Born Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Piero Filiberto Guglielmi on May 6th, 1895 in Castellaneta, Italy Died: August 23rd, 1926 in New York City, NY Buried: Hollywood Forever Cemetery
Occupation: Dancer, Actor
Years Active: 1913-1917 (Dancing), 1917-1926 (acting)
Married: Jean Acker (November 5th, 1919 to 1921), Natacha Rambova (May 13th, 1922; forced to separate for a year, remarried March 14th, 1923. Remained married until September 1925)
Religion: Raised Catholic, Spent much of the 20s as a Spiritualist, dabbled in Catholicism again on his deathbed.
For further info and goodies see Rudy Central
by Hala Pickford @2012, please do not use without permission
For nearly 85 years the story of Rudolph Valentino’s life and work was not only wrong, it was almost unknown. We knew he was the Sheik and the Latin Lover, he had been married twice to women many have claimed were lesbians, he died unexpectedly in 1926 and he was Italian. That was about it.
The rest was filled in with rumors, innuendo, and poor sourcing from fluffy newspaper articles. While more biographies had been written on Valentino than Mary Pickford or even Clark Gable, it was considered a revolution when the first sourced one, “Dark Lover” by Emily Leider, was released in 2003. Unfortunately while it was a world above the rest of the Valentino biographies, it was nothing more than the troubles above.
Finally in 2010 the Rudolph Valentino Society released Affairs Valentino by Evelyn Zumaya, a book that had been 15 years in the making. Zumaya had obtained things no one else had even bothered looking for: the court records regarding Valentino’s estate, contact with the children of George Ullman (Valentino’s business manager), the children of Frank Mennillo (Valentino’s Godfather) and George’s ledgers and business papers he had kept for almost every enterprise of Valentino’s from his hiring in 1923. While some fans felt the biography took ‘the mystique’ out of Valentino, almost all agreed it had finally made him human, something very hard to do to not only a long dead subject but a movie star at that.
However this page is not a commercial or promotion for Affairs Valentino, this is simply a biography of Rudolph Valentino. But without that explanation most fans would not understand where the wealth of data has come from. Everything you are about to read has been sourced from and in Affairs Valentino. Clocking in with 44 pages of references we fill this is as solid a reference as there will ever be for the life of Rudolph Valentino.
Rudolph Valentino was born with the impossibly long name Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina D’Antonguolla in Castellaneta, Italy on May 6th, 1895. His mother was a beautiful French woman named Marie and his father was the Italian Giovanni, a respected veterinarian who would die of malaria when Valentino was only 11. Rodolfo had two siblings: the older Alberto, and the younger Maria. And older sister named Beatrice died in infancy.
By most accounts Rodolfo was a spoiled child who often got into trouble and refused to study (he failed French despite speaking it at home with his mother fluently). One memorable incident happened when the nuns at his school feared he’d act up during a visit to the town by the King of Italy. They took Rodolfo’s clothing and locked him in a room on the top floor. He slid down a rain gutter, found a pair of raggy pants, and made it just in time to see the King pass by.
For many years the common story of what came next was he gambled away a fortune in Paris, causing his family to send him to America to ‘straighten out’. When he arrived he was frivolous and spent all his living money, eventually washing dishes and sleeping on park benches. However other than the words ‘Paris’ and ‘America’ nothing else about that story is correct.
On December 19th, 1912 Alberto married a woman named Ada. On August 14th, 1914 Jean Guglielmi was born in a convent just outside of Castellanetta. Until Affairs Valentino was released, he was presented as Ada and Alberto’s son, to the point that Alberto tried claiming he had married Ada in 1913. The couple never had any children. Rodolfo was sent to America in December 1913, once the family realized he had conceived a child with a woman out of wedlock. This scandalous secret would shape several of Valentino’s choices and actions later on when he was famous.
Once he arrived in New York he was taken under the wing of his ‘Padrino’ or Godfather, Frank Mennillo. While the term ‘Godfather’ might mean much to the average reader, to Italian families at the time it was a term taken very seriously, with Padrino’s being responsible for the well being and success of their Godchild. Frank Mennillo was a successful Italian businessman who had made his fortune by importing Italian goods to Italian immigrants in New York. Credited with introducing the olive to New York he earned the title “Olive King”.
So there were no park benches, just open arms from Frank and his young family. Soon after arriving in New York, Valentino did take up dancing at Club Maxim’s. Some have referred to this work as prostitution, as if the dancers were expected to perform sex acts for their pay. However it was nothing that illicit. The tango was a new fangled thing and ‘tea parlor’s were open to have handsome male instructors teach the dances to women patrons for a fee, usually a dime a dance. Having unescorted women not only dance but touch some unknown man, during a time when showing your ankle was quite a scandal, caused a commotion. But it also became wildly popular and within a few years the tango was no longer scandalous, just a fun trend, a part of life.
At Club Maxim’s Valentino quickly became one of the most popular instructors and was quickly becoming the talk of female society. During this time he met Mae Murray, who would not only be a lifelong friend but a lifelong fling. And the pair wrapped themselves up with an even more tumultuous pair: the deSaulles.
Jack deSaulles was the toast of New York Society, he also ran a highly successful real estate firm. 14 years older than his wife, they could not have been anymore different. They had met during a business trip of his to Chile. He was 32 and she was the 16 year old Chilean heiress Blanca Errázuriz. The Errazuriz’ had a long history of mental illness: not only would Blanca commit suicide many years later, but her brother Guillermo Errázuriz Vergara killed himself over Peggy Hopkins Joyce.
In 1912 a son, Jackie, was born. Blanca long maintained John was running around with her, particularly one incident when she caught him in bed with a ‘showgirl’. It seems he had a relationship with Mae Murray at one point. In retaliation for his cheating she took to Rodolfo, and by the time Frank Mennillo had moved to California in 1915, the pair were already carrying on a scandalous affair.
Because of the growing gossip of his time with Blanca, Rodolfo eventually sought more prestigious employment as part of a dancing act. First with Bonnie Glass and then with Joan Sawyer. Apparently Joan Sawyer become involved with John, which became the basis for Blanca’s divorce from her husband, not something easy to get in New York until the 1960s.
Risking his job and his freedom, Rodolfo testified for Blanca during her divorce trial. Jack deSaulles was so furious he arranged for Rodolfo to be imprisoned for 3 days, though what for has been lost to time. After 3 days bail was either paid by Frank of Blanca and he was released. The imprisonment almost caused him to be deported and he had lost his job for testifying against Bonnie. During this time he made his first foray into film, taking work as an extra, though what films this fully encompasses is unknown.
During that summer he met Norman Kerry, a wealthy and kind playboy type who has long been credited with pushing Rudy into film work. Rudy’s arrival in California has always been sketchy, but it appears to have happened by June 17th, 1917, when he registered for the draft. People have always given many reasons he ended up in California, but its extremely likely it was because Frank had already moved there and was setting up a business.
Before leaving it is said Blanca and Rudy were cooling down. Blanca seemed fixated on winning a war of favor and one ups with her ex husband, both threatening to take custody of their son away from the other. This all culminated into a scandalous fire on August 3rd, 1917, when Blanca shot and killed John. She was arrested and tried for murder in something you could call ‘OJ’ like…only popular sympathy was for HER. On December 1st, 1917 she was acquitted which was characterized as a ‘popular’ verdict, after all she had always maintained she had done it for her dear Jacky. Rodolfo was told by her attorney to have no further contact with her during the trial, less it send her to the electric chair. It seems from this point on that though she out lived him, they had very little or no contact after this event.
Norman Kerry meanwhile, had furthered his career to the point of starring with the Goddess of the Screen at the time: Mary Pickford. While working on “The Little Princess” he suggested Rudy get into pictures. With Norman’s help Rudy joined Al Jolson’s winding down show, “The Passing Show” which would end in Los Angeles. Thus Rudy finally made his way to the movie capital of the world.
Much like everyone else in Rudy’s story, Norman Kerry’s life has been re-written to that of an effeminate gay man and little more. Kerry was a wealthy heir, a known womanizer who married no less than 5 times (a few of these marriages occurring after his starring days were over) and was reputed as a major playboy. He was said to run in the same circle as Jack Pickford and Marshall Neilan, men who couldn’t get enough women and booze. Kerry died in obscurity and has mostly been forgotten, but quite unfairly. Watching him in his Lon Chaney films its obvious he had talent and charisma, looking like Douglas Fairbanks but making women swoon like Rudolph Valentino. His name does not deserve to be more than a footnote turned gay.
Fame did not come easily to Rudy in Hollywood. Seen as ‘too ethnic’ at a time when snow white leading men were in demand, he was often cast as the lecherous foreign villain, despite the wide consensus that he not only had looks but talent. D.W. Griffith, still at the top of his game, hired him to be a dancer at Clune’s for one of his films, even considered him for a role in Way Down East at Dorothy and Lillian Gish’s behest. Rudy would give dancing lessons on the side while hoping for a break. On one of his application sheets during this time he was asked why he wanted to get into film. His answer was ‘Tired of dancing.’
These first roles, even when minuscule, show a budding talent. “All Night” let him play a normal white man, in a comedic role reminiscent of Three’s Company. During his entire career this was probably the most comedic role he was given, and movies tinged with comedy during his starring years are scarce (Monsieur Beaucaire and Son of the Sheik, perhaps The Eagle). Its a shame, because this film shows he was quite capable of comedic roles.
By 1918 Rudy’s luck was slowly picking up, the roles became more frequent, even if they involved mustache twirling (like “Over the Rhine” which would eventually become “Isle of Love”, with Julian Eltinge and Virginia Rappe). However a serious of unfortunate events were about to befall the actor who was barely making a living.
His mother died in 1919, devastating him. Soon after he met Jean Acker. Jean Acker was a b-list actress, though more well known than him at the time. A life long lesbian, she had found herself in a love triangle with powerful bisexual actress Alla Nazimova and b-list actress and bisexual Grace Darmond (both Darmond and Nazimova had not only married men at various points but had carried on male affairs; however their female affairs are also equally known.) It seems Acker was in love with Darmond, but feared the potential wrath to her and Darmond’s career by Nazimova. So she made nice with the Italian kid who had taken a shine to her, and just as quickly as they met they married on November 6th, 1919.
Metro seen a potential for publicity with the marriage and not only paid for the ceremony but highly publicized it. Not only were all Rudy’s fellow actors there but all the Metro brass as well. Then the infamous wedding night occurred. Long held up as proof of his own homosexuality, almost everyone knows the story of how Jean Acker locked Rudy out of the bridal suite, making the marriage last a total of 6 hours. Despite 90 some years of pop culture since, the marriage is usually included in lists of ‘shortest celebrity marriages ever’.
The real story is much simpler and almost as disappointing as the sound byte. Jean and Rudy returned to their bridal suite at the Hollywood Hotel, he carried her over the threshold, and she promptly locked him out. At first Rudy thought it was either a game or jitters, but it soon became clear Jean was dead serious about the situation. Counting on sex and confused and angered at her rejection, Rudy banged on the door demanding she let him in. This carried on for a few minutes before the hotel manager threatened to throw him out, so Rudy left and went back, alone, to his little home on Sunset Blvd to compose love poems to Jean.
We likely would have never known this story if it wasn’t for the bigamy trial that would ensue 3 years later. To save his bacon and being made an example of, Rudy testified that not only had he not consummated his marriage with Natacha Rambova on their wedding night (BIG lie) that he had never consummated his marriage with Acker either. A humiliation for any man, let alone a man known as the great Sheik at the time.
Many wonder why he would marry Jean if she was so opposed to any form of lovemaking with him. When one looks at the various accounts, its obvious Jean had a real knack for inflaming not only his hopes but his temper. It was said during their courtship she would cuddle and kiss with him, and on their wedding night after minutes of begging, she’d open the door, only to close it again…frustrating him even more. This went on a few times before he was threatened by the hotel manager.
Judging by his love letters to Jean, many of which still survive, its obvious he just didn’t ‘get’ the situation…she teased him for nearly a month before hinting on December 5th, 1919 that she would be his bride, body and soul. Jean angered and let him down once again: she claimed she didn’t feel well when the night arrived.
Jean’s cruel teasing culminated with her filming of “The Round-Up” with Fatty Arbuckle high in the mountains. First she failed to inform Rudy of her trip, and he had hoped they’d spend Xmas together. Mad as hell he took a train to the location, only to find his last telegram had tipped her off and Jean had fled back to LA. He had to spend the night ruminating in her fresh insult.
The next day he returned to LA to find Jean…bathing at Grace Darmond’s home. After hitting her he instantly apologized, saying he had just wanted to spend Christmas with her. When she refused and Grace and her mother threw Rudy out…he finally seemed to get it. Metro pictures announced their separation soon after.
The third bit of bad business, occurring during the Jean courtship fiasco, had Rudy’s Padrino in steep financial trouble. After an olive poisoning scare (that had nothing to do with Frank’s products) sales of olives dropped off like stocks in 1929. A. P. Gianni, the founder of the Bank of Italy (later the Bank of America) demanded Frank pay off all his loans immediately. This ruined Frank: he liquidated all of his assets and businesses and was still unable to pay off the loans. The wealthy Padrino was no longer wealthy. Frank returned to New York and Rudy’s back up plan was now permanently gone…pictures would have to do.
Hoping for a new start Rudy too left for Florida to film another b-list picture, while entertaining the idea of permanently returning to New York. However fate had other plans.
It is my firm belief that June Mathis, one of the highest paid screenwriters and one of the first female film executives, had first seen Valentino during “Over the Rhine” in 1918. On set or on film I’m not sure, but June’s history with the film’s star, Julian Eltinge, goes way back to her own acting days in the early 1900s. The two last worked together in 1919, so the friendship was still current during the making of what would eventually be known as “Isle of Love”.
“Over the Rhine” was shelved until after Rudy’s stardom as it had a heavy war plot, yet failed to be released before WW1 ended. Julian Eltinge’s popularity also waned by the 20s. And of course there was the whole Virginia Rappe thing. So in the scheme of things it wasn’t a very important film, but it is likely when Rudy’s eventual mentor first saw him.
June Mathis’ discovery of Rudy is usually cited in 1919′s “Eyes of Youth” a picture made shortly before his disastrous marriage. June’s screenplays were in hot demand, and she had just been promoted to the head of Metro’s Screenwriting department not too long before.
How Rudy and June actually met is lost to time. Some say Rudy read the book “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” on his ride to Florida, and when he approached Metro’s New York offices found they had been looking for him. Others say June either sent for him or he came in for any other part, only to be sent into her. The most likely scenario is that he was called to Metro where the circumstances were explained to him.
June had been given full control over “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” kind of similar to a producer now. She could pick the cast, crew, director…and if anything was not to her liking it would be done away with.
Set in the Argentine during WW1 it married Shakespearean family drama (a French family vs a German family) and it wouldn’t be too far a stretch to call it ‘The pacifist Birth of a Nation”. The movies ultimate message would be for peace and it was one of the first movies of its kind.
Rudy fit the billing for the favored French playboy, Julio Desnoyers. Though most of the roles were of equal importance in Four Horsemen, June rewrote his part to be slightly more significant.
June had argued for her current flame, Rex Ingram, to be the director of the film due to his lack of experience. She also had to argue for Rudy, though this would prove slightly contemptuous as Rudy and Rex Ingram got along as well as the German and French during filming. June vowed to coach Rudy for the role and this took on more importance as Ingram practically ignored him during filming.
Having June Mathis personally select you in 1920 was like being called the next big thing. Rudy was ecstatic and immediately bought an entire new wardrobe despite his meager salary.
It seems likely at some point he had a love affair with June, that would end before he met his next wife, Natacha Rambova. Rudy, June, Alice Terry and Rex Ingram would only make two films together before the fighting became too much, particularly when Ingram eloped with Terry. That’s the last time June ever worked with him, and soon after he and Alice would tout their new ‘discovery’ a Valentino lookalike who would soon be known as “Ramon Novarro”.
The spite between the four lasted till the end of Terry’s life. While every person who knew Valentino dismissed the gay rumors, if they were aware of them at all (the rumors did not start up until the 60s) only one person had anything else to say: Alice Terry, who laughed and laughed at the idea of Pola and Rudy making love according to Pola’s biography.
Four Horsemen was released in 1921 and became the biggest film of the year, beating out Chaplin’s “The Kid”. It would eventually gross over million dollars and was ranked as the 6th highest grossing silent film of all time (by Variety in 1933).
Metro seemed to have cared less it created a star and quickly put Rudy into a string of b-pictures. The refusal to give a raise or better pictures has been attributed to Ingram’s lack of faith in him. On one of these b-pictures the now lost Uncharted Seas, Rudy and Natacha Rambova first met. They seemed to think little of each other until their work on his next film, “Camille”…where the reception didn’t get much better. Camille was to star Alla Nazimova, who was said to be jealous of the response Rudy got after a preview screening and had some of his scenes cut. Rambova was her art director and set designer.
An interesting thing about Blanca, Jean and Natacha was their slight resemblance to each other: all dark, exotic looking beauties no matter their background. They were all women who dressed well and were fashionable. Pola Negri would later fit this trend. Oddly Mae Murray wouldn’t, despite Rudy’s continued affairs with her over the years.
Rudy found Natacha to be cold, calling her the ‘ice queen’ with other friends on set. Natacha thought him an idiot when he told a joke and couldn’t remember the punchline, then she realized he was just trying to make friends and felt sorry for him.
Over the years Natacha has been maligned as a power hungry lesbian who ruined her husband’s career and life. In reality, despite her demeanor, she was a fascinating woman. Granddaughter of a revered Mormon cult leader, her mother married her way up into society before settling as a Hudnut in San Francisco. Natacha took a liking to design and art, as well as art deco, ballet and mythology. After falling in love with Theodore Kosloff she abandoned her dancing career to follow him, though the relationship was abusive and tumultuous….ending with him shooting her in the leg when she tried to escape his ‘arty harem’.
An heiress though obsessively independent, Rambova got a permanent position with Nazimova after Nazimova had asked Kosloff to design some costumes for her, and Rambova was sent to present her own drawings as Kossloff’s, before accidentally revealing the sketches to be hers. Nazimova hired her on the spot and used her between 1920 and 1923 as a costume and set designer, as well as an art director.
Natacha’s alleged lesbianism is usually cited simply at her friendship with Nazimova (almost always incorrectly said to be a lesbian instead of a bisexual), the bigamy trial, and her drive to have her own career. The rumors are almost nonsensical in their lack of conviction. In fact they are most definitively insulting, usually calling her a lesbian for being career driven, as if lesbian is a ‘punishment’ for her wishes over something someone is simply born with.
Through their work on Camille, Rudy and Natacha slowly but surely grew closer until an actual courtship began. She moved in with him at his small Sunset Blvd apartment, where they promptly collected animals (including a lion cub) and gave small dinner parties. Both were friendly with June Mathis and her mother Virginia, who were unabashed Spiritualists. Most believe Natacha drug Rudy into Spiritualism, but it seems they both became quite taken with the religion when Virginia died in 1922, believing her spirit “Jenny” contacted them through automatic writing.
Rudy and Natacha lived poorly during these early years, even hunting their dinner when the times called for it. Natacha reflected almost obsessively on this later as the time they were happiest. However Rudy was never content with being a nobody who couldn’t make ends meet, and he craved a fair paycheck and work from his studio.
On his own Rudy went to Famous Players-Lasky, signed a contract for much less than he was worth, and was soon put to work on The Sheik. Despite the still crummy pay the Sheik would eventually be a role that defined Rudy.
Despite being heavily censored, his lovemaking (a term for looking at and wooing a woman during this time) was so scandalous it brought the wrath of censorship boards and mother groups everywhere. While his lovemaking was so revolutionary it essentially ushered in the flapper era, it also ushered in the soon to be constant score of criticism, mostly from the male section of the public. For wearing baggy pants costumes, wearing wristwatches, and even wearing colored ties Rudy would be called ‘effeminate’. The hatred of Italians synced up with the hatred of a male matinee idol, and Rudy would bare the scorn long after his death when he was so easily labeled ‘gay’ in the 60s…not because anything indicated he was gay, but because of these same charges. Nice clothing and lover roles seemed to equate ‘totally gay’ in mostly male biographers minds, once again using sexuality as a derogatory term for not meeting social norms.
Despite the Sheik being a rousing success, Rudy’s follow up was “Moran of the Lady Letty”…not really sequel making stuff. While working on the film he and friend Paul Ivano were noted as girl chasing and general playboy attitudes…much to Natacha’s chagrin. Soon after she revealed her wealth to Rudy and as a sign of their love he let her take photos of him done up as ‘Pan’ the Goat God. Natacha, not able to stop herself from bragging, gave friends copies of the photos.
The ‘goat photos’ were one more manly wound to Rudy’s image, but they would soon be overshadowed by Acker’s timely divorce circus. Despite her toying with Rudy and essential abandonment of him in the past 3 years, she decided it was time for her to get a good alimony check and suitable divorce. After putting on a show describing how he ‘beat’ her during their final to-do, Rudy was forced to admit in court the marriage was not consummated…another blow to his image. The divorce would be granted soon after, with the much ignored law stipulating Rudy could not remarry for a year. This would soon prove extremely disastrous.
To keep PI’s out of their business, Natacha and Rudy moved into a more suitable home in Whitley Heights, and invited Paul Ivano for cover (many nights Ivano didn’t even sleep there.) Rudy’s next film was “Beyond the Rocks” with Gloria Swanson, a major star….which oddly showed Lasky didn’t seem to think him leading man material either.
Gloria told in her biography of pretending that having Rudy on the picture was a huge burden, i.e. a bargaining point. However they had been friendly before and after the filming.
After Beyond the Rocks, work was begun on Blood and Sand, one of Rudy’s final well received movies until shortly before his death. It would also be his last success with June Mathis. It was the first time he was paired with Nita Naldi, who he would intend to star with 2 more times. Though Valentino was angered at the lack of authenticity (no shooting in Europe and the studio wouldn’t let him film with the actual bull) the film was a huge success ranking #4 overall for 1922.
While before the meager pay and stupid roles had annoyed Rudy, suddenly they infuriated him. He was a star and he knew it, but if the studio kept making his movies look like cheap fluff he would never be taken seriously. The disputes with Blood and Sand set off a fight for creative control that not only drastically reshaped Rudy’s career and life, but also deprived film fans of almost 2 years he could have been working. Considering by 1922 he only had 4 more years to live this is a devastating realization.
After filming Rudy and Natacha decided to go to Mexicali, Mexico and marry. With a small group of friends in tow, the two wed on May 13th, 1922 with a huge celebration. When fame hungry Los Angeles D.A. Woolwine got wind of the marriage, which violated the one year remarriage law, he set about creating a blitz of publicity by jailing Valentino.
On May 17th Natacha and Rudy were notified of the impending legal storm and returned to Los Angeles. On their attorney’s advice, Natacha was forced to go to New York while Rudy rode out the storm in LA.
After being jailed over the weekend, when the banks were not opened, Rudy was bailed by Doug Gerrard, June Mathis and Thomas Meighan. Meighan did not know Rudy, but when Doug had told him of the predicament he offered to help.
The ensuing events did nothing to help Rudy’s career or image. 1922 was a bad time for movie stars: after the OJ Simpson like trial of an innocent Fatty Arbuckle, the premature deaths of Olive Thomas and Wallace Reid, and finally the murder of William Desmond Taylor only a few months before had the Mrs. Grundys’ of America demanding the heathen in Hollywood be censored. Fearing such censorship and legislation the movie studios brought in Will Hayes, who created his Motion Picture Code. Any star who even had a whiff of scandal about them would likely be thrown to the public and court to fend for themselves and Rudy just happened to be that star.
The bigamy trial began on June 1st and after testimony that Rudy ‘slept on the porch’ (by a mistaken passing by Native American, the porch sleeper was actual Douglas) the case was thrown out on May 5th for insufficient evidence. However Rudy and Natacha had to be extremely careful, if they even remotely looked like they canoodling in the following year he could be thrown back in jail.
Mad as hell, Rudy was told to report (or else) for filming on “Young Rajah” a now mostly lost film and the final one he would make with June Mathis. Natacha was the costumer though all her work had to be done from New York. Any and everyone who worked with Rudy on set noted he was not only miserable, but angry as well. June later remarked everything was off in the picture, as his heart was not in it. Unfortunately so little of it exists its hard for a contemporary audience to tell.
After filming Rudy rushed to New York, where he and Natacha maintained distinct separate residences; Natacha with her Aunt Teresa Werner and Rudy with his Padrino Frank Mennillo (who was recently separated). Despite the extremely careful appearance of being separated, Rudy would sneak out late at night to sleep at Natacha’s. They would also meet in a book store owned by a mutual friend where apparent petting sessions took place far out of the PI’s views.
Soon Rajah flopped and Rudy’s seething finally hit the boiling point.
As Jesse Lasky vowed he would keep Rudy in line, he also sent PI’s to trail the two. The final indignity, while filming Rajah, came when Famous Players-Lasky demanded he sign a paper giving up all artistic control and input in his films. He refused.
On September 2nd, 1922 Rudy’s lawyer issued a statement to the press that he would be pursuing a ‘One Man Strike’ against Famous Players-Lasky. He would not relent his strike until he was given more money, the practice of ‘block booking’ was abolished (making theatres pay for lesser movies to get his and other stars), complete artistic control of his films, and better treatment from the studio.
While at first Famous Players-Lasky was certain he would give up soon, after all he owed them quite a bit of money, they realized just how much they stood to lose and offered him a salary increase from $1,250 a week to $7,000 a week (still slightly underpaid). However they would not give in to his other demands, including his want of artistic control. Rudy turned it down.
Since he refused to return to work, Famous Players-Lasky sued Rudy, including a ‘no work’ injunction meaning he could not work at all. Eventually this was ruled as ‘he could not work on the silver screen’ but other work would be allowed. Many other studios had expressed interest in hiring him, but until the suit was settled they were unable to. June Mathis had moved to Goldwyn where she was again an executive. She had wanted to cast Rudy in her epic “Ben-Hur” but was unable to due to the legal wranglings.
Needing to make some sort of income Rudy and Natacha pursued almost every non film avenue possible. Natacha took up a heavier workload and also gave painting lessons. The pair released a book of spiritualist inspired poetry titled “Day Dreams”. Though attributed to Rudy only, several pieces seem to have been written in Natacha’s manner of writing. The booklet was a success, though the men of the press once again derided him for releasing something so ‘unmanly’. Rudy and Natacha had driven head first into Spiritualism with the death of June Mathis’ mother. Cora McGachy, a costume designer, taught them how to practice automatic writing and introduced them to what she called Rudy’s spirit guides, including one known as Black Feather.
Still in need of money, Rudy even pursued a singing career, making two records: “Kashmiri Love Song” (from the Sheik) and “El Relacario” (from Blood and Sand) but the record labels found them unimpressive and decided not to release them. Luckily after his death they studio bosses felt otherwise and eventually released both songs.
At the end of 1922 he was approached by a Minervala Beauty Clay executive, ad man George Ullman, who thought his endorsement of the product might help their sales. Rudy would take no end of heat for this, as it would be akin to David Beckham promoting Cover Girl. However Ullman’s original idea was for Rudy, the love ideal of flappers every where, to sing the praises of the clay in making his wife so gorgeous, and how he believed it made any woman super beautiful. Eventually out of both of their control, his image was used in print ads even claiming he used it, which angered him deeply.
With Ullman, the Valentinos planned a 88 city dancing tour to promote the product. Rudy and Natacha would dance, little spiels for Minervala and against Famous Players-Lasky would be given, and finally a woman in each city would be chosen as part of a beauty contest that would end in New York City with one final winner out of the 88 contestants.
The tour was a success and the final beauty contest would be filmed as Rudolph Valentino and his 88 Beauties. Throughout the tour Rambova was weary of the various beauty contestants, and Ullman believed Rudy had slept with the eventual winner, crowning her despite the possibility of a scandal and against Ullman’s advice. Despite these indiscretions, Rambova and Valentino were remarried legally near the start of the tour in Indiana.
Ullman was able to end the injunction by having the Valentinos agree to a final two films for Famous Players-Lasky, at which time they would be free to join J.D. Williams and form Ritz Carlton Pictures. Williams promised Ritz Carlton pictures would be all about the Valentinos, and they would finally have creative control. Ullman had done the impossible: he had kept Rudy afloat during his strike, ended the injunction from Famous Players-Lasky, and even negotiated a new contract.
Europe and Monsieur Beaucaire
With paychecks and contract in hand the Valentinos left to Europe for a vacation and costume work for their first Famous Players-Lasky film, “Monsieur Beaucaire”. Rambova was to be art director and costumer on this film. Despite making gorgeous pieces, she immediately went over budget causing Ullman much distress. In France she discovered Andre Daven, a man long claimed to be a lover of Valentino’s. However Daven was straight, and wrote to his girlfriend during his entire stay in New York to work on Monsieur Beaucaire. Rambova arranged for some dental work to further her belief in his on screen career, only to have Daven skip town when the bill came due. Neither seemed to think very highly of the other by this unceremonious end.
In Europe the Valentinos’ traveled between France, England and finally Italy, the first time Rudy would be home in 10 years. First they met his sister Maria, who had always been close to Rudy as a child. Maria and Natacha regarded each other as scandalous, and while Maria humored Natacha by letting her make her up, neither got along well. Likely not wanting to see Jean or deal with more Valentinos, Rambova left back for France before the group headed to Milan.
In Milan, Rudy was reunited with his brother Alberto and his son Jean. All who seen Jean and Rudy meet recalled it as an extremely touching moment. The two were inseparable and when Rudy had to leave he told Alberto he would send payment for piano lessons and private schooling for Jean when he returned to the US. All 10 years Rudy had done what could to support Jean. His letters between himself, Ada and Alberto mostly consisted of declaring how much Jean was like him, while Alberto’s letters mostly asked for more money.
After ending their trip in France, the couple returned to New York to film Monsieur Beaucaire. Natacha had been receiving criticism since the bigamy trial and it would come to a head in the press during this time. She clashed with almost every personnel on set and despite attempts to quell the public hatred, the press continued to deride her as controlling.
When Monsieur Beaucaire flopped (it did well in cities; but not rural areas) Rambova took the brunt of the blame. However in retrospect its an extremely charming picture with comedic touches and stunning costumes. Unfortunately that’s not what the public wanted from their love God…they wanted the Sheik or the Latin Lover type of roles.
Trying to give it to them, Famous Players-Lasky insisted their final Valentino picture be in this vein. Work began on “The Sainted Devil” where Natacha again clashed with actors and directors (to the point that a handful of people dropped out of the production) before essentially becoming the ghost director. “The Sainted Devil” again flopped, and unfortunately is now believed to be lost.
Hooded Falcon Debacle
Rudy’s image as the great screen lover was seriously damaged by these two flops. Many in the press began declaring John Gilbert his successor. Rambova spent the entire summer working on a screenplay for a film called “The Hooded Falcon”. Williams initially approved the script and production plans were put into motion. June Mathis was asked to doctor the script, and she agreed, but for whatever reason the script was not found to be ‘satisfactory’ and Ullman was charged with telling her the news. She promptly refused to speak to either of the Valentinos ever again and eloped with her Italian cameraman.
However by the time Monsieur Beaucaire had flopped, Williams told Ullman that not only would Hooded Falcon never be made, but whatever films were made with Ritz Carlton would be distributed by the Valentinos old nemesis: Famous Players-Lasky. Ullman was so enraged he almost got into a brawl over it, and he knew this would break their contract. But to keep Rudy from striking again he decided it was best to not reveal who was distributing the films.
Williams also decreed Rudy’s next film was to be “Cobra”, a modern play that flopped on Broadway. Ullman and Rambova disagreed strongly with this order but one day Rudy said he was going to accept it, Black Feather told him to.
Cobra, at William’s insistence (breaking another promise), was to be filmed in Hollywood. Rambova did not take to this well and it was seen as the beginning of the end of the marriage. Cobra would be Rudy’s one and only film with Ritz Carlton and his final film with Nita Naldi. Rambova declared she was bored of it after filming some historical scenes in the mostly modern story. Cobra would again flop and it seemed as if Valentino’s career was in serious jeopardy.
The marriage went from shaky to rocky when, as the Valentinos vacationed in Palm Springs, Ullman called to tell them not only was Ritz Carlton folding (and blaming Natacha in the press) and Hooded Falcon would never be made, but there was some good news as he was close to securing a contract for Valentino at United Artist. Formed in 1919 by Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin it was an extremely well known and successful independent studio.
Rudy had been briefed on the situation with Ritz Carlton before, while Natacha had not. She took this as a grave insult and a way to leave her out of his business dealings. After fighting with her husband, she drove to Los Angeles to have a battle of wills with Ullman. She not only expressed her anger at being left out, but was even more livid when she found the United Artist contract not only didn’t have her in an executive role, but her name was not mentioned at all. She demanded Ullman remedy this and once again left for Palm Springs.
Rudy knew it was almost a death knell for his marriage, but he needed the money and decided to sign. To appease Natacha he called Ullman to Palm Springs after signing the contract. Natacha had an idea for a movie to be called “What Price Beauty?” and she wanted it financed off of the credit of Rudy’s new contract. Rudy’s LLC eventually paid for the film, which would be the battle royale of the Valentinos marriage.
After returning to Los Angeles, Rudy began work on the Eagle and Natacha began work on What Price Beauty. Natacha held out one final hope of working on the Eagle by giving the writers notes. Schenck put a stop to this by telegraphing Ullman that she was not to be on set of any of Rudy’s films because they did not have ‘time to waste money’ on her notes and input.
To Natacha, this was the final straw. She began working extremely long hours on her own film. The two rarely seen each other; and when they did they would argue over the other spending long hours on their respective sets. Natacha would embarrass Rudy by showing up late or not at all to public events and if they did anything during this time it seemed to be fighting. Suspecting Rudy was cheating on her with his co-star Vilma Banky, Natacha asked their handyman to follow him. Suspecting Natacha of cheating on him, Rudy hired a Private Detective to follow Natacha. When the PI reported she was carrying on an affair with her cameraman, Rudy threatened to kill not only him but Natacha as well. Ullman was able to talk him out of it, but not before he punched Natacha in the face during a confrontation about the affair.
Though the Valentinos made up the next night, it was only temporary. In August 1925 they negotiated a separating of all business affairs, then staged a public goodbye with Natacha heading to New York ‘for a break’ while they both knew it was the end, and according to Ullman sent angry telegrams at every stop.
Rudy took to his bachelorhood as if he wanted to enjoy it, but was confused and conflicted. One minute he was making out with Mae Murray and leaving Ullman behind at a boxing match to go home with her, the next he was suicidal over the loss of Natacha. According to Ullman he had several flings during this time, and as if to exemplify his conflicted state of mind, would take these affairs while acting very dangerously, almost recklessly. On several occasions the deeply near sighted Rudy would drive drunk and in a few instances crashed, but luckily was unhurt.
In February 1926 he paid for Alberto, Ada and Jean to come stay with him in Falcon Lair. He and Jean made up for lost time, spending almost every hour possible together horseback riding and fixing cars. Jean was the envy of Beverly Hills when decked out in his finest riding outfit and new clothes his father had bought him.
While all was well with Jean, all was not well between Alberto and Rudy. They fought constantly, so much so that after filming Son of the Sheik, Rudy sent the clan back to Italy. Though he was devastated to see Jean go, he was relieved to be done with Alberto. Ullman recounted after Alberto disappeared onto the ship Rudy told him, “I hope I never see that bastard again.” One theory regarding this return is that tired of being almost blackmailed by Alberto over what to do with his son, and knowing he could not get custody of Jean without admitting the truth and losing his career, Rudy had resigned himself to not see his son again until he was an adult.
After this the reckless incidents continued, while the marrying off of Mae Murray left Rudy with Pola Negri, who wanted very much to become his third wife. According to Ullman they both had extremely passionate tempers and he couldn’t see it lasting very long. The affair with Vilma Banky may have continued as well as they again co-starred together in Son of the Sheik.
During this time Rudy reconciled with a lot of the people he had either had personal fights with or had been alienated by Natacha. This included Jean Acker, June Mathis and surprisingly even Louie B. Mayer.
Those who were around Rudy towards the end of his life said he seemed happy, and at times he talked of reconciling with Natacha, just not any day soon. Speaking with Ullman, he also expressed his desire to quit acting in a few years time, which would oddly sync up well with the arrival of talkies (which were not yet a success, they existed but weren’t Jazz Singer big until after his death). Much like his son, he expressed a wish to work behind the camera. Or oddly, even be a bullfighter.
The Eagle and Son of the Sheik were both successes, and restored the star to his former glory at the box office. But none of that would matter when he took ill during promotion of Son of the Sheik in late August 1926.
Illness and Death
After a night of partying Rudy returned to his hotel and told Ullman how sickly he was feeling. He didn’t want to see a doctor, but Ullman insisted and after not one but two doctors looked at him in his suite, it was ruled he was in serious trouble and was moved to the emergency room at Polyclinic Hospital.
As Rudy had been suffering from his symptoms of advancing peritonitis for 10 hours (and 8 hours was usually the point of no return) the Doctors knew it would be not only hard but almost hopeless for him to fully recover.
Rudy was sent to surgery, while Ullman arranged for two guards and two ‘trustworthy’ nurses. Word was spreading Rudy was in the hospital and the public began to overwhelm the hospital. This would be an almost unprecedented event and little precautions or procedures were in place to protect a famous patient.
During the operation Rudy’s appendix was removed and greengage was found. Rudy almost died on the operating table from shock but was able to recover. After the surgery was completed the doctor told Ullman he had a 50/50 chance of surviving.
Rudy’s ‘healing process’ sounds almost downright barbaric, and it almost assuredly painful: he was propped up on a board so his wound could drain. The first thing Rudy said when he awoke was, “Well George, did I behave like a pink powder puff now?” Only a few weeks before an anonymous newspaper writer criticized Rudy for what he seen as ‘the effeminate effects on men’. He called Rudy a pink powder puff, based on a powder dispenser in the men’s room of a popular Chicago hangout. The words had effected Rudy so that he had challenged the man to a boxing match, that was never responded to. Ullman, who had spent almost every minute of his last weeks and days with him, said the article just ate away at him. One more reason its almost cruel to see Rudy baptized gay by hack writers and starry eyed fans who weren’t even alive in his day.
Frank Mennillo was called and between him and Ullman they kept a constant watch on Rudy, who through the days slipped in and out of consciousness.
For almost 4 days it seemed Rudy might make it, he was able to sit up and even asked to send telegrams to Natacha and Alberto, both of whom were waiting in Europe for further news. However after a solid morning, by Friday afternoon Rudy’s fever began to climb. After complaining of pain in his side it was found pleurisy was in his left lungs. What this means is that well he did get past the risks of having an inflamed appendix that absolutely reeked havoc in his side and stomach, the infection in his lung is what doomed him. It would be almost 10 years before antibiotics came into use…had they been around in 1926 Rudy just might have made it. The pleurisy caused his heart to malfunction and pneumonia to spread throughout both of his lungs.
While Rudy was clinging on to existence with the use of morphine (which would keep him from pain but not heal him) Ullman tried any and everything he thought might work. With the physicians they discussed if blood transfusions would work, and possibly a new antiseptic drug called Metaphen. However the drug was in Michigan and would have to get to New York as fast as possible; a tall order in an era when flying was still a novelty.
The blood transfusion was looked into and a donor was found, but the doctors decided he was not strong enough to undergo the procedure. The delivery of the metaphen became hopeless and the drug was a crapshoot anyways: it would either cure or kill him and the doctors weren’t sure which. So it too was abandon.
On Saturday Joseph Schenck and his wife Norma Talmadge came to visit. Rudy was able to speak to them and Norma left in tears. Jean Acker also came for a visit, and also left in tears. On Sunday a priest was allowed to speak with Rudy and despite Ullman’s fears it would upset him it seemed to comfort him. Frank Mennillo and Ullman sat at his bed in a sort of vigil. The vigil kept watch until Monday, the 23rd. Around 8 o clock Rudy uttered his last words, which legend has said was ‘unintelligible Italian’ and that he was alone.’ This is untrue: both Mennillo and Ullman were present and the word was one even non Italian speakers might understand, “Madre” (mother).
A priest was called and Ullman and Mennillo stayed for the administration of the last rites. During this time Rudolph Valentino took his last breath and passed away.
With the death of Valentino a ton of logistical problems sprang up. His now estate was in debt, his last film hadn’t premiered in all of the country, and there was no money or arrangements preplanned for his funeral. Ullman arranged safe removal of his body (in a wicker laundry basket) and approved of the public viewing at Frank E. Campbell’s funeral home. However once the atmosphere turned circus like Ullman was appalled and put an end to the public display.
A funeral was held in New York and it was decided Rudy would be buried in June Mathis’ crypt at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. She loaned it ‘until she needed it’ which would unfortunately barely be a year later. Rudy was moved into what would have been her husband’s crypt, and she was placed into her own.
Pola Negri put on a grade A performance during the funeral train from New York to LA. Oddly she had hired a doctor that was no doctor at all, but a conman with a long history of fraud (likely unbeknownst to her.) Ullman recounted how if she’d go out and see very little press or fans at a stop, she’d go back in and save her ‘performance’ till there was a bigger crowd. Her actions, for whatever reason she took them, severely damaged her reputation in Hollywood.
The Hot Mess Estate
Upon return to Hollywood Ullman searched for the will and found it as he had remembered it, but it appeared a page was missing. Ullman and Rudy’s lawyer began searching for it but it would not be found for a few years. The will as it stood named Ullman executor and divided the estate three ways: shares to Alberto, Maria and Teresa Werner.
Ullman, grieving, exhausted, and in shock with what had befallen him in the past few months, did what he could. He had organized the public viewing and train stops with a hope of promoting Son of the Sheik, so Rudy’s estate would receive some money from it. He arranged an auction to liquidate Rudy’s belongings, but oddly the auction was not a success. He was also constantly dealing with Alberto Valentino, who before Ullman had even made a move, filed to have Ullman removed as executor and Teresa Werner moved as a beneficiary.
With Pola Negri’s help, Alberto set up shop at the prestige Ambassador Hotel, while leaving Jean in boarding school and his wife in Italy. He also wanted to charge everything to the estate, against Ullman’s wishes. Eventually, acting on what he knew to be in the will, Ullman made advances and weekly paychecks to all three beneficiaries against their shares.
When Rudy died the estate was in debt $300,000. By 1931 Ullman had put it in the black with a profit of $300,000. An extraordinary feat considering the constant harassment from Alberto and the Great Depression that followed after the 1929 crash.
Alberto was extremely opposed to Ullman being an executor, he petitioned several times over several years to have Ullman removed, and he was always turned down. With lawyers bankrolled by Schenck, Alberto sued Ullman for fraud, mismanagement and misallocation of funds. It wasn’t until through another round of legal battles the final page of the will was found. It scandalously left everything to Jean Valentino on his 25th birthday, and the other three were only supposed to inherit if Jean died before then. Only three people had access to the will box: Rudy, Ullman, and Lou Mahoney a handyman with ideals of grandeur. It is believed Lou Mahoney not only took this page to protect Rudy’s secret, but may have also been involved in stealing the court records, that disappeared from the hall of records in 1941. By chance they would turn up in the early 2000s when author Evelyn Zumaya located them.
Ullman was cleared of any wrongdoing, but by making the advances to what he thought the beneficiaries were, he was technically wrong. He was ordered to pay back $100,000 (in 1933 dollars) an impossible sum considering his entire business disappeared with Rudy’s death. One might see it as an especially cruel move as Ullman did not spend this money, but the supposed beneficiaries (particularly Alberto) did, and yet Alberto (and later Jean) was the person who, even with the Judge’s recommendation to do so, refused to drop the legal financial obligation Ullman had to repay.
So the estate of Rudolph Valentino did exactly what it was not meant to do. Rudy had, by the date, changed his will almost immediately after divorcing Natacha. He had intended for his companies to continue making movies, to benefit Jean and that Jean would someday have complete control of his image and companies and films. Rudy had also completely intended for Ullman to be the executor and would have likely been appalled at the way Ullman’s life was ruined by Alberto’s almost bullheaded stupidity in harassing Ullman. Even worse the bitterness Alberto had was passed down to Jean, deeply affecting his own life.
Due to Alberto’s legal wrangling, by the time Jean did inherit the estate it was insolvent in debt, as it had been ever since Ullman was removed as executor. There was nothing left for Jean, and nothing but a life of recovering and being hounded by Jean and Alberto for Ullman.
Another unfortunate bit is June Mathis had fully intended to build a memorial to Rudy ‘as an Italian garden in Hollywood’ something Ullman and others supported. A committee of Italian Americans was created for this project, but with June’s sudden death it and all other memorializing plans fell through. Will Rogers died a few years later and his homes were turned into museums and state parks, while smaller parks and beaches were dedicated to him. It seems with the coming of sound and the trouble made by Alberto no one could remember Rudy. It could be said he sits in a borrowed grave still, though when Silvano Balboni, Mathis’ husband, decided to return to Italy he sold the crypt to the Valentino family.
The publicity stunt started by Ullman to promote his films in 1927, known as the Valentino Memorial Service, has gone on almost unabated. It went from circus atmosphere, to dignified, back to circus atmosphere in almost the blink of an eye. Jean and Alberto found it disgraceful and even tried suing to end it.
The few movies made on Rudy’s life have been slapdash jobs, playing up the sex and playing down the role of a human being in its biographical quest. The handful of books released have baptized Rudy as gay, so much so that if one says else wise its considered scandalous…never mind there was never evidence anyways, once you trace the story back to its origins. Something few scandalmongers bother doing.
In his life Rudy seemed to always be destined for great things and stardom, only to have something pull the rug out from under him and bring him to a unglorious end. He reached fame with Four Horsemen, only to be given an indifferent shrug and ordered to play in a b film. He reached fame again with The Sheik, only to again have time wasted until Blood and Sand, then several factors brought him down to the joke of Cobra, that guy who ‘used to be in good movies.’
He rose again with his UA contract, only to have his death cut short whatever pinnacle of art and acting he may have reached. He died at the height of his fame and his death was the talk of everyone, only to have him end up in a borrowed crypt while his son was taught to be bitter and Alberto harassed anyone trying to perpetuate his work and goals as he had written them.
And now we have a man that was an icon, only to be turned into a pink powder puff punchline once again. Why would any normal person want to talk of Valentino, when if they do they know they’ll have 10 Alberto-like people knocking down their door and names, calling them homophobes and threatening them? No studio or publisher in its right mind would want to promote a serious piece of work, knowing that if you tell the truth as research shows it, gay by proxy baptizers will boycott you and call you homophobic. We can’t sit down and have a serious artistic and pop culture discussion of the life and work of Rudolph Valentino until the lunatics are either ignored or lose interest. And unfortunately they’ve been hanging on for almost 90 years.
It took until 2010 for the real story of the life of Rudolph Valentino to come out in the rock hard sourced “Affairs Valentino”. Yet no one wants to talk about it, you won’t find the new discoveries in other books or Wikipedia or IMDB. Even small things like Rudy hired the PI to follow Natacha, not Ullman.
So as it stands, our great star is still being kicked around in the muck. Hopefully one day this will change.