Today, it is extremely hard to say what triggered an overwhelming and tremendous success of Vera Kholodnaya. Since the end of the XIX century, cinema has gone very far as well as standards of acting and beauty. Perhaps, it is about the “plus something else”, which is essential for real art. Without it, there are only a pure technique and naked archetypes. Probably, Vera Kholodnaya was rather a pattern of the real beauty of her time than possessed a talent. It was a blood and fragile epoch when everything could be changed in days and even in some hours. These were such confused and anxious eyes, which the time must have required. These were vulnerability and sincerity, which the time must have wanted to film. Why exactly them? Who can know for sure how beautiful becomes beautiful? Where is this mechanism established and implemented? Perhaps, the time was looking at viewers through Vera Kholodnaya’s eyes. Time chose her, not another actress.
Vera Levchenko was born in Poltava on August 5, 1893. Her father, Vasyl Levchenko belonged to the ancient XVII-century Cossack family. He graduated from the Philology Department of the Moscow Empire University, her mother – from a finishing school.
According to a few memories, Vera was a dreamy, vulnerable and quite strange girl in her childhood – for example, she often talked to herself. She could play with her dolls for hours, telling them stories she had heard.
After the death of her grandfather in Moscow, her grandmother, a bossy and strong woman, wanted the grandchildren to move to her. That’s how Vera came to Moscow. She had a knack for dancing since her childhood. She was even taken to the Ballet College of the Bolshoi Theatre. However, her grandmother insisted that noble girls couldn’t dance half-naked to entertain the audience. Her parents had to stop Vera’s classes. Instead of it, she was taken to an amateur theatre studio.
In 1908, Vera Komissarzhevskaya, a famous actress, came to St. Petersburg. She acted in the play “Francesca da Rimini” by Gabriele d`Annunzio. A 15-year-old Vera Levchenko was so impressed that she couldn’t hear anybody several days after the play. She was just lying in silence. Her relatives called a doctor. He said that Vera had a very complicated and sophisticated soul. He advised doing sports. She got healthy for some days but realised the main secret of her future profession: she had to live on stage, not play.
In 1910 at the prom, she met a young lawyer Vladimir Kholodny. He was keen on autosport, took part in races and even tried to publish the Auto magazine. The couple often visited the cinema. Perhaps, it was there, in a dark cinema hall where they fell in love with each other. Both their families were against their marriage, but despite that, they got married in a while. In 1912, Vera gave birth to their daughter Yevgeniya. Doctors warned the couple that Vera had better not have children anymore as it threatened her life. Later, the couple adopted a girl.
Unfortunately, their marriage cannot be called a happy one. Vera Kholodnaya was an extremely pretty woman, men admired her. It irritated Vladimir, he wanted her to be a caring housewife and a loving mother. But she couldn’t hide her fatal appearance…
The First World War changed everything. Vladimir went to the war. Vera stayed alone with two children, old mother and young sisters. She was 20 years old…
To make ends meet somehow, Vera decided to go against her husband’s restriction and started to attend castings. At first, nobody wanted even to talk to her as she was not a professional actress. But Vera begged to give her a chance…
Vladimir Hardin, a director, agreed at first, but then he stayed unsatisfied with her play, said she had no talent. Finally, he sent her to his competitor Yevgeni Bauer. But to everyone’s surprise, he gave her a lead in his melodrama “Song of Triumphant Love”. It was an enormous success! Women were crying, sympathizing with her, men couldn’t remove their eyes from a beautiful heroine.
Critics have not agreed yet on the secret of her success. Some say that she was just a pretty doll who quickly realised how to pose properly in front of cameras. Others claim that her unusual appearance and a brilliant sense of style triggered her success. However, all the actresses were dressing up similarly – wiggle dresses, small hats, extremely dark mascara and bright red lipstick. How did she manage not to get lost among them? She must have managed to find her own style of acting. “Good theatrical actors with a perfect theatrical acting technique couldn’t compete against her. She received the “Queen of screen” title for some reason. She acted the same archetype, the same romantic structure. It was the image of a femme fatale,” Serhii Trymbach, a film critic, writes.
“A life for a life” film where Kholodnaya played the lead was shown in cinemas for two months – longer than any other film before! The actress received so many love letters from men who promised to commit a suicide because of the unanswered love to her that she couldn’t even read them all. Every new film seemed to be even better and more successful. We can say that Kholodnaya was at the apogee of glory. Her films became popular in Europe, America, even in Turkey and Japan. Hollywood was constantly inviting her to come. But she didn’t. Whether she didn’t want or she wasn’t allowed. Whether she began getting tired of success. Kholodnaya was autographing for two hours and then confessed to her friends that she didn’t realise why everybody was admiring her so much, “You know, I have a feeling I, as a live person, don’t exist anymore. What they admire is not me. It is just my shadow.”
In Kharkiv, viewers slammed doors and windows of the “Ampir” cinema just to peep at the screen where their favourite cinema diva was falling in love and suffering. The war, the revolution, blood… all these seemed not to exist. She existed. Her roles existed – with love, passion, anxiety and mystery. Every several weeks – a new film. Films were shot quickly at those times.
Except for her overwhelming success at the cinema, she was a trendsetter. She was making up models of her dresses, choosing fabrics, decorating hats. Cards with her in different dresses were widely published. Men bought them to feast their eyes on their idol, women – to follow her style.
Vera Kholodnaya was admired by simple people as well as by officials. Grand Duke Boris Vladimirovich (grandson of Tsar Alexander II) offered her to become his mistress and was given a slap for that. A film star, idol of millions and of the epoch was waiting for letters from her husband who was the war. It was Aleksandr Vertinsky, a famous singer, who told her about her husband’s injury. He immediately fell in love with her, devoted her many letters, but it was a one-way love. Kholodnaya came to the hospital to take care of her husband.
Volodymyr recovered and finally returned home. He tried to launch his own business but only ran up huge debts. He saw how his wife was becoming more popular. He was very jealous and it was making him crazy. He happened to attack the actor who was supposed to kiss Kholodnaya at the film set.
In 1919, Vera Kholodnaya came to Odesa for a tour. Bolsheviks didn’t allow her husband to leave – he was suspected to be a spy. Odesa welcomed the actress with applause, hugs and flowers. Everybody – a governor, military officials and even a famous criminal Misha Yaponchik – was at her feet. They thought if she was an actress she had to be frivolous. However, Vera behaved as always, she treated all men the same, didn’t preferred anybody…
On February 8, Vera was performing at the concert of the Odesa Scenery Designers Trade Union Fund. It was extremely cold in the theatre. Viewers wore furs, artists wore light clothes. After the concert, she came down with the Spanish flu. This was a very dangerous disease at those times. She was in bed for eight days. The whole Odesa was standing by her house, hoping she would recover. But this disease was incurable.
Gossips, which started at her funeral, lived many years after. The most famous version of her death is poisoning because she was collaborating with the French Intelligence service or with the KGB. There was also a gossip that it wasn’t Vera Kholodnaya who was buried that day. She was told to run away abroad. Another version said that she was kidnapped because of a big amount of jewels. No version has been confirmed yet.
Vera Kholodnaya was buried on February 19 at the First Christian Cemetery in Odesa. In 1937, the cemetery was destroyed. Communists arranged the Lenin Park there with entertainments and attractions. There is no information about a reburial of Vera Kholodnaya.
A fatal beauty and mysterious myth are the only things which remained. They lived many years, vivified by people’s love, which has, according to Vertinsky, after the death of Vera Kholodnaya, “Nothing to regret about”…
Text by Serhiy Osoka