Rudolph Valentino (May 6th 1895 – August 23rd, 1926)
Legend, heartthrob, original ‘latin lover’, sex symbol of the 1920s and tragic star. He starred in several well-known silent films including The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Sheik, Blood and Sand, The Eagle, and The Son of the Sheik.
Born in Castellanata, Southern Italy to a French mother and Italian father, who died when the young Rudolfo was 11. Valentino, was the middle child of three siblings. He did poorly at school and was enrolled at agricultural college where he earned a certificate.
Unable to find work either in his native Italy or after a brief stay in Paris, France, he set sail for America, arriving in New York in 1913. Not long after arriving, Valentino ran out of money and spent time on the streets. He managed to find odd jobs to get by – waiting tables and gardening – before finding work as a paid ‘taxi dancer’ at Maxim’s, a cabaret restaurant.
He soon befriended Bianca de Saulles, a Chilean heiress and unhappily married wife of businessman John de Saulles. When the couple were to divorce, Valentino appeared in court to support his friends claim of infidelity against her husband. This provoked de Sallies to use his powerful connections to have Valentino arrested, along with a known madam on a trumped up vice charge. Soon after the trial de Sallies was shot dead by his wife, supposedly over a custody battle over their son.
The scandal lead Valentino to leave New York for Los Angeles, where he shared a room with actor Norman Kelly. By this time, Valentino had performed a couple of minor theatrical roles, while still dancing and teaching dance; often to wealthy female clients (who would often lend him their expensive cars), Then, encouraged by Kelly to have a go at cinema, he landed some bit parts, mainly playing villains.
Valentino’s acting career was about to take off. Luckily for the aspiring actor, he caught the attention of screenwriter June Mathis, who believed that he was the perfect choice for the lead in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921). She persuaded Metro to sign Valentino for the part. The movie was a box office hit. In his first scene, the darkly handsome actor danced a tango, stealing the hearts of female movie-goers and sealing his stardom. The mania around Valentino grew rapidly – some women reportedly fainted when they saw him in his next picture, a desert romance, The Sheik (1921). The following year, Valentino had more success, this time playing a bullfighter in Blood and Sand.
SValentino’s charismatic wife started to take a dominant role in managing her husband’s career, much to Valentino’s detriment. Some male critics and movie-goers were put off by his somewhat androgynous style, and Valentino’s next few films accentuated this quality. His wife picked parts for him that made him seem more effeminate, as seen in 1924’s Monsieur Beaucaire. While still a box office success, Valentino suffered a backlash for this change in his screen persona.
The public were critical of Rambova; doubtless many jealous female fans were all too happy to lay the blame at Rambova for any perceived mistakes in her husbands career. Public criticism was likely a factor in the failure of the marriage, lasting just two years. Once separated from his wife, Valentino returned to the kind of roles that made him famous. The following year, Valentino made a sequel
to his earlier hit, The Son of the Sheik. The film would be his last work.
While engaged promoting his latest movie, Valentino fell ill. He was treated in New York for ulcers and acute appendicitis, unfortunately, he developed an infection, peritonitis. Legions of fans held a vigil for the star at the hospital. Within a week of being admitted to hospital, on August 23rd 1926, aged just 31, Valentino was dead.
Valentino’s death created a frenzy of hysteria among his many fans, an estimated 100,000 of whom filled the streets near the funeral home where he lay in state for several days. Thousands of mourners rioted, clashing with police and smashing windows trying to glimpse the star. Two women even attempted suicide in front of the hospital, a woman in London and a man in Paris did in fact kill themselves while holding photographs of the dead star.
His coffin was guarded by four fascists, at the time allegedly sent by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (later turned out to be a publicity stunt). Valentino’s funeral took place on August 30th, among the mourners were Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson and Douglas Fairbanks. Chief among the mourners was actress Pola Negri whom Valentino had recently been dating. In true dramatic fashion she staged several ‘faints’ for photographers when the body was shipped from New York to California, where a second funeral was to take place.
Valentino was finally laid to rest at the Hollywood Forever cemetery. Each year, on the anniversary of his death, a mysterious ‘Lady in Black’ would appear at his tomb and lay a single red rose. Eventually, there were several ‘Ladies in Black’ appearing. The original was said to be a woman whom Valentino had visited in hospital when she was gravely ill as a teenager.
Rudolph Valentino became a legend who’s stardom and status over shadowed his reputation as an actor.