Olga Chekhova (also Olga Tschechova in German), one of the most popular stars of the silent film era, remained a mysterious person throughout her life and was accused of being a Russian agent in Nazi Germany.
She was born Olga Konstantinovna von Knipper on April 26, 1897, in Aleksandropol, Transcaucasia, Russian Empire (now Gyumri, Armenia). She was the second of 3 children in a bilingual Russian-German family. Her father, Konstantin Leonardovich Knipper, a Lutheran of German descent. He made a military career in Russia as a railroad engineer. Young Olga studied art and literature at an art school in St. Petersburg. Later as an immigrant in Germany she claimed friendship with the family of Tsar Nicholas II--who also was of German origin--and that she had encountered the notorious Russian mystic and monk, Grigory Rasputin. In reality, she was sent from St. Petersburg to Moscow to her aunt, actress Olga Knipper-Chekhova, to study acting at Moscow Art Theatre. In 1914, at age 17, she eloped with Russian-Jewish actor Michael Chekhov, nephew of Anton Chekhov.
Olga adored her husband, Michael Chekhov, a rising star of stage and film. But he met another beauty, Xenia Zimmer, and became involved in extramarital affair while Olga was pregnant with their child. Their daughter, Ada Tschechowa, was born in 1916. Olga separated from Michael Chekhov during the tragic time of the Russian Revolution in 1917. That same year she made her film debut in a Russian silent film, Anya Kraeva (1917).
Olga claimed that she fled Russia disguised as a peasant woman and posed as a mute while carrying a diamond ring in her mouth. In reality she married an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, Friedrich Jaroshi, and took a train from the Moscow Belorussky station to Vienna, Austria, having travel documents from the Russian Commissar of Culture (and she was also helped by the Russian intelligence agency in exchange for her cooperation). She was later invited to the Soviet Embassy in Berlin for meetings with Soviet officials. In Germany she was introduced to film producer Erich Pommer and renowned director F.W. Murnau, who gave her a leading role in his film, The Haunted Castle (1921). She quickly became a huge star in Europe and played in more than 40 silent films during the decade. Olga was joined by ex-husband Michael Chekhov in several films, including Der Narr seiner Liebe (1929) (aka "The Fool of Love"), which she also directed.
Future Nazi leader Adolf Hitler reportedly fell for Olga upon seeing her cold and beautiful face in several films in the 1920s. She was famous for her movie image as a baroness and was courted in the 1930s by Luftwaffe boss Hermann Göring and by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. Some wives of high-ranking Nazi officials were jealous of and hated the beautiful Olga. Goebbels was known to have visited her home on several occasions when he wanted to be away from his Nazi "activities". He invited Olga to several Nazi receptions and introduced her to Adolf Hitler in April 1933. Olga became a personal friend of Hitler and was photographed sitting next to "Der Fuhrer" at official events of the Nazi Party. She also received valuable Christmas gifts from Hitler, and regular birthday presents and other tokens of his attention.
In 1936 Olga was honored with the title of "State Actress" of the Third Reich and was made a German citizen. She married a wealthy Belgian businessman, Marcel Robyns. One day prior to the wedding she had a private reception with Hitler, who gave her permission to retain her German citizenship. Two years later she divorced Robyns and returned to her high-society life in Berlin. Her famous 1939 photo-op with Hitler was thoroughly analyzed in Moscow.
She was invited by Soviet officials to join Hermann Göring and Joachim von Ribbentrop at the meeting with Vyacheslav Molotov and Gen. V. N. Merkulov at the Soviet Embassy in Berlin in 1940. At that time Olga was associated with her agent-brother Lev Knipper, who was sent from Moscow to Germany on a secret mission to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The plan was to use one of Olga's visits with Hitler for a suicide attack on the Fuhrer. Olga was kept oblivious of the plan, which was aborted by an order from Joseph Stalin, who became paranoid about the possibility of Germany's alliance with Britain if Hitler was killed. Interestingly, Stalin and Hitler were both amateur film directors in the 1920s, but as dictators they now directed the course of history.
Olga was invited by Josef Goebbels to the official reception in Berlin in July of 1941, only a month after the Nazis invaded Russia and Luftwaffe bombings caused massive devastation to Russian cities. Goebbels announced the planned occupation of Moscow.
She was being investigated by the SS on orders from SS leader Heinrich Himmler. She was constantly under surveillance by both Nazi and Soviet agents in her Berlin home. As the war progressed and conditions got progressively worse for the Nazi regime, party bosses became increasingly paranoid. Himmler was planning to arrest her in January of 1945. One early morning she was informed of Himmler's move. She immediately called him directly with a request for a favor--to let her finish her morning cup of coffee comfortably. When SS commandos surrounded her home Himmler opened her door and was met by an angry Adolf Hitler, who in no uncertain terms informed Himmler that he had made a mistake.
Olga was a beautiful pawn in a dangerous game between the two most destructive powers in the Second World War. She survived through acting, cheating, lying and disguise. She protected her daughter Ada from Nazi anti-Semitism by hiding the fact that her ex-husband, Michael Chekhov, was Jewish. Her brother Lev Knipper was held in a Nazi concentration camp and managed to survive because of his perfect German (and probably with her help). During the savage battle for Berlin just before the war's end, Olga hid in a bomb shelter and was eventually taken prisoner by the Red Army. She was flown to Moscow in April of 1945, for debriefing at the offices of Soviet secret police officials Viktor Abakumov and Lavrenti Beria. She discreetly attended the Moscow Art Theatre performance of "The Cherry Orchard" starring her aunt Olga Knipper-Chekhova in May of 1945. They were not allowed to talk and her aunt Olga fainted backstage.
After two months of interrogations in Moscow, on June 26, 1945, Olga was flown back to Berlin, where she was assisted by the Soviet Army. She was given money and moved in to a Soviet-supervised house on Spree Strasse in the Soviet sector of East Berlin. Several articles in the French and British presses stated that she was a clandestine agent and secretly decorated by the Soviet government. She praised the Russian victory over the Nazis in a private letter to her aunt Olga Knipper-Chekhova. Meanwhile, the film she made in Hollywood turned out to be a flop in the US market, mainly because of her heavy Russian accent.
She continued a film career in Europe and ran her own film production company, Venus-Film Olga Tschechowa. In 1950 she moved to Munich and starred in several films. In 1955 she used her star power to launch a successful cosmetics company, "Olga Tscheschowa Kosmetik Geselschaft." Her remarkable acting career, spanning almost 60 years, ended in 1978, with a small film role as a grandmother.
Her personal file was temporarily available for viewing at the KGB archives in Moscow. One report on her was prepared and signed by the notoriously brutal KGB chief Viktor S. Abakumov. On that report a handwritten question was left by a reader in Kremlin: "What do you suggest to be done with Ms. Chekhova?", the handwriting was by Joseph Stalin. Stalin was quoted as having said, "The actress Olga Chekhova will be very useful in the post-war years", and she probably was. One of her films was titled The Man Who Wanted to Live Twice (1950), or "The Man Who Wanted to Live Two Lives"--and that was exactly what she did.
In 1955, Olga was saddened by the death of Michael Chekhov. In 1966, Olga suffered from another tragedy: her only daughter Ada died in an airplane crash. Devastated by the painful loss, Olga suffered from bouts of depression and turned to alcohol, but she survived thanks to her strong will and lust for life. She lived for another fifteen years, played a few more roles in the movies, and saw her great-grandchildren grow. Moments before she died, sensing the end was near, she ordered a glass of champagne from her granddaughter Vera Tschechowa. That was March 9, 1980, in Munich, Germany.
Her last words were, "Life is beautiful!"