The enormous crowd of more than 80,000 mourners filed past the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home in New York City. They strained to get a good look at the most famous male movie star in the world, Rudolph Valentino, who lay in state in an open bronze coffin in the infamous Gold Room. Suddenly, incited by the outrageous histrionics of his professed lover Pola Negri, the obsessed flock pressed into a plate glass window, breaking it, storming in and cutting and maiming over 100 of themselves while trampling floral displays in a disgraceful frenzy of adulation and necrophilia. Women became hysterical and fainted, and a few later killed themselves rather than go on living in a world without their gorgeous idol.
Rodolfo Guglielmi was born May 6, 1895, the same year that motion pictures were born, in the small town of Castellaneta, Italy, the son of Giovanni, a veterinary surgeon, and Gabriella, a schoolteacher. They soon moved to nearby Taranto, where they lived in a small apartment on Via Massari. When his father died of malaria in 1906, pampered Rodolfo became an undisciplined bully. First sent to a boarding school for orphans of the medical profession, he and his three-year-older brother Alberto left their little sister Maria behind when they were sent to military school, where Rodolfo completed his course by age 15. After applying to the Royal Naval Academy in Venice and failing the physical due to poor eyesight and a weak chest, he decided he was not really interested in a future with the Navy. However, to his mother's joy, he earned a degree in Science of Farming from the Royal Academy of Agriculture. Then he fled to Paris where he gambled away his money, and learned Apache dancing and the art of dressing well, as he befriended and indulged the homosexual community of the chic Bohemian crowd.
Returning home broke, he begged his French mother for the inheritance his father had left him for his education, and escaped his surroundings to search for a more exciting life. In 1913, the 18-year-old Guglielmi sailed, with a steerage class ticket his mother bought him, to America on the U.S.S. Cleveland. Once aboard, he reportedly traded up to first class and donned a tuxedo to attend nightly champagne dinners. He arrived in New York Dec. 23, practically penniless.
Rodolfo found a small one-room apartment in an Italian neighborhood. He spoke Italian, Spanish, and French, but no English. His first job was as a gardener in Central Park, where he sometimes spent his nights on a bench after he could no longer pay his rent. Eventually he found work cultivating the gardens on the estate of millionaire Cornelius Bliss. There, Rodolfo also cultivated his speech and learned the manners and tastes of the very rich. However, he began to neglect his horticultural duties, wrecked Cornelius's motorcycle when he crashed it into a tree, and was fired. He stole stationery from expensive New York hotels upon which he wrote happy letters to his beloved mother about his success. After finding work in an Italian restaurant, a waiter there taught him to dance the Tango, and before long, Rodolfo became a full-time dancer at the eatery, specializing in the sensual Argentine choreography. Later, he began to instruct and perform his sensational movements at the chic Maxim's nightclub, where he became a star attraction billed as Signor Rodolfo. There, in this shadowy world, gigolo Rodolfo dispensed his sexual favors to both men and women, and involved himself in petty crime and blackmail. Though found innocent of any complicity after being thrown in jail because of a prominent role in a passionate divorce scandal in which his beautiful society lover Blanca De Saules shot her husband dead for him, Rodolfo smartly hightailed it toward the west before her trial began, with a touring theatrical troupe in a show called The Merry Monarch that ended its run in Ogden, Utah.
Now calling himself Rodolfo Valentini, he was paid off with a ticket to San Francisco, and intended to go back to farming. Instead, he found work for three weeks in the chorus of Nobody Home. He was advised by Brian Foy of the famous The Seven Little Foys to apply his talents in Hollywood, where Brian mentored Rudolph and set him up in an apartment near the Elks Club. Rudolph tangoed for free every Thursday at the Hollywood Hotel tea dance, and found busboy work in the elegant Alexandria Hotel where he befriended his handsome 17-year-old co-worker, future star Ramon Novarro, with whom it was often rumoured he had an affair.
Rodolfo landed a bit part in the film Alimony ( 1917 ) . Movie star Mae Murray, a former Ziegfeld girl who was said to have been involved in the DeSaules affair and had befriended Rudolph back in New York, helped him land a role in two of her movies, The Big Little Person ( 1918 ) and The Delicious Little Devil ( 1918 ) . However, Murray's then-husband thought their on-screen lovemaking was a bit too real, and forced his wife to end the association. The films that followed include A Society Sensation ( 1918 ) , and All Night Long ( 1918 ) . Rodolfo's mother died in 1919, and that year his performance in Eyes Of Youth ( 1919 ) led him to be cast by agent and friend June Mathis, who changed his name to Rudolph Valentino, in the lead role of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ( 1921 ) , in which his elegant dancing and poise with Beatrice Dominguez enchanted and captivated his audience. The five-foot-ten sultry Rudolph became a star. The tango was danced throughout the nation as men tried to capture Valentino's rhythm, and copied his black hair slicked down with 'Brilliantine.' Stylish women adopted the bolero jacket for themselves and began to wear spectacular hair combs and lavish hand-embroidered and intricately fringed silk Spanish shawls.
Valentino's image was forever cast in cement when he appeared in The Sheik ( 1921 ) , in which he displayed a cruel, intense sexual magnetism. Playing a sadistic prince of the desert, his handsome profile, luminous black hair, slanted dark eyes, clear translucent skin, lean body shaped by daily two-hour workouts, and often flaring nostrils while he brutally raped and tenderly kissed Agnes Ayres made numerous female theatergoers faint in the aisles. 'Sheik' mania swept America. 'Sheik' brand condoms entered the drug stores, and a song, The Sheik of Araby, never heard in the silent film, became a hit.
He appeared next in Camille ( 1921 ) , co-starring Alla Nazimova, a flamboyant star whose bisexual girlfriend, Jean Acker, had become involved with Valentino and married him March 4, 1919. On their wedding night Jean and Rudolph had a spat, with Acker refusing to consummate the marriage. She locked Rudolph out of their hotel room for six hours, and they separated. Camille was extravagantly costumed by Natasha Rambova, a controlling woman who began life in Salt Lake City as the Irish Winifred O'Shaugnessy and became Winifred Hudnut when her mother married into the French perfume dynasty. She later decided to become Russian like her mentor Nazimova and christened herself Natacha Rambova—Valentino wed her in Mexico on May 13, 1922.
In The Young Rajah ( 1922 ) , Natacha found new ways to expose Rudolph's beautiful body, in one scene dressing him in only a turban, revealing gold loincloth, and yards of enormous golfball-sized pearls, a costume which gained him much criticism. That same year he starred in another elaborate film, Beyond The Rocks ( 1922 ) with Gloria Swanson, as well as Blood and Sand ( 1922 ) with Nita Naldi. Natacha encouraged Rudolph to demand artistic control over his flms, and while his studio was considering his wishes, he and his wife toured the country in a private racecar for 17 weeks, dancing together and giving wildly popular tango exhibitions in 88 cities. The tour, sponsored by the Mineralava Beauty Clay Company, culminated in a beauty contest at Madison Square Garden. Young, 21-year-old David O. Selznick made a short film of the events, Rudolph Valentino and His 88 Beauties. A compromise was eventually reached with his angered studio, and he returned to make the glossy and gorgeously costumed but ill-received Monsieur Beaucaire ( 1924 ) , in which he played a highly white-powdered nobleman. In 1923 he published a book of sentimental poems, Day Dreams, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and he recorded two songs for Brunswick Records. Natacha continually pushed Rudolph into making overly artistic and melodramatic movies such as Cobra ( 1925 ) . Envious, angry men labeled him a 'pink powder puff,' which drove him to constantly try to prove his masculinity to himself and to others.
Rudolph had not waited a prescribed one-year period for his interlocutory divorce from Jean to become final. He was thrown in jail for bigamy, and fined $10,000. After friends and attendants from Mexicali swore he had never been alone in a room with Natacha, as she was ill and they could not have consummated their marriage, Rudolph was released and the couple later re-wed in Crown Point, Ind., March 14, 1923. Following their European honeymoon, Natacha tired of her marriage, and stormed off to stay with her mother in New York. To woo her back, Rudolph bought an elaborate eight-acre Spanish-style estate towering on a hillside in Los Angeles' Benedict Canyon on Bella Drive. Rudolph moved alone into the home.
In 1925, the extravagant Natacha was barred from the set of what many consider Rudolph's best film, The Eagle ( 1925 ) with Vilma Banky. Natacha filed for divorce, which was granted in France, Jan. 18, 1926. Soon, Rudolph met the lascivious Pola Negri at a party, and began an affair with the tempestuous actress, who loved to make public entrances with her pet panther on a leash. Rudolph's last film, The Son of the Sheik ( 1926 ) again co-starring Vilma Banky, had a triumphant premiere in Los Angeles on July 9. While touring to promote his movie, the Chicago Tribune ran a hurtful editorial accusing Rudolph of 'effeminization of the American male.' Valentino challenged the incognito writer to a boxing match in order to defend his masculinity, but the writer never came forward.
Party boy Rudolph, thoroughly stressed, threw himself into the nightlife once again, and traveled to Manhattan for the New York premiere. He participated in a public sparring match with sportswriter Frank O'Neil, whom he decked with two punches. After an all-night party in his honor, Rudolph crashed to the floor in his suite at the Ambassador Hotel where he was found writhing in agony. With a burst appendix and violent pain, severe uremic poisoning had spread throughout his body by the time he went into surgery. With numerous complications, Valentino, known as the world's most famous lover, fell into a coma and succumbed to his condition on Aug. 23, 1926, surrounded by only three physicians and two weeping nurses. The cause of death was announced as peritonitis and septic endocarditis. He was 31 years old.
Two women attempted suicide outside the hospital, and a boy died on a bed covered with photographs of Valentino while a woman in London drank poison as she gazed at his image. A new song was quickly written, 'There's A New Star In Heaven To-Night.'
Movie star Pola Negri made headlines as she rushed from her film set for Hotel Imperial and dashed across the continent to be with Rudolph, with whom she declared she was to be married. Shrieking relentlessly in front of the photographers while dripping in $3,000 worth of black fabric and priceless jewels, she threw herself across Rudolph's open coffin, fainting and inciting the crowd.
Sources: The Great Movie Stars The Golden Years by David Shipman; Hollywood The Glamour Years 1919-1941 by Robyn Langley Sommer; Gods & Goddesses of the Movies by John Kobal; Encyclopedia of Film Stars by Douglas Jarvis; Hollywood Land and Legend by Zelda Cini and Bob Crane; The Movie Stars Story by Robyn Karney; The Movie Stars by Richard Griffith; Movie Time by Gene Brown; Architectural Digest April 1994; The Hollywood Book of Death by James Robert Parrsh; Dark Lover The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino by Emily W. Leider; Rudolph Valentino by Gregory Avery; Donna Hill, www.rudolph-valentino.com; Valentino Web sites.
Starr is the author of Picture Perfect—Art Deco Photo Frames 1926-1946, by Rizzoli International Publications. You may email Steve at SSSChicago@ameritech.net, or visit www.SteveStarrStudios.com; Steve Starr Satellite Studio in the Edgewater Antique Mall, 6314 N. Broadway Ave., daily 11-6. 773-262-2525.
An exhibition of 100 glamorous stars who contributed to movie musicals appear in a portion of Steve Starr's collection of magnificent Art Deco photo frames. The exhibit, like his column, is named STARRLIGHT, and is extended through Aug. 1, 2005, at the Harold Washington Library, 400 S. State St., on the 8th floor, just below the Winter Garden. Admission is free. For further information call the Library Center at 312-747-4850, or the Steve Starr Studios at 773-463-8017.
Photo of Steve Starr July 25, 2005, by Albert Aguilar