Six cinematic scandals and tragedies
“It is a public scandal that offends; to sin in secret is no sin at all.”
Long ago, some time in the early 19th century, impresarios discovered that a scandal could fill theatre seats. Tragedies were different. If the actor died young the curtain came down and that was that, though an untimely death helped sales of cartes de visite. There are reports that the demand for portraits of John Wilkes Booth went through the ceiling after he was shot following the assassination of Lincoln. Things changed with cinema. Now a tainted or tragic star’s greatest scenes could be recycled ad nauseam and the myth kept the tills turning. Eva May was the daughter of Joe May, one of Germany’s most popular directors in the silent era, and Mia May, the even more popular actress. Appearing in her first film when she was twelve, her way up the ladder was swift and easy, but she had problems. By the time she was twenty she had been married three times. She first attempted suicide in 1923 after her fiancé Rudolph Seiber left her for Marlene Dietrich. A year later she succeeded. She was twenty four. Born under a bad star, you could say.
Nita Naldi … The name sounds exotic and there was something oriental, Turkish or Indian perhaps, in her eyes … Actually she was born Mary Dooley in New York in 1894, the daughter of an Irish father and Italian mother and despite being typecast as an elegant seductress she was as famous on set for her coarse language. When Theda Bara retired from acting in 1926 Hollywood needed someone to fill the role of the vamp and Naldi, who had already appeared in Blood and Sand and The Ten Commandments, stepped in. Film titles include Don't Call It Love, The Lady Who Lied, The Unfair Sex, La Femme Nue; you get the picture. In his 1985 sequel to Hollywood Babylon, called not surprisingly Hollywood Babylon II, Kenneth Anger reproduced a 1963 photo of Naldi outside an LA cinema. Haggard and vacant, with kohl blackened eyes, the vamp had left her coffin for a spot of fresh night air, and within a few hours of the photo being taken she would die, though no one would realize that for a few days. Leading into the chapter of the book, ‘Hollywood Drugstore’, the implication in the photo was that Naldi was a heroin user. This was unfair if not actually dishonest. If Naldi had a drug problem it was more likely of the prescription variety, to deal with dramatic fluctuations in weight: there was nothing apart from her appearance in that one photo to suggest she was an addict. In the late 1920s she played the vamp for real when she ran off with the married millionaire J. Searle Barclay. Their lives together were a model of gratuitous self-indulgence, and when the money ran out he disappeared. During her last years she lived in a once chic hotel gone to seed, surviving on welfare. The real story, you sense, was darker than anything Anger and the gossip magazines realized.
In 1938 Austrian born comedienne Jenny Jugo was fond of playing such jokes on her boyfriend as slipping a rubber sausage on to his dinner plate. She also enjoyed putting on impromptu revues for him and his colleagues and then there was the film she made for him, in which according to a housekeeper’s report she stood around for a while then performed calisthenics in the nude. The boyfriend was Adolf Hitler. Among the gifts he was said to have given her were a mink coat, a villa and a four-seater aeroplane. Popular, though never a major star, her most productive years were during the silent era but she continued to act through the 1930s, during the war and intermittently into the 1950s. Despite being close to Hitler for a short time, she does not appear to have suffered the recriminations other actors supportive of the Nazis did after the war. This may be because the relationship occurred in 1938 so in the scheme of things was before that period the Allies were interested in, but more likely she was not considered that important, either as a political or cultural figure. These days you can’t talk about Jugo without mentioning Hitler. As far as her reputation stands, she might as well have contracted leprosy.
Think Berlin in the 1930s, think cabaret, and if your grasp of actual history is tenuous, Liza Minelli. Her character in Cabaret was based on Sally Bowles in the Christopher Isherwood memoir Goodbye to Berlin and Bowles, Isherwood assured us, was based on a real person. She wasn’t La Jana but for all intents and purposes might as well have been, or more accurately one of the dancers in the preliminary act. For a while Henriette Hiebel, which was probably La Jana’s real name, was one of the most thrilling dancers in Germany. Wearing the minimum attire, if anything at all, her performances were erotic and made men regret they wore wedding rings. But for a few years difference and a change of cities she might have offered a challenge to Josephine Baker. That said, one critic complained; “She had as much interest for sex as Immanuel Kant." (Once again, I’m very grateful to European Film Star Postcards for information in this post.) In 1940 she contracted pneumonia and died. She was 35. Mystery and rumour continued to haunt her reputation. It was claimed that she had helped smuggle Jews out of Germany and that she’d caught pneumonia after Goebbels forced her to perform for soldiers in mid-winter. Both are possible, neither can be confirmed.
The Rose Ballet scandal blew up in Paris at the beginning of 1959, when Le Monde published allegations that a highly ranked political figure was involved in procuring young girls for orgies. It was revealed soon after that the culprit was André Le Troquer, war hero and President of the National Assembly. It was further claimed that his wife, more accurately his partner, a former actress now high society portraitist, had choreographed performances using girls as young as 13 that quickly descended into depravity. She was Lithuanian born Elisabeth Pinajeff. As with the Profumo affair in England four years later, the substance of the allegations is generally accepted; what’s questioned are the motives behind them – sincere moral outrage or political opportunism. Either way, Le Troquer was jailed for a year and Pinajeff’s second career as an artist was finished. In Germany she had been a moderately successful actor during the silent era, though her reputation is more through association with some of the big names of Weimar cinema; director Carl Theodor Dreyer and performers Liane Haid, Ossi Oswalda, Evelyn Holt and Henny Porten. When Alex Binder took this portrait of her they were probably married, or certainly were soon after.
Whether what happened to Henny Porten in 1944 was a scandal or a tragedy depends upon your politics. If you were a Nazi with a soft spot for Germany’s best known actress it was probably both, though you would not have admitted so much in public. It’s astonishing to realize that Porten’s first film appearance was in 1906, before many countries even had cinemas, and her last in 1955, the year East of Eden won the Oscar for best film and Cannes awarded the first Palme d’Or. Not only that; she wrote and produced many of her 170 films. When Hollywood next indulges in one of its tiresome roll calls of the greats, ask yourself why her name is left out. In 1916 her first husband, director Curt Stark, was killed in the trenches, which was tragic enough, but in 1921 she married physician and producer Wilhelm von Kaufmann, who was Jewish. In 1933 Goebbels refused to grant her an exit visa so she could travel to Hollywood and thereafter did his utmost to finish her film career. That was difficult. For one thing, Porten was excellent in the kind of light comedies the Nazis needed to keep the German people distracted, so like a lot of people in cinema she found work hard to get though it did not completely vanish. In 1944 her apartment was destroyed in an air raid. Denied shelter because of Kaufmann’s ethnicity, the couple remained homeless and on the streets until the end of the war. Remember, if you ever see a former Hollywood celebrity on the street and holding out a cup, give them a coin, then remind them there is such a thing as the deserving poor.