lona Massey was only a small girl when her native Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved, Ilona's father (a typesetter invalided in WWI) inculcated her with what would be a lifelong hatred of Communism and Communists. Growing up in extreme poverty, Ilona saw performing as her ticket to a better life. Working as a dressmaker's girl apprentice, she saved what money she could for singing lessons. Eventually the lessons, along with dance and acting classes, led to work in the Viennese entertainment industry.
Ilona was also developing into an incredible beauty. Her photo was submitted to the Vienna office of MGM, and she was one of two girls selected to take the adventurous trip to Hollywood for a screen test (her companion was Hedy Lamarr). In Good News of 1938, broadcast just before Christmas, 1937, Louis B. Meyer introduces Ilona as “our newest artist”. This installment of Good News is a celebration of the film Rosalie, starring Nelson Eddy and Eleanor Powell. James Stewart is the master of ceremonies in this broadcast. Rosalie was Ilona's first American film, and she sings one of her numbers from the movie on the show. Interestingly, at the time of filming she had little command of English, and performed her lines and songs phonetically.
In 1939, Massey again shared the screen with Nelson Eddy, this time with a starring role in Balalaika. Nelson Eddy was using the film as an effort to separate his career from Jeanette MacDonald. The project was a personal favorite of Massey's. However, it may have hurt her popularity.
Eddy's feud with MacDonald was popular fodder for the tabloids and gossip columnists, and the public saw his appearance with Massey as somehow adulterous. That Eddy and MacDonald were more than close, perhaps even married, was a common, though incorrect, assumption. There are also reports that despite their onscreen chemistry, they intensely disliked each other. Nelson Eddy was married to the former Ann Denitz for 27 years, until his death.
Ironically, the 1940 Nelson Eddy- Jeanette MacDonald reunion film, New Moon, was performed as a radio operetta for The Railroad Hour in 1949, starring Ilona Massey.
Also in our collection, we have Ilona reprising her role in New Wine, the 1941 film biography of composer Franz Schubert, for The Screen Guild Theater.
The two films that Massey is most closely identified with are 1943's Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man as Baroness Elsa Frankenstein, and as Madame Egeliche in Love Happy, the last film to feature all the Marx Brothers (and considered by Groucho to be the worst film they made). Massey's role in Love Happy would inspire Terry and the Pirates creator Milt Canliff to draw a new femme fatale spy, Madame Lynx, for his strip, Steve Canyon.
Ilona Massey is probably best known to OTR fans for her role in Top Secret. As the Baroness Karen Gazer, Massey manages to intrigue audiences in this exciting spy drama. Although based around events from the WWII era, the 1950 Top Secret is more of a Cold War artifact.
Ilona Massey became a naturalized United States citizen in 1946. Her last marriage was to US Army General Donald Dawson. Ilona retired from public life in the late 1950's but remained an important part of the Washington DC social scene until her death in 1974. Because of her husband's rank, Ilona Massey is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.