The Death and Aftermath of Rudolph Valentino
“Never Forget” that Rudy was a human, and his death sad, but focusing on it overshadows his life and work. I think he’d much rather have us focus on his life and what he did than his last tortured moments. However it seems fitting to have this page, as so much rumor, innuendo, and just pure wrong information is out there about his death and its aftermath.
Death Rumors of Rudolph Valentino
While we won’t go over the entire ordeal, there are a few stories to debunk right here. Rudy was with George Ullman when he took ill, and Ullman made him go to the hospital after two doctors declared he was quite ill. Ullman spent many of the next few days with Rudy, and while the popular story always has Rudy dying alone and muttering unintelligible Italian, that is not true. George Ullman and Frank Mennillo were with him the last few days of his life right until the very end. Priests were called in as he died. And his final word was not unintelligible and lost, it was “Madre” (Mother in Italian).
Another rumor that is oft repeated in books and stories of Rudolph Valentino’s death is that very little was done to save his life. This is untrue. Ullman and a team of doctors constantly met, trying to come up with any hail Mary they could. Blood transfusions, experimental drugs, all sorts of things were considered and abandon because Valentino was too fragile to even attempt them. Every effort was made and it seemed until the very end that he just might make it. But then infection set in. Its hard for us to imagine now, but this was 1926…there were no antibiotics. If there had been he surely would have lived.
The Funeral of Rudolph Valentino:
When Rudy died he was flat broke. And while he had a will (more on that in a minute) very little was in order in the event he should die. After Frank Mennillo and George Ullman stayed with him until his last breath, Ullman was charged with sorting something out for his burial and estate. While celebrities had died before Rudy (John Bunny, Olive Thomas and Wallace Reid all come to mind), even when Ollie died they weren’t so sure someone would come watch a dead actor in a movie. Knowing the barely released “Son of the Sheik” was the estate’s only hope to make a dime, Ullman decided on a public viewing to try and drum up interest in the film.
While this quickly became a circus (much like the memorial service is now), Ullman’s original intent was to promote the film and make a fitting tribute to his friend. He pulled the plug the minute it became too weird.
As no burial place had been arranged Ullman had to pick between various offers. Natacha Rambova offered a family crypt, but he decided against it. June Mathis offered her own crypt in Hollywood and he decided to go with that.
In contrast to the viewing, both private funerals (New York and LA) were deemed moving tributes to Rudy.
The Estate of Rudolph Valentino
Many people could care less about the story of Rudy’s estate as the story has been suppressed so long.
As if this nightmare was not enough, Valentino’s will appointed Ullman was the executor of his debt ridden and complicated estate. Alberto Valentino (Rudy’s surviving brother) came from Italy to contest the will immediately. Through the next 15 years Alberto would make Ullman’s life a living hell, in series of legal battles that would essentially destroy Ullman’s life.
The original will was missing a page, which was likely stolen by Lou Mahoney to protect the fact it essentially named Jean Valentino as Rudy’s son and heir. Rudy’s lawyer was unable to find it until almost two years of legal battles had ensued. Based on the original will that was available, Ullman had to make decisions. Teresa Werner, Maria Strada (Valentino) and Alberto Valentino (and upon Jean’s 25th birthday, Jean Valentino instead of Alberto) were all to get percentages of the income of the estate.
With all three parties asking for cash, Ullman decided to advance the sums as they asked while he tried to liquidate Rudy’s possessions and assets (oddly the auction was a flop) and promote his two final movies, so they could bring in a share to the estate. However based on the missing page, this would be incorrect, none of the three mentioned above were supposed to collect shares unless Jean Valentino died before he was 25.
In essence Ullman erred, but did not mean to. He was ordered to pay back $100,000 (in the 1930s…i.e. post depression) even after he was ruled as not having acted in malice. Jean and Alberto hounded him for the next 40 years, trying to collect on this mythical sum. Ullman was never able to pay it off and in the early 1960s the two agreed to sign a paper stating Ullman had no further obligation to pay. In other words, he spent 40 years being harassed and hounded because someone had hidden this page.
Once Ullman was removed as executor the estate quickly plunged back into $3 million of debt. By the time Jean inherited the estate in the late 30s it was insolvent.
Aftermath of the death of Rudolph Valentino
Due to his and Natacha’s interest in Spiritualism many have latched onto the idea of talking to Rudy through the dead, or believing Rudy was haunting them (one woman who ended up in a mental institution said he dictated her grocery list). This was only fueled by the Valentino Memorial Service, which was started in 1927 by George Ullman as a way to drum up more interest in Rudy’s life and films. By the 40s the event was almost as shameful as the viewing, with both Alberto and Jean denouncing it (and even trying to sue to stop it).
Kookyism in the 20s: How did Rudolph Valentino Die?
While today it seems pretty straightforward how Rudy died (an infection after a ruptured appendix and ulcers), per the usual there were rumors at the time of his death. While the occasional ‘wax dummy body’ rumor gets a whisper (its untrue) it is interesting to document some of the rumors at the time of his death. Again it must be stressed these are untrue; just a documentation of rumors. Below is the most complete listing yet:
The Jealous Husband
Many years after Rudy’s death, a credible executive at United Artists told a story he heard during the days immediately following Valentino’s funeral in Los Angeles. It seems the week before the party at Barclay Warbuton’s apartment, Rudy was having an affair with the wife of a powerful motion picture mogul. When their love affair was discovered, the husband shot Valentino.
There are two versions of what happened next. Some heard he was shot in the back and taken to the Polyclinic Hospital early Sunday morning. The reason he was not operated on until late in the day, was that he had lost too much blood and had to receive several blood transfusions. This all reported by a nurse that supposedly donated blood for,the procedure.
The other version of the shooting theory has it that Valentino was taken to a discrete hospital on Long Island and patched up. The small hospital was known inside the business for being secretive. It was frequented by movie stars for abortions and other medical procedures they wished to keep from their prying public. But in Valentino’s case, the clinic botched the surgery on a bullet hole to his stomach, and he consequently collapsed a week later in New York. Valentino’s schedule of appearances does make this scenario possible.
Bernarr MacFadden’s Evening Graphic provided full-page accounts and headlines about this theory, claiming Valentino was shot at a popular supper club in New York.
Black Market Hair Tonic
Pola Negri claims Rudy could have died from an experimental hair growth tonic he was ingesting. Before he left for the east to open The Son of the Sheik she witnessed him being sick to his stomach. He confided in her he was taking a tonic to prevent baldness. She was convinced he was poisoning himself and tried to persuade him to stop the treatments.
During the 1920’s rumors spread as to the danger of eating food cooked in aluminum. Leading the rumor mill was self-proclaimed chemist Howard J. Force. He published pamphlets entitled, “Poisons Formed by Aluminum Cooking Utensils” and “Are You Heading For Your Last Round-Up?’ These campaigns were often conceived as effective marketing devices to kill competitive products. The hysteria generated by these types of scare tactics, led many people to claim Rudolph Valentino died from using the deadly cookware.
In Paris a theory was circulated in the press that a prominent movie actress and a film producer had hired assassins who had killed Valentino by putting ground glass in his food.
Poison in Face/Not Dead
Rumors also have circulated that Valentino had not died, but had been horribly disfigured when a jealous husband threw acid in his face. The body in the casket was claimed to have been a fraud and Valentino lived hidden away in an asylum the rest of his life. Claiming that Valentino’s friend and the editor of Photoplay, Jimmie Quirk conspired with Valentino’s brother to have a waxen figure molded to place in the casket. (This is usually a take off of Quirk’s remark that he looked like a wax dummy in his casket, not that he WAS, just that he looked like one)
In 1973, Valentino’s friend Paul Ivano granted an interview on French Television. During the interview, he revealed that the entire story of Valentino’s death reported by the press was a tall tale and completely false. He claimed that Valentino had indeed attended the infamous party, but that it was also attended by many high profile celebrities. At about two in the morning, Valentino escaped the party and went to a library in the apartment with a young show girl. The young women left him for a few minutes and when she returned she found Valentino lying face down with a large blood stain on his back. She summoned Valentino’s manager, etc and he was taken to the hospital. Ivano also claims that Valentino was deeply in debt and had serious strained relations with several people who could have had the motive to have killed him. He also claims that the doctors and all who attended the party kept their silence as everyone who had attended the party would have been ruined by the scandal.