She was a coloratura soprano who spurned opera for popular music, a Polish singer who became a cabaret star in Las Vegas, an artist trapped for years behind the Iron Curtain when she flew home to tend to her dying mother.
Singer Violetta Villas, 73, died late Monday at her home in Lewin Klodzki, a village in southern Poland, local police spokesman Pawel Petrykowski told The Associated Press. Prosecutors have ordered an autopsy to determine the cause of death, he said Tuesday.
Villas was born Czeslawa Cieslak in 1938 to a Polish coal miner's family in Belgium.
A unique talent with a trademark cascade of curly blond hair, Villas had a voice that spanned four octaves. Rather then pursue an operatic career, she preferred popular music, a genre that brought her wide popularity in Poland — where the family returned in 1948 after World War II — and abroad.
She once said her career was launched in 1960 by the head of state Polish Radio, composer Wladyslaw Szpilman — whose own story of survival during the Holocaust was the theme of director Roman Polanski's 2003 Oscar-winning movie "The Pianist."
From 1966 to 1969, Villas sang at the Casino de Paris at the famed Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas, performing with luminaries such as Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Paul Anka and Eartha Kitt. She also recorded songs for Capitol Records.
Villas also appeared in movies, including 1969's "Paint Your Wagon" with Lee Marvin and "Heaven with a Gun" with Glenn Ford.
In 1970, she returned to Poland to tend to her ailing mother, but later the communist authorities refused to approve her passport. She was not able to return to the U.S. until 1987, when she had a tour, starting at New York's Carnegie Hall.
Villas was also known as a colorful personality who refused to bend to the requirements of a career. Since the late 1980s, she had given only occasional performances and sometimes failed to turn up for studio recordings.
In recent years she lived alone and ran a shelter for animals in her home yard, but the shelter had to be closed due to overcrowding and insufficient care.
Villas was married twice: in 1954 in Poland to Piotr Gospodarek, and in 1988 in Chicago to Ted Kowalczyk, a businessman of Polish descent. Both marriages ended in divorce.
She is survived by her only son, Krzysztof. No funeral arrangements were immediately known.