“Pola Negri is gravely ill!” (Pola Negri est gravement malade!”). That was the headline on June 10, 1937, in the Paris newspaper Le Journal. And also in Le Jour, and L’Oeuvre, and Ce Soir, and Paris-soir, and the next day in La Dépeche and L’Echo de Paris. Several of the articles ran alongside the same photo of Negri in one of her recent films, Mazurka (1935), that was being reissued throughout France. Other newspapers ran the story as well, detailing how the star had to be rushed from Bayreuth, where she had gone for the Wagner festival, to Berlin. As a sign of the relative importance of the story, many dailies ran it on the front page. Ce Soir placed it at the top of the page, where a reader would be sure to see it, and then would have to scan to the bottom to read about Jean Renoir’s newest film, La Grande illusion (1937), having its premiere at the very fashionable Marivaux cinema in Paris’ second arrondissement. Negri’s sudden health crisis made for major news in France. But what was the nature her illness? And what might this tell us about movie stardom just before World War Two?
By the time of her stay in the Berlin clinic, Negri had been an international star for two decades. She had been born in Poland and worked on the stage there, then moved to Berlin to make movies, and was “discovered” by Ernst Lubitsch. They made several films together that were hits in Europe as well as the United States, after which both the director and the star went to Hollywood. In the US, Negri made headlines for her romances with Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino, but the American phase of her career ended with the development of recorded sound and her difficulty overcoming her thick Polish accent (and, of course, as with many stars from the period, there may well have been other reasons for the decline of her Hollywood career). She returned to Germany and continued to appear in films there and remained a major star throughout Europe at least until the end of the 1930s, although her final film would be an American one, Walt Disney’s The Moon-Spinners (1964).
In the months leading up to the incident in Bayreuth, Negri had been in the French news fairly frequently. There was Mazurka, of course, her 1935 film playing once again throughout France and North Africa. She was also filming Madame Bovary in Germany (probably at the time of her illness), and the press followed the progress of the movie closely, often expressing the perfection of the casting, the temperamental diva Negri bringing just the right amount of her own bovarisme to Flaubert’s heroine. As Je Suis Partout put it in May 1937, “Mme. Pola Negri…has her own energetic, explosive nature,” making her, in fact, ideal for the part.
But there were other stories, more troubling ones. On April 3, 1937, the leftist newspaper L’ère nouvelle asked in a headline, “Does Hitler Love Pola Negri?” The article explained that Hitler had “succumbed to the exotic charms” of Negri, who had herself been seen many times in the company of the Führer. The next day, Le Matin more or less repeated the story, writing that “Adolf Hitler has succumbed to the charms of the actress Pola Negri.” Then, in early June, just days before Negri became ill, the film tabloid Pour Vous—perhaps the most important movie publication in the country, and one that just a few weeks earlier had applauded Negri’s casting in Madame Bovary—ran a story on “The Three Stars of the Third Reich,” all of them women. The first was Emmy Sonnemann, the wife of the commander of Germany’s Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring. Sonnemann had made a few movies, but her celebrity came mostly through her marriage. Next, there was Leni Riefensthal, whom the article referred to as “the disgraced muse” because she had, apparently, fallen out of favor with Hitler, perhaps because of “disagreements of a personal nature,” or because the Führer had discovered that she “really did not have enough Aryan ancestors to be able to play a Valkyrie in the fiercely anti-Semitic regime.” Whatever the reason, this left room for the third star, the “new favorite,” Pola Negri, whom Hitler considered an “authentic Aryan,” and who had replaced Riefensthal in “the Führer’s heart.”
In her very gossipy autobiography, the aptly titled Memoirs of a Star (spoiler alert: Chaplin does not come off well), Negri expresses her outrage at stories like these. She says, in fact, that she had stopped in Paris “for some shopping” when the Pour Vous story came out, and that the whole thing “was a tissue of lies from beginning to end.” She claims that she “had never even met Hitler,” and “immediately instructed my French attorney to institute libel action against the publication.” Negri ends the story triumphantly: “Needless to say, I won the suit.”
I’ve found no evidence in Pour Vous or any other newspaper that such a suit was ever filed, but it certainly may have been. There were, however, any number of stories linking Negri to Hitler, several of which referenced the actress having replaced Riefensthal as the object of the Führer’s affection (in fact, Riefensthal’s “disgrace” became a news story itself in France, covered by several newspapers).
None of the initial articles about Negri’s illness could quite identify the condition that required the actress to be rushed to the clinic in Berlin. After a few days, though, the crisis seemed to pass. On June 13, Ce Soir reported that it had been nothing more than severe food poisoning that struck Negri, and that she was recovering quickly. A day later, L’Echo de Paris informed readers that “Pola Negri is better.” I have found only one reference at all to the illness in American newspapers, a two-dozen word piece in the Los Angeles Times from June 11, “Pola Negri Makes Recovery in Illness.” A little more than a week later, the Times ran another, much longer piece, this one letting readers know that Hitler would not be marrying Riefensthal because Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels had discovered that she was a “Jewess,” and that Negri had been rumored to have attracted Hitler’s attention since then.
It’s possible that the story of Negri’s poor health had been made up by Negri herself, or perhaps a publicist, trying to generate sympathy for an actress whose rumored personal life was becoming more and more complex, and more and more politicized. In her memoir, Negri does discuss an illness and being rushed to Berlin. She writes that she “was stricken with violent pains,” but that the diagnosis was just “a touch of typhus,” and she was quickly better. But she places this incident in 1938, about a year after all of the articles in the newspapers.
At the very least, true or not, food poisoning or typhus, the story tells us something about her celebrity at the time. Negri had been one of the great stars in the world in 1925. A dozen or so years later, American newspapers barely noticed when she seemed so “gravely ill,” but nevertheless, this story of a German actress’ health was a major news item in France, and probably the rest of Europe. Her illness coincided with the death of the American star Jean Harlow, and some newspapers ran the stories next to each other, as if Negri might be the next to die.
After Madame Bovary, Negri made only five more films, her career showing us the vagaries of stardom generally, perhaps. Or, as Negri indicates in her autobiography, her career may have been another casualty of World War Two, and by the end of the conflict both she and her movies had been more or less forgotten. In 1937, however, this Polish actress making films in Germany was one of the biggest stars in France, and both her private affairs and her health occupied the country’s film journals and everyday press, and no doubt millions of readers and fans.