Eva von Berne, the Austrian actress brought to Hollywood as a potential Greta Garbo rival and who played the ingénue in the apparently lost John Gilbert-Alma Rubens silent drama The Masks of the Devil (1928) – her sole American movie – has died. Again.
Von Berne, according to many sources including the IMDb, had already passed away in 1930, purportedly from “excessive dieting.” (Other “reports” claim she died in a car crash.) Now, via the Everett Collection’s Eve Golden – sourcing content originally posted at the online forum voy.com, also published in the German newspaper Die Welt – I learn that von Berne actually died “after a short illness” on Nov. 9 in the Hungarian town of Hedervar. Von Berne was 100 years old.
Much as I tried in the last couple of hours, I couldn’t find any confirmation of the report.
According to Toni Schieck’s mini von Berne bio at voy.com, the actress was born Eva Plentzner von Scharneck on July 9, 1910, in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina – then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Eva fled with her family to Vienna following the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
A teenage model, she was discovered by MGM’s second-in-command Irving G. Thalberg while he was honeymooning with Norma Shearer in Vienna in 1928. That summer, the young model sailed to New York and from there she headed to Hollywood, where Thalberg hoped the now renamed Eva von Berne (reportedly after producer and future Jean Harlow husband Paul Bern) would become another Greta Garbo.
Update: Graphic artist and documentarian Richard Adkins, who has done research on Eva von Berne, informed me via email that “Eva’s name was chosen on the way to New York in a contest (no doubt sponsored by M.G.M.) and the winning name was submitted by the wife of the American consul in Berlin, who was also on board. As far as I have researched, the Berne name was not due to Paul Bern.”
Adkins adds that MGM publicized von Berne’s “arrival widely. She was photographed by Stiechen for Vanity Fair and all sorts of publicity photos of her with other European starlets were distributed to all the fan magazines internationally.”
Garbo had to lose weight and be beautified after going Hollywood, and so did von Berne. Garbo, however, had had prior film experience in both Sweden and Germany. Von Berne had had none, which proved to be a handicap following her arrival. The fact that the 18-year-old had little-to-no command of the English language didn’t help matters any.
The studio was unimpressed following her appearance in Victor Sjöström’s The Masks of the Devil as the young, innocent woman for whose sake a sex-loving baron (John Gilbert, then MGM’s biggest male heartthrob) decides to go monogamous. (Reviewing the romantic melodrama, one publication at the time wrote that von Berne “reminds one of those oval-faced expressionless ladies so often found in Italian primitives.”) Shortly thereafter, right at the dawn of the sound era, when a good (or at least acceptable) command of the English language became imperative, the young actress was sent packing back to Europe.
In Berlin, she landed roles in a handful of film in 1929, including Adolf Trotz’s The Somnambulist, which featured future Nazi filmmaker Veit Harlan (Jud Süß); Louis Ralph’s (Spanish-, not French-led) Foreign Legion drama Flucht in die Fremdenlegion / Escape to the Foreign Legion; and Nunzio Malasomma and Mario Bonnard’s mountain film Der Ruf des Nordens / The Roof of the North, starring Luis Trenker.
Schieck quotes von Berne friend Christa Holy as saying that Der Ruf des Nordens “was a financial disaster” and that von Berne gave up on movies as she “lost her interest on [sic] acting” right when the switch to sound was about to take place. It was at that time that rumors about her demise began circulating. Who came up with those rumors – and why – I have no idea. (I was unable to find any 1930 obit for von Berne.)
Von Berne returned to Vienna, where she attended an art school and worked at a department store as a “window decoration executive.” She later married Helmut Krauss, a former major of the Austrian army, and became a sculptress. Her work was shown in galleries in several Austrian cities.
Giving credence to the fact that she didn’t die in 1930, von Berne is listed online as one of the interviewees in Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s mammoth 1980 BBC documentary Hollywood, a comprehensive look at the silent film era in the United States. (I’ve seen Hollywood, but I can’t recall an Eva von Berne interview.)
According to Schieck, von Berne was the last living performer from the German silent era. Countess von Freyberg-Eisenberg, aka Pandora’s Box actress Daisy D’Ora, had died on June 12. In 2006, von Berne told Schieck in a telephone interview, “It’s lucky [sic], that the world believe I’m [dead].”
Following Miriam Seegar’s death last Jan. 2, Barbara Kent, 104, has become the only surviving adult performer who had at least one major role in Hollywood silent feature films (Flesh and the Devil, Lonesome).
Update: Also via Richard Adkins:
Sometime later in U.S. newspapers there was news articles claiming that Eva had died from “excessive dieting” in late 1930. Voight repeated the death story in a 1989 Sight and Sound article called “The Two Garbos.” I doubled checked newspaper archives and did find reference to this death.
At the time IMDB only had Eva’s birth date and filmography, but no bio. I checked for bios with several European film museums and was told they didn’t have any information, so I believed her passing to be true. I then submitted a bio which was then seen by Eva’s grand nephew, Michael Alexander Echsig, an Austrian concert musician who sent me photos of Eva on her 100th birthday. I requested from Echsig information as to the “lost” years of Eva and verification that it was Eva who was alive, and not her sister Dorothea, but no data was ever sent, save the photo. I contacted IMDB and they (reasonably) would not change the bio on the basis of the photo and since I had no other documents, the bio went unchanged.
I saw Toni’s entry and contacted Werner Hanak, curator of the Jewish Museum in Vienna, whom I met when he visted the Hollywood Heritage Museum, and he verified the obituary in “Die Welt.”
So yes, it does seem that Eva died “twice” but it’s not from film researchers not trying to get it right!
Photo via Doctor Macro.
I have corrected the mini-biography on Eva on IMDB. I actually tried to correct it some time ago, but could not get documentary proof from her nephew that she was (then) alive. IMDB wasn’t taking my word for it, so until she died and it was in the European press, she was considered already gone. Hubert Voight, an M.G.M. publicist was the source in 1930 and in 1986 for Eva’s “passing” stories. Why he told them? Who knows?