Remembering Rudolph Valentino
"Women became hysterical and fainted, and a few later killed themselves rather than go on living in a world without their gorgeous idol."
By Steve Starr
The enormous crowd of over 80,000 mourners filed past the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home in New York City. They strained to get a good look at the most famous male movie star in the world, Rudolph Valentino, who lay in state in an open bronze coffin in the infamous Gold Room.
Suddenly, incited by the outrageous histrionics of his professed lover Pola Negri, the obsessed flock pressed into a plate glass window, breaking it, storming in and cutting and maiming over 100 of themselves while trampling floral displays in a disgraceful frenzy of adulation and necrophilia. Women became hysterical and fainted, and a few later killed themselves rather than go on living in a world without their gorgeous idol.
The Life Story of Valentino
Rodolfo Guglielmi was born May 6, 1895, the same year that motion pictures were born, in the small town of Castellaneta, Italy, the son of Giovannni, a veterinary surgeon, and Gabriella, a schoolteacher.
They soon moved to nearby Taranto, where they lived in a small apartment on Via Massari. When his father died of malaria in 1906, pampered Rodolfo became an undisciplined bully. First sent to a boarding school for orphans of the medical profession, he and his three-year-older brother Alberto left their little sister Maria behind when they were sent to military school where Rodolfo completed his course by age 15.
After applying with the Royal Naval Academy in Venice and failing the physical due to poor eyesight and a weak chest, he decided he was not really interested in a future with the Navy. However, to his mother's joy, he earned a degree in Science of Farming from the Royal Academy of Agriculture. Then he fled to Paris where he gambled away his money, and learned Apache dancing and the art of dressing well, as he befriended and indulged the homosexual community of the chic Bohemian crowd. Returning home broke, he begged his French mother for the inheritance his father had left him for his education, and escaped his surroundings to search for a more exciting life.
In 1913, the 18-year-old Guglielmi sailed, with a steerage class ticket his mother bought him, to America on the U.S.S. Cleveland. Once aboard, he reportedly traded up to first class and donned a tuxedo every night to attend champagne dinners. He arrived in New York on December 23, practically penniless. The adventurous young man faced a lonely Christmas and New Year in his new land.
Rodolfo found a small one-room apartment in an Italian neighborhood. He spoke Italian, Spanish, and French, but no English. His first job was as a gardener in Central Park, where he sometimes spent his nights on a bench after he could no longer pay his rent. Eventually he found work cultivating the gardens on the estate of millionaire Cornelius Bliss. There, Rodolfo also cultivated his speech and learned the manners and tastes of the very rich. However, he began to neglect his horticultural duties, wrecked Cornelius's motorcycle when he crashed it into a tree, and was fired. He stole stationery from expensive New York hotels upon which he wrote happy letters to his beloved mother about his success.
After finding work in an Italian restaurant, a waiter there taught him to dance the Tango, and before long, the quick-learning Rodolfo became a full time dancer at the eatery, specializing in the sensual Argentine choreography. Later, he began to instruct and perform his sensational movements at the chic Maxim's nightclub, where he became a star attraction billed as Signor Rodolfo.
There, in this shadowy world, gigolo Rodolfo dispensed his sexual favors to both men and women, and involved himself in petty crime and blackmail. Though found innocent of any complicity after being thrown in jail because of a prominent role in a passionate divorce scandal in which his beautiful society lover Blanca De Saules shot her husband dead for him, Rodolfo smartly hightailed it toward the west before her trial began, with a touring theatrical troupe in a show called The Merry Monarch that ended its run in Ogden, Utah.
The new Rodolfo Valentini
Now calling himself Rodolfo Valentini, he was paid off with a ticket to San Francisco, and intended to go back to farming. Instead, he found work for three weeks in the chorus of Nobody Home. He was advised by Brian Foy of the famous The Seven Little Foys to apply his talents in Hollywood, where Brian mentored Rudolph and set him up in an apartment near the Elks Club on 6th Street. Rudolph tangoed for free every Thursday at the Hollywood Hotel tea dance, and found busboy work in the elegant Alexandria Hotel where he befriended his handsome 17-year-old co-worker, future star Ramon Novarro, with whom it was often rumoured he had an affair.
Rodolfo landed a bit part in the film Alimony (1917). Movie star Mae Murray, a former Ziegfeld girl who was said to have been involved in the De Saules affair and had befriended Rudolph back in New York, helped him land a role in two of her movies, The Big Little Person (1918) and The Delicious Little Devil(1918). However, Murray's then husband thought their on-screen lovemaking was a bit too real, and forced his wife to end the association.
The films that followed include A Society Sensation (1918), and All Night Long (1918). Rodolfo's mother died in 1919, and that year his performance in Eyes Of Youth (1919) led him to be cast by agent and friend June Mathis, who changed his name to Rudolph Valentino, in the lead role of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), in which his elegant dancing and poise with Beatrice Dominguez enchanted and captivated his audience. Radiantly self-assured and magically photogenic, the five-foot-ten sultry Rudolph became a star.
The tango was danced throughout the nation as men tried to capture Valentino's rhythm, and copied his black hair slicked down with "Brilliantine." Stylish women adopted the bolero jacket for themselves and began to wear spectacular hair combs and lavish hand-embroidered and intricately fringed silk Spanish shawls which became the height of fashion.
Valentino's image was forever cast in cement when he appeared in The Sheik (1921), in which he displayed a cruel, intense sexual magnetism. Playing a sadistic prince of the desert, his handsome profile, luminous black hair, slanted dark eyes, clear translucent skin, lean body shaped by daily two-hour workouts, and often flaring nostrils while he brutally raped and tenderly kissed Agnes Ayres made numerous female theatregoers faint in the aisles.
"Sheik" mania swept America. "Sheik" brand condoms entered the drug stores, and a song, The Sheik of Araby, never heard in the silent film, became a huge hit. The decor of scores of living rooms, bedrooms and public places throughout the country took on the influence of Arabian designs.
He appeared next in Camille (1921), co-starring Alla Nazimova, a flamboyant star whose bisexual girlfriend, Jean Acker, had become involved with Valentino and married him March 4, 1919. On their wedding night Jean and Rudolph had a spat, with Acker refusing to consummate the marriage. She locked Rudolph out of their hotel room for six hours, and they separated. Jean told the press that their marriage had been a "terrible mistake."
Camille was extravagantly costumed by Natasha Rambova, a controlling woman who began life in Salt Lake City as the Irish Winifred O'Shaugnessy and became Winifred Hudnut when her mother married into the French perfume dynasty. She later decided to become Russian like her mentor Nazimova and christened herself Natacha Rambova, with whom Valentino left their Palm Springs vacation to wed in Mexico on May 13, 1922.
In The Young Rajah (1922), Natacha found new ways to expose Rudolph's beautiful body, in one scene dressing him in only a turban, revealing gold loincloth, and yards of enormous golfball-sized pearls, a costume which gained him much criticism.
That same year he starred in another elaborate film, Beyond The Rocks (1922) with Gloria Swanson, as well as Blood and Sand (1922) with Nita Naldi. Natacha encouraged Rudolph to demand artistic control over his flms, and while his studio was considering his wishes, he and his wife toured the country in a private railcar for 17 weeks, dancing together and giving wildly popular tango exhibitions from coast to coast in 88 cities.
The tour, sponsored by the Mineralava Beauty Clay Company, culminated in a beauty contest at Madison Square Garden with contestants from each of the visited cities, where Rudolph crowned the company's North American Queen. Young, 21-year-old David O. Selznick made a short film of the events, Rudolph Valentino and His 88 Beauties.
A compromise was eventually reached with his angered studio, and he returned to make the glossy and gorgeously costumed but ill-received Monsieur Beaucaire(1924), in which he played a highly white-powdered nobleman. In 1923 he published a book of sentimental poems, Day Dreams, which drove his adoring fans into bookstores that sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and he recorded two songs for Brunswick Records,
The Kashmiri Song in English and El Relicario in Spanish. Natacha continually pushed Rudolph into making overly artistic and melodramatic movies such as Cobra (1925), which some critics considered one of the worst films of that decade. Under her influence, the genial, easy-going Valentino started to become demanding and difficult. Envious, angry men labeled him a "pink powder puff," which drove him to constantly try to prove his masculinity to himself and to others.
Valentino's turbulant private life
Rudolph had not waited a prescribed one-year period for his interlocutory divorce from Jean to become final. He was thrown in jail for bigamy, and fined $10,000. After friends and attendants from Mexicali swore he had never been alone in a room with Natacha, as she was ill and they could not have consummated their marriage, Rudolph was released and the couple later re-wed in Crown Point, Indiana, on March 14, 1923.
Following their European honeymoon, temperamental Natacha tired of her marriage, declaring that Rudolph got on her nerves, and stormed off to stay with her mother in New York. Natacha felt their home in the Whitley Heights section of Hollywood at 6770 Wedgewood Place was unfashionably located and too small, though it was much larger than the tiny bungalow on Sunset Boulevard, where they had first lived with their pet lion cub, Zela. To woo her back, he bought an elaborate eight-acre Spanish style estate towering on a hillside in Los Angeles' Benedict Canyon on Bella Drive, which he named Falcon's Lair, intending to train falcons there for the couple's first independent production, The Hooded Falcon, which was never made.
Natacha drew up elaborate plans for re-decorating, but never stepped inside. Rudolph moved alone into the home, where there were stables to keep four of his Arabian horses and a garage to store his gorgeous Avion Voisin touring car, Chevrolet roadster, Franklin coupe, and custom built Isotta-Fraschini. Exhausted and depressed, he sat in a chair and put a gun to his head. His houseguest, famed Spanish artist Federico Armando Beltran-Masses, snatched the weapon away just in time. Locals once found the despondent star wandering the desert alone at night in Palm Springs. One day, Rudolph declared, "A man should control his life. Mine is controlling me."
In 1925, the extravagant Natacha, disliked by producers for her arrogance, snobbery and overspending, was barred from the set of what many consider Rudolph's best film, The Eagle (1925) with Vilma Banky. Natacha filed for divorce, which was granted in France, January 18, 1926.
Soon, Rudolph met the lascivious Pola Negri at a party, and to ease his pain, began an affair with the tempestuous, predatory actress, who loved to make public entrances with her pet panther on a leash. She often stayed at Falcon's Lair, where the two were sometimes seen riding Rudolph's horses high into the Hollywood hills. His last film, The Son of the Sheik (1926) again co-starring Vilma Banky, had a triumphant premiere in Los Angeles on July 9.
While touring to promote his movie, the Chicago Tribune ran a hurtful editorial accusing Rudolph of "effeminization of the American male." Valentino challenged the incognito writer to a boxing match in order to defend his masculinity, but the writer never came forward, and the fight never took place. Party boy Rudolph, thoroughly stressed, threw himself into the night life once again, and traveled to Manhattan for the New York premiere. He participated in a public sparring match with sportswriter Frank O'Neil, whom he decked with two punches. After an all night party in his honor, Rudolph crashed to the floor in his suite at the Ambassador Hotel where he was found writhing in agony.
With a burst appendix and violent pain, severe uremic poisoning had spread throughout his body by the time he went into surgery. Valentino fought bravely, refusing to face his perilous condition and told his visiting studio chairman, Joseph M. Schenck, "Don't worry, Chief, I will be all right." Those were Rudolph Valentino's last, final, words.
With numerous complications including a poisoning of the wall of the heart, handsome Rudolph Valentino, known as the world's most famous lover, fell into a coma and succumbed to his condition on August 23, 1926, surrounded by only three physicians and two weeping nurses in the Polyclinic Hospital. The cause of death was announced as peritonitis and septic endocarditis. He was 31 years old.
Two women attempted suicide outside the hospital, and a boy died on a bed covered with photographs of Valentino while a woman in London drank poison as she gazed at his image. A new song was quickly written, There's A New Star In Heaven To-Night, which was recorded by the popular singer Rudy Vallee, and immediately was heard blaring from radios coast to coast.
The piano sheet music with Valentino's portrait on its cover was distributed throughout the country before he had even entered his tomb. Despite their long separation and divorce, Rudolph and Jean Acker had remained good friends until the end of his life. Jean wrote a song in testament, "We Will Meet At The End Of The Trail," the piano sheet music which displayed Rudolph and Jean on the cover. The east coast premiere of The Son of the Sheik was a huge and astounding success.
Movie star Pola Negri made headlines as she rushed from her film set for Hotel Imperial and dashed across the continent to be with Rudolph, with whom she declared she was to be married. Donning the most opulent mourning costume she could conjure, the histrionic Pola arrived supported by two bodyguards and accompanied by her secretary and press agent.
Shrieking relentlessly in front of the photographers while dripping in $3,000 worth of black fabric and priceless jewels, she threw herself across Rudolph's open coffin, fainting and inciting the inflamed crowd to hysterics as they tore through a huge plate glass window. Pola cried loudly to the press, swooning repeatedly, "My love for Valentino was the greatest love of my life. I loved him not as one artist loves another, but as a woman loves a man." It was a wax replica on display for visual consumption, as the real embalmed Rudolph was locked safely away in a back room.
Valentino's coffin was transported to Hollywood as thousands of people stood by to watch the train pass through their city. Bushels of rose petals were showered from an airplane over the cortege as he was carried into the mausoleum. The funeral became an unprecedented event as thousands of fans bordered on mass hysteria while Madame Negri created another scene as she shrewdly cried amidst a $2,000 bed of red roses with her name POLA spelled out in white roses at the center.
She repeated her tear-drenched dramas at numerous subsequent press conferences, and Photoplay Magazine announced that Pola would erect a marble wedding cake to sit atop his tomb, a delicacy that was never built. Easing her obvious sorrow and disappointment, she married Prince Sergei Mdivani, and became Princess Pola.
Movie star John Gilbert declared, "The death of Valentino is a terrific loss to the screen. He brought it happiness, beauty and art as perhaps no other has. His loss can never be replaced; there was and can be only one Valentino; a great artist and one of the finest gentlemen it has ever been my privilege to term friend."
Today, Rudolph Valentino continues to be associated with sensual and sexual appeal, and his name still conjures up mysterious images of a long vanished erotic world preserved on film.
Steve Starr is the author of "Picture Perfect"-Art Deco Photo Frames 1926-1946, published by Rizzoli International Publications. An artist, designer, and celebrity historian, he is the owner of Steve Starr Studios, specializing in original Art Deco photo frames, furnishings and jewelry, and celebrating its 38th anniversary in 2005.
Starr's personal collection of over 950 gorgeous photo frames is filled with images of Hollywood's most elegant stars. His column on celebrities of the 1920's, 1930's, and 1940's, named "STARRLIGHT", appears in various publications, and in the Windy City Times the first week of the month.
Steve Starr Satellite Studio in the Edgewater Antique Mall, 6314 North Broadway Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60660. Steve Starr has passed away and his gallery is closed.