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Rudolph Valentino

Rudolph Valentino: The End

by Gregory Avery

 

Valentino began doing his own stunts during the filming of The Eagle, including a scene involving a team of runaway horses where the actor was accidentally dragged for a hundred feet. After The Eagle, he appeared in The Son of the Sheik, where he re-teamed with Agnes Ayres, reprising her role from the earlier film, and Vilma Banky, with whom he had worked in The Eagle and whom he was supposedly having an off-set romance with, as well.

He was seen around town with a variety of women, including Jean Acker. But the woman with whom he was most seen was Pola Negri, a film star in her own right at that time, and who was also sharing time with the actor at Falcon Lair. "Call it fatalism," the actress wrote, years later, of her first encounter with Valentino, "but from our very first meeting I knew that, somehow, this man had the power either to destroy my life or to so irrevocably alter its course that it would never again be the same."

Pola Negri had, literally, worked her way up from nothing, vaulting from a position as a dancer for the Imperial Ballet of Poland to one as a performer with Max Reinhardt's theatre company, then playing Madame du Barry in Ernst Lubitsch's 1919 film, the success of which brought them both to Hollywood. She carried on a famous rivalry with one of Valentino's previous co-stars, Gloria Swanson, was on even worse terms with Tallulah Bankhead, and by the mid-Twenties was making $10,000 a week. The Hungarian playwright Ernest Vajda, after meeting and visiting with her in Hollywood, called Pola "the greatest actress of our time". She had a pet panther which she took for walks on a leash, something which must have caught Valentino's fancy after his experiences in the Sunset Boulevard bungalow with Zela.

It was not long before people started speculating about the development of their relationship. "Engaged? I do not like the word," Pola told reporters. "It sounds too much like a prison or a business engagement."

"I do not like the word 'engagement'," Valentino told reporters. "It sounds too much like a contract one has to perform by a certain date."

So, it was up to Pola's mother to spill the news. Mme. Eleanora Chalupec, concluding a visit with her daughter in the U.S., told reporters in June, 1926 that her daughter and Valentino were to be married the following March. Mme. Chalupec was on her way back to her home at Villa Reull, a sixty-room house set on 75 acres of gardens, outside Paris. "My daughter is very fond of Rudolph and he is fond of her," she stated. "He would make Pola a splendid husband. But she doesn't believe in divorces, and her first marriage ended that way. If she and Rudolph are still fond of each other next March, they will probably be married in France."

Meanwhile, Valentino quietly proceeded with plans to do a film adaptation of a James Branch Cabell novel, The Silver Stallion, a medieval fantasy which would provide an opportunity for him to work once more with Natacha. Even while he was out and about with Pola Negri, he had never stopped wearing a piece of jewelry which Natacha had given to him, a "slave bracelet", as it was referred to, made of flat pieces of silver formed in the likeness of links in a chain. Friends started noticing that Valentino's hair was thinning.

As Pola started work on Hotel Imperial with director Mauritz Stiller -- who had just come to Hollywood with a young Swedish actress named Greta Garbo -- Valentino began an exhaustive tour of the country, making personal appearances in all the major cities where Son of the Sheik was opening. It was during this time that the Chicago Tribune ran an unsigned editorial wherein the writer expressed absolute appallment and outrage over finding a face powder dispenser positioned in the men's room of a new nightspot -- presumably so that men could attain the same translucent pallor that Valentino had upon the screen. "Rudy, the beautiful gardener's boy, is the prototype of the American male. Hell's bells. Oh, sugar."

There was a flip side to Valentino's popularity. Women adored him, but he also had to put up with numerous slights from men who saw him as an adversary, either because of his influence over women or, worse, his ethnic background. The results could be staggering, such as in this, again unsigned, missive that appeared in pages of "Photoplay" in 1922. Try imagining this appearing in one of today's issues of "People": "I hate Valentino! All men hate Valentino. I hate his oriental optics; I hate his classic nose; I hate his patent-leather hair; I hate his Svengali glare; I hate him because he's the great lover of the screen; I hate him because he's an embezzler of hearts;" [What exactly is that supposed to mean?] "I hate him because he's too apt in the art of osculation;" [That's "kissing", to you and me.] "I hate him because he's leading man for Gloria Swanson;" [Not when Joseph Kennedy was around.] "I hate him because he's too good-looking." [Does Tom Cruise get letters like this?]

Valentino's response to the Chicago Tribune editorial was swift and unhesitating: he challenged the writer to a boxing match, at wherever and whenever the writer saw fit. The writer of the editorial never came forward, although Valentino, while he was in New York City, participated in a public sparring match with Frank O'Neil, sports writer for the Evening Journal. In hindsight, O'Neil was very sporting about the whole thing, especially when Valentino decked him with two punches. Along with fencing and horseback-riding, the actor regularly sparred at the Hollywood Athletic Club to stay in shape, and counted Jack Dempsey among his friends.

All of this came to an abrupt halt in Valentino's suite at the Ambassador Hotel, on August 15. The actor was initially diagnosed as having acute appendicitis and severe gastric ulcers, and operated upon accordingly. He was placed in the best room at the Polyclinic Hospital, the one known as the "lucky suite". As pleurisy set in, the actor's temperature and pulse rose, then fell, then rose again. Blood donors were called upon. While Joseph Schenck was allowed in to see the actor, Norma Talmadge (who was also Mrs. Schenck) and Lowell Sherman were turned away. Pola Negri, looking suitably careworn and haggard, met with reporters in Hollywood and told them that she would rush to the side of her "betrothed" as soon as she finished work on her current picture. Gloria Swanson telephoned the hospital for news on Valentino's condition. The switchboard at the Polyclinic was so busy that it was sometimes handling as many as eight to ten calls a minute. Flowers began arriving for the actor in such abundance that they had to be banked against the walls outside his hospital room.

During all the hullabaloo, the actor's mind was focused on someplace else entirely: a fishing trip that he had scheduled to take, the following month, in Maine. He spoke of it to Joseph Schenck, and to one of the team of doctors who were treating him at the hospital. "I hope you have plenty of fishing rods," the actor asked. "Mine are in California." Shortly afterwards, Valentino lapsed into a coma.

When news of his death reached Pola, she abruptly halted work on Hotel Imperial -- at great expense to both herself, and to the picture -- so that she could immediately go to Valentino. The actor's brother, Alberto Guglielmi, insisted that a High Mass be said before Valentino's body left New York City, and this was done, at St. Malachy's, after Alberto arrived from Italy. Douglas Fairbanks, Charles Chaplin and Joseph Schenck were among the pallbearers. Jean Acker collapsed during the ceremony. So did Pola, or, as a famous newspaper headline put it, the actress "faints! Faints! FAINTS!" George Ullmann assumed control of both the actor's estate and of the funeral arrangements, and it was he, Alberto and his family, and Pola who stewarded Valentino's body home, one last time, to California.

And, even then, there was still some confusion about where to place the body. At first, it was placed in a crypt in the mausoleum of Hollywood Memorial Park, above that of Virginia Ruth Mathis, June Mathis' mother. 5,000 people visited the crypt after Valentino's interment, not one of them knowing that Valentino's body would have to be again moved, in 1928, when June Mathis herself passed away. The actor's body was placed in a third, borrowed crypt beside the Mathises, but speculation about further relocation was abated when June Mathis' husband, Sylvano Balboni, arranged for the Valentino estate to purchase the crypt and allow the actor to, finally, rest undisturbed.

All of the belongings, antiquities, and "objects d'art" that Valentino had so extensively and meticulously collected during his life were sold. The estate catalogue was published extensively. (And copies of it, today, fetch enormous prices.) The house and property at Whitley Heights were sold to make way for the new Los Angeles freeway, but souvenir hunters systematically took the house apart, piece by piece, before it could ever be moved. No such fate occurred to Valentino's second house, Falcon Lair, which quietly went through a succession of owners, including the heiress Doris Duke.

"Aspiration", a soaring bronze Art Deco statue by the sculptor Roger Noble Burnham, was unveiled in Los Angeles' DeLongpre Park in 1930, in memory of Valentino. The statue was beset by a bizarre series of vandalisms until, finally, the city's Parks Department removed it in 1954, depositing it in a warehouse where it languished for years.

Natacha was not present for any of the memorials to her former husband, nor did she contest the actor's will, which left her the sum total of $1.00. When she reunited with her parents following her departure from California, Natacha found that they had become believers in theosophy, the spiritualist movement founded by Madame Blavatsky which included both the belief in a spiritual afterlife and of the soul evolving through multiple lifetimes. (Spiritualism, and communication with the dead, acquired a great following in both the U.S. and Europe following the First World War, and Natacha and Rudy had done some dabbling in it themselves, even consulting the spirits over career decisions.) Natacha did not receive news of her former husband's hospitalization until only a few days before his death. Now, she found herself in a position where she was not even notified in a timely enough fashion so that she could be present at his bedside during his final hours. It was theosophy, or her belief in it, that came to her aid the most at this time. Through a medium, she contacted Valentino's spirit, and she received messages of comfort and reassurance. She included these at the end of a book she wrote about her life with the actor, which was first serialized and then published in book form in 1926.

George Ullmann got his own book about the actor onto the stands by the end of 1926. Ullmann had spent four sleepless days and nights at the Polyclinic Hospital towards the end, and when he was no longer able to remain in the actor's hospital room, he stood just outside the door during Valentino's final hours. When finally informed of the actor's death, Ullmann broke-down completely.

Jean Acker wrote the words and music to a sheet music song, entitled "We Will Meet at the End of the Trail". When she first heard about the publication of Natacha's spiritual communications with the actor, her tart response was, "He was intelligent, and if he had lived the world would have heard of him in other ways. Even if such messages were received, they should have been too sacred to broadcast." Acker would continue working in Hollywood for another 25 years, mostly in bit parts, uncredited, although they were sometimes bit parts in very good pictures, such as San Francisco, Remember the Night and Spellbound.

Pola Negri managed to squeeze just a little bit more juice out of her "troth" to the late actor. After all, she had spent $2,000 on roses and $13,000 on wardrobe for the occasion, not to mention complying with the attentions of the ardent press, who recorded her every sound and move on both coasts. And she even got help from the family! Alberto Guglielmi stated, although there was "no ring and no announcement", that "we all knew the engagement existed and were very much glad. We liked Pola very much." The following April, the offices of the London Daily Mail received a radiogram from the S.S. "Aquitania" announcing the engagement of Pola to Prince Serge Mdivani, who was traveling on-board the Transatlantic liner with her. They were married in the small village of Seraincourt, outside Paris, on May 14.

Pola's career zigzagged wildly after 1926, due in part, some felt, to her histrionics over Valentino's death. While she gave an excellent performance in the anti-war film Barbed Wire, she vacillated with the arrival of "talkies", which the public embraced wholeheartedly, causing many bad sound pictures to push some exemplary silent ones out of the movie houses. Pola went to Europe, made some pictures in Britain, returned to the U.S., then went abroad again, this time to work at the gigantic Ufa studio facilities in Germany, which were now under the control of Joseph Goebbels' Reichs Propaganda ministry. She was said to have been a favorite actress of the Fuhrer himself, and both Hitler and Goebbels could show great deference towards performers whom they favored, such as Leni Riefenstahl, the actress-turned-filmmaker who was given unlimited resources with which to film the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. When the Nazis invaded France in 1940, Pola went straight back to the U.S. and took out American citizenship. (At the end of that year, the Wannsee conference would put into effect plans for the "final solution". And Pola was part Jewish.) The actress made only a few more films, the last being The Moonspinners, opposite Hayley Mills, in 1964, before retiring to the clear-air environs of Texas to write her memoirs.

Natacha would have considerably more extraordinary experiences of her own. She returned to America, became a successful independent designer and couturier, and even did some journalism, writing about the 1927 trial of Ruth Snyder and Henry Judd Gray, who conspired to kill Ruth's husband, Albert, as he slept at the couple's home in Queens, New York, while their 9-year-old daughter was asleep in an adjoining room. Natacha's reporting seems to reflect the air in which the proceedings were held: "Through one crowded hour yesterday I sat in Queens County Court House at what is generally known as the Snyder-Gray murder trial. To me it was a big business conference. I was in the Office of Crime!"

Natacha then went to Spain, remarried, remained there with her husband during the outbreak of civil war, took some remarkable photographs of the events that occurred, and then went to Egypt, where she visited and photographed the sites and tombs of the Pharaohs. She left behind two collections of antiquities, one of Nepali and Lamaistic art which resides in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and one of Egyptian artifacts which is on display at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, in Salt Lake City.

Possessing the jewels of the earth, Holding within my grasp the scepter of the universe All these would but make me more the pauper -- Were I beggard of your love. - "Poverty", from Valentino's book of poetry, "Day Dreams".


Among the throngs who attended the first showings of "Son of the Sheik" in London, there was Edith Maude Hull. When stopped, by a surprised reporter, in the lobby of the Regent Street cinema where it was playing, she explained that she had wanted to see the picture as a ticket-buying member of the audience, just like everyone else.

Hollywood made its first attempt at filming the life of Valentino in 1951, with Anthony Dexter, who won the part, over 75,000 other aspirants, because of his facial similarity to the actor. A 1975 TV film got most of the facts right, and scored two casting coups, Yvette Mimieux as a cool, stylish Natacha Rambova, and the indomitable Suzanne Pleshette as June Mathis. Ken Russell's 1977 film about Valentino generated a great deal of anticipation when it was announced that Rudolf Nureyev would play the lead. It was to have premiered at the Cannes Film Festival that year, but, for reasons never fully explained, was not included on the final program. Then the film opened, in the fall, and one could see why such a horror was kept out of nice, clean, sunlit Cannes. (The film also leaves you in a doubly foul mood once you can tell that Nureyev brings great physical agility and expression to the part and to the screen, something which Russell mean-spiritedly mocks and subverts in the film at ever single opportunity.)

"Not too long ago, when Valentino was accelerating the heart action and increasing the blood pressure of the female, she saw herself, in her mind's eye, before their luxurious tent pitched under a desert moon sipping a champagne cocktail. Today the squealing female adolescent -- dressed in pink hair curlers, a halter, blue jeans and dirty feet -- sees herself in her optimum vision of romance in the back seat of a convertible in a drive-in theater under a smog-filled sky, chomping on a pizza and sniffing airplane glue, the better to appreciate an orgiastic movie that stars Hysterical Hector and His Hysterectomy Five, who are all narcissistically in love with their own acne. 'I want to take you in my arms' has become, as electric guitars plunk their way into young America's heart, 'I whonner hol' yer han'.' Finally, to plight their troth, the adolescent driver will permit the jill of his choice to join him in a contemporary ceremony of fidelity: together they will hold up a liquor store."

Thus spoke Irving Schulman, in the epilogue to his mammoth 1967 biography of Valentino, which devotes its entire first 87 pages to turning the actor's lying-in-state in New York City into the riot scene at the end of Nathaniel West's The Day of the Locust. 499 pages later, after one has gotten the distinct impression that the author does not like either teenagers or the Beatles, there is still no acknowledgment of sources or references. Schulman does get one observation right, that many people tried to take advantage of Valentino while he was a star. "You know, you're like a big gold mine that is not staked out, but everyone is doing all they can to get control of this mine," Luther Mahoney recalled telling Valentino.

Today, there is still no definitive biography on this most highly influential screen star, although Michael Morris, in his 1991 book on Natacha Rambova, "Madam Valentino", provides the most detailed and fair-minded portrait of their relationship, drawn in part from interviews Morris had with surviving people who knew both of the Valentinos, together and apart. Alexander Walker's slim volume on the actor resorts to erudite speculation as to how the actor's private life influenced his professional one. And a new biography published last year, in Britain, attempts to ascribe to Valentino public displays of behavior which would shame a dockworker, as well as pairing him up with both male and female lovers. Whether this is pushing Valentino into a closet, rather than out of one, is anyone's guess, at this point.



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