Partner Claire Goll
Golders Green Crematorium Golders Green, London Borough of Barnet, Greater London, England
Elisabeth Bergner (22 August 1897 – 12 May 1986) was an Austrian-British actress. Primarily a stage actress, her career flourished in Berlin and Paris before she moved to London to work in films. Her signature role was Gemma Jones in Escape Me Never, a play written for her by Margaret Kennedy. She played Gemma first in London and then in the Broadway debut, and in a film version for which she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. In 1943, Bergner returned to Broadway in the play The Two Mrs. Carrolls, for which she won the Distinguished Performance Medal from the Drama League. Elisabeth Bergner lived in Zurich, Switzerland, with Claire Goll during World War I. In 1919, under the impact of her relationship with Bergner, Goll wrote Der Glaserne Garten, a celebration of lesbian love remarkable for its period. Unlike Die Frauen erwachen, it is written in a style which resonates with Rilkean cadences, reflecting her recent encounter with him. It tells the story of a love triangle between two women and a man.
Elisabeth Bergner was born Elisabeth Ettel in Drohobych, Austro-Hungarian Empire (present-day Ukraine) to Anna Rosa Wagner and Emil Ettel, a merchant. She grew up in a secular Jewish home. The Hebrew she heard in her childhood was associated with Yom Kippur and Pesach, and on her visits to Israel, she apologized for not knowing the language. She first acted on stage at age 14, and appeared in Innsbruck a year later. In Vienna at age 16, she toured Austrian and German provinces with a Shakespearean company. She worked as an artist's model, posing for sculptor Wilhelm Lehmbruck, who fell in love with her. She eventually moved to Munich and later Berlin. In 1923, she made her film debut in Der Evangelimann. With the rise of Nazism, Bergner moved to London with director Paul Czinner, and they married in 1933. Her stage work in London included The Boy David (1936) by J.M. Barrie, his last play, which he wrote especially for her, and Escape Me Never by Margaret Kennedy. Catherine the Great was banned in Germany because of the government's racial policies, according to Time on 26 March 1934. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for the film version of Escape Me Never (1935). She repeated her stage role of Rosalind, opposite Laurence Olivier's Orlando, in the 1936 film As You Like It, the first sound film version of Shakespeare's play, and the first sound film of any Shakespeare play filmed in England. Bergner previously played the role on the German stage, and several critics found that her accent got in the way of their enjoyment of the film, which was not a success. She returned intermittently to the stage, for instance in the title role of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi in 1946. Bergner temporarily returned to Germany in 1954, where she acted in movies and on the stage; the Berlin district of Steglitz named a city park after her. In 1973, she starred in Der Fußgänger (The Pedestrian), which was nominated for an Academy Award and which won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign-Language Foreign Film of 1974. In 1980, Austria awarded her the Cross of Merit for Science and Art, and in 1982, she won the Eleonora Duse Prize Asolo.
Elisabeth Bergner by Cecil Beaton bromide print on card mount, 1934 9 5/8 in. x 7 1/2 in. (243 mm x 189 mm) Given by Gordon L. Hendry, 2004 Primary Collection NPG P1041/em>
Elisabeth Bergner in 'Escape Me Never' by Vandamm Studio bromide print, 1935 5 in. x 3 in. (126 mm x 76 mm) image size Given by Terence Pepper, 2013 Photographs Collection NPG x194047
Elisabeth Bergner in 'Escape Me Never' by Fred Daniels cream-toned vintage bromide print on black card, 1935 15 in. x 11 7/8 in. (381 mm x 301 mm) Given by Nancy Eckert, 1989 Photographs Collection NPG x32918
Elisabeth Bergner by Francis Goodman vintage print, 1946 6 1/4 in. x 4 3/4 in. (158 mm x 120 mm) image size Given by Terence Pepper, 2014 Photographs Collection NPG x194230
She later moved to London, where she died aged 88 from cancer. She was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium on 15 May 1986, where she is commemorated with an oval memorial tablet in the West Cloister.
According to The New York Times obituary for writer Mary Orr, Bergner told Orr about an experience that provided her with the inspiration for the short story that gave birth to the character of Eve Harrington. “The Wisdom of Eve" appeared in Cosmopolitan in 1946. The play based on that story was the basis for Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All About Eve. The episode occurred when Bergner was performing in the play The Two Mrs. Carrolls. Bergner took pity on a “waif-like” young woman who stood outside the theater for days on end. She gave her a job as her secretary, and the young actress tried to "take over" Bergner's life.
The character of Dora Martin in the novel Mephisto by Klaus Mann reportedly is based on her.
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