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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,004

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This is the grave of Nita Naldi.

Born in 1894 in a New York tenement to Irish immigrant parents, Nonna Dooley grew up very poor. Four of her five siblings died as children and her father abandoned the family in 1910. Dooley went to Catholic schools of course, none of that secular education for the Irish. But her aunt was a fairly well known nun who had founded a school called Academy of the Holy Angels in Fort Lee, New Jersey. So Nonna got to go there. Across the street was a film studio. The young girl was interested in the movies from a very young age, as were many kids of New York, where the film industry was still located and where so many films were shot in studios or just on the streets. These early films were totally revolutionary and they were also geared at young people in basically the same way movies are today, just in a much more rudimentary way.

In 1915, Dooley’s mother died. I think she may have had additional children with a second husband because Nonna was now responsible for younger siblings. Nonna was an attractive young woman and got jobs as a model. Both her and her brother attracted attention from vaudeville teams and they both entered that industry in 1918. She became a chorus girl and then got a job with Ziegfeld’s Follies later that year. So she was already rising. Of course most of the young women in these jobs never went anywhere higher. But Nonna did. She changed her name to Nita Naldi at this point, which provides a much more exotic and ethnically vague background than Nonna Dooley from the tenements.

Naldi started getting jobs on Broadway, including speaking parts. This quickly led her to the movies. She had a couple of small roles in minor films in 1920. She had her huge break that year when she got cast in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with John Barrymore, who had recommended her after seeing her dance. The film was a huge hit. Naldi had that vamp thing that Theda Bara made the most famous and she used her dark looks to great effect. That was especially true after her second big film, starring with Rudolph Valentino in the 1922 movie Blood and Sand. Soon, Naldi and Valentino were best friends, although never lovers. They starred in a bunch of films together. In fact, she was in more Valentino films than anyone else. She continued modeling as well, most notably for the Peruvian artist Alberto Vargas, who painted her topless embracing a statue of a satyr in a 1923 film that became controversial in the film world because it exposed part of her left breast, which definitely appealed and outraged large segments of the population.

Naldi remained a big actor for the next few years, including starring in the original Cecil B. DeMille The Ten Commandments in 1923. Yes, the version you know with Charlton Heston was DeMille remaking his own film 30 years later. But she was about done with acting. She made a few more movies, had a bunch that were planned that never saw the light of day, and even had a role in Alfred Hitchock’s 1926 film The Mountain Eagle. But after starring with Dorothy Gish in Clothes Make the Pirate, Naldi went to France and married a millionaire named J. Searle Barclay. She basically stopped acting after that.

The marriage didn’t take and she had no money after it, filing for bankruptcy in 1932. By the time Naldi was ready to return to acting, the world had changed. It was the talking era. Now, evidently Naldi did have a decent voice. But this was also an era that really valued its thin actresses. And Naldi had gained some weight. She starred in some Broadway plays and the media was just brutal to her over her weight, which even led to her suing one for libel. She almost got a roll in For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1942 but that didn’t work out.

So Naldi spent the rest of her career on the stage, often in fairly minor roles, but working. She was also hired to teach Carol Channing how to vamp for the 1955 musical about the silent era, The Vamp, Channing starred in. She did a little TV in the 50s, really anything to keep some money coming in. Naldi spent her last years living in a New York hotel and it was there she died of a heart attack in 1961. She was 66 years old.

Nita Naldi is buried in Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York.

Let’s watch Blood and Sand.

If you would like this series to visit other silent film actresses, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Theda Bara is in Glendale, California and Louise Brooks is in Rochester, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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