"The lover is a husband's instrument of revenge." Balzac
Rodolpho Alfonzo Raffaeli Pierre Filibert di Valentina d'Antonguolla had an Italian father and a French mother. His father was the town veterinarian in Castellaneta in the South of Italy. The boy left there in 1913 to seek a career in the United States. He stated his occupation as "agriculturist" and hired out as a gardener on Long Island. Later he worked as a bus boy and a waiter and started to learn the barber's trade. He knew some hardships; between jobs there were times when he slept on a bench in New York's Central Park. But he was a strikingly handsome and virile teenager and a splendid dancer. A friend got him a job at Maxim's as a dancing partner, also called gigolo in those days, and after a while he went into a touring musical show. The company broke up out West and Rudolph crashed the movies as an extra.
June Mathis, one of Hollywood's top scenario writers, saw him in a small role and got him tested for The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse when she drew the continuity job on the
Ibáñez adventure story. A fast run through in the projection room sold him to Rex Ingram, the director, and Rudolph Valentino was on the glory road. The Four Horsemen was a smash hit in 1921 and others followed in a rush, including the role of Armand opposite Nazimova's Camille. Then came The Sheik, the lusty hot-sands role which capped Valentino's rocket-like rise to the heights. The Latin collar-ad with the classic features and the bedroom eyes had so much appeal that he utterly enslaved the female moviegoers and had the green-eyed males growing sideburns and greasing their hair down in a frantic effort to steal some of his enchantment. For the girls, no other celluloid hero, before or after, would match Valentino's boundless magnetism. He became the Flapper's dreamboat just as Clara Bow, right on his heels, became the vicarious soul-mate of Lord knows how many otherwise normal men and boys.
Valentino thought he had an answer for his own success with the ticket-buying fair sex. "Women," he said, "do not become infatuated with Rudolph Valentino. They do not love him. They are infatuated with what he stands for. They love the man they imagine he represents. They are in love with love."
Valentino's private life failed to match the smooth perfection written into his scripts. Thus his divorce from actress Jean Acker in 1922 had its embarrassing moments. Miss Acker alleged that the Great Lover, perish the thought, had struck her during a household quarrel. Valentino in turn said his wife had deserted his bed and board, an item which must have made some American women wonder more about him than her. Natacha Rambova, ex-ballet dancer, art director for Nazimova and step-daughter of the millionaire cosmetics man, Richard Hudnut, became the dashing film hero's next bride. There was some trouble about that, too. The groom was accused of bigamy for slipping down to Mexico and tying a second knot before Miss Acker's one-year interlocutory decree became final. Valentino explained that he didn't really mean to set up housekeeping with Miss Rambova until his divorce came of age, so a kindly judge let him off.
Miss Rambova had strong ideas about her husband's work before the cameras and was not above demanding changes in script, lighting and costumes on his pictures. He called her "The Boss," but the studio evidently had another name for the lady, and eventually Valentino agreed to a contract with a proviso which barred her from the set. Miss Rambova packed up and left presently, letting it be known that the Great Lover got on her nerves. She went to Paris for a divorce while Valentino consoled himself with the sultry Pola Negri and some high-powered cars.
That same summerit was 1926, Valentino's lasta new unpleasantness arose. An editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune, dismayed to find pink talcum powder in a hotel washroom, charged that the American male was going positively effeminate under the Valentino influence. It was a light-hearted piece but the fiery Latin, passing through the City of Capone after finishing The Son of the Sheik, angrily challenged the Tribune man to a duel (name your weapons) or even a fist fight. In turn, Valentino was accused of lusting after publicity, but it wasn't so. The incident hurt him deeply.
THE BIG FUNERAL "We wish to announce that normal decorum and dignity now prevail at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Church." Ad in the New York papers after the services for Rudolph Valentino
In New York in mid-August, 1926, Rudolph Valentino became violently ill. Doctors operating to remove an inflamed appendix found two perforated gastric ulcers and in time pleurisy, pneumonia, and peritonitis developed. For days the nation hung on every bedside bulletin, the fans alternating between hope and despair. Then the star died, on August 23, and New York was treated to the gaudiest display of sopping-wet mass emotion in its history. The body was hardly cold before the enterprising inside men on Bernarr Macfadden's Evening Graphic concocted a most ghoulish idea. The paper sent two photographers to Frank E. Campbell's Funeral Church on Broadwayone to make pictures and the other to pose in an empty casket. A head-shot of Valentino was superimposed on the photothis was the Graphic's "composograph" techniqueand the tabloid hit the streets an hour later with a ghastly front page portrait of the Great Lover "lying in state" before the cadaver reached the undertakering parlor. The Graphic had to run its presses all night to meet the demand for the grisly fake photo, and by morning the situation at Campbell's also was out of hand.
More than 30,000 people, men as well as women, descended on Broadway for a final in-person look at the departed idol. More than one hundred were injured as mounted police staged repeated charges to keep the frenzied mob from over-running the chapel. Foot police swung their clubs freely in the near-riots which followed. When order was restored, the line waiting to file past the catafalque in Campbell's Gold Room extended for eleven blocks. The "Funeral King" had a highly-skilled press agent, Harry C. Klemfuss, beating the drums for the Broadway spectacle, and Hollywood had a solid-gold stake in the publicity avalanche because it had unreleased Valentino pictures in the cans. The crafty Klemfuss left no angles unturned. He had armed Black Shirt guards (supposedly 9 genuine Fascisti) guarding the coffin and among the wreaths he had one labeled "From Benito." This started as a very political argument to fill whatever empty spaces were left in the papers. Mussolini, as it happened, wouldn't buy the gag. He cabled a denial that he had (A) authorized the Jack Shirts or (B) sent the flowers.
Why, he didn't even know the guy!
Pola Negri rushed in from California and wept real tears, in cascades, at the station, on the plush red carpet beneath the candle-lit bier, at her hotel and at all stops in between. The grief-stricken brunette withheld her giant sobs only long enough to announce that she was Rudolph's one true love and that nothing but the hand of death, and death alone, could have stayed them from the altar. (Ziegfeld's Marion Kay Brenda put in an immediate demurrer, saying Valentino really meant to marry her). As a sideline for the historians, a separate communiqué revealed that Miss Negri's mourning weeds, all specially tailored, had cost no less than $3,000. In the Actor's Chapel at St. Malachy's Church, where the services were held, Mary Pickford also wept for Valentino but there too Miss Negri stole the show; she became hysterical.
The boy from Castellaneta, an able gardener and expert tango dancer and a pretty good actor, too, was shipped West for burial in Hollywood Memorial Park. But as Mark Hellinger remarked, "Even in death there is no peace for Rudolph Valentino." Before he was in the grave Tin Pan Alley produced a song called "There's a New Star in Heaven Tonight," with his picture on the cover. The composer said it was a simple sentimental tune and could be played with two fingers. A critic went further: he said it could be played with two thumbs.