The story you are about to read is one of the real horror endured by Bela Lugosi, and more terrifying than any screen role he played.
It was to prove a tragic end for an actor synonymous with the supernatural. When it did come, it was to be an exhausted finale to what by then had become a pathetic existence. It was rumoured that he died longing to see a priest. Perhaps not so surprising after all, as according to his latest, and final, wife in those last years, he was terrified of dying. Of course, he was right to be, for, as with any Catholic, Bela Lugosi knew all too well the reality of what lay beyond.
Those last years were ones of bathos: a screen-star whose star had fallen from on high only to crash and burn in the fires of professional and personal humiliation. Lugosi had indeed known the heights but for a shorter time than one might imagine; by the end, he had come to know the depths more fully. As the saying goes, nothing recedes quite like success. In his case that mercurial liquid had vanished almost as quickly as it had unexpectedly swamped his life.
Buried in the cape that had made him famous, he was interred in Holy Cross, Hollywood’s Catholic Cemetery. As in the best horror tales, the Cross prevailed, while the ‘vampire’ perished. Nevertheless, the story you are about to read is one of the real horror endured by Lugosi, and more terrifying than any screen role he played.
1931: Hollywood. As his cape was raised higher so also the lights rose higher still to illuminate the name LUGOSI on movie theatres across America. As a nation was taken to the Burgos Pass and to a land beyond… a new luminary was upon its screens. If only there had been someone to urge caution, someone to warn against what was to come, someone to whisper: Beware! Because as a name grows brighter in the lights above, so below, must the shadows lengthen, and, in what was to follow, for Bela Lugosi, there was, in the end, to be more shadow than light. From then on, surrounded only by a deepening interminable darkness, he seemed to be locked in a seemingly never-ending struggle to find a way out…
1882: According to Universal Studio’s publicity machine, Mr. Bela Lugosi, the star of its latest box office smash, was born of noble stock in the land beyond the mountains, in the realm of the vampire itself: Transylvania.
1882: Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskówas was born in the industrial town, Lugos, to middle class parents, hundreds of kilometres from Transylvania.
Nevertheless, perhaps the publicity department was right all along as Lugosi was really ‘born’ on screen, or rather came into existence, in that fateful winter of 1931. In any case, ever since his arrival in the United States ten years earlier, that ‘land beyond the mountains’ had haunted his life in the New World.
Of course, there had been life before the Undead: runaway, decorated World War One veteran, intellectual, Shakespearean actor, husband, revolutionary, movie star in Berlin with the renowned UFA studios, lover, husband again, husband once more, and much more besides—just some of the titles and roles Lugosi inhabited before he bluffed his way onto a merchant ship bound for New Orleans. In so doing, he left behind the Weimar Republic’s decadence and occult-obsessed cinema for the Broadway stage. A man of many parts before ever he came to America, once there, he was to become identified with only one: a role that slowly drained the lifeblood from his veins.
1929: Broadway. He had a ‘hit’ on his hands. His success on the New York stage was welcomed therefore, but hardly unexpected. Lugosi thought of himself as a serious thespian. He looked forward to many more nights of standing ovations and rave reviews. He looked forward to other parts, more demanding roles, in fact, to exploring the whole repertoire of classical theatre. He would move on, with now his latest role completed. But… and here’s the thing: that particular ‘role’ was not a part to play, or a character to portray; it was something else, something much more. It was to became a ‘mask,’ one that couldn’t be removed even after the lights had faded and the crowds had long since gone home. Now, with Hollywood beckoning, there would be no way to remove it—no matter how hard he was to try.
The Los Angeles Times, December 10, 1929
‘Dracula’ Star: Same at Home
RENO, Dec. 9. – Bela Lugosi, star of “Dracula,” a play which has had long runs where it has been shown, carried his temperament into the home and was unable to cast aside his irascible part of the role when he entered his home, his wife, Beatrice W. Lugosi, testified in the divorce court here to substantiate her plea for divorce…
The die was cast as much for its star as it had been for Jonathan Harker, the innocent who at the start of Stoker’s novel travels to Dracula’s lair. ‘Enter freely, and leave some of the happiness you bring…’ Lugosi had indeed entered freely, but, as with Harker, any happiness was soon to vanish. Thereafter, the actor was consigned to a lifetime of cinematic mists and shadows, of visible horrors and unseen terrors, of unquiet graves and tolling bells … He tried to speak, stating: ‘Never has a role so influenced and dominated an actor’s life as has the role of Dracula. He has, at times, infused me with prosperity and, at other times, he has drained me of everything… It’s a living, but it’s also a curse… It’s Dracula’s curse’. The screams, once for Lugosi as he appeared on screen were, as the years rolled, replaced by the actor’s own screams, but by then no one was listening.
1951: A rural theatre somewhere in the British Isles. Lugosi has become a pantomime villain. Dressed as The Count he frolics on stage. Lugosi needs the money. He can no longer get work in Hollywood so has come to Britain to work in the play in which he now tours. In out-of-the-way places in far-flung counties, he performs for people who don’t quite know what to make of ‘Dracula’ coming to their locality. When they do see him, they are puzzled by the overweight, ill-looking Hollywood star in their midst, They are really not sure what’s going on, but by then neither is Bela. Things just couldn’t get any worse—but they were just about to.
1956: Hollywood. Bela is referred to as ‘washed up.’ Five marriages are too many for any man, let alone a man who is in the throes of a heroin addiction, one that has been a constant companion now for years… his drug addiction further exacerbated by broken relationships, broken film contracts, and now a broken heart. He is seriously ill, if working again. The part is still Dracula, if not called that. But the film is not even a B-Movie; its funds are being begged and collected as the camera relentlessly rolls on.
Plan 9 from Outer Space was to be the last film. Today, it is regularly voted as one of the worst movies ever made; Lugosi died four days into its shooting—his part was later filled by the director’s wife’s chiropractor, as a favour. All the same, in the final edit, the last footage of Lugosi remains, still dressed in the cape beside an open grave.
On the night after the Feast of the Assumption, in the small hours of 16th August, Bela Lugosi died: in the dark, and frightened. Death had indeed come like a thief in the night.
He deserved better: the Last Rites, a chance to confess, Viaticum at that dreaded moment of passing—all any of us can hope for. Now, left with the memory of one of the most original and oddest of movie stars, laid to rest in his cape, we leave Bela at the Fount of Mercy, one before which we all must appear—saint or sinner, beggar or noble, ready or not….
Postscript: In December 2011, a curious item surfaced in California. Although buried in his famous cape, it came back to ‘haunt.’ The actor’s family had ‘another,’ and it was duly put up for auction. And so, on the set day in the auction room, with the cape hanging there, black and sinister, the bidding started. Then, abruptly, it ended when it failed to make its asking price. Thereafter, for the time being at least, the cape was returned to its vault.
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The featured image is a screenshot from the 1931 film, Dracula, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.