She was born in Vienna, the daughter of butcher Carl Wessely, younger brother of the late Burgtheater actress Josephine Wessely (1860–1887), whom many believed or still believe to be her sister. Like her adored aunt, Paula Wessely prepared for an artistic career. From 1922 she attended the Vienna State Academy of Music and Performing Arts and later the Max Reinhardt Seminar, while she made her debut as an actress in 1924 at the Volkstheater, followed by several minor roles of the boulevard repertoire, also performing at the Raimund Theater.
Her career proceeded, when in 1926 she became a member of the New German Theatre ensemble in Prague, where she and her future husband Attila Hörbiger (1896–1987) performed in Les Nouveaux Messieurs by Flers and Croisset. In 1927 she returned to the Volkstheater, playing in Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea and Wedekind's Spring Awakening. After being denied the role of Jenny in Brecht's Threepenny Opera in 1929, she quit and joined the ensemble of the Theater in der Josefstadt under director Max Reinhardt. Strongly insisting on major roles, she performed in Der Gemeine by Felix Salten, together with Attila Hörbiger and Hans Moser. Supported by Reinhardt, she played in Schiller's Intrigue and Love at the 1930 Salzburg Festival and in 1932 also in Hauptmann's Rose Bernd under director Karlheinz Martin at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, acclaimed by the audience as well as by critics like Alfred Kerr and colleagues like Werner Krauss. On 23 December 1932, having taken singing lessons, she played the leading role in the premiere of Fritz Kreisler's Singspiel Sissy at the Theater an der Wien. From 1933 until 1938 she again performed at the Salzburg Festival as Gretchen in Goethe's Faust, together with Ewald Balser. In 1936 she made her first appearance on the Burgtheater stage in Shaw's Saint Joan.
Wessely, who was not particularly photogenic, was passed over in favor of Magda Schneider for the role of Christine in Max Ophüls' 1933 filmization of Arthur Schnitzler's Liebelei, a part she had played at Theater in der Josefstadt. Her first major movie role was that of Leopoldine Dur in the 1934 film Maskerade directed by Willi Forst, together with Adolf Wohlbrück. Further appearances in films like Episode by Walter Reisch, for which she was awarded the Volpi Cup as best actress at the 1935 Venice Film Festival, finally made her a star. In 1938 she was the speaking voice of Snow White in the first German-dubbed version of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Immediately banned by the Nazi authorities after the Austrian Anschluss in the same year, this version was re-released in 1948 in Austria and in 1950 in West Germany (the first public performance ever), for the last time performed in 1957. As Disney Germany re-dubbed this movie in 1966 and again in 1994, both older versions are no longer available — although they are archived at London. Like her brother-in-law Paul Hörbiger, Wessely had publicly acclaimed the Anschluss, after which she smoothly continued her film and theatre career. Her most notorious movie appearance was in the anti-Polish Nazi propaganda film Heimkehr ("Homecoming") by Gustav Ucicky in 1941. Heavily criticized by Austrian intellectuals after World War II, she later publicly regretted her involvement.
On 23 November 1935 Wessely had married Attila Hörbiger at the Vienna Rathaus. They she had three daughters: Elisabeth Orth (born 1936), Christiane Hörbiger (born 1938) and Maresa Hörbiger (born 1945). All three daughters went on to become actresses, in particular Christiane Hörbiger, who today is one of the most popular actresses in German and Austrian cinema and television.
Though after the war she was initially under a profession ban by the Allied authorities, Wessely resumed her career 1945 at the Innsbruck State Theatre with the role of Christine in Liebelei, and again at the Theater in der Josefstadt in Brecht's The Good Person of Szechwan the next year. She also participated in the filming of Ernst Lothar's novel The Angel with the Trumpet in 1947, playing a half-Jewish woman. In 1957 she was again criticized for her appearance in the homophobic film Anders als du und ich by Veit Harlan. Apart from that, she worked mainly as a theatre actress at the Vienna Burgtheater together with her husband for more than 40 years, performing in Raimund's Der Alpenkönig und der Menschenfeind and Der Diamant des Geisterkönigs, again as Gretchen in Goethe's Faust, in Schnitzler's Das weite Land, in Hofmannsthal's Der Unbestechliche with Josef Meinrad and as Ella Rentheim in Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman. When Attila Hörbiger died of a stroke in April 1987, aged 91, Wessely, by then undisputed doyenne of the Burgtheater, retired at the age of 80.
In her last years she lived a very secluded life in her hometown Vienna and suffered from major depression, caused by the death of her beloved husband. On 20 January 2000 she celebrated her 93rd birthday quietly, with only her three daughters and grandchildren at her home in Vienna-Grinzing. The following April she suffered an acute attack of bronchitis and was admitted to a hospital in Vienna. She died on 11 May 2000 at the venerable age of 93, "peacefully in her sleep", as the Burgtheater management announced the following day. She was buried two weeks later at the side of her husband in an Ehrengrab of the Grinzing cemetery.Maskerade (1934)
So Ended a Great Love (1934)
Such Great Foolishness (1937)
Mirror of Life (1938)
Maria Ilona (1939)
Der Engel mit der Posaune (1948)
Maria Theresa (1951)
Different from You and Me (1957)
Die unvollkommene Ehe (1959)
1935: Volpi Cup for Best Actress for the film Episode (Venice Biennale)
1949: Max Reinhardt ring
1960: Kainz Medal
1962: Bambi Prize
1963: Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art, 1st class
1967: Gold Medal of the capital Vienna
1976: Grand Silver Medal for Services to the Republic of Austria
1979: Alma Seidler Ring (female counterpart to the Iffland Ring and donated in 1978 by the Austrian Government to mark the death of Burgschauspielerin Alma Seidler (1899 - 1977); Wessely was the first recipient)
1982: Honorary Ring of Vienna
1984: Gold German Film Award for many years of excellent work in German films