Act 3: Marriage, Later Years

Very cosmopolitan and consequently fascinating is J. Searle Barclay, Jr., who chases around the circles leaving a trail of broken hearts in his wake. New York, little London, Glenwood Springs and Littleton—they all know the festive J.

In early 1929 Isabella Barclay finally filed for a Parisian divorce; in August 1929 Nita and Barclay filed a prenuptial agreement, declaring that Nita would “…hold and dispose of by her will all property she may have or become entitled to as if she had remained unmarried, and she agrees that should she survive Mr. Barclay she will accept $1 in lieu of dower or her rights as widow in his estate…”

The two were married at the Hotel Princesse in Paris on August 29, 1929.  They remained in France until October 1931 (living on an estate Barclay reportedly purchased from the Aga Khan),  when they returned to New York and took up residence in the Plaza Hotel.

By this time, all was not well with Barclay’s finances.  Neither he nor Nita gave any evidence of frugality, and the Depression played havoc with his landed wealth.  Financial considerations forced Nita’s return to the stage.  She began working intermittently in summer stock and off-Broadway roles, but by 1933 she found herself in the peculiar position of being forced to file bankruptcy while residing at the Plaza Hotel.  Her bankruptcy petition listed liabilities as $2,673 with no assets; Barclay was with her in the courtroom but made no statement as Nita told the judge:  “All I have in the world are these three pawn tickets.  Two are for diamond pins, one a diamond ring which I pawned for $350 with the Provident Loan Company, and the ring belongs to my husband.”

Barclay’s last reported real estate transaction occurred late in 1933, when he sold a bit of Manhattan for $40,000.  In 1940 the two moved into the Wentworth Hotel in Times Square, where both remained for the rest of their lives.  Barclay was hospitalized in late December 1944; he died in January 1945, leaving so little money that no probate was filed.  Nita, a widow (“but not a merry one”),  returned to work in earnest.

Undated candid, taken probably in mid-1930s

Nita and Barclay were together for nearly 25 years, so it is odd that we know so little about him.  Only one photo of Barclay has been discovered, taken in his youth, long before he met Nita.  In surviving letters to friends Nita does not discuss him, and she only vaguely touched on him when she was interviewed, both during their relationship and after his death.  The only remembrance of Barclay and Nita’s relationship came from Nita’s friend, Dagmar Godowsky.  Godowsky is not the most trustworthy source on the planet, but she is the only one we have; she described Barclay as a kind man, and an extremely jealous one.  It seems that Nita felt about Barclay the same way she felt about her family:  her private life was private.

Later Career

I feel like an antique.  Because most of the people I started out with are dead.  I’m so old and big that men hesitate about taking me out now.  It’s like walking around with the Acropolis.

Photo ©Cris Alexander, used with permission.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Nita regularly appeared in summer stock and off-Broadway productions, and she became a popular fixture on New York’s nightclub and theater social scene.  She was an active member of the newly formed American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA), serving as an officer and committee member.  In 1941 she wowed the audience at Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe Nightclub, reciting Kipling’s “A Fool There Was” while surrounded by tuxedo-clad males; when Rose complimented her on her ability to hold the audience, she responded “Don’t be a fool.  It’s curiosity.  They think I’m dead.”

In theatrical circles the Naldi wit is known to be stinging and often-times cruel:  what she has said to some of the high moguls of Hollywood and Broadway, plus a few titled heads of Europe, is often repeated but seldom topped.

Nita remained a devout Catholic and usually attended mass at St. Malachy’s, the Actors Chapel.   She and Maria Naldi (by then Maria Naldi de Perez) remained close friends for the rest of their lives, through marriages and residences on separate continents; they both continued to refer to each other as sisters, both personally and on legal documents.  Nita also maintained friendships and correspondences with personalities as varied as rival silent vamp Dagmar Godowsky, art patron Natalie Hays Hammond, film and theater historian Daniel Blum, and ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee.  She assumed a quasi-maternal role toward John Barrymore’s fragile daughter, Diana; Diana affectionately called her “Mother Moonbeam,” after Al Capp’s earthy Dogpatch siren, Moonbeam McSwine.  (Nita, in a letter to historian Daniel Blum, referred to the self-destructive Barrymore as “Design for Devastation.”)

Moonbeam McSwine

Her sense of humor and ability to spin a tale remained unimpaired by her financial woes, making her a favored radio and television guest, and a popular interview for “Where Are They Now” articles.  Often those interviews centered around her more legendary costar, Rudolph Valentino, but if she ever resented this, she never let it show.  Her public remembrances of Valentino were unfailingly positive and affectionate; privately she could sometimes be tart.  “Frankly,” she told one young silent film aficionado, “he was a momma’s boy.”  About her own career she held no illusions.

They had ermine tails and paradises in my hair and a couple of snakes coiled around my neck.  In real life, believe me, any man of sensibilities would have run 20 miles to get out of my sight.  And so far as that goes in real life I don’t think I ever slew even a soda jerker.

Final Years

It is most difficult for me to use the phone here as they have changed operators and the dear evesdropping twitchboard [sic] gal is a combination of the Bitch of Buchenwald and Anna Pauker, the Romanian female dictator.

Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish, Leatrice Joy, Nita, and Lila Lee in March, 1956, appearing on a CBS radio broadcast.

In the late 1950s Nita was diagnosed with arteriosclerotic heart disease, and her public appearances became less frequent.  Friends began speaking of her as a recluse, although much of her reclusiveness can be ascribed to declining health, encroaching blindness, and the poverty that beset her final years.  Times Square had long since lost its gaudy splendor and The Wentworth Hotel was by then a seedy dive, but her income was so sparse she could not afford to live elsewhere.  The Actor’s Fund paid half the rent on her single room, and friends quietly helped her with loans and monetary gifts.  The pittance she would have received from Social Security was not forthcoming, as she had lied about her age on her original application.  In interviews, her sense of humor regarding her reversals of fortune remained intact, but she must often have been a very frightened little old lady.

On the increasingly rare occasions she went out, she was still very much the diva.  Her hair remained defiantly black, her hands, with their mandarin-length nails, were impeccably manicured, her makeup was startlingly vamp (she referred to it as “her cement face”), and her quick wit was still in evidence.  Her last public appearance was in April 1959 when she was officially inducted into The Ziegfeld Club.  In February 1960 Diana Barrymore died, leaving Nita $5,000 in her will.  This sum would have alleviated, for at least a short time, her depressing poverty—but Nita died on February 17, 1961, before Barrymore’s probate was completed.

Her body was found two days after her death by a hotel maid and removed to the Universal Funeral Chapel, where Daniel Dooley took charge of the arrangements.   After the funeral at  St. Malachy’s, Nita was buried in the family grave at Calvary Cemetery.  A month later, Nita’s friend, Natalie Hays Hammond, arranged masses for her soul at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  The stone above the family grave was recarved at Daniel’s request with the words “Beloved Sister, Nita Naldi.”

When mourners asked Daniel about their sister Maria, Daniel quietly responded that there was no sister.

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