French postcard by Editions P.I., Paris, no. 820. Photo: Teddy Piaz, Paris.
The French doll with the impact of TNT
Bella Darvi was born Bayla Wegier in Sosnowiec, Poland in 1926 (some sources say 1928). Her parents were Chaym Wegier, a baker, and his wife, Chaya (née Zygelbaum). She had three brothers, Robert, Jacques, and Jean-Isidore, and a sister, Sura.
A year after her birth the Wegier family moved to France. There she had a happy childhood until the French occupation by the Germans. During World War II, Bella was jailed in 1943. After her liberation she went to her family in Perigueux, but she found their house burned down. Happily most of her family had escaped, only her brother Robert died in a concentration camp.
She went to work as a nurse. In 1950, she married a rich businessman, Alban Cavalade and travelled with him to Monaco. They frequented the gambling spots on the Riviera, in Deauville and Biarritz and she had a highly active social life, which revolved around automobile and fashion shows in Cannes, Deauville, and Enghien.
At a Paris fashion show in 1951, she was spotted by Virginia Fox, the wife of Hollywood mogul Darryl F. Zanuck. Virginia introduced her to Darryl, who invited her to come to Hollywood. In 1952, she divorced Cavalade, and moved into Zanuck's beach house at Santa Monica.
In 1953, she did a screen-test with Zanuck in CinemaScope and signed a contract at 20th Century Fox. Zanuck changed her name to Bella Darvi, Darvi a combination of the first names of Zanuck and his wife. The press heralded the beautiful Brunette with her angular features as the 'French doll with the impact of TNT'. "She's got zip, zoom, and zowie and in parlez-vous she's ravissante, chi-chi, and trés élégante."
She made her feature debut as Richard Widmark's love interest in the Cold War drama Hell and High Water (Sam Fuller, 1954). The film was made to showcase CinemaScope being used in the confined sets of a submarine. Hell and High Water did excellent box office in the United States and abroad, particularly in Germany. Darvi won a Golden Globe for her role.
She is probably best known for her next role, the seductive Babylonian courtesan Nefer, in The Egyptian (Michael Curtiz, 1954). Marilyn Monroe coveted the role of Nefer, only to discover that it was earmarked for Darvi. Next she was the love interest of Kirk Douglas in The Racers (Henry Hathaway, 1955).
Eventually, Bella had become Zanuck's mistress, although she reportedly dated other men including Robert Stack and Brad Dexter. When Virginia Fox was told about the affair by her daughter Susan, she threw Darvi out of the house. Darvi decided that her Hollywood career was over and bought a one-way-ticket to France.
French postcard by Editions du Globe, Paris, no. 605. Photo: Sam Lévin, Paris.
Gambling and drinking habits
Darryl Zanuck left his wife for Bella Darvi, and he withdrew from the studio. Zanuck followed Darvi to France where he concentrated on independent producing.
Darvi continued her film career in the French cinema. She co-starred with Eddie Constantine in the French-Italian crime film Je suis un sentimental/Headlines of Destruction (John Berry, 1955).
In 1955, Zanuck left Darvi when he discovered that she was bisexual, according to Wikipedia. Darvi later publicly dated women, as well as extremely wealthy men. Her love life was always juicy fodder for the tabloids, but she was unable to establish a permanent relationship or to curb her gambling and drinking habits. At one point her gambling was so out of control that she was forced to pawn her jewels, furs, clothing, furniture and two poodles to make ends meet.
Her European films were mostly mediocre. They include Raffles sur la ville/Sinners of Paris (Pierre Chenal, 1957) with Charles Vanel, Le gorille vous salue bien/The Mask of the Gorilla (Bernard Borderie, 1958) starring Lino Ventura, and Le pain des Jules/Jules' Breadwinner (Jacques Séverac, 1960) with Henri Vilbert.
She also played in Italian director Damiano Damiani’s feature film debut, the crime-drama Il rossetto/Lipstick (Damiano Damiani, 1960) with Pierre Brice.
In 1960, Darvi married Claude Rouas, a restaurant waiter, in Las Vegas. The marriage was annulled less than a year later.
After several failed suicide attempts, she was put in a clinic on the Riviera in 1968. Zanuck was still paying off her debts when she was ill and financially ruined.
Her final films were the comedy Le bourgeois gentil mec/The bourgeois nice guy (Raoul André, 1969) starring Jean Lefebvre, and the erotic comedy Les Petites Filles modèles/Good Little Girls (Jean-Claude Roy, 1971), a pastiche of Countess de Ségur's novel Les Petites Filles modèles.
In 1971, Bella Darvi took her life in a small apartment in Monte Carlo by opening the gas jets on her stove. It happened on the same day that Pier Angeli also took her own life. According to IMDb, Darryl F. Zanuck had ignored her final plea. Darvi’s body was not discovered for ten days. She was only 44.
At IMDb, Gary Brumburgh writes that her abilities were limited: "Not only was she hampered by an ever-so-slight crossed-eyed appearance, she had a trace of a lisp which, combined with a foreign accent, made her speech appear slurred and difficult to understand."
In recent years however, Bella Darvi was also praised by some critics, including Camille Paglia, who described her performance in The Egyptian (1954) as ‘hypnotic’.
French postcard by Editions du Globe, Paris, no. 443. Photo: Sam Lévin, Paris.
Source: Philippe Pelletier (Les Gens du Cinéma) (French), Gary Brumburgh (IMDb), Glamour Girls of the Silver Screen, Find A Grave, Wikipedia and IMDb.