5 Portraits of European film stars and their strange stories.
“A girl should be two things: who and what she wants.”
The idea of the silent film star rescued from obscurity has been played out often since the arrival of sound in cinema, when hundreds of actors discovered they were no longer wanted and sent off to seek their fortunes elsewhere. It’s the motif in Sunset Boulevard, of Paul Auster’s Book of Illusions and I recall reading an Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators mystery with a reclusive genius who’d been wronged by the studios, though that was years ago. The point to all these stories is that the actors use their seclusion as a way to get attention. In the real world they tended to vanish, and that was that.
Vera Voronina’s whole life is a mystery. She existed – we have the photos to prove it – but who she really was and what happened to her are unknown. All the records on her, such as they are, say she was born in Russia in 1905, though the date always has a question mark after it. Having acted in three films in Germany, she arrived in Hollywood in 1926, the publicity describing how she had escaped the Bolsheviks by the skin of her teeth. Naturally there were references to her noble birth. She made four films in the U.S and one in Britain. The best known of them, The Patriot, was directed by Ernst Lubitsch and had Emil Jannings in the lead, and like Voronina, it has vanished from sight. She left Hollywood, made four more films in Europe and that was the last heard of her.
What actually happened may not be that mysterious. As sound came in, foreign accents went out, even in Europe, and she could have retired, married, taken on her husband’s name and lived out her years in quiet domesticity. But tracking her down could be impossible. We don’t know that Vera Voronina was her real name, when she was born or even that she was Russian.
The photo incidentally is by Eugene Richee, one of Hollywood’s top portraitists in the 1920s and 30s. I thought I’d find a bit about him too but the one source who would know these things, John Kobal, admitted in his book, The Art of Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers 1925 - 1940, that Richee was a bit of an unknown to him. Two riddles for the price of one.
In the early 1930s Hollywood realized that its public loved a certain type of foreign woman. She was blonde, sultry, mysterious, and Germanic. Everybody was out searching for the new Greta Garbo, even MGM, which had Garbo under contract. Samuel Goldwyn took the credit for discovering Sigrid Gurie. She was beautiful, blonde (or could be) and Norwegian. She never quite lived up to Goldwyn’s hopes but then she was cast in a string of ordinary films. The best known was Algiers (1938) in which she played someone called Inez. For all his boasting, it didn’t seem to occur to Goldwyn to cast Gurie as a Norwegian, or at least a Northern European. He was probably sitting at his desk in 1941 and grumbling over her failure to overtake Garbo when the scandal broke.
Gurie was born in working class Flatbush, Brooklyn. True, her parents were from Norway and they had moved back there when she was three. Her passport acknowledged her dual citizenship and she had spent longer in Norway than America, but that wouldn’t have satisfied Goldwyn. He promptly dumped her, muttering at how he’d been fleeced.
So: here is Sigrid Gurie in The Adventures of Marco Polo. She is playing Princess Kukachin, the daughter of Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan. MGM had no problem casting her as a Mongolian but refused to recognize she was Norwegian. Some people still think Samuel Goldwyn was a genius.
In the early 1920s aspiring actress Kathe Dorsch was engaged to World War 1 fighter ace and morphine addict Hermann Goering. She broke the engagement off, which sent Hermann into a tailspin. How could any woman spurn one of the only living heroes of the war?
Fifteen years later, Ms Dorsch was an acclaimed star of cinema, the stage and opera and Goering was the head of the Gestapo. He was also still her friend and would do anything she wanted. By now Jews could not marry non-Jews let alone leave Germany without a pass officially signed by Goering. The actual number of passes Goering signed for Dorsch isn’t known but the evidence suggests she frequently went to his office, got what she asked for and saw that many of her Jewish friends and acquaintances escaped to safety.
We could phrase that another way and speculate on how many Jewish people Goering knowingly arranged safe passage for except that it doesn’t exonerate him. If anything it shows what a fool he was and how easily Kathe Dorsch could manipulate him: not so much Schindler’s List as Hogan’s Heroes.
On May 18, 1945 U.S Army officers went to Leni Riefenstahl’s villa in Austria and arrested her, not to face criminal charges but rather to assist them with their investigations. Hitler had killed himself just over a fortnight earlier and Germany had surrendered on May 8. They wanted information in order to draw up a list of suspects and charges as quickly as possible. Riefenstahl was just one of hundreds who would be brought in for questioning and she was an obvious target as her friendship with Hitler had been well known since the international release of her films Olympia and Triumph of the Will in the mid-1930s.
The man in charge of the arrest team was Budd Schulberg, not yet known as a scriptwriter but well aware of Riefenstahl’s reputation as a director. He would later say that he had been given reels of footage and needed someone to help him identify people and events. In the car, Riefenstahl began to talk, of her own free will, or more accurately she began to complain. It wasn’t her fault. She’d done nothing wrong. She knew nothing of the Final Solution. She was not a criminal, only a film director. Back at headquarters she protested that had she said anything, Goebbels would have had her sent to the gas chamber. Schulberg pounced. If she knew nothing, how did she know about the gas chambers? The world's greatest female film-maker had just damned herself.
According to the caption on the back, this wire photo was taken by Associated Press photographer James Pringle at Riefenstahl’s villa as she was being arrested. Pringle’s World War 2 work is well known but look at this image. This isn’t a woman facing interrogation for one of the worst genocides in history. At this moment she still believes she is a glamorous star and an internationally famous film director: so does Pringle.
In Viking lore a dead nobleman or woman or great warrior was placed on a longship, it was set alight and pushed out into the sea or the lake. Bear this in mind.
Like Sigrid Gurie, Danish born Gwili Andre arrived in Hollywood on the tails of Garbo and Dietrich having either been convinced or persuading herself that with the fashion for blonde Germanic or Nordic women she was a natural star. Her acting career was not spectacular; a handful of unremarkable films, but she did become reputedly the highest paid model in the U.S in the 1930s. It was as a model that she was photographed by Cecil Beaton, regarded then and today as one of the great fashion photographers. Gravures from the 1932 Beaton sessions – this is one – are relatively common, probably because they were cut from high quality mass circulation magazines.
To be a highly paid model in the era of Beaton, Steichen and Blumenfeld might strike some people as a dream come true but we only have snippets of information about Andre and none of the underlying causes behind what happened on the night in 1959 are ever considered.
On February 5, after years of reported alcoholism and frustration at her failed acting career, Andre gathered together a bundle of press clippings, photographs and other souvenirs from her career, piled them in the middle of her apartment and set them alight, then she lay down. It was reported that only after her body was pulled out of the apartment and identified did her neighbours have any idea of her past. The comparison to a Viking pyre isn’t crass; it appears that was exactly what she had in mind.