Born on 12th January 1910, Luise Rainer is the middle child (with two brothers either side) of Heinrich Rainer, a businessman and merchant, and Emmy Koenigsberger. Her father had been sent to live in America with an uncle after being orphaned, age 6, and as such he held dual citizenship of both the USA and Germany, returning to Europe as a successful businessman. Luise’s childhood was spent in both Dusseldorf and Vienna, where she went to school. Whilst her father adored her, calling her his ‘Mausele’ (‘Little Mouse’) Luise soon realised that she was destined for life in a man’s world, making babies and getting married.
Although Luise loved her father she regretted the effect that he had, not only on herself but on her mother, a talented pianist who was suffering from his controlling love. Even after Luise had proved successful as an actress he remained reticent to accept the work as worthy of her. She needed an outlet for her overwhelming emotions and found it in creativity. From an early age Luise was attracted to artistic endeavours and began to paint and to dance. She became a dance pupil of Mary Wigman, who had seen Luise dance at a concert, but her teenage years were ridden with angst; she longed to create, to give of herself those things that she so enjoyed in others. She chose acting as a way to release herself from the emotional stranglehold in which she found herself, but it could as easily have been dance, art or writing. Having decided to become an actress she began, in secret, to study texts such as Wedekind’s Lulu.; for her it was the play that was the thing she felt inspired by, not the fame. She has said that there were no other actresses to whom she aspired, it was the plays that she wanted to be part of, to feel these emotions and reach into herself to bring them out.
Her acting debut, aged 16, was when she took over from a sick actress to play the part of
‘Wendla’ in Wedekind’s Spring Awakening at the Dusseldorfer Schausspielhaus’ School of Stage Art, where many expressed disbelief that she had no training and she was soon signed to a two year contract by Louise Dumont and Gustav Lindemann for whom she acted at the Dumont Theatre, Dusseldorf from 1928. She continued to take stage roles in a variety of plays including Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. During this time her family did not see her perform, considering the profession one of vulgarity. She was ready to accept an offer to join the Russian-Jewish Habimah players but her father forbade it. Instead she joined Max Reinhardt’s touring company performing in Berlin and Vienna and in other cities across Europe. On 27th February 1933 Luise found herself in Berlin and witnessed firsthand the burning of the Reichstag, regarded as the event that signalled the creation of Nazi Germany. Luise was lucky to find a chance to head to America, followed by her parents later in the decade; many of her contemporaries were not so fortunate.
It was during a performance with the company of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy that Luise was spotted by Bob Ritchie, a talent scout from the film company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) who was in town to see one of her fellow cast members, Rosa Stradner. Instead it was Luise who attracted their attention. At that time MGM had one of the biggest stars in Hollywood on their books, Greta Garbo, and they saw Luise as a natural successor. She had already appeared in a few German language films and had received high praise for her stage performances. It was whilst appearing on stage in Vienna that Luise met her first love, either a rich Dutchman or a high-ranking official in the Italian Air Force (sources vary), who courted her with parties and who took her for fanciful rides in his two-seater plane. Luise was deeply in love with him, but tragedy struck when he was killed in an aircrash only a few months after they met. Confused and in mourning Luise started an affair with his brother; she accepted the opportunity to escape from the toxic situation and on January 9th 1935 she set sail on the Ile de France from Le Havre for New York and a new life, with her beloved Scottie dog, Johnny. Whilst aboard Luise celebrated her 25th birthday with fellow passengers Feodor Chaliapin, the Russian opera singer, and Mischa Elman, the famous violinist, who serenaded her with an unexpected
rendition of “Happy Birthday”! She also discovered that she was pregnant but she knew instinctively that she could not have the child. She always intimated that the decision was hers although it is not hard to imagine what the studio thought when they discovered their bright new star was single and expecting. In all accounts of this time we are told that Luise was ‘holed up’ in a Santa Monica beach house whilst MGM decided what to do with her; it’s more likely they were dealing with this unforeseen pregnancy. She travelled from New York to LA by train, gazing in awe at this vast new country, all the while convinced that a terrible mistake had been made and she would soon be shipped back home. Her first few months were spent in a rented beach house, paid for by MGM, confused and lonely, with no friends and a slight grasp of the language. She was sent to study English with the actress Constance Collier, in preparation for her debut. It is interesting to note that, seemingly, MGM did not have a role with which to launch their new star so they bid their time waiting for the right moment. That moment came by default when Myrna Loy (who had already replaced Helen Hayes), afraid of being typecast, dropped out after only two weeks of filming on Escapade (1935). The timing seemed perfect; a remake of the Austrian film Maskerade (1934), set in Vienna in 1900, but Luise still had to fight for the part. It was a chance meeting with Anita Loos whilst walking her dog along the beach that sealed the deal. Loos told Luise of MGM’s quandary and she immediately phoned the studio to demand she be given the part of ‘Leopoldine’; a star was born. The role defined her as a sophisticated Austrian actress and MGM were keen to play down her German background. Some sources still cite her birthplace as Vienna, a myth perpetuated by her
nickname, ‘The Viennese Teardrop’, dreamt up by magazine writers after her first two ‘weepy’ roles. Her co-star, William Powel, with whom Luise would make a further two films is reported to have told the studio, “You’ve got to star this girl, or I’ll look like an idiot”, leading to joint top billing.
The Oscars and Odets
Her five-year contract seemed far too short after such a promising debut. The ‘new Garbo’ had arrived and she had the pick of the choicest roles…or so Luise thought. For her second and third films Luise achieved a spectacular first, winning the Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Actress in two consecutive years, a feat matched only once, by Katharine Hepburn in 1967 and 1968. Her first was for The Great Ziegfeld (1936), where she played Anna Held, Ziegfeld’s first wife, and the second for The Good Earth (1937) as the Chinese peasant farmer ‘O-Lan’. In the former much has been made of her ‘Telephone Scene’, where a distraught Held, upon learning that Ziegfeld has left her for his new love, Billie Burke, calls him to give her congratulations and best wishes, whilst inside she is devastated. The scene, for which Luise claims she wrote the dialogue (based on a scene in Jean Cocteau’s Le voix humaine) is considered the moment that turned her into an Oscar winner, however, it should been seen in context as part of an all-round assured performance which displays a deft understanding of comedy as well as the sentiment for which she became known. For her follow-up she astonished critics with her stripped back, unglamourous turn as ‘O-Lan’. The gulf between ‘Anna Held’ and ‘O-Lan’ in itself requires a remarkable transformation and Luise, with very few lines, conveyed both dignity and stoicism in the face of adversity. She once said of her performance, “It’s not for me, putting on a face, or putting on makeup, or making masquerade. It has to come from inside out.”
She was revered and held in high esteem for both of these performances and for achieving the historic double, but for Luise it wasn’t such an accolade. “When I received this Academy Award I did not feel any great thing about it. It wasn’t something I had coveted because I hardly knew what it was.” Winning the Oscars turned out to be a
mixed blessing for Luise. It propelled her into the upper echelon of screen stardom but the pressure was immense and this, along with her continuing discontent with life in Hollywood led to her rapid descent from the top. Her double win and sudden exit from MGM has entered pop culture mythology as the ‘Oscar Curse’, applied to anyone who wins and subsequently fails to achieve or maintain that standard. Luise is cited in Truman Capote’s novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s (first published in 1958) when a Hollywood agent uses her story as an analogy: “when you walk out on a thing like that, you don’t walk back. Ask Luise Rainer. And Rainer was a star.” As for Luise, she dismissed the idea of a curse; “The Oscar jinx! There is no Oscar jinx. I couldn’t carry the burden of being the middle of the universe. I had to withdraw and find myself”.
“Nothing worse could have happened to me”, Luise later said of her double Oscar win, “my career, if I can call it a career…went up and up and up while my personal life went down and down and down. I had three years of monstrous existence, and the world thought I was on top.” In contemporary interviews she bemoaned the artifice of the life she was forced to lead and spent time in the company of artists and writers rather than her co-stars and film-makers. She honestly and openly complained in press interviews about her so-called ‘glamourous Hollywood lifestyle’ alienating many of her co-stars and fans alike. She remembered her time in Austria and Germany, being part of a theatre group and longed to return to the legitimate stage. The death of producer Irving Thalberg in 1936 (The Good Earth is dedicated to him) was a turning point in Luise’s career. He had been adept at finding the right scripts, cast and directors to film some of the most popular and critically-acclaimed stories of the time and his vision that cinema could be an artform sat well with Luise’s
own view. Upon his death, however, studio head Louis B. Mayer began to concentrate on the most commercial projects and had little time for those who refused to conform. Luise had never seen eye-to-eye with Mayer and resisted being taken for granted; she felt that she was no longer and actress, “just a horse in a stable” being told what to do and say. When she went to his office to ask for a respite from making films because “my source had dried up, I work from the inside out and there is nothing inside to give,” he said to her, “What do you need a source for? Don’t you have a director?” She fought with Mayer to play roles to which she aspired, including ‘Nora’ in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Marie Curie in a biopic of the Nobel Prizewinner, but, instead, Mayer cast her in light comedies and melodramas which weren’t suited to her and which, although sometimes commercially successful, were of varying quality. Even at the height of her career she was paid less than any other leading actress ($250 per week for her work on The Good Earth). Although she had opportunities to increase her salary she refused to take part in Louis B. Mayer’s way of negotiating. When he asked her why she would not sit on his lap like his other ‘girls’ do, she replied, “Mr Mayer, you have not bought a cat in a sack…God made me, not you!” She ended her contract with MGM in 1938. In less than four years at the studio she had made eight films and won two Oscars, but her career as a Hollywood star was over. She later recalled “During my time in Hollywood, this whole thing of being an actress turned from being an artist into show business, with the emphasis on business. I just didn’t fit into that. I still don’t.”
During this time Luise had been socialising with the art crowd, the writers, artists and playwrights with whom she felt alive. In 1936 she met the playwright Clifford Odets at the Brown Derby restaurant, where she was dining with songwriters E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen. They didn’t say a word to one another, but Luise was intrigued. They met again at a party hosted by Dorothy Parker and he phoned her the next day. They became inseparable from then onwards and on 8th January 1937 they were married. Deeply in love, yet both strong-willed and independent, their relationship was a tempestuous one
(when they visited the home of Albert Enstein at Nassau Point, Long Island in 1937 Odets was so enraged by Einstein’s flirting with Luise that he later grabbed a photograph of them and decapitated the great scientist with a pair of scissors!) Odets suffered with Luise’s success, and he became jealous of her fame and admiration. Both were riding high in their careers, yet it was Luise’s greatest success, The Good Earth (1937), that became an albatross and the marriage suffered. While she spent much of the year filming, Odets was working on the other side of the country for the Group Theatre in New York and the relationship was strained from the start. Odets was where Luise wanted to be, doing great work in the theatre with fellow practitioners, feeding off and revelling in one another’s creativity. Both found themselves under pressure to end the relationship; Mayer wanted to break up the partnership because he thought he owned Luise, Harold Clurman, head of the Group Theatre wanted it to end because he thought he owned Odets. Their own headstrong independence also made for a fractious union, not helped by the outside pressure from the studio, the Group Theatre and the press, who, much to Odets’ irritation, nicknamed him ‘Mr.Rainer’, as if his wife was the more important half of this celebrity couple. Although she did go to live with Odets in New York after walking out from her MGM contract the marriage had, by then, already become difficult. Both were emotionally drained; at one point the film studio’s physicians recorded a verdict that Luise may submit herself to ‘suicidal tendencies’ so desperate was she to free herself from her contract and save her marriage. Early in their relationship Luise became pregnant and believing, mistakenly, that Odets wanted nothing to do with starting a family, she went through with an abortion. Many years later she would see, for the first time, a wire written by Odets, but never sent, regarding their family and their future together. She admitted that had she known his true feelings she would have flown to be with him without a second thought. Sadly, at this time, in her emotional state she thought the worst and wrote to Odets expressing her wish for a divorce. The marriage did last for another two years but their divorce was finalised in May 1940 by which time Odets had started an affair with the actress Frances Farmer, Luise had become a US citizen and had walked out of MGM. In 1979 she said, “I should never have married Clifford Odets – not for his politics but because Cliff was not a human being who should have been married to anybody. Our marriage was disastrous, although I do believe that, as far as he was able to, he was very, very much in love with me. But the only way for him to get away from me – that is, to not love the very thing he feared might be destructive to his ego – was to kill me, not physically but emotionally.” Odets wanted Luise to be the “Eleanora Duse of our times” and at the same time be a hausfrau. In an interview for the BBC’s Desert Island Discs in 1999 she called the relationship, “fulfilling, terrible, tearing, complete.”
In the following years Luise retreated from the big screen but appeared on stage in both London and New York and on British and American television. Although not overtly political she had been introduced to politics by Odets during the 1930s (at one point she became involved with Ernest Hemingway arranging for ambulances to be sent to the loyalists during the Spanish Civil War, and she had been part of the Anti-Nazi League
protests when Vittorio Mussolini visited Hollywood in 1937). During the second World War she took part in a number of war bond rallies and her political activity increased. She volunteered for work (often in secret) with the US Committee for the Care of European Children and she visited troops in Italy and North Africa, performing excerpts from films and plays, and took part in fundraisers and campaigns, work for which she was appointed an honorary lieutenant in the US Air Force. Her celebrity was finally useful for something and she used it well. Unfulfilled from her movie career there was no incentive for her to return to Hollywood (although she did so, only once, for Paramount, in the 1944 war drama Hostages).
During the war she signed the affadavit that brought the playwright Bertolt Brecht to the US from Finland, and in 1942 she suggested he write a play based on the Chinese Circle of Chalk, and Klabund’s adaptation Der Kreiderkreis. Brecht created the role of ‘Grusha’ specially for her in his play The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and Luise organised a Broadway contract and a salary for him, but, after some months he presented Luise and the producer with only two pages of text; she was horrified and she dismissed him and the play. It was around this time she became friends with Anais Nin and her lover, Henry Miller, but the friendship became too intense for Luise, believing that Nin was obsessed with her. She appears in both of their journals, and is often cited as part-inspiration for the title character in Nin’s Stella, a story about a female film star.
In 1945 she married the publisher Robert Knittel, a marriage that could not have been more different from that with Odets. Athough the union was sound, Luise and Robert had to fight to be together, not least against opposition from his parents. Robert’s father was the Swiss writer John Knittel, and it was shortly after the war, and their marriage, that Luise came to the horrific realisation that her in-laws were Nazi sympathisers. She met her mother-in-law rarely, but when she did her anti-Semitism was barely hidden.
Luise’s upbringing was irreligious, but her Jewish heritage made her a target nonetheless. So distraught was she about the discovery that she asked Robert for a divorce and moved into the Savoy hotel to be apart from the family; her only thought was that she did not want to come between her husband and his parents. When John Knittel’s sympathies were publicly revealed his popularity nosedived. Mrs Knittel asked Luise to appear with him at interviews, hopeful that her celebrity would rehabilitate his faltering reputation. She refused. Luise and Robert were married for 43 years until his death in 1989, spending their time between Switzerland and London; their daughter, Francesca, was born in 1946.
Her brief career in Hollywood has often been cited as proof of a difficult temperament but this is not borne out by interviews in later life where Luise has suggested she was more a victim of circumstance who wanted to work but still have some degree of control over her career. There was an offer to teach drama at Columbia University, which she declined as she was of the opinion that it couldn’t be taught and she might kill her students with her frustration. Luise continued to be approached with offers by directors and writers; in 1958 whilst appearing at a celebration for Eleonora Duse’s centenary in Italy the film director Federico Fellini offered her a return to the cinema with a role in La dolce vita (1960), for which Luise insisted on writing her own scene, a decision that eventually led Fellini to abandon the role. She continued to make forays into acting,
appearing in sporadic theatre productions and taking guest spots on popular television shows of the 1950s and 1960s. She made her London stage debut as early as 1939 in Jacques Deval’s Behold the Bride, and debuted on Broadway in J.M. Barrie’s A Kiss for Cinderella in 1942; in 1952 she directed and starred in a production of S. N. Behrman’s play Biography. Towards the end of the 1950s Luise studied art at the Camden Institute in London and began a renewed interest in the subject. In the 1970s Luise exhibited her artwork in a number of exhibitions, notably at the Patrick Seale Gallery in London and at the German Embassy; her collage work uses painting with objects such as flowers or earth. She continued to inspire other artists too, and in 1976 she met the playwright Ben Travers at a party; shortly after their meeting he composed his poem Ballade on Receipt of a Treasured Letter which is published online here for the first time.
The comeback and centenary
In the 1980s Luise was rediscovered by a new nostalgia-hungry fanbase and, somewhat ironically, became one of the stars called upon to recall Hollywood’s glory days. In 1982 she was awarded the George Eastman Award for her contribution to cinema, with fellow winners Joan Bennett, Dolores del Rio, Myrna Loy, Maureen O’Sullivan, Sylvia Sidney and Louise Brooks. In 1987 she appeared alongside some of her contemporary fellow actresses in a mawkish segment celebrating Hollywood’s 100th anniversary on the TV special Happy 100th Birthday, Hollywood! and was one of the most animated and honest contributors to the epic 1992 mini-series MGM: When The Lion Roared (1992). When she arrived in America in the 1930s she claimed not to have known what an Academy Award was, let alone consider winning one, and for obvious reasons has had a strange
relationship with Oscar. She returned to the ceremony in 1953 and 1983 to present the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and she attended in 1998, and again in 2003, to take part in a retrospective of previous winners. Asked why she had accepted the invitation to the latter she said, “If I don’t show up they’ll think I am dead!”.
In 1997 she made a surprising and triumphant return to the screen in Karoly Makk’s The Gambler (1997), based on Dostoyevsky’s novel Rouletenberg, playing ‘The Grandmother’ who delights and despairs at her first visit to the roulette wheel. She returned to cinemas in the anthology Poem: Ich setzte den Fuss in die Luft und sie Trug (2003) speaking her native German on screen for the first time in over 70 years.
After the death of Robert in 1989 Luise left Switzerland and spent the rest of her life in her Belgravia apartment, in the same block once occupied by Vivien Leigh (who, coincidentally, is another two-time Best Actress Oscar winner) and Emeric Pressburger (who, coincidentally, wrote the screenplay for Luise’s very first film, 1932’s Sehnsucht 202). Her entry in Who’s Who noted her leisure activities as “writing, walking, wandering, mountain-climbing” and she regularly contributed to magazine articles and newspaper interviews reminiscing about her time in Hollywood and her extraordinary life.
Luise Rainer turned 100 years of age on 12th January 2010 and she continued to live life to the fullest possible. Only a few months after her 100th birthday she flew to Los A
ngeles to take part in the Turner Classic Movies film festival, and on 5th September 2011, aged 101 she surprised everyone by flying to Berlin to receive the honour of a star on the Boulevard des Stars, a monument to German film-makers past and present. She died at her home in London on 30th December 2014, just 13 days shy of her 105th birthday.
Despite her continued lust for life she expressed some regret in an interview given shortly before turning 100 in which she gave her own opinion about her long life:
“…there were many things that I should have done. I feel it today, at nearly 100 years old: God, or whoever it is, gave so much into my cradle and I have not lived up to it.”