An OLGA PETROVA Story, Petrovivacity by Ben Hecht
Olga Petrova, reader, thinker and silent film femme fatale of the late 1910s, began as vaudevillian Muriel Harding in England, but in the middle of that decade, having reinvented herself as a Polish noblewoman, Madame Olga Petrova, she came to the United States.
She was a veteran of two public service campaigns, one touring to sell World War I saving stamps, another as a Progresssive Era feminist advocating birth control in association with Margaret Sanger. In his 1922 Chicago Daily News story, "Petrovivacity," Hecht riffs on Petrova's play The Stork and her dubious press-agent genealogy in his dialogue account of her spirited intellectual repartee with Herman Rosse, Hecht's illustrator and a set designer.
Madame Petrova's business office claimed that in 1917 more money was spent publicizing her in trade magazines than on any star previously. In that year her film work included at least eleven motion pictures: Daughter of Destiny, More than Poetry, Exile, The Silence Sellers, To the Death, Law of the Land, The Undying Flame, the Soul of a Magdalene, The Waiting Soul, The Secret of Eve and Bridges Burned, IMDB. No wonder she did the math, finding by her own calculations, that the speaking stage offered her more free time than film work, and the pay was better: $357 per hour, compared to film work, just $208. When Hecht wrote "Petrovivacity" as one of his 1001 Afternoons in Chicago columns, she had retired from motion pictures and was writing and producing her own plays.
Ben and his spouse Marie Hecht, she a scenarist and Chicago enertainment columnist, knew Petrova since her stage-to-film transition. She played in Pathe at Chicago's Garrick Theatre in June of 1914 (left), well before she became Metro's flrst star and owner of Petrova Pictures. Marie, who was also a gourmet cook, recalled stopping to make a frenzied call home while en route there with Petrova for dinner. The diva had just announced that she never ate fowl, which awaited them in the oven. That Petrova did some of her own writing and was the Hechts' dinner guest raises the question as to whether she consulted with them. This is more than plausible inasmuch as Ben was writing for Chicago little theater and motion pictures by 1915, and, soon after, contracted as a sideline for work writing scenarios for screenwriter Antia Loos. The people he chose to honor with a 1001 Afternoons column were usually people in whom he had a business interest, e.g., his stories about Wallace Reid and Charlie Chaplin.
Hecht's account of Petrova's contentious philosophical debate with Herman Rosse illuminates not only their love of ideas but Hecht's long-established ease with modernist arguments as a reader of Nietzsche, a protégée of editor Margaret Anderson and a participant-observer in the DaDa movement while he covered post-war Germany in 1919. In "Petrovivacity" Hecht indulges his love of eloquence and wit. Reproducing rapid-fire dialogue, whether low-brow or high-brow, became a hallmark of his writing as exemplified in plays like The Front Page, the more literary talkies like The Scoundrel and his screwball comedies of the Golden Age.
Above, Olga Petrova, Library of Congress photograph as seen in Florice Whyte Kovan's book,Rediscovering Ben Hecht: Selling the Celluloid Serpent. Snickersnee Press. 2000. Left, drawing of Olga Petrova in Pathe from the Chicago Sunday Tribune, 1914.
by Ben Hecht, Chicago Daily News 1922
Madame Olga Petrova, the phospho-
rescent nymph of drama, and Mynheer
Hemann Rosse, the celebrated painter
and co-author of the world's greatest
unproduced musical extravaganza (name furnished on request) engaged in a frightful argument last Wednesday
afternoon at 4 o'clock in the Blackstone hotel. The points at issue were whether the race was a failure, whether man had degenerated into an epicene puppet, with a second-hand phonograph for a soul, and whether there was any hope. Mme. Petrova said there wasn't. Mynheer
Rosse said there was.
"As for people," said Mme. Petrova, "I have no interest in them. I have no use for the race, for posterity or for anybody but myself. And as for being a mother, I would rather by a thousand times be a giraffe. I do not believe in maternity for women," said Mme. Petrova. "There will come a time when women will emancipate themselves from this ghastly ruse by which nature converts them into populating machines."
"In which case," said Mynheer Rosse
with some heat, "the race would die
"Exactly," said Mme. Petrova, "It would die out. But of what possible interest is that to you?"
"I don't like the race to die out," Mynheer Rosse demurred stubbornly.
"And why not? Mme. Petrova questioned. "What good is the race to me? I am Olga Petrova --an egoist. And why should I be hocused-pocused into becoming Olga Petrova --a possible ancestor? I am not interested in being an ancestor."
"You are not Olga Petrova," Mynheer
Rosse spoke up. "You are an inheritance of molecules animated by the same force which makes egg-plants grow. You have nothing to do with this force. You are merely a shock of charming red hair, a beautiful body and collection of unimportant prejudices temporarily animated. You are," continued Mynheer Rosse savagely, "an infinitesimal rosebud blooming on a stalk twelve million miles high and two and a half million miles in circumference. This stalk is life."
"Fiddlesticks," said Mme. Petrova. "I am not a rosebud. I am an anarchist. I
repudiate the past, ignore the future and enjoy myself, laughing at the present."
"You might have been a maple tree or a crustacean or a kangaroo or anything," said Mynheer Rosse. "Egoism is a paradox. We are all accidentals."
"This sort of talk will get us nowhere,"
countered Mme. Petrova. "What I might have been is. of no interest to me. What I am concerns me exclusively. I am a woman. What I started out to say was that there will be a time when motherhood will be a specialized function. Women will refuse to carry the ridiculous burden of keeping the race going. There will be a revolution and new league of nations and all that sort of thing. And the upshot will be that certain women will be set aside as mothers. There will be a third sex of mothers. And men and women will, for the rest, be equal."
"I disagree with you utterly," cried Mynheer Rosse."
"Thank you," smiled Mme. Petrova.
"You are a very ungrateful woman," said Mynheer Rosse. "Think of all the martyrs, thinkers, revolutions and debacles out of which your delightful prejudices have grown."
"I prefer to consider myself an entity,"
said Mme. Petrova. " As for the
accumulation of ancestors that produced me --they are a handicap. Their inhibitions, idiocies, stupidities, fears and banalities struggle for life in my soul. Exactly as they have overcome yours. "
"They have not overcome mine but
enriched it," Mynheer Rosse replied
optimistically. "Man today owes man of yesterday a vast debt."
"Oho!" exclaimed Mme. Petrova, "then
you think that man has improved? What
nonsense! Man is becoming more and
more a creature dependent upon buttons.
In two hundred years he will be nothing
but a button presser. If he wants to blow
up anybody he will press a button. If
he wants to go somewhere he will press
a button. If he wants excitement,
beauty, scenery, money, comfort, laws or
conquest he will press buttons."
"You do not like machines?" inquired
Mynheer Rosse, bristling. "You are not
a modernist! See, with all your egoism
you are a sentimental yearner after quiet,
peace and mid-Victorian beauty."
"You misunderstand me," sighed Mme.
Petrova. "I adore machines. They are infinitely superior to men. Machines
contain in their steel jaws and iron souls
the power, freedom and egoism that
were once the property of men. Man has emptied himself into machines. I could love a hydraulic elevator. I grow positively enthralled before a donkey engine and a steel shovel. But men -- bah"
"But it is men who invent machines,"
continued Mynheer Rosse.
"For every machine invented man loses
something," smiled Mme. Petrova. "Man
is now comparatively impotent. His brain is filled with sawdust instead of ecstasy. His soul is a memory that lives only in literature. He is dead. The race awaits some great embalmer."
"But," said Mynheer Rosse, "you are
neither dead nor even partially devitalized."
"But," said Mme. Petrova, "I am an
exception. I am Lucrezia Borgia, Catherine of Russia and many other anomalies. I am one of those few who furnish the race with an almost plausible excuse for its existence. My instincts are all antiracial. I am in revolt against the things which produced me. Life is my inferior. "
"I don't know," Mynheer Rosse shook his head, "egoism is a happy misfortune. But I fmd it silly. I prefer your accent to your ideas, the shape of your nose to your paradoxes. So you see you are admired for accidental virtues."
"Which is your failing, not mine," said Mme. Petrova. "But I fear we are wasting time. I am writing a new play."
"And I am painting a new picture," sighed Mynheer Rosse.
"I am really glad to have met you," said
"And I you," said Mynheer Rosse.
Thus at 4:35 Wednesday afternoon the
argument ended. The phosphorescent Olga returned to her chamber to work upon the play that is to captivate the admiration and dollars of the public for fifty-two weeks in New York ---if her hopes come true. And the belligerent Mynheer Rosse returned to the painting of his canvas, which will be admired by twelve people and bring him $250 -- if he is lucky.
Illustration, above: Le Mecanicien by futurist artist Fernand Leger, 1920.
Herman Rosse, a native of Holland, thus the courtesy title "Mynheer," brought degrees in art and architecture to his work as head of the design department at the Art Institute of Chicago. His shadowgraphs and projected scenery were subjects of early issues of Theatre Arts. His books of the early '20s include Designs and Impressions (1920), illustraitons for 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, with Hecht (1922) and Masks and Demons with Kenneth MacGowan (1923). Rosse is credited with art direction for several early sound fIlms, including Dracula and Frankenstein. His design work for King of Jazz in 1930 (below) won him the Academy Award.
A month before Hecht wrote this piece, the two of them took their play, The Yellow Mask, to show J. J. Schubert in New York. Hecht wrote of the meeting in his column: "Mynheer Rosse astounded the wary impresario by removing one of his Holland shoes and extracting the manuscript therefrom."
Hecht and Rosse each took up family residences in Nyack, New York, where they remained neighbors and friends for life. See more about Ben Hecht and Herman Rosse .
If you liked this story see a book of Hecht's essays and stories about art and modernism in Chicago.
Above: One of Rosse's stage designs for his Oscar-winning King of Jazz, a Paul Whiteman vehicle.
Photograph oourtesy Film Stills Archive.
Museum of Modem Art, N- York