Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A French Connection

Posted by Ann Rabinowitz


Presently, the Off-Broadway St. Luke’s Theater is hosting “Dietrich & Chevalier: The Musical” which tells the story of the purported relationship between the two great stars, Marlene Dietrich and Maurice Chevalier.

Mentioned in the musical is the wife of Maurice Chevalier, Nita Ray, a French actress, singer and dancer, who was Jewish.
One of the Blog readers, Linda Cantor, who attended a performance of the musical, asked me to find out more about Nita Ray. Apparently, she was unfamiliar with her as were many other theater-goers.

Nita Raya

Evidently, she played an important role in the life of Chevalier. It was said that it was Ray who was perhaps the reason Chevalier may have been blackmailed by the Nazis into performing for them during World War II. According to some sources, his “collaboration” was the result of trying to protect her and her parents and provide a secure hiding place and false papers for them.


With this in mind, I decided to start my research with who she was with Google.com. There, I found a number of references to her, not all of which corresponded to each other.

Generally, it can be stated that Nita Ray met Chevalier when she was nineteen in 1934. She married him in 1937 after his divorce from actress Yvonne Vallee. They lived together in Cannes, France. In turn, Nita and Chevalier were divorced in 1946.


Wanting more information which I thought might be in French, I contacted Eve Line Blum, a French researcher I have known for some years. She reported back to me that Nita Raya (not Ray) was the correct stage name in France for Raya Jerkovitch, the wife of Chevalier. She was born on October 15, 1915 in Kishinev, Romania, in what is now Chisinau, Moldova.

I had looked at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) which is usually a good source for information on performers. In this case, it only had Nita Raya’s name, birth date and birthplace. However, Eve Line was able to direct me to a complete listing of Nita Raya’s career performances on the French site called Les Gens du Cinema.

She made her first performance in 1933 in “Primrose”. Fortunately, YouTube provides a number of extracts from her later films which she appeared in. For instance, in 1937, she can be seen in a dancing and singing performance with famed French star Fernandel and actor Andrex in “La Mexicana

She appeared again with Fernandel in the film “Ignace” which was her most memorable performance.


Poster, Nita Raya, “Ignace”, 1937

She carried on until 1939 where she is seen with well-known French actress Paulette Dubost in the film “Becassine” which was based on a well-known French cartoon character. An extract of the film can be seen here.

Due to the War, there is a large gap in her career. She was not heard from again until her last recorded performance in 1953 in “La rafle est pour ce soir”, where she appeared with French star Blanchette Brunoy.

My next step after finding the data on Nita Raya’s career was to go to the front page of JewishGen. There I looked at the JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF) . Unfortunately, there were no individuals who were researching either the Raya or Jerkovitch family names on the JewishGen Family Finder. So, I was unable to locate who her family might be that way.


Looking again on the front page of JewishGen, I chose FAMILY NAME/ROMANIA and up popped loads of families with the name YURKOVITCH. It is possible that this is the same as JERKOVITCH. Many of these families lived in Soroki, Moldova. Other records showed the name IURCEVETCHI and JURCOVICI. It appears that there are lots of possible alternative spellings then for JERKOVITCH which is often the case when searching for family records.

As a final tantalizing tidbit about Nita Raya, there was even a mention on a resource on Google.com regarding the fact that she might still be alive at the venerable age of ninety-five. I did not find anything regarding her death, so it might be true. If so, perhaps she or one of her descendants will read this posting and respond and confirm the facts of her life and her family.

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