Aristocracy and avant-garde ballet, high fashion and horror films, Jazz Age Paris and disco-era New York all improbably met in the impeccably chic person of Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, born on this day in 1904.
In the second act of his life, Gunzburg would be a stately fixture of top US magazines Town and Country, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, with Coco Chanel, Noel Coward and Cole Porter among his friends. When he died in 1981, his funeral was attended by acolytes including fashion designers Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta as well as Calvin Klein, who called Gunzburg the greatest inspiration of his life.
But before all this the baron was a leading light of between-the-wars Paris high society, an extravagant host and patron to Nijinsky. This period climaxed in 1932 with his most unusual role, when Gunzburg co-produced and starred (under the pseudonym Julian West) in the early horror film Vampyr.
Shot on location near Paris in French, German and English, Vampyr was directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, famous for the 1928 cinematic masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc. It tells, in a rambling and highly atmospheric manner, the story of a young man, Allan Gray (quite possibly an allusion to Dorian Gray), on a mission to free a village from a vampire’s curse.
Gunzburg’s performance was not met with universal acclaim; critical consensus suggested none of the vampires in the film sucked as much as he did. And those who panned it never failed to connect the baron’s starring role with the fact that he had ponied up the dough. The film was a commercial and critical failure, killing Gunzburg’s acting career stone dead and giving Dreyer a nervous breakdown.
Time has been kinder to Vampyr. It’s no mere vanity project, rather a strange, compelling, moody piece of expressionistic dread. True, Gunzburg does act is if receiving directions through an earpiece, but it’s oddly appropriate to the mood. Vampyr is now widely recognised as an early classic of film horror.