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Olga Petrova



Many a theatergoer of the first decades of the 20th century would have been surprised to learn that "the cruelest woman in the world" Olga Petrova was no Russian demoness but Cockney Muriel Harding. Her vamp persona, created for the Parisian Folies Bergere, played upon male fantasies of predatory, sadistic women. She claimed to be part Polish and part French, and once confided to newspapermen, "I haven't any heart--I don't want any. It is an excess baggage. Love? There isn't any such thing." Her ferociously red hair and enormous chest gave a certain credibility to her claims.

Besides male-baiting, the other dimension of her act was impersonation - she could mimic the voices and gestures of most of the leading women of the stage. She appeared in the United States in late summer of 1911. As a singer and actress she was something of a caricature, but as a publicist, she was a genius. When she arrived in Boston in September 1912, she advertised for a "temporary husband" in the local papers, and claimed that 487 men bombarded her with proposals: "Never did I dream that there were so many fools in the world." She traveled the vaudeville circuits, singing and performing playlets - "Comedy and Tragedy" for instance. In 1914 she tackled more substantial dramatic roles, playing the lead in Monkton Hoff's "Panthea."

This demonstration of character consistency convinced New York motion picture producers that Petrova was a bankable talent. Her first three titles with Solax - "The Tigress," "The Heart of a Painted Woman," and "The Vampire" - suggest that the films simply elaborated Petrova's established persona. Her film career lasted until 1918, when she returned to theater. By 1920 she had determined that she had to control the projects in which she appeared. This prompted her to become a playwright. She composed three works, all of which would be good vehicles for her. The first two of the three, "The White Peacock" (1921) and "Hurricane" (1923) were clear successes. David S. Shields/ALS