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Rudolph Valentino

Rudolph Valentino: The Beginnings

by Gregory Avery


"Success is a horrible thing for one's moral and emotional life, and that's all there is to it." - Pier Paolo Pasolini, Italian writer, theorist and filmmaker, early 1960s.

"Who are you, my lord? I do not know your name." "I am he that loves you. Is not that enough?" - a slave girl to Ahmed, during a moonlight rendezvous, in The Son of the Sheik (1926).

On August 15, 1926, Rudolph Valentino crashed to the floor of his hotel suite in the Ambassador Hotel, in New York City. He was taken to the Polyclinic Hospital, where, after lapsing in and out of consciousness for a week, the actor died, of endocarditis, septicemia, and complications from the onset of pleurisy, on August 23, at age 31. Although he was visited in the hospital by Joseph Schenck, the president of United Artists, the actor's estranged ex-wife, Natacha Rambova, was in France, where she had resettled after her divorce; Pola Negri, who claimed to be engaged to be married to Valentino, was in Hollywood working on a new film. It was Valentino's valet who helped rush him to the hospital after his collapse.

The actor's body was moved to the Campbell Funeral Home, where it was to placed on-view for a public memorial. On the first day of the viewing, people began lining up during the early morning hours, outside the building, standing in the rain. By 4 p.m., when the doors were to be opened, the numbers outside had grown to 12,000. One hundred people were injured, some by the jostling of the crowd, others when one, then two, plate glass windows collapsed. Members of the American Fascist League, allied with Italy's then-ruling government, came forward to administer crowd control during the event honoring Italy's fallen son -- even though Valentino had long since taken out U.S. citizenship. The procession of mourners went on for days. Tributes ranged from a small gold cross laid atop Valentino's coffin by an anonymous woman, to a floral tribute sent by Sophie Tucker, with a card reading, "Sympathy".

The actor's body was then borne west, by train, to California, where he had made his home. Crowds were assembled at every single station the train passed. To avoid the melee that occurred in New York, the services in Los Angeles were to be private, by invitation only. One woman in London, who claimed to be romantically linked with the actor, had already committed suicide. As Valentino's body was driven from the train station to the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, in Los Angeles, Luther Mahoney, the late actor's assistant and friend, in one final gesture, hired a biplane to drop rose pedals before the cortege.

Instead of withdrawing the actor's two new films from distribution, as was customary, theater-owners asked for more prints to meet audience demand. When the actor's last film, The Son of the Sheik, premiered in London, 1,500 people waited in line for the first showing.

Just over ten years earlier, the young Rodolpho Alfonzo Pierre Filibert Gugliemli di Valentine D'Antonguollo had come to New York City with money that his family, in the Italian village of Castellaneta, had gotten together for him. He knew French, Italian, and Spanish, but no English. He worked as a gardener, then a waiter, before finding a job as a nightclub taxi dancer, where he would ask women sitting alone in the club if they would like to dance (and only dance) with him. Rodolpho had no training as a dancer, but was a quick study, and was soon able to land work as a professional dancer on the stage.

He eventually made his way out to California, where the motion picture industry was just beginning to take off. He obtained bit parts, then supporting roles, in some pictures, but was told that his looks were too foreign to get him anywhere beyond villain or "exotic" roles.

It was the screenwriter June Mathis who is credited with spotting Rudolph Valentino, as he now called himself -- it was less unwieldy, and easier to pronounce -- and suggested him for the role of Julio in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the picture that Rex Ingram was making based on the popular Vincente Blasko-Ibañez novel. Valentino had no formal training as an actor, something which probably went towards enhancing the ingenuous and unaffected charm which showed through in his screen presence. He also happened to effortlessly project something which many, many other performers work desperately, and sometimes to ill effect, to achieve: natural sex appeal. When the filmmakers saw the first rushes of Valentino's work on Four Horsemen, especially the scenes where he performed the tango with actress Beatrice Dominguez, his role was quickly expanded. When the picture opened, it became a sensation.

While working as a bit player, Valentino had met and became acquainted with another struggling performer, June Acker, and they married in 1919. The union did not last: Acker, who was on the rebound from a relationship with another man, realized that she had made a mistake and did not love Valentino. The two parted on amiable terms -- at the time. Later, when his career was beginning to ascend, Acker would sue Valentino for divorce and financial support on the grounds of desertion. Unfortunately, the judge who heard the case granted the divorce but found that it was she, not he, who had done the deserting, when she closed the door of her hotel suite on Valentino the night of their wedding.

Valentino was working on Uncharted Seas, his next picture after Four Horsemen, when he was met by Alla Nazimova, the expatriate Russian actress who was a star on the Metro Pictures lot, and who was planing on making a modern-day version of Camille. Nazimova was considering Valentino for the role of Armand, and she trooped him over to the offices of the woman who was designing the picture, Natacha Rambova, for her approval. Natacha looked up from her sketchboard to see a young man bundled up in shaggy furs -- he was filming Arctic scenes, at the moment, for his new film -- and, later, she would recall that she saw nothing terribly significant about him, until he smiled. "That flash of even white teeth had certainly something very winning about it," she wrote, adding, "I personally found it very difficult to understand why so much fuss was being made to get him for Armand. But then, Madam at times had strange ideas." During the filming of Camille, Natacha and Valentino would begin seeing more of each other.

Natacha had been born and raised, as Winifred Shaughnesy, in Salt Lake City, and no doubt the arid, hardtack environs of Utah had something to do with forging her resolve to become a career-minded woman. The fact that she had genuine talent as a designer also helped. She was an outspoken, opinionated woman at a time when those qualities in a woman could spark either fear or outrage in other men, and Natacha could be blunt about what she thought. Those qualities seem not to have bothered Valentino, in fact, they seemed to have endeared her to him all the more. ("To me, I have been won always by the woman who has great ability to feel," said an article that appeared, under Valentino's name and the title "Woman and Love", in the March, 1922 issue of "Photoplay". "A love affair with a stupid woman no matter how beautiful, is like cold coffee for breakfast.") But both Natacha, and Valentino, would come in for a share of cudgeling during the years when they strived to realize their ambitions in the motion picture industry.

"Rudolph Valentino is a very polite man. I know because he waited for me for over an hour and never frowned or acted as if one of his relatives had disinherited him." Louella Parsons, the future Hollywood gossip queen for the Hearst newspaper empire, interviewed the actor in September, 1921 for the New York "Morning Telegraph". Valentino made polite mention of Alice Terry, his co-star in Four Horsemen, of George Melford, the director of his newest film, and particularly June Mathis -- "Anything I have accomplished I owe to her...." Of his early years, he added, "Please, do not talk much about my dancing. I never liked it, but it was the only thing I could do."

Despite his rising popularity, Valentino was being scandalously underpaid by his studio. This was also during the days when -- then, as now -- studios would try to save a buck any way they knew how. Actors, for instance, were often required to supply their own wardrobes for the films they were appearing in, and a good amount of Valentino's early earnings went towards paying the tailor who helped make the tuxedos and other outfits which he wore for his film roles.

Nonetheless, Rudy and Natacha's early years together were said to have been their happiest. They shared a small bungalow on Sunset Boulevard; they had a pet lion cub, which Natacha named Zela, and drove a rattletrap car. When Natacha's mother and stepfather, Winifred and Richard Hudnut, visited in 1921, they found that the beautiful multi-colored carpet which Natacha had created for the floor of the main room had, in fact, been painted on the floor. And Mrs. Hudnut, opening the door to the porcelain bathroom, let out a shriek when she saw the now good-sized Zela sitting in the tub. (Zela also came in handy for other things, such as the time when she caught a photographer trying to sneak a photo of Valentino and Natacha, asleep together, through an open bedroom window. Zela knew how to unlock the window screens, and took a bite out of the intruder's trousers.)

When Metro showed disinterest in renewing their contract with Valentino, he received a better-paying offer from Jesse Lasky over at Paramount. He would make three feature films during 1921, including a sea drama, Moran of the Lady Letty, and Beyond the Rocks, an Elinor Glyn story in which he co-starred with the distinguished Gloria Swanson. The first picture he made that year, though, was one which nobody thought very much of at the time they were making it.

The Sheik was a novel published in 1919 by E.M. Hull, and its story told of how a titled British woman, Lady Diana Mayo, is carried off into the desert by an Arab chieftain, Ahmed Ben Hassan, who takes one look at her and wants her for his own. Both the novel and the film carry an undertone of sexual violence. "You are so pretty and if I choose," says Ahmed, eyeing Diana in the privacy of his quarters, "I can make you love me!"

Women fainted during the first screenings of the film version, and it's not hard to see why. When Valentino's Ahmed looks at Agnes Ayres, who plays Diana in the film, lying, helpless, in his arms, there's no mistake about it: this guy wants this woman, right here, right now. Nobody had seen anything like it, before. However, something happens when Valentino stops raising his eyebrows and giving lusty looks at Agnes Ayres -- he starts giving a genuine performance. The way he carries himself and uses his walk and gestures to give Ahmed a particular sense of presence and grandeur; how his Ahmed starts when his friend, writer Raoul de St. Hubert (Adolphe Menjou), says that he took Diana away just so he can make-love to her like "a savage"; how his first tender approaches to her are met, in a word, coolly by Diana ("You hate me so much -- my kisses?") -- this is what draws us into caring about what the outcome between them will be. In the end, it turns out that Ahmed is, in fact, not as "Arab" as we thought he was -- the studio had to do something about the "miscegenation" aspect of the central relationship -- but the audience has already learned, earlier, that Diana has fallen in love with Ahmed, Arab or not, before she gets the news about his background.

The revelation of Ahmed's background was almost as much of a surprise as the identity of the novel's author: the initials "E.M." stood for Edith Maude. The book became a bestseller, anyway. And Ahmed Ben Hassan in The Sheik would become Valentino's signature role, the one that would secure him a place in screen legend and capture the imaginations of women all over the world, making him a famous sex symbol in the process. Up until then, the major U.S. romantic screen stars -- Douglas Fairbanks, Richard Barthelmess, or the ill-fated Wallace Reid -- had been very much All-American types. Valentino proved that he could attract widespread audience appeal despite the fact that he was not, as author Michael Morris tactfully put it, of "northern European stock". And while The Sheik has been imitated and ripped-off (as early as 1922) many times, it is some measure of the film's power and hold that, 75 years after it first came out, it has never been remade. (Rouben Mamoulian did a not-bad remake of Blood and Sand in 1941, with Tyrone Power, Rita Hayworth -- who does a great seduction bit with a classical guitar -- and some of the best color photography ever used in a film. Four Horsemen, however, did not fare so well when it was remade, in Cinemascope, in 1962.)

Off-screen, at the end of 1921, Valentino and Natacha had just enough money to put a down-payment on a two-story house in Whitley Heights, and they moved in just before the holidays. While Natacha worked on the designs for Nazimova's new film, Salome, Valentino rushed through the productions of Blood and Sand and The Young Rajah, the latter for which Natacha designed, for the Hindu flashback sequences, an astonishing royal costume which seemed made primarily of strings of white pearls. (Currently, The Young Rajah is among the 90% of silent films that have become lost, due to destruction or nitrate decomposition.) For Blood and Sand, based on another Vincente Blasko-Ibañez novel, Valentino played a matador, and had to convincingly handle the cape and sword. While making The Young Rajah, he had to work until 3 a.m. every day, and, afterwards, he spoke out against studio pictures which he termed "cheaters", quickly-made and inexpensive productions into which a popular star, under contract, was dropped, and which were indiscriminately turned out in order to appease the public. It was not fair business, not fair working conditions, and it certainly wasn't "art". Valentino and Natacha began to feel that they should start putting their professional time and effort to better use in the film industry. When Jesse Lasky tried to appease Valentino with a huge raise in pay, to no avail, he put the actor on suspension, meaning that Valentino could make no pictures for any other studio until his current Paramount contract expired, in 1924.

In-between the making of Moran and Young Rajah, Valentino and Natacha, accompanied by some close friends, slipped over the U.S. border and were married in the town of Mexicali. When they stopped in Palm Springs on the way back, they were informed that Valentino was in deep trouble: according to California law, at the time, one year had to elapse after his divorce from Jean Acker before he could remarry. Natacha agreed to decamp to her parents' home in New York City (she left her luggage, but took the Pekinese puppy which Rudy had given her); Valentino appeared in court for the arraignment. His bail was set, but no representatives from Paramount came forward to help: three of Valentino's friends raised the money, on a Sunday, to get him out of jail. In the trial that followed, attempts were made to openly humiliate the actor in court, such as the introduction of a photograph, taken under Natacha's aegis, showing Valentino made up in the manner of Nijinsky's portrayal of Debussy's "Faune" on the dance stage. Nazimova, veiled and emotional, was placed on the stand to testify. After all was said and done, the judge found no malfeasance and ordered the actor to pay a fine. Valentino made a simple statement to the press explaining that he had misunderstood the law and thought he was free to remarry. His fans did not desert him.

Unable to make films, Valentino and Natacha embarked on a dance tour, making appearances and performing on-stage in all the major cities. They also had to incorporate into their performance a personal pitch for the tour's sponsor, a beauty aid named Mineralava. It could have been a disaster; instead, it was a phenomenal success. Performances were standing-room-only, and those who saw them said that the couple's stage presence was electrifying. When they stopped in Salt Lake City, Valentino and Natacha visited with her parents; a charming photograph exists, showing the four of them taking a dip in the Great Salt Lake itself. Valentino also published a book of poems, entitled "Day Dreams"; it became a best-seller. Valentino had proven that he was not, as some would believe, a one-hit success. He had achieved genuine popularity.

"Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar, Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell? Whom do you lead on Rapture's roadway, far, Before you agonize them in farewell -- Before you agonize them in farewell?" - From the "Kashmiri Love Song", one of two songs Valentino recorded in 1923.

The actor's contract with Paramount was renegotiated so that he would be obligated only to make three more pictures. The Valentinos were given control over the choice of casting, director, artistic production (which Natacha would supervise), and, most importantly, story. Their first picture would be a film version of Booth Tarkington's novella Monsieur Beaucaire, which was set at the 18th century French court. Rudy and Natacha both agreed that he was best suited to playing historical roles, and Valentino had already proven himself as a performer by successfully playing, in quick succession, an Argentine gaucho, an upper-class Frenchman, an Arab nomad, a Spanish bullfighter, and the descendent of a Hindu maharajah. While his performance in Monsieur Beaucaire would be re-evaluated as one of his better ones -- Alexander Walker has written eloquently about how Valentino uses his body and movement to create his characterization on film -- the picture did not go over with the general public. One can hear echoes of Natacha's Utah upbringing in her remark that, "Some of the farmers (peasants?) of God's Country have taken unkindly to the white wigs." (Some current video copies of Monsieur Beaucaire, which look like they were struck using white flour, have the actor singing on the soundtrack during a scene where Beaucaire performs before the French court. The song heard in the video is an extract from the "Kashmiri Love Song", one of two existing music recordings that Valentino made. If the music and the picture don't seem right, that's because they aren't: another song, "A Kingdom for Two", was written for that scene in the film, but no recording survives.)

While making his final two films for Paramount -- A Sainted Devil, where he returned to the South American pampas, and Cobra, a modern-day story with historical flashbacks which Natacha professed bored her to "tears" -- the Valentinos began the acquisition of a second house, Falcon Lair, which, situated in the then sparsely populated hills overlooking Hollywood, would provide an ideal place where they could train falcons for their first independently-produced feature. The Hooded Falcon would be a historical tale made on a grand scale, and, after the completion of Cobra, Valentino and Natacha went to Europe with $40,000 to spend on artifacts and furnishings for the film. This would be in addition to the considerable amount that had already been spent on antique furnishings for their new house.

In fact, Falcon Lair had been purchased in part through a loan arranged by Joseph Schenck, of the newly-formed United Artists. He was interested in distributing the new films which Valentino would be making, after he left Paramount, through Ritz-Carlton Productions. Ritz-Carlton, a new company, was headed by a friend of George S. Ullmann, Valentino's new financial manager. When the Valentinos returned from Europe, Rudy had grown a mustache and beard for his part in "The Hooded Falcon". The public reaction to his appearance was so vehement that Valentino dispensed with the facial hair forthwith. The other unfavorable blow came when Ritz-Carlton announced that it would not finance Hooded Falcon, at least on the scale that the Valentinos had envisioned it. This effectively broke their contract with their new independent production company.

Moreover, the disappointing box office returns of Cobra were laid off as a result of Natacha's contributions to the film. She had, in fact, very little to do with it, but it was part of an antipathy that was being generated within the Hollywood industry towards her. When Valentino was approached with a contract to make films through United Artists, he and Natacha were initially overjoyed. The company had been created by Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin and D.W. Griffith so that they could produce, release and distribute their own pictures. Norma Talmadge, another successful screen star, had just joined the company to make films, there. It was Fairbanks, Pickford, Chaplin and Talmadge who convened to decide upon offering a contract to Valentino to join them. It came, though, with one stipulation: that Natacha would "exercise no voice, and have no participation" in the making of her husband's films. Debt, and a faltering reputation, caused Valentino to sign in 1925.

Natacha was given a picture of her own to work on, What Price Beauty?, while her husband began work on The Eagle. Nita Naldi, Valentino's co-star in Blood and Sand, agreed to appear in Natacha's film; the designer Adrian provided the costumes, and a young dancer, Myrna Loy, was chosen for a small part, appearing in what Loy described as a "futuristic dream sequence depicting various stages of womankind". The photos of her work in the film -- taken by Henry Waxman, who would later make Valentino's last photo portrait -- lead to her obtaining her first studio contract. (Along with Young Rajah, What Price Beauty? is also, unfortunately, lost.)

When it was finished, Natacha could initially find no distributor for her completed film. She decided to go to New York City, with George Ullmann, to seek a distributor there. In the meantime, she and Rudy decided on a trial separation, or, as Natacha termed it for reporters, a "marital vacation". The Valentinos had no children. In fact, Natacha had made a statement to that effect: "A woman living a creative life is bound necessarily to do things sometimes defiant to convention. In order to fulfill herself, she should live freely. Children bring fear, and in that way arrest personal development." Valentino himself loved children -- he would give the children who worked as extras on location for The Sheik rides on his horse, time and again, during the wait between camera takes -- but he also wanted to make his wife happy. And friends of theirs have attested to the fact that they were, indeed, devoted to each other. Paul Ivano, a friend of Valentino's since his first years in Hollywood, said of Natacha, "From the very beginning, she was Rudy's girl, and nobody else's."

Luther Mahoney, Valentino's friend and assistant, said that as he was helping Natacha prepare for the trip to New York, she "looked like a person I had seen in court when the death sentence was passed. Everything was lost, and I cried inside." Valentino saw Natacha off at the Los Angeles train station on August 13, 1925. They would never see each other again. Natacha would set up residency in France, where her parents had a chateau at Juan-les-Pins, and then file for divorce.

When news of Natacha's divorce appeal reached the United States, it took her husband by surprise. "In my profession it is best to remain single," he told reporters, with a touch of evident bitterness. " My pride has been touched, I say. But I trust that my conduct will meet the standards of a gentleman."

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