When Nazi party Storm Troopers discovered that an 18-year-old German Jew named Maria Lilli Peiser was to perform at the State Theater of Darmstadt in 1933, they filled the first row, threatening to disrupt the performance and drag the actress off to a concentration camp. The show went on, and so did the dazzling career of Maria Lilli Peiser, who as Lilli Palmer achieved stardom on stage (Bell, Book and Candle, Caesar and Cleopatra) and screen (Cloak and Dagger, The Pleasure of His Company, Body and Soul, The Fourposter).
Borrowing a line from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for the title of her just-published autobiography, Change Lobsters—and Dance, Palmer writes of her flight from Germany, her tumultuous 14-year marriage to Rex Harrison, the Golden Age of Hollywood and such friends as Noël Coward and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Palmer recently reminisced about her life with Christopher P. Andersen of PEOPLE.
What saved you that night at the Darmstadt theater?
Just before my entrance onstage one of the actresses said, “As far as most Jews I’ve met in my life are concerned, all I can say is”—and she spat on the floor between us. But then she grabbed my hand anyway, and we began to skip out in the direction of the footlights. The Storm Troopers in the front row had left during the overture. They were told that my father had won the Iron Cross at Verdun, and in 1933 Jews who had served in the front lines during World War I were spared.
But you left Germany anyway?
For me, the handwriting on the wall stood out in capital letters. I left for Paris, where one of my jobs was singing with my sister Irene in a very respectable nightclub, which was also a very respectable brothel upstairs. I kept waiting for Sam Goldwyn to discover me, but I wound up acting onstage in England instead. One of the stars scrutinized me nightly through his monocle—Rex Harrison. He was already separated from his first wife, and after the divorce came through we were married in January 1943.
When did you head for Hollywood?
The offer came completely out of the blue. Leland Hayward had a brainstorm about casting Rex as the king in Anna and the King of Siam. My first Hollywood movie was opposite Gary Cooper in Cloak and Dagger.
What was it like working with Cooper?
Gary was my girlhood idol. But when the director of Cloak and Dagger, Fritz Lang, bullied me on the set day after day, Gary did nothing. Later he came to my dressing room and said, “Hey, kid, the business with Lang, you know—I probably should have said something…uh, but you see, I’m not much good at that sort of thing. Know what I mean?” I knew what he meant. Silence was his most eloquent weapon. Coop and I remained friends.
What was Hollywood like off the set?
In those days, there was a party every single night. We listened to Hoagy Carmichael or Eddy Duchin at the piano, to Bing Crosby, Judy Garland or Frank Sinatra sing or to Charlie Chaplin reminisce. But soon people got bored and started playing “The Game,” a form of charades with very complicated rules. Stars like Gable, Bogart, Tyrone Power, James Stewart and Henry Fonda made funny noises, hopped around on one foot and generally enjoyed behaving like children.
And eventually the games became serious?
Yes. Tragically so. At David Niven’s new house, Cesar Romero suggested a new twist, “Sardine.” You turn out the lights and everyone hides. Tyrone Power had turned out the lights and I hid under the piano. Suddenly there was a shout: “Lights! Somebody has fallen downstairs.” It was Primmie Niven, David’s young wife. They laid her on a carpet, her head in my lap. The next day she was dead.
Did Rex Harrison like these parties?
I would nurse one miserable gin and tonic, but he had an ironclad rule: never leave a party until one of the hosts has gone to bed. One night we drove with Sam Goldwyn’s front gate attached to the fender of our car. We didn’t notice it until the next day.
Was it difficult to have a happy marriage in Hollywood?
It was almost impossible. One evening a big star gave a party honoring couples who had been married more than 10 years. We showed up with about 50 other couples, and everyone that I knew had either been or was being unfaithful to the other. But these were the survivors.
When did you learn that Harrison’s paramour, Carole Landis, had committed suicide?
I had fled to New York from Hollywood, where the gossip columns closely followed the affair of an English actor “H” and a blond movie star “L.” He called me one day to ask me to return to him in California. Every paper in the country had a front-page headline, CAROLE LANDIS SUICIDE, and the stories said that Rex Harrison had found her body in the bathroom.
Was there something about a blackmail threat?
A policeman found a note in Carole’s clenched hand, and said it contained something highly compromising. He would let us have it for $500. We refused, but he gave it to us anyway. On the note was scrawled, “The cat has a sore paw. She must go to the vet.”
Were you and Rex ostracized because of the Land is incident?
And how! Suicide was a violation of the Hollywood dream. Rex was depicted as the arrogant Englishman, and I was the coldhearted German wife. Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons were the bottom of the bog. We cursed them collectively as “Lulu Popper.” Louella looked like a very old tadpole; Rex called her an alcoholic illiterate. Hedda was just vituperative.
What was the bizarre “contract” between you and Harrison before your divorce and his subsequent marriage to British actress Kay Kendall?
I hadn’t planned to mention it in my book. The book sold more than 300,000 copies in Germany without any reference to the covenant Rex and I had. But he opened the can of worms. When I read the distortions in his biography and his treatment of me as some kind of Prussian nurse in the background, I had to tell the whole truth in the English version. He had been having an affair with Kay Kendall, and I was about to ask for a divorce to marry my present husband, Carlos Thompson, when Rex learned that Kay had leukemia and only three years to live. He would not marry her unless I promised to leave Carlos and come back to him after she died. I lied and pledged myself to return to him when all was over. Noël Coward shouted at me, “Who do you think you are, Florence Nightingale?” As it turned out, Kay died three years later, as predicted, but I wrote to Rex telling him I could never return.
Harrison has denied that he ever intended to return, hasn’t he?
The fact is the covenant existed. Marrying Kay was the kindest, best thing he has ever done in his entire life.
How do you feel about him now?
We almost never see each other. I don’t think there is anything left of the man I fell in love with and married.
How do you respond to Harrison’s claim that you have no sense of humor?
If a man who epitomizes English humor lived with a humorless woman for 14 years, he should either be sanctified or have a medal struck in his honor.
What was your relationship with Noël Coward?
When we first met in 1940 Noël said he would write a play for me, and 26 years later he did, Suite in Three Keys. It was the last play either of us ever acted in. He was a dear, dear friend. But he could be a terror. He used to call Marlene Dietrich and me his “Prussian cows.” He hated what he called “piss-elegance,” and had a special aversion to reformed homosexuals.
You were also good friends with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. What did you think of them?
Windsor’s mother, Queen Mary, was German, but when World War I broke out no members of the royal family were allowed to speak German. Whenever I saw Windsor, he used to take me into a corner and we’d speak German. He loved to recite Goethe’s poetry. Windsor was a strange combination of stubbornness and, as he himself said, “a low IQ.”
And the duchess?
She gave the impression of being beautiful without being beautiful at all. When I was a child we had a nutcracker that was shaped like a woman’s head. She reminded me of that nutcracker. She could crack anybody and eat them up.
When you returned to make your first film in Germany in 1954, how did you feel?
Every time I met somebody I did some fast mental arithmetic. This one was old enough. Was he a party member? Another was too young, but maybe he was Hitler Youth. The only self-confessed Nazi I met was a parrot in the Munich zoo. During the war he got an extra piece of apple for screaming “Heil, Hitler,” but after the war he got hit over the head with a newspaper every time he opened his beak.
Are you still bitter?
I hate the Nazis as much as ever. But today two-thirds of the German population are too young to have had anything to do with the rise of the Nazis. Last year West German President Gustav Heinemann placed the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit—Germany’s highest civilian award—around my neck. And all I could think of was my father’s Iron Cross.