Although she never achieved the star status of Marlene Dietrich or even the celebrity status of fellow Hungarian, Zsa Zsa Gabor, she represented the epitome of grace, charm, elegance and beauty of the European chanteuse.
Ilona Massey didn’t make many films — about a dozen in all followed by an equal amount of tv credits — but the few she made are reasonably memorable. She has the rare distinction of being among the select group of classic screen personalities who formerly were opera singers.
She was born (as Ilona Hagymasi) in Budapest in 1910, at a time when it was part of Austro Hungarian empire. Massey had an impoverished childhood but grew into an “opulently” blond young woman with ambition. She took singing lessons, and landed jobs in the chorus line and in small parts in the state opera.
Massey, who appeared in less than a handful of movies made in Austria, submitted her photo to an MGM office in Vienna — and got a callback. She wound up as one of 36 hopefuls to take a stab at migrating to Hollywood. Besides Massey, one other wannabe (Austrian Hedy Lamarr) made the cut.
Ilona’s first American film, 1937’s Rosalie, paired her with Nelson Eddy although the presence of Eleanor Powell stole the show. Massey at this time couldn’t speak English well, so she learned her lines phonetically. In her next outing, 1939’s Balalaika, she was billed as Eddy’s costar. Both films employed Massey’s musical backround as they were glossy operettas featuring their equally glossy baritone, male star.
By the 1940’s Massey not only was fluent in English but was able to broaden her screen appearances. She plays a Baroness in 1943’s Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, and “Madame Egelichi” in the 1949 Marx Brothers comedy, Love Happy. (That movie is also remembered for providing Marilyn Monroe one of her earliest screen performances.)
For a while there, it was bruited about that Massey was another Dietrich in the making. Alas, it was not to be. Massey had a diverse career, encompassing Broadway (1943’s revival of The Ziegfeld Follies with Milton Berle), radio (a show called Top Secret) and television (1953’s The Ilona Massey Show).
She had a lifelong hatred of Communism, and became an American citizen in 1946. Along the way, Massey married four times, the last time to a Major General in the U.S. Air Force. She died of cancer in 1974, at age 64, in Bethesda, Maryland.