Spoli Mills

Actress daughter of Mischa Spoliansky
Click to follow

Irmgard Spoliansky, actress: born Berlin 5 September 1923; married 1944 Tony Kelly (died 1953; one son), 1956 Major Paul Mills (died 1997; one son); died London 11 March 2004.

Spoli Mills was a one-time actress, a confidante and friend to such diverse celebrities as Marlene Dietrich, Ava Gardner and Dame Edna Everage, and the eldest daughter of the distinguished composer Mischa Spoliansky.

In her later life, Mills devoted much of her time to creating the definitive indexed catalogue of her father's work. Many of his original film scores, including North West Frontier (1959) and Otto Preminger's Saint Joan (1957), she donated to the music department at York University. Other material was given to the Berlin Academy of Arts. She was instrumental in reviving Spoliansky's 1931 musical comedy Send for Mr Plim at the Battersea Arts Centre in 1999; it was warmly received and has since been restaged at theatres throughout Europe, including a production at the Covent Garden Festival in 2000 and a broadcast in 2001 on BBC Radio 3. But Mills's proudest moment was in unearthing and editing Spoliansky's autobiography, which he had haphazardly been writing in fits and starts for some 20 years. Shortly before her death, she learned that a German publisher will bring the book out this summer and an English translation is set to follow.

She was born Irmgard Spoliansky in Berlin in 1924 - she hated the name Irmgard, and would answer only to "Spoli". With the rise of Hitler Mischa Spoliansky, who had already been forced to flee his native Russia, had to take refuge yet again and in 1933 the family moved to England. Almost immediately he was taken up by the flamboyant film-maker Alexander Korda and commissioned to write the scores of Sanders of the River and The Ghost Goes West (both 1935) for London Films.

While still a schoolgirl at Sarum Hall in north-west London, Spoli would accompany her father to the studios where her pretty blonde looks resulted in walk-on parts in several films. The Hungarian-born Korda decided that the German-born teenager was a "typical English rose". This slightly bemused her family and they were even more perplexed when she was given her first role - in The Thief of Bagdad (1940). "I think it was the first time I heard the phrase 'identity crisis'," she said later.

A brief period followed as a nurse during the early years of the Second World War, a calling she managed to double up with appearances in amateur stage productions. "As a nurse I was an unmitigated disaster," she admitted. "I passed out when I assisted at my first operation. And the poor chap was only in for an impacted wisdom tooth."

Her imperfect English proved a blessing when she landed a major role with the Viennese actor and fellow refugee Anton Walbrook in a West End production of Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine in 1942. The piece ran for many years at the Aldwych Theatre. It was during this time that Spoli met Tony Kelly, a dashing RAF bomber pilot who was to become her first husband.

Their courtship was cut short when Kelly was posted to India. Communication would have been all but impossible had it not been for General Bernard Montgomery, later Field Marshal Montgomery of Alamein, who went backstage at the Aldwych one evening to meet the cast. He revealed he was going to India and was there anything he could take there for anyone? Spoli gave him a letter, which was duly delivered. "I am convinced this is what clinched the marriage," she said later. "Tony must have reasoned if I could get field marshals to run errands for me then he was on to a good thing."

Tony Kelly returned from the war a squadron leader and Spoli now devoted her life to being wife and mother; their son Christopher was born in 1947. This idyllically happy marriage ended tragically when Kelly, working as an assistant director on the Dana Andrews film Duel in the Jungle (1954), disappeared while shooting second-unit footage along the Zambesi in Rhodesia. When the boat overturned, the other two crew members were able to swim to safety but Kelly, although the strongest swimmer of them all, disappeared in the water. It is thought he was trying to save the camera equipment and many theories were offered for the disappearance - the most fearful being that he had been taken by crocodiles. No body was ever found.

Spoli's second husband was Major Paul Mills, who had fought with distinction at Monte Cassino, where he had been severely wounded. On leaving the Army, he took a job in charge of publicity and public relations for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer at their studios in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire. They married in 1956 and from then until his death in 1997, their London home became open house for guests from around the world. Many were Mischa Spoliansky's fellow exiles from Germany and Austria, among them the actors Conrad Veidt, Paul Henreid, Albert Lieven and the tenor Richard Tauber, whom Spoliansky had accompanied at the piano in happier days. Paul Robeson was another welcome face.

One of the most frequent visitors was the actress Marlene Dietrich, who had begun her career as a violinist accompanied by Spoliansky in the early days of Berlin cabaret. He had written several of her songs. As her health - and fortunes - declined, she was unable to leave her Paris home so, every other week, Spoli Mills would fly out to her house on the Avenue Montaigne bearing food, gifts and what Dietrich prized most - news from the outside world.

A great friend to the end was Barry Humphries, creator of Dame Edna Everage and a long-time admirer of her father. So was the actor Roger Lloyd Pack, whose mother had been a fellow refugee.

In 1955 Paul Mills went to India to work on the George Cukor film Bhowani Junction and a new name was added to their guest list - Ava Gardner. The Hollywood star and Spoli became particularly close friends and confidantes. "So confidante," Spoli said, "it was bloody alarming on occasions." Among her possessions was a box of letters from Gardner, which would have any tabloid journalist foaming at the mouth, particularly the letters covering the Sinatra years. Spoli's younger son, Gregory, remembers Ava Gardner with affection. When she stayed overnight unexpectedly, she would regularly share his bed. Though he was only four at the time, this gave him a certain notoriety among the kindergarten chattering classes.

One of Spoli Mills's favourite anecdotes concerned the day she was returning home and found her eccentric father standing, rather sheepishly, in the subway at Hyde Park Corner. On the ground beside him was a flat cap containing a few coins. When she asked what he thought he was doing, he explained that the harmonica player who usually stood there had gone for a drink and he was keeping an eye on the pitch. "But why you?" his daughter pressed.

"He's a fellow musician," her father replied.

Bill Edwards