Barbara Apolonia Chalupec, better known as Pola Negri, screen actress, was born on January 3, 1897, in Lipno, Poland (under Russian occupation at that time). She was the daughter of a Jerzy Chalupec, a Slovakian tinsmith, and his wife Eleonora Kietczewska. She later claimed that her birthdate was on the last day of the century, December 31, 1899, and the date is even engraved on her gravestone, but a birth certificate confirms the date of January 3, 1897. Pola was a nickname, shortened from Apolonia; Negri she later took as her stage name after Italian poetess Adah Negri, her girlhood idol. The family was devoutly Catholic, and Pola’s father was a strong advocate for Poland’s political freedom—a cause for which he was eventually imprisoned. Pola and her mother subsequently moved to Warsaw, where she attended Catholic school. In 1911 she was given the opportunity to study at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg, and she made her dancing debut that same year in a production of Swan Lake. Her promising future in dance, however, was dashed when she contracted tuberculosis. After recovering, she entered the Philharmonia Drama School in Warsaw.
Negri made her stage debut in 1913 in Gerhardt Hauptmann's Hannele in Warsaw and appeared the following year in her first film, Niewolnica Zmyslów. Her stage work attracted the attention of Alexander Hertz, a pioneer Polish film producer, who made several of her earliest films. She also starred in Max Reinhardt's pantomime play Sumurun in Warsaw, and in 1917, at Reinhardt's urging, she continued the role in Berlin. After World War I she appeared in a series of German films, including Carmen and Madame DuBarry (released as Passion in the United States) both directed by Ernst Lubitsch. The two films subsequently became major hits in the United States. Offers began to pour in from Hollywood, and in 1922 Negri signed a contract with Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount). Her arrival in New York was greated with great fanfare, and she quickly rose to stardom in such films as Forbidden Paradise (1924) and Hotel Imperial (1927). Known for her fiery temperament and her exotic looks, she became the prototypical "vamp" of 1920s Hollywood. She was romantically linked with Charlie Chaplin, and carried on a well-publicized affair with Rudolph Valentino, which lasted until his death in 1926.
With the advent of talkies in the late 1920s Negri's Hollywood career faltered, and in the early 1930s she returned to Europe. She made one film in France, Fanatisme (1934), before signing a contract with German film studio UFA in 1935. She made several well-regarded films in those years, including Mazurka (1935), Moskau-Shanghai (1937), and Madame Bovary (1937). She fled Europe after the outbreak of World War II and sailed for the United States in 1940. Her arrival in New York was clouded by unfounded charges that she had had an affair with Hitler. She eventually cleared her name and attempted to make a comeback in Hollywood, but made only two films thereafter, Hi Diddle Diddle (1943) and The Moonspinners (1964).
In 1957 Negri moved to San Antonio with her longtime friend, Margaret West, who was from a prominent family of the city. They lived for a time in a suite in the Menger Hotel and later in a large home in Olmos Park. In her later years Negri lived in semiseclusion. She served on the board of directors for the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra and the San Antonio Little Theater. She was married twice, first to Polish count Eugene Dambski in the late 1910s and in 1927 to Prince Serge Mdivani; both marriages ended in divorce. Pola Negri died of a brain tumor in San Antonio on August 1, 1987, and was buried in Los Angeles at Calvary Cemetery. She donated her personal library to Trinity University in San Antonio and gave a large collection of memorabilia, including several rare prints of her early films, to St. Mary's University there. She also left a large portion of her estate to St. Mary's, which established a scholarship in her name.