Rudolph Valentino

Hollywood Heartthrob and Latin Lover

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Rudolph Valentino was the first and biggest heartthrob of Hollywood and melted women’s hearts everywhere. His nicknames were „Latin Lover“ and „The Great Lover“ or simply „Valentino“. He died at the very young age of 31 and cemented his fame forever as the young and beautiful Latin lover all women long for. 

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Beginnings

Rudolph Valentino was born Rodolfo Pietro Filiberto Raffaello Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonella on May 6, 1895 in Catellaneta, Apulia, Italy. His father was in the Italian army and his mother, who was of Italian descent, but had been born and raised in France was laiting-in-waiting to a local Italian Marquesse. His father actually died from malaria when Rodolfa was only 11 years old. Rodolfo had two siblings, an older brother and a younger sister. 

Even as a boy Rodolfo was exceptionally good-looking and was of course fussed over by his mother, his father on the hand did not think much of the boy. He did not fare well in school and was eventually sent to an agricultural school in Genua, where he would earn a degree. 

For a time, Rodolfo would live in Paris, but returned to Italy shortly after. As he was unable to secure a job, he set sail for America and arrived on Ellis Island on December 23, 1913. 18 year old and full of anticipation. 

America

He started out in New York City with odd jobs like waiting tables in restaurants, gardening and as a bus boy. Soon though restaurateur Joe Pain, who owned several establishments discovered Valentino’s talent for dance and hired him to dance the tango with Joan Sawyer for $50/week. Subsequently he worked as a taxi dancer at Maxim’s Restaurant-Cabaret. For those who have never heard of taxi-dancers: A taxi-dancer ist a paid dance partner in a ballroom dance. 

At age 22, Valentino joined an operetta company and toured through the US but disbanded, joined a production of Robinson Crusoe Jr. and finally landed in San Francisco with a small part in a production of Nobody Home. In San Francisco, he met fellow actor Norman Kerry. And Kerry was the one suggesting to Valentino to try his luck in the movies. So, the two men travelled to LA and became roommates at the Alexandria Hotel, which back then was still a luxury hotel. Valentino would continue to give dancing lessons and perform dance. His clientele consisted largely of older rich women, who were quite happy to lend him their expensive cars to cruise around Hollywood. He was so successful with his dancing that he eventually could afford his own place on Sunset Boulevard and devote time to finding acting roles. 

Early Acting and Metro

Valentino found first roles as an extra in movies usually playing the villain as he was quite the opposite of what the typical male star looked like back then – Valentino was dark eyed with olive skin, pomade in his hair and an exotic Latin look. In 1919, he had a part in Clara Kimball Young’s movie Eyes of Youth and as second lead in The Delicious Little Devil opposite Mae Murray. 

Valentino was quite disappointed to be typecast as a villain. During his travel to Palm Springs to film Stolen Moments, Valentino would be reading the Vicente Blasco Ibanez novel The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. He was convinced that this was great material and learned that Metro had secured the filming rights for the bestseller. He went to Metro’s office in New York – just to find out that screenwriter June Mathis had seen him in Eyes of Youth and wanted to cast him in the role of Julio Desnoyers. The movie was released in 1921 and became a huge hit, it was one of the first movies to make over $1m at the box office and it became the highest grossing silent movie of all times. Despite this success, Valentino did not get a pay-raise and got stuck with the $350/week that he had received beforehand. He filmed the B-movie Unchartered Seas for Metro as well as The Conquering Power with a script by June Mathis. Then, Valentino ended things with Metro and went to Famous-Players-Lasky, which would later become Paramount Pictures. 

Hollywood Fame with Famous-Players-Lasky

Jesse Lasky as always had the right idea about what audiences wanted: They wanted Valentino. They wanted a good story. So, Lasky cast Valentino in 1921’s The Sheik. It would be the role that forever got attached to Valentino – it was his biggest success, his legacy. He did four more feature-length movies and then Elinor Glyn’s Beyond The Rocks opposite Gloria Swanson. 

Lasky convinced screenwriter June Mathis to come to Famous Players Lasky as well and she penned Blood and Sand for Valentino specifically. Valentino was disappointed that the bull-fighter story would not be filmed in Spain, but in California instead. He was further enraged by other changes in production including a director that he did not want to have on the movie. Nevertheless, the movie became one of the four top-grossing movies of 1922 and broke attendance records. Valentino himself considered it one of his best movies. 

The Young Rajah, another movie trying to use his successful image of the exotic lover followed. His wife Natacha Rambova was responsible for the lavish and extravagant costumes on this one. After this movie, Valentino went on strike. All alone by himself.

On Strike

Why did Valentino declare a „one-man strike“ against Famous-Players-Lasky? It was because of financial reasons. At that time, Valentino, the biggest star of the studio, only made $1,250/week. He also was enraged that Famous-Players-Lasky had broken their promise to film Blood and Sand in Spain – Valentino had been eager to go back to Europe to see his family again, which he hadn’t for ten years by then. 

Finally, Famous-Players-Lasky backed down as they were already in quite some trouble – they had had to shelve all Roscoe Arbuckle pictures and could not stand to lose another star. So, they upped his salary to $7,000/week. But – Valentino rejected the offer, demanding more creative control. The studio retaliated that this was all they had to offer and that Valentino was really a diva and temperamental and that he caused more trouble than he was worth. Of course, other studios tried to get him under contract, but Famous-Players-Lasky extended his contract despite the feud and therefore prevented him from getting any other employment as an actor. The thing was though: Valentino did need money as he was already in debt from the divorce from his first wife Jean Acker. 

Mineralava Dance Tour

So, in 1922, Valentino became the spokesman for Mineralava Beauty Clay via his new manager George Ullman. Of course, a smart move as Valentino was allowed to work as a spokesperson – and almost each and every American woman was a fan of his. Target audience then was also a check for the company. 

The Mineralava Dance Tour was a five-month tour throughout the US and Canada. It was Valentino and wife Natasha Rambova dancing at eighty-eight stops across the continent, albeight Rambova would be replaced by another nameless dancer after most of the stops, reasons unknown. Mineralava was the sponsor of the tour and Valentino would praise the products, but would use the tour also for his own public reasons, to get the public on board for his strike against Famous-Players-Lasky. For the most part, Valentino was well-received, but some were not interested in hearing him talk, especially not about his feud with the studio. They wanted to see him and meet him in the real. During the tour, Valentino would also give radio interviews, which also dealt more with this feud and one-man strike than with his performances.

At the end of the tour, a beauty contest would take place at Madison Square Garden, where Valentino and judges would crown the beauty queen out of the 88 ladies present. David O. Selznick would make a movie out of it called Rudolph Valentino and his 88 Beauties. 

Back in the Movie Business

Finally, Valentino was able to reach settlement with Famous-Players-Lasky. The new contract was a split contract with Ritz-Carlton Pictures, included a $7,500/week salary, creative control and filming in New York. Two pictures for Famous Players, four for Ritz-Carlton. The deal was all the more sweeter as Valentino was interested in and fascinated by every part of movie-making. During previous productions, he would study directors’ plans and had ideas about how to enhance the film experience, he believed in authenticity and shooting on location a great deal. His two pictures for Famous Players, both filmed in 1924, Monsieur Beaucaire and A Sainted Devil, did poorly at the box office and he was afterwards released from the studio. So, four more pictures for Ritz-Carlton. Rambova and Valentino were eager to film their pet project The Hooded Falcon with a script by June Mathis. But, the Valentinos did not like the script and sent it back to be rewritten. Mathis, an excellent screenwriter and mentor or Valentino took this as a personal insult and stopped talking to Valentino completely for two years. While Rambova was busily creating costumes for The Hooded Falcon, Valentino filmed Cobra opposite Nita Naldi. Then, the Falcon Crew set sails for France, Europe, to get the right outfits and style. When they returned to Hollywood, Valentino sported a new beard, which I personally think suited him very well, and all the budget available had already been spent on costumes and set design. Thus, Ritz-Carlton ended both production as well as their contract. Valentino was free. 

Independence with United Artists

But, already during the filming of Monsieur Beaucaire, so at the very beginning of the new contract, Valentino had been approached by Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks to ask him to join United Artists. They offered him quite a great deal and he jumped on it once he was free from other contractual obligations. He received $10,000/week plus percentage of the three movies that he was obligated to film per year. The only caveat: His wife Natasha Rambova was banned from all production and set. Why? During previous productions she had shown a controlling behavior, extensive spending and overall negative influence on Valentino. Instead she received $30,000 to produce a movie of her own, which would become What Price Beauty? starring Myrna Loy. 

He filmed The Eagle opposite Vilma Banky in 1925 and then, in 1926, The Son of the Sheik, again opposite Vilma Banky. 

Death

A month after the grand premiere of The Son of the Sheik, during which Valentino and June Mathis finally reconciled, Valentino collapsed at the Hotel Ambassador in Manhattan. He was immediately rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with appendicitis and gastric ulcers. It turns out, he had, what would later be called Valentino’s syndrome. That’s when duodenal ulcers have already perforated the intestines and gastric liquids have leaked into the abdominal cavity. These fluids cause peritonitis, so inflammation of the abdominal cavity, which is exactly what happened to Valentino after surgery that tried to fix the perforation of the retroperitoneum. Although he initially got better, he developed additional pleuritis, which is the inflammation of the membranes that line the chest cavity. He developed a sepsis, an overwhelming infection and the doctors fully well knew that Valentino was going to die but they did not tell him. He slipped into a coma and died on August 23, 1926 at the age of only 31 years. 

Already one day later, on August 24, his body was put on display in the Frank Campbell Funeral Home in Manhattan. 100,000 people lined the streets and tried to have a look and pay respects. The city was in complete chaos as an all-day riot started, windows were smashed, fans committed suicide. His girlfriend at that time and self-proclaimed fiancée Pola Negri made a scene and collapsed into hysterics over the coffin. Valentino had a funeral mass in Manhattan on August 30, after which his remains were transported to Los Angeles. As Valentino was never aware that he was about to die and very young, he had no made any final burial arrangements. So, his friend and mentor June Mathis offered a temporary solution – she had a crypt available as she had then already divorced her husband the crypt had been planned for. Unfortunately, Mathis died the following year as well and the temporary solution became the final solution. Valentino and Mathis are still lying side by side at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, California. 

A tradition related to Valentino’s grave is „the woman in black“. Usually on the anniversary of his death, a woman in black carrying a red rose comes to his grave and mourns him. The first woman was Ditra Flame and it was all a publicity stunt cooked up by public relations genius Russel Birdwell in 1928. Now, it has become some kind of a tradition and the current „woman in black“ is picture historian is Karie Bible. 

June Mathis

A side note on June Mathis as she was one of the most important factors in Valentino’s life. June Mathis was not merely a screenwriter and a noble mentor of Valentino. June Mathis was the first female executive at Metro/MGM and the highest paid executive in Hollywood. In the 1920s, she was voted the thirst most influential woman in Hollywood – after Mary Pickford and Norma Talmadge. Her job at Metro was called „the most responsible job ever held by a woman“. She had influence over casting, choice of director and many other aspects of production. Nevertheless, she is still best remembered for discovering and supporting Valentino. It was really she who made it possible for Valentino to gain access to great roles by insisting on casting him for The Four Men of the Apocalypse. She was guiding Valentino’s career in a way and he listened to her. Apparently, he regarded Mathis like a mother substitute, even calling her „Little Mother“. Nita Naldi said about them: “She mothered Rudy, and my dear she worshiped him and he worshiped her.“ And Valentino would say about her: “She discovered me, anything I have accomplished I owe to her, to her judgment, to her advice and to her unfailing patience and confidence in me.“

When Valentino moved to Famous Players Lasky, Mathis followed when being promised that she could continue writing for Valentino. 

Relationships

Jean Acker – In 1919, before he was actually a star, Valentino impulsively married actress Jean Acker. Acker at that time was involved with actresses Grace Darmond and Alla Nazimova and wanted to remove herself from the triangle. She regretted the marriage very quickly and actually locked Valentino out of her bedroom on the wedding night. Apparently, they never consummated the marriage, so they never had sex. So, they separated soon after, but only divorced in 1921, with Acker receiving alimony. Nevertheless, they renewed their friendship and remained friends until his early death

Natasha Rambova – Valentino met his second wife Natasha Rambova on the set of Unchartered Seas – the B-movie Metro put him into after The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  They got romantically involved and married in May 1922. This, unfortunately, led to bigamy charges and Valentino’s arrest as California law required a full year after any one divorce to get re-married. His studio Famous Players Lasky refused to post bail, so June Mathis and other friends posted the bail. Rambova and  Valentino lived in separate appartments in New York and would get remarried during the Mineralava Dance Tour at the Lake County Court House in Crown Point, Indiana. AS mentioned before, Rambova was believed to be too controlling and was banned from sets and production by contract. This caused a rift between them and they finally divorced in 1925. Their end was not a good one, neither did they stay friends.

Pola Negri – Shortly before his death, Valentino had a relationship with Pola Negri as well as dated Ziegfeld Follies showgirl Marion Wilson Benda. Pola Negri actually insisted that she was Valentino’s fiancée although there is no official record of it. If you are interested more in who Pola Negri was as well as her side of the story, head over to the episode on her. 

Scandals

During his lifetime, Valentino has actually been involved not in one, but in two great scandals. One was his bigamy scandal involving first wife Jean Acker and second wife Natacha Rambova. 

But actually, he had been in another scandal before. It was the scandal around Chilean heiress Blanca de Saulles. Blanca was a Chilean socialite and married to football player and businessman John de Saulles. The 32 year-old dashing American met Blanca who was half his age hen John travelled to Chile as representative of the South American Concessions Syndicate. They settled in New York and had one son, John L. De Saulles Jr. Roughly four years later, in 1915, Blanca met Valentino – she was 21 years old, he was 20. It was at the time when Valentino was still working as an exhibition dancer and loved to make friends with people of high society. It is unclear whether these two were ever romantically involved, but they definitely were spending time and Valentino was smitten with her. So, of course, he agreed to give proof in court in order to help Blanca divorce her husband, with whom she was very unhappy. So, Valentino testified that Joan Sawyer, his dance partner at that time had an affair with John de Saulles. The divorce was granted and de Saulles, who had friends in high places, right up to Wilson, played his connections to get Valentino arrested. Valentino went to jail for a few days and then got out on bail. The scandal and the trial were well publicized. Valentino lost many friends and acquaintances and felt degraded. He would leave New York with a stock company to get away from the bad press, which would eventually lead him to Hollywood. This incident was also the reason why Valentino changed his name from originally Rudolf Guglielmi to Rudolph Valentino. He wanted to avoid any further association with the scandal. 

Miscellaneous

In 1923, Valentino published a book of poetry and wrote several series for magazines, for example „How You Can Keep Fit“ for Liberty magazine, „My Life Story“ in Photoplay and „My Private Diary“ for Movie Weekly magazine. Most of them you can read now in book form actually. 

Valentino was one of the first stars in Hollywood to give out an award for accomplishment in movies. But, he was only able to hand out one Rudolph Valentino Medal – that was to John Barrymore for his performance in Beau Brummel.

With all my love!

xx

Kate

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