Actress Kim Novak turned 90 years old this week, and she remains one of the most famous Hollywood stars of Czech heritage. Her Czech connection will be obvious for many in the modern-day Czech Republic – Novák is the most common surname in Bohemia – but she had to fight studio executives to keep it.
Kim Novak was born Marilyn Pauline Novak in Chicago on February 13, 1933. Both of her parents were also born in Chicago to Czech emigrants (her mother’s maiden name was Kral), making her heritage entirely Czech.
While attending college at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Novak worked as a model; after college, she went to Los Angeles with a pair of friends to try to break into the movie business. As Marilyn Novak, she appeared as an extra in films like The French Line and Son of Sinbad.
At the age of 21 in 1954, she signed a contract with Columbia Pictures and legendarily ruthless executive Harry Cohn, who wanted her to become the studio’s next Rita Hayworth.
“He used everything he had; even the way his office was set up with this throne in it, and everyone else sat way lower than he did so you had this man looking down at you,” Novak told the Washington Post of Cohn in 1996.
“Who could forget him? What he really had was a good instinct for finding the right movies. When he died, nobody really knew what to do.”
Cohn insisted on a name change for Novak. She couldn’t keep her first name with Marilyn Monroe being the biggest sex symbol in the world at the time, and her surname sounded too foreign. So the studio chose a new name for her: Kit Marlowe.
“The first time I was in his office was when they called me in to tell me they had changed my name,” Novak recalled.
“I had a feeling that if I’d gone along with the name they’d chosen, I’d never be seen again. I’d be swallowed up by that name, because it was a false name, Kit Marlowe.”
But Novak fought to retain part of her identity, and her Czech surname — which Cohn incorrectly identified as Polish.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to change my family name.’ Harry Cohn said, ‘Well, nobody’s going to go see a girl with a Polak name.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m Czech, but Polish, Czech, no matter, it’s my name.’”
Novak ultimately won out, and retained her Czech name. They settled on a compromise of Kim instead of Kit for her first name; Novak felt Kit was too close to “kitten.”
The following year, Kim Novak became a household name after starring in the box office hit Picnic, which earned her a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer. She would go on to become one of the most sought-after actresses in Hollywood after starring in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (pictured at top) in 1959.
By 1966, however, Novak became burned out by show business and semi-retired, only sporadically appearing on film and TV over the coming decades. She didn’t forget the stage name Cohn attempted to foist on her, and appeared as a character named Kit Marlowe on the primetime soap opera Falcon’s Crest in the 1980s.
In 2015, Kim Novak traveled to the Czech Republic when she was awarded at the Prague film festival Febiofest. She told Právo that she first visited Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, when she stayed with some relatives for a single night. While she didn’t know where her family originally came from, she traced some ancestry to a small village named Tukleky, outside of Písek.
Novak added that she went to Czech school after regular school as a young girl in Chicago, but didn’t remember much of the language. She did keep at least one Czech tradition, however, and still regularly makes dumplings (knedlíky).
“My mom taught me how to make them,” she told Právo. “I prefer the potato ones.”
“I married an Irish husband who likes them very much. When we were having dinner at a restaurant in Prague, he told me ‘these dumplings are not as good as yours.’ That made me very happy.”