My recent deep digging into the contemporary press coverage of Rudolph Valentino’s hospitalisation, treatment, and subsequent death, yielded several stories. Some I shared. Others I plan to. One, as yet undisclosed, and of which I already had an inkling, refuses to wait — I’m calling it: The Mysterious Party.
Barclay H. Warburton Jr. is familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in The Great Lover’s tragic demise. The eye-catching name aside – the H. stood for Harding – he’s a conspicuous component. At the centre of events. Hard to miss. One reason he stands out further, at least for me, is that despite his importance on that fateful eve., even in the very best accounts, he’s barely more than a Homicide Squad chalk outline. A second, is how in the aftermath of the late-night-early-morning party he hosted, and at which his celebrated guest collapsed in agony, he, also, was operated upon. Time to fill in the blank and to look at why.
Buzzy, as he was known to friends and associates, was born in 1898 in Philadelphia, and was the middle offspring (of three), of Major Barclay H. Warburton Sr., and Mary Brown Wanamaker. After a comfortable childhood – both parents were wealthy and connected – and good schooling, he enlisted with the Signal Corps, when the United States of America entered WW1. Service on the European Continent followed. And he rose to the rank of Lieutenant while part of the Occupational Force. Late in 1919, following his discharge, he married Rosamond Lancaster. In 1922, a son, predictably named Barclay H. Warburton the Third, was born. And some years later a daughter followed.
From the early to the middle Twenties Warburton worked for a Philadelphia morning newspaper. (Unsurprising, considering that his maternal grandfather established The Evening Telegraph there, and his father oversaw the title from 1896.) Then, at the age of just 26, in 1924, he was installed as the President of The New York Daily Mirror, a new tabloid, apparently the brainchild of William Randolph Hearst. And though he moved on, the appointment and shift to New York were what brought him into contact with Valentino, and chained him to him for all time.
Their first meeting seems clear cut. In her early 2000s biography, Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino, Emily W. Leider indicates they were introduced by Schuyler L. Parsons Jr. (pictured above left), in 1926. Consulting Valentino As I Knew Him, S. George Ullman’s book the same year, we see Rudy “revived” the acquaintance of Warburton and Parsons, as well as others. Consequently he already knew him. Some light is thrown on the length of his acquaintance with Schuyler by a brief 2009 article, that states they had known each other since 1914. As Barclay arrived in New York a decade later, it’s obvious Parsons was in a position to introduce them, probably around the time that the TNYDM launched, or, in the following 12 months. (A recently unearthed, incomplete piece, from a Forties publication, hints at Valentino also being on very good terms with Mrs. Warburton.)
Whenever and wherever, they hit it off. And why not? After all, they were generational contemporaries; sophisticates, with a taste for the finer things; and moved in the same, elevated circles. The enthusiastic, boyish pair also had common ground in respective, hasty first marriages (in the same year and at about the same time), a mutual interest in flight, and, that they both regularly dabbled in amateur filmmaking. They had recently even been through similar, public Paris divorces. (In both instances the grounds were abandonment.)
The similarities ended there. While they had each had a busy year up to August, their activity and notoriety levels were not comparable. Warburton began 1926 preparing for a leisurely if lengthy scientific cruise to the Galapagos Islands, and Ecuador, with W. K. Vanderbilt, the future husband of his first wife. By Spring he was back in The States. And, after a spell in society, he headed to Paris for his divorce, returning from there as late as the end of July. Valentino, meanwhile, had been driven along mercilessly by his celebrity. His divorce from second wife, Natacha Rambova, became final in January. And after a near death experience the following month (when his vehicle collided with a pole), he leapt, literally, into the making of his final film, The Son of the Sheik. Before, during and after which, he was dogged by questions about his will-they-won’t-they affair with Pola Negri. While he did manage to enjoy himself a little with his family, during their stay at Falcon Lair, his home, as soon as TSotS had premiered (in L. A.) he set off on a gruelling promotional tour. And it was during this he was affronted by the infamous Pink Powder Puff article.
Though advised against reacting to the insulting piece – it appeared on the 18th of July in the Chicago Tribune – Valentino felt he must. His subsequent scornful letter and its public challenge to the anonymous writer to meet to fight failed to bear fruit adding to his fury. Reporters who asked him for a quote received pithy statements. And he was seen to walk in a different, more aggressive manner, with his chest out and chin a little higher. So it was against this backdrop, that Buzzy born-into-money Warburton, who didn’t really work, and had plenty of it, met to socialise, with Rudy not-born-into-money Valentino, who did, and never had enough. Material wealth and an appetite for distraction teamed with celebrity wealth and an appetite for distraction.
In a strange, emotional, and not wholly reliable interview, published immediately after Valentino passed, one of the distractions, eye-witness and “Follies girl” Marion Benda, revealed this particular round of socialising had begun on the 12th of August. Marion, who had known him for three weeks, after an intro. by Ali Ben [sic] Haggin, explained Rudolph had been the host that night of a party, at which: Greta Nissen, Sigrid Holmquist, Harry Richman, Malcolm Sinclair, Barclay Warburton jr., Frances Williams, Ann Pennington, herself and several others were present. (Malcolm Sinclair was more likely Mal. St. Clair.) Was it at this Thursday night gathering of screen and stage performers that he was invited to repeat the experience just 48 hours later? Or was it during his stay, the next night, at Schuyler L. Parsons Jr.’s three bedroom Islip home ‘Pleasure Island’? Regardless, he accepted; despite being aware that a punishing week lay ahead, starting at Philadelphia on the Monday.
The enjoyment at the weekend commenced under a cloud. According to longtime friend and former co-star, Dagmar Godowsky, when she saw him in the early evening of the 14th at the Colony Restaurant, Rudolph Valentino wasn’t on speaking terms with his manager, S. George Ullman. Because of this, and because she had joined Ullman at his table, Godowsky was unable to talk to Valentino (with a gentleman and two ladies), at his, nearby. What was the reason for the fallout between Star and Manager? It was a mystery at the time and afterwards to his friend. And we are no wiser 92 years later. Had they quarrelled about Rudy’s partying (as hinted at in Valentino As I Knew Him)? Or was it something else? A more serious matter? There are, oddly for a person who otherwise goes into great detail, few clues in Ullman’s recollections. No mention at all of the meal, or of Godowsky, or where R. V. went that night and who he was with. Just as there’s no mention, either, of the fact reported by the press, that Rudy altered his plans to return West, in order to meet with Hiram Abrams, then President of United Artists Corp. What transpired at the meeting is a mystery. And Abrams’ own unexpected death in November meant he never penned a memoir.
What we do know, for a fact, is that after his early meal, Rudolph Valentino headed for the Apollo Theater with Barclay H Warburton Jr., to again see George White’s Scandals of 1926. Advertised widely as the “World’s Greatest Show” with the “World’s Greatest Cast”, the attraction, White’s eighth in a row, was then in its second month and doing excellent business; even though the prime seats were $55 (or $783.07 in today’s money). (Weekly takings in the November would reach half a million in today’s money.)
After “… settings as gorgeous and costly as ever, costumes as lovely and minute as ever, sketches and burlesques as funny as ever …. Tom Patricola …. the Fairbanks Twins …. Eugene and Willie Howard …. and Ann Pennington…” Rudy ventured backstage with his companion and met and spoke with cast members. On his HOLLYWOODLAND site, in 2014, the biographer Allan R. Ellenberger, uploaded a series of posts titled: The last days of Rudolph Valentino. In Part One he explains how Rudy and Buzzy were first invited to a party at the home of Lenore Ulric, but that he declined the offer, preferring instead the option of Warburton’s apartment, at 925 Park Avenue. (The building in 1922 and more recently is below.)
Why was Buzzy’s abode preferable to Lenore’s? The distance? Number of guests? The decor.? If RV wanted a quiet, comfortable night it wasn’t to be. A report, published the day after his death, detailed how, when the party commenced, there were “fourteen or sixteen persons present”. As the investigation promised by friends never happened only a handful were ever named. Warburton, Benda, and Richman being three, with Frances Williams and “a girl named Hayes” another two. The rest were known either to them or to Valentino. Yet there had to be a smattering of friends of friends seeking proximity to the Megastar. At least a few were Scandals cast members. Marion Benda probably brought along a pal or two from her own show. And there were certainly some other men — but who we don’t know.
Immediately suspect is the time it began. 10 p. m.? Hard to accept if they’d first been at the Scandals spectacular with the curtain going up at 8:15 p. m. A two hour long show, with Rudy backstage, and then a journey uptown, makes even 11 p. m. look rather improbable. The next improbability, is the fourteen to sixteen guests reducing to five, and the main attraction, by about 1:00 a. m. Obviously begging the question: if the get-together commenced after eleven/close to twelve, would there be hardly anyone there that early? It’s just inconceivable that theatre types or performers working in the evening, and the idle rich, with no job to go the next day, would be scurrying home to bed “in little pairings” between midnight and an hour after midnight.
Harry Richman retrospectively told reporters that it was at about 1:30 a. m., “after some drinks, music and dancing”, that Rudolph Valentino suddenly became ill. And it was soon after that he was rushed to his apartment at the Ambassador. Yet, in other reports, a time of 8:30 a. m. was given. With him being taken directly to the New York Polyclinic Hospital rather than to his accommodation. Both stories cannot be correct. For me the second is the more sensical, especially if we take into consideration the cover story – yes there was a cover story – concocted for the consumption of clamouring newsmen, by Ullman, the former publicist, and Warburton, the former newsman.
In that false account, at least the first version of it, Rudy was in his suite at his hotel in the late morning, when, according to a nameless Valet, he: “… put his hand to his body and fell unconscious in a faint.” In this concocted, cinematic tale (embellished by S. George Ullman later), the Valet called on Ullman and his wife, who, strangely, notified Warburton, who in turn was in touch with a Dr. Paul E. Durham. (The involvement of BHW Jr. in the earliest story, is clearly due to the fact he was seen to be involved on the 15th, and thus needed to be mentioned.) In the later, more believable, and undoubtedly true version, Rudolph Valentino collapses before 9 a. m. at 925 Park Avenue, is seen there by Durham, Barclay H. Warburton Jr.’s physician. And is then taken, at some point in the late morning, either to the Ambassador Hotel, or, more probably, to the Polyclinic. (We are not assisted by the ambulance paperwork which mentioned no departure point.)
Personally I’m troubled by this initial deception. Duplicity on the part of Rudy’s Manager and Friend is hard to comprehend if, as we are led to believe, the stricken man was simply afflicted by appendicitis and a ruptured gastric ulcer. Telling lies about where he had been, and involving in the deception a servant, a spouse, a professional physician and probably others, rings serious alarm bells to use a hackneyed phrase. It makes no sense at all. Just as it would make no sense to lie if he’d broken his arm, or been in a fight and been knocked out. And if that’s not strange enough it gets stranger still.
Few know that on the 15th of August, while Rudolph Valentino awaited a Surgeon, or actively resisted any procedure (the accounts differ), his employee, S. George Ullman, was busy preparing a bland press statement bereft of detail. What happened to that original bulletin is anybody’s guess; but, as reported, the pressmen didn’t buy it. Their ability to smell a rat was triggered. They pushed hard for a proper explanation and got one. Then, having received tip offs, they turned their collective attention to Barclay H. Warburton Jr., and a serious game of cat and mouse commenced.
When they tracked him down on the 16th Warburton stuck to the script, declaring, flatly, that there had been no party at his apartment on the 14th and 15th. However, when this denial was contradicted by Richman, he was back under the spotlight. Feeling the heat he appeared to make himself scarce. In reality, however, he had been checked into another exclusive medical establishment, this time The Harbor Sanitarium, at 667 Madison Avenue. (Where, incidentally, Valentino’s good friend and fellow star of Monsieur Beaucaire, Bebe Daniels, had recuperated in the Spring after a fall from her horse.)
The reason for his entry? Nervous collapse? A hangover? No. Neither. His admittance was for an operation. Exactly when isn’t really known. A report on the 21st of August indicates it was carried out on the 20th — but was it? It’s difficult to trust anything issued, or, to believe it was a minor procedure, unrelated to his party, as was claimed. His unavailability after the 16th could mean that his own procedure was quite soon after Rudy’s, as early as that day, or the 17th. In fact it looks more and more likely the more we look. And the most amazing thing is that the specialists who attended to Rudolph also attended to Barclay.
While across town Valentino fought for his very existence, physically cut-off – Ullman being the exception – from concerned friends and associates, Warburton was engaged in his own battle, likewise removed, at least from the eyes of the intrigued and the curious. So long as Rudolph Valentino was the main story Barclay H. Warburton Jr. could breathe easy. However, after rallying, the Screen Idol began to fade and fast. By the morning of the 23rd he was in a coma. Just after midday he expired. The official cause of death was: Septic Endocarditis.
If there were reports of BHW Jr.’s minor op. in advance of Rudy’s death then it means several newspapers believed there was a story. And that’s because there was. On the 23rd and 24th of August, the front and inside pages of local, citywide and regional titles were naturally devoted to deceased Star. Yet, in amongst the heartbreaking details of his final hours, the tributes from the great and the good, and the illuminating back story, again and again we see questions asked, questions that were far from easy to answer. About what had really happened eight days earlier on the 15th. And why there was any mystery about any of it. The one person who could clear it all up wasn’t talking. In fact, he continued to stay silent, secluded at his expensive, private sanctuary, on Madison Avenue.
Then, suddenly, in the late afternoon of the 27th, a few days after the death of his party guest, Barclay H. Warburton Jr. emerged. Intrepid and tenacious scoop-hungry newsmen had stayed on his case. And they even managed to snap him as he departed. Yet, despite reappearing, he still wasn’t talking. At least not to the press — and if anybody knew what the press were like it was Buzzy.
This was a person who was good at keeping quiet. Good at revealing as little as possible when it mattered. And of course it mattered now more than ever after Rudy’s expiry. To read the vivid reports on the 27th and the 28th, and look closely at the accompanying exclusive picture, is to be there in the moment. Jack O’Brien’s piece in The New York Daily News, Barclay’s own former title, is one of the best:
“At 5:35 p. m. yesterday a tall, slim, stooping figure in a turn-down college boy hat slipped out of the rear door of the Harbour sanitarium at 667 Madison ave. The figure held animated converse in the alley with a person who later turned out to be his valet. Then the figure darted nervously into a 15 and 5 taxicab and was whirled away.”
O’Brien went on to explain how everybody – “from superintendant to doorman” – at the facility had worked hard to keep his impending exit a secret. Again, we might wonder why, if the stay was simply for a minor operation. And we might wonder why he did not, at the very least, wish to say something about the passing of Valentino. Who, as he had remained holed up at his exclusive sanitarium, had been lying in state at Campbell’s.
Most interesting of all is the sentence ending the second paragraph: “The young society man plainly looked ill as he left.” And if we ourselves look closely at the shot of BHW Jr. walking towards the waiting vehicle, we see a stooped, undeniably thin individual under the clothing. The suit actually looks far too big, almost as if it had been borrowed, from a more substantial individual. And in a way it had been borrowed — from the man he had been before the 15th and could never ever be again.
After the 28th of August there’s silence. Why? We’re forced to speculate. Plainly ill he needed to continue to recuperate. A lengthy recuperation, out of sight, in Manhattan, or with a friend, or at his parents’, would’ve meant the story fizzled. Something he wanted. And something others wanted too. Or perhaps phone calls were made and the story was killed. We must remind ourselves that the atmosphere immediately after the death of Rudolph Valentino was feverish. And the air was thick with speculation. Had Rudy been poisoned? Was it murder? The phrase Foul Play was much bandied about. And S. George Ullman, Rudy’s Manager, and Joe Schenck, his Employer at United Artists, weren’t slow to pour cold water on all theories and rumours.
Despite attempting to return to normality BHW Jr. never really did. In the months after Valentino’s death, the New York funeral and eventual interment, Warburton was once again seen on the town. People whispered behind their hands when he appeared. And thought things behind their eyes when they said hello. A syndicated, society columnist enjoyed reminding their readers his name was forever connected with the death of the Star, who had fallen ill, at his party; and that many believed it was due to bad liquor.
Barclay H. Warburton Jr. lived for another decade, but was unable to stick at or make a success of anything. Interestingly, like three of the other five witnesses (Richman, Benda and Williams), he became involved in the film industry. (In his case he was employed by William Fox’s Fox Film Corp.) As the decade hurtled towards its inevitable conclusion he was frequently referred to in the press in negative terms. If he was affected in any way by The Wall Street Crash, it didn’t prevent him preparing for a solo World flight, which he promptly cancelled in order to marry for the second time. Death, by his own hand, came five years later, when his shotgun discharged itself into his stomach, while he was out hunting alone. At the time – the 26th of November 1936 – it was reported as having been an accident.
I would like to conclude this lengthy initial post by saying I’m truly amazed by what I’ve found and read. I now struggle to believe in its entirety the official version. Frankly, I’m shocked there was no investigation, as was hoped for, by Valentino’s friends; and it goes without saying that today there would be one. There were, in my opinion, grounds for at least some sort of basic, limited inquest. Alone the repeated consistent inconsistencies were a basis. Cleverly those in control played on his passing being sufficiently tragic. The placing of the body on public display, 24 hours after death, was the true masterstroke, as it meant it was put beyond the reach of the authorities. Of course, before all that, the fact that S. George Ullman (with Barclay H. Warburton Jr.’s say-so/permission), began, without delay, to deflect attention from the location of Rudy’s collapse, and why he was even in the Polyclinic, is extremely concerning. People more generous than me may say it was simply the desire to protect his employer that prompted the manager to act this way. But I was brought up to believe that a lie is a lie. And the bigger the lie gets the worse it is. And, as I pointed out, if this was indeed, as was repeatedly stated, just an appendicitis and a ruptured gastric ulcer, there was absolutely no need for anyone to hide anything. (An appendicitis was then and is now a very common occurrence.)
So why did they? The other guests are of interest. Of sixteen – potentially there were more – present that night/morning only six are known. What was being drunk and who supplied it is also something to be considered. And I think that the two are connected. The mystery guests at the mystery party are the key to understanding what is not understandable if you fail to focus on them. The fact that the Superstar Guest and the Socialite Host were both hospitalised at about the same time and for the same reason – they even had the same people operate on them – points in no other direction for me. The only difference is that one died and the other lived — even if his decade of existence was a sort of living death. I don’t think this is wild speculation by any stretch of the imagination. Particularly when we know that people often died, or were blinded, or brain damaged, by Bootleg Booze.
As for Valentino being seriously unwell for many many months I’m sceptical. I searched and searched for the word bicarbonate in Valentino As I Knew Him and drew a blank. As I also drew a blank when I looked for any mention of pains, stomach trouble, or anything of a similar nature. Ullman says simply that “his color was bad” on the 14th. And that it was normally “marvellous”. Wouldn’t he of noticed something in the months leading up to August? On hearing of his hospitalisation two of those closest to him, Pola, his ‘fiancee’, and Alberto, his brother, who had been with him that Spring and Summer, expressed total amazement. And there are other examples. Why would friends suggest the need for an investigation if they thought it was historic? Nothing was a secret in Hollywood! All that said I’m prepared to believe – in fact do firmly believe – that he was tired, depressed and very run down. All of this contributed to his inability to be able to survive the double op. And an appendicitis is something that would explain any abdominal discomfort he was supposedly seen to be suffering from. His indigestion, much mentioned after he was no longer around, may simply have been just that: indigestion. Stress brings it on. And he was extremely stressed and upset, was he not?
I was, after reading them very carefully, forced to dismiss almost entirely the varied interviews of Marion Benda. With the exception of her detailing of the party on the 12th none of it really added up. Here and there there was evidence that she had been at the Park Avenue apartment and I discounted the rest. By the 24th she was, as she admitted herself to reporters, in the middle of a breakdown. (It’s ominous that Benda was also attended to by the Polyclinic team.) Like Warburton she would never be the same. After claiming to have been secretly married to Valentino, and having conceived his child, she attempted several times to kill herself after WW2. At the start of the Fifties she finally succeeded.
It only remains for me to say that I have not listed, individually, any sources. Anybody with questions about them, or wishing to receive copies, is more than welcome to ask me and I’ll endeavour to supply them. Thank you for reading this in its entirety.