Pola Negri's passion survives at St. Mary's University library
He belonged to the Catholic Society of Mary; she belonged to Hollywood. He was the director of the film department at St. Mary's University; she was a dark-eyed star of the silent film era, remembered for her smoldering roles and a brief but intense love affair with Rudolph Valentino. Their friendship began at a party.
In 1968, Father Louis Reille, director of the film department at St. Mary's University and founder of the International Film Festival, Hemisfilm, honored silent-era screen star Pola Negri with a screening of her film Gypsy Blood at the Arneson River Theatre and a gala event at the Witte Museum. He invited Negri, who had retired to San Antonio in the early '60s and, to his surprise, she accepted.
Newspaper clippings from the event show Negri beaming, clutching a tall rosewood model of the Tower of the Americas, an award from Father Reille. It was the start of a long friendship. Father Reille became a confidant, confessor, and, in Negri's later years, a steady-handed escort, guiding her through the grand entrances without a soul realizing that her eyes were failing.
When Negri died in August of 1987, Father Reille escorted her body to Los Angeles, California, where he presided over the funeral. Upon returning to San Antonio, he learned that she left him the original reels of six of her silent films, as well as her scrapbooks and papers, her collection of popular records, and a few books.
Special Collections is on the third floor of the Blume Library at St. Mary's and, while its tall bookshelves and filing cabinets look distinctly "library," stray treasures - a small collection of porcelain flowers, looming Coppini busts of John Sullivan and his wife, a first edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea - betray its cause and make it slightly cozier.
On a recent visit, Brother Wood brought out the Negri collection, which, besides the records and books, fits tidily into three archival boxes. In them we found a variety of things: Bibles, 60 years of press clippings, film posters, fan letters, a 1975 Polish Heritage Society award, an early photo of Negri chatting with Albert Einstein, and another, taken in 1963, of her in elbow-length gloves walking a cheetah. Conspicuously absent are family photos and personal letters. "I think she may have burned them," says Brother Wood of the latter.
Negri, aka Barbara Apolonia Chalupiec, was born in 1899 (or 1894, depending on who you ask) in Janowa, Poland. She learned to emote without speaking through ballet studies in St. Petersburg, Russia, and drama in Warsaw, Poland. From 1915 to 1920, she performed in German, Polish, and Russian films, including Passion (1919), and then, in 1922, she signed a contract with Paramount, captivating Americans with her wide, dark eyes in such films as The Spanish Dancer (1923).
With the advent of talkies in 1927, Negri brought more realism to her roles, but she had a hard time overcoming her heavy accent. Returning to Europe, she made 10 films, including Mazurka (1935), before she was forced to flee the Nazis in 1938.
Even after a prolific career - 61 films in 48 years - Negri soon found herself penniless in Hollywood. Around that time, she met the wealthy Country & Western star Margaret West at a party. They became inseparable and eventually retired together to San Antonio.
Bernadette Hamilton-Brady, theater director at St. Mary's, used the archives to inform her 2003 one-woman show His Polita. She found the personal Negri by reading between the lines. "I used her scrapbooks to get a sense of what she kept, and paid close attention to what she underlined to get a sense of what she thought about."
One such item is a 1981 gossip column citing "a brief 'alliance' with Hitler that created international scandal," underlined in red, with a note to Father Reille, "Did you see this?" Negri denied any personal dealings with Hitler, but Hamilton-Brady reports that Hitler, an insomniac, "watched Mazurka over and over, and was reduced to tears."
Early in her life, Negri was married to a Polish Count and, much later, she wed Prince Mdivani of Georgia, but the press paid more attention to the romances in between. An article from the 1920s announces her engagement to Charlie Chaplin (who can be seen in the St. George Silent Film Festival this Saturday) with a photo of her hiding her face in his shoulder. Chaplin says, "Boys, she's bashful." Reading the article, it seems as though she was actually just exasperated by the fanfare; in a later article she declares, "Engaged? I do not like the word."
Hamilton-Brady, who titled her play after the nickname Valentino gave Negri, says her favorite story is that of how the famed lover seduced the actress with a dozen roses, plucking the petals off every one until they covered the bed, where upon the couple, in Negri's words, "rejoiced until dawn."
One of the few non-publicity photos in Negri's album is of her and Valentino poolside: He is sitting on the edge of her deck chair in an unglamorous swim cap, smoking contentedly and patting Pola's leg, while she, in a giant robe, smiles through a cocktail. They look happy, but more than that, they look comfortable.
Tucked into the back cover of one of her albums, we found the matted, yellow press clippings from his death in 1926. "Pola Collapses at Death News," "Rudy's Last Words of Pola," the headlines read.
After Doubleday published her Memoirs of a Star in 1970, Negri received hundreds of letters and she continued to receive fan mail until her death, more than 20 years after her last movie. What about her was so enduring?
"She had a gift for assuming the role," says Brother Wood, "that was the secret. I personally didn't find her that attractive, but she could express such emotion in her face." In Passion, a sexy tragedy in which Negri plays the wretched mistress of King Louis XV during the onset of the French Revolution, the actress relies on melodramatic gesture, exaggerated smiles, and zombie stares. By Hotel Imperial (1927), a love story in which her character defends her village from invading Russians, she is actually acting and the viewer doesn't miss the sound.
"She was one of the first actresses to play a woman who was of independent mind and spirit," says Hamilton-Brady. "Mary Pickford was a sweet ingenue, but Negri was a true maverick, and I think people admired it."
Father Reille died in June 2003. Shortly before his death, Hamilton-Brady visited him at the St. Joseph's Community home. He loved to talk about Negri still, and would weep a little as he espoused his theories about her true relationship with Valentino, or revealed that she loved steak and Champagne for dinner, and always shopped at Julian Gold's. •
By Susan Pagani