NITA NALDI: A VAMP FROM VAUDEVILLE
Today is the birthday of Nita Naldi (Mary Dooley, 1894-1961).
Naldi was the child of working class Irish parents in New York City. When her (then single) mother died in 1915, she was forced to care for her two younger siblings. Fortunately her extraordinary beauty made it easier than it might have been. She worked as an artists’ model and then broke into a vaudeville in a two-act with her brother Frank. This led to chorus parts in Follow the Girl (1918), The Passing Show of 1918 and the Ziegfeld Follies of 1918 and 1919. This in turn lead to acting roles in plays, the biggest of which was aptly named Opportunity (1920).
From here she went into films, essentially starting out at the top, opposite John Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920). She was to become of Hollywood’s top silent era vamps, starring in such notable films as Blood and Sand (1922), The Ten Commandments (1923), Cobra (1924), and Alfred Hitchcock’s second film The Mountain Eagle (1926). She was a frequent co-star of Rudolph Valentino and his wife Natacha Rambova.
It was during this heyday that she she sat for this famous illustration by Alberto Vargas:
Starting in the late 20s she spent several years in Europe and married her longtime lover the millionaire J. Searle Barclay. By 1931 this had fizzled out. The pair separated, she came home, filed for bankruptcy and starred in two short-lived Broadway shows Firebird (1932) and Queer People (1934). At this stage, it was widely held that she was no longer a beauty; she had gained weight since her film stardom. But she continued to perform. She appeared in an off-Broadway revue with Mae Murray in 1942, had a role in the 1952 Broadway show In Any Language, and coached Carol Channing for The Vamp (1955).
For more on vaudeville history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.