Family & Companions
In February 2000, an unreleased film starring Valentio, 1919's "The Married Virgin", was shown in a restored print in Los Angeles.
His death at age 31 spurred suicide attempts and waves of public violence by mourners; a testament to the singular cultural lightning rod that had been the life of Rudolph Valentino. Dubbed "The Great Lover" for posterity, H.L. Mencken called him "catnip to women," even as some of the nation's most influential op-ed pages castigated him as a catalyst in a national wave of effeminacy in American men, perhaps the nation's first bout of "metrosexuality." Arguably the first true superstar in the modern age, Valentino left more of mark as a heartthrob and a media phenomenon than, by critical consensus, his actual acting as recorded in his silent films. He lived, however briefly, an odyssey of vice, innuendo, scandal and the high society excesses for which his profession - then in its infancy - would become notorious. But his famed tango in "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" and onscreen image as "The Sheik," both in 1921, became mesmerizing, sensual imprints of the power of moving pictures, making him an avatar of the celebrity-obsessed popular culture then gestating throughout the country.
He was born Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Piero Filiberto Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antoguolla (or Rodolfo Guglielmi) in Castellaneta, Italy, on May 6, 1895. His father, Giovanni Guglielmi, a veterinarian, moved the family to Taranto nine years later, but died of malaria when Rudolfo was only 11, leaving his French-born mother, Marie, to dote on and spoil the young man. He acted out in school, finding himself expelled and so, when only 15, he applied to the Italian Naval Academy in Venice, but was rejected as too frail for the rigors of service. He earned a degree in agricultural science at a college in Nervi, near Genoa, but a visit to Paris gave him a taste of a more cosmopolitan life. Immersing himself in the culture, he spent what money he had and also discovered his penchant for dance. His mother sent him money to return to Italy, but by one report, he squandered that gambling in Monte Carlo and returned home something of an embarrassment to the family. After he failed to find gainful employment, Marie and other extended family members staked the 18-year-old Rodolfo a passage to the U.S.
In late 1913, he boarded the cargo ship S.S. Cleveland with a steerage class ticket. Depending one what account one believes, Guglielmi squandered his family's grant to upgrade his passage to first class, so to enjoy the black-tie champagne culture of the upper decks, or he further lived beyond his means after his arrival in New York. However he managed it, he left himself indigent in due course. He spent the next few years on the margins of society, working a series of menial jobs, sleeping where he could find a bed, and, by some uncorroborated accounts, prostituting himself to both men and women. Such reports may have stemmed from mistranslations of his eventual work as a "taxi dancer" - a man who would dance with unescorted female patrons, a trendy vocation at the time but still considered unseemly by polite society. On one job he had secured at an Italian restaurant, a fellow member of the wait staff taught him the chic Argentine dance becoming all the rage in the U.S. - the tango - and the attractive young Guglielmi soon found himself on the menu, as it were. He traded up to the highbrow hotspot Maxim's, gaining star billing as "Signor Rodolfo," and later became a nightclub exhibition dancer, partnering with top talents in New York and once even entertaining President Woodrow Wilson.
Canoodling in this swank set, he found his way into the employ of Blanca de Saulles, a young, unhappily married Chilean heiress, and ostensibly put his agrarian knowledge to work as her gardener. It was been speculated de Saulles and her hire had an affair, but, whether true or not, she and her husband John, a prominent businessman, went through an acrimonious divorce not long after, and the gardener testified in court what he knew of Mr. de Saulles' infidelities. After the divorce was finalized in December 1916, John de Saulles reputedly used his connections to have Guglielmi arrested on trumped up "vice" charges. The evidence was weak, but the glitzy circles that had once granted him entrée now declared him persona non grata and work dried up. In August 1917, Blanca shot John five times in a dispute over custody of their son. The case became a tabloid feeding frenzy, and Guglielmi, fearing further fallout from the association, fled New York to travel west with a theatrical troupe. When the troupe disbanded in Ogden, UT, Guglielmi hooked up with another production, which took him to San Francisco, CA. There, he met up with Norman Kerry, an actor who convinced him to try his hand in the burgeoning movie business in Los Angeles.
Moving into Kerry's rooms at the Alexandria Hotel in downtown L.A., Guglielmi began trying out for film roles, while for a living, he resumed dancing up the social ladder, gaining a clientele of regular partners, many of them wealthy older women. He scored some bit parts - a series of supporting roles as lowlives and villains - under variations of what would become his stage name ("Rodolfo di Valentini," "Rudolpho di Valentina"), owing to his darker, southern Italian looks. Dismissing him for a part, pioneering director D.W. Griffith once said, "He's too foreign-looking. The girls would never like him." Dissatisfied with the typecasting, he mulled quitting and returning to New York, but it was one of these roles, in "The Eyes of Youth" (1919), that caught the eye of June Mathis, the pioneering screenwriter who had gained such influence as to be granted producing duties on her movies. She convinced her studio, Metro Pictures, to cast the relative unknown in her upcoming film. It was during this ambitious film version of the anti-war novel "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," that the drifter established his credit finally as Rudolph Valentino. The role of a young French expatriate in Argentina allowed Valentino to break the studios' doctrine of casting only lily-white leads, even if "Four Horsemen" actually involved an ensemble cast in a saga about two sides of a family who migrate back to France and Germany, only to be driven out by the onset of World War I. But it was Valentino's first-act tango with co-star Beatrice Dominguez, as much as his journey through libertine meandering and war heroism, that brought to millions of movieg rs what had drawn so many women to him in person and made him a star nearly overnight. The film grossed a reported $4.5 million, one of the first to ever top the $1 million mark. Valentino, however, remained at his $350 a week rate, possibly owing to the influence of young director Rex Ingram, with whom he'd clashed on the set (and on whom, one story has it, Valentino developed a grudging crush), requiring Mathis to play peacemaker. Valentino's beloved mother had died before the movie's release. She would not see him gain the fortune she had sent him off to find, but "Four Horsemen" did establish a tight, unmistakably maternal relationship between him and Mathis that would become a catalyst for his career.
Valentino bridled when next cast in a supporting role in a minor film, "Uncharted Seas" (1921), but the production introduced him to production designer Natacha Rambova, who, by most estimates, would become as negative an influence on the burgeoning star as Mathis was positive. Valentino's actual love life to that point had been a train wreck, and his brief 1919 marriage to actress Jean Acker proved as far from movie romance as one could get. He had dated Acker briefly before marrying her on impulse. Way too impulsively, it turned out, as she was a lesbian, at the time involved with actress Grace Darmond and, it was whispered, with A-list leading lady Alla Nazimova. The newlyweds fought on their wedding night, with Acker locking him out of their hotel room. They separated, never consummating the marriage, but remaining officially married until an "interlocutory divorce" was granted in March 1922. Eerie confluence aside, Valentino developed a relationship with Rambova and went to work with her, as well as Mathis, on the next Nazimova vehicle, "Camille" (1921), based on the Alexandre Dumas, fils novel, and cementing Valentino's star status by making him Nazimova's love interest in the film.
The ambitious costumer turned into a showpiece of Rambova's designs, set and wardrobe, but proved too avant-garde to hit big with audiences. Mathis ushered Valentino to her next project, "The Conquering Power." While not his most famous role, the film, by most estimates, witnessed one of his most inspired performances as a wealthy, scheming playboy sent to live with his miserly, elderly uncle and his daughter. Valentino evinced real transformation as his character fell for his cousin and came to comprehend how his uncle's life of avarice ravaged his soul, leading the young dandy to see the error of his own ways. The film scored well critically and at the box-office, but after again locking horns with director Ingram and still being paid well below his billing, Valentino looked elsewhere for recognition of his star status. He bolted Metro for the Famous Players-Lasky Corp., a major player at the time that would later purchase distributor Paramount and operate under that name. Studio chief Jesse Lasky upped his pay to $1,000 a week and also hired Mathis away from Metro, immediately setting upon exploiting his new star's amorous appeal to the hilt. That manifested in the film that would imprint Valentino's image for posterity, "The Sheik" (1921).
The story looked absurd at face value, if not offensive, by today's standards. An overwrought, bodice-ripping Harlequinesque romance about an Arab sheik who kidnaps a British woman, "rapes" her and eventually wins her love, the movie's overt sensuality - if only implied sexuality - and Valentino's charms amplified by exotic elegant clothes and posh sets again set the movie-going public on fire, especially its female members. They mobbed theaters, with some reports of movieg rs fainting at the then-salacious on-screen seduction (and some of moral outrage over the same). The phenomenon may have indicated a mass-market obsession with proverbial forbidden fruit, especially at a time when militant nativism was on the rise in the U.S. and political reactionaries were demonizing darker southern and eastern European immigrants. One interviewer even asked him about the plausibility of a white woman falling for a "savage" like his sheik, to which he presciently responded, "People are not savages because they have dark skins. The Arabian civilization is one of the oldest in the world." Still, Valentino later admitted he avoided getting too much sun because he tanned so darkly.
"The Sheik" broadened into one of the first mass cultural phenomena, popular lexicon soon referring to guys on the make as "sheiks," Middle Eastern designs finding their way into fashion and home adornments, and songwriters Harry Smith, Francis Wheeler and Ted Snyder penning what would become a jazz classic, "The Sheik of Araby," to piggyback on the movie's success. The Sheik condom brand would crop up a decade later with a silhouette of Valentino, in character, on the package. During his own life, the term became so synonymous with Valentino that he came to resent it.
Lasky would go on to play up Valentino's Latin pedigree in his next starring role in "Moran of the Lady Letty" (1922), altering the lead character into a Spanish socialite (who morphs into a seafaring swashbuckler). He returned to rarified air again in his next movie, "Beyond the Rocks" (1922), a Lasky coup for its teaming Valentino with the woman who remained one of the top names in show business, Gloria Swanson. Swanson reportedly secured the guarantee of a three-month vacation in exchange for allowing Rudy, as his friends called him, to be cast opposite her. While they became friends (and horse-riding companions) off the set, they displayed little spark with one another in the lavish globe-trotting tale of star-crossed aristocrats - save perhaps for a ballyho d tango scene and the film's only kisses gone missing from the last remaining print, discovered in 2002 in a museum in The Netherlands.
Valentino reunited with Mathis later in 1922 on her next picture, "Blood and Sand," a film that would weirdly shadow his own life. He played a devil-may-care Spanish youth who hopes to eschew hard work by becoming Spain's greatest bullfighter. When he d s, he becomes consumed by his fame and wealth and is seduced away from his childhood sweetheart by a controlling, predatory vixen (Nita Naldi), losing his edge along with his virtue and dying ignominiously, with her moving coldly on to her next conquest. After the shoot, in May 1922, Valentino and Rambova traveled to Mexico and married.
The union got off to a portentously rocky start. Soon after returning to Los Angeles, Valentino was arrested on bigamy charges. California law, it turned out, stipulated a divorce finalized only after a year's cooling-off period, so to speak - hence the term "interlocutory divorce" - which had not yet lapsed since his and Jean Acker's papers went through. Rambova fled to New York, dodging reporters, and June Mathis stepped forward to pay Valentino's $10,000 bail when the studio balked. Though studios jealously guarded against such scandals, Valentino probably did his romantic image no great damage when he issued a statement vowing that he and Rambova would remarry as soon as legally possible, and that "this year's delay will not in any way lessen our love . . . [T]he love that made me do what I have done was prompted by the noblest intention that man could have. I loved deeply, but in loving I may have erred." Indeed, if the felony charges - dropped only weeks later for insufficient evidence of consummation - dampened the star's draw, it was not by much; "Blood and Sand," released in August, became one the top moneymakers of the year.
In the meantime, Valentino and Rambova kept their distance and they and Mathis got to work on his next project, "The Young Rajah" (1922). An odd tale of an Indian prince raised in the U.S. after his family is deposed, haunted by visions of his destiny to return and reign, the film was notable for Mathis' overt anti-racist message, as well as its portents of Rambova's hand in his career. Her costuming highlighted Valentino's physique to extremes - at one point stripped down to a small swimsuit during his competition in a Harvard regatta, then, upon his return to India, a golden loincloth assisted only by drapes of pearls - none of which could buoy the film at the box-office.
The film's failure did not help his case when, after a brief reunion with Rambova in New York - though careful to maintain separate quarters - he, or they, decided to play hardball with Famous Players. Sniping about his mundane working conditions through the end of 1922, he asked for a renegotiation of his contract to bring it more in line with the marquee-toppers of the day, Swanson, Fairbanks, et al., as well as creative input on his movies. But Lasky, still fuming over the bigamy imbroglio - itself preceded by the financially disastrous Fatty Arbuckle murder scandal, which required him to pull finished films out of the pipeline - would have none of it. The rift became acrimonious, with Valentino declaring a "one-man strike" against Famous Players, and the studio securing an injunction which prevented him from going to work elsewhere. Valentino went one further, airing some of the industry's dirty laundry in an affidavit that detailed how the studios strong-armed theaters into taking their entire product output, "block booking," instead of just the films they wanted.
His remarriage to Rambova in March 1923 found them deeply in debt, and with Valentino unable to act, they danced instead, embarking on one of the first national tie-in promotions. His new manager, George Ullman, concocted a massive outreach campaign to its target market: an 88-city tour in which Valentino and Rambova, also a trained dancer, would tango for live audiences. Mineralava paid them $7,500 a week to travel in a private railcar for 17 weeks in the spring of 1923. Valentino judged a local beauty contest at each mobbed event and each winner was sent to the final event in New York. A young David O. Selznick shot a short film, "Rudolph Valentino and His 88 American Beauties" (1923), that survived as a testament to the pandemonium around the tour. Valentino also used the interregnum to publish a book of p try - though the literary minded wished he had not - and a book of the health regimen that went into his model physique. The newlyweds also traveled to Europe, with Valentino visiting Castellaneta for the first time since he left Italy.
In July 1923, the feuding parties found common ground, with two more pictures with Famous Players and four for Ritz-Carlton, a new spin-off subsidiary of the glitzy hotel company, whose movies Famous Players would distribute. The agreement would pay Valentino $7,500 a week and grant both Valentino and Rambova creative input, choice of scripts and co-star approval - most of it to be the province of the ambitious, domineering "Madam Valentino." Perceived as a kind of feminine Rasputin, her newly empowered management of Valentino would alienate many of his friends and business associates. The onscreen output of their partnership did little to ingratiate her to others.
Valentino's next picture, "Monsieur Beaucaire" (1924), became something of the "Waterworld" of its day. A period piece about a slumming French royal, it seemed to critics more an expensive manifestation of Rambova's pretensions, all rococo opulence, costumes and finery, with Valentino in heavy make-up. The movie did less than stellar business, given emphasis by the fact that Stan Laurel not long after shot a satire of the film called "Monsieur Don't Care" (1924). Their next picture, the reportedly similarly garish but now lost "The Sainted Devil (1924), opened big but trailed off into similar disappointment. The influential show business magazine Photoplay observed, "Something has happened to the Valentino of 'The Sheik' and 'Blood and Sand.' He d sn't look a bit dangerous to women." They moved on to Ritz-Carlton, for whom they made "Cobra" (1925), a return to familiar territory with Valentino as a fallen nobleman caught in romantic intrigue, peppered with some romantic comedy. But critics almost universally sneered at it. Their next work, a pet project of the Valentinos, "The Hooded Falcon," proved disastrous on multiple counts. Conceiving an elaborate take on the El Cid legend, Rambova's ambitious pre-production on wardrobe and sets squandered much of the budget before shooting began, while her heavy hand with the script alienated June Mathis, who decamped from the Valentino inner circle. Ritz-Carlton chief J.D. Williams not only shut down production, he ended the Valentinos' deal completely.
Rambova's official reign on Valentino's career ended with his signing with United Artists. The studio, founded by such A-listers as Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith and Mary Pickford, stipulated in his contract that Rambova have no input on Valentino's films and even banned her from their sets. Valentino's accession to the terms exacerbated what, behind the scenes, had already been a stormy marriage. In one of their separations, Rambova claimed boredom and dissatisfaction of their Sunset Boulevard home, so Valentino purchased a lavish eight-acre mansion to woo her back and dubbed it the Falcon's Lair. Valentino, as he stated in public himself, longed for a traditional family, which Rambova did not. She would never take up residence in the house. During the shooting of his first UA picture, "The Eagle" (1925), Rambova skulked off again, even as Valentino found an ease rarely seen in his work, playing a dashing Russian outlaw, sometimes comic; often swashbuckling, righting wrongs committed by courtiers of Catherine the Great. He also may have found a rebound romance, at least briefly, with Hungarian-born co-star Vilma Bánky. Critics, who had blamed much of Valentino's downturn on Rambova's influence, greeted the movie warmly, and Valentino went to Europe for its London release and to expedite divorce proceedings with Rambova in France.
Finding renewed traction, Valentino relented to the pull of the Sheik and agreed to do a sequel, beginning work on "Son of the Sheik" (1926), also co-starring Bánky, the next February. He had also taken up with a new paramour, Pola Negri, an actress with a penchant for public histrionics and pomp, who had once trysted with Charlie Chaplin. She and Valentino had met in the summer of 1925 and, according to Negri's memoir, became lovers almost immediately thereafter. Valentino displayed his passions with theatrical flare, such as sprinkling their bed with rose petals. Marriage rumors swirled about the two as Ullman and Valentino embarked on a fateful summer publicity tour for the release of "Son of the Sheik" - even as Valentino had mended one important fence. He and June Mathis saw each other at the Los Angeles premiere and tearfully reconciled. Though critics would consider it one of his best performances - a dual role as both his previous character and his spawn - non-cinematic critique would cast a pall on the trip. On July 18, they awakened in Chicago to a broadside of an editorial, unsigned, in The Chicago Tribune. The writer of the item railed against the discovery of a pink talcum powder dispenser in the men's room of a local nightspot, and proceeded to track it back to a broader wave of male fashion cues; in sum a "degeneration into effeminacy," the author wrote, spawned by the popularity of Valentino. Time would soon back up the sentiments in an op-ed of its own.
The "Pink Powder Puffs" piece outraged Valentino, and he issued a public statement that challenged the anonymous author to a boxing match to prove who was more masculine. Moving on to their promotional schedule in New York, Ullman set up an additional event, a bout with New York Evening Journal sportswriter Frank O'Neil, who gamely agreed to box Valentino as proxy for his profession. They did so amicably on the roof of the Ambassador Hotel, doing only light boxing until O'Neil ducked when Valentino did not expect it, right into one of the superstar's punches. The blow put O'Neil on the mat. It was unknown as to whether the exhibition affected an ulcer condition Valentino had developed in recent months, but his rampant cavorting around New York and Long Island hotspots in the next few weeks - against Mathis's counsel - likely did, and on Aug. 15, Ullman arrived at Valentino's suite at the Ambassador to find his client wracked with pain and spitting up blood. They rushed him to Polyclinic Hospital where X-rays found multiple ulcers, a large one perforated, and a burst appendix. Doctors performed surgery, and, by one report, Valentino's first words after were, "Did I behave like a pink powder puff or like a man?" But his pain continued and became worse. He was unable to eat, and, within a few days, doctors found that peritonitis had set in, the infection spreading through his body. As the news spread, crowds gathered around the hospital, women weeping openly. When on Aug. 23 news came that he had died, the throng gathered on 50th Street attempted to storm the hospital, requiring police to call for backup to repel them.
Urban legend long held that two women in the crowd outside Polyclinic attempted suicide. Though the latter might only have been legend, a 27-year-old London actress named Peggy Scott was found dead two days later, having poisoned herself while surrounded by pictures of Valentino. And a 20-year-old mother in New York later attempted to kill herself by poisoning herself and shooting herself twice two months later, but failed. She told cops she had wanted to join Valentino in death and was promptly committed to an asylum.
Some 80,000 to 100,000 mourners filed past the nearby Frank E. Campbell Funeral Church on Broadway to pay respects. Some grew impatient, trying to storm the funeral home and break its windows. A full-on clash with police ensued, with about 150 cops required to quell the violence. One story had it that Valentino's body - emaciated from eight days without sustenance and loss of blood - was replaced by a lifelike wax effigy. Pola Negri added to the bizarre atmosphere, arriving by train with a flourish, weeping constantly and wailing her love for Rudy, and declaring their planned nuptials, at every public place where cameras and reporters lay waiting. She collapsed on the open coffin at the New York viewing of her "fiancé," and she accompanied his casket by train back to Los Angeles. Mourners came out in droves along the route to pay respects, as if to a dead president.
With Valentino's estate still in financial arrears, Mathis graciously contributed her own spot in a crypt she held in Hollywood Memorial Park (now known as Hollywood Forever Cemetery), just as a temporary measure. At the graveside ceremony - with Fairbanks, Pickford, Chaplin and Harold Lloyd in attendance - Negri resumed her melodrama, tearfully placing flowers on the casket, kissing it and, again, collapsing. A star in her own right, many perceived her public displays as overwrought self-promotion. If so, it backfired, as her career would wane thereafter. Years later, Ullman would dismiss Negri's claims to be Valentino's last great love, insisting that during Valentino's stay at the Ambassador, Ullman, had overheard a phone conversation that Valentino had terminated by telling Negri to "go to hell," then fuming about her. In less than a year after Valentino's death, Negri married Prince Serge Mdivani, an exiled titular noble of the Czarist court.
Too obviously fitting Valentino's penchant for kinetic, strong-willed women with an eye for opportunistic couplings, Negri would spend her sunset years in a same-sex relationship with a Texas heiress, helping to fan the many posthumous rumors of Valentino's gravitating towards mutual "beard" relationships to publicly cover for his own homosexuality or bisexuality. Time and entropy provided limited evidence to corroborate such contentions beyond speculation and hearsay. Mathis, for her part, would die in 1927, and her husband arranged for an alternate resting place, making her erstwhile crypt Valentino's permanent grave. Over the years, any number of different women claimed to engender that most age-old of Hollywood legends - the mysterious "woman in black" - who for decades visited the tomb, leaving red roses, on the date of Valentino's death.
Charlie Chaplin summarized Valentino the man versus the superstar, as deftly and succinctly as any. "He wore his success gracefully, appearing almost subdued by it," Chaplin wrote in his 1964 autobiography. "He was intelligent, quiet and without vanity, and had great allure for women, but had little success with them, and those whom he married treated him rather shabbily . . . No man had greater attraction for women than Valentino; no man was more deceived by them."
Cast (Feature Film)
Traveled to Paris where he resorted to begging
Arrived in NYC and worked as landscape gardener; lost job and worked as dishwasher and waiter; booked by police on suspicion of petty theft and blackmail; worked as taxi driver and then nightclub dancer
First film, "My Official Wife"
Arrived in Hollywood
Break came when influential screenwriter recommended him for "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse"
Acted in last film, "The Son of the Sheik"
Film biography made starring Anthony Dexter
Second film biography made starring Rudolf Nureyev
In February 2000, an unreleased film starring Valentio, 1919's "The Married Virgin", was shown in a restored print in Los Angeles.