This is edited and greatly expanded from an entry in my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site, written in 2005.
Nita Naldi (née Mary Nonna Dooley) (13 November 1893–17 February 1961), one of the great silent Vamps, was born in a Harlem tenement. She was the third of Patrick and Julia Dooley’s six children, and the first who survived infancy. Her next-youngest brother, Daniel, was the only other Dooley sibling to live past infancy.
The upwardly mobile Dooleys, wanting their daughter to get ahead in life, sent her to Holy Angels Academy across the river in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Mary took a ferry every Monday and boarded at the school till Friday, when she travelled back to New York.
This Catholic girls’ school provided a full, equal education, going above and beyond what many other schools offered girls in this era. Many of its alumni went on to careers in the nascent film industry and theatre.
Mary began acting around 1915, though dates and details are currently obscured in a fog of mystery. We do know she was on Broadway by 1918, performing by the Winter Garden. In 1918–19, she was in The Ziegfeld Follies.
She reinvented herself as Nita Naldi, taking her new surname from roommate Maria Naldi, whom she passed off as her sister. Since her dark features were the opposite of the then-popular ice-cream blonde look, she also falsified her origins as Italian, sometimes Spanish or Irish. Nita claimed her parents were widely-travelled diplomats.
Most of her fellow actors neither believed Maria Naldi were her sister, nor that Nita were Italian or Spanish.
By the late 1910s, Nita was an established stage Vamp (i.e., a femme fatale), and got many great reviews. Around this time, she also appeared as an extra in a few films.
Her rise to stardom began when she was cast as a dancer in John Barrymore’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920). Though she wasn’t the film’s star, she nevertheless earned a lot of attention, and with it more film roles. Concurrently, Nita continued acting onstage by night.
Among her co-stars in these early films was Harry Houdini, pictured below in The Man from Beyond (1922).
In 1922, Jesse Lasky of Famous Players-Lasky (now Paramount) signed her to a single-picture contract for Blood and Sand, in which she co-starred with Rudy Valentino. Nita and Rudy have incredible chemistry in this film, and many consider it her greatest role.
That July, Nita was signed to a reported five-year contract. Unfortunately, the great momentum wasn’t followed up properly. She was cast in supporting roles, her awesome Vamp potential wasted.
One of her films from this period was Cecil B. DeMille’s original version of The Ten Commandments (1923). Nita and Rudy also co-starred again in A Sainted Devil (1924), one of the lost films I most passionately long to be found, and Cobra (1925).
Nita was dropped from the studio in late 1924, and The Hooded Falcon, a grand epic she and Rudy were to have co-starred in, never came to be. When this dream project fell through, she turned back to single-contract films mostly wasting her potential.
One of her films during this period, The Mountain Eagle (1925), was the second film Alfred Hitchcock directed.
Nita retired from film in 1928. Her final U.S. film, What Price Beauty?, co-stars Myrna Loy in the role that boosted her to stardom. This film also co-stars Rudy’s second wife, Natacha Rambova.
Nita’s last two films were made in France and Italy.
By 1923, Nita had gotten involved with J. Searle Barclay, a wealthy, married playboy 24 years her senior. They married soon after his 1929 divorce, and spent two years in France. Upon their October 1931 return to New York, they settled in the Plaza Hotel.
Nita returned to the stage during the hard years of the Great Depression, but it wasn’t enough to make ends meet. She filed for bankruptcy in 1933. In 1940, she and her husband moved into Times Square’s Wentworth Hotel.
Upon being widowed in January 1945, Nita resumed stage acting. Though money problems continued plaguing her, she became quite popular on the theatrical social scene, and earned many TV, radio, and newspaper interviews.
Nita died of a heart attack at age 67.