With the recent birth of Baby Boy Sussex, my royal fever has reached a boiling point…and I know I’m not the only one with a high temp. Considering the amount of time that we Americans discuss and obsess over royalty, exceeded only by our fascination with Hollywood, I am often surprised that the vast majority of people who I have discussed the subject with are under the impression that Grace Kelly was the first Hollywood actress to become a princess.
I am here to tell you that she was not the first and, depending on how you look at it, not even the second.
I assume this assumption is in part because of who she married (Prince Rainier of Monaco – ie: a white prince from a European principality, which, unfortunately seems to matter to people and often gets more press) and in part because she was, after all, Grace Kelly. However, many people don’t realize that an actress of roughly the same era and the same caliber of fame actually beat Princess Grace to the crown: the fabulous Rita Hayworth.
On May 27, 1949, a good 7 years before Grace Kelly wed Prince Rainier on April 18, 1956, actress Rita Hayworth married Prince Aly Khan, son of Sultan Mahommed Shah, Aga Khan III, making her a princess. The marriage, which produced daughter Princess Yasmine Aga Khan, lasted only about 4 years. The pair probably didn’t realize until they had tied the knot how very different they were. Charismatic and cosmopolitan Aly was a social animal while Rita, despite being a famous actress, was said to have been a quiet, private person who preferred a night in over a party. They argued over which religion they would raise their daughter in; Rita wanted her to be raised Christian, while Aly wanted, and felt obliged as the heir to the throne of the Nizārī Ismaili Muslims, to raise their child as a Muslim. Finally, Aly’s reputation as a playboy didn’t just disappear with marriage. After he was spotted dancing in a nightclub with actress Joan Fontaine, Rita had had enough and they divorced in 1953.
Here’s where the “depending on how you look at it” part comes in. Generally recognized in hindsight as members of the aristocracy who exaggerated their status, the Mdivani brothers were pretty much the epitome of “fake it ‘til you make it.” They weren’t princes, but were high up on the food chain in their homeland, their father having once been aide de camp to Csar Nicholas II. After the tides turned against the Russian royal family during the Russian Revolution, the 5 Mdivani siblings (Nina, Serge, David, Alexis, and Isabelle “Roussy”) fled to Paris then elsewhere, leaving behind their wealth. The now penniless brothers eventually ended up in the United States making ends meet by working in the oil fields of Oklahoma before finally ending up in Hollywood. There, they apparently had one goal: marry rich. Claiming to be European royalty and reinventing themselves as princes, the exotic, exciting Mdivanis made a splash in title-obsessed Hollywood and two of them ended up marrying two of its biggest stars about 20 years before Rita and Grace slipped rings on their fingers.
Mae Murray, nicknamed “the girl with the bee-stung lips” for her famous pout, was a silent film star, popular mostly in the early 1920s. Mae was quite happy to rub her more elevated title as Princess Mdivani in the face of her friend and rival (and matron of honor), actress Pola Negri (born Barbara Apolonia Chalupec), who had formerly been styled as Countess after her marriage to Count Eugene Dąmbski. This victory would be short lived.
A year after Mae’s marriage to David Mdivani, Pola, now divorced from her count, married David’s brother Serge Mdivani and became Princess Mdivani in her own right. Pola had been one of the first Hollywood stars to know the Mdivanis and it had actually been at her house that Mae met David. Exotic Polish import Pola Negri’s stock in trade was vamping and drama. She was dating Italian sex symbol Rudolph Valentino at the time he died and her theatrics at his funeral ensured her status as Hollywood’s prima tragedienne. Less than a year after Valentino’s death, Pola married Serge Mdivani on May 14, 1927, though the marriage only lasted a few years and they divorced in 1931.
Mae and her Mdivani divorced soon after in 1934. Despite both Mae and Pola being extremely popular silent film stars, their careers began to peter out with the introduction of sound. Pola continued working abroad, but her Hollywood career was all but over around the same time as Murray’s, in the early 1930s.
And what about the Mdivanis? They are, in fact, some of my favorite old Hollywood characters. Between the five sibling, they earned the moniker of “the Marrying Mdivanis” by tying the knot with not only Mae and Pola, but also the much-married Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton (Alexis), the son of Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Nina), opera singer Mary McCormic (Serge), heiress Louise Astor Van Alen (Alexis then Serge- yes, Serge married his brother’s widow upon Alexis’ death), heiress Virginia Sinclair (David), and painter Jose Maria Sert (Roussy), among others. Despite their claims of being princes when they weren’t, people at the time believed (or at least wanted to believe) that they were true. Even now, with their ruse out in the open, they are still typically referred to as Prince David or Serge Mdivani and, during the time they were married to them, Mae and Pola were referred to as Princesses.
So, maybe 2nd, maybe 4th, but Grace Kelly was not the first Hollywood princess. She wouldn’t be the last either…
Stay tuned for part 2…
Ankerich, Michael G. Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips. The University Press of Kentucky, 2013.
Kotowski, Mariusz. Pola Negri: Hollywoods First Femme Fatale. Univ. Press of Kentucky, 2014.
Morella, Joseph, and Edward Z. Epstein. Rita: The Life of Rita Hayworth. Allen & Co, 1984.