Act 1: Birth, Childhood, and Early Career

Veteran fan magazine writer Herb Howe tells of penning an article about Nita back in the lush, golden days and submitting it to her in fear and trembling for an okay.  Nita, always a wit, asked for only one change.  She wanted the line “Nita Naldi was born over a market” changed to “Nita Naldi was born over a fish market.”

Nita Naldi was born on November 13, 1894 in a tenement located at 309 E. 114th Street in the then-Irish enclave of Harlem.  According to her birth certificate, her parents, Patrick and Julia Cronin Dooley, named her Mary. The 1900 and 1910 U.S. censuses, however, enumerate Mary Dooley as Nonna Dooley.  Nita is enumerated twice on the 1910 census, at home and at Holy Angels Academy in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where her great-aunt, Sr. Mary Nonna Dunphy, was the founder and Mother Superior.  This second enumeration was derived from the school’s register and probably reflects the name under which Nita was registered.  Nita was purportedly named after her great-aunt, so based on this and other internal evidence, we here at Naldi HQ infer that Nita’s full name was Mary Nonna Dooley.

Two siblings preceded Nita into this world and departed from it before Nita’s birth.  Patrick and Julia Dooley’s fourth child, a boy born in 1896, also died in infancy.  Nita’s only surviving brother, Daniel Aloysius, was born in 1898.

The Dooley household was a crowded one to modern eyes, although it was probably not considered unduly so at the time.  Their tenement flat housed the Dooley children, Nita’s parents, her grandparents, and a maternal aunt.  The family was solidly blue collar, devoutly Catholic, and upwardly mobile; both Nita’s father and grandfather were skilled tradesmen, her mother was a musician, her great-uncle was a wealthy merchant with a profitable Gold Street business and a home on West End Avenue, and her great-aunt, Sr. Mary Nonna, as a Mother Superior, had reached the pinnacle of career success for women in the Catholic Church.  Nita and her brother were both educated with an eye to providing them with a leg up on the social and economic ladder.  Daniel Dooley was eventually apprenticed to an attorney, while Nita, like her cousins (and probably her mother), attended Holy Angels Academy.

In my day, if men found you could converse, they wouldn’t take you out again, so I’d just sit there with my head in the soup plate.

There was no bridge across the river to Fort Lee at the time, so each week Nita would board the ferry at the beginning of the school week and return home on Friday.  At a time when most girls were given short shrift by the educational system, Holy Angels provided an unusually enriched academic environment; in addition to the three Rs, students took classes in art, music, drama, literature, and theology.  Holy Angels was a favored boarding school among Catholics from the theatrical and early film community, where evening performance schedules hampered careful supervision of children.  Actresses Mabel Taliaferro, Grace George, and Alice Brady were educated at Holy Angels, and the 1910 federal census for the school, which enumerates the future Nita Naldi, also enumerates the five-year old Katherine E. Gibbs—better known as Kay Francis.

When there’s witless speculation to be done (to be done)
A historian’s lot is not a happy one (happy one).

With apologies to W.S. Gilbert.

A word about research.  We here at Naldi HQ  have amassed reams of documentation on Nita’s family and have spent many enjoyable hours devising tantalizing hypotheses to explain what happened to them—and why.  Our endeavors ultimately proved fruitless. Credible conclusions can be teased from notations on public records only with great care, and it is easy to go spectacularly (and hilariously) wrong.  Nita herself never publicly discussed the events documented in public records, her surviving family has no remembrances or explanations for them, and your intrepid reporters can draw no rock-solid conclusions.  We understand that dry recitation of public record is tedious, but the records are part of the story.  We will keep it succinct.

Schoolmate Kay Francis, dressed as “Nita Naldi,” for a 1933 costume party. Photo courtesy Scott O’Brien, used with permission.

Between 1900 and 1906 the Dooley family went from being economically stable and upwardly mobile to hell in a handbasket.  Patrick and Julia Dooley suffered an appalling infant mortality rate even for fin de siécle New York; of their eventual six children, only two survived to adulthood.  Tuberculosis played a role in the family’s story, although how large a role we do not know.  Little John D. Dooley, born in 1896, died of tubercular enteritis at 11 months; in May 1903, Nita’s maternal aunt, Mary Agnes Cronin, died of tuberculosis-related influenza.  In 1906 Mary Agnes was followed to the grave by Nita’s grandfather.  Daniel Cronin had been the foreman of a tinsmithing factory, and his death probably resulted in a devastating reduction in the family’s income.

Nita’s last sibling was born in April 1905.  This birth was induced at seven months due to eclampsia, and the premature little boy lived only one day.  Shortly thereafter Nita’s father departed the family home.  He did not move very far away, however; he remained only a block from his family.  We do not know whether this proximity was based on Patrick Dooley’s desire to remain near his family or upon the legendary provinciality of the average Manhattanite.  Nita later said that she left school to support her family, but in 1910, four years after these events, she was still in school, as was her brother Daniel.  This suggests that Patrick Dooley’s removal from the family home did not spell the end of his economic support, at least until Nita and Daniel were adults.

Nita’s grandmother died in December 1911 as the result of an accidental fall, and when Julia Dooley died of a stroke in November 1915, she was living in the Regina Angelorum Catholic Home for Working Women.  Whether this was by choice or by necessity we do not know.  Nita was 21 years old at the time her mother died, so if Julia Dooley was in a charitable home out of necessity, Nita was not doing a very good job of supporting her family, despite her later claim.  Nita herself, however, was living in the same home with her mother (and with a young secretary named Maria Naldi) so we at Naldi HQ prefer to believe that the two resided at Regina Angelorum by choice.  Patrick Dooley was still alive in 1920, when he listed himself for the last time in the New York City Directory.  Diligent effort on the part of your Naldi Investigators has so far failed to determine where and when Nita’s father died.  The search continues.

Early Stage Career

“How impressed I was to watch Nita in her scene with Rudolf Valentino in Blood & Sand. When she walked to the harp, I was expecting another random attempt at playing the harp on screen by a non-musician. But to my surprise, I  could see that she was indeed really playing. She played out a melody and a definite bass line with continuity and logic. In fact, I could see that her hands were really plucking the strings rather than the typical light strum to “get by” on camera. Her left hand was indeed playing exact octaves with a repeated phrase making jumps of a certain distance and landing on the same strings, which shows she had some skill. Her right hand was playing a melody that also showed some repetitive phrasing and a very intentional musical action, even slightly rolled chords measured evenly, which is certainly not done by a beginner.” Annamaria Mendietta.

Cora MacGeachy costume design for Nita Naldi, for “The Passing Show of 1918.” Image ©Shubert Archive, used with permission.

Nita eventually excised several years from her age and in later interviews conveniently truncated her early career, giving the impression that she spent a few bored months modeling before leapfrogging to the Great White Way.  There is, however, a gap in our knowledge of these years, years she undoubtedly spent working in less-than-stellar theatrical productions.  By the time her name began appearing in cast lists she had already developed a cynical sense of humor and a reputation for hard drinking.  Her dark coloring was at odds with the ice-cream blonde look then considered “All-American,” so she jettisoned her local origins and became the usually Italian, sometimes Spanish, occasionally Irish daughter of world-traveled diplomats who hailed from Italy, Spain, Washington DC, or New Orleans—-depending on her mood at the moment.  She and Maria Naldi  moved into a midtown Manhattan apartment and announced that they were sisters.  Nita adopted Maria’s last name, creating the lilting and alliterative stage name “Nita Naldi.”  Her friends called her “Nix.”  Very few of her fellow theatricals believed Nita was Italian.

Even fewer believed that Nita and Maria were sisters.

After landing my first speaking part in a regular legit show called “The Bonehead,” I was fired for throwing dice with the stagehands–and missing a few cues.  Tell me what the stage crew thinks of a star, and I’ll tell you where she rates.

Nita, second from left, in “The Passing Show of 1918.” Photo courtesy The Shubert Archive.

The late teens were good years for Nita.  Both her credited roles and her publicity confirm that her vamp persona was already established, and she garnered good, if not rapturous, reviews for her work.  After her first known credit in Follow the Girl, March 1918  (billed as Nonita Naldi), she joined the Shubert Organization for The Passing Show of 1918, and was a featured chorine in the play’s loving ode to an even better-known vamp, Salome.  She became the darling of the more glossy theatrical publications; in October 1919, Town & Country burbled:

The last time we used this beauteous lady’s picture, she was doing a Theda Bara Vampire bit in The Gay Whirl on the Century Roof.  With the entire theatrical world on the rampage at the moment of writing [ed: the Actors Equity Association’s strike of 1919] it is difficult to prophesy what she will be up to when this issue is on the newsstands.  Meanwhile it is sufficient to have her un-zuloaga-ed Spanish profile to look at.  Or is it Italian?  Those foreign profiles are so difficult.  Even though they usually originate right here in New York.  Anyway, somebody ought to paint her.

Florenz Ziegfeld took this advice to heart.


“Pan,” Alberto Vargas.

Nita’s time with Ziegfeld is not well documented.  We do not know whether she appeared in the Follies or the Midnight Frolic (or both), or the dates of her engagement with the fabled impresario.  Her name appears in no first night cast lists for any Ziegfeld production, and we can claim only one specific Ziegfeld credit for her: in May 1921 she replaced featured showgirl Dolores in Sally.  In May 1919, however, Ziegfeld hired artist Alberto Vargas as the official portraitist for the Follies; for the next twelve years, Vargas painted select Ziegfeld beauties in a variety of erotic poses.  Nita sat for one of his first portraits, probably painted during late 1919–early 1920.  Vargas posed her with her arm encircling the bust of a grinning satyr; the portrait (known as “Pan”) hung in the lobby of Ziegfeld’s New Amsterdam Theater.

When his first book of portraits was published in 1923, Vargas bowed to censorship constraints and painted clothing on her.

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