Rudolph Valentino (May 6, 1895 – August 23, 1926) was an Italian actor, sex symbol, and early pop icon. Known as the "Latin Lover", he was one of the most popular stars of the 1920s, and one of the most recognized stars from the silent movie era. Some of his best known roles include the silent films The Sheik and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. His untimely death at age 31 caused mass hysteria among his female fans, propelling him into icon status.
As a child, Valentino was reportedly spoiled and troublesome. His mother coddled him while his father disapproved of his behavior. He did poorly in school, and was eventually enrolled in agricultural school where he received a degree.
Valentino eventually befriended Chilean heiress Blanca de Saulles who was unhappily married to prominent businessman John de Saulles, with whom she had a son. Whether the two actually had a romantic relationship is unknown, but when the couple divorced, Valentino took the stand to support Blanca de Saulles' claims of infidelity on her husband's part. Following the divorce, John de Saulles reportedly used his political connections to have Valentino arrested, along with a Mrs. Thyme, a known madam, on some unspecified vice charges. The evidence was flimsy at best and after a few days in jail, Valentino's bail was lowered from $10,000 to $1,500.
The trial and subsequent scandal was well publicized, following which Valentino could not find employment. Shortly after the trial, Blanca de Saulles fatally shot her ex-husband during a custody dispute over their son. Fearful of being called in as a witness in another sensational trial, Valentino left town, joining a traveling musical that led him to the West Coast.
Valentino, with Kerry as a roommate, moved back to Los Angeles and took up residence at the Alexandria Hotel. He continued dancing, building up a following which included older female clientele who would let him borrow their luxury cars.
With his dancing success, Valentino found a room of his own on Sunset Blvd and began actively seeking screen roles. His first part was as an extra in the film Alimony, moving on to small parts in several films. Despite his best efforts he was typically cast as a "heavy" (villain) or gangster. At the time, the major male star was Douglas Fairbanks, with a fair complexion, light eyes, and an All American look, with Valentino the opposite, eventually supplanting Sessue Hayakawa as Hollywood's most popular "exotic" male lead.
By 1919, he had carved out a career in bit parts. It was a bit part as a "cabaret parasite" in the drama The Eyes of Youth that caught the attention of screenwriter June Mathis, who thought he would be perfect for her next movie.
While traveling to Palm Springs, Florida to film Stolen Moments, Valentino read the novel The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez. Seeking out a trade paper, he discovered that Metro had bought the film rights to the story. In New York, he sought out Metro's Office; only to find June Mathis had been trying to find him. She cast him in the role of Julio Desnoyers. For director, Mathis had chosen Rex Ingram, with whom Valentino did not get along, leading Mathis to play the role of peace keeper between the two.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, was released in 1921, becoming a commercial and critical success. It was one of the first films to make $1,000,000 at the box office, as well as the 6th best selling silent film ever.
Metro Pictures seemed unwilling to acknowledge it had made a star. Most likely due to Rex Ingram's lack of faith in him, the studio refused to give him a raise beyond the $350 a week he had made for Four Horsemen. For his follow up film, they forced him into bit part in a B film called Uncharted Seas. It was on this film that Valentino met his second wife, Natacha Rambova.
Rambova, Mathis, Ivano, and Valentino began work on the Alla Nazimova film Camille. Valentino was cast in the role of Armand, Nazimova's love interest. The film, mostly under the control of Rambova and Nazimova, was considered too avant garde by critics and the public.
Valentino's final film for Metro was the Mathis penned The Conquering Power. The film received critical acclaim and did well at the box office. After the film's release, Valentino made a trip to New York where he met with several French producers. Yearning for Europe, better pay, and more respect, Valentino returned and promptly quit Metro.
Jesse Lasky intended to capitalize on the star of Valentino, and cast him in a role that would solidify his reputation as the "Latin Lover". In The Sheik. Valentino played the starring role as Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan. The film was a major success and would go on to define not only his career but his image and legacy. Valentino tried to distance the character from a stereotypical portrayal of an Arab man. Asked if Lady Diana (his love interest) would have fallen for a 'savage' in real life Valentino replied, "People are not savages because they have dark skins. The Arabian civilization is one of the oldest in the world...the Arabs are dignified and keen brained."
Famous Players produced four more feature length films over the next 15 months. His leading role in Moran of Lady Letty was of a typical Douglas Fairbanks nature, however the bankability of his perceived led to his character being given a Spanish name and ancestry. The film received mixed reviews but was still a hit with audiences.
In November 1921, Valentino was set to star alongside Gloria Swanson in Beyond the Rocks. The film contained lavish sets and extravagant costumes, though Photoplay magazine said the film was "a little unreal and hectic". Released in 1922, the film was a critical disappointment. Years after its release, Beyond the Rocks was thought to be lost, save for a one minute portion. In 2002, the film was discovered by the Netherlands Film Museum. The restored version was released on DVD in 2006.
In 1922, Valentino began work on another Mathis penned film, Blood and Sand. Co-starring Lila Lee and Nita Naldi, Valentino played the lead, bullfighter Juan Gallardo. Initially believing the film would be shot in Spain, Valentino was upset to learn that the studio planned on shooting on a Hollywood back lot. He was further irritated by changes in production, including a director of whom he did not approve.
After finishing the film, Valentino married Rambova, which led to a bigamy trial. The trial was a sensation and the pair was forced to have their marriage annulled and separated for a year. Despite the trial, the film was still a success, with critics calling it a masterpiece on par with Broken Blossoms and Four Horsemen. Blood and Sand went on to become one of the top 4 grossing movies of 1922, breaking attendance records, and grossing $37,400 at the Rivoli Theatre alone. Valentino would consider this one of his best films.
During his forced break from Rambova; the pair began working (separately) on the Mathis penned The Young Rajah. Only fragments of this film, recovered in 2005, still remain. The film did not live up to expectations and underperformed at the box office. Valentino felt he had underperformed in the film, being upset over his separation with Rambova. Missing Rambova, Valentino returned to New York after the release of The Young Rajah. They were spotted and followed by reporters constantly. During this time Valentino began to contemplate not returning to Famous Players, although Jesse Lasky already had his next picture, The Spanish Cavalier, in preparation. After speaking with Rambova and his lawyer Arthur Butler Graham, Valentino declared a 'One man Strike' against Famous Players.
In September 1922, he refused to accept paychecks from Famous Players until the dispute was solved, although he owed them money he had spent to pay off Jean Acker. Angered, Famous Players in turn filed suit against him.
Valentino did not back down, and Famous Players realized how much they stood to lose. In trouble after shelving Fatty Arbuckle pictures, the studio tried to settle by upping his salary from $1,250 to $7,000 a week. Variety erroneously announced it as a 'new contract' before news of the lawsuit broke. Valentino, ever prideful, threw the offer back in their faces.
Valentino went on to claim that artistic control was more of an issue than the money. He wrote an open letter to Photoplay, entitled "Open Letter to the American Public", where he argued his case,, although the average American had trouble sympathizing, as most made $2,000 a year. Famous Players made their own public statements deeming him more trouble than he was worth (the divorce, bigamy trials, debts) and that he was temperamental, almost diva-like. They claimed to have done all they could and that they had made him a real star.
Other studios began courting Valentino. Joseph Schenck was interested in casting him opposite his wife, Norma Talmadge, in a version of Romeo and Juliet. June Mathis had moved to Goldwyn Pictures where she was in charge of the Ben-Hur project, and interested in casting Valentino in the film. However, Famous Players exercised their option to extend his contract, preventing him from accepting any employment other than with the studio. By this point Valentino was around $80,000 in debt. Valentino filed an appeal, a portion of which was granted. Although he was still not allowed to work as an actor, he could accept other types of employment.
The tour was a tremendous success with Valentino and Rambova performing in 88 cities in the United States and Canada. In addition to the tour, Valentino also sponsored Mineralava beauty products and judged Mineralava sponsored beauty contests.One beauty contest was filmed by a young David O. Selznick entitled Rudolph Valentino and His 88 Beauties.
The first film under the new contract was Monsieur Beaucaire, wherein Valentino played the lead, Duke of Chartres. The film did poorly and American audiences found it 'effeminate'. The failure of the film, under Rambova's control, is often seen as proof of Rambova's controlling nature and would later be cause to bar her from Valentino sets.Valentino made one final movie for Famous Players. In 1924 he starred in The Sainted Devil, now one of his lost films. It had lavish costumes but apparently a weak story. It opened to strong sales but soon dropped off in attendance and ended up as another disappointment.
With his contract fulfilled, Valentino was released from Famous Players but still obligated to Ritz-Carlton for four films. Valentino's next film was a pet project entitled The Hooded Falcon. The production was beset with problems from the start, beginning with the script written by June Mathis. The Valentinos were dissatisfied with Mathis' version and requested that it be rewritten.Mathis took it as a great insult and did not speak to Valentino for almost two years.While Rambova worked designing costumes and rewriting the script for Falcon, Valentino was persuaded to film Cobra with Nita Naldi. Valentino agreed only on condition that it not be released until after The Hooded Falcon debuted.
After filming Cobra, the cast of The Hooded Falcon sailed for France to be fitted for costumes. After three months they headed back to the States where a sensation was caused by Valentino's new beard which he had grown for the film. The crew and cast headed for Hollywood to begin preparations for the film, but much of the budget was taken up during pre-production.Due to the Valentinos' lavish spending on costumes and sets, Ritz-Carlton terminated the deal with the couple, effectively terminating Valentino's contract with Ritz-Carlton.
Valentino chose his first UA project, The Eagle. With the marriage under strain, Valentino began shooting and Rambova announced that she needed a "marital vacation". During the filming of The Eagle, rumors of an affair with co-star Vilma Bánky were reported and ultimately denied by both Bánky and Valentino. The film opened to positive reviews but a moderate box office.
For the film's release, Valentino travelled to London, staying both there and in France, spending money with abandon while his divorce took place. It would some time before he made another film, The Son of the Sheik, despite his hatred of the sheik image. The film began shooting in February 1926, with Valentino given his choice of director, and pairing him again with Vilma Banky. The film used the authentic costumes he bought abroad and allowed him to play a dual role. Valentino was ill during production, but needed the money to pay his many debts. The film opened on July 8, 1926 to great fanfare. During the premiere, Valentino was reconciled with Mathis; the two hadn’t spoken in almost two years.
Some journalists were still calling his masculinity into question, going on at length about his pomaded hair, his dandyish clothing, his treatment of women, his views on women, and whether he was effeminate or not. Valentino hated these stories and was known to carry the clippings of them around and criticize them.
In July 1926, The Chicago Tribune reported that a vending machine dispensing pink talcum powder had appeared in an upscale hotel washroom. An editorial that followed used the story to protest the feminization of American men, and blamed the talcum powder on Valentino and his films. The piece infuriated Valentino and he challenged the writer to a duel and then a boxing match. Neither challenge was answered. Shortly afterward, Valentino met with journalist H.L. Mencken for advice on how best to deal with the incident. Mencken advised Valentino to "let the dreadful farce roll along to exhaustion", but Valentino insisted the editorial was "infamous." Mencken found Valentino to be likable and gentlemanly and wrote sympathetically of him in an article published in the Baltimore Sun a week after Valentino's death:
It was not that trifling Chicago episode that was riding him; it was the whole grotesque futility of his life. Had he achieved, out of nothing, a vast and dizzy success? Then that success was hollow as well as vast — a colossal and preposterous nothing. Was he acclaimed by yelling multitudes? Then every time the multitudes yelled he felt himself blushing inside... The thing, at the start, must have only bewildered him, but in those last days, unless I am a worse psychologist than even the professors of psychology, it was revolting him. Worse, it was making him afraid...
Here was a young man who was living daily the dream of millions of other men. Here was one who was catnip to women. Here was one who had wealth and fame. And here was one who was very unhappy.
After Valentino challenged the Tribune's anonymous writer to a boxing match, the New York Evening Journal boxing writer, Frank O'Neill, volunteered to fight in his place. Valentino won the bout which took place on the roof of New York's Ambassador Hotel.
Boxing heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, who trained Valentino and other Hollywood notables of the era in the art of boxing, said of him "He was the most virile and masculine of men. The women were like flies to a honeypot. He could never shake them off, anywhere he went. What a lovely, lucky guy."
Valentino was fascinated with every part of movie-making. During production on a Mae Murray film he spent time studying the director's plans. He craved authenticity and wished to shoot on location, finally forming his own production company, Rudolph Valentino Productions, in 1925. Valentino, George Ullman, and Beatrice Ullman were the incorporators.
On May 14, 1923, while in New York City, Valentino made his only two vocal recordings; "Kashmiri Song" ("The Sheik") and "El Relicario" ("Blood and Sand"). The recordings were not released until after Valentino's death.
Valentino was one of the first in Hollywood to offer an award for artist accomplishments in films. The Academy Awards would later follow suit. In 1925, he gave out his one and only medal, to John Barrymore, for his performance in Beau Brummell. The award, named The Rudolph Valentino Medal, required the agreement of Valentino, two judges and the votes of 75 critics. Everyone but Valentino was eligible.
Valentino first met Natacha Rambova, a costume designer and art director and protégée of Nazimova, on the set of Uncharted Seas in 1921. The two worked together on the Nazimova production of Camille, by which time they were romantically involved. They married on May 13, 1922, in Mexicali, Mexico, which resulted in Valentino's arrest for bigamy since he had not been divorced for a full year, as required by California law at the time. Days passed and his studio at the time, Famous Players-Lasky, refused to post bail. Eventually, a few friends were able to post the cash bail.
Having to wait the year or face the possibility of being arrested again, Rambova and Valentino lived in separate apartments in New York City, each with their own roommates. On March 14, 1923, they legally remarried.
Many of Valentino's friends disliked Rambova and found her controlling. During his relationship with her, he lost many friends and business associates, including June Mathis. Toward the end of their marriage, Rambova was banned from his sets by contract. Valentino and Rambova divorced in 1925. The end of the marriage was bitter, with Valentino bequeathing Rambova one dollar in his will.
Valentino's sexuality was the subject of speculation. It was suggested he was in homosexual relationships with both roommates Paul Ivano and Douglas Gerrad, as well as Norman Kerry, openly gay French actor Jacques Herbertot and Andre Daven. However, Ivano maintained that it was completely untrue and both he and Valentino were heterosexual.
Shortly before his death, Valentino was dating actress Pola Negri. Upon his death, Negri made a scene at his funeral, claiming they had been engaged. Valentino had never confirmed the engagement claim.
An estimated 100,000 people lined the streets of New York City to pay their respects at his funeral, handled by the Frank Campbell Funeral Home. The event was a drama itself: actress Pola Negri collapsed in hysterics while standing over the coffin, windows were smashed as fans tried to get in, and Campbell's hired four actors to impersonate a Fascist Blackshirt honor guard, which claimed to have been sent by Benito Mussolini. It was later revealed as a planned publicity stunt.
Valentino's funeral mass in New York was held at Saint Malachy's Roman Catholic Church, often called \"The Actor's Chapel\", as it is located on West 49th Street in the Broadway theater district, and has a long association with show business figures. After the body was taken by train across the country, a second funeral was held on the West Coast, at the Catholic Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills. Valentino had no final burial arrangements and his friend June Mathis offered her crypt for him in what she thought would be a temporary solution. However, she died the following year and Valentino was placed in the adjoining crypt. The two are still interred side by side in adjoining crypts at the Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery (now the Hollywood Forever Cemetery) in Hollywood, California.
Over the years, a "woman in black" carrying a red rose has come to mourn at Valentino's grave, usually on the anniversary of his death. Several myths surround the woman, though it seems the first woman in black was actually a publicity stunt cooked up by press agent Russel Birdwell in 1928. Several copycats have followed over the years.
An earlier feature film about Valentino's life, also called Valentino, was released in 1951, starring Anthony Dexter as Valentino.
The short film Daydreams of Rudolph Valentino, with Russian actor Vladislav Kozlov as Valentino, was presented at Hollywood Forever cemetery on August 23, 2006, marking the 80th anniversary of Rudolph Valentino's death.
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