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Ursula Thiess-Brave Beauty

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Posted: Monday, March 28, 2011 12:00 am

Ursula Thiess came to Hollywood in 1951 as a celebrated beauty. She was a cover model for several magazines, including LIFE, and even was proclaimed, "The most beautiful woman in the world." While this was typical Hollywood hyperbole, there's no getting around the fact that she was an extremely beautiful woman. A studio contract followed, but actually her own idea of the greatest career of all was to simply be a wife and mother.

She was born Ursula Schmidt on May 15, 1924 in Hamburg, Germany. She had a warm relationship with her father, while her mother assumed the role of disciplinarian. It was a shock for the young Ursula when her father disappeared out of her life when she was only eleven. This remained a mystery to her until the day she overheard details of his having been sentenced to a year in prison for embezzlement.

To make ends meet Ursula and her mother had to give up their nice apartment in Hamburg for a more modest one they had to share with an elderly couple. Ursula, to help earn money for herself and her mother, got a job cleaning the apartment building where they lived.

The next big change in Ursula's life came when her mother got a divorce and then married a Shakespearean actor. The new stepfather had a drinking problem, but otherwise he got along well with his new family and added something extra: "He helped stimulate my acting ambition," Ursula later recalled. Every Christmas season he would help her get work in Christmas plays. This gave Ursula an important emotional outlet because she was basically a shy girl and acting gave her a chance to explore sides of her nature which she usually kept under wraps.

Ursula also greatly enjoyed watching movies. She would later recall the time she swooned over the love scenes in Camille when Greta Garbo was in the arms of an extremely handsome young actor named Robert Taylor.

At fifteen Ursula was forced to leave school due to the Nazi government's compulsory labor policies, forcing even young girls to enter the work force. She said she was given the choice of working six months on government owned properties and living in a dormitory, or serving a year as a farm hand. Without hesitating, she choose the latter because her extreme shyness made the prospect of living in a dormitory with a hundred other girls unthinkable.

When the year's term was up she returned to Hamburg and her mother. Now sixteen, she wanted to pursue her dream of being an actress. Auditioning at theaters all over the city, she invariably suffered from stage fright when her turn came to perform. She got the axe every time, until one day she auditioned for a committee of ten directors from various theaters. Once again, she felt she had failed, but when she returned home, she was informed by her mother that she had been accepted into a repertoire group within the Ohnsorg Theatre. She became the youngest member of the group, and soon the rest of the company was doting on the shy fraulein.

After about a year with the company Ursula met the man who would become her first husband, George Otto Thiess, called G.O. for short. Ursula was seduced by his charm and good looks which she later likened to "a cross between Clark Gable and Elvis Presley." Thiess would woo her before each performance by sending her a love note with a long-stemmed red rose, a precious commodity at the time. Being very young and impressionable she found this irresistible. At the height of their romance, Ursula had the opportunity to audition for a movie contract for Tobis Films, then an important studio in Germany. She was among twenty hopefuls out of 300 young women who were transported to Berlin for screen tests. Ursula was selected, but Thiess insisted that she put her career on hold and marry him. Obediently, that's what she did, but the marriage was a disaster blessed only by the saving grace of their children, Manuela and Michael. During the war Thiess was often away and when he was around, he was cruel. To make matters worse, Ursula and her children endured the hardships of war which included bombing raids and food shortages. By the war's end she was convinced she didn't want to remain married to Thiess, and they were divorced by 1947. Thiess offered Ursula no financial help so it was up to her to provide for her children. She resumed modeling and got jobs which included working as a voice actress dubbing American films into German.

It was through modeling that she caught the roving eye of the owner of RKO Radio Pictures, eccentric tycoon Howard Hughes, who brought Ursula to Hollywood and signed her to a studio contract. However, she had to leave Manuela and Michael behind in Germany with her mother. It was a hard and trying time for Ursula to be separated from her children, but she knew that if she could make it in Hollywood she would get her kids out war-torn Germany and give them with a better life in the States.

While in Hollywood, Ursula was put up at a hotel by the studio and underwent strenuous training. She was given a drama coach whose primary job was to Americanize her accent as much as possible. Ursula understood the importance of this: "I have always felt that struggling to understand someone, on or off the screen, can be rather laborious." One way Ursula increased her vocabulary was by memorizing nearly a hundred English words each night. She would set an alarm clock to wake her up every few hours to review more words. Since she was being paid during this training period, she sent as much money to her mother as possible. Within four months of her arrival she was on a plane for India to make her first movie, Monsoon, featuring handsome George Nader as her leading man. It was her appearance in this film that resulted in the ensuing publicity that labeled her "the most beautiful woman in the world" a sort of successor to Hedy Lamarr. The poster for Monsoon even blared the word "Ecstacy" an obvious reference to the notorious European movie containing a taboo nude swimming scene that would help make Hedy Lamarr a star. All this publicity attracted the attention of one of the biggest names in Hollywood.

MGM star Robert Taylor was making a movie in England when he saw a picture of Ursula in the paper. He was smitten, and when he came home he enlisted the help of Ursula's agent, Harry Friedman of MCA. Friedman telephoned Ursula and told her that Robert Taylor wanted to meet her for dinner and dancing. "Harry's telephone announcement that this world-renowned personality whom I had idolized for so many years would actually like to meet me, took me quite off-balance," she later recalled. Bob arrived at her apartment and when Ursula opened up the door, there he stood with a smile on his face followed by a simple introduction, "I'm Bob Taylor."

They enjoyed each other's company and unlike Taylor's first wife, Barbara Stanwyck, Ursula was game to try anything he did, including hunting, fishing and flying-all keenly enjoyed by her rugged outdoorsman husband. But while they did fall in love with one another, Ursula could tell that Taylor was gun-shy about getting married again. After about a year of dating she told him that she saw no future in their relationship and broke up with him. In truth, she did this to see if he would fight for her. As fate would have it, he had to go to Egypt to make Valley of the Kings, and this would give him lots of time to mull things over.

Ursula was keeping busy, too, playing a German countess opposite Robert Stack in The Iron Glove for Columbia. While in Egypt Taylor was writing Ursula nearly every day but, as he reported to his secretary, her lack of warmth indicated that "she's really made up her mind that the whole thing is over and is merely trying to convince me of the fact as quietly and as nicely as possible." He also told his secretary that he would prefer not to hear "off the cuff" news of any new boyfriends that Ursula might have because, "strangely enuf, [it] would upset me. And I'm upset enuf by being over here, without seeking additional sources of annoyance." Thanks to the ever-busy studio publicity machines, he did hear about other men in her love life, but in truth, Ursula was not seeing anybody seriously. She was still in love with Bob Taylor.

By this time Manuela was with Ursula, though Michael was still living with his grandmother in Germany. Taylor returned from Egypt and started doing some promotional events for Valley of the Kings in New York. Taylor called Ursula and requested the opportunity to get together and meet her daughter. When he arrived at Ursula's house to pick them up for their dinner date he presented Manuela with a car load of new toys. After dinner, when Manuela was tucked into bed, Bob and Ursula had a long talk, but Ursula was adamant-they could be friends, but that was all.

Around this time Taylor confidentially asked his secretary and good friend, Ivy Shelton, if he should marry Ursula. "If you don't, somebody else will," she told him. Taylor had already made up his mind. He brought out a ring and showed it to Ivy. "It was the biggest diamond I ever saw," she recalled. "I asked him if it was real!"

The next night, to Ursula's surprise, Taylor called her and asked if they could meet for dinner again. Ursula told him that she had dinner guests already, Oscar-winning cinematographer Ernie Haller and his wife. Bob knew the Hallers and was invited to join them. It was a plainly nervous Bob Taylor who came to dinner that night.

It turned out to be an early evening for the Hallers. They decided to leave because they could tell that Bob was preoccupied and obviously had something important to say to Ursula. Once the Haller's left, Bob brought out two packages. He had Ursula first open the larger one, containing expensive French perfume. He then nervously invited her to open the smaller package. When Ursula opened it she saw a "beautiful burst of diamonds" sparkling from an engagement ring. "I don't know what took me so long," he told her. "I guess it was my fear of another failure. Darling, would you marry this old goat?"

The official announcement of their engagement was made on April 30, 1954. Now that she had her man, Ursula was willing to let him handle all the wedding plans. It was Taylor who chose the date, May 24th, and the location, Jackson Lake, Wyoming the famous fishing mecca set amid the scenic grandeur of the Grand Teton mountains. The wedding party would include only two other people who served as witnesses. The first, Ivy Shelton, was emerging not only as a close friend of Bob's but Ursula's as well, and the second was Bob's friend and co-pilot, Ralph Crause. It was Crause who flew the wedding party to Wyoming, leaving Los Angeles in the predawn hours of May 24th.

On the ground in Wyoming, Bob and Ursula took care of last-minute preparations at the lodge, and then left with the wedding party for the lake. Bob decided that the perfect place to get married would be on a boat in the middle of the lake with the snow-capped Grand Tetons towering in the background.

Within minutes the ceremony was over and Ursula Thiess was now Mrs. Robert Taylor. The wedding party returned to the hotel where Bob immediately phoned his publicist and the news was released.

The couple would honeymoon on the location where Taylor was making another film with his frequent costar, Eleanor Parker, Many Rivers to Cross. Ursula was still working as an actress herself, but her goal was to get out of acting and devote herself to her husband and children. It was shortly after making the film Americano opposite a leading man she came to despise, Glenn Ford, that Ursula became pregnant with her third child, Taylor's first. Taylor was ecstatic when he heard the news. Ursula recalled that he "showered me with over-protection and love, of which I became a most willing recipient." Meanwhile she was also supervising the building of their first home together in Pacific Palisades. Shortly thereafter Michael arrived from Germany, so Ursula had both of her children with her, and another on the way.

It was while she was out at a movie theater with Manuela, watching Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, that Ursula began getting labor pains. Though the hospital was only a block away, Ursula made the decision to go home and let Bob drive her to the hospital. With bags packed and loaded into the car, Bob carefully drove his pregnant wife to St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica where Ursula gave birth to a healthy baby boy at 4:28 A.M. on June 18, 1955. They named him Terence, but came to call him Terry. After a suitable amount of time to regain her strength and figure, Ursula went on to make the final film she was contracted to do, Bandido with Robert Mitchum, whom she liked very much. She then announced her retirement to devote her time to her children and husband.

The family settled on a ranch in Mandeville Canyon and within three years a baby girl was added to the family. How she came into this world could be a considered a comedy of errors. On August 15, 1959, Taylor and Ursula were dining with their good friends Rory and Lita Calhoun, at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Ursula was well along with her pregnancy and due to give birth at any moment. Taylor sat nervously beside his wife, anxious to get back home early. While he wanted his expectant wife to get her rest, Ursula was enjoying the evening out, and was in no rush to go home. Finally, she consented and the Taylor's were off for the ranch. As they drove up the long lane to their house, they noticed that the horses seemed spooked. Taylor guessed it might be a mountain lion and grabbed his shotgun. After firing several shots, everything seemed quiet, so Taylor walked into the horse pasture with Ursula following.

Ursula couldn't suppress a laugh when they saw that it was only a skunk disturbing the horses. The little critter then decided it was his turn to laugh and immediately showered the pregnant woman with his pungent spray. Taylor luckily was spared being hit, and as he led Ursula back to the ranch house, she discovered that she was going into labor. With his wife radiating skunk fumes, Bob hurried her out of her clothes, doused her with tomato catsup, and then helped her bathe. Unfortunately the smell remained, but they had no choice but to get back in the car and hurry off to St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica. "The two ladies at the admissions desk looked at each other in utter disbelief," Ursula recalled, "but let me register just the same, while cautiously backing away from the odor. Finally I found my room and bed and started labor without restraint."

With this farce came a very special gift, a baby girl born in the early morning hours of March 16th. There was at first a scare when it appeared the baby's heart had stopped beating, but soon she was breathing normally on her own. She was named Tessa, after the character from the book Tess of the Storm Country, which Taylor had read as a child. Close family friends Ronald and Nancy Reagan became her godparents.

These were lovely years for the Taylor family. Though she had given up acting, Ursula did return, but only to work with her husband on his new TV series, The Detectives, after it was decided that Taylor's tough police captain needed a love interest. But most of all, Ursula enjoyed the life she and Taylor led on their ranch with their children.

Not that there weren't challenges. Both of Ursula's children with George Thiess had problems. Manuela, almost as beautiful as her mother, got into trouble with alcohol and drugs, but ultimately got her life turned around and became a model and actress like her mother. It was Michael who had the hardest time adjusting. Ultimately the decision was made to send him back to Germany to live with Ursula's mother. It was a painful decision, but one Ursula felt would be in his best interest. Sadly, he got into more trouble and was arrested under suspicion of trying to poison his father, George Thiess.

Her marriage, at least, was solid. Ursula gave Bob an emotional fulfillment lacking in his earlier years. "I've never known such complete happiness as I have since I've been married to Ursula," he told Hedda Hopper. "She's a really attractive woman . . . She's so self-sufficient. Nothing seems to upset or worry her. She's well-adjusted. She can be alone or with people. I've never seen her in a situation she was unable to handle in a quiet sort of way."

She did her best to learn and enjoy Bob's hobbies with him. "To this day, I don't know how sincerely she enjoyed hunting, fishing and riding with him," Terry Taylor later said, but if she didn't like these things, she did a great job hiding it.

In 1968 their idyllic days came to an end. Taylor's years of chain smoking finally caught up with him when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. His doctors removed a lung but the prognosis was grim, and Ursula became a full-time care giver for her dying husband. Not only did Ursula have to deal with her husband's mortality and care for her youngest children, but the heartbreaking tragedy of her oldest son, only got worse.

Michael, now back in the United States, became more irrational and even attempted suicide. He entered a hospital and when he emerged he seemed much better and talked of getting his life back together. Then in May of 1969, Michael, while staying at a hotel close to his new job, died from an overdose. It was Ursula who discovered the body.

Taylor wished there was more he could do for his wife, but he was back in hospital and the end was near. He hoped to die at his ranch, but the overwhelming burden of dealing with a dying man who needed almost constant care became too much for Ursula.

On June 7, 1969 it was made public that Robert Taylor was dying. Close friend Nancy Reagan immediately flew down from the governor's mansion in Sacramento to keep Ursula company for a few hours. "Ursula was amazing during that time, dealing not only with Bob's terrible illness but the devastating loss of her son at almost the same time," Nancy later recalled. "She was tireless in her devotion to Bob." When she left to return to Sacramento, Nancy stepped outside the room and was in the hospital corridor when she suddenly felt an urge to turn around and see Bob one last time. "I returned to his room and kissed him on the cheek." Ursula stayed by her dying husband's side. Bob opened his eyes once more and told Ursula, "Mutti, I love you," before slipping quietly and painlessly into his final coma. Bob died at ten in the morning on June 8th with Ursula still holding him in her arms.

The years following Taylor's death were hard ones for Ursula even though she had her friends and her children. Eventually, due to mounting bills she had to sell the beloved ranch. Often, she would go out on her horse to be alone with her thoughts. She spent time painting, and became a skilled artist.

In 1974 she remarried Marshall Schacker, an international film distributor. They proved a good match and it was a happy union until his death from cancer twelve years later. In the meantime Ursula also had a health scare of her own and underwent surgery for a benign brain tumor in 1979. She made a good recovery and was soon volunteering at UCLA's Children's Hospital, which she did for a number of years. She was on hand when, in 1994, the state of Nebraska honored her late husband, Robert Taylor, with a highway named in his honor near his hometown of Beatrice. In 2004 she published her autobiography, ". . . but I have promises to keep: My Life Before, With and After Robert Taylor."

Ursula passed away on June 19, 2010 at an assisted living facility near the home of her daughter Tessa in Burbank, California. She was 86. A shy girl from a troubled background, she matured into a strong and caring woman who had to weather more than her share of the storms of life. While few today remember her film career, the story of her life remains an inspiration to all who knew her.

Editor's Note: Charles Tranberg is the author of books on Agnes Moorehead, Marie Wilson, Fred MacMurray, The Thin Man Films and the upcoming, Robert Taylor, A Biography all published by Bear Manor Media. (www.bearmanormedia.com)