In 1930, while claimants and litigants were still contesting over the late actor's estate, one of the most compelling aspects of the Valentino legend first came into being when a solitary woman, wearing a veil and dressed in mourning, came to the actor's crypt on the anniversary of his death, to lay a floral tribute and pay homage. Nobody knew the identity of this woman, who came to be known in the press as the Lady in Black, nor would she reveal it. However, she began to visit the actor's grave each year thereafter, on the anniversary of his demise.
It was not until 1977 when Anthony Dexter, who had retired from show business to become an English teacher in the Midwest, revealed that the woman who made that first visit in 1930 was Ditra Flamé. Her mother had been a friend of Valentino's, and when Ditra was young, the actor took time to visit her when she was being hospitalized for a severe illness. In the 1920s, hospitalization could be a grave, even frightening, situation to most people. Valentino presented Ditra with a single red rose and ensured her that she would get well. He asked her only that she not forget him should she survive him. When Ditra recovered and left the hospital , she kept that promise.
Ditra Flamé also revealed that, from 1954 to 1977, she stopped visiting Valentino's grave when the simultaneous appearance of multiple, disguised Ladies in Black began to turn the annual event into a spectacle. One year, a veiled Lady in White also made an appearance. It was the outpouring of public grief immediately following the sudden death of Elvis Presley, seen on television sets and in newspapers and magazines all over the nation in the summer of 77, that inspired Flamé to again begin visiting the actor's resting place, to show how "older people felt about Valentino".
After Ditra Flamé, actress Estrellita del Regil became, for a time, the second Lady in Black. Now, that mantle is worn by Vicki J. Callahan, a striking, brunette-haired woman who organizes a yearly tribute ceremony to Valentino, on the anniversary of his death., and has established, with Gilda Tabarez, an official Lady in Black website on the Internet. Prior to this year's ceremony, she agreed to answer the following questions:
Gregory Avery: I had the opportunity to read the autobiographical notes posted on the Lady in Black website, but could you briefly tell us how you first became interested in Valentino, and how you came to be the current Lady in Black?
Vicki Callahan: I first learned of Rudolph Valentino from Anthony Dexter, the actor who portrayed him on film. I took Mr. Dexter's drama classes in high school and kept in touch after graduation. He talked about his days as a film star and about Valentino. He had known George Ullmann and also met some of Valentino's other friends. I became interested and read some of the biographies. I soon learned there was much more to the silent film star than Hollywood depicted and that Mr. Valentino was worth knowing about.
In 1993 I attended my first Valentino Memorial. I later made periodic visits to his grave, leaving flowers each time. At the 1995 memorial service, the photographers noticed me in my black attire. The camera followed me afterward as I carried roses and left them at the crypt. I will note here that illness prevented Sra. Estrellita del Regil, the second Lady in Black, from attending the service. Later that evening I saw myself on Channel 9 news. The anchorwoman mentioned the "mysterious woman in black" and that I was believed to be the third one. I accepted the mantle.
GA: I saw how Señora Estrellita Del Regil, the second Lady in Black, attended the 1998 Valentino Tribute. Did you have an opportunity to meet Ditra Flamé, the first Lady in Black?
VC: No. I never met Miss Flamé. She died almost a decade before I became involved in the Valentino Legend.
GA: Information on Señora Del Regil's career is difficult to come by. Can you give us some information on her stage and screen appearances, and how she came to be a part of the Valentino Legend?
VC: I do not know about Sra. del Regil's career, only that she was an actress in the Spanish Cinema. She believed her mother had been the first Lady in Black. After her mother's death in the early 1970s, Sra. del Regil began visiting the Valentino tomb. She identified herself as the second Lady in Black in the early 1980s. According to a cemetery employee, Sra. del Regil came daily to the cemetery until ill health prevented her visits.
GA: What do you think was the significance of the knocks which she made on the outside of Valentino's crypt during the 1993 memorial?
VC: The only time I observed Sra. del Regil knocking on the crypt was during one of her private visits. I was just leaving after paying a visit of my own. As for the significance of that gesture, I can only attribute it to her eccentricity. In her mind she had come to call on Rudy, and she was letting him know she was "at the door."
GA: I was interested to learn that Anthony Dexter left show business to embark on a second career as an English instructor. What has Mr. Dexter been doing, since then?
VC: Mr. Dexter had been a theatrical actor before he entered films. Later he returned to the theater. It was my understanding that he was working on the stage before he accepted the teaching post, while he held that position, and after retirement until he moved to Colorado. He taught drama as well as English.
GA: Which one of Valentino's films is your favorite?
VC: For me three of Valentino's films stand out. Blood and Sand, in which he delivers his best performance in my opinion. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, his greatest film. Son of the Sheik, an enjoyable, well-done, fantasy film, which includes his famous sheik character. The sequel was superior to The Sheik, and Valentino did not repeat his mistakes.
GA: Are there any famous roles, in films made after 1930, that you think Valentino would have been particularly good at portraying?
VC: Marc Anthony in Cleopatra (1934); Edmund Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo (1934); Crown Prince Rudolf in Mayerling (1936); and the title role of Dracula (1931). If Hollywood had an inkling of how that myth would evolve, the Dracula role could have been a superb one for him. A romantic horror fantasy far ahead of its time, Dracula could have taken Valentino's exotic fascination to the limit.
GA: Gloria Steinem wrote that, had she lived, Marilyn Monroe might have ended up pursuing interests completely outside of show business, such as caring for animals. What direction do you think Valentino's career might have taken?
VC: I think he would have followed through with his plans to direct and produce, if possible. I believe he would have maintained his stables and kennels, as well, given his love of horses and dogs.
GA: I've listened to the recording of the "Kashmiri Love Song" several times, and found Valentino's voice, even with the primitive recording techniques used, to be quite melodious. And people have described his speaking voice as actually having had a bit of a French accent to it. Do you think he would have had any trouble making the transition to sound pictures?
VC: I had read in one of the books that Mr. Valentino would most likely have waited for a sound film role that was suited to his particular talents. I agree with this deduction. I think from then on he would have selected all of his films with care and discrimination, thereby making the most of his appeal and allure. It is my opinion that his ventures would have been artistic successes, given the right circumstances. As to how long he would have endured past the silent era, who can tell? If he failed, I would not attribute it to any lack of ability on his part but rather to public capriciousness. One can ride the crest of fame only so long.
GA: Natacha Rambova seems to have been the one true, genuine love of Valentino's life, until events, literally, drove them apart. Valentino was said to have held out hope that they would have worked together on one more film. Do you think they would have gotten together, again, personally or professionally?
VC: No, I think Miss Rambova was out of Valentino's life permanently. She could no longer control his career, which was her sole purpose in marrying him in my opinion and that of most people. I am not saying she had no feeling or affection for him. But it was no match for her ambition. He suffered acutely after the breakup and died a short time later. He never had a chance to get over her. Given more time and a little more maturity, I think he would have succeeded in distancing himself. As time passed, they would have drifted too far in separate directions to join forces again, either in a personal or professional venture.
GA: There was some concern, prior to its recent change of ownership, about upkeep at Hollywood Memorial Park, where Valentino's crypt is located. Has that since been rectified?
VC: Yes. The Cassity family took over the cemetery, made notable improvements, and has continued to maintain it.
GA: I understand that "Aspiration", the much-beleaguered Valentino memorial statue, is back in DeLongpre Park?
VC: It is true that "Aspiration" is in DeLongpre Park. I have the photographs to prove it on my site under the heading, "Aspiration."
GA: Which of today's actors do you think comes closest to approximating both Valentino's talent and charisma?
VC: I can think of one extraordinary man of my own generation: British actor, Stuart Wilson, who was trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. He was very different in genre from Valentino, and yet Wilson emanated passion, exuberance, and intensity to match Rudy's. These qualities were revealed in his early work and, I believe, made him difficult to cast. Despite Mr. Wilson's charisma and sizable talent, which he repeatedly demonstrated over the years, he did not achieve what we would call stardom. He is a working actor. I have noted that any role he undertakes, principal or supporting, is imbued with his depth, intelligence, insight, and finesse. Stuart Wilson has what I call "gravitas."
GA: Can you give us an idea of what this year's memorial ceremony to Valentino will be like?
VC: So far as I can predict, it will resemble the better ones of the past. Chairs will be provided, and I expect a large turn-out. The program should follow the same format with an innovation or two, perhaps.
GA: Given the state of films today in particular and the way we have come to live in general, if Valentino had anything he wanted to say to people today, what do you think that would be?
VC: "We have forgotten how to live, how to love, how to feel. Grace, gentility, and honor are all but extinct. The art of cinema, though rare enough in my time, is lost today with very few exceptions. A sad commentary on our present and future when we must look to the past for aesthetic fulfillment. On the other hand, I am most impressed with what you call special effects in film. Anything is possible. I find your 'information age' most amazing. A telephone in every home was my heritage. Today you have in your homes television and computers connected to each other around the world. I am astounded that people on the opposite ends of the earth can contact one another in a matter of seconds thanks to 'Internet'. How splendid to go 'on-line' in search of information on any subject under the sun and find it with pictures that move and talk! It is now possible to enjoy the best of music for hours without changing a record because of the 'CD'. The sound quality is superb and, unlike our old records, the CD is virtually indestructible. I could go on and on with the marvels of this era. Is it not possible to have the best of both worlds--all the wonders of the new with the beauty and refinement of the old?"
Many thanks go out to Vicki J. Callahan, for graciously consenting to answer questions for this article, and Donna Hill, for providing a copy of the extremely elusive lyrics to the "Kashmiri Love Song". The official Lady in Black website is at http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Boulevard/7770/ladyinblack.html "Rudolph Valentino's Home on the Web" may be found at http://www.geocities.com/~rudyfan/rudy.htm).