She was the first European film star to be invited to Hollywood, and became one of the most popular actresses in American silent film. Her varied career included work as an actress in theater and vaudeville, as a recording artist, as a ballerina, and as an author.
Negri was born Apolonia Chalupec on 3 January 1897 in Lipno, Congress Poland, Russian Empire (present-day Lipno, Poland), the only surviving child (of three) of a Polish mother, Eleonora Kiełczewska (died 24 August 1954), who, according to Negri, came from impoverished Polish nobility, and Juraj Chalupec (died 1920), an itinerant Romani-Slovakian tinsmith from Nesluša. After her father was arrested by the Russian authorities for revolutionary activities and sent to Siberia, she and her mother moved to Warsaw, where they lived in poverty.
Young Apolonia was accepted into Warsaw's Imperial Ballet Academy. Her first dance performance was in the chorus of baby swans in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake; she worked her way up to a solo role in the Saint-Léon ballet Coppélia. However, a bout with tuberculosis forced her to stop dancing; she was sent to a sanatorium to recover, and during that time, she adopted the pseudonym Pola Negri, after the Italian novelist and poet Ada Negri; "Pola" was short for her own middle name, Apolonia (sometimes spelled Apollonia).
After Negri returned from her stay at the sanatorium, she successfully auditioned for the Warsaw Imperial Academy of Dramatic Arts. Alongside her formal schooling at the Academy, she took private classes outside with renowned Polish stage actress and professor Honorata Leszczynska. She made her theatrical debut before her graduation at The Small Theatre in Warsaw on 2 October 1912. She made her stage debut in 1913 in Gerhardt Hauptmann's Hannele in Warsaw and appeared the following year in her first film, Niewolnica zmysłów. She continued to perform there while finishing her studies at the Academy, graduating in 1914. Her graduating performance was as Hedwig in Ibsen's The Wild Duck, which resulted in offers to join a number of the prominent theatres in Warsaw.
By the end of World War I, Negri had established herself as a popular stage actress. She made an appearance at the Grand Theatre in Sumurun, as well as in the Small Theatre (Aleksander Fredro's Śluby panieńskie, and at the Summer Theatre in the Saxon Garden. She debuted in film in 1914 in Slave to her Senses (Niewolnica zmysłów). She appeared in a variety of films made by the Warsaw film industry, including Bestia (Beast, released in the US as The Polish Dancer), Room No. 13 (Pokój nr 13), His Last Gesture (Jego ostatni czyn), Students (Studenci), and The Wife (Żona).
Negri's popularity in Poland provided her with an opportunity to move to Berlin, Germany, in 1917, to appear as the dancing girl in a German revival of Max Reinhardt's theatre production of Sumurun. In this production, she met Ernst Lubitsch, who at the time was producing comedies for the German Film studio UFA. Negri was first signed with Saturn Films, making six films with them, including Wenn das Herz in Haß erglüht (If the Heart Burns With Hate, 1917). After this, she signed to UFA's roster; some of the films that she made with UFA include Mania (1918), Der Gelbe Schein (The Yellow Ticket, also 1918), and Komtesse Doddy (1919).
In 1918, Lubitsch convinced UFA to let him create a large-scale film with Negri as the main character. The result was Die Augen der Mumie Ma (The Eyes of the Mummy Ma, 1918), which was a popular success and led to a series of Lubitsch/Negri collaborations, each larger in scale than the previous film. The next was Carmen (1918, reissued in the United States in 1921 as Gypsy Blood), which was followed by Madame Dubarry (1919, released in the US as Passion). Madame DuBarry became a huge international success, brought down the American embargo on German films, and launched a demand that briefly threatened to dislodge Hollywood's dominance in the international film market. Negri and Lubitsch made three German films together after this, Sumurun (aka One Arabian Night, 1920), Die Bergkatze (aka The Mountain Cat or The Wildcat, 1921), and Die Flamme (The Flame, 1922), and UFA employed Negri for films with other directors, including Vendetta (1919) and Sappho (1921), many of which were purchased by American distributors and shown in the United States.
Hollywood responded to this new threat by buying out key German talent, beginning with the procuration of the services of Lubitsch and Negri. Lubitsch was the first director to be brought to Hollywood, with Mary Pickford calling for his services in her costume film Rosita (1923). Paramount Pictures mogul Jesse Lasky saw the premiere of Madame DuBarry in Berlin in 1919, and Paramount invited Negri to come to Hollywood in 1921. She signed a contract with Paramount and arrived in New York in a flurry of publicity on 12 September 1922. This made Negri the first ever Continental star to be imported into Hollywood, setting a precedent for imported European stars that would go on to include Vilma Bánky, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich, among many others. The Hot Dog, a Cleveland monthly publication, in its own promotional advertisement for Paramount in February 1922 claimed Negri's true name was Paula Schwartz, and that she was Jewish, which was completely untrue.
Negri ended up becoming one of the most popular Hollywood actresses of the era, and certainly the richest woman of the film industry at the time, living in a mansion in Los Angeles modeled after the White House. While in Hollywood, she started several ladies' fashion trends, some of which are still fashion staples today, including red painted toenails, fur boots, and turbans. Negri was a favorite photography subject of Hollywood portrait photographer Eugene Robert Richee, and many of her best-known photographs were taken during this period.
Negri's first two Paramount films were Bella Donna (1923) and The Cheat (1923), both of which were directed by George Fitzmaurice and were remakes of Paramount films from 1915. Her first spectacle film was the Herbert Brenon-directed The Spanish Dancer (1923), based on the Victor Hugo novel Don César de Bazan. The initial screenplay was intended as a vehicle for Rudolph Valentino before he left Paramount, and was reworked for Negri. Rosita, Lubitsch's film with Mary Pickford, was released the same year, and happened to be based on Don César de Bazan. According to the book Paramount Pictures and the People Who Made Them, "Critics had a field day comparing the two. The general opinion was that the Pickford film was more polished, but the Negri film was more entertaining."
Initially Paramount used Negri as a mysterious European "femme fatale" and a clotheshorse as they had done with Gloria Swanson, and staged an ongoing feud between the two actresses, which actor Charlie Chaplin recalled in his autobiography as "a mélange of cooked-up jealousies and quarrels". Negri was concerned that Paramount was mishandling her career and image, and arranged for her former director Ernst Lubitsch to direct her in the critically acclaimed Forbidden Paradise (1924). It would be the last time the two worked together in any film. By 1925, Negri's on-screen continental opulence was starting to wear thin with some segments of the American audience, a situation parodied in the Mal St. Clair-directed comedy, A Woman of the World (1925), in which Negri starred.
Paramount transitioned into casting Negri in international peasant roles in films such as the Mauritz Stiller-directed and Erich Pommer-produced Hotel Imperial (1927), in an apparent effort to give her a more down-to-earth, relatable image.
Although Hotel Imperial reportedly fared well at the box office, her next film Barbed Wire (1927) and a number of subsequent films did not, reportedly due to negative publicity about her behavior at Rudolph Valentino's funeral and her rebound marriage to Georgian prince Serge Mdivani, although her films continued to fare well internationally. In 1928, Negri made her last film for Paramount Pictures, The Woman From Moscow, opposite Norman Kerry. Negri claimed in her autobiography she opted not to renew her contract with Paramount, choosing to retire from films and live as a wife at the Château de Rueil-Seraincourt, near Vigny, where she had married her second husband. She owned the Château at the time. In 1928, her short volume featuring reflections on art and film, La Vie et Le Rêve au Cinéma, edited by Albin Michel, was published.
Negri's initial 1928 retirement turned out to be short-lived. Negri miscarried her pregnancy and later learned that her husband was gambling her fortune away on speculative business ventures, which strained their relationship. She went back to acting when an independent production company offered her work in a British film production that was to be distributed by Gaumont-British. Initially the film was to be a filmed version of George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, and Shaw even offered to alter the play to suit the film. When the rights proved to be too expensive, the company settled on an original story and hired German Kammerspielfilm director Paul Czinner to direct. The resulting film, The Way of Lost Souls (also known as The Woman He Scorned), was released in 1929; it would be Negri's final silent film.
Negri returned to Hollywood in 1931 to begin filming her first talking film, A Woman Commands (1932). The film itself was poorly received, but Negri's rendition of the song "Paradise", the centerpiece of the film, became a sizable hit in the sheet music format. The song went on to become a minor standard, and was covered by many other performers, including Russ Columbo and Louis Prima and Keely Smith. Negri went on a successful vaudeville tour to promote the song. She was then employed in the leading role of the touring theatre production A Trip To Pressburg, which premiered at the Shubert Theater in New York. However, she collapsed after the final curtain at the production's stop at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania due to a gallbladder inflammation and was unable to complete the tour. Negri returned to France to appear in Fanatisme (Fanaticism, 1934), an historical costume film about Napoleon III. The film was directed by the directorial team of Tony Lekain and Gaston Ravel and released by Pathé. It was her only French film.
After this, actor-director Willi Forst brought Negri to Germany appear in the film Mazurka (1935). The film was considered "artistically valuable" (German: künstlerisch wertvoll) by the Reichsfilmkammer. Mazurka gained much popularity in Germany and abroad, and became one of Adolf Hitler's favorite films, a fact that, along with her admiring comments about the efficiency of the German film industry, gave birth to a rumor in 1937 of Negri having had an affair with Hitler. Negri sued Pour Vous, the French magazine which had circulated the rumor, for libel, and won. Mazurka was remade (almost shot-for-shot) in the U.S. as Confession (1937), starring Kay Francis.
After the success of Mazurka, Negri's former studio, the now-Joseph Goebbels controlled UFA, signed Negri to a new contract. Negri lived in France while working for UFA, making five films with them: Moskau-Shanghai (Moscow-Shanghai, 1936), Madame Bovary (1937), Tango notturno (1937), Die fromme Lüge (The Secret Lie, 1938), and Die Nacht der Entscheidung (The Night of Decision, 1938). After the Nazis took over France, Negri fled back to the United States. She sailed to New York from Lisbon, Portugal, and initially lived by selling off jewelry. She was hired in a supporting role as the temperamental opera singer Genya Smetana for the 1943 comedy Hi Diddle Diddle. After the success of this film, Negri was offered numerous roles which were essentially rehashes of her role in Hi Diddle Diddle, all of which she turned down as derivative. In 1944, Negri was engaged by booking agent Miles Ingalls for a nationwide vaudeville tour. According to her autobiography, she also appeared in a Boston supper club engagement in 1945 for a repertoire centered around the song "Paradise", and retired from the entertainment business altogether.
Negri's first marriage was with Count Eugeniusz Dąmbski, and would prove to be short lived. Negri married Dąmbski in St Mary's Assumption Church in Sosnowiec on 5 November 1919, thus becoming Countess Apolonia Dąmbska-Chałupiec, having long since dropped the forename Barbara. After a long separation period, Negri and Dąmbski's union was dissolved in 1922.
After she began working in the United States, she made headlines and gossip columns with a string of celebrity love affairs, most notably with film stars Charlie Chaplin, Rod La Rocque, and Rudolph Valentino. Negri had met Chaplin while in Germany, and what began as a platonic relationship there became a well-publicized affair and marriage speculation which received the headline, "The Queen of Tragedy To Wed The King of Comedy". The relationship soured, and Negri became involved for a time with actor Rod La Rocque, who appeared as her leading man in Forbidden Paradise (1924). Negri met Rudolph Valentino at a costume party held by Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst at the San Simeon estate, and was reportedly Valentino's lover until his death in 1926. She caused a media sensation at his New York funeral on 24 August 1926, at which she "fainted" several times, and, according to actor Ben Lyon, arranged for a large floral arrangement, which spelled out "P-O-L-A", to be placed on Valentino's coffin. The press dismissed her actions as a publicity stunt. At the time of his death and for the remainder of her life, Negri would claim Valentino was the love of her life.
Negri soon married again, to the Georgian self-styled "Prince" Serge Mdivani. This action caused public opinion in the United States to sour against her because it happened so quickly after Rudolph Valentino's death. Negri and Mdivani were married on 14 May 1927 (less than nine months after Valentino's death); shortly after she became pregnant, and Negri, who always wanted a child, started taking better care of her health and even considered retiring from movies in order to be a housewife and mother. However, she reportedly suffered a miscarriage. She grieved the loss of her child for the rest of her life. On 2 April 1931 they divorced.
While residing at the Ambassador Hotel in New York in April 1932, Negri performed with Russ Columbo in George Jessel's variety revue at the Schubert Theatre, and was briefly involved with Columbo. After her film, A Woman Commands, premiered in Hollywood, Columbo performed Negri's signature song "Paradise" with his orchestra, and dedicated the song to her. Columbo also recorded and released the song as a 78 rpm single that year with slightly altered lyrics, and the single became a huge sensation with audiences across the country.
When Negri returned to the United States in the early 1940s, she became close friends with Margaret West, an oil heiress and vaudeville actress whom she had originally met in the 1930s. The two became housemates, and moved from Los Angeles to San Antonio, Texas, in 1957. Negri became a naturalized citizen of the United States on 12 January 1951.
In 1948, director Billy Wilder approached Negri to appear as Norma Desmond in the film Sunset Boulevard (1950), after Mae Murray, Mae West, and Mary Pickford declined the role. Negri reportedly declined the role because she felt that the screenplay was not ready and that Montgomery Clift, who was slated to play the Joe Gillis character at the time, was not a good choice for the character. The role of Gillis eventually went to William Holden, and Gloria Swanson accepted the Norma Desmond role.
Negri would live with Margaret West until the latter's death in 1963. Negri moved out of the home she had shared with West into a townhouse located at 7707 Broadway in San Antonio. She spent the remainder of her years there, largely out of the public eye. She came out of retirement to appear in the Walt Disney film The Moon-Spinners (1964), which starred Hayley Mills and Eli Wallach. Negri's appearance in the film as eccentric jewel collector Madame Habib was shot in London over the course of two weeks. While she was filming The Moon-Spinners, she made a sensation by appearing before the London press at her hotel in the company of a feisty cheetah on a steel chain leash.
In 1964, Negri received an honorary award from the German film industry for her film work, followed by a Hemis-Film award in San Antonio in 1968. In 1970 she published her autobiography, Memoirs of a Star, which was published by Doubleday. She made an appearance at The Museum of Modern Art on 30 April 1970, for a screening event in her honor, which featured her film A Woman of the World (1925) and selections from her films. Negri was a guest of honor at the 1972 screening of Carmen held at the Witte Museum in San Antonio.
In 1975, director Vincente Minnelli approached Negri to appear as the Contessa Sanziani in A Matter of Time, but Negri was unable to accept due to poor health. In 1978, Billy Wilder directed Fedora, and, although Negri does not appear in the film, the title character was reportedly based largely on her. Her final high-profile coverage in her lifetime was for a "Where Are They Now?" feature on silent film stars, which appeared in Life magazine in 1980.
In 2015, she was referenced in popular turn of the century English series Downton Abbey when Lady Mary emerges from a (1920s era) makeover, and Lady Crawley comments, "Pola Negri comes to Yorkshire!".
Pola Negri died on 1 August 1987, aged 90. Her death was caused by pneumonia; however, she was also suffering from a brain tumor, for which she had refused treatment. Dr. Juan Nieto, a physician from San Antonio, Texas pronounced her death. At her wake at the Porter Loring Funeral Home in San Antonio, her body was placed on view wearing a yellow golden chiffon dress with a golden turban to match. Her death received extensive coverage in her hometown newspapers San Antonio Light, and San Antonio Express-News, and in publications such as Los Angeles Times and Variety magazine.
Negri was interred in Calvary Cemetery, East Los Angeles next to her mother, Eleonora, who died in 1954 from pancreatic cancer. As Negri had no children or siblings, she left most of her estate to St. Mary's University in Texas, including a collection of memorabilia and several rare prints of her films. St. Mary's University also set up a scholarship in her name. In addition, a generous portion of her estate was given to the Polish nuns of the Seraphic Order; a large black and white portrait hangs in the small chapel next to Poland's patron, Our Lady of Częstochowa, in San Antonio, Texas.
Pola Negri has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contribution to Motion Pictures at 6933 Hollywood Boulevard. She was the 11th star in Hollywood history to place her hand and foot prints in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre. She received a star in Poland's Walk of Fame in Łódź and Poland's post office issued a postage stamp honoring her in 1996. The Polish Film Festival of Los Angeles remembered her with the Pola Negri Award, given to outstanding film artists, and the Pola Negri Museum in Lipno gives a Polita award for outstanding artist achievement.
Negri, along with Theda Bara and Mae Murray, were the actresses whose eyes were combined to form the Chicago International Film Festival's logo, a stark, black and white close up of the composite eyes set as repeated frames in a strip of film. It was created by Festival Founder and Artistic Director Michael Kutza.
In 2006, a feature-length documentary about Negri's life, Pola Negri: Life is a Dream in Cinema, premiered at the Seventh Annual Polish Film Festival of Los Angeles. The film was directed by Negri's biographer, Mariusz Kotowski, and includes in-depth interviews with Hayley Mills and Eli Wallach, who starred in Negri's final film, The Moon-Spinners (1964). Pola Negri: Life is a Dream in Cinema has played at Negri retrospective screenings in Europe and the U.S., most notably at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris.
Kotowski authored a Polish-language biography of Negri, Pola Negri: Legenda Hollywood (English title: Pola Negri: Hollywood Legend), released in Poland on 24 February 2011, and an English-language biography, Pola Negri: Hollywood's First Femme Fatale, published by the University of Kentucky Press on 8 April 2014. Kotowski produced a 3-DVD compilation of early Negri films, Pola Negri, The Iconic Collection: The Early Years (2011).
Negri released a total of ten 78 rpm singles. In 1931, she recorded seven gypsy folk songs in London accompanied by guitars and chorus, six of which were released as the sides of three records on Victor's His Master's Voice imprint. She recorded a French-language version of "Paradise" in Paris in 1933 with "Mes Nuits sont Mortes" as its flip side. (Sheet music was released for the English-language version, but the recorded version only appeared in the 1932 film, A Woman Commands, and was never released as a record.) The remainder of Negri's recordings, cut from 1935 to 1938, centered around songs that she sang in her German sound films.