Nita Naldi

Mysterious, Notorious & Private

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Nita Naldi was a silent film actress, frequent partner to Valentino and – after Theda Bara – another famous Hollywood vamp. Her life story is complicated, sometimes unknown, obscure or fictionalized. Nevertheless, she is a fascinating part of Old Hollywood. 

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Beginnings

Nita Naldi was actually born Mary Nonna Dooley on November 13, 1894 in Harlem, New York City. Her parents were working-class and Mary had only one surviving younger sibling, four of them had died in infancy. Mary was named in honor of her great aunt, Sister Mary Nonna Dunphy, who had founded the Academy of the Holy Angels in Fort Lee, New Jersey, in 1879, which was situated directly opposite the Fox film studio. Mary was educated at the Academy as well and received a varied education, as the Academy was a frequent boarding school for off-spring from the entertainment industry. Apparently, one of Mary’s contemporary pupils was none other than Katherine E. Gibss, better known as celebrated actress Kay Francis. 

In 1910, when Mary was 16 years old her father left the family and fiver years later, at age 21, Mary had become the primary caretaker of the family when her mother died. So, she too on odd jobs, including one as an artist’s model and a cloak model. 

She entered the vaudeville circuit together with her bother and three years later, at age 24, she found work as a chorus girl at the great Winter Garden Theater in The Passing Show of 1918. She finally got engaged by the Ziegfeld Follies and performed with them in 1918 and 1919. She continued to work on Broadway and impressed with performances in The Bonehead and Opportunity. 

Mary Dooley becomes Nita Naldi

This is also the period, when Mary Nonna Doley changed her name to Nita Naldi. Not unusual for Old Hollywood, but he story behind is usually the interesting part. So, where does „Nita Naldi“ come from. The „Naldi“ part is easily explained: At the census 1915, Mary Dooley lived together with her mother and a young secretary by the name of Maria Naldi at the Regina Angelorum Catholic Home for Working Women. After her mother’s death, the two young women lived together at a midtown Manhattan apartment, stating they were sisters, which actually nobody believed. From then onwards, Mary would use Maria’s last name „Naldi“. When it comes to Nita, her first known credit is in Follow the Girl in March 1918. She is listed as „Nonita Naldi“. As her maiden name is Mary Nonna Dooley, it is easy to assume that she created the Italian endearment form of Nonna.- Nonita -and then shorted it to Nita. Et Voilá – Nita Naldi, the star, was born. 

Her change in name also comes with a backstory that Nita Naldi invented. As she was not the ideal All-American beauty with fair hear and skin, she modeled herself into a diplomat’s daughter with Italian, Spanish or Irish origins. She also already had a reputation for her cynical sense of humor and an habit for hard drinking and partying. As there are large gaps in her life’s path, it can only be assumed that Nita Naldi performed in less-than-stellar productions and had to make ends meet. Her work as a model might also have been only an invention by her to make her seem more aloof than she actually was. It is believed that she worked hard for a couple of years, but never talked about it. With her name change especially, there might be some bits that we are still missing. This is all the more difficult as Nita Naldi never ever talked about her family or her private live. So, there never was an autobiography, an open interview or some other reliable first-hand source to confirm or discover what she actually did during some of those blank spots in her biography. 

Hush about Family

As Nita Naldi did not talk much about her family, the reporters were almost always focused on her highlighted relationships – the one with Maria Naldi, which of course got reported as being a lesbian romance and the one with Barclay Jr. later on. Her real-life relatives though were never mentioned – neither by the reporters nor by Nita Naldi. Her brother Daniel and her niece Gloria were gloriously left in peace. But Gloria Dooley fondly remembered her childhood with her famous film star aunt whom she often visited. Being private about private things would be a theme for Naldi’s life – she never spilled the beans on anyone and hardly ever shared anything close to her, her love life or her relationships. 

Success in the Movies

Her stage work got Naldi into the movies. First, she filmed a short movie with Scottish comedian Johnny Dooley, who was not related to her despite the same last name. Next, she appeared in A Divorce of Convenience opposite Owen Moore. And then, after having seen her perform on stage,John Barrymore himself recommended her for the exotic role of Gina in the 1920 release of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This movie and her performance in it, opened up the world of movies and stardom for Nita Naldi. 

For the next two years, Nita Naldi followed a grueling work schedule – filming movies during the days and appearing in stage productions at night. Eventually, she signed a single-picture contract with Famous Players Lasky to star opposite heartthrob-of-the-decade Rudolph Valentino for 1922’s Blood and Sand. As the filming took place in LA, Nita Naldi moved West and left her „sister“ Maria Naldi back in New York. 

„Blood and Sand“ was a smashing success, underlining Valentino’s image and elevating Nita Naldi to being the latest vamp in town. She received a five year deal with Paramount and followed her success movie up with several more engagements, each one a bit more important than the last; one of them The Ten Commandments in 1923 under the direction of Cecil B. DeMille. But none of the films proved a suitable vehicle to develop Nita Naldi’s personality and acting. Jesse Lasky was not sure that Nita Naldi would be able to carry a movie as the star. When Valentino, one of the great partners of Nita Naldi, left Paramount, Nita Naldi’s contract was not renewed either. 

Career end

Instead, she was hired by the Valentinos to co-star in the full-on period costume picture set in Moorish Spain. They headed to Europe for costume fittings, but after returning go the States, funding for the movie had evaporated and they had to drop the movie project. Instead, they filmed Cobra in 1925 – it was the last movie Nita Naldi and Valentino starred in together. That same year, she starred in Natacha Rambova’s What Price Beauty? as well as in the Dorothy Gish movie Clothes Make the Pirate. Naldi’s career started to falter, one factor in it: Her weight! She had been steadily gaining weight and the press had a field day to exploit this. From 1922 to 1925, reports came out that covered her weight and diets. The Breaking Point published the following in 1924: „Miss Naldi seems all too conscious of the fact that people out front are none too polite in discussing her sad case of avoirdupois. To be frank, the Latin beauty is disappointing in her ugly buxomness.  The woman is fat and the knowledge of it aids her self-reliance and screen composure not at all.“

Naldi moved to Europe, where she would film her last three movies. In 1926, she appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Mountain Eagle. And Alfred Hitchchock would recount the impression she made when he greeted Naldi at the Munich train station as follows: “She stepped off the train and Munich quite audibly gasped. She was every inch the diva: …glamorous, dark, Latin, Junoesque, statuesque, slinky, with slanting eyes, four-inch heels, nails like a mandarin’s and a black dog to match her black-swathed dress.” 

Two other movies followed within a year: The French silent movie The Nude Woman and the Austrian movie Die Pratermizzi. Affer that, Naldi retired from acting and did not appear in a movie ever again, neither did she ever film a sound movie. 

Theater and TV

Due to her early retirement at age 33 and the coninciding Great Depression, Nita Naldi had to file for bankruptcy in 1932. In order to get up on her feet financially, Naldi returned to the stage. In 1933, she starred in Queer People and The Firebird. In 1942 she appeared in a New York revue with Mae Murry reciting the famous Kipling poem „A Fool There Was“, which had led to the creation of „the Vamp“, the man-eating woman Theda Bara had first established and that Nita Naldi had been thought of to have succeeded. When being complimented on her great performance and how well the audience responded to her, she retorted with one of her famous quips: “Don’t be a fool.  It’s curiosity. They think I’m dead.”

Ten years later, she had a role in Any Language opposite famed stage actress Uta Hagen. And, Naldi coached Carol Channing for the musical The Vamp. 

Apart from her stage work, Nita Naldi also appeared in the 1950s variety TV series Omnibus. 

Naldi died on February 17, 1961 at age 66 in her hotel room at the Wentworth Hotel in New York City and was subsequently buried at Cavalry Cemetery in Queens, New York. 

Romances

There is not much known about Nita Naldi’s love life. But she always denied to have been romantically involved with either John Barrymore or Valentino. One man though that was important in her life was millionaire James Searle Barclay Jr. He came from a wealthy and established Long Island family and was 24 years Nita Naldi’s senior. He enjoyed his riches yachting, racing, clubbing, dancing, and attending Ziegfeld productions. This is probably where these two met. They were first linked in 1923, when Nita was 28 years old. At that time, Barclay was still married to his wife of 16 years, Isabella Hunnewald Harriman. 

When Nita left for Europe in 1925 to rekindle her career and work for other studies, Barclay joined her and they were often seen partying and enjoying the night life in Paris. Nevertheless, Nita would continue to deny the affair and described them as merely friends. 

Finally, in 1929 Isabelle Barclay filed for divorce and the same year Nita Naldi and Barclay Jr. got married. But before, Nita Naldi had so sign a prenup which basically meant that she had no rights whatsoever to anything of Barclay. And if he died before her, she would only see $1. Even though I think that is horrible, she did sign and they did get married. They lived together in France for two years, apparently on an estate Barclay had bought from the Aga Khan. When they returned to New York, it became apparent that the Great Depression had hit Barclay hard and Naldi – as mentioned beforehand – had to get back on the stage.  

They both would move to the Wentworth Hotel in Times Square until the end of their individual lives. Barclay died in 1944 and did leave basically nothing to Naldi. 

Friendships

Maria Naldi – Maria Naldi was the young secretary with whom Nita shared her Manhattan appartment and who was Naldi’s confidante – and maybe even lover, depending on the magazine you picked up. 

Rudolph Valentino – Frequent co-star Valentino and Nita Naldi were never romantically involved, but had a solid friendship. Naldi apparently was one of the few that even managed to become friends with Valentino’s wife Natacha Rambova. 

Natacha Rambova – Whilst being married to Valentino, Naldi and Rambova shared a friendship, but that ended with the Valentino marriage. 

Alfred Hitchcock and his wife Alma Revlle – Nita Naldi starred in Hitchcock’s Mountain Eagle and they got along very well. When Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville married in 1926, the very year that Mountain Eagle was filmed and Nita Naldi lived in Europe, they spent part of their honeymoon with Nita Naldi in Paris. 

Style

Nita Naldi is a great example of someone with a great story, a great personality and heaps of personal style. She had „a look“ – a very distinctive appearance, as earlier exemplified by Hitchcock’s quote on her arrival at Munich train station. She was not average, she stood out. And that package carried – as did the content of great wit and humor for which Naldi was well-known for. She would become a favored radio and television goest. She was fully aware of the fact that the tables had turned on her – from a famed Hollywood star with a millionaire husband to an has-been-actress with no means to support her lifestyle. Nevertheless, she was full of wit, humor, snark and stories.

Miscellaneous

When 28 year-old Nita Naldi first appeared on the Hollywood scene as the new vamp in Blood and Sand in 1922, she posed for Peruvian pin-up artist Alberto Vargas. He painted her topless embracing a bust of a satyr, which is a male nature spirit with ears and a tail resembling those of a horse, as well as a permanent, exaggerated erection.

John Barrymore and Nita Naldi also stayed friends and Naldi became a quasi-mother for his daughter Diana. Apparently, Diana called her „Mother Moonbeam“. 

With all my love!

xx

Kate

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