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Lilli Palmer

1914 – 1986

by Jennifer Marston William

“There was never any doubt in my mind that I would become an actress,” Lilli Palmer wrote in her autobiography. Defying the wish of her physician father Alfred Peiser (d. 1934) that she study medicine, Palmer fulfilled her own prophecy by following instead in the footsteps of her mother, actor Rose Lissmann. Palmer became not only a prominent actor in numerous successful plays, films and television programs, but also a painter and an author of both fiction and non-fiction.

Lilli Peiser was the middle daughter born to an assimilated Jewish family in Posen, Germany (now Poznan, Poland) on May 24, 1914. She had two sisters, Irene (?) and Hilde (b. 1921). As she later wrote in her memoirs, she was reminded in her childhood only once a year that she was Jewish, when she was discouraged from participating in the school Christmas play. But she acted in many other performances at the Open Air School in Berlin-Grunewald—where she already took the stage name of Palmer, who was a friend and colleague of her mother—and secured a contract with the well-reputed Darmstadt State Theater upon graduation from drama school. After Hitler came to power in 1933 Palmer soon faced grave reminders of her Jewish heritage. Her recently negotiated two-year contract with the Frankfurt Playhouse was cancelled. Branded a “non-Aryan” she came near to being arrested by local Nazi authorities during a performance in Darmstadt. After a harrowing opening before rows of Storm Troopers, Palmer was spared at the last minute when they learned of the World War I Iron Cross medal earned by her father, who was at this point serving as chief surgeon at Berlin’s largest Jewish hospital.

These events forced Palmer into exile, the first year of which she spent in Paris. Hindered by linguistic, cultural and bureaucratic barriers, Palmer and her sister Irene barely scraped by with performances at the Moulin Rouge and at nightclubs. But Palmer was able to establish connections that led to a screen test in London, where she landed a part in her first film, Crime Unlimited (1935). Soon she signed a contract with the Gaumont-British film company and after various hurdles in obtaining work permits in England she was eventually granted a permanent permit, lending some security to her life in exile.

In London Palmer met one of her greatest influences, Elsa Schreiber, considered by many to be a mediocre actor but a marvelous acting teacher. Schreiber taught her the subtleties of refining a character and a script—a method which later brought Palmer into conflict with some of her directors—and helped Palmer with her roles for years to come.

Palmer married actor and frequent co-star Rex Harrison (1908–1990) in 1943 and had their son, Carey, in 1944. The family narrowly survived air-raid bombings during wartime in England. They moved to Hollywood in November 1945 for Harrison’s role in Anna and the King of Siam. Palmer quickly resumed her career with the lead role opposite Gary Cooper in Cloak and Dagger, amid heated disputes with émigré director Fritz Lang (1890–1976) that nearly caused her to withdraw from filming. With such films as Body and Soul (1947), My Girl Tisa (1948) and No Minor Vices (1948), Palmer continued to make a name for herself in Hollywood, where she was eventually immortalized with a star on the “Walk of Fame.”

After a scandal involving the 1948 suicide of Harrison’s lover, actor Carole Landis, Palmer and Harrison moved to New York and sought work on Broadway. Palmer quickly revived her reputation with such successes as George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra (1949) and, starring with Harrison, John van Druten’s Bell, Book and Candle (1950). Harrison and Palmer divorced in 1957, and Palmer married Argentine movie star and writer Carlos Thompson (1923–1990) the following year.

When Palmer returned to Germany to make the film Fireworks (1953) she realized her German had grown rusty during her prolonged absence: she did not know the technical terms for making movies in German. In addition, she struggled with being back in her home country for the first time since 1933 and was haunted by the question “What did a former Nazi party member look like today?” (Change Lobsters—and Dance 257). Palmer made several more German films, including Devil in Silk (1956), Anastasia: The Czar's Last Daughter (1956), Between Time and Eternity (1956) and Tempestuous Love (1957). She won the Berlin Film Festival’s best actress award for the drama Devil in Silk in 1956, three years after winning the Venice Film Festival’s Volpi Cup for The Four Poster.

Palmer once noted that she wanted to be remembered simply as a person who had led an interesting life (Huebner, 235). The varied activities undertaken in the last few decades of her life only increased her chances of this commemoration. She began to pursue more seriously her hobby of painting, even receiving advice and encouragement from the renowned painter Oskar Kokoschka. An exhibit at London’s Tooth Gallery showcased twenty-five of Palmer’s paintings, most of which were sold on the spot. Palmer also displayed her writing talents in a witty and best-selling autobiography, Change Lobsters—and Dance, as well as four novels and a short-story collection.

Gradually decelerating her movie-making, Palmer began work in another popular medium: television. In 1972 she acted in a German comedy, “A Woman Remains a Woman” (Eine Frau bleibt eine Frau), for which she won a Golden Camera award. She also did much of the show’s writing under the pseudonym of her grandfather’s name, Herrmann Lissmann. Palmer soon became a familiar television personality, hosting a talk show with Dick Cavett in 1979 and conducting a candid interview with German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in 1982. In 1987 she received a posthumous Golden Globe nomination for her supporting part in the American mini-series Peter the Great. Despite her fame in many diverse areas, resulting in occasional mud-slinging from the press, Palmer always made time for her fans, whose books she happily autographed.

In May 1985, as she worked fervently on her final book, When the Nightbird Cries, Palmer hid her diagnosis of abdominal cancer from friends and family. She died in Carlos Thompson’s arms in Los Angeles on January 27, 1986, having left her mark as an accomplished actor of stage and screen, painter, and writer.

1935 Crime Unlimited

1936 First Offence

Secret Agent

1937 Secrets of the Stars

Good Morning, Boys

The Great Barrier

Sunset in Vienna

1938 Crackerjack

1939 A Girl Must Live

Blind Folly

1940 The Door with Seven Locks

1942 Thunder Rock

1943 The Gentle Sex

English without Tears

1945 The Rake’s Progress

1946 Beware of Pity

Cloak and Dagger

1947 Body and Soul

1948 My Girl Tisa

No Minor Vices

1949 Hans le Marin

1951 The Long Dark Hall

Pictura: Adventures in Arts

1952 The Four Poster

1953 Main Street to Broadway

Feuerwerk (Fireworks)

1956 Teufel in Seide (Devil in Silk)

Anastasia—Die letzte Zarentochter (Anastasia: The Czar's Last Daughter)

Zwischen Zeit und Ewigkeit (Between Time and Eternity)

1957 Wie ein Sturmwind (Tempestuous Love)

Der gläserne Turm (The Glass Tower)

Montparnasse 19

1958 Eine Frau, die weiß, was sie will (A Woman Who Knows What She Wants)

Mädchen in Uniform (Girl in Uniform)

La vie à deux (Life as a Couple)

1959 But Not For Me

Conspiracy of Hearts

1960 Frau Warrens Gewerbe (Mrs. Warren’s Profession)

The Pleasure of His Company

The Counterfeit Traitor

1961 Frau Cheneys Ende (The End of Mrs. Cheney)

Le rendez-vous de minuit (Rendezvous at Midnight)

Julia, du bist zauberhaft (Adorable Julia)

Finden Sie, daß Constanze sich richtig verhält?

L’Amour difficile (Of Wayward Love)


1963 The Miracle of the White Stallion

Beta Som (Torpedo Bay)

Das große Liebesspiel (And So to Bed)

1964 Le grain de sable (The Circular Triangle)

1965 Operation Crossbow

The Amourous Adventures of Moll Flanders

Le tonnerre de dieu (The Thunder of God)

1966 Der Kongreß amüsiert sich (Congress of Love)

Zwei Girls vom roten Stern (An Affair of States)

Le voyage du père

1967 Jack of Diamonds


Oedipus the King

1968 Paarungen (The Dance of Death)

Nobody Runs Forever

Hard Contract

1970 The Other Side of the Wind

Le peau de torpedo (Only the Cool)

De Sade

La residenica (The House that Screamed)

1971 Hauser’s Memory

Night Hair Child

Murder in the Rue Morgue

Lotte in Weimar

The Boys from Brazil

1972 Diabólica malicia (Child of the Night)

1982 Feine Gesellschaft—Beschränkte Haftung (High Society Limited)

1985 The Holcroft Covenant


1932– Contract with Darmstadt State Theater


1936 The Road to Gandahar, London

1938 Little Ladyship, London

1939 The Captain’s Lamp, London

You of All People, Birmingham

1941 No Time for Comedy, various cities in England and Scotland

1949 My Name is Aquilon, New York

Cesar and Cleopatra, New York

1950 Anta Album—The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, New York

Bell, Book and Candle, New York

1952 Venus Observed

1953 The Love of Four Colonels, various cities in the U.S. and Canada

1954 Bell, Book and Candle, London

1966 Suits in Three Keys, London

1981 Sarah in America, Washington, D.C.

1984 Whose Life Is It Anyway? Vienna

Television Appearances

1967 Zwischenstationen mit Lilli Palmer

1971 Anneliese Rothenberger gibt sich die Ehre

Der Kommissar

1972 Eine Frau bleibt eine Frau

1973 Eine Frau bleibt eine Frau

Lilli Palmer präsentiert Opernstars

1974 The Zoo Gang

1976 Stars in der Manege

1977 Das ist ihr Leben—Lilli Palmer

1978 Eine Frau bleibt eine Frau

1979 Eine Frau bleibt eine Frau

Dick Cavett und Lilli Palmer: Zwei Stars über Stars Samstagsklub

1980 Weekend

1981 Kinder

Heut’ abend

1982 Helmut Schmidt-unpolitisch

Heut’ abend

Unglaubliche Freunde

Eine etwas sonderbare Dame

1984 Love Boat (guest-starred as a best-selling author named Lilli)

1986 Peter the Great


1974 Dicke Lilli—Gutes Kind

1976 Change Lobsters, and Dance

Der rote Rabe

1978 The Red Raven

1979 Umarmen hat seine Zeit (Time to Embrace)

1981 Nachtmusik (Night Music)

1984 Um eine Nasenlänge (Face Value)

1986 Wenn der Nachtvogel schreit (When the Nightbird Cries)


Huebner, Michael O. Lilli Palmer. Ihre Filme—ihr Leben. Munich: 1986.
Details the life and films of Lilli Palmer, and includes a complete filmography.

Palmer, Lilli. Change Lobsters—and Dance. New York: 1975.

The English version (though not a direct translation) of Palmer’s German autobiography Dicke Lilli—Gutes Kind.

Weno, Joachim. Lilli Palmer. Berlin: 1957.

Early biography of Lilli Palmer.

More on Lilli Palmer


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Irène Prador (1911-1996), Lilli Palmer's sister. I met her a couple of times in London in the 60s.

yes, Lilli is the greatest of them all I knew her always once in a while - from films. But then, one day, a book stared straight at me. In the library, of course, and it was great fun to read "Change lobsters.." Does evryone know, she wrote the German AND the English version all by herself? Full of wonders, that woman was.

What an erudite, succinct and fascinating style Jennifer Marston William has, as evinced by this marvelous mini-biography of the magnificent and consummate actress Lilli Palmer; this relating her life-story in a honest-to-goodness manner, and answering a lot of questions (for me, anyway), as to what made Ms. Palmer tick - not only as a persecuted Jewish lady, but also as a free-thinker and something of a philosopher in her own inimitable way, and right.

In extolling Ms. Palmer - and her noted contribution to the world of theatre, films et. al. - I feel I ought to make mention (in the same breath), of yet another, not dissimilar actress of the same era; one who, like Lilli Palmer, first wooed German and then pan-European audiences, with the same mercurial, fugitive essence, that was common to both of these gorgeous ladies, the other being Zarah Leander.

Unfortunately, radical politicians and political events, cut across the lives of each of these otherwise-inhibited iconic *free spirit* entertainers, as was the case with the Swedish Zarah - whose client-base was Germany, naturlich - whereas Miss Palmer had nowhere to go, after the rise of the Nazis in 1933; Deutschland's loss, in that sorry outcome, being our gain, however, because Lilli Palmer, as with Zarah Leander, was a jewel-in-the-crown of the Entertainment Industry, per se.

My biggest regret is that I never met either of these historic heroines, because both possessed qualities that identified them with those of Joan of Arc; their single-mindedness, firm commitment and dynamism rising above everything else (be they cabbages, kings or dictators), no matter how cruel and illogical the circumstances, sometimes on either side of the political divide, that were continually tugging at their skirts, and trying to bring them down.

In reply to by Gerry George

Lilli Palmer is (or was) my great aunt

In reply to by Sorcha Kebbe

Was she? Are you the grandchild of Hilde or Irene?

Lilli Palmer interviews German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt on April 1, 1982.

Photograph by Harald Hoffmann, courtesy of the German Federal Archives/Wikimedia Commons

How to cite this page

William, Jennifer Marston. "Lilli Palmer." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 18, 2021) <>.


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