Desperately Seeking Pola: The Conundrum of Oral History

From the ubiquitous (“George Washington slept here”) to the obscure (Bunny Man Bridge), every community has local lore unproved as fact or fiction. Local legends, like some old Hollywood screen legends, often refuse to die.  Local myths linger on, taking on new life and usually growing more salacious with each successive generation. Sometimes the story is so preposterous, local historians won’t touch it. But often there’s just enough plausibility, or even a thin shred of evidence, to lure us on a wild goose chase for the truth. Ultimately, confirming or disproving the story becomes secondary to the value local lore holds in our personal and collective memories.

Pola Negri and the Gulf Branch Nature Center

pola negri autograph

In Arlington, Virginia, there’s a long-held story about a local visit from silent film star Pola Negri. Many Arlington residents have heard the story that Pola Negri once lived in the 1920s stone bungalow on Military Road, converted into the Gulf Branch Nature Center in the 1960s.  The staff of the Nature Center have even incorporated the Pola Negri connection into their programs, screening her films during an annual “Pola Negri Night.” But despite the many affirmations of the Pola Negri connection in local news stories about the Gulf Branch Nature center, a source of documentation is rarely cited.

Pola Negri anecdotes are mentioned in several oral history interviews archived at the Virginia Room in Arlington County Public Library’s Central Branch.

In her 2006 interview, Mildred Walz, a housewife who lived in Colonial Village and River Crest near Military Road in the 1950s, recalled:

Well that [Gulf Branch Nature Center] used to be out in the woods because there was nothing built up. At the time that was built there were no houses along there. And the story goes, which you probably know, that there was some wealthy guy who built a retreat for Pola Negri, the early film star, and that little stone house was their retreat in the woods.

Gulf Branch Nature Center

Gulf Branch Nature Center, Arlington, Va. Photo by author.

Thomas Richards, a longtime Arlington County Board Member who pushed for the Gulf Branch acquisition, recounts the “alleged” Pola Negri story:

Immediately upstream was an old house that was alleged to have been owned by silent movie star Pola Negri, a friend of Rudolph Valentino. She is supposed to have planted the rhododendron … Yes, I say, it is alleged.

William Hughes, director of the Department of Recreation & Parks in the ’60s, recalled in his interview:

We bought a house off of Military Road, an old, probably ten or fifteen acre site, which is now the Gulf Branch Nature Center, and here again, it’s using a single family house as a recreation center, in this case the nature center. There was somebody who was quite noted… Pola Negri, who lived in the house… The house itself had apparently some fancy parties thrown over the years and goes way back in history.

Step 1: Get Hooked by the Story

I first heard of the Nature Center’s Pola Negri connection a few weeks ago. Arlington County had unveiled its long list of proposed budget cuts, putting the Nature Center on the chopping block.  Local residents were rallying to keep the Nature Center open and save it from proposed demolition.

As a board member of the Arlington Historical Society, and a member of the local preservation nonprofit, the Arlington Heritage Alliance, I set out to research the building’s history to see whether it was significant. A finding of historic significance could potentially stave off the demolition of the building if it received designation as a local historic site.

The Pola Negri connection seemed to be the most interesting thing about the building. Could this really have been the “Virginia hideaway” of the infamous silent film vamp, and if so, what was the evidence?

Step 2: Inspect the Evidence

1972 Letter from Cornelia B. Rose

1972 Letter from Cornelia B. Rose

The only documentation to support the long-held story is a February 5, 1972 letter from Cornelia B. Rose, Jr. (now deceased), a prolific Arlington historian during the 1950s-1970s, and founding member of the Arlington Historical Society. In her letter to “Alice” in the Parks & Rec. Division, she says she has some recent correspondence from Pola Negri’s secretary regarding the “persistent rumor that the house now used for the Nature Center in Taylor Run Park was once a ‘hideaway’ for Pola Negri.” These are Rose’s words, not the secretary’s. Rose then quotes the letter she received from Negri’s secretary:

Miss Negri did indeed rent the house you mentioned, in the Spring of the early ’30’s. She cannot remember the exact year.

Rose then ends the letter with, “So now we know for sure.”

But this letter is somewhat confusing. We’re missing the context that could have been provided in the original response from Pola Negri’s secretary. Further complicating the second-hand nature of this letter, C.B. Rose refers to the wrong park, mentioning Taylor Run Park instead of Gulf Branch Park. This was likely a simple misstatement by Rose — she may have been thinking of [Zachary] Taylor Park, south of Gulf Branch on Military Road, or possibly Taylor Run in Alexandria. C.B. Rose’s original inquiry to Negri may also hold more clues in her description of the house.

Unfortunately, the original letter Rose received from Pola Negri’s secretary has not been found in C.B. Rose’s papers, held in the Arlington County Public Library’s Virginia Room. Nor has it turned up in the Arlington Historical Society collections. Negri’s memorabilia collection is held by St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas. In a March 16, 2009 telephone conversation with St. Mary’s special collections archivist, Brother Robert Wood informed me that no letters are in their collection, and that Negri instructed her secretary to destroy all of her correspondence and other papers upon her death.

Pola Negri in The Devil’s Pawn, 1922

1922 Paramount movie poster for The Devil’s Pawn

Without a primary source of evidence, have we come to the end of the road for this search? Find out the results of my investigation in Gulf Branch Nature Center: The Pola Negri Connection.

4 thoughts on “Desperately Seeking Pola: The Conundrum of Oral History

  1. What a great story. I always liked Pola (I’m 45 years old), and enjoy her films. It’s nice to see other people are still interested in her. I hope you’ll keep us updated on any developments.
    As for Arlington County even considering closing the Nature Center — and tearing it down, no less — is ludicrous. Are they smoking too much pot?

    • Dave – The County Parks Department is arguing that Gulf Branch Nature Center overlaps with the Potomac Overlook Nature Center just down the road. And they make a few other points about maintenance costs, ADA (accessibility) upgrades, and other reasons why the Nature Center can be sacrificed for budget cuts. However, some of those points don’t really hold up under scrutiny. You can read more about the fight to save Gulf Branch Nature Center and the Arlington County Department of Parks & Recreation’s Gulf Branch budget proposal. The Arlington County Board votes on an approved budget on April 28th, so presumably they’ll make a decision before then.

      Despite the Pola Negri connection, I think the Gulf Branch Nature Center’s strongest claim to significance is its importance to the community for the last 40-odd years. It really is one of Arlington County’s hidden gems.

      To be clear, even though I poked and prodded the Gulf Branch claim that “Pola Negri slept here,” in the end, I think the claim still stands. I really need to post the rest of this story before the budget decision. Here’s the gist of what I found: a May 1934 Evening Star article confirming that Pola Negri did stay in northern Virginia… but it was about her 4- or 5-day stay at Gray’s Hill Inn, south of Alexandria, near Mount Vernon. She apparently loved the area, and was visiting her friend, Hollywood actor Weldon Heyburn, a native Washingtonian. But I keep coming back to the C.B. Rose letter, where Negri’s secretary said she “did indeed rent the house…in the Spring of the early ’30s” — one doesn’t “rent” a room at an Inn. My working theory is that she either rented the more private Gulf Branch house soon after her stay at Gray’s Hill Inn, or perhaps she rented the house before her May 1934 trip. By 1935, she had moved to Berlin to make talkies.

      I hadn’t seen any of Pola’s films before all this. But I recently watched “Barbed Wire,” one of her silent films from 1927. I was shocked by the progressive, brotherly love message in this story of a French WWI prison camp for German POWs. Pola’s performance was quite moving, and showed her to be much more than the “vamp” of her earlier years.

  2. Pola Negri,visited her former secretary Paola Löbel ,who lived with us in holland ,Paola left germany in 1937 (the Nazis) ,she was jewish, and in those years Pola 5 times came to us in Amersfoort to visit Paola ,I remember Pola still very well ,went shoppping with her as a boy from about 11 till 15 years ,she spent many days with us ,she was very befriended with mij Mother Marie ,she told us so much that nobody ever knew,what a nice lady she was ,I am 86 now and have a very good rememberance ,have still many presents from her and photographs wenn she was in holland ,gr.from Joop .

    • Joop – How wonderful to hear from someone who actually knew Pola Negri! I have read a little about Paola as well. Thanks so much for sharing your remembrances. If you are able to scan your photos, I’d be delighted to add them to this page.

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