Ilona Massey was born into poverty in Budapest; her father, a typesetter was left an invalid in WW I. With her meager earnings as a dressmaker's apprentice, Massey studied singing. She went on to perform at the Vienna Stratsoper then made her screen bow in two Austrian musical films. Conflicting reports state that either Massey wasn't interested in films until she was spotted by MGM executive Louis B. Mayer while she was appearing in a Stratsoper production of Aida, or that she eagerly submitted her publicity photos to MGM in the hopes of meeting her "idol" Nelson Eddy. Another variation of the legend has her meeting a producer at a party, then being invited to audition for Mayer. Whatever the case, Massey was cast opposite Nelson Eddy and Eleanor Powell in the MGM musical Rosalie in 1937. At first, she spoke no English and had to learn her lines phonetically. By the early 1940s, she was conversant enough in her second language to star on the network radio series Top Secret.
Massey made only 11 films during her Hollywood career; her favorite was Balalaika (1939), while her least characteristic were Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) and the Marx Brothers' Love Happy (1950). On Broadway, she co-starred with Milton Berle and Arthur Treacher in the 1943-44 revival of The Ziegfeld Follies. On TV, she starred in the 1952 adventure weekly Rendezvous and hosted the 1953 variety series The Ilona Massey Show. Off camera, she was extremely active in anti-communist causes, especially after the 1956 Hungarian uprising; at one point, she picketed the United Nations, demanding the expulsion of visiting Soviet premiere Nikita Khrushchev. Among her many husbands was film actor Alan Curtis. Ilona Massey's last husband was retired Air Force general Donald S. Lawson, a union that entitled her to treatment at Bethesda Naval Hospital, where she died in 1974 after a three-month illness.