There are few items associated with Rudolph Valentino that are more emblematic than his Slave Bracelet. And it goes without saying this Blog would be doing him an injustice, were I never to properly look at it, or, into it. Of course I realise that I tread well-trodden ground. This is a trail much tramped and I see the footprints in front of me as I walk. Yet, I think I can, regardless, present new information — if that doesn’t sound conceited. Here then is: The Slave Bracelet.
A whole half year after Valentino’s untimely demise, aged 31, a man named Robert V. Steele wrote an interesting, lengthy article. Titled in capitals: DID ‘POWDER PUFF’ CAUSE RUDY’S SUDDEN DEATH? the syndicated full page piece, published Tuesday, March 1st, 1927, on page six of the THE KEY WEST CITIZEN, was accompanied by a sizeable image of the deceased Superstar, as usual immaculately dressed, with his pipe in his right hand and his Slave Bracelet on show. Had “Rudy-of-the-Slave-Bracelets” been hastened to an early death by the “knockout” blow of the ” ‘Pink Powder Puff’ editorial?” Steele asked.
For those wondering what the ‘Pink Powder Puff’ editorial was we’ll come to it later. In the meantime, I can reveal it declared, in-no-uncertain-terms, that slave bracelets were an indication of effeminacy, and worse, degeneracy. By wearing one Valentino was an effeminate man and a degenerate man. Encouraging effeminacy and degeneracy. A bad influence, if you like. A menace. Of course, now, as then, we know this to be ridiculous. Fallacious if we’re being charitable. An odious slur if we aren’t. Yet we might wonder – I do – how it was that such a laughable standpoint could’ve been voiced let alone printed. To find out we must delve a little.
There’s absolutely no question that at the turn of the Twentieth Century in America bracelets of all types were the preserve of females. And if we’re in any doubt – I know one or two of you will be – we need only consult the art and literature of the day, newspapers or magazines and their advertisements, and of course picture plays/films. A 1902 report, reproduced in THE SAINT PAUL GLOBE, but originating in the “Brooklyn Eagle” (actually The Brooklyn Daily Eagle), features what appears to be the first mention of a Slave Bracelet in the United States in the early 1900s. Titled HISTORY AND TRAGEDY CONNECTED WITH OLD JEWELS, and subtitled Could Old Heirlooms Talk They Would Tell Strange and Wonderful Stories, it details, at great length, a new craze among the sophisticated for antique or reproduction antique items. A mania fuelled by: “Art jewelers …. paying enormous sums for antique ornaments…” “… exclusive and high-priced jewelers…” who were: “… sending out agents to procure for them the former treasures of bankrupt aristocrats.” We learn how one establishment was offering customers a reproduction of an “Egyptian bracelet”. (Hand-crafted, hammered gold medallions of a sphinx, a woman’s head and a snake, each in relief and linked together by jewels.) And that: “The heavy band of the Greek slave…” was: “… another fad of the moment.” Large, and made of burnished gold or black onyx, a: “Mrs George Cornwallis-West…” was anticipating delivery of: “… a Greek slave bracelet to be made of blackened ivory studded with diamonds…” expected to cost her $3,000. (It isn’t clear if Cornwallis-West’s order was a band or a chain. Suggesting the phrase was then a little flexible.)
It’s probable the trend was driven by late Nineteenth Century archaeological finds. And representations of ancient history, or exotic slave markets, in paintings and prints. That early cinema contributed is undeniable. The Vitagraph Company of America’s, A Tale of a Harem, in 1908, featured the loss of a bracelet by one character and its discovery by another. And in the Selig Polyscope Company’s, The Wife of Marcius (1910), a bracelet is used unsuccessfully by one Roman to win the heart of another’s wife. Slave bracelets appeared from time-to-time in serialised stories too, in local, statewide and national news publications. Perhaps the best pre-War period example being the one in David Potter’s, I Fasten a Bracelet, J. B. Lippincot Co., 1911. Presented in instalments as late as 1914, it’s an odd tale of a man named Craig Schuyler, who returns from Sumatra to menace his former Fiancee, Ellen Sutphen, and also her mother, in their own home. The bracelet of the title is a crude iron African Slave Bracelet Craig forces Ellen to wear. And as a modern symbol of enslavement it weirdly echoes the claimed future enslavement of Rudy by his second wife. But more about all that later.
We’ve seen how, up to 1914, bracelets were an exclusively feminine item on one side of the Atlantic; but what about on the other side, in Europe — and beyond. Inhabitants of the Continent were, it seems, as enamoured of antique or reproduction antique pieces as Americans were, if not more so; if we trust the press of the period, which of course we do. In France – France, particularly Paris, being the initiator of rages then, and for many decades afterwards – we find bracelets galore in article after article in the newspapers and supplements of the Belle Epoque. For example, Histoire d’un bracelet, in 1901. The amusing tale of a well-known lady of society who, after requesting from two wealthy male friends a souvenir of a memorable event, received 25,000 Francs from each, bought a single bracelet worth 50,000, and, after pretending to the first it was worth 25,000, and allowing him to borrow it to show to his wife, not only lost it to her in return for a copy worth 25,000, but was confronted by the man’s spouse at a later date wearing the 50,000 Franc bracelet!
I confess I didn’t expect to find, as early as 1909, a news item that revealed the genesis of the bracelet for men in modern times. (Such information would elude me I was sure.) As big a surprise was that the origin wasn’t, as I anticipated, France. That the place where bracelets for men became The Vogue was Great Britain – or England as it was referred to at that time – amazed me. In fact, I’m stunned that the heart of the British Empire, filled as it was with so many stiff upper lips, would spawn such a tradition. And yet it did. As follows:
As women become masculinized, they take over all the situations considered to be the preserve of men, and have fun at the expense of men, with delicacies, and with futilities that were considered reserved for the weaker sex. They want to put the bracelet in fashion.
Already, these last years, the young elegants have adopted the carrying on their manicured fingers of expensive rings. Here in England they declare that the bracelet is ‘chic’.
Until recently, the bracelet was offered by the English to their fiancees; it was the gift of ‘alliance’, the symbol of union. Today, in New Bond [Street], young people choose themselves these jewels and declare them elegant.
November 25th, 1909.
The insightful, gossipy piece, by an anonymous correspondent for L’UNIVERS ET LE MONDE, is helpful to us on several levels. Firstly that it touches on the fact that females were becoming more assertive and making decisions for their males. Secondly that that meant they were feminising, or softening, their men. Thirdly that there was a definite appetite amongst certain males – Young Elegants – to acquire adornments. And fourthly, that, in England at least, where the fad commenced, it was “a symbol of union.” Soon all of this will prove to be very useful.
We must assume – and I think we do assume – that the fad reported about in 1909 made its way inevitably across the English Channel and was for-ever-more seen as a French Thing. That the Young Elegants with polished nails jumped onto the trend, is supported by Emily W. Leider, in her 2003 biography, Dark Lover: the Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino. On page 325 she explains that “young male artists” working for La Gazette de [sic] Bon Ton in 1912, were labelled “the Beau Brummels”, or alternately “Knights of the Bracelet”, due to their practice of parading about with conspicuous wrist jewellery. And that it was known to be a Gallic affectation after, is reinforced by an aggressively-toned paragraph in a film industry title in the Twenties; which states very clearly – the writer knew what they were talking about I suppose – that: “… Frenchmen during the war started to wear various bracelets and wristwatches…” (See above.) Researching the subject as much as I could in the time that I had, I discovered it wasn’t just Frenchmen that wore bracelets in the trenches. The fact that I found an image of “an unidentified Australian soldier from the 2nd Division”, wearing a metal wrist chain with an identity disc, on the Australian War Memorial website, shows other nationals wore them too. (It seems tags were introduced so bodies could be identified and some combatants began wearing them on a chain.) I lastly throw into the mix a profile of Ivan Mozzhukhin/Ivan Mosjoukine/Ivan Moskine, in which he’s credited as having been personally responsible for their popularity (at least in Europe). And that: “The slave bracelet is worn by all loyal aristocrat Russians who still hope for the return of the Little Father to his rightful place.” Of course this information (in UNIVERSAL WEEKLY, on April 9th, 1927), isn’t at odds with the former, if a few exiled Russians in Paris after 1917 took-up the wearing of bracelets already popular there.
As we know, despite several attempts to do so, Rudolph Valentino didn’t fight in The War to End All Wars. And yet not too long after the conflict ended he did indeed possess and wear a bracelet. This fact, proven by close examination of images taken between 1920 and 1922 where his wrists are visible, is often overlooked. And it possibly backs up Jean Acker’s later claim in an interview that she’d given him his Slave Bracelet. (There’s no denying it appears soon after their ill-fated wedding towards the end of 1919.) Of course the chain we see in candid and promotional shots is a light-weight, far less impressive piece, than the one given to him by his next partner, Natacha Rambova. But there it is and it can’t be dismissed.
The story of how he received that replacement bracelet is a well-known one but it bears repeating. About four weeks before Christmas, 1924, Luther H. Mahoney, employed earlier in the year by the Valentinos as a Handyman/Bodyguard/General Help, was given “a drawing of a slave bracelet to take to Tiffany’s” in Los Angeles by Natacha. Her wish was to have the exclusive jewellers create the trinket (out of platinum) in time to give to Rudy on Christmas Day. According to Mahoney – who at the time was surprised that he – “a man” – would receive such a present – she got her wish. And he was, Luther revealed: “… very happy with the gift. He agreed that it was a wonderful gift, and he wore it all the time.”
S. George Ullman, as ever placing himself centre-stage, fails to mention the involvement of Luther H. Mahoney. And we soon see why. In his version, in: Valentino: As I Knew Him (1926), at the beginning of Chapter Eleven, he, not ‘Lou’, was the person responsible for arranging for the fateful piece to be crafted. That Ullman doesn’t give any timescale, or mention the manufacturer, or even the cost, suggests he wasn’t. (And what Business Manager would run an errand of this nature anyway when there was a very available Handyman/Bodyguard/General Help on hand?) Yet, he was, without question, a witness to proceedings on Christmas Day. His verbose recollections, while giving us no more than the remembrances of his foe, do set the stage quite nicely for the ensuing silliness in the New Year, as well as in the one following: 1926.
Slave bracelets had been noticeable in the USA for twelve months by the end of 1924 — but, as intimated, on the wrists of women rather than men. (I found no advertisements for bracelets of any type for males.) Natacha was, she almost certainly knew, breaking with convention when she fastened one to her husband. (A man in any walk of life that year was likely to receive cufflinks or something similar.) However, looking back to the 1909 report, and pausing for a moment, we realise she was a person who made her own decisions, that enjoyed having fun with how a man looked, had been exposed to artistic types/Young Elegants, was creative and imaginative and practised at demonstrating her abilities, a woman, and, above all, a woman seeking very much to cement her alliance. Rudy, for his part, was a European who already had a penchant for anything glittery. He owned scores of rings, shirt studs and tie pins, wrist watches and pocket watches. And as already stated he’d previously worn a bracelet. If it was a departure for Mahoney, or for Ullman, or anyone else, it wasn’t for Valentino. He was in tune with his partner and she was in tune with him. To the extent he also purchased for her something for the wrist: a breathtaking watch with a face that was a moonstone edged with diamonds.
According to Luther Rudolph knew: “Many remarks were made about the bracelet. He was aware of them, but …. never paid any attention to such comments… …they just rolled off him, like water off a duck’s back.” For eighteen months or so he could perhaps ignore the rumblings here and there. (The one above about Red Grange in 1925 is typical.) None, as far as I know, were particularly vicious, and besides he was busy; first with The Eagle (1925), and then with The Son of the Sheik (1926). That is, until Sunday, July 18th, 1926, when The Chicago Tribune published an anonymously-written, insulting piece, headed with the words: PINK POWDER PUFFS.
S. George Ullman divulged the following about the day on which Rudolph Valentino saw red when he saw and read the defamatory editorial:
“Although we were in Chicago only between trains, we went to the Blackstone. Here I was handed the now famous editorial which originally appeared in The Chicago Tribune. … this scurrilous attack embittered the last days of Rudolph Valentino, killing his usual joy and causing him more mental anguish than any other article ever written about him …. the infamous anonymous attack …. I recognized as coming from the same poison pen which earlier in the year had, without cause and without reason, attacked my friend.
As I read this cowardly and yellow attack my countenance must’ve changed, for Rudy, watching me, immediately asked what was wrong.
If he had not caught me in the act of reading it I think I would never have allowed him to see it, so profoundly do I regret the irritating and saddening effect it had upon him. He …. read it… His face paled, his eyes blazed and his muscles stiffened.
I shared his anger, for it seemed to me then, and I have never changed my opinion, that not in all my experience with anonymous attacks in print had I ever read one in which the name of an honest gentleman had been dragged in the mud in so causeless a manner”
Pages 182, 184 and 185 of Valentino as I Knew Him.
Reading Ullman’s reminiscence we see that if they hadn’t gone to The Blackstone Hotel, or bothered with reading the newspapers there, things may’ve turned out differently. Just as things could’ve been different if S. George Ullman had refused to allow Rudolph Valentino to see the dreadful column after he’d looked at it himself. After all a Manager protects as much as manages — if they’re any good at their job. Being the sceptic I am it all makes me wonder. The timing, right in the middle of issues with United Artists, and, if we believe Mahoney, with Ullman himself, is a little suspect. As is the PPP piece being published on the exact day that Valentino arrived in Illinois. Not the previous day. Not the day after. (It’s as if they knew he’d be there.) Maybe I look too deeply. Or maybe I see what others can’t. I’m not sure. Luther H. Mahoney is clear that on previous occasions Rudolph Valentino failed to take offence. That it was all “water off a duck’s back.” This time he became volcanic. Cool laughter turned to bubbling lava. Did Ullman, contrary to his recollection, stir things up? Did he actually advise him to act? There’s no witness to corroborate his account. And what did he mean about recognising “the same poison pen”? And his “experience with anonymous attacks in print”? The same poison pen? His experience? A classic example of Parapraxis? I’m left wondering. I’m sure I’m not alone.
Rudy responded instantly, on the spot, before leaving Chicago. His answer passed to “a representative” of the offending publication’s rival: The Chicago Herald-Examiner. The thrust of the Pink Powder Puffs piece – that he was influencing young men to wear: “… masculine cosmetics …. floppy pants and slave bracelets…” he sidestepped. Preferring instead to castigate the unknown individual, and challenge him to a one-off, private man-to-man fight in Chicago. If pink powder and outre trousers didn’t feature in Rudy’s response the bracelet did:
“… the wrist under a slave bracelet may snap a real fist into your sagging jaw…”
That Rudolph Valentino never received a reply and was unable to face his critic is very much part of The Legend. As is the fact everyone knew; that he was constantly speaking of it; and was questioned about it in his final weeks of life. We know his frustration led him, with obvious assistance from some quarter, to setting-up his own photographed and filmed contest. And that after his operation, a month after the appearance of the written attack, it was reported his first words were a question: had he, he asked, behaved like a Pink Powder Puff. A week later he was dead. And that was that.
Except that it wasn’t. In the short time between the PPP piece, and his death, Above the Neck Is The Man, Rudolph, was published. Also anonymously written, it was a defence, not only of the mystery writer employed, or not, by The Chicago Tribune, but also of the right of that person to: “… observe life and comment thereon.” More importantly it got to the heart of the matter avoided by the target: Rudy’s undeniable influence upon young men in the USA. As we see:
“… does Rudolph remember? He, being a film actor about whom miles of newspaper columns have been written to adequately describe …. his ability at screen love making, must know that his earning power has been built by publicity probably more than by his histrionic capabilities. Can he forget, if he read the slush, that he was pictured as the pace setter in styles; that he cut his hair to a pointed side-burn; that he wore green suits and pink gaiters to tickle the heart of femininity? Perhaps, it was because his publicity men demanded that and more of him.
Didn’t Rudolph know that when the youth of America adopted his styles and were called ‘sheiks’ that it was money in his pocket and the pockets of those who distribute his pictures? He must have suspected, if he did not know.
And if the indignant Mr. Valentino observed the trend of youth toward cosmetics and vaselined hair, he must have claimed credit or scorned responsibility, just as you please about the issue. Rudolph Valentino lived by the sword of publicity.”
From The San Bernardino Sun, July 31st, 1926.
Green suits? Pink gaiters? A reference to Monsieur Beaucaire (1924)? Regardless, I find Above the Neck Is The Man, Rudolph to be a crucial, overlooked item. And an item that highlights the way in which Valentino was exploited by his “publicity men”. If nothing else it rationalises the situation and contextualises it. Yet I must add I feel it supports the idea Rudolph Valentino was actively encouraged to make a song and dance about the Pink Powder Puffs write up. That the person or persons encouraging him didn’t have a proper perspective on the situation is obvious. Had they they would’ve seen that it was actually a golden opportunity for Rudolph Valentino to embrace and defend his popular appeal. To wrap himself up in it. To own his impact and elevate it, rather than allow the wordsmith to, and diminish it. I have to say I like his first wife Jean Acker’s response at the time: “How silly. Anyone ought to know that every motion-picture player has to use a powder puff!”
Above the Neck Is The Man, Rudolph doesn’t, when it could’ve, mention slave bracelets on the wrists of Rudy’s contemporaries in Hollywood. (That’s right he wasn’t the only male Star wearing one in 1925 and 1926.) Just a few short months after being given the bracelet by Natacha Rambova, Rudolph Valentino had influenced Jack Gilbert to acquire one. And he can be seen wearing it, in The Merry Widow (1925), filmed during the first half of the next year. My Eagle Eyes have spotted them on a number of others. Erich von Stroheim for example. And even on the wrist of Rex Ingram. That Rudy was singled out for sporting one therefore seems rather odd. Perverse. If fellow film stars and directors at the exact same time weren’t chastised then why was he?
The Slave Bracelet continued to be a popular item in the late Twenties and well into the Thirties. It’s popularity driven by a whole new breed of screen star. Ironically it began to embody ruggedness and toughness. Though the men weren’t necessarily more rugged than they’d been in Valentino’s day, the times – it was obviously The Depression – were a whole lot tougher. After the Second World War, alongside the Identity Bracelet (which we saw originated in the previous international conflict), it became more widespread; reaching a peak in the Fifties, when almost every notable male personality appeared to own one. In the Seventies, before, during and after the Disco Era, it was once again much displayed. Before dying a bit of a death in the following decade.
That I owned and wore one myself, for about five or so years in the Nineties, was a total accident. Walking down a city street in Asia one day, in 1994, I noticed on my left, on the ground, on a thick red cloth, a selection of silver items for sale: chains, key rings, rings, etc. After realising that it wasn’t the usual low-quality street jewellery my eye was drawn to the silver bracelets. There were several. The same design, but all clearly individually made, and very striking. I asked to see one and tried it on. It was made of generous links that were obviously hand-made but expertly crafted. It was heavy, but not too heavy to feel comfortable, and it fit me perfectly. For a moment I stood there looking at it glinting in the strong sunlight. Then I said that I wanted it. And it was bought. For a whole half decade I never took it off. I wore it in bed. I wore it in the shower. I wore it day and night indoors and out. I swam with it on. Wore it to restaurants and nightclubs and parties. I wore it wherever I went in the UK and abroad and it never fell off. Not once. I loved it — it was part of me.
Having owned one I understand Rudy’s attachment. And I really do understand because it was bought for me that day by my partner at the time. Ours was a long-distance affair and we were often separated. However I always had the Slave Bracelet to remind me. A solid and very special item. A chain of links that I’d been given by a person who was my everything. Of course nobody made fun of me for wearing it. If anyone ever remarked on it I told them the story, but that didn’t happen very often, maybe once or twice. That I wore it at all is, I believe, thanks to Rudolph Valentino. And even though mine, like his far more precious one, is missing, it’s an everlasting item. Eternal. Living in my memory, and in photographs, like the one that I’ve added to this post.
I’m not sure that The Slave Bracelet requires any kind of conclusion. Did Rudy-of-the-Slave-Bracelets, to answer Robert V. Steele, die prematurely due to the PPP editorial? And because he wore wrist jewellery? For me no. I already looked into his tragic end, some months ago, in The Mysterious Party, and arrived at the supposition he drank something toxic. Hopefully I’ve laid out my findings regarding the origins of the bracelet as an item for men clearly. And shown how it originated as a feminine piece, that became a symbol of union in England, and then, very quickly, a fashionable adornment, a useful war time piece, a trendy Hollywood accoutrement, then, finally, an enduring mark of masculinity and virility. Without a doubt Rudolph Valentino popularised the bracelet in Hollywood in the Twenties. It was after he received it from Natacha Rambova that it began to appear on the wrists of his contemporaries. Yet it was clearly by accident rather than by design. He absolutely didn’t set out to start any kind of mania. Those that he wore afterwards/at the same time were part-and-parcel of the trend he’d begun — a trend that continues to ripple outwards to this very day. Try typing Men’s Slave Bracelet into Google and you’ll see that they’re available in varied designs, in all sorts of metals, and at different price points.
I thoroughly enjoyed writing The Slave Bracelet and I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading it. That you did read it through means a great deal to me. And if you have any questions or information, have something to add, or think I was mistaken about something, I’m very happy to hear from you. See you again next month!