If you ask me—you did ask me, didn’t you, dear?—No woman can be expected to vamp completely if she’s going to have to be refined about it.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Nita may have done extra work during the late ‘teens, but her first confirmed film role was in the 1920 Famous Players-Lasky production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The eponymous dual role was performed by matinee idol John Barrymore; Nita was cast as “Gina,” the saloon dancer who awakens the Jekyllian id. Publicity for the film opined that Barrymore himself spotted Nita in the Follies and insisted she be hired for the role. We at Naldi HQ doubt this, although we readily admit that Barrymore probably often visited the Follies. Agents for Famous Players-Lasky, however, closely monitored stage productions with an eye to purchasing story rights and hiring likely players; Nita’s casting is more in line with their usual business practice than any purported urging by Barrymore.
Reviews of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde focused on Barrymore’s performance, but Nita was noticed, and she began getting pickup work in New York film productions while continuing to work nights in theatrical productions. Over the next two years she maintained this brutal work schedule, winning supporting roles in films produced by Famous Players-Lasky, Lewis Selznick, William Brady, and Harry Houdini Picture Corporation. In early 1922 Jesse Lasky signed her to a single-picture contract. He immediately paired his faux Italian with a real Italian, Rudolph Valentino, for Paramount’s announced production of Vicente Blasco Ibañez’s 1919 blockbuster, Blood and Sand. Nita left New York for Hollywood. Her reputation for partying followed her. Maria Naldi remained in New York.
Blood and Sand
The first time I ever met Nita was on the set of another movie and she came serpenting at me from around a set and said in a hoarsely seductive voice: “Where the heck is the water cooler around here?”
In her later years, Nita mythologized her casting in Blood and Sand by spinning a very funny story involving Blasco Ibañez’s flying dentures and her cleavage. Her story can be heard in its ribald entirety on this excerpt from her lengthy recorded interview with the Columbia Oral History Program. We at Naldi HQ adore this story and choose to ignore certain problems with it. Nevertheless, we must reluctantly admit it is unlikely that Blasco Ibañez was allowed input on Paramount’s casting decisions.
Nita gave the best performance of her film career in Blood and Sand, and it is the role for which she is best remembered. Some of her success, however, must be ascribed to problems with the film’s characters and narrative. Valentino’s long-suffering wife, played by Lila Lee, is a tiresome goody two-shoes. An irritating philosopher wanders through the narrative, interrupting the story to pontificate. Valentino does his high-wattage best, but he’s saddled with an unattractive coif and an even more unattractive character: Juan Gallardo is arrogant, whiny, and unsympathetic, and it’s difficult to suppress the feeling that the bull should be introduced earlier in the film.
Nita, cast as fire-breathing man-eater Doña Sol, executes her signature role with a gleam in her eye and all the gusto she can muster. She swans about in outré ensembles, ogles Valentino and every other male in the film suggestively, wears a series of harebrained hats (one, a favorite here at Naldi HQ, is festooned with grapes), yawns as her victim dramatically perishes in front of her, and generally refuses to behave. It was not a role for Lillian Gish—but it suited Nita down to the ground.
I’d look at the costumes they’d design for me and almost pass out. Anywhere but in the movies they’d have locked you up for a freak.
Blood and Sand was a roaring success, and in July 1922 Jesse Lasky finally signed her to a reported five-year contract with the Paramount Stock Company. Nita returned to the east coast, where Paramount immediately dissipated her career momentum by casting her in ill-considered roles in a series of programmers. From 1922 through 1924 she trotted from film to film, playing supporting roles in Anna Ascends, You Can’t Fool Your Wife, Lawful Larceny, Glimpses of the Moon, Don’t Call it Love, and The Breaking Point, all filmed on the east coast. Most of these films are now lost, but judging from surviving stills and contemporary critical reviews, Nita had already been typecast. Paramount was notorious for not developing its human capital, and none of these roles were designed to nurture her abilities or further her career.
One of the big producers told me to go back on the stage. Said he didn’t think I screened well anyway and wasn’t worth $75. I told him I didn’t think he produced good pictures, either, but that I had heard he made very good buttonholes and suggested his going back to that. He didn’t like it at all, and his hair stood on end—all four of them.
Nita was not as extensively promoted as were other Paramount stars, but she received her fair share of silly publicity, generally focusing on her vampish wiles. She “authored” articles she probably never saw (“This Business of Being a Vampire”) she advertised products she’d probably never heard of (“I Use Boncilla Constantly!”), and she was interviewed by reporters she probably never met (“We Interview Nita Naldi, an Interview Playlet in One Act and Three Scenes”). She took none of it seriously and neither did her interviewers. Occasionally one of the interviews is the real deal; from the tone of these pieces, it’s difficult to determine who is enjoying the airborne bandini more, the interviewer or Nita.
“Your costumes are so distinctive—real creations!” Miss Naldi was toying with her girdle which was wound gracefully about her gorgeous figure. I could not help remarking the beauty of her sash. “Of course, you design them yourself?” I suggested, having met stars and discovered that they usually “do” everything from costume designing to superintending their cuisine.
But Miss Naldi is disconcertingly honest.
“Are you well?” she blurted slangily, and then frankly, “Oh, no! I couldn’t do anything like that!”
Fan publications and publicity columnists were not in the business of producing hard news, but their writers weren’t stupid. Oblique references to Nita’s hard drinking and sometimes raucous behavior seeped into her publicity releases, and reporters had their own views about her relationship with her “little sister,” which they occasionally expressed with heavy-handed innuendo. Maria Naldi had by then given up any pretensions to acting and, when not traveling to and from Italy, was being described as Nita’s maid and dresser.
In 1923 Nita was publicly linked with the man she would eventually marry, blue-blooded playboy James Searle Barclay, Jr. Barclay hailed from a wealthy and impeccably descended Long Island family and was 24 years Nita’s senior. He derived his considerable pocket change from managing his family’s properties and serving as a “broker”; when he was not gracing Mrs. Astor’s ballroom, he spent his time yachting, racing, clubbing, serving on the boards of various financial institutions and charitable organizations, and attending Ziegfeld’s productions, which was probably where he met Nita. In 1907 he had married the equally well-connected Isabella Hunnewell Harriman; this marriage was still in place in 1923, despite the rumored connection with Nita. Nita denied any affair with Barclay and continued to reside in her midtown apartment with Maria.
As long as reporters were focused on Maria Naldi and J. Searle Barclay, they ignored Nita’s real family: her brother, Daniel Dooley. Daniel’s legal studies had been interrupted by an Army stint during World War I. He married in 1917, and in 1922 his only child, Gloria, was born. Daniel and his family lived quietly in a Manhattan apartment; he worked as a title officer for a savings and loan organization, a career in which he continued for the rest of his life. Privately, Nita remained very close to her brother and to her only niece. Gloria Dooley fondly remembered being picked up by chauffeurs and whisked to her movie-star Auntie’s apartment, where she was allowed to dress in Auntie’s gowns, drape herself in Auntie’s jewelry, apply Auntie’s lipstick, and test Auntie’s perfume. Nita never spoke of her brother or his family to the press, and they remained publicly undiscovered country. It was a state of affairs that suited both parties.
As soon as I used to flash on the screen, the customer knew right away that the hero would part with his farm.
Underneath the colorful publicity hoopla, however, all was not well with Nita’s film career. Jesse Lasky had reservations regarding her ability to carry a film; in an April 10, 1923 letter to Adolph Zukor, he wrote:
After viewing Naldi’s performance in her last two pictures, “Glimpses of the Moon” and “You Can’t Fool Your Wife,” I am afraid to risk starring her, so we are planning a special in which she will be featured. At this writing the story has not yet been selected.
Nita was also having another problem, one that probably affected her film career more adversely than Jesse Lasky’s disapprobation, her reputation as a drinker, or her rumored affairs with parties of both genders: her weight. News reports from 1922 through 1925 focus on her fluctuating weight and nutritionally unsound diets; this reached a nadir in a venomous review she received for 1924’s The Breaking Point:
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.
Her last surviving film for Famous Players-Lasky was Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, playing the role of the half-caste leper, Sally Lung. She was again cast opposite Rudolph Valentino in A Sainted Devil, released in November 1924, but when Valentino’s contract expired and he jumped Paramount’s ship, Nita’s option was quietly dropped.
Valentino and his wife, Natacha Rambova, formed Ritz Carlton Productions with J.D. Williams, the former head of First National, and announced that their first project would be The Hooded Falcon, a full-blooded period costumer set in Moorish Spain. Ritz Carlton hired Nita to co-star. In September 1924 she sailed to Europe, where she met the Valentinos in Paris to do costume fittings for the film. The trio returned to the States in November 1924 to commence filming, but the much-ballyhooed Hooded Falcon was by then hemorrhaging funding. Product-desperate, Ritz Carlton was forced to discard their full-blooded Falcon for its more anemic cousin, Cobra. Cobra was the last film Nita did with Valentino.
Reviews for Cobra were tepid, and it died a quick and unlamented death at the box office. For the next few months Nita continued to get pickup roles in single-contract programmers, including The Marriage Whirl, The Lady Who Lied, and Clothes Make the Pirate, but her career was rapidly flagging. When the Valentinos parted ways with Ritz Carlton, she was cast in Natacha Rambova’s What Price Beauty. The film was shot in early 1925, but by then neither Rambova nor Nita was a box office draw, and the film was not released until 1928. What Price Beauty was Nita’s last American release.
Nita Naldi—if by chance your eyes fall upon these lines—go back to Hollywood! You will be forgiven. No questions will be asked. Your dressing room is just as you left it. There is the mascara bucket on the shelf. The barrel of rouge is in the corner. And even that old Gordon gin bottle is still in the wastebasket.
As Nita’s career waned, she and her playboy continued to be an item of gossip. Nita and Maria Naldi remained in the same mid-town apartment until 1925, but when Maria returned from Italy in 1926, she took up separate residence in the Hotel Endicott. Barclay and his wife remained married, but while Barclay maintained an address at the Plaza Hotel, his wife lived elsewhere. In September 1925 Nita again departed the States for Paris, hoping to rekindle her career by working in European productions. Barclay joined her, and the two were often seen together enjoying the Paris night life. When questioned about the affair by the press, Nita again denied that the two were anything but friends.
I thought I could get away from the vampire roles, but they said to me, “My dear, you didn’t cross the ocean to play Tess of the D’Urbervilles.”
Nita made the last three films of her career in Europe. Her official age notwithstanding (she had deleted five years from her resumé), she was thirty-one years old and her former showgirl figure had assumed a distinctly matronly appearance. In two of her European films, La Femme Nue and Die Pratermizzi, she was cast as “The Experienced Older Woman,” indicating her career was heading down the path so vividly described by Stephen Sondheim in the song “I’m Still Here”: “First you’re another sloe-eyed vamp, then someone’s mother, then you’re camp.” In the third film, Nita finally got her chance to try something different.
For Alfred Hitchcock’s The Mountain Eagle, she was cast very much against type as a village schoolmarm. We at Naldi HQ are mystified by this. Casting decisions for The Mountain Eagle were probably made by producer Michael Balcon rather than by Hitchcock, and we have spent many perplexed hours wondering what Balcon was drinking. How well Nita handled the assignment we will never know, as The Mountain Eagle is a lost film. This annoys us. We would give up our grape-festooned hats to see one of the screen’s most famous vamps play a village schoolmarm in an Alfred Hitchcock film.
I shall never forget one afternoon. We had been working hard all the day, and Nita was nearly all in. She had to play one more scene, where she was cleaning Malcolm Keen’s rifle when a face appeared at the window and she pointed the gun at him.
The scene was going well, when, just as she turned the gun to the window, I saw it waver. It veered from side to side. It moved up and down. It went round in circles.
Then, without a word, Nita tilted to one side and fell headlong.
The floor was very hard . . . The set was built on a foundation of stones set in cement. Before the camera had even stopped turning, she had recovered. And all she said was: “Why don’t they build these lousy sets right over here? This floor’s too gol-darned hard for comfort!”
Despite her moribund career, Nita was not yet ready to stop being a star. Alfred Hitchcock recalled greeting her at the Munich train station. She stepped off the train, he wrote, 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.” She was followed by her attentive maid and accompanied by an elderly man she casually introduced to all as her “Papa,” although Hitchcock doubted the elderly gentleman was her father. Hitchcock’s doubts were well founded. “Papa” was not Nita’s father: he was J. Searle Barclay. Nita’s theatrics notwithstanding, she, Hitchcock, and Alma Reville became good friends, and when Hitch and Alma married in December 1926 they spent part of their honeymoon with Nita in Paris.
“Yes, it’s a gay life over here,” yawned Nita, as she met the dawn at twelve o’clock midday. “Had lunch at Ciro’s yesterday. One waiter spoke French and someone had him fired.”