July 10, 2012
Born: Koncsics Vilma on January 09, 1901 in Nagydorog, Austria-Hungary, but grew up in Budapest. Died: on March 18, 1991 at the St. John of God Convalescent Hospital in Los Angeles, California, aged 90 of cardio respiratory arrest. She was cremated, and her ashes were scattered at sea.
Occupation: Actress, Housewife, and Pro Golfer
Years Active: 1919 – 1933
Married: Silent Actor Rod la Rocque on June 26, 1927. Married until his death in 1969.
Religion: Catholic (though not practicing, she did become more devout later in life)
Known for: Playing opposite Valentino in “The Eagle” and “Son of the Sheik”. After his death her fame grew with films that co-starred Ronald Coleman. After retiring in 1933 she became a dedicated housewife and golfer.
Books about: “More Than a Dream: Rediscovering the Life and Films of Vilma Banky” by Rachel A. Schildgen is out on 1921 PVG Publishing. She is also mentioned in Affairs Valentino by Evelyn Zumaya, Beyond Hollywood’s Grasp by Harry Waldman and All My Yesterdays by Edward G. Robinson.
Films About: There are no films on Banky’s life. She was mentioned in Sunset Boulevard, when Gillis states “Mabel Normand and John Gilbert must have swum in it [the Desmond swimming pool] ten thousand nights ago, and Vilma Banky and Rod la Rocque.” She does not appear in any of the films about Valentino’s life.
by Rachel Schildgen @2009, please do not use without permission
To many silent movie buffs, the name of Vilma Banky is intrinsically linked to that of Rudolph Valentino, and he, in turn, is forever immortalized as the dashing sheik. After working with Banky on The Eagle in 1925, the two became close friends and he pushed the studio to co-star her in his last film, The Son of the Sheik. The exact nature of the Banky-Valentino relationship is still hotly debated, many believing it to be an intimate affair coming off the heels of his separation from his second wife Natacha Rambova. But everything points to the opposite. One of the biggest stars in the world for a few, brief years, she was content to be a housewife for the rest of her life once she married. An ever humble woman who knew when to step out of the spotlight, the alluring Vilma Banky remains an enigmatic personality from the silent film period as well as an enduring delight to watch.
She was born Koncsics Vilma on January 09, 1901 in Nagydorog, Hungary, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her family had not lived in the town long; her father, Koncsics János, was a local bureau chief for the government and was stationed wherever needed. He was a wise, but stern man who was devoted to his children, ensuring they received all the comforts of life. Vilma’s mother, née Ulbert Katalin, loved the arts, but was a stickler for education and made sure the children went to the best schools regardless of cost. In 1906, János was sent to Budapest on official orders, requiring the family to pack up their belongings and make the trek to the big city, where they purchased a small, two-story home in Pest. By this time, Vilma and her brother, Gyula (also known as Viktor), were both enrolled in a nearby elementary school, but sister, Gisella, the baby of the family, was not yet old enough to attend. The family, much preferring the countryside, enjoyed taking frequent trips on the weekends; one of Vilma’s favorite places was Margitsziget (or Margaret Island), a little piece of land situated in the middle of the Danube River. Another idyllic escape from Budapest was the Bakony Mountains, where Vilma, her parents, and siblings picnicked, hiked, and bird watched for hours on end.
Thanks in part to the Compromise of 1867, when Austria allowed Hungary to have a bit more leg room, Budapest began to grow and was soon considered one of the up and coming European metropolises at the turn of the century. World-class hotels with technological wonders were erected, reliable transportation systems were built, and a number of public works were set in motion. Hungary was changing drastically, and Hungarians everywhere were reaping the benefits. János’ high government position provided the family with a great deal of freedoms and income, a way of life to which the Koncsics had become accustomed.
While the threat of war was looming, Vilma continued her schooling, learning piano, needlepoint (a skill for which she was well known in Hollywood), and French, among many subjects. By the time war was declared in 1914, Vilma was a precocious, but terribly shy 12-year old, who had already stated that she would be a great actress one day. But there was no time for acting; the Koncsics family saw their lives transform in many ways … and their money disappear. Almost overnight, Vilma’s family went from moderately wealthy to nearly impoverished. Shortly after finishing secondary (high) school around 1919, she enrolled in courses to work as a stenographer, but this was only to make ends meet. She tried her hand at acting on the stage at night, appearing at the Belvárosi Színház (a theatre) in downtown Budapest, but this endeavor did not turn out the way she had hoped. Disappointed, she continued to pursue an acting career secretly, despite her mother’s, father’s, and fiancé’s overt disapproval.
In terms of a ‘love match,’ Vilma’s betrothal to Lukatz Imre was a good one. He was a land owner with a large manor just outside of Budapest, but, more importantly, he loved Vilma. Unfortunately for him, he told Vilma to forget her ‘nonsensical’ dreams of being an actress and marry him without delay. For someone with a goal, that kind of demand can be a deal breaker, but Vilma, smart as she was, kept Imre on the back burner. Even when she came to America in 1925, he made a last ditch effort to marry her, announcing to the press that he was going to America to re-claim his ‘bride.’ He was unable to obtain a visa for entrance into America, so he wired Vilma to meet him in Tijuana, Mexico, but she refused, leaving Imre to return to Hungary with his tail between his legs.
Just as she had started an office job as a stenographer, she was spotted by director Carl Boese, who decided to give her a role in Im Letzten Augenblick, which was released in 1919, but this film was by no means her ticket to stardom as she had only a minor part. Roles in other movies trickled in over the next few years – Veszélyben A Pokol, Tavaszi Szerelem, and Galathea, all Hungarian productions. Prior to the release of the first film, she had begun using the stage name of Banky Vilma.
By 1922, she had tucked enough money away to enroll in von Bolváry Géza’s film school, a venture that he co-instructed with wife von Mattyasovszky Ilona. Vilma was a diligent student, and the Bolvárys quickly took note; with their influence, she was cast in two German pictures in short succession: Schattenkinder des Glücks and Kauft Mariett-Aktien, as well as A Halott Szerelme, a Hungarian production, all in 1922. Though the roles were getting bigger and better, fame was still slow coming. While at home on break in Hungary, she became acquainted with the well respected acting instructor Arthur Somlay, who took the time to teach her a variety of powerful acting techniques. From 1923 – 1925, she would act in a further five Hungarian and German productions; her star was now on the rise.
In February 1925, Sam Goldwyn was making the rounds in Europe, looking for fresh talent. While in Budapest, he became fascinated with a picture postcard he saw in a shop. Goldwyn asked the shopkeeper about the striking blonde haired, violet eyed girl in the picture and learned her name, setting off a fervent search to track down Vilma. Despite his efforts, Goldwyn found himself facing closed doors and could not seem to contact her – even by telephone.
The company she was currently working for, Gloria Film, was determined to keep Vilma from meeting with Goldwyn; she was, after all, one of Hungary’s biggest headliners at this time. The company had drawn up a contract and was now pushing her to sign. Though the studio kept her working day and night to prevent a chance encounter, someone alerted Vilma to the fact that Goldwyn was leaving that night. He had given up for the time being and decided to return to America. With all the drama of a true Hollywood movie, Vilma raced to the train station without removing her costume or make-up and caught him by the coat tails just as he was passing through the gate. Goldwyn and Vilma had dinner together, and that night, she was offered a contract, which she quickly signed.
Not knowing what hit her, Vilma sailed for America in early March 1925, arriving in New York City on the 10th. The press was waiting for her; she endured interview after interview with grace, and, fortunately, despite the language barrier, the reporters did her justice, commenting on her fair-haired beauty, effortless elegance, and extreme modesty. And she spoke of all the things she loved and missed: the oh-so-heavy Hungarian delicacies of spicy meats and potatoes, her extensive doll collection, and, most of all, her family, but at least she was comforted by her books. She was often found sitting outside reading her O. Henry novels (which just happened to be Rod la Rocque’s favorite author) and her Sherlock Holmes mystery books, which she admitted she had to read in the afternoon as she got a little too spooked at night.
Before heading West, Goldwyn provided Vilma with a generous allowance to go shopping in the city with the help of a stylist as ‘continental fashions’ were not in vogue. There was also a clause in Vilma’s contract that had to be fulfilled posthaste; Goldwyn wanted her to lose ten pounds to fit the American conception of slim. So, he put her on a strict diet of lamb chops and pineapple (a diet said to originate with Nita Naldi), the only two words that she is said to have known when she first arrived. One account related how Vilma stopped in at a restaurant in Hollywood and asked for some heavy dish consisting of meat with gravy and bread, and while the waiter acted as though he would follow her wishes, he proceeded to bring her a dish piled high with lamb chops and pineapple. Word got around fast.
All that excitement Vilma had about coming to Hollywood immediately evaporated upon her arrival. To say she was ostracized by the film community would not be untrue. It was said that because so much publicity and hype had followed Vilma to Hollywood, the community felt a little slighted by the media. But Vilma made at least one friend in those early days; Norma Talmadge befriended her and took her under her wings. She also became extremely lonely and homesick, writing home with increasing frequency. The differences between Budapest and America were striking – it was to her great surprise to see such reckless spending in Hollywood. She was earning a larger income than she had in Berlin, but the money did not seem to stretch as far. Though she had lived in luxury in a large suite with several servants in Berlin, she could only afford “a small bungalow and one servant” in Hollywood. While commenting on the prices of American items during an interview, she said “what I must pay for a simple dinner would support a family in my country for a week! When I translate the price tags on everything in this place into kronen, I am horrified. It seems sinful to give so much for so little.”
Before work began on The Dark Angel, Vilma was dubbed by Goldwyn publicists as “The Hungarian Rhapsody,” though the moniker is sometimes attributed to John Gilbert. Thankfully for Goldwyn, who had not seen Vilma’s acting heretofore, The Dark Angel was a sensational hit. The New York Times praised her acting and proclaimed that Vilma Banky was actually as good as Goldwyn had claimed.
United Artists then decided to co-star Vilma with Rudolph Valentino in The Eagle in 1925. The story goes that Valentino met Vilma in a most unusual way. In July 1925, shortly before filming was to begin, he was riding in the Hollywood Hills and saw from some distance a lovely woman riding side-saddle, who carried herself in a most aristocratic manner. After introductions, the two realized that they were to appear together in Goldwyn’s upcoming picture. This may have been fodder for the newspaper, but what an unusual tale to think might have happened. During the making of the movie, Vilma and Rudolph became good friends; she provided a caring, listening ear to his problems.
But as Adela Rogers St. Johns wrote in September 1929, “Vilma Banky, with her broken English and her slow smile, just happened to be as wise as she was lovely. She looked at Rudy and saw the fever in the back of his black eyes, saw the agony of his wildness, and very sweetly she brought him out of his pose of the adoring lover – and made of him – a friend. Rudy needed a woman friend just then. Vilma was gentle with him; she let him weep his grief out and tried to soothe and sympathize with him.”
Many gossip columns set about vilifying Vilma’s and Valentino’s relationship, hinting that it was nothing more than a torrid affair. In his article “Valentino’s Falling Out With Natacha” (third installment of a series), George Ullman, Valentino’s friend and manager, wrote that “the world has chosen to attribute a love affair to Rudolph Valentino and Vilma Banky; such, in my opinion, was not the case. Propinquity is responsible for more marriages than love, and it was propinquity in this case – added possibly to a sincere admiration on Valentino’s part for Vilma’s budding ability as an actress, as well as for her undeniable beauty.” Valentino had a cozy bungalow that he would use in between filming, and he and Vilma often dined together here. “Rudy’s time was so limited that he adopted the custom of having his luncheon brought down from his home in containers and served in his bungalow. Here, Beltram Masses and Vilma Banky generally joined him. I [Ullman] am persuaded that the atmosphere of good fellowship and camaraderie which obtained at these intimate informal luncheons did much to foster a natural friendship between the star and his leading woman. And Beltram Masses in the role of chaperon!”
In Ullman’s unpublished memoir he hinted at something more than friendship between the two. Vilma spent many hours, and sometimes late evenings, in Valentino’s studio bungalow. While a relationship between the two is still unproven it seems more likely with this information.
The couple continued to dine and attend various events around Hollywood together, they were usually accompanied by other friends; once The Eagle finished filming, Valentino sought the company of Pola Negri, with whom it is known he had a sexual relationship.
Due in part to their smoldering screen chemistry, Vilma and Valentino were reunited in the exceedingly successful film, The Son of the Sheik a year later. Tragedy struck though, and Rudolph Valentino, one of Hollywood’s most beloved actors, died on August 23, 1926, leaving Vilma to declare publicly that “playing opposite Valentino taught me the meaning of courtesy and consideration in a fellow actor. I will mourn him as a friend.”
With little time for a break, Goldwyn cast Vilma in The Winning of Barbara Worth, where she was co-starred with Ronald Colman for the first time, and by pure luck, the newcomer, Gary Cooper. During filming, Vilma suffered strained ligaments and lacerations from an accident involving a horse, but she quickly recovered and filming continued. The movie was another highly successful film that included sandstorms and a magnificent flood scene, pretty remarkable special effects for 1926. Christmas of that year would have been an incredibly special treat for someone so new to the country; along with Mr. and Mrs. Goldwyn, Vilma traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet President Coolidge, a humbling experience for her. In 1927, Goldwyn cast Vilma and Colman in The Night of Love, a romantic period drama that was adored by the fans. In addition to acting in this film, Vilma composed a waltz to accompany it; the tune, entitled “The Night of Love” in honor of the film, was reminiscent of a Viennese melody combined with some jazz age undertones.
Shortly after Vilma’s arrival to Hollywood, she met her future husband, Rod la Rocque, the town’s so-called favorite bachelor. She attended a dinner party given by Cecil B. DeMille, along with guests Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Goldwyn, Mr. and Mrs. Abraham Lehr, and Rod la Rocque, but unbeknownst to her, Goldwyn was playing matchmaker, letting the two singles meet and interact throughout the dinner party. Just a few months after Rod met Vilma, he told his mother Ann and all his friends that he had met the woman he was going to marry. Of course, no one took him seriously; they were probably more taken aback that he was ready to settle down. Vilma and Rod had a mutual friend – Victor Varconi, another Hungarian import who remained a close friend of the couple over the years. One day, Rod asked Victor to teach him how to say “I love you” in Hungarian to Vilma, but Victor wanted to play a trick on his old friend, teaching him “go to hell” instead. Rod “surprised [Vilma] by repeating the term in loving nuances at a private dinner they shared up in Altadena at Marcel’s [one of their favorite restaurants]. She was startled, but then, when she realized he didn’t even guess what he had said, she got to laughing so hard that she couldn’t stop.” Their relationship progressed, and by April 1927, the fan magazines began informing their readers of the impending marriage. Though both Rod and Vilma wanted a simple wedding, Goldwyn would not hear of it, spending nearly $50,000 in what is still considered one of the biggest, most extravagant events ever thrown in Hollywood.
Vilma and Rod were wed on June 26, 1927 at The Beverly Hills Church of the Good Shepherd. The building was packed with all of the big Hollywood stars, and the ceremony was followed by a circus-like reception. Cecil B. DeMille was best man and the ushers included Ronald Colman and Harold Lloyd. Constance Talmadge, Bebe Daniels, Mildred Davis, Monique La Rocque (Rod’s sister), Diana Kane, and Mrs. Samuel Goldwyn rounded out the wedding party as Vilma’s bridesmaids. Tom Mix made quite an entrance, arriving atop a stagecoach with six prancing horses. 600 guests attended the outlandish event, which went down in Hollywood history as one of the most interesting spectacles and became known as “The Social Event of 1927.”
Sheilah Graham wrote in her column that “after the ceremony, there was an immense banquet with 350 guests invited, including the entire roster of Goldwyn stars…Turkeys were piled high. Champagne assuaged the thirsty crowd. It was later discovered that a third of the turkeys were pasteboard props, which Goldwyn removed when the slightly intoxicated guests wanted to eat them.” Mobs were waiting outside for the happy couple, and a small riot ensued where Vilma’s dress was ripped and the decorations destroyed. The day after, the couple left for Vancouver, where they honeymooned at Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies for two months. Many of their contemporaries proclaimed that the union would not last long; however, forty-two years of marriage proved all the naysayers wrong. By all accounts, their marriage was a happy union, and one based on respect and affection. Vilma soon grew close to Rod’s mother, in whom she found a trustworthy friend and was bitterly heartbroken at her passing in 1948.
In 1928, Vilma participated in the first public demonstration of a new technological breakthrough – movies transmitted over telephone wires. Film of her arrival by train in Chicago was shown at a newsreel theater in New York nine hours later; the process was hailed as the newest tech wonder. Around this time, she requested leave from the studio to make a trip home. Vilma had not seen her family since she had left home three years earlier. Before leaving however, she stopped into the immigration office in New York City to fill out a form for re-entry into America after visiting abroad, exciting waiting patrons who proceeded to ask for her autograph. She created quite a stir, but declined when offered the head of the line.
Because he was kept working when she was leaving, Rod later sailed to Europe on February 16, 1928 to join her in Hungary and to meet his in-laws for the first time. Upon their arrival in Budapest, the train station was crowded with adoring fans. She spent a day in the city signing autographs and making brief appearances. Once home, she began work on Two Lovers, but upon its completion, Goldwyn decided to break up the Colman-Banky duo in order to let them try their hands at starring in independent vehicles. Soon afterward, Goldwyn cast Vilma in The Awakening, a story of war set in the village of Alsace. She was paired with Walter Byron, but Vilma received top billing. Critics were not too pleased with this film though the fans loved it. Goldwyn was frustrated at this outcome, but insisted on trying one more time. Vilma had other plans however; she wanted out, but she was tied to her film contract. Fan magazines began commenting that she was threatening to retire, quoting her as saying that she wanted to be “first and foremost Mrs. Rod la Rocque.” That year, Goldwyn began looking for other talent for the United Artists company and found what he was looking for in France. He settled on a lovely lady by the name of Lili Damita, who, although Goldwyn placed much stock in her success, failed to reach the same stardom that Vilma did. Damita was intended to replace Banky, but the two women became close friends.
Before long, Vilma began work on This Is Heaven, her first talkie in 1929. The crowds in New York presented a problem during filming. After seeing the cameras, people would flock around the set and slow down production. The decision was made to hide cameras in baby carriages and other random locations and have the film crew dress as street cleaners or electricians to avoid attracting attention. Meanwhile, Vilma, readying herself for her first talkie, had been preparing by taking voice and English lessons. Compared to the early days when she spoke no English, her progression was amazing; she could speak the language almost fluently. Despite this, when the price for her lessons was too high, Vilma insisted that Goldwyn pay for them. Goldwyn, angry at her demands, paid off the remaining money on Vilma’s contract and released her from her obligations. Fans clamored to see Vilma’s talking debut when This Is Heaven premiered on May 26, 1929. The New York Times kindly said of her, “whether she is silent – or talking – Miss Banky is always radiant.” It was also during this month that Vilma became an American citizen; a proud achievement for her. After visiting Hungary the last time, she knew California was home. Perhaps either to take a break from all of this or to celebrate their two year anniversary, the La Rocques left for their favorite Canadian spot on July 27, 1929. Upon returning, Vilma headed to the MGM lot, where she was to star with Edward G. Robinson in A Lady to Love in 1930. Vilma was not very enthusiastic about making this film, although her performance is still charming. The film, however, was deemed a disaster and made little impact at the theaters. The common belief that Vilma’s career faltered due to her accent is false; with a little work, she could have found a niche as the exotic woman, playing roles that were perfectly tailored to her strengths. The fact of the matter is that she did not want to act anymore and had contemplated retirement long before talkies were even a concern to the film community.
In April 1930, Goldwyn officially dropped Vilma from all of her responsibilities to United Artists, ending their five-year relationship and contract. In September 1930, Vilma returned home once again to visit her parents and take a well-needed vacation. In 1931, producer Archie Selwyn asked Rod and Vilma to star in a play, “Cherries Are Ripe,” written by Anita Loos. Vilma played Sybil Stereny; incidentally, the play took place in Hungary. Vilma brought all of the lovely designer gowns (Chanel, Patou, and Molyneux) that she chose to wear on stage from Paris. Though the play received encouraging reviews, Mr. Selwyn left the decision up to Vilma and Rod whether they wanted to continue its run. The play, a bit racy in content, was toned down when it was presented on the stage, impacting the dialogue and flow of the play significantly. Vilma decided that the play was not strong enough fare, and the La Rocques parted ways with Mr. Selwyn after just a few months spent touring the country.
In August 1932, Vilma publicly announced her return to films to appear in The Rebel, and both she and Rod traveled to Germany to work on individual projects. The Rebel, a Napoleonic-era costume drama set in the Tyrol, was made in both English and German and was remarkable for its on location shooting that highlighted magnificent mountain ranges and dense forests. But by that time, Vilma wanted no more than to just be known as Mrs. Rod la Rocque – she had grown tired of making movies. Once production wrapped up, Vilma retired from films and supported Rod in all his endeavors thereafter.
Vilma and Rod made their home in a big, but unassuming house in the Foothill Road area of Beverly Hills. While Rod continued working in films, Vilma was always right by his side assisting him in his latest projects, coming down to the studio a few days a week to eat lunch with him on his breaks. Rod and Vilma benefited greatly from their wise investments in real estate, which were more often than not ranch properties in Northern California, and were regarded as one of the wealthiest couples in Hollywood. They spent much of their free time together out of doors, especially at Lake Arrowhead, where they were regularly seen fishing and boating on sunny spring and summer days. Another favorite pastime was splitting a big hamburger steak together. Unfortunately, the couple was never able to conceive a child, though Vilma and Rod both wanted to have one desperately.
Both of Vilma’s parents, Katalin and János, died during this time – the former in 1947 and the latter in 1948. Though she visited her family frequently throughout the 1930s, World War II changed all of that. Hungary played a pivotal role during this time, but came under fire from Hitler’s forces when it was discovered that the Hungarian forces had been working with the Allies. It was hard enough for Vilma to send money home to her parents let alone visit them. Once the war began, she never had the chance to see them again. Her parents died in extreme poverty in a little town in Western Hungary, where they had moved to escape the constant bombing in the city. Her brother, known as Banky Viktor, went on to work in the film industry as well, though he was mainly interested in writing and directing. His son immigrated to Argentina, where that branch of the Bankys still live. Vilma kept in touch with her nieces and nephews until she died. Vilma’s sister, Gisella, married a local chemist in Hodmezovasarhely, where she lived until she died.
Before Sunset Boulevard was released in 1950, Rod and Vilma were contacted by the studio and asked if they could use their names in the film, which they gladly allowed. There is a line in the film that mentions Rod and Vilma swimming in the pool; Rod said that it made Vilma laugh because she could not swim at all. In the early ’50s, Vilma reigned as the champion in women’s golf tournaments, playing at the exclusive Wilshire Country Club just down the road from their main residence. Aside from this, the La Rocques avoided the limelight as much as they could, preferring each other’s company instead. The two were happily married for forty-two years until Rod died in 1969. Family deaths seemed to come in threes for her; her brother and sister also passed in 1967 and 1969 respectively.
Vilma lived her remaining life in solitude after Rod died, rarely making a public appearance, though she still did her own grocery shopping and ran other errands without assistance. Fans would still come up to her to invite her to screenings of her films, but she refused. Vilma was extremely active right until she became ill in the latter part of the 1980s and, according to the press, was terribly upset that the public did not pay attention to her when she became ill almost ten years before she passed. It was said that only Rod’s sister, Monique, came to visit and check in on her, but even Monique was quite elderly by then. It’s difficult to discern if this assertion is merely bad reporting; hundreds of silent film fans and writers came to her convalescent home to speak with her about her experiences on a regular basis, but she turned them all away. In a Classic Images story from February 1993, author Michael Ankerich writes that “no, Vilma Banky was not forgotten. On the contrary, she was the talk among silent film enthusiasts who were interested in her whereabouts, her condition, and her memories.”
In a sad twist of fate, she outlived everyone close to her; once Rod’s sister, Monique, passed in 1990, she took a turn for the worse. Vilma Banky La Rocque died on March 18, 1991 at St. John of God Convalescent Hospital in Los Angeles, California. Because she told her attorney that she wanted no one to know when she passed away, the world was not informed of her death until late 1992. Her attorney followed her wishes and kept the passing quiet. But after a few inquiries from the AP, the truth was revealed. Vilma had decided on cremation beforehand, and her ashes were scattered at sea near where her husband’s had been. She had also established the Banky-La Rocque Foundation in 1981, which is still in operation and provides grants to institutions that focus on furthering good works in children/youth, health care, and human services.