Peter Herzog - Romano Tozzi

Loving Life and Not Fearing Death

The life of Lya de Putti

103 KByte


Lya de Putti's career was extremely fascinating. She achieved international stardom as a result of her sensational performance in the 1925 motion picture Variety, directed by E. A. Dupont. This landmark movie received, in its time, unprecedented worldwide critical and popular acclaim, and is generally considered today the most successful European film produced during the so-called "Golden Age of German Silent Cinema."

Prior to this, de Putti had been, for several years, one of German's most prominent screen personalities. But it was Variety, produced by the prestigious UFA studios and released in the United States by Paramount Pictures, that made her famous on this side of the "Atlantic. A brilliant future in American films was predicted for Lya. Sadly, she never duplicated her European success here. A short, turbulent, tragic life was cut short by an untimely death in 1931, following a dismal attempt to reactivate her career on the Broadway stage. In her prime, Lya de Putti, born of aristocratic Hungarian and Italian parents, was both a celebrated beauty and an actress of undisputed talent. Her large, luminous eyes, dark brown hair, and unusually expressive features, combined with an alluring figure, captivated millions of moviegoers on the continent. During the peak years of a career that lasted barely a decade, de Putti created an indelible image. She became an authentic symbol of glamour and sensuality. If she has is largely through the efforts of a few fervent admirers to keep the legend alive. Notable among them is the distinguished Stanford University professor, writer and novelist Albert J. Guerard. He knew Lya personally when he was a child. Throughout the years, he remained so enthralled by her mystique that she provided the inspiration for several works of fiction. He also wrote a number of authoritative articles recounting the de Putti saga. Our book will make a similar attempt to put the story of this actress in proper focus.

Chapter Two



Lya de Putti, the youngest of four children, was born on January 10th, 0896, at her parents' estate in Vecse, a town in Hungary. Her mother, the former Countess Maria von Hoyos, came from a wealthy and venerable Hungarian family. She was the granddaughter of Count Anton Hovos (1804-1858), and second cousin to Countess Marguerite Hoyos, who married Herbert, Count von Bismarck. Lya's father, Julius de Putti, reputedly a baron of Italian descent, was a cavalry officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army. There were two brothers, Geza and Alexander, and a sister, Mitzi. Lya was christened Amalia. Throughout her childhood, the family lovingly called her Mali. She enjoyed all the advantages of a well-bred and privileged upbringing.

Amalia was a small, fragile and delicate child, with beautiful eyes and lovely, piquant features. But early on, seeds of unrest and an unruly nature began to assert them selves. There are stories that at the age of eleven she ran away from home to join a travelling circus.

Supposedly, the rather tawdry milieu she encountered among the circus folks discouraged her, and she returned to the family hearth when Mitzi came to fetch her the next day . However, this encounter evidently kindled further desire for adventure, and nurtured the ambition to become a performer one day. The next notable incident in Amalia's life occurred when she was about thirteen. She put together a theatrical entertainment at home in an attempt to showcase her talents as both singer and dancer. Amalia even engaged a gypsy orchestra to provide musical accompaniment. She invited all her classmates to attend. According to family members, the presentation was a great success. Alarmed that the girl might be seriously considering a career in the theatre, Amalia's disapproving parents decided to enroll their unpredictable daughter in a convent boarding school run by Ursuline nuns at nearby Mosy-Labordoz. Although popular with the other pupils, Amalia did not adjust easily to the strict discipline of the school. Extremely pretty at fourteen, she created quite a stir among students at a nearby boys' academy. And a short time later, Amalia received a love letter from a handsome young Army officer in his early twenties. Her teachers intercepted this letter. It caused a major scandal and almost resulted in expulsion from the convent. Because of her aristocratic background and social position, Amalia was given a chance to redeem herself. She portrayed St. Margaret, a saint beloved by all Hungarians, in a school play. The approval of an enthusiastic audience only served to convince Amalia that she must, at all costs, pursue a career in the theatre. She informed her family of this decision and they realized that drastic measures were necessary to prevent such a move. Perhaps an early marriage might change the course of Amalia's life. The Countess, recently left a widow by the untimely death of Baron de Putti, went about the task of finding a suitable husband for her rebellious daughter. Young Zoltan de Szepessy seemed an ideal choice. A man of good character from a prominent family, he not only owned a considerable amount of land, but was also a respected district judge.

The Countess, however, made one serious mistake. Before arranging a meeting between Amalia and Zoltan, she took her two daughters to Budapest for a shopping spree and a tour of the city. They visited the most elegant stores and restaurants. The beauty and excitement of this vast metropolis made a deep impression on Amalia. The plays and musical shows they attended convinced her more than ever that she must soon be par of this glorious world. The intoxicating atmosphere of Budapest's glamorous theatrical life was something she simply could not resist. When the two young people finally met, Zoltan was instantly attracted to this charming, vivacious girl. However, he had some trepidations since Amalia was not yet sixteen. Nevertheless, she encouraged his attentions and an ardent courtship soon followed. She genuinely liked him and, after a short period of time, her mother announced their engagement. Amalia and Zoltan were married in 1912 not long after her sixteenth birthday. The highest nobility of all the region were invited to the ceremony—one of the biggest events of the social season.

This lavish wedding and dinner reception preceded an extended honeymoon—first to the French Riviera and then to Rome and Venice. Upon their return, they settled down in Kassa, not far from Vecse, where Zoltan resided and worked. For a few years, the marriage seemed to be a happy one. The loving and devoted husband provided his bride with every luxury and Amalia gave birth to two daughters—Ilona and Judith—born in 1914 and 1916 respectively. On the surface at least, she gradually made the transition to domestic tranquility as contented wife and mother. Given Amalia's tempestuous nature, it was inevitable that the provincial existence of a magistrate's wife would eventually become unbearable. The outbreak of World War I changed things somewhat. Zoltan was inducted into the Austro-Hungarian Army as a high-ranking officer and Amalia volunteered as a nurse in the local hospital. But this was not enough. The care and rearing of two small children could not dispel the old yearnings. She received no sympathy from her own family or from her husband's relatives. They would never tolerate a life in the Budapest theatre for a young woman of her social position. Relations between de Szepessy and his wife soon reached the breaking point. Finally, Amalia made the most important decision of her life. She defied everyone, cut all ties, left everything behind, and abandoned family and friends to seek a career in Budapest. A heartbroken de Szepessy filed for divorce in 1918. From then on, both de Hoyos and de Szepessy clans ostracized Amalia completely. It was as if she never existed.

In Budapest, she first used the name Amalia Putti for professional purposes. Later Amalia shortened her first name to Lia. In her determination to succed, she managed to overcome severe depression, overwhelming loneliness and acute financial difficulties. With no money for acting lessons, Lia made the rounds of theatres looking for a job. A friend, Istvan Brodi, introduced Lia to Mr. Dezso Balint, who produced musical revues at the Royal Orpheum theatre. Mr. Balint needed a dancer who could also sing for a solo spot is new production Vándor Fecskék (Migrating Swallows). Lia auditioned and was accepted. She performed a wild Hungarian dance in the show and also introduced a ballad that achieved considerable popularity Audiences loved her. Lia Putti scored a hit in her first professional engagement. A short time later, motion picture director Béla Balogh gave Lia the only feminine role in the film. A Császár Katonái (Soldiers of the Emperor). When it was released in the fall of 1918, Mihály Kertész, then a movie critic and later the famous director Michael Curtiz, mentioned her favorably in his review . He wrote that she was a promising new talent who had a chance to become a star but she needed to lose weight.

Accepting an attention-grabbing part in Soldiers of the Emperor proved to be a smart move professionally. Lia, in the space of only of only a few months, established herself almost simultaneously in both the Budapest theatre and the Hungarian cinema. She also acquired many new friends and quite a few admirers. Sereval suitors generously bought luxurious and expensive furs for her. Lia adored these garments and valued them far more than the jewelry she also received as gifts. Now that Lia had become a celebrity in her own right, she frequented the famous Café New York in Budapest, the "in" place for the movie and theatrical crowds. In this "open all night" magnet for the city's prominent bohemians (actors, writers, directors, painters, sculptors, composers, musicians, etc.) she became acquainted with many well-known personalities who gathered there regularly, or those who used it as a meeting place "after the show. Among the elite who accepted Lia as a friend were Kertész, the young film director Alexander Korda (formerly Sándor László Kellner), the actress Antonia Farkas (who later married Korda and changed her name to Maria Corda—preferring a "C" to his "K"), and two distinguished stage stars—Lili Berki and Emilia Márkus. It is worthy of note that Márkus was the mother of Romola Nijinsky, who became Lia's closest woman fried in the last years of her life. Emilia graciously shared tips on acting techniques and offered invaluable advice to the promising newcomer. Another actress who took a liking to Lia was the beautiful Ica von Lenkeffy. A few years later in Berlin, when Ica was chosen by director Dimitri Buchowetzki to appear opposite Emil Jannings as Desdemona in the 1922 screen version of Othello, she suggested Buchowetzki cast Lia as Emilia, Iago's wife.

There is considerable evidence that Lia was caught up in the 1918 revolution that swept Budapest following the end of Word War I. Béla Kun, formerly a Hungarian officer and ex-prisoner of war in Russia, led a Communist uprising that was defeated when Rumanian troops occupied the city for four months. Some actors who participated were imprisoned and put to death. Lia, accused of being a spy, escaped to Bucharest during a stormy, rainswept night. This escape had been engineered by General Mardarescu, the leader of the invading Rumanian army. He accompanied Lia to Bucharest and shared her sleeping car on the train. Although old enough to be her father, he was, nevertheless, deeply in love with the young actress. Lia enjoyed great success in the Bucharest of 1919. She first studied ballet at a famous dancing school owned by Alexander Berger in nearby Nagyvárad, and appeared on local stages there as a classical dancer. The next step was Bucharest's renowned Alhambra Theatre as a star performer. Overnight, she became an idol of the people. An adoring public showered her with flowers whenever she was seen on city streets in her private car. They waited for Lia in droves at the stage door every night. Her picture appeared on posters all over Bucharest and in newspapers and magazines regularly. She even found time to make another movie Pe Vallurile Fericirii (On the Waves of Happiness), about which little is known, except that this time she was the movie's star attraction. The film was produced by Madame Dolly A. Szigetti, an American of Hungarian extraction who was then making motion pictures in Bucharest. Although widely advertised as a coming event, it was previewed in incomplete form on May 15th, 1920, at the Cinema Regal. But there remains doubt that the movie was actually finished or ever released.

Lia's personal life in Bucharest also took a turn for the worse. Her friendship with General Mardarescu was terminated when Queen Marie of Rumania, a friend of Mardarescu's wife, intervened. An innocent involvement in another admirer's fraudulent bankruptcy scheme, and his subsequent suicide, did further damage to Lia and made her future in Bucharest most precarious. No longer welcome, she was invited to leave the country. A return to Budapest was not feasible since she had been branded a traitor. Lia had gained an unenviable reputation as "persona non grata" in two countries. Still another admirer came to the rescue—Louis Jahnke, Secretary of the Norwegian Embassy in Bucharest. Through his diplomatic efforts, Lia was smuggled out of the country with a forged passport. She didn't forget to take her beloved furs and jewels although she left most of her clothing behind. Lia had been deserted by all her friends in the city. If she had not fled at that time, she might have been jailed and possibly killed.In the summer of 1920, Lia travelled by train to Berlin by way of Czechoslovakia. In Berlin, she would make a new start and eventually achieve her greatest fame. And, in 1922, Jahnke would join her in Germany and become her second husband.

For several years, Lia became a subject of controversy among members of the movie and theatrical colonies of Budapest and Bucharest. Partisans argued that she was a misunderstood artist with no interest in politics who could easily be swayed in one direction or the other. Detractors maintained that she had been a shrewd, calculating mix who used and manipulated people for her own selfish purposes in order to advance her career. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the mid-area. More than a few agreed that, in addition to being charming and talented, she had always been kind to those in the profession less fortunate than she.

Lya de Putti
Lya de Putti

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Wedding of Lya de Putti and Zoltán de Szepessy
Wedding of Lya de Putti
and Zoltán de Szepessy

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Lya de Putti
Lya de Putti

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