Silent Hollywood “Rudolph Valentino”
(born May 6, 1895 – died August 23, 1926) was an Italian actor, known simply as “Valentino” and also an early pop icon. A sex symbol of the 1920s, Valentino was known as the “Latin Lover.” He starred in several well-known silent films including The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Sheik, Blood and Sand, The Eagle and The Son of the Sheik. He had applied for American citizenship shortly before his death.
Early life – Childhood
Valentino was born Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina D’Antonguolla in Castellaneta,Puglia, Kingdom of Italy. His mother, Marie Berta Gabrielle (née Barbin; 1856–1919), was French, born in Lure in Lorraine. His father, Giovanni Antonio Giuseppe Fedele Guglielmi di Valentina D’Antonguolla, was Italian; he was a veterinarian who died of malaria when Valentino was 11. He had an older brother, Alberto (1892–1981), a younger sister, Maria, and an older sister, Beatrice, who had died in infancy.
As a child, Valentino was reportedly spoiled and troublesome. His mother coddled him, while his father disapproved of his behavior. He did poorly in school and was eventually enrolled in agricultural school at Genoa, where he received a degree.
Arriving in New York City, Valentino soon ran out of money and spent time on the streets. He supported himself with odd jobs such as busing tables in restaurants and gardening. Eventually, he found work as a taxi dancer at Maxim’s. Among the other dancers at Maxim’s were several displaced members of European nobility and there was a premium in demand for them.
Valentino eventually befriended Chilean heiress Blanca de Saulles who was unhappily married to prominent businessman John de Saulles, with whom she had a son. Whether Blanca and Valentino actually had a romantic relationship is unknown, but when the de Saulles couple divorced, Valentino took the stand to support Blanca de Saulles’ claims of infidelity on her husband’s part. Following the divorce, John de Saulles reportedly used his political connections to have Valentino arrested, along with a Mrs. Thyme, a known madam, on some unspecified vice charges. The evidence was flimsy at best and after a few days in jail, Valentino’s bail was lowered from $10,000 to $1,500.
The trial and subsequent scandal was well publicized, following which Valentino could not find employment. Shortly after the trial, Blanca de Saulles fatally shot her ex-husband during a custody dispute over their son. Fearful of being called in as a witness in another sensational trial, Valentino left town, joining a traveling musical that led him to the West Coast.
In 1917, Rudolph Valentino joined an operetta company that traveled to Utah where it disbanded. He then joined an Al Jolson production of Robinson Crusoe Jr., travelling to Los Angeles. By fall, he was in San Francisco with a bit part in a theatrical production of Nobody Home. While in town, Valentino met actor Norman Kerry, who convinced him to try a career in cinema, still in the silent film era.
Valentino, with Kerry as a roommate, moved back to Los Angeles and took up residence at the Alexandria Hotel. He continued dancing, teaching dance and building up a following which included older female clientele who would let him borrow their luxury cars. At one point after the United States joined World War I, both Kerry and Valentino tried to get into the Canadian Air Force to fly and fight in France.
With his dancing success, Valentino found a room of his own on Sunset Boulevard and began actively seeking screen roles. His first part was as an extra in the film Alimony, moving on to small parts in several films. Despite his best efforts he was typically cast as a “heavy” (villain) or gangster. At the time, the major male star was Wallace Reid, with a fair complexion, light eyes, and an All American look, with Valentino the opposite, eventually supplanting Sessue Hayakawa as Hollywood’s most popular “exotic” male lead.
By 1919, he had carved out a career in bit parts. It was a bit part as a “cabaret parasite” in the drama Eyes of Youth that caught the attention of screenwriter June Mathis, who thought he would be perfect for her next movie. He also appeared as second lead in The Delicious Little Devil (1919) with star Mae Murray.
Displeased with playing “heavies”, Valentino briefly entertained the idea of returning to New York permanently. He returned for a visit in 1917, staying with friends in Greenwich Village, eventually settling in Bayside, Queens. It was here he met Paul Ivano, who would help his career greatly.
While traveling to Palm Springs, Florida to film Stolen Moments, Valentino read the novel The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez. Seeking out a trade paper, he discovered that Metro had bought the film rights to the story. In New York, he sought out Metro’s Office, only to find June Mathis had been trying to find him. She cast him in the role of Julio Desnoyers. For director, Mathis had chosen Rex Ingram, with whom Valentino did not get along, leading Mathis to play the role of peacekeeper between the two.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was released in 1921, becoming a commercial and critical success. It was one of the first films to make $1,000,000 at the box office, as well as the sixth highest grossing silent film ever.
Metro Pictures seemed unwilling to acknowledge it had made a star. Most likely due to Rex Ingram’s lack of faith in him, the studio refused to give him a raise beyond the $350 a week he had made for Four Horsemen. For his follow up film, they forced him into a bit part in a B film called Uncharted Seas. It was on this film that Valentino met his second wife, Natacha Rambova.
Rambova, Mathis, Ivano, and Valentino began work on the Alla Nazimova film Camille. Valentino was cast in the role of Armand, Nazimova’s love interest. The film, mostly under the control of Rambova and Nazimova, was considered too avant garde by critics and the public.
Valentino’s final film for Metro was the Mathis-penned The Conquering Power. The film received critical acclaim and did well at the box office. After the film’s release, Valentino made a trip to New York where he met with several French producers. Yearning for Europe, better pay, and more respect, Valentino returned and promptly quit Metro.
From A Sainted Devil
After quitting Metro, Valentino took up with Famous Players-Lasky, a studio known for films that were more commercially focused. Mathis soon joined him, angering both Ivano and Rambova.
Jesse Lasky intended to capitalize on the star power of Valentino, and cast him in a role that would solidify his reputation as the “Latin Lover”. In The Sheik, Valentino played the starring role as Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan. The film was a major success and would go on to define not only his career but his image and legacy. Valentino tried to distance the character from a stereotypical portrayal of an Arab man. Asked if Lady Diana (his love interest) would have fallen for a ‘savage’ in real life Valentino replied, “People are not savages because they have dark skins. The Arabian civilization is one of the oldest in the world…the Arabs are dignified and keen brained.”
Famous Players produced four more feature length films over the next 15 months. His leading role in Moran of the Lady Letty was of a typical Douglas Fairbanks nature, however to capitalize on Valentino’s bankability, his character was given a Spanish name and ancestry. The film received mixed reviews but was still a hit with audiences.
In November 1921, Valentino starred alongside Gloria Swanson in Beyond the Rocks. The film contained lavish sets and extravagant costumes, though Photoplay magazine said the film was “a little unreal and hectic.” Released in 1922, the film was a critical disappointment. Years after its release, Beyond the Rocks was thought to be lost, save for a one minute portion. In 2002, the film was discovered by the Netherlands Film Museum. The restored version was released on DVD in 2006.
In 1922, Valentino began work on another Mathis-penned film, Blood and Sand. Co-starring Lila Lee and Nita Naldi, Valentino played the lead, bullfighter Juan Gallardo. Initially believing the film would be shot in Spain, Valentino was upset to learn that the studio planned on shooting on a Hollywood back lot. He was further irritated by changes in production, including a director of whom he did not approve.
After finishing the film, Valentino married Rambova, which led to a bigamy trial. The trial was a sensation and the pair was forced to have their marriage annulled and separated for a year. Despite the trial, the film was still a success, with critics calling it a masterpiece on par with Broken Blossoms and Four Horsemen. Blood and Sand went on to become one of the top four grossing movies of 1922, breaking attendance records, and grossing $37,400 at the Rivoli Theatre alone. Valentino would consider this one of his best films.
During his forced break from Rambova, the pair began working (separately) on the Mathis-penned The Young Rajah. Only fragments of this film, recovered in 2005, still remain. The film did not live up to expectations and underperformed at the box office. Valentino felt he had underperformed in the film, being upset over his separation with Rambova. Missing Rambova, Valentino returned to New York after the release of The Young Rajah. They were spotted and followed by reporters constantly. During this time Valentino began to contemplate not returning to Famous Players, although Jesse Lasky already had his next picture, The Spanish Cavalier, in preparation. After speaking with Rambova and his lawyer Arthur Butler Graham, Valentino declared a ‘One man Strike’ against Famous Players.
Valentino’s reasons for striking were financially based. At the time of his lawsuit against the studio, Valentino was earning $1,250 per week, with an increase to $3,000 after three years. This was $7,000 per week less than what Mary Pickford made in 1916. He was also upset over the broken promise of filming Blood and Sand in Spain, and the failure to shoot the next proposed film in either Spain or at least New York. Valentino had hoped while filming in Europe he could see his family, whom he hadn’t seen in ten years.
In September 1922, he refused to accept paychecks from Famous Players until the dispute was solved, although he owed them money he had spent to pay off Jean Acker. Angered, Famous Players in turn filed suit against him.
Valentino did not back down, and Famous Players realized how much they stood to lose. In trouble after shelving Rosco “Fatty” Arbuckle pictures, the studio tried to settle by upping his salary from $1,250 to $7,000 a week. Variety, erroneously, announced the salary increase as a ‘new contract’ before news of the lawsuit was released. Valentino refused the offer.
Valentino went on to claim that artistic control was more of an issue than the money. He wrote an open letter to Photoplay magazine, titled “Open Letter to the American Public”, where he argued his case, although the average American had trouble sympathizing, as most made $2,000 a year. Famous Players made their own public statements deeming him more trouble than he was worth (the divorce, bigamy trials, debts) and that he was temperamental, almost diva-like. They claimed to have done all they could and that they had made him a real star.
Other studios began courting him. Joseph Schenck was interested in casting his wife, Norma Talmadge, opposite Valentino in a version of Romeo and Juliet. June Mathis had moved to Goldwyn Pictures where she was in charge of the Ben-Hur project, and interested in casting Valentino in the film. However, Famous Players exercised their option to extend his contract, preventing him from accepting any employment other than with the studio. By this point Valentino was around $80,000 in debt. Valentino filed an appeal, a portion of which was granted. Although he was still not allowed to work as an actor, he could accept other types of employment.
In late 1922, Valentino met George Ullman, who would soon become Valentino’s manager. Ullman previously had worked with Mineralava Beauty Clay Company, and convinced them that Valentino would be perfect as a spokesman with his legions of female fans.
The tour was a tremendous success with Valentino and Rambova performing in 88 cities in the United States and Canada. In addition to the tour, Valentino also sponsored Mineralava beauty products and judged Mineralava sponsored beauty contests. One beauty contest was filmed by a young David O. Selznick titled Rudolph Valentino and His 88 Beauties.
Return to films
When Valentino returned to the United States, it was to an offer from Ritz-Carlton Pictures (working through Famous Players), which included $7,500 a week, creative control, and filming in New York. Rambova negotiated a two picture deal with Famous Players and four pictures for Ritz Carlton. He accepted, turning down an offer to film an Italian production of Quo Vadis in Italy.
The first film under the new contract was Monsieur Beaucaire, wherein Valentino played the lead, Duke of Chartres. The film did poorly and American audiences found it ‘effeminate.’ The failure of the film, under Rambova’s control, is often seen as proof of her controlling nature and would later cause her to be barred from Valentino sets. Valentino made one final movie for Famous Players. In 1924 he starred in A Sainted Devil, now one of his lost films. It had lavish costumes but apparently a weak story. It opened to strong sales but soon dropped off in attendance and ended up as another disappointment.
With his contract fulfilled, Valentino was released from Famous Players but still obligated to Ritz-Carlton for four films. Valentino’s next film was a pet project titled The Hooded Falcon. The production was beset with problems from the start, beginning with the script written by June Mathis. The Valentinos were dissatisfied with Mathis’ version and requested that it be rewritten. Mathis took it as a great insult and did not speak to Valentino for almost two years. While Rambova worked designing costumes and rewriting the script for Falcon, Valentino was persuaded to film Cobra with Nita Naldi. Valentino agreed only on condition that it not be released until after The Hooded Falcon debuted.
After filming Cobra, the cast of The Hooded Falcon sailed for France to be fitted for costumes. After three months, they headed back to the United States, where Valentino’s new beard, which he had grown for the film, caused a sensation. The crew and cast headed for Hollywood to begin preparations for the film, but much of the budget was taken up during pre-production. Due to the Valentinos’ lavish spending on costumes and sets, Ritz-Carlton terminated the deal with the couple, effectively ending Valentino’s contract with Ritz-Carlton.
During the filming of Monsieur Beaucaire, both Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks approached Valentino privately, due to his contract with Ritz Carlton, about joining with United Artists. Valentino’s contract with United Artists provided $10,000 a week for only three pictures a year, plus a percentage of his films. The contract excluded Rambova from production of his films and the film set. Valentino’s acceptance of the terms caused a major rift in his marriage to Rambova. George Ullman, who had negotiated the contract with United Artists, offered Rambova $30,000 to finance a film of her own. It became her one and only film, titled What Price Beauty? and starred Myrna Loy.
Valentino chose his first UA project, The Eagle. With the marriage under strain, Valentino began shooting and Rambova announced that she needed a “marital vacation.” During the filming of The Eagle, rumors of an affair with co-star Vilma Bánky were reported and ultimately denied by both Bánky and Valentino. The film opened to positive reviews, but a moderate box office.
For the film’s release, Valentino travelled to London, staying there and in France, spending money with abandon while his divorce took place. It would be some time before he made another film, The Son of the Sheik, despite his hatred of the sheik image. The film began shooting in February 1926, with Valentino given his choice of director, and pairing him again with Vilma Banky. The film used the authentic costumes he bought abroad and allowed him to play a dual role. Valentino was ill during production, but needed the money to pay his many debts. The film opened on July 8, 1926 to great fanfare. During the premiere, Valentino was reconciled with Mathis; the two had not spoken in almost two years.
Dating back to the de Saulle trial in New York, during which his masculinity had been questioned in print, Valentino had been very sensitive with his public perception. Women loved him and thought him the epitome of romance. However, American men were less impressed, walking out of his movies in disgust. With the Fairbanks type being the epitome of manhood, Valentino was seen as a threat to the “All American” man. One man asked in a street interview what he thought of Valentino in 1922 replied, “Many men desire to be another Douglas Fairbanks. But Valentino? I wonder…” Women in the same interview found Valentino, “triumphantly seductive. Puts the love-making of the average husband or sweetheart into discard as tame, flat, and unimpassioned.” Men may have wanted to act like Fairbanks, but they copied Valentino’s look. A man with perfectly greased-back hair was called a “Vaselino.”
Some journalists were still calling his masculinity into question, going on at length about his pomaded hair, his dandyish clothing, his treatment of women, his views on women, and whether he was effeminate or not. Valentino hated these stories and was known to carry the clippings of the newspaper articles around with him and criticize them.
In July 1926, the Chicago Tribune reported that a vending machine dispensing pink talcum powder had appeared in an upscale hotel washroom. An editorial that followed used the story to protest the feminization of American men, and blamed the talcum powder on Valentino and his films. The piece infuriated Valentino and he challenged the writer to a boxing match since dueling was illegal. Neither challenge was answered. Shortly afterward, Valentino met with journalist H.L. Mencken for advice on how best to deal with the incident. Mencken advised Valentino to “let the dreadful farce roll along to exhaustion,” but Valentino insisted the editorial was “infamous.” Mencken found Valentino to be likable and gentlemanly and wrote sympathetically of him in an article published in the Baltimore Sun a week after Valentino’s death:
“It was not that trifling Chicago episode that was riding him; it was the whole grotesque futility of his life. Had he achieved, out of nothing, a vast and dizzy success? Then that success was hollow as well as vast—a colossal and preposterous nothing. Was he acclaimed by yelling multitudes? Then every time the multitudes yelled he felt himself blushing inside… The thing, at the start, must have only bewildered him, but in those last days, unless I am a worse psychologist than even the professors of psychology, it was revolting him. Worse, it was making him afraid… Here was a young man who was living daily the dream of millions of other men. Here was one who was catnip to women. Here was one who had wealth and fame. And here was one who was very unhappy.”
After Valentino challenged the Tribune’s anonymous writer to a boxing match, the New York Evening Journal boxing writer, Frank O’Neill, volunteered to fight in his place. Valentino won the bout which took place on the roof of New York’s Ambassador Hotel.
Boxing heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, who trained Valentino and other Hollywood notables of the era in boxing, said of him “He was the most virile and masculine of men. The women were like flies to a honeypot. He could never shake them off, anywhere he went. What a lovely, lucky guy.”
Valentino’s sex symbol status and his untimely death was a biographical part in Dos Passos’ The Big Money in the U.S.A Trilogy. His title was the Adagio Dancer.
In 1923, Valentino published a book of poetry titled Day Dreams, He would later serialize events in various magazines. With Liberty magazine, he wrote a series entitled, “How You Can Keep Fit” in 1923. “My Life Story” was serialized inPhotoplay during his dance tour. The March issue was one of the best selling ever for the magazine. He followed that withMy Private Diary, serialized in Movie Weekly magazine. Most of the serials were later published as books after his death.
Valentino was fascinated with every part of movie-making. During production on a Mae Murray film he spent time studying the director’s plans. He craved authenticity and wished to shoot on location, finally forming his own production company, Rudolph Valentino Productions, in 1925. Valentino, George Ullman, and Beatrice Ullman were the incorporators.
On May 14, 1923, while in New York City, Valentino made his only two vocal recordings for Brunswick Records; “Kashmiri Song” (The Sheik) and “El Relicario” (Blood and Sand). The recordings were not released until after Valentino’s death by the Celebrity Recording Company; Brunswick did not release them because Valentino’s English/Spanish pronunciation was subpar.
Valentino was one of the first in Hollywood to offer an award for artistic accomplishments in films. The Academy Awards would later follow suit. In 1925, he gave out his one and only medal, to John Barrymore, for his performance in Beau Brummel. The award, named The Rudolph Valentino Medal, required the agreement of Valentino, two judges and the votes of 75 critics. Everyone other than Valentino himself was eligible.
In 1919, just before the rise of his career, Valentino impulsively married actress Jean Acker who was involved with actresses Grace Darmond and Alla Nazimova. Acker got involved with Valentino in part to remove herself from the lesbian love triangle, quickly regretted the marriage, and locked Valentino out of their room on their wedding night. The couple separated soon after, the marriage never consummated. The couple remained legally married until 1921, when Acker sued Valentino for divorce, citing desertion. The divorce was granted with Acker receiving alimony. She and Valentino eventually renewed their friendship. The two remained friends until his death.
Valentino first met Winifred Shaughnessy, known by her stage name, Natacha Rambova, an American silent film costume and set designer, art director, and protégée of Nazimova, on the set of Uncharted Seas in 1921. The two worked together on the Nazimova production of Camille, by which time they were romantically involved. They married on May 13, 192 2, in Mexicali, Mexico, which resulted in Valentino’s arrest for bigamy since he had not been divorced for a full year, as required by California law at the time. Days passed and his studio at the time, Famous Players-Lasky, refused to post bail. Eventually, a few friends were able to post the cash bail.
Having to wait the year or face the possibility of being arrested again, Rambova and Valentino lived in separate apartments in New York City, each with their own roommates. On March 14, 1923, they legally remarried.
Many of Valentino’s friends disliked Rambova and found her controlling. During his relationship with her, he lost many friends and business associates, including June Mathis. Toward the end of their marriage, Rambova was banned from his sets by contract. Valentino and Rambova divorced in 1925. The end of the marriage was bitter, with Valentino bequeathing Rambova one dollar in his will.
From the time he died until the 1960s, Valentino’s sexuality was not generally questioned in print. At least four books, including Hollywood Babylon, suggested that he may have been gay despite his marriage with Rambova. In fact, the marriages to Acker and Rambova, as well as the relationship with Pola Negri, only serve to add to the suspicion that Valentino was gay and that these were “lavender marriages“, as all have documented lesbian relationships. Such books gave rise to claims that Valentino had a relationship with Ramón Novarro, despite Novarro stating they barely knew each other. Hollywood Babylon recounts a story that Valentino had given Novarro an art deco dildo as a gift, which was found stuffed in his throat at the time of his murder. No such gift existed. These books also gave rise to claims that he may have had relationships with both roommates Paul Ivano and Douglas Gerrad, as well as Norman Kerry, openly gay French actor Jacques Herbertot and André Daven. However, Ivano maintained that it was untrue and both he and Valentino were heterosexual. Biographers Emily Leider and Allan Ellenberger generally agree that he was most likely straight.
Further supposed evidence that Valentino was gay are documents in the estate of the late author Samuel Steward indicating that Valentino was a sexual partner of his. However, evidence found in Steward’s claim was subsequently found to be false, as Valentino was in New York on the date Steward claimed a sexual encounter occurred in Ohio.
Shortly before his death, Valentino was dating actress Pola Negri. Upon his death, Negri made a scene at his funeral, claiming they had been engaged. Before his death, Valentino had not mentioned the engagement to others.
Death and funeral
On August 15, 1926, Valentino collapsed at the Hotel Ambassador in New York City, New York. He was hospitalized at the New York Polyclinic Hospital and an examination showed him to be suffering from appendicitis and gastric ulcers which required an immediate operation. Despite surgery Valentino developed peritonitis. On August 18 his doctors gave an optimistic prognosis for Valentino and told the media that unless Valentino’s condition changed for the worse there was no need for updates. However, on August 21 he was stricken with a severe pleuritis relapse that developed rapidly in his left lung due to the actor’s weakened condition. The doctors realized that he was going to die, but, as was common at the time with terminal patients, decided to withhold the prognosis from the actor who believed that his condition would pass. During the early hours of August 23, Valentino was briefly conscious and chatted with his doctors about his future. He fell back into a coma and died a few hours later, at the age of 31.
An estimated 100,000 people lined the streets of New York City to pay their respects at his funeral, handled by the Frank Campbell Funeral Home. The event was a drama itself: Suicides of despondent fans were reported. Windows were smashed as fans tried to get in and an all-day riot erupted on August 24. Over 100 mounted officers and NYPD’s Police Reserve were deployed to restore order. A phalanx of officers would line the streets for the remainder of the viewing. The drama inside would not be outdone. Polish actress Pola Negri, claiming to be Valentino’s fiancée, collapsed in hysterics while standing over the coffin, and Campbell’s hired four actors to impersonate a Fascist Blackshirt honor guard, which claimed to have been sent by Benito Mussolini. It was later revealed as a planned publicity stunt. Media reports that the body on display in the main salon was not Valentino but a decoy were continually denied by Campbell.
Valentino’s funeral Mass in New York was held at Saint Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church, often called “The Actor’s Chapel”, as it is located on West 49th Street in the Broadway theater district, and has a long association with show business figures.
After the body was taken by train across the country, a second funeral was held on the West Coast, at the Catholic Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills. Valentino had no final burial arrangements and his friend June Mathis offered her crypt for him in what she thought would be a temporary solution. However, she died the following year and Valentino was placed in the adjoining crypt. The two are still interred side by side in adjoining crypts at the Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery (now the Hollywood Forever Cemetery) in Hollywood, California.