Joseph Nico

Cover of STOP in 1982.

In the mid. 1970’s, the Italian magazine, STOP, decided to commemorate half a century since the passing of Rudolph Valentino, with a thoughtful article, featuring a lengthy interview with one of his closest childhood friends; a man named: Guiseppe/Joseph Nico. In the month he passed, 95 years ago, it seems appropriate to post that translated interview here; an interview, which I can say is one of the most interesting items I’ve found, during the course of my research into the earliest years of this remarkable, endlessly fascinating man. I hope you’ll enjoy what I’m titling: Joseph Nico.

The Old Town in the mid. Seventies.

The place where I was born is called Rudolph Valentino’s Castellaneta. It is a small town located at almost the very tip of Italy, on a hill, overlooking the sea. Castellaneta is a famous city. And every year there’s a pilgrimage of thousands of women who still remember him, who cried and suffered for him, and that carry the handkerchiefs soaked with tears, on August 23rd, 1926, in boxes, the day their Lover left them forever.

Valentino, Star, was their Idol. For years he filled their lives and their dreams. The magnetic gaze of Rudy. His almond-shaped eyes. His smile. The way he kissed the women, and held them in his strong arms, caused guilty, sinful shivers.

Rudolph Valentino embraces Vilma Banky in The Son of the Sheik (1926).

Life was a little less harsh in those five years when their “Forbidden Lover” intoxicated with perverse fascination. In theatres, in cities large and small, and in modest provincial towns, where a muted piano translated, musically, the images flickering on the screen, so many sins were eaten, and husbands and boyfriends were betrayed with thoughts. Rudolph Valentino really had an almost magical power to bring down many virtues… his memory at a distance of fifty years has remained intact.

In France, the U. S., Australia and Japan, all over the [W]orld you can say, there are specialised travel agencies. And the place where the tourists stop is in Castellaneta, the city of Valentino.

The Sixties commemorative statue in Castellaneta sometime in the early Seventies.
The birthplace and home of Valentino. (On the right.)

In this week’s newspapers and magazines, from all corners of the [E]arth, there are long articles about Rudolph Valentino, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of his death. Here in Castellaneta his memory is still alive. Visitors who travel the road that leads to the town, can see, to the left, the monument that the city has erected. It’s a two metre high statue, ceramic and blue, which embodies the [A]ctor in the role of the Protagonist in his most famous – [final] – film The Son of the Sheik [(1926)]. Just nearby you see the house where the Star was born, on May 6th, 1895. A beautiful Baroque-style building with balconies.

We had the good fortune to meet with Mr. Joseph Nico, who is 81 years old, the same age [Valentino] would be if he were alive today. Joseph Nico has always lived in Castellaneta and was a Schoolfriend of Rodolfo. With him he also spent his early teens. Until Rudy moved to Sant’Illario.

The old man remembers a great deal about the childhood of Rudolph, who he knew well. Being his Playmate he received his confidences. His story is new and surprising in many respects. And also demonstrates the precocity of the sentimental youth who would become the greatest Seducer of the 20th Century.

“My childhood,” Mr. Nico begins, “was spent entirely with Rodolfo. My friend was a cute boy and breezy. He always had new ideas in his head and was also ready to implement them. Rodolfo came from a solid family. Borghese. (Bourgeois.) The father was a man of authority here in Castellaneta, and was the Veterinarian of the area. Dr. Giovanni/John Guglielmi had married a French Woman of noble birth, Maria/Marie [Berthe] Gabrielle Barbin. And at birth the child was baptized with the names: Rodolfo Pietro Filiberto Raffaello.

“To be honest, I found it odd that a guy of his position came to play with us, the children of poor people, but Rodolfo preferred ordinary people to the rich. Even when he returned from Hollywood to Castellaneta, and was here with his Isotta Fraschini, a kilometre long, he embraced us.

“Rudolph, as I said, was a smart one — and very early. The girls made him turn his head and he ran to them. I remember one episode, when we were about 10, to dismiss a lively compliment, a girl gave him a slap. Yet he, in response, just stroked her blonde braids. Everyone spoke of what had happened between the Son of the Veterinarian and small Luciana.

“On the rare occasions there arrived in the countryside a travelling show, he was always in the front row, and devouring, with his eyes, the actresses. The Chanteuse especially polarising his attention. To see them better Rodolfo would sneak behind the scenes. And then return and tell us all what he saw, with such a liveliness and seductive colour, that we were spellbound for days.

“The Parish Priest, when he learned of this behaviour, scolded him in front of everyone, and didn’t allow him even Confession. However, he charmed the older man and moved him and was allowed both Confession and Communion. The two remained good friends. And when he was famous and rich, and came back to his home town, he gave many dollars to the Parish.

Joseph Nico fails to tire of telling stories. His elderly memory is lively. And wakes up when he rummages through the distant memories of early youth.

“Only at school,” he continues, “my friend didn’t do well. He didn’t like to be bent over books, and preferred games and entertainment. Bravado with friends. In that time women used to fill skins with oil for sale. In the morning a cart passed to collect oil for a cooperative. Rudolph was hiding behind a door, and, before the man could pick up the skin full of oil, he broke the skin with a large stone, that then flooded the road with the slimy liquid. Rudolph’s Father, who the Cart Driver had gone to to complain, raised his hands to Heaven, and compensated the poor man for the damage. Rodolfo was then put in the corner. Then double-locked in his bedroom. But the room had a small balcony which was near to the gutter pipe. So, without a second thought, Rodolfo opened the window and slid down the pipe to the street, where I was waiting for him.

“For beautiful clothing Rudy had a real fanaticism, and his Mother sent him around looking like a [P]rince; yet, his clothes didn’t last long due to the violent games in which he indulged. On Sunday, however, at Mass, my friend was really dapper. I still have in front of my eyes his blue sailor suit with white spats, hair combed and parted, and smooth and shining with grease.

“At the parties of rich friends he was always present because all vied to invite him. But it was the girls who often pressured their brothers to make sure he wasn’t missing. His charm and conversation had an effect on them. And they were all in love with him. In Castellaneta there were many handsome boys, yet none was like him, no one had his eyes, his magnetism. The most beautiful girls were his friends.

“Yet one was able to resist and her name was Felicity Sasserego. She lived in Saint Hillary where Rudy went to complete his agricultural studies. He confided in me that he was in love with her. Yet she wouldn’t have anything to do with him. And didn’t trust that ‘Rooster’ that was behind all the skirts. Rodolfo for the first time in his life wept for love. He who would later be able of reach for millions of women tasted the bitterness of defeat. And perhaps it was this disappointment that ripened his resolve to seek his fortune far from his Homeland.”

The memories of the elderly friend of Rodolfo stopped here. Tears forming in his eyes and running down his cheeks. Mr. Nico can’t help but think that if Valentino had stayed there in Castellaneta he wouldn’t have become one of the most famous men in the World, but would, perhaps, still be alive; and be there beside him, to drink a good glass of wine.


I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading this translation, of an enlightening, yet all-too-brief interview, with Mr. Joseph Nico, the childhood friend of Rudolph Valentino. And I hope that you’ll return to read the next post about the greatest Seducer of the 20th Century. Do like this post and comment if you have the time. Thank you!

6 thoughts on “Joseph Nico

  1. I think this is, so far, my favorite “His Fame Still Lives” post, Simon. Bittersweet…smiling and enjoying his hi-jinks, loving his magnetism at such a young age, and his being like a prince to the others. Too many delights to name. And the town being called “Rudolph Valentino Castellaneta” is priceless. What a character, a lovely little varmint! And I adore the painting of the boys eating pasta. Thank you, Simon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A Lovely Little Varmint! Well, you know something, I think it’s one of my faves too — if not THE fave. There’s nothing better than a first hand account, is there? And it doesn’t get more first hand than this. All of it supporting and backing up other accounts of his behaviour there; yet, seriously adding to the picture we have. I especially like how he would befriend the visiting show people. He obviously felt an affinity with them even at that tender age. My best wishes!

      Liked by 2 people

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