, they danced the tango as every eye followed them. Miss Negri thought Valentino melancholy, but he sent roses and came to her home for dinner, and they announced their engagement in 1926.

Five months later, Valentino was dead.

Miss Negri went into seclusion, spending months in a rented beach house and later leaving Hollywood. She married Mdivani on the rebound, and then blamed the "Valentino cult" for the box office failure of her next two films, failures that led Paramount to cut her salary, which by then had reached $10,000 a week.

Miss Negri said she was being "punished" for marrying another man, instead of dedicating her life to Valentino's memory.

She did not marry again after her divorce from Mdivani in the early 1930s, and she had no children.

And Miss Negri did not make another American film until the unsuccessful talkie, "A Woman Commands," in 1932, which she followed with a vaudeville tour, sharing the bill with George Burns and Gracie Allen and a brash new comic named Milton Berle.

Despite her insistence that she had left Hollywood because of unhappiness with her life there, and not because of professional problems, the 1930s proved a trial for the Polish star.

Miss Negri had made, and kept, a fortune during her Hollywood years, but most of it disappeared in the stock market crash of 1929. The actress was able to recoup some of the losses by starring in German films of the mid-1930s.

But this became an embarrassment in later years when it was charged that she had worked willingly for the Nazis. Miss Negri later won a libel judgment against a French magazine linking her romantically with Adolf Hitler, saying she had never met the dictator.

In 1941, she returned to the United States--as a refugee--saying her money and property were tied up and unavailable to her because of the war. Press reports of the era categorized her as "destitute."

Her only film during the 1940s was the comedy "Hi Diddle Diddle," made two years after she returned to America.

Fortunes Turned

But her fortunes turned when she was befriended by Margaret West, a wealthy Texas woman who had once sung Western songs on the radio and liked to dress as a cowgirl. She invited Miss Negri to share her San Antonio estate, her homes on Santa Monica beach and in Bel-Air, and her fondness for travel.

Miss Negri became an American citizen in 1951, and the two women remained devoted companions until Margaret West's death in 1963.

In her 1970 memoirs, Miss Negri made a point of saying she and Margaret West had not been lovers.

"It was difficult," she wrote, "for some of the so-called sophisticates to understand that there had not been . . . the slightest tinge of the sexual to what we shared together."

Miss Negri made a brief but triumphant return to the screen in 1963, with a featured role in Walt Disney's "The Moonspinners."

She met the press at the start of filming in London like the movie queen that she once was, with a cheetah on a silver leash trailing behind her. Reporters called her "a stunning 66--without benefit of a face lift."

Preferred Quiet Life

But Miss Negri did not pursue the renewed career offered her at that time, saying she preferred the quiet life she had found with her friend and companion in Texas.

She spent her later years living quietly in San Antonio, where she had a circle of friends and was active in cultural, charitable and religious organizations.

Speaking to an interviewer in those years, Miss Negri said she remembered the past well, but lived for today and would not change any of her "scars and glories" if she could.

"I have wept and laughed," she said, "been foolish and wise. There is even a certain edge of triumph in the peacefulness of my present life."

But she could still be imperious.

"Two or three months ago," attorney Gilbert Denman recalled, "she was in the hospital and I found her a substitute doctor, because her personal doctor could not be found. He looked like a teen-ager. She had put on her form for occupation: retired actress. The doctor obviously did not know her."

And her reaction was immediate:

"She raised up in her bed," Denman said, "and cried out, 'I was the greatest film actress in the world!'

"And you could see that she believed it . . . and so did he."

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