Rudolph Valentino - Addio Mio Grande Amante


That’s it…including tax and shipping overseas.

Having recently had occasion to vacate a 5x7 solid silver picture frame by Tiffany & Co. arose the inevitable…who goes in place of the love of your life?

In this instance, a signed photo of Rudolph Valentino.

My reason? Ah…well, that’s the story behind the star.

The Great Lover – Not Who You Think

For those unblissfully unaware, Rudolph Valentino was known as “The Great Lover” during our silent era; the beginning and the end as far as hysteria goes in glamour. No one has come close since.

Think me wrong? That George Clooney or Brad Pitt beckons? Ask yourself, is it likely a full 60 years after the hereafter either will still be “name-checked” in a pop song?

As I thought.

In popular imagination Valentino, best known for his role in The Sheik, was most of the last century esteemed as the most passionate, most thrilling, and most virile man alive.

The truth? A tad more complex than the multiplex advertised.

Given my somewhat unique position of having associations with a few notables of the same period, allow me to review who Valentino actually was and who he decidedly was not.

Importantly, the following does not entirely originate with family lore but includes innumerable biographies both of Hollywood and the man himself.

Buckle Your Seatbelts…It’s Gonna Be a Bumpy Ride…

To begin, his name wasn’t really Rudolph Valentino…it was Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguella…which made the moniker a bit lengthy for the typical marquee.

While many in showbusiness (which includes “news media”) change their titles it is of note in this instance it was no cigar-chomping executive who made the call but the actor of his own initiative; evidence of early acumen in a commercial business hardly more than a decade old.

Rodolfo Guglielmi, as he was known most of his life, grew up impoverished in Italy…the southern part of the peninsula, which in those days put the “dirt” in the phrase “dirt poor”. He had a brother and a sister, a mother who constantly berated him, and a father who was a veterinarian.

Rudy hated the place and eventually scraped together enough to get the hell out to America. There, he stayed with Italian acquaintances from the same village and wound up a dancer.

Eventually was minor law-skirting in New York City that caused him to skip town. It appears from all accounts, unlike most acolytes, Los Angles was not his intended destination. Rather, he drifted his way across the country until by sheer happenstance made it to Tinseltown.

Of course, he immediately became a star…oh wait, no…

Overnight Success Takes Years

In reality the man lived in cheap lodgings and hung out at the Hollywood Hotel, which at that time offered a discounted buffet for those starving in the trade. He joined social clubs which put him in proximity to Charlie Chaplin and major players, but Guglielmi never asked – nor got – any favors.

Instead he did what most eventual successes do and tried to put a brave face on a bad situation.

He continued dancing which ultimately led a few major Directors to hire him as an opening performer before important pictures, as was common in the day. This yielded bit parts or “extra” work that gradually expanded in stature; even if Rudolph was leery of often portraying a salacious Mediterranean.

Intermission of the Biography: Two Important Lessons!

One, the best professional advice in the world is to take the job that is given if in proximity to the job that you want.

Merely being around a place gets you seen and if you’re talented you’ll eventually get noticed. After you get noticed you get what you really seek…so again, don’t fear grasping the bottom rung…BUT ONLY if it is on the ladder you want to be climbing.

Two, no one has it easy.

Was Valentino less of a sex idol some years before gaining public status as a sex symbol? That hardly seems possible. Instead, no matter how “smooth” or “gifted” or “privileged” or whatever contemporary spin our faux-enlightened modernistes want to put on it; Rudy had to work his ass off to gain fame.

And now, back to Our Story….

You know who gave Valentino his proverbial Big Break? Not an Agent. Not a Casting Call. Not a Director.

It was…a writer. (There is a Third Important Lesson here…but if you’re too dumb to recognize it you aren’t worth learning it…)

He was pushed for the role by none other than Screenwriter June Mathis. (But wait! I thought Old Hollywood had no women, who were “historically oppressed” sayeth the educated idiots of today…)

Mathis was one of the best in the business, much like Ida Lupino a generation after her. (But wait again! I thought women in Showbusiness were flukes until Current Year, spoketh the wokest of the morons…)

Anyhow, due largely to this adroitly intellectual female Valentino was chosen for the role which would make him famous. Crucial to note, Rudy always credited her and they remained friends for years. (But wait once more! I thought all men resented powerful women…oh bother, what’s the use?...Ahem.)

When It Happens, It Happens Quick

The one thing about “overnight success” is that while it takes years to attain, as far as the public is concerned, the results really are instantaneous.

Valentino went from a guy who was the perpetual “sad sack” charity case of his social set to being one of the most sought-after thespians in town.

Naturally, every business offered nearly unlimited credit which was secured by the studio. In this, Rudy did show his roots a bit in that he bought everything and anything he liked…and he liked a lot of things.

As the years went on Valentino amassed a fleet of automobiles, a couple houses, a horde of artwork and so many silk shirts they could hardly give them away at the auction following his demise.

Indeed, when he passed Valentino was believed to be in debt well over a million dollars…that’s 1926 dollars, by the way.

A Hit and Miss Career

Despite the popular notion Valentino had an unbroken string of successes, this was not the case.

Of his major films approximately five were resounding triumphs, about five were relative failures, with another two being somewhere in the middle.

A few of these were not even commercially viable; while it should be noted Valentino did everything possible to make quality artwork.

Totally forgotten today is that during the height of his notoriety he essentially retired a year owing to dispute with his studio concerning artistic control, which speaks to genuine integrity.

Moreover, in his final appearance in Son of the Sheik it was Valentino himself who suggested he play dual roles with a mirror screen – novel at the time – as both titular son as well as father.

What the Public Saw…Celluloid Sex

On screen throughout life Valentino was seen as the masculine archetype. Probably not every…but almost every…woman in America dreamed of him carrying her off to the desert on his stallion.

When there was a film premiere – and I use the collective term because this happened at nearly all of them – crowds of female admirers tore his clothing, his buttons, his neckties and when not enough they brought scissors…again, NOT an exaggeration…on many occasions ladies cut parts of his clothing off.

Such was the swooning for the man that when he unexpectedly died at least one fan committed suicide.

What Rudy Was…Three Strikes

Strike One – The Lunatic

Valentino was not a homosexual. Nor bisexual. Or any other sort of sexual than hetro.

He was, instead, profoundly unfortunate in love.

Jean Acker, his first wife, had suggested on whim as he was flirting with her they be married. Ever the naïve Italian lad, Valentino was overjoyed and accepted; the nuptials soon forthcoming…and almost immediately after…the discovery he had wed a complete neurotic.

Following the ceremony Acker locked him out of the apartment they were to share. Her reasons were never entirely clear, but the marriage was not consummated that night. Or ever.

Despite repeated attempts, verging on pleading, during the course of several months Acker refused to so much as meet her husband much less anything more intimate.

Astoundingly, this was prior to Rudolph becoming a hot property, so money was undoubtedly not her motivation. Instead, she merely seems to have been a lunatic.

Succeeding generations have speculated she – a minor star at the time - was herself homosexual which may indicate she married Rudy for social protection.

Be that (or not) as it may, her behavior was strictly abominable given Valentino genuinely valued his wife and sought to conduct an ordinary marriage; with no inclination she had any other design.

This was certainly the nadir of his life: effectively abandoned on his wedding night, made a laughingstock of the then-miniscule Hollywood community, and yet to become more than a hanger-on in the motion picture business.

It was but a few months later he was cast in Four Horseman…and still then he begged his partner to return…to no avail.

They divorced, a judge found the actions of Acker outrageous, with result Rudy paid a small lump sum to be rid of her forever (after she began a Smear Campaign against him for profit).

Naturally, years following divorce she legally changed her last name to….Valentino; the man she spurned.

Strike Two – The Russian

Worse was to come for Rudolph when he met Natacha Rambova; the Russian who was not Russian. (Real name? Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy. Yeah…)

In fact, Rambova was daughter-in-law of an extraordinarily wealthy cosmetics magnate. She was raised in luxury but, as was the wont at the time, chose to run off and join the circus…or in this case, the Imperial Russian Ballet under Theodore Kosloff.

Her mother searched years for her, until the girl returned to America where she joined up with Alla Nazimova as a Set Designer and was quite good at that trade.

Natascha also knew the movie business (yet another of the thousands of talented women who “didn’t exist” in Hollywood before 1980 according to University students who have never cracked a textbook).

As such, Rambova advised Rudy on all manner of technique including whom to make friends on set (the Gaffers), how to apply cosmetics to disguise his faults (he had a facial scar and a cauliflower ear since birth), as well as for what price he should negotiate his contracts (he always low-balled himself).

Ultimately they fell in love with Valentino doing so madly and Rambova taking care of the insanity.

In time she became ever more unhinged regarding his fame and work projects. Rudolph, as artist, was interested in collaboration with others to produce the best work possible while Natascha was always certain her way was best.

For a while the men in her life from her husband Valentino to Studio Bosses indulged this fantasy…until every project she controlled failed both commercially and critically.

Eventually Rambova was banned from sets, then studios, which she resented and took out on her lover.

The marriage ended in sorrow but Rudy did everything possible to save it. He sent her gardens of flowers. He broke with his male friends. He traveled across the nation to beg her to reconcile.

None of it proved fruitful and at this juncture everyone from The Press to his circle of compatriots began to worry over his mental health. Indeed, following the later death of natural causes one acquaintance revealed a time he quickly grabbed a gun from Rudy amidst a suicide attempt.

Journalists noted as Valentino departed for Europe to accede to the divorce Rambova demanded that the actor was in a dismay of misery.

Strike Three – Biding His Time Until Retirement

There would be no other true love for Valentino.

Rather, the third woman in his life (who claimed to all who would listen he intended to marry her, and who every personal friend swore he intended no such thing) was what might be regarded platonic.

Pola Negri was a Polish actress who dragged Rudy to every soiree in town. Given she was good friends with Marion Davies, who was good friends with William Randolph Hearst, they were mighty good parties.

Be that as it may, Valentino repeatedly confessed to confidantes that while he could have any woman he wanted he was generally interested in none of them – the man still loved his (now-ex) wife.

Moreover, several told the identical story after his passing: the actor informed all he had no tolerance for any serious romantic entanglement until he retired, which he anticipated during the next few years.

At that time he would take up Direction, for which he showed an aptitude.

The Death Heard Round the World

What happened to Valentino? Well, it’s a larger question than space allows.

Officially he died of Peritonitis (caused by Appendicitis and Perforated Ulcers). That may be true.

Unofficially there was a gathering the night before he was admitted to hospital where he was either poisoned or shot by a man jealous of affections the assailant believed Valentino had shown his sweetheart. This is unlikely although evidence does exist to suggest the possibility.

Whatever the true cause, the actor died at the zenith of his career – always a brilliant move.

Some anecdotes and incidentals:

  • Valentino made only two vocal recordings in life, both in 1923 while in New York City.
  • During his funeral 100,000 spectators lined the streets of New York.
  • When at the funeral home 30,000 viewers paid respects to the corpse over a series of days.
  • Only a scant few mourners were admitted the New York service, of which my associate was one.
  • Both homes he owned were eventually demolished, each after being scavenged by souvenir hunters.
  • A series of auctions from his personal belongings did in fact make his estate solvent following his passing.
  • So much fan mail continued for him 10 YEARS after death it required a staff to meet demands for ephemera.

And Finally…

Among the most poignant aspects of the life of Valentino for this author occurred but a week prior his demise. Rudy had lunch – amazingly – with famous wit H.L. Mencken who later wrote about their encounter.

According to Mencken, whose caustic pen spared almost no one, the thespian was described as being a mild-mannered Italian boy (he was still only 31 years old) who spoke with intelligence and passion but had a deep underlying sadness in his eyes.

While Mencken does not specifically mention this in his piece, it would seem obvious the most female-worshipped man on the entire globe even then remained profoundly in love with his former wife.

And here is where we leave Valentino, whom I admire and idolize not because he was “The Great Lover” but because he was, as the very best of males, “The Great Romantic”.

$50 for a signed photo to replace that of my own dear heart…

I would have paid $5000.

Guy Somerset writes from somewhere in America

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Author`s name Guy Somerset
Editor Dmitry Sudakov