In this, the first post about 1923 in 2023, I reproduce a fascinating report, too rough and damaged to be presented in its original state. The piece appeared on the front page of The Morning Telegraph, on Wednesday the 3rd of January, 1923. And is a window, not only into the life of Rudolph Valentino, at the start of what was to be a momentous year, but also into his state of mind at that point. Those who read the long column through will appreciate the title: The Spanish Boy.
Lowly Italian Youth Claiming Re-
lationship Confronted by Star
WORKED IN THE FILMS, TOO
Muzii, Vague but Persistent in
Claims, Loses Job After Inter-
view in Director’s Office.
A pretender to the Valentino throne
is worrying the screen star.
The annoyance is of sufficient conse-
quence to cause him to appeal to his law-
yer, Arthur Butler Graham, 25 West
Forty Third street, to have it stopped.
Antonio Muzii, residing in West 112th
street, is the cause of this additional
trouble. He is 19 years old, a native of
Italy, and claims to be a brother of
Valentino is more than displeased. He
went to the studios of the International
Film Corporation, accompanied by his
lawyer, to see Muzii, or Valentino, as he
was known to Mike Conley, casting di-
rector of Cosmopolitan films, and from
whom he obtained engagements in the
films “Adam and Eva” and “Enemies
Valentino Listens. Lawyer Talks.
Muzii was questioned by Mr. Graham
in the office of Mr. Conley. Mr Conley
held the attention of Mr. Valentino as
the conversation progressed. Valentino
registered deep displeasure, intensified
when he was informed that Muzii
It resulted in Muzii losing his position,
minor in character, also in the issuance
of the following, signed “Rudolph Val-
“I am informed that one Antonio
Muzii of 500 West 112th street, N. Y.
C., has been representing and holding
himself out to be my brother. I write
this letter to inform you that the said
Muzii is in no way related to me.
“You are requested to take no advert-
izing given you by any one in which the
said Antonio Muzii is exploited under
the name ‘Valentino’.”
This notice was sent to various pub-
Employed in Crowd Scenes.
Mr. Conley said that he had employed
Muzii because he was of the type needed
in crowd scenes. He said his name was
Valentino, but this exercised no influ-
ence, Mr. Conley observed, continuing:
“He is a little fellow. With a little
stretching of the imagination he could
be taken for the real Valentino in ap-
pearance. No one believes what he has
said as to his relationship with Valen-
At the offices of Mr. Graham it was
said that Muzii had amused and later
displeased Valentino. Persons on 112th
street had said to Muzii that he re-
sembled Valentino, offering the first sug-
gestion of a motion picture agreement.
It was emphasized that he had committed
no offense other that using the name
Muzii could not be found. It was said
At 500 West 112th street he had not
been around since Christmas. He is
known there as “the Spanish boy.”
Valentino says he has but one brother,
a physician in Italy.
Spelling of Star’s First Name.
The signature on Valentino’s letter,
looking as if a rubber stamp had been
used in attaching it to the warning no-
tice, indicates that the tangle continues
about the correct spelling of his name.
When he began to gain fame he was
“Rudolph” Valentino. After the “Sheik”
film he requested Famous Players-Lasky
to spell the name “Rodolfo.”
The management protested, explaining
that he had been known as “Rudolph
Valentino”: also that it was ill-advised to
change the spelling. Eventually Valen-
tino had his own way. The name “Ro-
dolfo” [sic] is used. His real surname is
I find this episode at the beginning of 1923 a really interesting one. Obviously, between the lines and without resorting to facetiousness, the anonymous Writer of this column is having fun with our Idol. At the same time we see there’s seriousness too. He, or she, finds fault with the injured party, Valentino, and that genuine though gentle disapproval is woven into the writing. We, today, see the incident in context. Rodolph/Rudolph had, for months, been forced to witness his substitution by others. Seen his pre-fame films, for which he’d been paid little, recut to place him front and centre for profit. And was about to experience the imminent exploitation of his adopted surname by his former Wife Jean Acker. It’s coincidental, yet still noteworthy, that The Imposter, Antonio, is an immigrant Italian. That, like the celebrity he attaches himself to, he’s good-looking. That he claims to be something and someone he’s not. That he’s starting out in crowd scenes. And that in his neighbourhood he’s known as: The Spanish Boy.
It would be much later, after his untimely demise and in the years that followed, that false girlfriends and wives, as well as babies, would emerge. As far as I’m aware – happy to be proved wrong! – this is the only example of anyone claiming close connection or kinship in his lifetime. A replacement for Valentino would be sought in vain in future years. And in a twist, his actual sibling, Alberto, mentioned in the article and not a Physician, was lured unsuccessfully in front of the camera. Neither he nor anyone else measured-up — how could they?
I want to thank you for reading this through to the end. And I take this opportunity, to invite you to comment and give me your thoughts, if you’ve any. Lastly, my best wishes for the year ahead of us all!
In November 1919 Rudolph Valentino married his first wife Jean Acker. It wasn’t, we know, a match made in heaven; and questions continue, to this very day, about what exactly was going on that month. There are questions, too, about what, if anything, was to be gained from the union. Just as there’s curiosity about the aftermath. I hope to answer these queries, in a three part post, titled, not Questions, but Daisy Chained, for reasons that will eventually become clear. As far as I’m aware this is the first deep investigation of this important figure in Rudy’s life.
While Jean may’ve vanished for some length of time, professionally, towards the end of 1915, she didn’t herself disappear. Far from it. In fact, several mentions in the press, in that year and the next, give us some idea of her movements. Her scene or scenes in Are You a Mason? (1915) had to have been completed by late January, for her to be reported about in a light-hearted manner early in February, in The Atlanta Constitution. It seems that Acker had arrived in town at the Hotel Ansley in need of a room. Asking for “the best” accomodation, she was informed, by the Assistant Manager, Charles G. Day, that their finest available was the Bridal Suite. When told it was the most expensive Jean apparently asked: “Has it a tiger skin, or fuzzy rug in it?” When told it did, she said she’d take it, as her $600 Pekingese puppy, ‘Peg’, liked something to play on when he was “lonesome”. The report, titled TAKES BRIDAL SUITE SO “PEG” CAN PLAY ON TIGERSKIN RUG, ended with the statement that she, and Miss Florenze Tempest, who she was there to visit: “… signed up the bridal chamber for a week.” Whether or not the famous Cross-Dresser Tempest, who shared “the bridal chamber” was another early Amour, or simply a Theatrical Buddy, the report, for me, is a wonderful glimpse into the life of Acker in her early twenties. She travels about freely. Behaves like a Star. Has the money for both an expensive pooch – it could’ve been a gift – and the priciest room at a stylish hotel. Has a tongue-in-cheek personality. And is newsworthy where she goes.
One possible reason for Jean Acker’s hiatus, and her travelling, is that she may’ve successfully sued Frank H. Platt for $10,000. Or, been awarded a lesser sum, or secured an out of court settlement. (Platt was the man driving the vehicle which hit Law, Phoner and herself, when they were on Law’s motorcycle, in New York, in the first half of 1913.) According to a report, on January the 6th, 1914, Jean’s damages suit was to be tried that day.)
At the start of August, on the 3rd (according to the August 8th edition of Cincinatti’s THE ENQUIRER), she was equally far-flung, when she was very definitely the “guest of honor” at Mrs. William C. Boyle’s “attractively appointed luncheon” at Boyle’s summer home, ‘Cairngorm Farm’, “on the lake shore east”. The Honoured Guest was, the newspaper explained, at the time visiting a Mrs. Charles H. Hopper. Whatever Mrs. Hopper meant to Miss Acker – let’s not draw the conclusion that her attachment to every established, older female, was a sexual or transactional one – they were, a year later, still friends and in one another’s company. Something proven by the paragraph, in a column titled, AT THE OTESAGA, in THE GLIMMERGLASS DAILY, on Monday August, 28th, 1916. As follows:
One whole year passes before we see Jean’s name again, when, right at the beginning of June 1917, she’s linked to Mme. Yorksa. Madame Yorska? Yes! That was my reaction too when I first saw the name! Who was she? Very much a subject in her own right, this isn’t really the time and place to delve into her; however, it’s pretty clear she was important to Acker, previous to her meeting the other Madame: Nazimova. A personality who’s now almost totally forgotten, and without even a Wikipedia page, she was, it seems, a rather important dramatic presence in the United States in the Teens. How and when Jean Acker met the Bernhardt-trained Actress fond of playing male parts is a mystery. Yet it’s obvious from a brief look at Yorska’s remarkable career, that Acker had impressed her sufficiently to be included in the cast of Jenny, a play presented on the afternoon of Monday, June 5th, 1917, at The Comedy Theatre, in New York. (THE NEW YORK CLIPPER reveals that the one-off presentation was for the benefit of The Actor’s Fund of America, and that Edmund (or ‘Eddie’) Goulding, later a significant Director, was also one of the performers.)
Was it while she orbited Madame Yorska that Acker gravitated, inexorably, to Madame Nazimova? I believe so. (Actually, in the first week of December, in the previous year, Yorska and Nazimova had been two of the “Scores of prominent performers” that had performed at a Blue Cross Fund benefit, at the Hudson Theatre, suggesting they perhaps knew one another.) Alla, the greater Star of the pair, was almost certainly on the East Coast of the United States that Summer, alternately in New York and her home at Port Chester, to the North of the metropolis. Basking in the afterglow of having recently wowed audiences and critics alike – an initial skimpy outfit alone had left them open-mouthed – in H. Austin Adams’ play Ception Shoals between January and May. And readying herself to embark upon a movie career, after the conclusion of negotiations with pre M-G-M Metro Pictures Corp. (Four weeks of tough negotiating, finalised on Friday, July 27th, and announced on the 28th.)
Nazimova, who the Theatre Critic, Charles Darnton, described, in an incredibly detailed review of the first night of Ception Shoals, as: “… an actress of intelligence, feeling and imagination…” was, with much success behind and ahead of her, utterly irresistable that year. Something Harriette Underhill underscored, in December 1917, in her piece titled: Alla Be Praised! Which began:
“One hundred years from now it may
be written in the books which record
historical events that Nazimova was
discovered in 1917…”
Naturally Underhill and her knowing readers were all too aware Madame Nazimova had already enjoyed a decade of stage triumphs — as was Acker. Yet it was in the year the USA entered The Great War she arguably reached her apogee. Harriette Underhill’s declaration that: “Nazimova is more than a person. She is a force.” is telling. And in her responses to the interviewer’s questions Alla’s more telling still. Particularly when she gives her Interrogator her opinion of films and film-making:”… the motion picture is the soul of drama in visible form… It is a triumph—and that’s what we all want, isn’t it?” (A favourite story of mine about Nazimova, Ception Shoals and 1917, that demonstrates the extent to which she was A Force, is the one about how Mrs. Marshall Field and her party were humiliated in a Washington theatre by the Star. It seems that due to comments overheard by her from Field’s box, Madame cried out “Curtain!”, before instructing the Stage Manager to turn out all of the house lights, bar those in the box. (At which, not surprisingly, Field and her friends fled.))
I’m almost certain, due to her later activities, that Alla’s triumph over Jean, her conquest of her, was achieved at this point in time: the Summer of 1917. With nobody alive to ask, and nothing, to my knowledge, ever found in writing, or recorded, we must make bold assumptions about the when, the where and the how. If the when was indeed 1917. And the where was New York. Then we’re left with the how. As already suggested Madame Yorska is one potential link. Yet I favour another candidate, named Herbert Brenon; a man who’d known Acker since 1913, and had successfully directed Nazimova, in her first, one-off motion picture, War Brides (1916). Easy indeed it is, to imagine Jean Acker seeing and saying hello to him at a party, a restaurant, the theatre, or even on the street, while in Alla Nazimova’s company.
I don’t see it as a problem that we wait twelve months to see the two women mentioned together in print. For me, their combination in the same sentence is so casual, it suggests, the unsaid being the clue, that the unknown journalist was aware they weren’t newly acquainted. The quickie marriage of Actor George R. Edeson to Actress Mary Newcomb that following Summer was a minor off-stage drama. The hasty nuptials, which in a way oddly echo Acker’s own, were followed, a report in the New York Tribune reveals, by a dinner at the Hotel des Artists [sic]; at which the guests, including Mme. Nazimova and Miss Jean Acker, were sworn to secrecy as to the place and time of the ceremony, and, the couple’s later whereabouts. Secrecy was, of course, the theme, at least to outsiders, when it came to Alla and Jean. So much so, that at this distance, we know virtually nothing of their very serious and lengthy affair. Yet serious and lengthy it was. And, in time, rather consequential to them both — though they didn’t know it, in 1917 and 1918.
Perusing the relevant pages of Gavin Lambert’s Alla Nazimova biography, Nazimova: A Biography (1997), we learn little about the commencement of their relationship. Just as he’s lacking in detail about Madame’s entry into Filmdom; failing to mention how she’d openly offered her services for $50,000 per production, and publicly floated the idea of working with D. W. Griffith (following his return to the USA from The Western Front), Lambert’s very noncommittal when it comes to any pathway. (A little odd when you consider his general hypothesizing elsewhere.) It’s clear, when we consider the evidence in the New York Tribune, that Nazimova didn’t discover Acker in the September of 1919. Jean had never been known as “Jeanne Mendoza”. Wasn’t 26. Hadn’t, at any time, been “a dancer in vaudeville” or a “small-part actress in summer stock”. And the less said about: “… hardly known to the world at all.” the better. Yet, it would be churlish to suggest that his yet-to-be-surpassed life gives nothing when it comes to Alla and Jean; as it absolutely doesn’t, as will be seen.
It was at the end of 1918, on Friday, December 27th, that industry publication, Wid’s DAILY, reported on the return of Jean Acker to film-making. Small news items, in that month and the next, informed the business that Miss Acker had been engaged to support the popular Fox Film Corp. Star, George Walsh, in a production to be titled Tough Luck Jones. (The title had already altered from Jinx Jones and would end up being Never Say Quit.)
As we don’t know how Acker came to be teamed with Walsh – no report enlightens us – we’re forced to speculate. Her mixing in the right circles and being in New York was probably sufficient for her to cross the path of someone – an Agent, Director or Executive – that facilitated it all. Though it was very much the case that the majority of filming was conducted in the West by this time, business was still being concluded in the East, at the headquarters of the varied, significant studios. And this was obviously beneficial to her when it came to William Fox’s concern. (Fox, seldom, if ever, went to California.)
“It is typically a George Walsh concoc-
tion, a mass of complications furnishing
the star opportunities to display his
physical agility strung upon a story
thread a little stronger than customary.”
From REVIEWS, EXHIBITORS HERALD AND MOTOGRAPHY, March 22nd, 1919 (page 33).
Looking at reviews of Never Say Quit (1919) (a good example, being Hanford C. Judson’s, in the March 29th issue of THE MOVING PICTURE WORLD), we can see how Jean adapted to the times by playing: “… a big-eyed vamp…” Her part, was, it’s true, minor. (She’s billed simply as: Vamp.) And her screentime limited. (Just one scene it appears.) Yet, she was to be featured, prominently, in advertisements. (See above.) And find her portrayal would lead, quite soon, to a better role, in a far, far bigger Fox Film Corp. production. A great part in a wholesome, feel-good film, which would introduce her to more of her country men and country women than ever before.
That the death and burial of her Grandmother and namesake, in February 1919, didn’t derail her, despite it being a blow, is proven by the fact that after she completed work opposite Walsh, Acker signed up for Edward A. Locke’s new play The Dancer. The story of Lola Kerinski, a Russian performer protected by a Manager and a brother, who falls for a wealthy American, who she marries, loses, then reunites with, opened at the Grand theatre, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on February 13th. VARIETY‘s anonymous reviewer, on the 19th, felt a week or two of rehearsals had been insufficient. “… players were …. [unsure] of their lines…” and “the play” required: “… blue-penciling, speeding up and more vitality.” Despite this, the producers, “The Shuberts”, had: “… staged the play well and surrounded the principals with capable players.” (Jean Acker was one of these.) By the time the cast reached Poli’s theatre, on the 23rd, at the capital city Washington, it flowed nicely. However, on March the 5th, at The Majestic theatre, Providence, Rhode Island, locals objected to the two main characters, the Wife and Husband, kissing in bed and appearing dressed in nightwear, and complained to the relevant authority. Sergeant Richard Gamble, “amusement inspector”, consequently requested serious alterations.
Was bedroom fun on Miss Jean Acker’s mind too? By March she’d found the time to seek out a new home for herself; eventually settling on a sub-let, handled by Pease&Ellman (for Trowbridge Calloway), at 662 Madison Avenue, in New York. To be a block away from Central Park, even in the Spring of 1919, wouldn’t have been cheap. So I wonder if Alla Nazimova was paying for the apartment. And if it was perhaps a place for the couple to rendezvous when Madame was East between films. Of course, being back in business, as she was, Jean might’ve been in a position to rent in a nice part of town. There’s no denying that she’s named as the new Tenant, in the RESIDENTIAL LEASES column, in THE SUN newspaper, on Monday, March 24th. I get the impression, even though it was standard practice at the time, that Jean publicized her move because it suited her for people to know. This was not a publicity-shy individual. Being in the press was enjoyable for her. And she wanted to look good, as people do, when they’re in a profession where looking good’s of the utmost importance.
So good did Acker look that Spring, that as soon as the rights were secured (by William Fox) to film Checkers (a late 19th C. novel by Henry M. Blossom Jr. adapted for the stage and much revived), it was announced she was to star opposite Thomas J. Carrigan. With the Director, according to the first publication to announce it (Wid’s DAILY, on Friday, March 7th), to be Richard Stanton.
The picturization of Blossom Jr.’s Checkers was, it must be stated, on a whole different level to Never Say Quit. On March 15th industry title THE MOVING PICTURE WORLD was unequivocal: “One of the biggest casts ever assembled for a motion picture…” was at work. (A cast of “nearly fifty principals”.) And “The racing scenes which helped make the play famous…” were to “… be photographed at one of the southern racetracks.” It was expected, the final sentence revealed, that the adaptation would be released that Spring. And would be: “… a big special feature.”
Jean Acker’s role in the screen version was that of the Heroine Pert Barlow. As Pert, Jean appeals to Checkers, Thomas’s character, a Racing Tout, to help her to stop her society Fiancee drinking so heavily. (The Fiancee, who’s played by Robert Elliot, is called Arthur Kendall.) When Checkers tries and fails, he and Pert find themselves in love, and become engaged; something her Father is so unhappy about, he locks her in her room. A daring escape follows. Then an elopement. With Acker’s Barlow taking with her her horse — named Remorse. The two decide to enter Remorse in a big local race. However, the evil Fiancee seeks to stop them, in any way he can, so his own horse can triumph. The pair overcome several serious obstacles – the wrecking of their train, Pert’s abduction and imprisonment in China Town and rescue, and the blinding of their chosen jockey – before succeeding in winning the competition. A feat achieved by Jean’s Barlow riding the steed to victory. After which, Bertram Marburgh’s Judge Barlow forgives them, and welcomes them back to the family home. The End.
If this re-phrased, contemporary synopsis doesn’t give the full picture, we can access an advertisement that perhaps fills in any blanks when it comes to action. (Above.) As we see Acker was back to her earlier self. Leaping from her room to a tree. Jumping from a “… speeding auto to a box car…” And riding “…. to victory on Remorse.” And once more, at the very end, anyway, cross-dressing and pretending to be a man. Not so common at the time. And in advance of the masquerading of both Dietrich and Garbo a decade later. (It’s only recently, too, that any female has been permitted to openly compete in a horse race.)
By mid. March filming had commenced on the East Coast, at the company’s studio, at Fort Lee. Sometime in the third or fourth week of the month, a writer at Motion Picture News put together a look at progress so far, including details of what footage had been shot of Jean up to that point. (The piece was published in the March 29th edition.) “… the little Broadway beauty and daredevil of the movies…” was offering to “bet one year’s salary” that when the horse featured (owned by P. S. P. Randolph) started in The Kentucky Derby, she’d be: “… in the saddle wearing the Randolph colors.” Acker, already “one of the best woman riders in the country”, had been, we’re informed, coached as to how to ride in an actual race by “a well-known retired jockey”. And had already been captured with the thoroughbred at the private track at: “… the Randolph Estate at Lakewood, N. J.” (If the June 21st edition of THE MOVING PICTURE WORLD is believed then the information that Jean Acker would indeed ride in The Kentucky Derby was just good old-fashioned Hoo-Ha. According to the publication: “The racing scenes were filmed at the Belmont Park, Long Island, and on a New Jersey course.”)
Many reports mention the fact that Stanton was “a stickler for realism”. The entire set erected for the gambling scene, was authentic, down to the ivory inlaid chips each worth $1.50. Chinatown was faithfully recreated, with the assistance of Captain Hannon, of the Elizabeth Street police station. And Acker’s ten foot spring from the roof of a mansion into the branches of a tree, 38 feet from the ground, was all too genuine. Just as genuine, was the injury sustained by Ellen Cassity, portraying third-billed Alva Romaine, hurt in the filming of the ballroom scene by a broken goblet. (The reporting of this doesn’t state exactly how the Actress was injured.)
There’s no doubting that Checkers (1919) was a hit. A quick word search on lantern, or at Chronicling America, or Fulton History and elsewhere, provides plenty of proof. On July 28th, more than a month before the tightly edited, 70 minute visual extravaganza was issued, Wid’s DAILY was singing its praises. The Director: “… handled his material in such a way as to get every ounce of punch possible out of the story’s bigger moments.” It was edge of the seat stuff. Particularly the climax: “… when the picture showed the race itself, there was to be had almost as much excitement as if you had a big bet on the race yourself.” Others – THE NEW YORK CLIPPER (September 3rd), EXHIBITORS HERALD AND MOTOGRAPHY (September 6th), and PHOTOPLAY Magazine (October), as well as many more – all gave Checkers (1919) favourable reviews. Yet it was the feedback to industry publications from exhibitors that showed the extent to which the film succeeded. (There are, unfortunately, just too many examples to reproduce here, other than the one above.)
By the time Checkers (1919) premiered in St. Louis, the Author’s home town, with allsorts of publicity innovations – ten store windows devoted to publicity, a horse with a jockey parading in the streets, 500 paper strips with premiere details pasted to telephone poles, adverts accompanying 3,000 copies of the title tune, 5,000 windshield notifications, and even a preview advance Trailer playing in the “Wm. Fox Liberty Theatre” – employed, Jean Acker, “the little Broadway beauty and daredevil of the movies”, was firmly on the West Coast.
Why? And why was she no longer working for William Fox’s Fox Film Corp.? The only possible reason is that a jealous Nazimova had forbidden her to. And had forced Jean to relocate to California in order that she couldn’t soar higher. Acker’s wings needed to be clipped. And clipped they would be were she to be in the West. We know this, due to there being no customary announcement that Jean had left her current employer, or, unprecedented at the time, that she’d been signed by her new one. Madame, somehow strangely in control of the Miss, even managed to obliterate her recent achievements, when she was credited, by Cal York, in Plays and Players, in the September edition of PHOTOPLAY Magazine, as the person who’d discovered her.
Nazzy, recently returned from New York, had brought with her, in the following order: a collection of frogs and toads for her bathtub, a new brand of perfumed cigarettes, and Jeanne [sic] Acker, a Protege, who’d now be named Jeanne Mendoza. Jean’s humiliation was complete. Not only was she under the thumb of her older Lover, she’d failed to register, ahead of bathtoys and cigarettes, in one of Hollywood’s most prestigious publications. (And, most tragic of all, Lambert’s, Nazimova: A Biography, in reproducing this awful announcement, condemned her to a quarter of a century of derision.) Yet she at least at the time had a job (no doubt organized by Alla). As mentioned (at the very end of the sneering paragraph), she’d be playing opposite Bert Lytell, in a forthcoming Screen Classics Inc./Metro Pictures Corp. film, Lombardi, Ltd.
When I learned Jean Acker had been involved in the film version of Frederic and Fanny Hatton’s, three act, 1917 comedy, Lombardi, Ltd. (1919), I decided to seek it out. And I’m pleased I did – The British Library had a 1928 copy – as it gave me insight. Not only into what was going on in her life in terms of work, before she and Rudolph Valentino met in the Autumn of that year; but, the film being inaccessible to me, and no script copy being available, an excellent idea of what the adaptation was all about at its core. I suddenly had background. And suddenly a lot of what transpired made sense. (I later also accessed Dorothy Allison’s, scene-by-scene version, in the January 1920 issue of PHOTOPLAY.)
The play by the prolific Hattons, who’d previously scored hits with, Years of Discretion (1912), The Song Bird (1915), $2,000 A Night (1915) Upstairs and Down (1916)), and The Squab Farm (1916), was launched by Oliver Morosco, at his Morosco theatre, in Los Angeles, on July 1st, 1917; where it instantly succeeded, catapulting Leo Carrillo, who played the main character Tito Lombardi, to theatrical stardom. (NOTE: $2,000 A Night, was, interestingly, originally titled: The Great Lover.)
The story, in essence, is that of a brilliant, Italian male Modiste/Fashion Designer, who’s talented at creating desirable clothing, but not so clever when it comes to running the business and making a profit. Additionally, he’s unlucky in love; and continues to be so throughout the play, until he discovers true happiness under his nose, in the form of his faithful, but not-so-glamorous store Manageress. Many characters revolve around Tito. Two, an important Model named Daisy, the Ingenue Lead, and a secretly wealthy youth, named Riccardo, the Juvenile Lead, ultimately being most important to the narrative. A tale, summarized by Guy Price, in his review in THE LOS ANGELES EVENING HERALD, on Monday, July 2nd, 1917, as: “Real love [triumphing] over the selfish, for-gain-only, ‘surface love.'”
As it was Daisy that Jean portrayed in Lombardi, Ltd. (1919), I paid attention to her as a figure, and to her lines and interactions with Riccardo. In the DESCRIPTION OF CHARACTERS section, of the late ’20s reprint at The British Library, she’s described thus:
DAISY : A mannequin in Lombardi’s establishment.
Ingenue Lead. Of the ‘baby vampire’ type.
Played for comedy at all times. In the [F]irst [A]ct
innocent and unsophisticated. Commencing with
the Second Act she assumes the airs of the girls
about her, and thinks herself quite ‘wise.’ She
shouldbe a young girl of about twenty-two,
rather small but possessed of a good figure and
very pretty. In Act 1 wears her hair low and
simply ; thereafter puts it on the top of her head
in exaggerated manner, but not so that it will
spoil her attractiveness. ‘Kittenish’ best des-
cribes her habitual manner.
And I also reproduce, Riccardo’s, or Rickey’s description, which I think very interesting, when you have in mind another, real-life Italian, that the actual day-to-day Jean would be encountering. As follows:
RICCARDO TOSSELLO : Juvenile and Light Comedy.
A young man of about twenty-five. Italian de-
scent. Not the swarthy type ; black or dark hair.
Does not use the Italian dialect any time. Is of
the manly type and easy to play if not ‘acted.’
Very wealthy, but does not seem to be aware of
the fact, and is never arrogant or important
because of his wealth. Just a ‘hail fellow well
met’ at all times, never loud in action, speech
or dress. The diamond rings he wears are sup-
posed to have been inherited from his father and
worn for the sake of their association, rather
than their value.
As you can see, I’ve purposely highlighted/made bold parts of sentences, for both Daisy and Riccardo/Rickey, that I feel, strongly, particularly with Riccardo Tossello, eerily echo his off-screen counterpart Rudolph Valentino. He’s named Riccardo/Rickey and Rudolph was Rudolph/Rudy. He’s 25 and Valentino, was, likewise, in his mid. twenties. (24 at this point.) He’s not swarthy, has black or dark hair, and doesn’t use the Italian dialect any time. And Rudy wasn’t swarthy, had dark hair, and didn’t, at least by 1919, as far as I know, use the Italian dialect. And further, Rudolph was never arrogant or important; was a hail fellow well met; and, as we know, rather enjoyed wearing rings. But back to Daisy/Jean and Rickey/Rudy in a little bit. As I now throw June Mathis into the mix. It being “The recognized head of Metro’s scenario department” who was responsible for the adaptation.
“Comedy is very necessary. But, after all, it doesn’t make the lasting impression that is made by the soul-searching story—the story that gets under the skins of all of us and reveals that mortals are weak, groping atoms in a cosmic wilderness and that into their brief span of existence is crowded infinitely more sorrow than happiness.”
June Mathis, quoted in Motion Picture News, August 9th, 1919.
The pre The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) Mathis had only recently been elevated to the enviable position of Metro Pictures Corp.’s Scenarist in Chief. And was being heralded as such, that Summer, in promotional pieces like the half page article, Woman to Adapt Screen Classics, that appeared in the August 9th edition of Motion Picture News. If the message wasn’t clear from the title, it was hammered home in the text, when it was stated that June was: “… grooming herself for a demonstration of her contention that the female of the species is more strenuous than the male…” in the scenario writing sphere. “Miss Mathis” had: “… established herself as a motion picture technician and one of the cleverest handlers of big situations, ranging from graceful comedy to heart-gripping drama.” The creation, by Metro Pictures Corp.’s production arm, Screen Classics, Inc., of ‘fewer, bigger and better’ productions, from September the 1st 1919, had her undivided attention. And she was quoted as saying: ‘Give me the human drama. Let it be a story about my fellow human beings—their hopes and fears, their joys and sorrows. Let me cry with them, but let them be human.’
Unaware of the forthcoming human drama of two fellow human beings, Acker and Valentino, almost under her very nose, individuals, with hopes, fears, joys and definite sorrows, Mathis adapted Lombardi, Ltd. according to her instincts. To get an idea of any differences between the stage version and the screen version we’ve only to look at reviews. Such as the complimentary one we see, in THE WASHINGTON HERALD, on Monday, October 20th, 1919. Which begins with the sentence: “Seldom in picturizing a former stage success has the original acting version been so strictly adhered to…” And went on to explain that: “The logical sequence of scenes has been scrupulously observed with the result that the shadow drama …. preserves all of the directness and all of the dramatic power of the play…” This information helps me to be certain that the cinematic Daisy wasn’t, despite being reduced slightly in importance by June, too dissimilar to the theatrical Daisy. Which is significant, given my belief the actions of both her character, and those of the opposite character, were a real influence on events.
In my post, December 1919, in December 2018, I looked in some detail at the run up to the meeting of Jean and Rudy — at least from his perspective. On a night in early September, Rudolph Valentino found himself at Venice nightspot, The Ship. Spotting friend Dagmar Godoswky, he approached her table, but met with rejection from Alla Nazimova — which triggered a rejection by all gathered. (Godowsky’s recollection was it was a celebration of the conclusion of shooting of Nazimova’s next spectacular.) Within days the humiliated Valentino became acquainted with a young woman present at the venue: Jean Acker. The location, this time, was the newly-bought home of the established stage and screen star Pauline Frederick. At this more congenial dinner party – Gavin Lambert’s claim that it marked the end of the filming of Madame X (1920) is incorrect as it began production the following Spring – Jean was alone.
Acker, I’m sure, instantly recognised the beautifully dressed, well-mannered Italian so horribly insulted by Madame Nazimova. After being introduced by ‘Polly’ he asked Jean to dance. She declined. Instead they sat under “a California moon” and talked, and talked — then, talked some more. The discussion is unrecorded. Yet we know that they found themselves understanding and liking one another. It was, after all, the collision of two rather similar people. Individuals who were somewhat battered and bruised by life and their profession. Victims, both, of the great Diva Nazzy. The Force. Someone that, as Dagmar Godowsky explains, in First Person Plural: The Lives of DAGMAR GODOWSKY, by Herself (1958), her autobiography, only: “… had to raise an eyebrow and everyone shook.” (Rudy was to call Dagmar a couple of days afterwards to tell her all about it and how he felt about Jean.)
Miss Acker probably spoke of her return to the profession the previous year, her arrival on the West Coast, and her most recent film. It would be strange – impossible – for her not to have told him all about Metro Pictures Corp. and the powerful people she knew there. And of her plans for the future. Mr. Valentino had his own tale to tell of course. How he’d got started in the business in 1916; had shifted West the following year; about his serious struggles; and how he’d recently completed working with Clara Kimball Young, in Eyes of Youth (1919). Likewise, it would be odd, odd and unlikely, for him not to ask questions about Metro Pictures Corp. About June Mathis. And about Maxwell Karger. And to see if they had mutual friends. (After all they’d both spent many years in New York and its environs.) If Jean, so recently Daisy, didn’t yet see in Rudy a Rickey, she certainly saw a young man that she felt she could trust. Someone she could enjoy being with and maybe see again. If not, then why did they see one another again? And then again? Was he, I wonder, employing his “credo”, as reproduced in a newspaper, in 1922? 1. Never play at love unless you feel the urge. Insincere lovemaking is cheating—and you cheat yourself most of all. 2. Never try cave-man tactics on the woman you love. That’s a sure way to lose her if she’s worth winning. 3. Be patient. Never try to kiss a woman the first or the second time you meet her. And never reveal your purpose, whatever it may be, until she is used to you and trusts you. Perhaps, like me, you picture her receiving a tender kiss on the hand as they said farewell — not a difficult thing to imagine!
Over the next eight weeks they saw one another irregularly. Though Lombardi, Ltd. (1919) had been wrapped (at least for Jean and the principals), by the time of the Frederick soiree, it appears Acker was busy for some of the time working on The Blue Bandana (1919); a Robertson-Cole Productions film, the Star of which was William Desmond. (Having been considered “specially fitted for the part” of Ruth Yancy, she’d been loaned out, and the movie was released, quickly, on November 16th.) On his side, Rudolph’s latest role, as Cabaret Parasite, Clarence Morgan, in Eyes of Youth (1919), was very much In The Can. And he was at a loose end, not having yet secured the part of Prince Angelo Della Robbia, in Passion’s Playground (1920). Contractless, and without a studio, he would, between their dates, be looking for his next opportunity. (I begin to think it was at this time that he went to see Sessue Hayakawa, to ask about joining his company, at the facility at which Jean was at work. Something mentioned in Sessue’s autobiography, ZEN showed me the Way… to peace, happiness and tranquility and harmony (1960), on page 144. He also says Acker worked for him after they’d married.)
No doubt they went on a short trip or two in Jean Acker’s auto. And enjoyed an evening here or there dancing. Being outdoor types, and accomplished riders, they absolutely rode in the Hollywood Hills — in fact, we know they did. And it would be surprising if they hadn’t seen at least one motion picture. Is it possible that they went to watch the September 16th evening preview of Lombardi, Ltd. (1919), at the Hollywood Theatre, at 6724 Hollywood Boulevard? I think so. And it’s quite likely, in the following month, the couple could’ve enjoyed an advance screening of Eyes of Youth (1919), as such private viewings were happening in October, in advance of a big trade preview in New York, on the 30th. Fun for them both, if so. Despite it emphasizing the real differences in their positions in the industry. Jean was, so far, more experienced and more successful; was better known and better connected; and, receiving a regular weekly salary of several hundred dollars.
A couple of years later, in Chapter Three of My Life Story, his life so far, as related to PHOTOPLAY Magazine, and published in their April 1923 edition, Valentino went into some detail. Firstly: “It was at a party at Miss Frederick’s that I met Miss Jean Acker. I thought her very attractive. But I did not see her again for some time.” After meeting her once more: “I fell in love with her. I think you might call it love at first sight.” Reminiscing about their horseride: “It was like an Italian day. Romance was shining everywhere, and the world looked beautiful. That day I proposed to Miss Acker. It seemed spontaneous and beautiful then. But as I look back, now, it seems more like a scene [from] a picture with me acting the leading part.”
I feel, here, it’s worth looking at the conversations about matrimony between Daisy and Rickey, in Lombardi, Ltd. Though the dialogue would’ve been seriously pruned for intertitling, I’m certain the general tone was retained. Pages 106, 107 and 108, in Act II, as follows:
RICKEY. (At R. of DAISY and close to her) Say, ducks, I must have you. Just naturally must. And you might just as well slip me that “Yes” now, because I’ll bother you to death till you do. Come on, will you have me, lovey ?
DAISY. Are you offering me marriage ?
RICKEY. Surest thing you know. Honourable marriage. (Takes both hands in his and leads her so that she is just R. of lower end of the settee.) Bride’s cake, veils, rice and that little gold band that your sex thinks so well of, and besides that, Daisy, l-o-v-e, and I’m full of it.
DAISY. (Backing to corner of settee for support) It’s my first ! (Sits on settee.) My ! It does give you a thrilling feeling, just like the books say. Have you asked many other girls that ?
RICKEY. What ? To marry me ? (Sits next to Daisy on settee above her.)
DAISY. Uh, huh !
RICKEY. Peaches, you are number one absolutely. Daisy, you’re the first little woman I ever saw that I wanted to make the Mrs.
DAISY. Yes, I bet I am !
RICKEY. (Laughing.) You are.
DAISY. Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Doubtless. Doubtless.
RICKEY. I’ve had some flirts, of course. I don’t set up to be a Saint Anthony, but wedding rings; no, lovey lamb, just my little Daisy. (Embraces her.)
DAISY. (Gives audible sign of content.) Oh, I just wish you wasn’t a chauffeur, because I do like you—lots. (Breaking away from his embrace.) Only, I can’t—honest, I can’t. (Rising and crossing to c.)
RICKEY. (Rises and shows disappointment) Why, Daisy ?
DAISY. I’ve made up my mind I’m going to have things and money and lots of it.
RICKEY. (Following DAISY) But I love you, Daisy, and I’ll make you love me. Won’t you take a chance ?
DAISY. (Waving him off) Now, please go away. I don’t want to say, “Yes.” I’m not going to marry a mechanic. (Crossing to R. below table.) I cannot do it. (Continues around R. of table and above it.)
RICKEY. (Disappointed, but still persisting, he crosses up L. of table and meets DAISY just above it) Well, all right, if that’s the way you feel about it, but, Daisy, I want you to know that I would carry you around on my two hands. (Extends his hands palms up, forgetting that he had previously turned the rings he is wearing.)
DAISY. (About to take his hands, notices the diamonds in his rings; staggers) My Gawd ! Are those stones gen-u-ine ?
RICKEY. Eh? Oh, yes. Belonged to my father. Want one? (Taking off ring from left hand.)
DAISY. Oh, you mean it ? (RICKEY puts ring on her finger.) Ain’t it swell. I never did see one bigger. But it wouldn’t be right because I ain’t goin’ to swerve from my purpose—take it off, please.
(Pause. DAISY takes off the ring, handing it to RICKEY, who replaces it on his finger as she continues speech.)
RICKEY. It’s yours; it’s for you.
DAISY. I just wish I could see my way clear to…
taking it, and you, too, Mr.—what’s that queer name you’ve got ?
RICKEY. Never mind, Daisy. Just call me Rickey. My name is Italian and your dear little lips could never pronounce it.
DAISY. (In astonishment) Are you Eye-Talian ? Oh, that’s grand.
RICKEY. Wouldn’t you like to try some Italian hugs today ?
DAISY. Oh, maybe—I might.
I find this exchange between Daisy and Rickey in the play quite startling. Of course this isn’t Jean and Rudy, yet, the similarites between the stage characters that became screen characters, and the actual people, who were screen performers and became a couple, albeit briefly, is remarkable. And the sequence I retype couldn’t be more aligned. Even though, as I say, it would’ve been seriously boiled down, in terms of explanatory text insertions between frames, in the Metro Pictures Corp. adaptation.
Daisy’s very uncertain. (As Jean obviously was.) Rickey subjects her to repeated requests and is persistent. (As Rudy reportedly did and was.) The pursued is clear his (apparent) lowly position is a serious obstacle. (Valentino wasn’t as notable as Acker.) Daisy remains resolved and won’t be swerved. (Jean was likewise resolute.) Rickey’s surname’s difficult to pronounce. (As was Rudy’s which was Guglielmi.) We can only wonder if the back and forth between Daisy and Rickey after the reproduced segment was similar in reality. And if, like her onstage self, the offstage Acker suggested that they should: … be pals and play around and not talk about getting married so soon? Yet, get married Acker and Valentino did after all, and soon. Around midnight, on Wednesday, the 5th of November, 1919.
There are, remarkably, two versions of what happened, and how it all came to pass. And while not dramatically different, they’re diferent enough to have us wondering which is correct. In the first, the pair had been riding on the 5th, probably in the morning, and Jean received her seventh proposal and was invited to elope to Santa Ana that day, but declined both the suggestion of marriage and the elopement. Mostly, this was due to the fact the pair, or one of them, had been invited to an important event that night; a party being thrown for Mr. and Mrs. Richard A. Rowland, President of Metro Pictures Corp., by Joseph W. Engel, the company Treasurer, at his home. It was at this gathering that the two sweethearts were encouraged by friends to wed. Resulting in a mad rush to secure a licence and a Minister/Priest by the end of the day. (The Officiator was the Rev. James I Myers of the Broadway Christian Church.) The second version begins in the same way, with a ride, except, on the previous day, the 4th. In this alternative account, Acker accepted the final matrimonial invitation, and later that day Valentino ran into Maxwell Karger (at an unknown Hollywood hotel (which was likely The Hollywood Hotel)). Mr. Karger, Jean’s Boss at her studio, having learned from Rudy about their plans, suggested they marry at the celebration for the Rowlands, the next evening, at the home of Engel. All leading to a great deal of driving around in Jean Acker’s car, on that day and the next, to arrange everything. And nuptials at the party by midnight on the 5th. The spectators, besides Mr. and Mrs. Engel, Mr. and Mrs. Rowland, and Mr. and Mrs. Karger, included Mr. and Mrs. Fred Warren, May Allison, Herbert Blache, [J.] Frank Brockliss and Charles Brown. (The latter version, corroborated by PHOTOPLAY Magazine, is from Natacha Rambova’s serialized 1930 look at her late former Husband’s life and career, The Truth About Rudolph Valentino.)
Whichever’s truest, after their respective I dos, champagne and many congratulations, they headed by themselves for the famous Hotel Hollywood (a place which had once sheltered Alla Nazimova), where Jean was then accommodated. On leaving the location of the ceremony they were unquestionably on a high. Happy. Smiling. And looking ahead with optimism to married life. Waved off by the Engels, the Rowlands, the Kargers and the others, and with perhaps a couple of tin cans tied to Acker’s auto., they drove off into matrimony, with every reason to expect that it was to be blissful. So, awful it was, when, in between the door of the Engel’s abode and the door to Acker’s hotel room, something unpleasant happened.
Several decades later, a young Patricia Neal, who’d befriended Jean Acker, and was renting an apartment from her (in a block she owned in Beverly Hills), was at some point informed by her Landlady that, soon after the exchanging of vows, Rudolph Valentino had told his Bride he’d once suffered from a sexually-transmitted disease: Gonhorrea. In her early 2000s biography, Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino (2003), Emily W. Leider reveals (in the NOTES section), this was information supplied to her in a personal communication with the Actress in 1998. And, in MISALLIANCE, the chapter in question, advises the reader that it’s credible, due to it being: “confided in private to a friend…” At the time of writing, and before and after publication, Leider didn’t have at her disposal information later made available by Jeanine Therese Villalobos, in her dissertation, Rudolph Valentino: The Early Years, 1895-1920. That dissertation presents evidence that the fourteen-year-old Rodolfo actually contracted Syphilis, in a brothel, in Taranto. And that he spent a long time in bed recovering; and it was during this lengthy spell in his room, that he mentioned it to a friend in a letter.
While he was, Jeanine proposes, potentially symptom free in 1919, he felt duty bound to admit his former affliction. Whenever it happened – in the vehicle when they arrived, or, on a comfortable banquette inside of Hotel Hollywood – it was obviously a terrible blow for his Bride. This female, who’d been so cautious with males, and had had, I’m certain, previous unpleasant experiences, and who’d found herself trusting Rodolfo Guglielmi to the point of becoming his Wife, must’ve been very shocked. It appears that she somehow slipped away, got the key to her room, and went inside and locked the door.
Following her a little later, and attempting to enter and finding he was unable to, the Bridegroom became angry and knocked loudly, and then began hammering. Inside, his Wife, tearfully told him to go away and leave her alone. Which he subsequently did, the noise having awoken guests, who probably remonstrated. He was it seems confused by her behaviour. Perplexed. At a loss. His retreat to his own rooms must’ve been a sad and sorry one. And it’s doubtful he slept unless out of sheer exhaustion. Not long afterwards Jean left her room and went to see Mrs. Anna Karger. Once in her presence she declared that getting married had been a terrible mistake. Sufficiently soothed, Acker then left the Kargers, and headed to her girlfriend Grace Darmond’s home.
Almost immediately newspapers and trade publications reported the hasty union. One of the earliest, was Wid’s DAILY, on Saturday, November 8th, 1919. As follows:
Married at Midnight
Hollywood—Jean Acker who
played Daisy the model in Metro’s
“Lombardi, Ltd.,” married Rodolpho
Valentino, an actor, at midnight
In Lombardi Miss Acker was in
love with a young Italian whom she
Joseph Engel of Metro, had an af-
fair at his home at which Jean and
Valentino were present when they
decided to get married.
At midnight, then, they they searched
for a license clerk and a minister.
He and Mrs. Karger were
witnesses to the ceremony.
Incredibly the story kept being printed for about two months, long after it had all gone sour, and Rudy had nearly spent Christmas 1919 alone. After telling him, a day or two later, that they’d made a mistake and could never be happy, Jean successfully evaded Rudy for the rest of November; during which time he repeatedly telephoned, attempted, unsuccessfully, to see her (at Hotel Hollywood and at Darmond’s), and wrote to her. A letter from him that month on the 22nd ended: “Understand that you will make the trip to New York absolutely against my will and that I’m always ready to furnish you with a home and all the comforts to the best of my moderate means and ability, as well as all the love and care of a husband for his dear little wife. Please, Jean, darling, come to your senses and give me an opportunity to prove to you my sincere love and eternal devotion. Rudolph.”
It would seem that Valentino’s constant attempts to get through to Acker eventually paid off. According to the testimony of steadfast friend, Dougie Gerrard, at their divorce trial in December 1921, Jean Acker was brought to his flat/apartment by Rudolph Valentino sometime soon after the communication of the 22nd. (A week later, or, possibly longer.) “I suggested going to the Alexandria. This was agreeable.” he stated. “I said to myself: ‘That’s alright; they are together, thank God.’ ” Yet, the reunion was a temporary one, as he revealed. The next day Rudy was ecstatic. But the day after he appeared at Gerrard’s to tell him that Mrs. Guglielmi had once again left him. Amazed, Dougie took matters into his own hands, and telephoned Jean to see what the problem was. “I asked her why she and her husband could not live together. She said: ‘He is impossible, he is dictatorial and I’m not going to live with him any more.’ ”
Looking at her communications afterwards makes it difficult to take her side. In a letter, dated December 15th, clearly composed after a ‘phone conversation, she wrote: “Rudolph Darling… Your voice did sound awfully good and cheerful tonight and last night it made me so lonesome for you. …. Dearest boy of mine I wish you were in my arms… When will I be there again? …. Heartful of love, sweetheart. JEAN.” And in a Telegram on December 29th: “Impossible to spend New Year’s with you. Leaving Tuesday afternoon for vacation. Will wire address when arrive. Awfully disappointed. Can’t be helped. My love. Phone me at 10 tonight. JEAN.
What could account for Jean Acker being so physically distant yet so emotionally close? Putting aside his revelation, which he may again have mentioned and reassured her about, there’s a clue in his letter in late November, and her response to Dougie Gerrard’s question. Rudolph Valentino was telling her what she could and couldn’t do. Her trip to New York wasn’t acceptable to him. And being told this wasn’t acceptable to her. I think the phrase he employs, “dear little wife”, says a great deal about his general attitude. An attitude that the “dear little wife” highlighted in another Telegram from January 16th. “Wire and telephone calls very sweet, but letter entirely too sarcastic. Make your own plans for the East and advise strongly you do not come here as I am working much too hard to entertain anyone and hotel only have room for the company.” JEAN. The Bride was obviously bridling.
Acker was, of course, a person on the whole very used to making up her own mind. It’s plain to me, and hopefully to you, that since her start eight years earlier, at the end of 1911, she’d managed to find a way to be independent of a man, if not of men, in a male-dominated era. And to be expected to become dependent, be subservient, be his Little Wife, was next to impossible. Unthinkable, even.
I strongly feel Jean Acker saw in Rudolph Valentino, if only fleetingly, and up to their nuptials, a person that she could unite with. A kindred spirit. I think that he engaged her in such a way and on such a level that he broke down her defences. I think, too, she saw, as I’m sure he did in her, somebody that could help her be more accepted. Someone that might make her look like everyone else in Hollywood. A place where many were united in marriage and enjoyed the resulting camaraderie.
Yet, it wasn’t, on both sides, to be. Jean didn’t receive a visit in Mojave in January from Rudolph. And he did make his own plans for the East. (A trip which would prove to be fateful.) However, despite their inability to make a go of it, they were, as we know, to remain married for another two years. And not only that, as will be seen in Part Three, connected, entwined, interwoven, call-it-what-you-will, not just until the dissolution of their marriage, but beyond. Even beyond the death of Rudolph Valentino. And, as this post demonstrates, beyond the death of Jean Acker. And even beyond this post. Chained for all eternity, down through time, forever.
Thank you for reading this post in its entirety — I appreciate it. As usual, any and all references and research is available to anybody who asks, if they’re not already provided in the text, as a link, or, as an image. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about Jean Acker’s life and career as much as I enjoyed writing about it. The third instalment, looking, in quick succession, at the divorce, her adoption of the name Jean Acker Valentino, her film career in the Twenties, the demise of her Husband, her ups and downs afterwards, her comeback, and the years of non-stardom, will be posted a month from now, in February. See you then!
100 years ago last month Rudolph Valentino married his first wife Jean Acker. It wasn’t, we know, a match made in heaven; and questions continue, to this very day, about what exactly was going on that November. There are questions, too, about what, if anything, was to be gained from the union. Just as there’s curiosity about the aftermath. I hope to answer these queries, in a three part post titled, not Questions, but Daisy Chained, for reasons that will eventually become clear. As far as I know this is the first ever deep investigation of this important figure in Rudy’s life.
Not long after I began looking properly at Rudolph Valentino, online and offline, in 2012, I thought about writing a book about him. But wait! Didn’t we already know all that there was to know? The biographies to date, particularly Emily W. Leider’s decade-old, Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino, had delivered to us a cornucopia of facts, so why – why? – go over the same ground? What could possibly be achieved? What angles were there on him that weren’t already exploited? For some time I thought about it. And thought some more. Then, late in 2013, I stumbled across The Sins of Hollywood, and everything changed.
I have to say, I do see why The Sins of Hollywood: An Expose of Movie Vice! has been on the whole largely ignored; after all, the light that it casts on Valentino isn’t a flattering one. His story, which is titled A Wonderful Lover, and is the eighth of twelve that recount the past off-set behaviour of several film industry notables, mainly focuses on what was going on at the Hotel Maryland, in Pasadena, in late 1918, and later, in Los Angeles, at the start of 1919. Whatever we might think of A Wonderful Lover and the eleven other tales by the anonymous ‘A Hollywood Newspaper Man’ – a person named Ed. Roberts – it’s the final few paragraphs that are important in this instance. As follows:
“The Dolfy met a movie girl. She was just on the edge of stardom, just going over the top. She helped him. Then she married him. That was his entry into pictures. He had done a few bits but was comparatively unknown.
“With the opportunities and the personal contact his marriage gave him, Adolfo moved fast. He met the right people. He had talent. Brains in both head and feet. His opportunity came and he took advantage of it. He could act. Had been acting all his life. That’s how he lived. His lessons in love-making stood him in good stead. All he had to do was be natural.
“When he finally hit the high mark he didn’t need the movie girl any more. She was a liability now, not an asset. So he canned her. Her career is about ended. His is just beginning.”
From page 62.
These closing lines enabled me to see the association of Dolfy/Adolfo (Rudy), and “the movie girl” (Jean), not from his perspective, but from hers. And it also helped me to find the way forward: I would write the biography of Jean Acker. It would be him through her eyes. Maybe I’d title it The First Mrs. Valentino — or something like that. It was a fresh viewpoint. One which would allow for closeups and medium and distance shots. The discoveries I made as I researched began to reveal to me a rather interesting person. Slowly but surely an individual emerged. No longer was she the derided and villified apendage. And I began to understand her a little, and, her motivations. I spent about six months writing and put it to the side. And what I wrote forms the backbone of this trio of posts.
I started, of course, at the start, and looked into her beginnings. Nowhere, I was reliably informed by people on the ground, was there a registered birth of a Harriet Ackers – her true name – in the state of New Jersey, for the year 1893. Likewise for 1892 or 1891. What there definitely was, however, in the 1900 Census, was a Hattie Ackers, born in Oct. 1891, and aged 8, residing on Market Street, Trenton, with Gershorn and Harriet Ackers, her grandparents. Also living at the address, were her Aunt, Maud L., a Boarder, named John Bice, and her apparent Father, Joseph, who had given his profession as Barber. The lack of a Mother was of interest. That there was no Birth Certificate, and Jean was named Harriet, after her paternal Grandmother, raises the possibility of illegitimacy. Certainly all censuses – 1900, 1905 and 1910 – show that one of her parents had abandoned her. And the whereabouts of Margaret Ackers/Acker during this time is a definite mystery. (By 1920, according to the Census that year, her father had married a woman named Virginia D. and moved to Lewistown, in Pennsylvania, where he worked as a Shoe Merchant.)
Her year of birth and family seemingly established – the 1910 Census does cast doubt on it and suggests it might’ve been 1892 – I sought evidence that she’d been born or raised on a farm. However in none of the three censuses did I find a rural location. In each instance – Trenton, Lambertville and Trenton – she was firmly in a city or a town. Yet, the fact that Lambertville bordered on open countryside, meant it was possible it had been there that she’d first experienced the outdoors, ran free and maybe learned to ride.
Three different homes in a decade didn’t suggest to me a particularly secure or stable upbringing. This was a family, for whatever reason, often on-the-move with little Harriet in tow. And considering this series of shifts, I began to see how they, and her lack of a mother, had probably shaped her. I imagined difficulties, strictness, dreariness. I saw a little girl desperate to escape. And I began to see that the life she sought for herself, and the person she eventually became, as she lived that life, was a direct result of all that she’d potentially endured during childhood. In fact, her earliest publicity when getting started in “the pictures”, suggests exactly that, filled as they are, with obvious invention and fantasy.
Hattie H. Ackers was no doubt still dreaming her dreams while working as a Milliner, or Hat Maker, in her late teens, in Trenton. (Employment we know about thanks to the 1910 Census.) I like to think that it was this position that led to her working alongside Howard Lee in the theatre “in a strong drama”. Something followed, according to her interview in The MOTION PICTURE Story Magazine, in 1913, by a season with Louis L. Hall’s Stock Company. (The L., it seems, stood for Leon.) And additional to her involvement with Lee and Hall she also spent some time in Vaudeville. Despite investigation, Howard Lee, has, unfortunately, failed to surface. And, if he existed at all, was, perhaps, just a small-time, amateur Thespian that never registered outside his home town or County. Louis Leon Hall, meanwhile, most definitely did. And a brief but prominent paragraph, in VARIETY, in mid. January 1912, reveals he had formerly headed: “… his own company in various New Jersey towns…” A sentence that appears to add weight to Jean’s explanation of how she was artistically occupied just prior to becoming a Minor Star in “the pictures”.
Minor stardom was less than a year away when she got her start at the dawn of true film-making in the United States. How she found herself at Siegmund Lubin‘s ‘Lubinville’, in Philadelphia, at the close of 1911, is unknown; but find herself there she did. As none of her early interviews give any clues we’re left to speculate. Perhaps she answered an advert. for staff and was soon put in front of the camera. Maybe she was spotted on the stage in Trenton and offered work. The usual route, taken by the likes of Blanche Sweet, who heard that the Biograph Co. needed people, filled out a form, and was ignored, until she met and spoke to D. W. Griffith, seems the least likely, considering the great distance between her home and the rapidly expanding Pennsylvanian concern.
The first interview that Jean Acker ever gave – she was Jean by this time, and not Harriet or Hattie, and the s had been dropped from her surname – is informative despite the serious make-believe it includes. (It’s plain she wasn’t born or brought up in St. Louis, Missouri, or, that her parents were Spanish.) Just two thirds of a single page, in the May 1912 edition of The MOTION PICTURE Story Magazine, we learn from it that: “She [loved] to act …. to pose, and …. to see upon the screen the pictures in which she [appeared].” Was, at that time, spending “three or four hours a day posing”. And would, in the evening: “… read, or write, or go to the theater… That she was “a talented writer”, with “many stories and scenarios to her credit”, is, if true, something of a surprise. Yet, what’s most apparent, in her exchange with Dorothy Harpur, for Harpur’s CHATS WITH THE PLAYERS, is Acker’s zest for life. And that, she’d at some point or other acquired a cute nickname, which was Billie.
Her spell at ‘Lubinville’, then America’s most up-to-date complex, would’ve been a great experience and definitely educational. Even today, more than 100 years later, the images of the structures in Eugene Dengler’s, five page, image-filled article, in the October 1911 issue of MOTOGRAPHY, impress. A bird’s eye view illustration, shows the extent of the operation, and its situation at the corner of 20th Street and Indiana Avenue. The three main structures forming an enclosure: an impressive glass and steel studio, a processing building, and, at the bend of the U, the administrative office. The studio itself, boasted enormous glazed doors, that could be opened when necessary; on hot days, water was made to cascade over the many glass roof panels, to keep them cool; actors were given the option of emerging from, or descending into, the floor (as if from a lower or higher level); ground-breaking, artifical lighting was in use; and there was sufficient floor space for several films to be created simultaneously. The plant also had a prop-making area, a costume department, various laboratories and drying rooms, and even a subsidised canteen.
After a year with Lubin we can imagine a very different Acker to the one who’d begun there. Films were in her blood now. By the end of 1912 she was a ‘Pro.’; a veteran of perhaps 20 or so varied shorts. Along with her often anonymous cohorts, she’d worked hard, back-to-back, in quickie westerns, comedies and dramas. Films such as: A Village Romance, The Surgeon’s Heroism, A Noble Enemy, A Poor Excuse That Worked. And also: The Heart of a Boss, The Office Favorite, Through the Drifts and The Poor Relation. (All early 1912.)
Is that Jean in a promotional image for The Substitute (1911)? Quite possibly. Of course we can’t be sure, but, considering her inclinations and abilities – later roles and love of danger – and the likeness of the Star pictured, it’s conceivable. (Interestingly this wasn’t the only Lubin cross-dressing story at the time, as, late in 1911, and not too long before she joined the studio, the organisation released My Brother, Agostino (1911), a curious tale of a woman forced to take the place at work of her husband, disguised as a male sibling. The ensuing romance, between Rosiana, masquerading as a man, and Rosa, another female, gave the production an interesting flavour that caused one reviewer to describe it as: “A really unusual story very cleverly and absorbingly told.”)
Zesty Billie Acker, the girl who’d gone from millinery to the stage to the Kliegls, was soon moving again. After approximately twelve months at ‘Pop’ Lubin’s state-of-the-art Lubin Manufacturing Co., we see that she’d been taken on by Carl Laemmle‘s IMP — an acronym for The Independent Moving Pictures Co., soon to become Universal Film Manufacturing Co. (and today, known simply, as Universal Pictures). Her girlie, late Summer Long Island break, with Catherine Tower, had been reported in the trade press. And the brief profile of her had appeared in The MOTION PICTURE Story Magazine. And yet it wasn’t enough for her. She wanted more — much more.
Nothing else can explain the move, which immediately paid-off, when she was featured, albeit incorrectly named but noticeably androgynous, on the cover of the February issue of MOTOGRAPHY. (Above.) That she was being treated differently by her new employer is clear, when we see the report inside the same issue, about how she was present at an exclusive theatre and supper party of sixteen, who were guests of Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Brenon. Her Boss, Mr. Laemmle, his wife, and Mr. and Mrs. King Baggot being four of the others present. March then saw her reported about again, when a newspaper declared:
“The Imp’s Ingenue, Little
Miss Acker, Delights in
From The Evening Standard, Ogden City, Utah, March 29th, 1913 (page 2).
The paragraph, accompanied by a reproduced press photograph, alongside similar images of two equally active, contemporary female personalities, Mary Charleson (at Vitagraph), and Ruth Roland (at Kalem), concentrated on the fact ‘Little Miss Acker’ was someone that loved: “… real, genuine excitement.” She claimed, the unknown writer said: “… she would rather jump from a moving train, ride a motorcycle at a fifty-mile clip, or ride in an aeroplane than eat.” The breaking of her leg at the time, while not sustained performing a stunt, was connected to one, due to her being on the back of future Leading Man (Frederic) Rodman Law’s motorcycle, when it was hit by a seven-passenger Touring Car, at the junction of Broadway and 42nd Street in New York. According to a report, Law was driving, with Acker and a Rosabella Phoner also on the ‘bike. (Law and Phoner had apparently jumped from an aeroplane earlier that day, at Coytesville, New Jersey.) Jean’s leg fracture was so bad that she was rushed to Long Island Hospital. Rodman, despite being thrown 30 feet, and fracturing his arm, made sure that she was taken care of first. Along with Rosabella. Who was lucky to escape with bruising of her face and arms.
At the time of this upset, Jean Acker had completed the two reel, 20 minute film In a Woman’s Power (1913). This, even by the standards of the day, flimsy, corny melodrama, with Jean playing a virtuous and forgiving wife, named Marcelle, who decides to hold onto her husband, despite his criminal past and the lure of a pre-Bara Vampish former love, was simultaneous to the single reel, ten minute comedy The Man Outside (1913). (A production, not to be confused with the similarly titled The Man From Outside, by Reliance, or the picture released that Autumn with the exact same name, by Essanay.)
TOMORROW FROM 2:00 P. M. to 11:00 P. M.
Bureaucratic tyranny in photo. Portrays the Muscovite
terror system, in two big reels.
An ad. for The PALACE, in The Bryan Daily Eagle and Pilot, Bryan, Texas, August 20th, 1913 (page 2)
It would only be after recovering, wherever that was, that Jean would be showcased in the sort of vehicle the public was being primed to expect to see her. Nihilist Vengeance (1913) is, we see from reviews and reports, exactly that sort of production; featuring, as it did, a bridge destroyed by three explosions, as ‘Little Miss Acker’, as the sweetheart of a wrongly condemned hero, thunderered across it in an open carriage, in an ultimately successful attempt to save him from an unjust death. An anonymous reviewer, writing for the Daily East Oregonian that September, praised the costumes but felt that the plot was: “… conventional.” More conventional still, and not as exciting, was another film at this time, titled Bob’s Baby. In the Gem comedy, unleashed that August, Acker dutifully acted as the cousin of Bob, played by Glen White. Surely wishing, as she did so, for another, far more exciting role. Eventually it would come.
I have to say I wondered at this point – 1913/1914 – about Acker’s sexuality. And also what effect being mainly attracted to women might’ve had on her, and her career chances, in what was an extremely male-dominated business. In later life she lived quietly with her Long-Term Partner, Lillian Chloe Carter; but nothing is known of her relationship, or relationships, before World War One. What, for example, did the person in the Winter road traffic accident, Rosabella Phoner, mean to her? And should anything be read into her 1912 vacation with Catherine Tower? Also, what was life like for Lesbians, at this time in the States?
Magnus Hirschfield, in the footsteps of the 19th Century pyschologist, Karoly Maria Hertbeny (or Karl-Maria Benkert), inventor of the term Homosexuality, was only just beginning work on The Homosexuality of Men and Women (1922), in which he delved into the mental, emotional and physical spheres. As well as how new technology, such as communications and transportation, were affecting their lives. The few specialists there were remained at odds about even the reasons for same-sex relationships. Prior to The Great War the conversation had barely started. In America, in 1915, before the United States entered the conflict, only the recently bailed Agitator, Emma Goldman, dared lecture on the subject of The Intermediate Sex — and not everywhere, either.
I consulted Leila J. Rupp’s 2009 publication, Sapphistries: A Global History Of Love Between Women, to get an idea of how Lesbians and Lesbianism were perceived. It was, I must say, of little assistance when it came to the years that I was interested in. Yet I did learn how, in 1919, an unnamed Sexologist suggested passive Lesbians were the result of social factors, and aggressive ones due to biology. 1913/1914 was, of course, a whole half decade behind this opinion. Many years before Berlin became a Sapphist paradise. And a decade and a half earlier, than either Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), or G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929). (The Well of Loneliness, by-the-way, was banned in the USA.)
Rupp’s book did yield the late Nineteenth Century Alice Mitchell/Freda (or Fred) Ward case in Memphis however. Proving that, from time-to-time, the general public was made aware of women who loved other women. It’s a saga so filled with incident – love letters, cross-dressing, marriage plans, a ring, a murder, press coverage, a trial and an asylym – that I’m frankly amazed it wasn’t made into a Blockbuster years ago.
Despite the lack of context, and few clues as to her partners, it strikes me as plain that while Jean managed to escape her unpleasant origins, she remained caught between convention and liberation, her public self and her real self. Forced, I’m sure, to behave one way, while yearning at times to act in another. It was a double life. And interview hints are too heavy in my opinion for it to have been anything else. Inner turmoil was virtually guaranteed. In the largely male-dominated industry in which she found herself she could accept, even encourage, advances from men, if she kept her involvement with Phoner, Tower, and others, such as it was, a secret. And she did — she had to. Her career completely depended on it. Plus, if she acted like one of the guys, then they might, perhaps, see her more as a Pal, or little sister, than a sex object. It was a perpetual high wire act and a tumble was inevitable.
Girl in a Daring
Leap for Movies
Column headline, page 1 of The Seattle Star, October 25th, 1913
In October, the young woman reported that March, as preferring to jump from a moving train, ride a fast motorcycle, or soar in aeroplane, than eat a meal, was to be seen across the nation, in the IMP two-reeler The Daredevil Mountaineer (1913). Several newspapers reviewed the film ahead of, and after, release. And many waxed lyrical about the main characters and an exciting stunt. The Seattle Star was so impressed, that Jean Acker and her co-Star were featured in a large, reproduced photo. on the front page. The write-up, describing Acker, as: “… as gritty a little girl as ever took her life in her hands to amuse ‘movie’ patrons.” Though The North Platte Semi Weekly Tribune perhaps summed it up best on November 21st: “The Dare-Devil Mountaineer” …. shows Rodman Law and Jean Acker as his sweetheart. Her mother takes her from mountain country to the city in order to marry her to a title, but the mountaineer elopes with her on a motorcycle. This daring escape makes a very thrilling scene.” The scene mentioned – Rodman and Jean pursued, while speeding along on a bike at 85 mph, with the chase culminating in a spectacular and all-too-real, forty foot fall from an open draw-bridge – was as daredevil as the title promised. And six months before The Perils of Pauline made an international Star of Pearl White, in 1914, we see that Jean Acker was already endangering her life for action addicted filmgoers.
Rodman Law – brother of a younger Aviatrix sister, and also known as Frank R. Law, but born Frederic Rodman Law – was the perfect screen partner for thrill-seeking Jean Acker. By now she had surely forgiven ‘The Human Fly’ (as he was nicknamed) for her ending up in hospital when his ‘bike collided with an automobile earlier that year. Had she willed the film to be? Or was it fate? Whatever, she’d placed herself, quite literally, in his hands. After all, this was a death-defier who’d successfully plunged over Stillwater Falls, Maine, in an open boat, for a Reliance film a few months earlier. And the previous year had managed to successfully parachute from both the Brooklyn Bridge and the torch of the Statue of Liberty.
If her film career was going well, we might wonder why it was that Acker was listed as a cast member of a play, Within the Law, at the end of the year. Her mention, buried in dense text, in the November 29th edition of The New York Clipper, is actually a retrospective look at the production, at the New York Lyric Theater — now, apparently, Foxwoods Theater. Further investigation revealed that Jean had in fact been attached to the hit play since mid. Summer, when a July issue of VARIETY gently trumpeted how the notable Producer, A. H. Woods, had engaged her for the part of Helen Morris. The short paragraph, also reminded those paying attention, that Miss Acker was familiar to film viewers; demonstrating that she had some pulling power, and was sufficiently known to be considered a good choice for such an important attraction.
The Within the Law storyline, of a woman wrongly accused of theft, imprisoned for three years, and then forced, on her release, to turn to criminality to survive, was a resonant one with audiences. Partly, because the playwright, Bayard Veiller, had once been a Police Reporter. And also due to the unsubtle, Suffragist subtext, which grounded it very much in the present. The advertised endorsement of Harriet Stanton Blatch, prominent Suffragette, in an April 1913 edition of The Sun newspaper, highlights this. The character, Mary Turner, played by Helen Ware and others, was patently the victim of a cruel and repressive male-dominated system. The play’s path to success – a rewrite, the departure of the original Producer, a disastrous 1911 Chicago opening, serious trading of interests and shares, and final success, in September 1912, at the newly-opened 42nd Street Eltinge Theater – was just as interesting. Afterwards followed no less than eight duplicate productions – Jean’s probable Amour Catherine Tower headed one – across the country. Several printed newpaper serialisations. And many months of popularity in London’s ‘West End’.
That December Jean Acker could look back on a year filled with incident and success. While not exactly a Superstar – MOTOGRAPHY magazine felt it important to advise readers that she was now on the stage and not in films which wasn’t strictly speaking correct – she had, nevertheless, carved herself something of a niche. Her work for ‘Pop Lubin’ and then Laemmle’s Universal (at IMP, Gem and Victor), had been of value, and established her, along with others, as an early, pioneering, Film Personality.
Might the early, pioneering Film Personality, enjoying the festive atmosphere of New York, have swept up or down Broadway, on the day the newly arrived, slightly rained-soaked Rodolfo Guglielmi, wide-eyed at all he saw, walked it? Or passed him on another day in her car, loudly honking her horn, as he failed to cross her path with sufficient speed? It’s not pointless speculation. These two young people were very much in Gotham at the same time. Simultaneously seeing identical sights. Breathing the same air. In America’s most vibrant city at one of the most exciting times in its history: the cusp of 1913/1914.
My research indicated 1914 wasn’t the year of progress that Jean had perhaps hoped for. She’s seldom mentioned in trade publications, or news titles; and when she is, it’s briefly. Like when she’s highlighted in Vesta Powell’s coverage of the The Screen Club’s second annual ball, in her ALL FOR THE LADIES About Women—Mostly column, in VARIETY, on February the 6th, 1914. Powell, who wrote under the name of PLAIN MARY, witnessed the gathering of early screen stars and their devoted public, at the impressive Grand Central Palace, on the night of January the 31st, and wrote about the event with an honesty that refreshes and amuses, even today. Her general observations aside we learn that the cream of East Coast Filmdom were in attendance. King Baggot, Mary Fuller and John Bunny. Leah Baird, Mrs. Maurice Costello, Pearl White, Florence La Badie and Jane Fearnley. Claire Whitney and Fannie Burke. PLAIN MARY’s attention was, unsurprisingly, drawn to the pretty outfits worn by the actresses. Jean Acker’s, she told her readers, was: “… a white taffeta gown with [a] yellow girdle and [a] small white lace cap.”
If anything, Acker managed to maintain her position but nothing more. Of course, at the time, it might not have seemed this way to her. We, now, down-the-line, have the ability to look back and see the peaks and the troughs. I do wonder about the switch from film-making to board-treading. Was her orientation the reason? Had she, perhaps, rejected the advances of a powerful Executive? Nowhere did I see any mention of a Boyfriend, or Fiancee, in 1912, 1913 and 1914. Or, for that matter, see her linked in any way with any man, young or old. And the absence of a male in her life spoke volumes. Though there were indeed many successful single females – Frances Benjamin Johnston for example – the majority of women could only go so far alone. A Husband, while not essential, absolutely gave a woman a different standing in society. Performers in large numbers were often married while remaining a Miss. (Mary Pickford being perhaps one of the most obvious.) Issues with any man or men along the way could’ve led to her being overlooked for parts. And we can’t discount the very real chance that she’d already been forced to submit, to secure at least one, or more, of her previous roles. As so many, male as much as female, did.
I feel strongly that Catherine Tower was important to her emotionally. And I don’t think it a coincidence they knew one another and that Tower preceded Acker as Helen Morris in Within the Law. The announcement of Catherine leaving was followed just a month later with the news of Jean’s arrival. It could have been a friendly favour, with the established actress putting her forward, or, simply the promotion of her Understudy. However, Jean Acker’s future entanglement with an even greater theatrical personality, Alla Nazimova, suggests a pattern, and so the possibility shouldn’t be dismissed. It’s also important – essential – to point out that this was a person with no mother’s wing under which to crawl. The Pickford’s, the Gishes, the Talmadges, and others, all had a steely parent to defend them, and to battle the studios and studio bosses on their behalf. Her Father being disengaged she naturally sought out a substitute. And substitutes no doubt sought her out. In the case of Nazimova most definitely.
How long Acker’s agreement with Woods was is unknown. The available information doesn’t make it easy to deduce when she ceased to be a cast member. Signed up in the Summer of 1913, we see that she’s still Morris at the end of the year. As for Spring and Summer 1914, if Tower remained engaged (which she did), then it’s safe to assume that Acker did too, and that it was a one year deal.
The assumption is given weight by the fact her next film, The $5,000,000 Counterfeiting Plot (1914), was, as The New-York Tribune details, premiered at the New York Theatre, on Monday, August 10th, 1914. Being a social creature, Jean was probably present to hear the central character, William J. Burns, an actual Detective who played himself in the six part Dramascope Co. serial, talk on the subject of crime. (Before or after the screening.) Based on actual, recent events, the production was unusual in that it was a 6 reel/six part feature. In 1914 the majority of films that were created were just one or two reels in length – ten or twenty minutes – and so an hour long presentation was very experimental. Only the great D. W. Griffith had so far dared to challenge the belief Americans wouldn’t sit through anything longer than thirty minutes. His Judith of Bethulia (1914) had had a delayed release by his previous employers that March. Yet to create the game-changing Birth of a Nation (1915) he, himself, released six reeler The Avenging Conscience (1914) that same month. All Star, Eclectic, World and Pasquali each nervously issued their own five reelers.
THE MOTION PICTURE WORLD gave The $5,000,000 Counterfeiting Plot a three quarter page in-depth review. And the reviewer, Hanford C. Judson, singled Jean Acker out for praise. Stating that her portrayal of another Helen, this time Helen Long, daughter of a villain, James Long, a Counterfeiter, gave: “… by its simplicity a strong-heart interest to the whole that tells mightily.” (Not bad!) However, it would seem the fresh, documentary-style production, filled with actual people, events and locations, not-to-mention superb acting, was just a bit ahead of its time. Too clever and overlong. Had it been shot a year or so later, like The Italian (1915), it may’ve fared better. Despite the re-enactment of the Philadelphia-Lancaster counterfeiting case being skilful, and advertisements featuring Burns having impact, the US wasn’t ready for a crime epic. It played here and there and was soon forgotten.
Then, as much as now, a poor career decision could be fatal. And I suspect Jean suffered a little due to The Dramascope Co. spectacular’s lack of success. Something which would explain why she fails to be mentioned in the press as starring in anything for several months. That her standing in the film community wasn’t affected by her lack of work is proven by her appearance in the same paragraph as Edwin August of Kinetophote, Mary Pickford of Famous Players Film Co. (soon to be Famous Players-Lasky Corp.), Pickford’s Mother, Ormi Lawley of the Lubin Manufacturing Co., and fellow daring female, Pearl White. The occasion, being another Screen Club Ball, this time on Thanksgiving eve, at the Hotel Astor, to raise money for the Belgian Relief Fund. Jean being very much a part of the efforts that night; as well as, perhaps, beforehand and afterwards, along with her contemporaries.
Her other mention, in the Saturday, December 5th, 1914, issue of VARIETY, on page 23, is about her inclusion as a cast member in the forthcoming Famous Players Film Co. John Barrymore vehicle, Are You a Mason? (1915). (See above.) Based, by Eve Unsell (writer of the screenplay), on Leo Ditrichstein’s turn of the centrury farce of the same title, the film was to be the illustrious Barrymore’s third cinematic venture. His first outing being An American Citizen (1914). And the second The Man From Mexico (1914). Releases that were also stage hits translated to celluloid by Zukor’s concern. (In fact, so confident was Famous Players Film Co., that a fourth theatrical adaptation, The Dictator, awaited him.)
From advance publicity, we know that Acker was carefully selected for her part in the story of a feisty young man, who pretends to his ambitious wife, in accordance with her wishes, that he’s become a Mason. THE NEW YORK CLIPPER, on December 6th, 1914, declared in CURRENT FILM EVENTS BY RIK, that it was: “An unusually important cast of Broadway favourites…” that had been collected to support ‘Jack’ Barrymore. And further, Famous Players Film Co., had: “… deemed it advisable to entrust the parts to the able talents of this unusual coterie of stage artists.” (Jean Acker’s fellow performers were: Alfred Hickman, Charles Dixon, Charles Butler, Ida Waterman, Lorraine Hulling, Harold Lockwood and Kitty Baldwin.)
Filming took place in and around New York in January and February. However, time spent studying the comedic enterprise, doesn’t reveal Jean’s role, or, indeed, the parts played by some of the others. And due to the fact that the film, along with his two earlier efforts, is lost, it’s impossible to have much of an idea. The few stills there are that exist mainly feature the Star alone in exaggerated poses.
If the majority of pre-release promotion praised the production to the heavens, then ‘Wynn’, reviewing for VARIETY, aimed to return it firmly to earth, as screenings commenced, at New York’s Strand Theatre, on March 22nd, 1915. More of an attack than a critique, from the start the writer described Are You a Mason? as: “A decidely mild comedy…” And it didn’t get better. Monotonous, conventional and poorly directed, ‘Wynn’ felt it failed to exploit the many obvious opportunities for humour in the play. And in its original form perhaps it did. As it appears that Adolph Zukor took note, and a re-edited, shorter version was soon released.
Yet, audiences in the middle of the Teens were less demanding than crtics, and Are You a Mason? was successfully and no doubt profitably screened for many months. What flaws there were didn’t affect Barrymore. And ‘Wynn’ didn’t blame him for them anyway. Jean, though, was overshadowed. As with the The $5,000,000 Counterfeiting Plot a big production had failed to take her anywhere. She was, it seems, on the slide; and probably had a slipping feeling as the year progressed.
Does this explain her professional disappearance for almost 36 months? It’s hard to say for certain. And yet she mysteriously vanishes from the business as far as I can see for that length of time. Four years of irregular mentions and images suddenly end and the reason isn’t clear. Had her lack of a contract hampered her? Did her choices over time spoil things? It’s seldom that a single decision ruins things; yet, a series of mistakes most definitely can. There’s little doubt that between 1914 and 1915 she moves with some difficulty from project to project. And that, despite the size and scale, they turned out not to be the opportunities she’d thought they’d be. Jean’s faltering at this time, would, I imagine, make her future success all the sweeter. And in Part Two I’ll be looking at those successes and the sweetness in the same detail that I have in Part One.
Thank you for reading this post in its entirety — I appreciate it. As usual, any and all references and research is available to anybody who asks, if they’re not already provided in the text, as a link, or, as an image. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about Jean Acker’s early life and career as much as I enjoyed writing about it. The second installment, looking at her years of stardom, and her meeting and marriage to Rudolph Valentino, will be posted a month from now, at the start of 2020. See you then!
In the Summer of 1924, Rudolph Valentino was photographed, dressed in the costume of a Peon, during the creation of A Sainted Devil (1924), the second of two spectaculars that brought to a conclusion his contract with Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount, following his return to the studio, after his ‘One Man Strike’. For a long time this epic promotional portrait session has fascinated me. Why? Well mainly due to the fact that there are just so many shots. Valentino is captured from every conceivable angle. And throws, at both us and the photographer, a whole range of intense expressions.
In view of the fact my planned post (about Jean Acker) is now of mammoth proportions, and requires separating into three parts, I’m bringing forward, while I arrange that, this simple but interesting offering, originally planned for 2020. If anyone has or knows of any further images – of what appears to be the most extended shoot of the series of extended shoots he engaged in – I’d love to hear about them/see them. If none emerge, I suspect, as arranged here, that they come close to representing up to three quarters of the photographs taken on that day, with some naturally being rejected as unsatisfactory at the time of printing. Enjoy!
THE HALF-LENGTH SHOTS
This effective half-length shot seems to exist only as a series of crops. However I’m left wondering if there’s another or others out there somewhere.
Some close-ups are extreme, at the time, or cropped since. This is just the slightest of head turns and was used for industry promotion. (See below.) In these more intimate photographs his outfit has been adjusted.
This close-up I particularly like for the wry smile.
A characteristically intense look from Rudy that was seemingly used in recent decades for a postcard. This image has been cropped by myself and others into an effective hyper close-up. (See above.)
Valentino’s garb alters again for this image.
THE FULL-LENGTH SHOTS
Rudolph Valentino had previously posed in doorways to promote films. It was, to some extent, probably expected that he would do so for A Sainted Devil, and always do so, entrances being a such big part of his film persona, as well of that of his contemporaries. It was also an opportunity to display the full costume, which, in the left image particularly, is somewhat reminiscent (probably not accidentally), of his look in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921).
Thank you so much for viewing this post. As stated, this is a substitute for the original, which is about the life and career of Jean Acker, and her association with Rudolph Valentino. That lengthy post will now be split into three, with Part One appearing next month, and parts Two and Three in January and February. See you all in December!
It’s time to finally tackle the arrest of Rudolph Valentino in 1916. Perhaps the oddest and most impenetrable of all of the odd and impenetrable incidents in his 31 years. And an occurrence so awful, and unforgettable, that it would haunt him for the rest of his short life. Here, then, without delay, is: September 5th, 1916.
During a 2017 research trip to New York I made an amazing discovery. At the end of my stay, I found myself in a large, dusty, and surprisingly chaotic, forgotten-looking room. I’d been advised to visit the seventh floor of the typically solid Manhattan building by a very helpful member of staff at the New York Public Library. In going there, they said, I might be able to find a record of a private prosecution I was sure had been instigated in 1924. After slowly and patiently looking under the right letter in the ancient index (which appeared untouched for decades) I drew a blank. Just one of those things when you’re researching. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.
Stood there, it occurred to me I should try to see what I could find under the letter G, or V. (G for Guglielmi and V for Valentino.) Closing the wooden drawer I’d been looking in, I went first to V, where I found nothing. Switching to G, I was Third Time Lucky; as there, staring back at me, on old, but pristine thin, yellowed cards, were the details of a series of Supreme Court prosecutions, actioned in 1917, by none other than Rodolfo Guglielmi, against varied publications and publishers at that time: Star Company, Inc., Sun Print & Pub. Assoc. and Tribune Assn, etc. (Amazingly there were four variations of his name: Rudolfo, Rudolf and Rodolefo being the other three.)
After securing photocopies of the cards I hurried over to the place where I could access the Supreme Court Clerk’s Minutes; hopeful that they would contain some information. There, however, I hit a bit of a brick wall. Files were very much off-site. An order had to be placed on a Friday at the front desk. Once an order was made it took between 3 to 5 business days for the paperwork to arrive. And the next day – you’ve guessed it – was my final full day in the USA.
I waited almost 12 months to see the material – the third person I asked to access it on my behalf did – but it was absolutely worth it. Within the ancient files was a wealth of never-before-published documents, detailing what was happening, up to, on, and beyond that fateful day. Contained, were the accusations against him in 1916; his claims against all of the different titles and their publishers, in 1917; their respective counter arguments that same year; and, most valuable of all, a typed transcript, of a seriously in-depth interview with Valentino, from 1920. However, before we delve deeply – and we will delve deeply – into the sensational contents, let’s look at the reports about the apprehension of Rudolph Valentino.
It was on September 6th, 1916, that Americans in practically every major state in the country, read of the arrest, the previous day, of two New Yorkers: Rodolfo Guglielmi and Mrs. Georgia [sic] E. Thym. Most of the pieces were repetitive. A fake Italian Nobleman, and an older, grey-haired woman, had been “arrested” at 7 a. m. and taken into custody for questioning. Their capture had been made possible due to information provided by an un-named gentleman at Narragansett Pier (at Rhode Island). They had been, it was reported, apprehended to assist with an investigation. And the pair had provided some valuable intelligence.
Other news titles went into greater detail. Such as the New York Tribune, which printed a lengthy, two column report, on Page Four. “District Attorney Smith” had conducted an early morning vice raid, it said, at: “… a house on Seventh avenue, just below Central Park…” Rodolpho [sic] Guglielmi and Mrs. Georgia [sic] E. Thym had been “brought out of the place” and: “… held [on] $10,000 bail by Judge Rosalky in General Sessions, as material [witnesses] against Detective William J. Enright…” (Det. Enright was “under indictment for accepting bribes” (or protection money) from brothels.)
Further, on “arrival at the District Attorney’s office” “the ‘Marquis'” had asked to contact a friend. Calling “Police Headquarters” and asking for Frank Lord, Second Deputy Commissioner, he apparently said: ‘I’m in bad Frank; I wish you’d come down and help me out.’ When quizzed that evening – the 5th – at the Prince George Hotel, by a reporter, Frank A. Lord dismissed the detained man’s claim that they had dined in: “… the domino room of the Cafe L’Aiglon, in Philadelphia.” Lord admitted to being acquainted with “the Marquis” but only in the company of others. Saying: ‘This afternoon he called me on the telephone and said he was Rodolpho [sic]. I didn’t know him until he finally said he was Miss Sawyer’s dancing companion …. I told him I was unable to help him.’ (The Deputy Police Commissioner is a person of interest that we’ll return to later.)
The “bogus count or marquis” – he’d confessed to masquerading as an Aristocrat – was: “… handsome …. about twenty years old, and [wore] corsets and a wrist watch.” (He was 21 by this time.) In addition: “He was often seen dancing in well known hotels and tango parlors with [Bonnie Glass] and Joan Sawyer.” And had, it was revealed: “… made statements which, if true, are of immense importance in [the] investigation.” according to the District Attorney (Judge) Edward Swann. (Pictured above.) When asked by the New York Tribune if anyone of social significance was involved, or if he intended to have raided “the ten vicious resorts named by [the] Narragansett Pier society man”, or if there was any evidence against the “resorts”, Swann was vague. All of the men and women involved, he answered, weren’t in the Social Register; he would act only when there was ‘ample evidence’; and he was unable to ‘go into’ what evidence they already had at that time.
Vice raids weren’t uncommon that year in the United States. Input the words Vice Raid into the search box of any decent online newspaper archive and story after story will confront you. Important, I think, is the fact there was a great deal of unhappiness with the way in which vice squads were often entering a property without a warrant. That there was serious over zealousness on the part of squad members and their superiors is proven several times. For example, the entry into the home of Mrs. Rose Kennett, by two policemen, Howes and Elliot, reported on THE WASHINGTON HERALD‘s front page, on March the 22nd, resulting in the issuing of warrants for the arrest of the two men. In June, on the 7th, by which time Detective Howes was on trial, THE WASHINGTON TIMES revealed that, contrary to earlier reporting, it was their higher ranking Superintendent, Major Pullman, who’d sanctioned “forcible entry”, and told them to: ‘get in’ in any way they could. (There was a suspicion that Kennett was renting out rooms for liaisons and illicit sex.)
RAIDS SHOW LID WAS OFF HERE, CRITICS ASSERT was the punchy headline on Page One of the Philadelphia newspaper the Evening Ledger, on July 17th. Sub-headed, Vice Rampant in City, Administration Opponents Say, the piece, which continued on Page Two, suggests a Police Department also characterised by heavy handedness. 552 arrests had been made in “the Tenderloin”, or corrupt district, in just one night — the 15th. However many innocents had obviously been caught-up in the trawl. Interestingly: “The raid was directed entirely against disorderly houses.” “Director Wilson”, the organiser, aimed to: ‘… wipe out all flaunted vice in Philadelphia.’ (An objective, it was stated, which had the full support of the Mayor, Thomas B. Smith.) Wilson was, he said: ‘… not through.’ And made a point of announcing: “We will rush these cases.” So great was the rush that every detainee was processed in just 16 hours. $50,000 in deeds “passed over the bench”. “$1,000 in small fines was collected”. And: “More than $10,000 in cash bail was accepted.” Further: “Men who proved they were only frequenters of the houses were fined $10 and costs and were allowed to go. Most of the girls were held under $300 bail for court, while proprietors of the resorts were held under from $1,000 to $1,500 bail. (These figures contrast sharply with the bail set for Guglielmi and Thym.)
At the same time as the general, national push (genuine or otherwise) to eradicate disorderly houses, and the expanding exposure of how police forces were sometimes protecting ‘resorts’, or brothels, there was also a very real probe into the activities of blackmailers. So topical was it, in fact, that in January, Author Amelie Rives‘ blackmail-themed play, The Fear Market, was running at the Booth Theatre in New York. (Amelie Rives was also-known-as Princess Amelie Rives Troubetzkoy; and was, as a result, the sister-in-law of Prince Paul Troubtezkoy, friend to Rudolph Valentino.)
While The Fear Market was receiving luke warm praise from the Drama Critic of the New York Tribune, unwritten theatrics were taking place regularly in court rooms, as a result of the capture and indictment of Don Collins, alias: Robert A. Troubillon. (His actual name, it was discovered, was Arthur L. David.) According to THE EVENING WORLD, on Wednesday, January 12th, 1916, Collins/Troubillon’s “White Slave Ruse” had “netted” an estimated $250,000. (In today’s money almost six million.) He and his male and female accomplices had: “… preyed on wealthy and prominent men visiting Atlantic City and other Jersey resorts…” Their tactic, to target the unaccompanied man with a “fascinating female”, who would seduce him and take him to a hotel. Once in a room, two fake Department of Justice officials would arrive, arrest the pair, and escort them in an auto. to Philadelphia; where, at “the Philadelphia branch of the Department of Justice”, they would suggest first going to have refreshments. While the arrested man was at his weakest, it would be revealed that prosecution could be avoided, if a large fine was paid. Then, after fake documents were produced, and signed, and the fine paid in some fashion, the relieved person was free to go. The amounts were, it appears, always in the region of the thousands. ($2,500, $5,000 and $4,000 are sums listed in the newspaper report as having been secured.)
If the Collins prosecution, which rumbled along at the start of the year, is an eye-opener, the revelations printed in Western newspapers, on February 22nd, are eye-popping. In Washington and Oregon states, several titles – The Tacoma Times, The Seattle Star, The Daily Capital Journal and the East Oregonian (Daily Evening Edition) – put out front pages laying bare the criminality of: “A huge blackmailing syndicate, operating the entire length of the Pacific coast…”
“Actual photographs of leading
businessmen and club men in
compromising positions are in
the hands of the Sheriff and will
be used as evidence against the
From the front page of The Tacoma Times, Tuesday, February 22nd, 1916.
The sensational revelations – how Lillian [Peters] and Isabel [Clayburg] had “lured” older successful men “to a fine residence” and compromised them and taken photographs with concealed cameras – sparked a cross-country search for other such gangs. In late April it was reported (by Associated Press) that arrests were imminent in New York. “The Typical blackmailing gang is described as including two men and two women.” the single column, two paragraph report disclosed. In August, on the 5th, Goodwin’s Weeklygave up space on Page One to the subject. Quoting “William J. Burns” of New York” who had declared: “… that the great crime of the age is blackmailing.” And that: “… it is carried on mostly by elegantly dressed and accomplished men and women…” Those targeted were: “… wealthy married [women] …. Wealthy, respectable men …. College or school boys with money …. The daughters of wealthy families …. Married men …. Wealthy people with family skeletons.” And in the same month, on the 13th, THE WASHINGTON HERALD was up-front about how “Society bandits” were extorting large amounts from: “… wealthy patrons of Atlantic City, Cape May, bar Harbor and other fashionable coast resorts…”
Seen in the briefly detailed context of the drive to tackle ‘disorderly houses’/’resorts’, and the simultaneous crack-down on blackmailing by blackmailers, particularly blackmailing of the wealthy married woman and daughters of wealthy families, the offences of which Rodolfo Guglielmi and Georgiana E. Thym were accused that month, don’t seem so out-of-the-ordinary, or isolated. However, while they may be far far easier to understand, the accusations aren’t any less surprising to see, or to contemplate, even today. In fact they’re seriously surprising.
It’s only due to the fact that, in the Spring of 1917, the then Rodolfo Guglielmi decided to attempt to prosecute the publications he felt had defamed him in their reporting, that we know what we do about what he was believed – I stress believed – to have been doing, at the apartment at 909 Seventh Avenue. Naturally the legal teams of the publishers that he was suing decided to scrutinize the files held by the Police. What those files contained was believed lost. (The files have been lost – the contents probably purposely destroyed – for many decades.) Yet, in the investigations of Macdonald DeWitt, the Attorney acting on behalf of the Sun Printing and Publishing Assoc., we see exactly what those lost folders contained, due to their contents often being faithfully reproduced. As follows:
I. AS A SEPARATE DEFENSE TO THE ENTIRE COMPLAINT
II, III, IV, V, VI
VII. That shortly prior to September 5, 1916, the said District Attorney and his Assistant District Attorney, James [E.] Smith, were informed that the said Georgiana Thym had extorted a large sum of money from a person whose name is unknown to this defendant, by a [threat] to expose to the wife of said person a disgraceful and adulterous act of which her husband had been guilty. That said District Attorney was also informed that the said Georgiana Thym …. kept and maintained a house of ill fame or assignation in order to afford the patrons and frequenters of said apartment an opportunity to indulge in unlawful sexual intercourse and complaints to the same effect had theretofore been made to the Police authorities of the City of New York. That shortly prior to September 5, 1916, the said District Attorney …. and Assistant District Attorney Smith …. were informed by one Tyneberg that his wife having become acquainted with the said Georgiana Thym had been accustomed to visit the apartment of said Georgiana Thym for the purpose of associating with this plaintiff [Rodolfo Guglielmi] with whom she said she had become infatuated. That the said apartment of the said Mrs. Thym was a disorderly house where men met women for the purpose of unlawful sexual intercourse; that upon one occasion Mrs. Tyneberg had visited said house and had been drugged; that upon awakening she had found herself in bed with this plaintiff [R. G.] and was told by this plaintiff [R. G.] and by Mrs. Thym that a flash light photograph had been taken of her while in bed with this plaintiff, which she could have upon the payment of $2,500.
That prior to September 5, 1916, and in the course of said investigation …. James E. Smith …. was informed by one Shotwell that he, said Shotwell, knew this plaintiff [R. G.] and the said Georgiana Thym at whose house he’d repeatedly been; that her house was used as a house of assignation and that plaintiff [R. G.] lived in said house with her; that he, said Shotwell and plaintiff [R. G.] had, shortly prior thereto, agreed that on September 5, 1916, this plaintiff [R. G.] should induce a certain young and wealthy [woman] (whose name is unknown to this defendant), whom the plaintiff [R. G.] had met and danced with a number of times at hotels and restaurants in the City of New York, to go with him to the apartment of said Thym; that upon her doing so, said Shotwell should go to the relatives of said woman and inform them that she was in danger of compromising herself with this plaintiff [R. G.] and that unless said woman was promptly induced to leave said apartment and to free herself from association with plaintiff [R. G.], she would be ruined and her reputation compromised; that he, said Shotwell, knew said woman and this plaintiff [R. G.] and that he, Shotwell, would agree to induce said woman to leave plaintiff [R. G.] and return to her home that night without publicity upon payment of a large sum of money, which sum plaintiff [R. G.] and said Shotwell had agreed to thereafter divide between them. … Shotwell further informed said District Attorney Smith that he and plaintiff [R. G.] had frequently, during the year 1916, obtained large sums of money from the family and friends of young and wealthy women by means of the aforesaid trick…
Said Shotwell further told said Assistant District Attorney Smith that upon one occasion this plaintiff [R. G.] had induced a wealthy girl to go with him to the Thym apartment; that after she had reached there, Shotwell had gone to the girl’s father, told him that his daughter had been induced to go to the Thym apartment where she was held prisoner but that he, Shotwell could get the girl to return …. for a cash consideration; that the father had refused to be blackmailed and had called for the police; that afterwards several policemen had gone to the Thym apartment and had forcibly taken out the girl; that the reason no arrests were made was that Mrs. Thym had paid Detective Enright and other members of the Police Department …. sums of money to protect her against police interference and in consideration of which said Enright and others agreed that she might continue to use her apartment as a house of assignation and that she would not be prosecuted for such offense.
Swann, Smith, Thym, Guglielmi and Enright, are all names we’ve seen before, in the New York Tribune‘s report on September 6th. Tyneberg? And Shotwell? These are individuals who are totally confined to the pages of the defence of the Sun Printing and Publishing Assoc. by Macdonald DeWitt. They appear in no article, or piece, anywhere, at the time or afterwards. And are, therefore, certainly extracted from direct testimony to District Attorney (Judge) Edward Swann, or to Assistant District Attorney James E. Smith, or both, or from testimony in court. (Less possible.) Macdonald DeWitt raked through what was then available to them and put it to use in order to defend their Client six months later.
What we make of the damning testimony now, in 2019, is the question. In essence there are four, definite, described criminal acts. The blackmailing of the wife whose Husband had engaged in a disgraceful and adulterous act. The blackmailing of Mrs. Tyneberg, who was infatuated with Rodolfo, and had been photographed in bed with him. The nameless woman that knew Rudy through his dancing and was in danger of compromising herself. And the young, wealthy girl, whose Father refused to be blackmailed, and called the Police. (Who were subsequently bribed by Mrs. Thym.) The accusations of Mr. Tyneberg and Mr. Shotwell – particularly Shotwell’s – are incredible. The information (to James E. Smith): “… that he and plaintiff [R. G.] had frequently, during the year 1916, obtained large sums of money from the family and friends of young and wealthy women by means of the aforesaid trick…” has us naturally pondering. Thinking: is any of this true? And if not, then what sort of personality could possibly conjure-up such imputations, and, have the nerve to deliver them to the Assistant District Attorney? Obviously placing themselves in a difficult position as a result? Questions. Questions. Questions.
In Signor Rodolfo, the fourth chapter of her 2003 biography, Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino, Emily W. Leider devotes half of Page 72, all of Page 73 and half of Page 74 to September 5th, 1916. Two pages, or so, in all. On page 73 Leider asks her own questions and proceeds to tell us that: “… they aren’t all going to be answered.” Why was Rodolfo at Georgiana’s apartment? Was he there to enjoy “a prostitute”? If so why were there no prostitutes there? John [L.] de Saulles, at the time being divorced by his wife of just a few years, Blanca E. de Saulles, was, she presumes, the businessman who spitefully informed the authorities. Was Rudy followed to the premises? And why did the investigators consider him to be, not a Customer, but more of a Proprietor? And: “On what grounds, if any, did they base their assumption?”
Looking back at what’s reproduced here – paragraph VII – from the response to Rodolfo’s action against the Sun Printing and Publishing Assoc., in the Spring of 1917, we’re able to add most of the missing jigsaw pieces. Rudy was at 909 Seventh Avenue because he lived there – I’ll enlarge on this – and therefore wasn’t there to procure sex. There were no prostitutes present due to people being allegedly brought there to be blackmailed. John L. de Saulles wasn’t the vengeful informant, because, if he was, his name would appear; and the names that appear, are: Mr. Tyneberg and Mr. Shotwell. (Mr. Tyneberg being the Businessman husband of a Victim and Mr. Shotwell being an Accomplice confessing all at Narragansett Pier.) He hadn’t been followed as he was a resident (as already stated). And the investigating team viewed him as they did due to all of the startling testimony they’d received prior to September 5th.
Compared with the incredibly detailed information that we find in the response by the Defendant to the action taken by Rudy, the “court records” Emily W. Leider accessed and referenced (Case #111396, Court of General Sessions, People v. William J. Enright, September 5th, 1916, New York City Municipal Archives), are curiously lacking in detail. According to them/her, neither Rodolfo or Georgiana were accused of “any crime”, though they were indicted as: “… operators of a bawdy house that paid protection money to a policeman.” This indictment, luckily, is also reproduced in full, in the defence of the Sun Printing and Publishing Assoc. (See above.)
“The evidence must have been flimsy…” Leider states on Page 74. “… because two days after the raid their bail was reduced from $10,000 to $1,500…” However, it was not due to “flimsy” or insubstantial evidence, as much as it was due to “the plaintiff” asking the Assistant District Attorney to reduce his bail, if he could supply details to him of: “… a number of people who had blackmailed wealthy persons within the City of New York…” And also because the: “… plaintiff could give the [Assistant] District Attorney such information as would enable the [Assistant] District Attorney to arrest and convict said persons.” (That is, anyway, what the defence material details.)
For those wondering – and I’m sure some are wondering! – what Rudy’s complaint was and what he expected to achieve suing the various publication titles the multiple actions – particularly the action against the Sun Printing and Publishing Assoc. – tell us.
… FIRST COURSE OF ACTION
I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX
X. [Their article was] “… false and defamatory and [constituted a] libel upon this plaintiff…”
XI. [Their article had been] “… published and circulated …. maliciously, recklessly and carelessly without proper investigation…”
XII. [The] “… plaintiff had been grievously injured in his good name, fame and reputation and in his professional calling …. causing [him] to be shunned and ostracized by his friends and professional acquaintances and associates…”
XIII. [That] “… the …. [libellous] publication …. has …. contributed to the total loss …. of his earnings as a professional dancer, and has compelled plaintiff to abandon his said profession, thereby losing an annual net income of approximately Twelve thousand [five] hundred ($12,500) Dollars, and …. [the] plaintiff has likewise …. been deprived of a contract to perform as a dancer for a few hours each evening at Hotel Ritz-Carlton, for a remuneration of One hundred and fifty ($150.00) Dollars.
… SECOND COURSE OF ACTION
XIV, XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII, XIX
WHEREFORE plaintiff demands judgement against the defendant in the sum of One hundred thousand ($100,000.) Dollars, together with the costs and disbursements of this action.
That Rudolph Valentino, as he later was, was, at the time, in May 1917, seeking $100,000 in damages from one title’s publisher, and, it’s to be imagined, the same amount from all of the others (five or so altogether), is quite amazing. That’s a sum – $500,000 – that’s now equivalent to almost $13,000,000. In Paragraph XIII we see his “annual net income” was $12,500. And that he’d “been deprived” of a few hours dancing every night at “Hotel Ritz-Carlton”, for which he received $150. (Which was probably a weekly sum.) However, if we add $12,500 to $7,800, we only arrive at: $20,300. And as there’s no breakdown, only a single figure, with “costs and disbursements” included, we can’t really be too sure what it constituted. Did he times $20,300 by five? Whatever his, or his legal representative’s thinking was, it’s clear the amount is unrealistically high. Unless it was spread across the quintet of actions at a rate of $20,000 per action. But this is not made totally plain as far as I can see. (Rudy’s Attorney at the time was Mr. Louis H. Moos.)
What do we learn beyond this? Looking at the multiple actions, it’s clear that in the years 1918 and 1919, there was a delay in the progression of the prosecutions. Why? After being “commenced” on “March 14th, 1917”, on October 30th, of the next year: “… the parties …. entered into and signed a stipulation …. marking the case reserved generally.” And that “at the plaintiff’s request” it was again “marked reserved” on “June 9th, 1919”. (The reason is unknown, but Rudy was in California, and perhaps had insufficient funds to pay his Legal Team.)
It was in February 1920, that Mr. Justice Platzek ordered the examination of the now, professionally known, Rudolpho De Valentina/Rudolphe Valentine, in order to prepare for a trial that year. The examination, which was conducted at 11:30 a. m., on April the 14th, at the office of William A. DeFord, and was the real reason he was in New York that Spring, is one of the most exciting, as it’s a written record of pre-fame Rudolph Valentino actually speaking, as he spoke, rather than how he was interpreted and paraphrased after success in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921). The people present were: “the Plaintiff in Person”, using his true name: Rodolfo Guglielmi; Lyman E. Spalding Esq. and C. L. Gonnet, Esq., his Attorneys; and, for the Defendant, William A. DeFord. And there was also a Stenographer, by the name of Cleo C. Hardy, who took Rudy’s words as they were spoken “stenographically”, so that they could be transcribed and read and signed by the Witness.
It’s apparent, when reading the lengthy question-and-answer-session, on April the 14th, 1920, that the purpose was to take Rudolph Valentino back in time, and to see, from his point of view, what had transpired. Nowhere in any of the documents in the many files do his own opinions or his perspective appear. Everything focuses on the accusations against him and Mrs. Thym. And consequently it’s a fascinating read.
After giving his full name (Rodolfo Guglielmi), his age at that time (24), and profession (“Motion picture actor”); he reveals that he became a “moving picture actor” “Just about two and a half years ago.” (Seemingly ruling out any possible appearance in My Official Wife (1914).) After being asked how he was occupied prior to that he replies that he was a “professional dancer” “Since 1914” (the “October or November”). Then saying that his address at the time is: 61 West 55th Street, New York.
When asked about his address on September the 5th, 1916, he’s very quick to say that it was 909 Seventh Avenue, New York. He had, he says, been resident there: “… several months.” (Forever disproving he was probably a visitor.) Furthermore, he had, he tells DeFord, lived there previously and returned. (“I had been there before, and then I moved away from there, and then I came back again.”) About Georgiana, he says that she lived at the apartment alone, and rented him the room and made his breakfast in the mornings. And further: “The first time I was there, there was a roomer, another, a lady had the front room of the apartment.”
After confirming to his questioner that he knows the Assistant District Attorney but not Detective McGlynn, he is then asked about the morning of September 5th, 1916. To which he replies – there are a series of questions – that the policemen “busted in through the door”.
“Well, I came out in the hall when I heard the racket, they broke through the door downstairs, and some other detectives, they broke through the upstairs — the attic door. I came out to see what the racket was about.”
“I was confronted by several men with guns in their hands, and they asked me if I was Rudolph, and I says: ‘Yes,’ and someone came to me, afterwards I knew he was District Attorney Smith, and he said they wanted me down at Mr. Swann’s, so to dress.”
In Valentino’s version there’s no looking out of the window when the Vice Squad first pounded on the front door and told them to open up. As he tells it to William A. DeFord he was in the bathroom and then in the hall in his pajamas. However, the fact he was already out of bed suggests that he did appear at the window – the bathroom window? – to first see who was knocking, as was reported in some newspapers. The fact that they smashed their way in would be the result of entry being denied. And the guns in their hands are a sign they thought there could be trouble. (The weapons would, for me, come out after the refusal.) Like the officers that day we might wonder why it was that Rudy didn’t want to allow the officers into the premises.
After his description of the five-to-ten minute episode, which is like a dramatic moment in a contemporary play or silent film, we have Rudy’s exchange with the Assistant D. A. while he was dressing.
“… he come in and asked me, as I said, who I was, and where I came from, and I told him I came from Italy. When I asked him what reason he busted in that way, he says, ‘Are you [a] citizen?’ I says, ‘No.’ He says, ‘If you are no citizen, you have no right to ask questions.’ Then he told me to get dressed, or I would catch cold, and sarcastic things of that sort.”
Rudy claims never to have been shown any paperwork or subpoena. DeFord asks him, again and again if he’d been served anything, and his reply, persistently, is that he wasn’t. (Repeatedly in the papers it says that he was.) D. A. Smith said only that due to him being an Italian he would be: ‘… sending him back in six months to Italy.’ It’s after this that he explains how they were taken first to “Mr. Swann’s office by way of “the subway” (which doesn’t suggest they were handcuffed). Strangely, we then get several pages (from eight to fourteen), of discussion about Rodolfo wearing or not wearing a corset. (It turns out that he wore an athletic jockstrap not a man’s corset.) And if he wore a wristwatch that morning. (He did.) Or any perfume. (He didn’t.) That the Attorney for the Star Company wanted to establish if it was or wasn’t what was reported – a corset, a wristwatch, etc., – is obvious. Yet six to seven pages does seem rather over-the-top.
Rudy next reveals that he and Mrs. Thym were “taken before” Judge Otto Rosalsky, Justice of the Court of General Sessions of the Peace, in the afternoon of the day of their seizure. (He had, he said, seen the weapons, and gone where he was told to go without questioning it.) He and his Landlady were presented to Justice Rosalsky in his chambers. The exchange went as follows:
“As I came in Mr. Smith said, addressing Mrs. Thym, said ‘Here is Mrs. Thym, she has been keeping a disorderly house, and here is Rudolph, a pimp,’ he [said], ‘he has been procuring girls for her, and they divided the results.’ And before I hardly had a chance to say anything, to speak, I think Mrs. Thym said, ‘It’s a lie,’ and I was dumbfounded, I could hardly say anything, Mr. Judge Rosalsky asked Mr. Smith, ‘Are you sure?’ Mr. Smith [said], ‘Yes, we have got the goods on them.’ So he gave me a squint, and he say, ‘Ten thousand dollars bail, and send the woman up to the House of Detention’ — I think up a Hundred and something — ‘and the man to the House of Detention on Fifty-third,’ and we were ushered out.”
It’s at this point – pages 18 to 19 – that the questioning becomes more intense. DeFord puts Valentino on the spot over and over about what he remembers was said while he and Thym were in front of Rosalsky. The reason for his obsession becoming steadily clearer as the questioning continues. As follows:
“I want to ask you, to refresh your recollection, if Mr. Smith said in the presence of the Justice …. that Mrs. Thym had been engaged in the business of conducting a disorderly house and paying money to the police of the city of New York for protection for a number of years past?”
“Yes, he said that she had been keeping a disorderly house.”
Did he say she’d been paying money to the police for a number of years for protection in that business?
The Attorney acting on behalf of the Star Company then asks Rodolfo if it was stated that he’d been procuring girls, to which he answers that he was called “a pimp”, and that that was enough for him to understand what he was accused of. When asked if it was stated by the Assistant D. A. that he and Georgiana were guilty of: “… the running of that house, of extorting large sums of money from men or women who had frequented the house for the purposes of having illicit sexual intercourse?” he responded that he didn’t recall that being stated.
When asked by DeFord if he or Mrs. Thym had been charged with being blackmailers in front of the Judge he replied in the negative. He could only recall it being stated they were charged with running a disorderly house and dividing the profits. No recollection, according to him, that anything had been said about their extorting money. However, when his questioner asks if he’s saying that Mr. Smith might’ve said it but he doesn’t recall it being said, he answers, worryingly: “Might, and might not.” (Of course we have to consider that many years have passed and Rudy’s memory might not be helping him to remember everything as it was that day (which would be understandable).)
Rodolfo doesn’t recall the names Enright and Foley being mentioned. Or that: “… wealthy girls, of high social standing…” were talked of. Or that the “wealthy girls” not spoken of, according to him, were placed in compromising positions. And when asked if he can remember hearing that he and Georgiana were “to be held in bail as material witnesses he answers that he only heard: ‘… we have got the goods on them.’ And then:
“You know, do you not, that you were at that time simply held as a material witness?”
“I didn’t know nothing of the sort. I never had no dealing —“
“Did you have an attorney there at the time?”
When asked again if he understood the situation fully at the time Rudolph Valentino says that he only knew he was held on $10,000 bail — he didn’t know why. When asked if he was charged with a crime he says no. For information? No. Was any complaint made? No. And when asked if: “… a complaint or an [sic] information or an indictment wherein you were charged with any crime?” was shown to him his answer once more was: no.
What this is all building up to is obvious but we’re not there yet. A trap is being laid for him, and he naturally doesn’t see it, as he’s being asked question after question, and is stuck in his recollections and distracted. First of all, Rudy tells his questioner, William A. DeFord, that he wasn’t in the Tombs, but at the House of Detention at Fifty-third and Eighth Avenue; then, that he was there for three days; and then, that he was released on $1,500 bail. (The application for a reduction was made, Rudolph assumes, by his lawyer, Mr. Moos.) When asked if he was discharged without bail he answers: “I had a habeas corpus proceeding in the Supreme Court.” And when asked if he was discharged he responds: “Proved my innocence completely, and discharged.”
The questions that follow are about what exactly ‘the goods’ were. (The goods were what the Assistant District Attorney said they had on both Guglielmi and Thym.) Here we see that Rudy didn’t know. When asked what that meant he answers: “I didn’t know.” When asked if Mrs. Thym had made: “… any statement to Judge Rosalsky in your presence, in the course of that proceeding?” his answer is: “She protested.” Further: “She said it was a lie, it was abominable, things of that sort. She was nearly hysterical.”
It’s now, on pages 27 and 28, that we get another look into the lost/destroyed police files that have been a mystery for so many decades. (The belief is that they were spirited away once Rodolfo Guglielmi achieved Stardom in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921).) DeFord wished to probe a little regarding Rudy’s appearance as a Witness, at a proceeding at the Supreme Court, entitled: ‘The People of the State of New York, ex rel. Rudolph Guglielmi, against the Warden of the City Prison, Seventh District’. This “proceeding” was “on or about December 1st” that year. And William A. DeFord asks Rudolph Valentino if he was asked a certain question, that day in the Supreme Court, regarding what happened in Judge Rosalsky’s chambers, on the afternoon of September 5th. The question being:
“What was the first thing then that took place; who spoke first when you got in there?”
“Mr. Smith spoke first and pointing to Mrs. Thym said: ‘This woman is conducting a disorderly house and paying money to the police for eighteen years;’ and he says: ‘This young fellow Rudolph has been trying to get girls and is dividing the money with Mrs. Thym.’ “
Did Rudolph Valentino realise at this moment that he’d been outwitted by the Attorney acting on behalf of the Star Company? If not, the penny surely had to be dropping by the time he got to his next question, and the next. After DeFord clears up that Rudy was a lot clearer than than he was in 1920, about what was said in Judge Rosalky’s chambers on the afternoon of September 5th, 1916, he then moves on to how the pair were being held as Material Witnesses. (Valentino had told DeFord that he had no recollection of being told this.) However, in the proceedings, before Judge Philbin, in December of 1916, when asked about it he gave a different answer. As follows:
“And he didn’t say anything to you further than what you just said?”
“No. Mr Smith in his declaration, he said: ‘I want these people to be held as material witnesses,’ and he explained why, saying that this woman kept this house, just as I said before.”
It’s at this point that Rudy, for some reason tried to argue that he didn’t know about being a material witness until he read it in the newspaper, while at the House of Detention. DeFord steers him back to the evidence. Telling him that he had said he was told he was a Material Witness, and that he himself had said he was told this in Rosalksy’s chambers, and had said so in the Supreme Court on December 1st, 1916. On hearing this clarification Rudy agrees that he said it. And William A. DeFord moves on to his Ace Card.
Rudolph Valentino had, he said, told him, categorically, that he’d never been accused of: “… blackmailing people you brought, women, and also women who came there, for the purposes of illicit intercourse.” DeFord then tells Valentino that Judge Philbin had asked him a direct question about this in the Supreme Court. As follows:
“What did he say about you?” (the question referring to Mr. Smith.)
He said I was supposed to bring girls to this house and that I was blackmailing with Mrs. Thym and dividing the money.”
The final hammer blow was when DeFord confronted Valentino with a series of questions and answers from the proceedings in the Supreme Court. The exchange was again about what had he’d been accused of. As follows:
Q “Now say again what Mr. Smith said you were guilty of.” A “Mr. Smith said I was guilty of bringing girls and blackmailing with Mrs. Thym society people, and dividing the amount.”
Q “Did he say anything further to indicate what he meant by bringing girls?” A “He said this woman had taken a disorderly house, that I was bringing these girls to try to blackmail society; he didn’t explain very much; he only just stated that fact.”
Q “Do I understand you to say that he charged you with bringing girls to the house that this woman was running?” A “Yes, sir.”
Q “And for the purposes of prostitution?” A “Yes, sir.”
Q “And you heard him say that to the Judge?” A “Yes, sir.”
Q “Did you deny it, tell the Judge that wasn’t so?” A “I couldn’t say anything. I didn’t have an opportunity to say a word.”
What are we to make of this engrossing question and answer session, extracted from Rudy’s recorded testimony, at the proceedings in the Supreme Court, on December the 1st, 1916? Beyond it being DeFord’s purpose to prove to Valentino that he’d been evasive, purposely or otherwise, when asked questions throughout the examination on April the 14th, 1920? (The Star Company’s Attorney was obviously seeking to find a way to bring an end to the action.) William A. DeFord does succeed in holding up a mirror to Rudolph Valentino when it comes to what he knew. But does it help us to see what he saw? Or to see anything?
It was a “fact” that Thym ran a disorderly house? That Marquis Guglielmi (Roma) was securing “girls to try to blackmail society”? Smith didn’t explain very much? Or was it, instead, a “fact” that the Assistant District Attorney stated what he did? Was Valentino not properly expressing himself as his second Wife sometimes said he did on occasion? At no point, unfortunately, does the Star Company’s Attorney make a point of asking him if he was a Blackmailer. And at no point, unfortunately again, does the Plaintiff say that he wasn’t. Though he did, it must be admitted, say, that at the habeas corpus proceeding, in the Supreme Court, his innocence was proved: “Proved my innocence completely, and discharged.” At this point DeFord begins to conclude the examination. However, before he does so, we have a revealing glimpse of Rudy’s life in the weeks before the incident, when he’s asked about an answer he gave, in December 1916. As follows:
Q “How long did you live with Mrs. Thym?”
A “For over about five months. I have been out of town, playing on the road; then I came back; I went out; then I passed all summer at another house because one night I tried to bring a girl into the house of Mrs. Thym and she told me I couldn’t have – be there; so she asked me to give up the room and therefore I had to give up the room; I went to live in 57th street and stayed all summer there. Mrs. Thym told me she had a room in her house free. I asked her if she would take me back. She said yes and I moved back on Thursday and the following Tuesday, the day after Labor Day, they came and arrested me. Only four days I had been in the house.”
William A. DeFord wanted to know if Rudolph Valentino had had any kind of discussion with James E. Smith, about getting his bail reduced, as a result of giving information that would help the investigation. When asked: “Did you ever have any such talk with him at all?” Rudolph’s answer is: “No, sir.” Yet DeFord wasn’t satisfied with the response and pressed him quite hard to get a different answer. Telling him flatly, but with great care, that he had indeed had such a conversation. And that the Assistant District Attorney had said the bail could be reduced, from $10,000 to $1,500 if he gave them useful details. (Details of people engaging in the blackmailing of figures in Society.)
Rudy shifts and says that there was a conversation, and that the Assistant D. A. did ask him to provide information, but that he had none to offer beyond what he’d already provided. (Exactly what that was isn’t clear.) When the Attorney pushes him, and says that Smith stated that Valentino had provided information, contrary to what he’d just told DeFord, he responds by saying: “… that is a pack of lies.” Then, after clearing up how his bail was reduced regardless, the conversation turns to Rudy’s career. The quick sketch he provides, is one which appears to cast serious doubt, on the claims of those who said they’d danced with him, or worked with him, or that he’d been working for them. (One of the best examples being George Raft.)
If you have stuck with this to the conclusion then you deserve a pat on the back. I must say, however, that the length of this post is nothing, compared to the extent of the actual documents that were accessed. It was necessary to read the contents of the files countless times to make sense of what was contained — and they required further reading, as this post was being written, so that absolute accuracy and clarity could be achieved.
I was never able to accept there was no way of knowing why Rudy was at 909 Seventh Avenue, early on the morning of September 5th, 1916. For me there just had to be some way of finding out what on earth was going on. Of course that didn’t mean that I’d find out — but I wanted to try to. That I did discover why, is down to opportunity, intelligence and a big dollop of luck. (Lovely Lady Luck does help me out from time-to-time.)
The documents have enabled us to see beyond the lurid newspaper reports. To look into his actions against the varied titles and their publishers that he felt defamed him. To see why the prosecutions were delayed. And to hear Rudy himself relate his experiences at the time as he recalled them in 1920. However, I have to say, that while the discovery I made does assist, it doesn’t give us everything we need. And this is partly due to Rudolph himself.
Was he a procurer of women? Was he a Blackmailer? Did he jointly run a Disorderly House with Mrs. Thym? He was never found guilty of any of those crimes. Yet we must consider Tyneburg and Shotwell. Their testimony, seemingly not available to DeFord for some reason, is bothersome, to say the least. The United States was certainly feverish that year. Vice was seen at every turn. And the slightest whiff of wrongdoing was more than sufficient for a raid and the squads were at the ready. Yet, the two accusers gave information that, even now, seems substantial. And what about Frank A. Lord? As soon as he was able, Rudy contacted the Second Deputy Police Commissioner, in a desperate bid to secure his assistance. This was a person he knew and reached out to. So why was Lord so distant? Why would he pretend not to know him and then remember him? Did he, himself, have something to hide?
Perhaps there are other documents – such as the habeas corpus proceedings referenced by DeFord – waiting to be found. Material that will give us even more insight. If not, then we’ll have to accept that the blackest day in his life is a never-to-be-completed puzzle, that now has more pieces added, but is still far from the full picture we’d like it to be.
Thank you so much for reading this post. As always, the sources are available to anyone who contacts me, if they’re not already embedded into the text, or added as an image. This post will be followed, in time, by a New York Timeline for 1916, which will include the divorce of the de Saulles mentioned here; a look at The Missing Half Year; and a New York Timeline for 1917, that will conclude that series. See you all in October!
According to Max Saunders, in his Ford Madox Ford biography, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life: Volume II: The After-War World (1996), in the July of 1925, Jean Rhys, the Writer, left Paris on what she’d been told was a fast train, but actually turned-out to be a slow one. Her ultimate destination: The Azure Coast or Cote D’Azur/Costa D’Azur (aka The French Riviera). Specifically: Juan-les-Pins.
The reason for her uncomfortable journey, in the heat of Summer, was a commission to assist a wealthy American woman, a Mrs. Winifred Hudnut, with writing a book about reincarnation and furniture. (It was, it appears, Mrs. Hudnut’s firm belief, that: “… happiness could be reached by living in the same costumes and decors of your previous lives.”) That Rhys was unable to type, or take shorthand, and wasn’t in-any-way-shape-or-form acquainted with the twinned subjects, doesn’t seem to have made much difference. And her stay of about eight weeks or so, at the Hudnut’s impressive mid. Nineteenth Century mansion, Chateau de Juan les Pins, was a fairly pleasant one. Her Hostess, and Host, Dickie Hudnut (cosmetics and fragrances Tycoon, and step-father to Natacha Rambova, the second wife of Rudolph Valentino), taking excellent care of her. Or so it seemed.
It turned out the first project and a second – Mrs. Hudnut required Miss Rhys to ghost write a book of fairy tales too – never reached fruition, due to her being paid a pittance, or the uninvited attentions of Mr. Hudnut, or both. (Natacha’s ‘Uncle Dickie’ apparently enjoyed kissing her on the way to and from the Casino at Monte Carlo each weekend.) And Jean Rhys returned to the French capital and the arms of her Lover Ford Madox Ford. However, the experience wasn’t wasted. And just two years later, in 1927, Rhys published a collection of stories titled: The Left Bank and Other Stories, featuring, as the twentieth tale, At the Villa d’Or. A compact yet richly detailed, thinly veiled look, at not just the Hudnuts themselves, but also life at their gorgeous sanctuary.
I’d known about At the Villa d’Or for quite some time and had been unable to access it anywhere. Both the 1927 collection, and a 1987 publication by Penguin, Jean Rhys the Collected Short Stories, eluded me. And the story was absent from any other published selection. So I was extremely pleased, last year, to learn that Penguin Modern Classics had issued a reprint of the Eighties book in 2017. Having now read it, it in my opinion gives invaluable insight into two important people in Rudy’s life, as well as his possible favourite home from home. The six page story takes us beyond the passages devoted to the chateau in biographies. Just as it brings to life surviving images. We see them before us. Hear them speak. And get a good sense of their inclinations.
Of course it was necessary under the circumstances for Rhys to make some serious alterations. Jean herself becomes Sara (Cohen) of Montparnasse (a singer rather than an author). Mrs. Winifred Hudnut and Mr. Richard Hudnut become Mr. and Mrs. Robert B. Valentine. Paul Ivanovitch the artist – another guest in 1925 – becomes Yvan Pauloff. And one of the important servants becomes Charles. Though Uncle Dickie, as Bobbie Valentine, was transformed into The Boot-Lace King, he talks to her, as Sara, about “the curve of a bottle”, and also explains how he started life “in a chemist’s shop”. Meanwhile, Winifred, despite the name change, appears to be untouched — decorative, talkative and filled with concern.
I suspect Rudolph Valentino had already died by the time Jean Rhys completed At the Villa d’Or; hence the use of a variant of his professional surname for the slightly disguised Hudnuts. Natacha Rambova makes a fleeting appearance, offstage, as Mrs. Valentine’s unnamed, but extremely famous Movie Star daughter; who, like the conspicuously absent Rudolph Valentino, receives “a thousand love-letters per month” and was “mobbed” in London. (Rhys didn’t bump into either Valentino or Rambova, due to the pair being on the West Coast of the USA at the time, and about to split up.) Anyway, I reproduce here the entire story, and hope that it’s as enjoyable for those who read it as it was for me. Added, you’ll see, are a couple of helpful illustrative images.
At the Villa d’Or
Sara of Montparnasse had arrived that afternoon at the Villa d’Or, and it was now 9:30 P.M.; dinner was just over, it was the hour of coffee, peace, optimism.
From the depths of a huge arm-chair Sara admired the warmly lovely night which looked in through the open windows, the sea, the moon, the palms — the soft lighting of the room.
The very faint sound of music could be heard from the distant Casino at intervals, and on the sofa opposite Mrs Robert B. Valentine reclined, dressed in a green velvet gown with hanging sleeves lined with rosy satin. Mr. Robert B. Valentine, The Boot-Lace King, sprawled in another huge arm-chair, and five Pekinese [sic] were distributed decoratively in the neighbourhood of Mrs Valentine. It might have been the Villa of the Golden Calf.
‘And very nice too,’ thought Sara.
Charles came in to take away the coffee-tray, and to present Mr Valentine with a large, blue book.
Charles was like the arm-chairs, English. He was also, strange to say, supple, handsome, carefully polite. But then Charles was definitely of the lower classes (as distinct from the middle).
‘The Chef is there, sir,’ said he — and ‘Anything more, Madame?’
‘Nothing, Charles,’ said Mrs Valentine with a hauteur touched with sweetness.
Charles retreated with grace, carrying the tray. He looked as though he enjoyed the whole thing immensely. His good looks, his supple bow from the waist, his livery . . .
‘It must be fun,’ thought Sara, ‘to be butler in a place where everything is so exactly like a film.’
Mrs Valentine’s daughter of Los Angeles, Cal., was the most famous of movie stars. She received a thousand love-letters per month. In London she was mobbed when she went out . . . There was a glamour as distinct from money over the household . . .
Mr Valentine put on horn-rimmed spectacles and opened the blue book which told of risotto of lobster, of becassine glacee sur lac d’or, of green peppers stuffed with rice.
After a prolonged study of it he announced like some saint turning his back on the false glitter of this world:
‘He’s got haricots verts down for to-morrow, darling — wouldn’t you like some rice for a change?’
Mr. Valentine was a vegetarian, a teetotaller, a non-smoker, and example of the law of compensation like most American millionaires.
Mrs Valentine moved a little impatiently on her sofa, and through her dignified charm, pierced a slight fretfulness.
‘I’m just dead sick of rice, Bobbie,’ said she. ‘Couldn’t we have some ham for a change?’
‘He says he can’t get a ham,’ said Mr Valentine doubtfully. ‘He says he’d have to send to Paris for a ham.’
The lady sat up suddenly and announced with energy that it was all nonsense, that she had seen lovely hams in the corner shop in Cannes — that anyone who couldn’t get a ham in Cannes couldn’t get one anywhere.
I’ll speak to him, darling,’ Mr. Valentine told her soothingly.
He got up and walked alertly out. He wore a purple smoking suit and under the light his perfectly bald head shone as if it were polished. He was extremely like some cheerful insect with long, thin legs.
When he’d gone, Mrs Valentine leant back on to her sofa and half closed her eyes. She was such a slender lady that, sunk into the sofa cushions, she seemed ethereal, a creature of two dimensions, length and breadth, without any thickness. Her shoes were of gold brocade and round her neck glittered a long necklace of green beads with which she fidgeted incessantly — her hands being white and well manicured, but short, energetic and capable, with broad, squat nails.
A Romantic, but only on the surface; also an active and energetic patroness of the Arts, fond of making discoveries in Montparnasse and elsewhere.
So Mr Pauloff, a little Bulgarian who lived in Vienna, occupied a sumptuous bedroom on the second floor. He painted.
Sara, who sang, was installed on the third floor, though, as she was a female and relatively unimportant, her room was less sumptuous.
‘It makes me feel sad, that music in the night.’ declared Mrs Valentine. ‘The man who is singing at the Casino this week is Mr van den Cleef’s gardener. Isn’t it just too strange? A Russian –a prince or something. Yes. And he only gets –what does a gardener get? I don’t know — so he sings at the casino in the evening. Poor man! And so many of them — all princes or generals or Grand Dukes . . . Of course most unreliable . . . Why, my dear Miss Cohen, I could tell you stories about the Russians on the Riviera — Well! Strange people — very strange. Not like us. Always trying to borrow money.’
She went on to talk of the Russian character, of her tastes in music, of Mr Valentines eighteenth century bed, of the emptiness of life before she became a spiritualist, of automatic writing.
‘Yes, yes,’ said Sara patiently at intervals.
After all, this was a tremendous reaction from Paris. In Paris one was fear-hunted, insecure, one caught terrifying glimpses of the Depths and the monsters who live there . . . At the Villa d’Or life was something shallow . . . that tinkled meaninglessly . . . shallow but safe.
Through Mrs. Valentine’s high-pitched drawl she strained her ears to hear some faint sound of the sea and imagined the silken caress of the water when she would bathe next morning. Bathing in that blue jewel of a sea would be voluptuousness, a giving of oneself up. And coming out of it one would be fresh, purified from how many desecrating touches.
Poor Sara . . . also a Romantic!
As Mrs Valentine was describing the heroism of a famous American dancer who acted as a secret service agent during the war and averted a catastrophe to the Allies by swallowing documents at the right moment, Mr Pauloff and Mr Valentine came in.
‘Well, I’ve told him about that ham, darling,’ said the Boot-Lace King brightly.
He added in a lower tone: ‘Yes, nood, but not too nood, Mr Pauloff.’
‘There will be a drapery,’ the Bulgarian assured him.
Mr Pauloff had painted Mrs Valentine two years ago surrounded by her Pekinese [sic], and made her incredibly beautiful. Then he had painted Mr. Valentine with exquisite trousers and the rest, brown boots and alert blue eyes.
He was now decorating the panels of Mr Valentine’s bedroom door with figures of little ladies. And a tactful drapery was to float round the little ladies’ waists. After all he had been a court painter and he had learned to be miraculously tactful. A polite smile was always carved – as it were – on his ugly little face; in his brown, somewhat pathetic eyes was a looked of strained attention.
‘In courts and places like that,’ as Mr Valentine said, ‘they learn nice manners. Well I guess they just have to . . .’
‘I understand, I quite understand,’ the artist said diffidently, but with finality, ‘I will drape the figures.’
Then he [handed] a bundle of press-cuttings which he was holding to Sara and asked if she could read them aloud.
‘You have so nice, so charming a voice, Miss Sara.’
Sara, overcome by this compliment, proceeded to read the cuttings which were form the English papers of fifteen years before.
‘Mr Yvan Pauloff, the famous Bulgarian artist . . .’
As Sara read Mrs. Valentine closed her eyes and seemed to sleep, but Mr Valentine, crossing his legs, listened with great attention; as to the artist himself, he heard it all with a pleased smile, fatuous but charming.
Then he went — radiant — to fetch some photographs of his most celebrated pictures. Mr Valentine said quickly:
‘You see, deary, there you are; he is a great artist. His name on a picture means something — means dollars.’
Mr Valentine muttered something, and walking to the window surveyed the view with a proprietor’s eyes.
‘Come out onto the terrace and look at the stars, Miss Sara,’ said he. ‘Now that star there, it’s green, ain’t it?’
‘Quite green,’ she agreed politely, following him out.
He glanced sideways at her, admiring the curves of her figure — he liked curves — the noble and ardent sweep of her nose — that saving touch of Jewish blood!
He proceeded to pour out his soul to the sympathetic creature:
‘My wife’s always talking about Art. She thinks I don’t understand anything about it. Well, I do. Now, for instance: Bottles — the curve of a bottle, the shape of it — just a plain glass bottle. I could look at it for hours . . . I started life in a chemist’s shop — I was brought up amongst the bottles. Now the pleasure I get in looking at a bottle makes me understand artists . . . D’you get me?’
‘Why, that’s absolutely it,’ said Sara warmly in response to the note of appeal in his voice. ‘You understand perfectly.’
‘Would you like to come to Monte with me Sunday?’ asked Mr Valentine in a lower tone, grasping Sara’s arm above the elbow. ‘I’ll teach you to play roulette.’
‘Yes, it would be fun,’ said Sara with a great deal of enthusiasm.
From inside the Villa came the sweet and mocking music of ‘La Berggere Legere’.
And there’s my wife playing the Victrola — Time for my billiards,’ chirped Mr Valentine.
He went briskly up the steps and hauled away an unwilling Mr Pauloff to the billiard-room.
‘Sometimes,’ said Mrs Valentine to Sara, ‘I play the Victrola for hours all by myself when Bobbie is in the billiard-room, and I think how strange it is that lovely music — and the voices of people who are dead — like Caruso — coming out of a black box. Their voices — themselves in fact — And I just get frightened to death — terrified. I shut it up and run upstairs and ring like mad for Marie.’
The marble staircase of the Villa d’Or was dim and shadowy, but one or two electric lights were still lit near the famous (and beautiful) portrait of Mrs Valentine.
‘When I see the portrait,’ said the lady suddenly, ‘I’m glad to go to bed sometimes.’
In her huge bedroom where the furniture did not quite match, where over the bed hung a picture representing a young lady and gentleman vaguely Greek in costume, sitting on a swing with limbs entwined in a marvellous mixture of chastity and grace — this was a relic of the days before Mrs. Valentine had learned to appreciate Picasso — Sara opened the windows wide and looked out on the enchanted night, then sighed with pleasure at the glimpse of her white, virginal bathroom through the open door — the bath salts, the scents, the crystal bottles.
She thought again: ‘Very nice too, the Villa d’Or.’
As I said previously, in March (in New York Timeline (1913)), I’m totally fascinated by Rudolph Valentino’s first years in the USA; particularly those spent in and around New York from 1913 to 1917. Forty two or so months crammed with incident; six months of which are, apparently, an impenetrable void. This month, June, I look in some detail at 1914 — one of his most difficult years. Anyway, here is: New York Timeline (1914).
For Marchese Guglielmi the first few months of 1914 are, for-want-of-a-better-phrase, a Social Whirl. Determined to put behind him his miserable Festive Period, he plunges into the dance-mad city of New York. His accommodation, Giolito’s, at 108-110 W. 49th St., is situated just east of Broadway, ten blocks south of Central Park, ten or so more north west, of the gleaming and glistening, newly-opened Grand Central Station, and a quick walk away from several exciting afternoon and evening establishments. At which, by all accounts, he becomes a regular.
He calls on his fellow S. S. Cleveland passenger, Miss Eleanor Post, and they go riding in Central Park at least once. He also pays a visit and introduces himself (with a letter of introduction), to Social Butterfly, Schuyler L. Parsons Jr.; who invites him to remain for dinner and then join the various guests, when they go out to dance until the early hours.
Miss Post had, along with Marion Herrion, been the young woman who’d enjoyed many hours dancing the latest dances, with Rodolfo Guglielmi, in the Second Class dining room. (Their friendship didn’t last.) Mr. Parsons, meanwhile, was a person whose name appeared in the press with alarming regularity, as an attendee, of dinner and theatre parties, dance parties and other exclusive society events. It’s interesting that he featured in an amateur film, The Flame of Kapur (1916), as a villain, not dissimilar to the sort played by Valentino a few years later. (He was to be a friend of Rudy’s right to the end.)
Rodolfo continues to socialise hopeful it’ll lead to something. He reacquaints himself with three Paris friends: brothers Count Otto and Count Alex. von Salm-Hoogstraeten, and their friend, Georges/George T. Aranyi. The trio are in the US to play tennis, and Rodolfo no doubt watches them, at the National Indoor Championship Tournament, at the Seventh Regiment Armoury, 643 Park Avenue, in mid. February. Afterwards, in the evenings, the quartet enjoy nights out.
Austrians, Otto and Alex., and Frenchman George, too, were seemingly all a little older than their Italian playmate. (Otto was born in 1886 and Alex. (who would perish during WW1) in 1890.) So being in their company would’ve been something of an education for someone not yet 19. I personally don’t believe that the Salms taught Valentino to tango at the Central Park Zoo, as his female fellow passengers on the Cleveland said he already knew it. However, there’s no doubt they taught him other things, and that he was a willing Pupil.
The addiction of New Yorkers at this time to dancing is clear when we peruse the city’s newspapers and see how often it’s mentioned. At the start of the month a report states that the Pope has neither banned the Tango nor endorsed La Furlana. A review, days later, of The Laughing Husband, an operetta at the Knickerbocker Theatre, reveals how “Graceful Steps [Of] A New Sort” had been added to the U. S. adaptation, and that the chorus did “The Tango”. (You can listen to a medley here.) On the 9th, we see a story about 2,000 waiters, trotting, tangoing, dipping, maxixeing, and hesitating, at the Manhattan Waiters’ Association Annual Ball. (In many instances with each other.) On the 14th, we view fourteen recent or expected social gatherings, of which seven included dancing. The 17th saw the Castles, Vernon and Irene, explaining to Marguerite Mooers Marshall, a columnist, how to dance the Half and Half. And at the close of February, we learn that the Arabian Nights Ball, on the 26th, at the Folies Marigny, had begun at midnight, and had been: “… JUST ONE DANCE AFTER ANOTHER.”
Thanks to high living and nightly shenanigans, with the Salms, Aranyi, and with others, Rodolfo’s funds are dwindling; and as he commences the month, he begins to appreciate he’s unable to continue in the same fashion as in January and February. In order to save money he quits his quarters at Giolito’s, and moves to less expensive, unknown, Uptown rooms.
Knowing he’ll soon have to find employment, he’s also eager to seriously improve his basic English. He understands that what he learned at Nervi won’t be sufficient for him to be able to work, and he’ll be unable to improve it, while he’s surrounded by fellow Italians.
His departure from Giolito’s isn’t fixed in stone and it could easily have occurred in February. The reason being, that the position he secured as a Gardener (thanks to a letter of introduction (from his older brother Alberto), to outgoing Commissioner of Immigration, William Williams), commenced after the snow had melted. As I only saw bad snow reported locally in early March, and not later, we have to accept the possibility he was out of his initial accommodation earlier than was previously thought. Maybe even by the middle of February.
After some work, which included planting rhododendrons (which are still there and are referred to as ‘Rudy’s Rhodos’), his employment with Mr. Bliss, at his estate, at Brookville, outside the city on Long Island, abruptly ends, after he crashes a borrowed motorcycle. It’s also an issue that the return of Mrs. Bliss, from Europe, has ended plans for an Italian garden. Rodolfo himself isn’t enjoying being so far from Manhattan. And isn’t too pleased to be eating his meals with the other servants.
Cornelius N. Bliss Jr., a kind-hearted type, then President of the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, provides him with a letter of introduction, to the New York City Parks Commissioner, Louis F. La Roche. He also, amazingly, provides him with a small weekly allowance so that he can manage in the short term.
Rudy returns to Manhattan, able, just about, to manage on his recent earnings, and his allowance from Bliss. Despite his worsening situation, it seems, from time-to-time, that he’s still able to enjoy the cafes and restaurants.
Rodolfo Guglielmi doesn’t grasp that Mr. and Mrs. Bliss are two people who, in time, could’ve seriously helped him with a career as a Landscape Gardener. However, he did understand he was a million miles from entering, or being accepted in, Society. Painfully aware. And this was something of a problem for him.
After resettling back in the city, sometime in May, Rodolfo secures a less pleasant position as an Apprentice Park Gardener. He works the majority of the month. But eventually discovers that he’s unable to continue working, as the apprenticeship exam is open only to American citizens.
By now Cornelius N. Bliss Jr.’s small allowance has probably ceased. The little he’s earned in May is disappearing. And he searches for some other kind of employment.
It’s probably in May and June that he goes to the Waldorf-Astoria, one of the great New York hotels, to write on the their fine stationery to his mother (to reassure her that he’s alright and is doing well). That he eventually revealed this to his family, is known, thanks to his older brother, Alberto, mentioning it in a lengthy interview in 1977.
He manages to secure a position as a Bank Teller. However, due to poor English, or an inability to calculate quickly enough, or both, he loses this job. And is once again forced to look for another vacancy.
It’s now, in mid. June, that he catches the eye of ‘Dickie’ Warner – true name Richard H. Warner – a blonde, blue-eyed man in his late twenties, who’s as much of a Social Moth as Schuyler L. Parsons Jr.. Apparently, Dickie sees him: “… seated at the opposite side of the dancing space in company of several friends.” After a formal introduction they converse. And days later he invites him to dinner on the roof of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. On that warm evening, they afterwards sit drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, and Rodolfo opens his heart to the near stranger. Telling him he’s a foreigner in a foreign land. Isn’t getting anywhere in his profession. And is: “… too proud to seek aid from his family.” Dickie’s sympathetic and tells Rudy he can move into his apartment with him until things improve. Which, the very next day, he does. Warner helping him to pack his possessions at his “anything but cheerful” lodgings. Thus commences a quite lengthy and comfortable stay, at Dickie Warner’s gorgeously decorated two room studio, at 78 West 55th Street. Rudy wakes late each day; lounges about in pyjamas in Warner’s tulip wood bed; plays with the cat, Prunella; and talks on the telephone to his girlfriends. His host is irritated by his poor English but doesn’t mind his singing. (The song that he sings most often is Mamma Mia.)
Warner’s detailed – too detailed to be fabricated – account, which was published in the early Twenties, in a piece entitled, Before They Were Famous, in SCREENLAND, reveals much about Rudy half way through 1914. He continues to frequent some of the places he enjoyed earlier that year as and when he can. Has friends. And is still able to dress and present himself well. Warner remembered: “… distinctly, his dress suit, also the handiwork of a tailor in Taranto.” This pretty much proves false, the claim that Frank A. Mennillo took him to his New York tailor, to kit him out in more suitable, American garb. He was in May and June still wearing all of the garments he’d carried with him at the end of the previous year.
So far he’s moved from Giolitos, to Uptown, then out to Long Island, then back to Manhattan. (He also appears to have been in Brooklyn at some point in order to be able to save money.) Living with Dickie facilitates indolence. For the time being, at least, he seems in no hurry to do anything, except laze, pet Prunella, and speak for hours on the telephone. According to his host a stay of a few days stretches to many weeks. In my estimation at least a month to six weeks.
Rudy continues to live with Dickie. At some point the pair enjoy a trip to Long Beach; for so long, that Warner is forced to wire a friend in the city, and get them to climb through a window, in order to feed the cat.
At the end of the month World War One breaks out in Europe. However, as neither Italy nor America are initially involved, it doesn’t yet affect Rodolfo Guglielmi, or, his family.
After six or so weeks his stay with Warner ends. Where he goes next isn’t too clear. Yet it’s certain about now is when things begin to get very tough. For the next eight weeks he goes from poorly-paid job to poorly-paid job. He washes dishes, cleans automobiles, and polishes brass; anything that will give him enough money to be able to eat and pay for a place to sleep.
This is a period where he’ll move about even more frequently, staying a week here, then a week there. Always moving. He’s forced to pawn his belongings. What’s left is kept by a Landlady that he’d been unable to pay. In later years, he told Norma Talmadge a story about walking five miles to City Hall, in order to find work, and, after failing to, how he’d bought a “bologna sandwich” with his very last ten cents, before walking the five miles back. The fact Norma recalled such a story, in 1938, again shows he couldn’t possibly have had a Godfather during this time.
Nineteen-year-old Rodolfo continues to suffer. He eats at one, perhaps all, of the Horn & Hardart Co. Automats, on Broadway, Sixth Avenue and West 42nd St. And he sleeps at the downbeat, Mills Hotel, which charges 12 cents per night. When he can’t even afford that he doesn’t eat and sleeps on a bench in Central Park. (He also sleeps under the shrubbery and in all-night cinemas.)
There’s absolutely no evidence nineteen-year-old Rudolph Valentino was forced to commit any crime in order to survive; but we must consider the possibility he may have had no choice. It’s interesting, that in a letter home, he feels that any work is better than a life of crime. And it’s in this letter, according to the family, that he reveals he’d come very close to compromising his honour. So if he didn’t commit a crime it was certainly on his mind. The disappearance of the contents of his police file, decades ago, doesn’t allow us to be sure one way or the other. In a report, in The New-York Tribune, in 1910, vagrants were only arrested if they were considered to be a ‘Cadet’ — in-other-words, a person learning to be a street criminal. If they were, they were discharged, sent to a work house, or, fined. If Rudy slept on a park bench, he would simply be moved along; as Anthony Dexter was, as Valentino, in Valentino (1951). (A rare instance of accuracy in an otherwise largely inaccurate film.)
Broke and homeless things are so bleak that Rudy contemplates suicide. Then a Mystery Man he meets changes his luck. The person, apparently an Italian, takes him under his wing, shares his food and his bed, talks to him, gives him advice, and perhaps allows his guest to get a wash and to shave. The next day, or soon afterwards, after the suggestion, Rodolfo heads to Maxim’s/Cafe Maxim to speak to the piano player (who’s from Taranto). The piano player suggests talking to the Head Waiter there. When he does, The Head Waiter recalls him from earlier in the year, and offers him work as a dance partner for hire. (To dance with females who aren’t already accompanied by a male.) He accepts and commences that month. There’s no pay, but he can eat for free, keep any tips, and use an upper room, with a Victrola, to give dance instructions on the side.
A different version of Rodolfo’s spell as a dancer, at Cafe Maxim, is found in the owner, Julius Keller’s, 1939 memoir, Inns and Outs. Keller claims that he himself hired him. And that Rudy had been washing cars at a nearby garage. Keller says that he found the young man to be “dark and romantic in appearance”. Whether it was Keller’s or another proprietor’s innovation isn’t clear. But dance partners for hire were far from unique to Maxim’s. They were very much looked down upon at the time as it was considered to be an unsuitable profession for a Real Man.
Maxim’s was, along with Sherry’s, Delmonico’s, Luchow’s, Churchill’s, Rectors, Murray’s, and a few other venues, a restaurant that allowed patrons to dance. Their adverts in September declared that it was the “COOLEST and BEST VENTILATED DINING ROOM in TOWN”. That luncheon was just 60c. That dancing was from noon to close. And the cabaret was after 6:30 p. m.
Dark, romantic Rodolfo Guglielmi swiftly enhances his natural ability, and is an instant success with patrons. He returns to being a Marchese; but, perhaps due to the French atmosphere of the establishment, tells customers he’s a Marquis. By now he has many regular female dance partners. And these varied ladies generously tip him and shower him with small gifts.
In the third or fourth week of the month, Bonnie Glass (“the most original young person in the [dancing] profession”), and her former dance partner, Clifton Webb, arrive at Cafe Maxim and take a table. Glass has asked Webb to assist her in searching for a talented new partner, and they soon notice: “… a remarkably handsome, dark young man named Rudolph.” Bonnie is impressed by his tango and, on the spot, offers him the job. He tells her frankly that he doesn’t have the money to pay for the clothing required. And she tells him that she’ll cover the cost.
In Clifton Webb’s posthumously published autobiography, Sitting Pretty: the Life and Times of Clifton Webb, 2011, the then very notable Bonnie Glass had recently returned from Chicago. Checking her engagements in late 1914 I saw this to be the case. (She’d danced in Chicago recently with Al. Davis.) And so I trust both Clifton Webb’s memory and his story. It seems Bonnie had a partner – George Richmond – but he was temporary. And, as she had plans for 1915, that included re-opening the grille of Cafe Boulevard, at Broadway and 41st Street, as Cafe Montmartre, she required somebody reliable who’d be available nightly. (For me this settles once and for all the question of how they met and came to be a successful Act.)
It’s easy to imagine Rudy’s delight in being singled out by Bonnie and Clifton after they’d left and it all began to sink in. In no-time-at-all he would be able to quit the establishment and leave behind him, perhaps forever, the life of a Taxi Dancer — a life he found more than a little distasteful.
During the first two weeks of the month Rodolfo rehearses with Bonnie in the mornings and continues to work as a hired dancer, at Maxim’s, in the afternoons and evenings. He likewise continues to be the favourite of several ladies (as mentioned by Keller in Inns and Outs). And utilises the upper room, with the Victrola, to provide private instruction for a fee.
Mid. December, he dances for the first time with Glass, at Rector’s, in front of their “stage setting”, for an elegant New York audience seated amidst “fronded palms”. He’ll continue to do so for the rest of the month. And, though he fails to be credited at this point in any adverts, he’s buoyed by the realisation that bigger things lie ahead of him in 1915. In only a matter of months he’s turned his life completely around. This year, the Festive Period will not be the lonely, upsetting affair it was twelve months before.
Thank you so much for reading this post. As always, the sources are available to anyone who contacts me, if they’re not already embedded into the text, or added as an image. This latest timeline will be followed by others looking at the years 1915 to 1917. And I’ve planned standalone posts for his 1916 arrest and also the missing half year. See you all in July!
Debtor. Bankrupt. Business Failure. Wife-Beater. Child Kidnapper. Wanted Man. Fraudster. Not individually pretty labels, are they? How about collectively? Applied to one person? A person at times close – very close indeed – to Rudolph Valentino. A person, we’re led to believe, who was his loyal Sponsor and Protector in the United States. The unsavoury character in question? Frank A. Mennillo. A man apparently erased from the narrative. Purposely pushed aside and diminished. Not given his due. My findings indicate he never was the Godfather it’s claimed he was. That he was a Hanger On. And that he might very well have been a reason Rudolph Valentino never had any money. This post is titled simply: Frank.
Thanks to modern tech. it’s very easy to get to know the subject of the post this month on His Fame Still Lives. It’s all online. And it makes for interesting reading. Born April 10th, 1882, in Naples, Italy, like countless numbers of his contemporaries (including of course his future friend), he emigrated to America when young; though, unlike Valentino, he didn’t travel there in style.
Francesco Mennillo – his middle initial wasn’t used at this time – was just 22 years old when he boarded the S. S. Perugia, a vessel known for transporting marble, pumice, soap, olive oil and macaroni, etc., at Naples, on June 11th, 1904. The ship’s Steerage paperwork reveals that he travelled alone; his occupation was Merchant; that he was able to write; was a Southern Italian; had paid for his own passage; was carrying just $20; would be living with his cousin (on Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn); that he’d never been in prison, wasn’t a Polygamist, an Anarchist, or a Trouble Causer; that his health was good; and that he wasn’t deformed, or crippled.
Proof he spent the twelve months after arrival (on June 26th), living and working in the USA, is found in his 1905 petition for naturalization documents. (It was necessary to remain within a state for a year, and be resident in the country for five years, to be able to apply for citizenship.) That he was on his way to citizenship is the reason he declares, in 1906, on his return to America on the S. S. Italia, that he’s a Non-Immigrant Alien. And in that Manifest we see he’s still a Merchant; is single; brings $50 into the country; and is living with his brother, at Hester Street, Lower Manhattan.
This journey from the United States to Italy and back again was one he made practically every year between 1906 and 1911. (He failed to cross and recross the Atlantic only in 1907.) In 1909, by which time he was married, and was calling himself Frank, he returns on the S. S. Roma in the September. That his brothers, Ciro and Giovanni (respectively 22 and 12 at the time), followed him, on the S. S. Virginia, that December, suggests he’d been helping them to get ready eight weeks previously. (That the elder, Ciro, was at the time a Farmer, indicates a move which would significantly improve his prospects.)
His trip out and back, on the S. S. Madonna in 1910, was followed by a more impressive one the next year. In the Spring of 1911, he returned from Liverpool, Great Britain, on the Cunard Line Liner, RMS Lusitania — the ship famously torpedoed and sunk by the Germans just four years later. Though this was apparently a Second Class voyage, it’s safe-to-say, that with the assistance of immediate family, and contacts made in both New York and Naples, he was doing well. And had progressed, in a few short years, from Merchant or Trader, to Importer, had been married, and seen the birth of his son. (The petition for naturalization includes later info. about Arnaldo, who was born on March 7th, 1910.)
So, a surprise it is, to see in THE BROOKLYN DAILY EAGLE, on May 16th, 1912, that he’s listed the previous day, as a Debtor, owing $241.55 to a C. Frankel, with a judgement against him in favour of the Claimant. What had gone wrong, we might wonder, that he’d been unable to pay an amount today equivalent to more than six thousand dollars? Clearly things weren’t so great for Mr. Mennillo just one year on.
While Frank had been busying himself in the US, and travelling to and from Italy, young Rodolfo Guglielmi had also been on the move. In the year Mennillo emigrated alone the Guglielmi family shifted as a unit from Castellaneta to Taranto. In 1906, when the then, Francesco, headed back to America on the S. S. Italia, Rudy lost his father, and was sent away to a distant school in Perugia, where he spent several unhappy years; the serious unhappiness continuing until he found himself at agricultural college, at Nervi. After an ill thought-out trip to Paris, and many wasted months back at Taranto, at the very end of 1913 he climbed aboard the S. S. Cleveland, hoping for a fresh start in New York.
Was Frank A. Mennillo waiting to meet him when he arrived? In my opinion no. Having looked in great depth at the available evidence, I see nothing, anywhere, that gives even the vaguest hint that Mennillo had advance knowledge of his arrival, or, was at Brooklyn to greet him. (It’s actually claimed they met at Ellis Island, which First Class passengers were spared.) Consequently my March post (New York Timeline (1913)) didn’t mention it. The fact Valentino doesn’t allude to him once in his letter to his mother would be the first reason to doubt the assertion. After all, who would travel such a distance, getting ready to meet with a good friend of the family, which we’re told Frank was, and fail to devote even one sentence to them? There’s nothing. And here’s a second reason. Why, when he went into detail about his earliest weeks in the USA, with friends and family, two wives, a Manager, and journalists by the score, did he opt to leave out any Padrone? None of his intimates, between 1913 and 1926, ever recalled him telling them he’d been met, taken care of, or assisted in any way by anybody. Because he wasn’t. He was, as all – all – the material shows, alone, and finding his own way for the best part of three to six months. (And all confirmed by his older brother Alberto, when he was interviewed, in depth, in 1977, for the series HOLLYWOOD, broadcast in 1980.)
Yet the reason that Mennillo wasn’t Rudy’s Guide/Sponsor/Patron/Benefactor, has less to do with the lack of verification and more to do with his personal circumstances. This was a man who wasn’t in a position to help himself, let alone an eighteen-year-old who’d just arrived and had never left Europe. On May 14th, 1914, on page 16 of the New York Tribune, we see, once again, that “Frank Mennillo” owes a large amount of money (this time to L. Afeltra), and the judgement has gone against him. However this was merely a prelude to the total collapse of his business dealings in the November. As can be seen, on November 23rd, 1914, on page 14 of The New York Times – the Court Calendars column – Frank was expected to appear at the District Court, at 10:30 a.m. that day, for bankruptcy proceedings. Almost immediately the extent of his indebtedness was made public:
FRANK MENNILLO, salesman, of 367 [sic]
Broome [Street], filed petition individually and
as a partner [in] the former firm of Mennillo &
Lignanti, importers, with liabilities of $20,378
and no assets. Among the creditors are P. &
D. Samengo, Naples, Italy, $18,000, goods sold
in 1911; Bank of Rome, Naples, $1,200; and P.
Ballentine & Sons, Newark, $500.
From the New York Tribune.
Breaking down the information, we see that Mennillo was, in today’s money, a cool half million dollars in debt — not, to borrow a hackneyed phrase, something to be sniffed at. And that he also had no properties, no vehicles, nothing he could sell. We further learn that he was partnered in his endeavours by a Mr. Lignanti. And the partners owed money mainly to their fellow countrymen. (Lignanti and P. & D. Samengo have eluded me but P. Ballentine and Sons were manufacturers of strong beer.) We can see, as well, that the sum of $18,000 had been owed for several years, since 1911. And if we add together in our heads the three larger totals we understand a further $678 was owed to others. All of them, whoever they were, just as upset as the main creditors.
A person declared bankrupt in the Winter of 1914 had undoubtedly struggled for a good year. Perhaps even eighteen months. (In 1912 he was already a Debtor.) So the idea that Frank A. Mennillo could have been providing significant support to Rudolph Valentino at the time is nonsense. And if he was, then why do witnesses, such as ‘Dickie’ Warner, later say Valentino wasn’t living in great accommodation? And a wealthy, successful and well-connected fellow countryman, would’ve found a Dependant a good position somewhere. A really great one. And yet Rudolph was forced to go about looking for work. Went from menial job to menial job. Had, at one point, no job. Before finding a position as a Taxi Dancer. Obviously this isn’t a person with someone looking after them. Nothing suggests it.
It was late 1914. New York was booming. But Frank A. Mennillo was bust. Washed up. The following Spring things went from bad to worse. On March 24th, 1915, it was widely reported that Frank and wife, Zelinda, both now living at Bay Twenty-Ninth Street, in Brooklyn, had appeared in front of Supreme Court Justice Kelly. The reason: “… a suit for separation…” The reports laid bare that the marriage was on the rocks. Mr. Mennillo objected to his partner working as a School Teacher (at an Italian school conducted by the Children’s Aid Society). She preferred teaching to performing “domestic duties”. For her part Mrs. Mennillo claimed she’d been subjected to: “… cruel and inhuman treatment.” Not surprisingly Zelinda Mennillo was awarded custody of the five-year-old boy. (The report was wrong about the child’s age.)
I’ve no idea how you might feel about Frank abusing – perhaps physically hurting – his wife Zelinda. Perhaps you’ll think that it was just between the two of them and nothing to do with anybody else. However, I know for certain you’ll be as shocked as I was, that, soon after the judgement, he went to his son Arnaldo’s school (St. Hyacinth’s Academy, at Hawthorne, NY), kidnapped him, and told all who asked he’d packed him off to Italy. We know this to be a fact, due to newspaper reports, like the one in THE BROOKLYN DAILY EAGLE, on May 20th, 1916. Titled FATHER SURRENDERS SON, and subtitled Keeps Away Himself–Now Deputie [sic] Seek Him, the two paragraph column details how “Frank Mennillo” was at that time being sought by: “A squad of deputies of Sheriff Riegelman…” Having previously ignored a court order – maybe more than one? – to produce his son Arnold, now six, the small child had been suddenly and mysteriously produced (by a relation).
The brief, info.-packed TBDE article, concludes with the following: “Justice Blackmar …. instructed that Mennillo be brought into court to answer the charges against him.” That no further report was forthcoming doesn’t of course mean that he wasn’t. The issuing of “A warrant for contempt” as well as “a writ of attachment” was very serious indeed. His disappearance until 1917 suggests to me that he was given jail time and a fine. Certainly his assets, such as they were, would’ve frozen; making it impossible for him to do much in the short-to-medium term.
At the point Frank and Zelinda were at odds, in May 1916, and throwing verbal punches at one another in court, the now twenty-one-year-old Rodolfo Guglielmi (using the name Signor Rudolph), was engaged in his own ‘pas de deux’ in another arena. Having, from March to September 1914, endured six long months of terrible ups and downs, he had, quite literally, landed on his feet, when he secured work as a dancer-for-hire, at Cafe Maxim (or Maxim’s), at 110 West 38th Street, in Manhattan. This was followed by a year of exhibition dancing with Bonnie Glass. And then, when she retired, a switch to a rival female dancer extraordinaire, named Joan Sawyer.
However, his naming of Sawyer as the Other Woman, during the divorce of his on-off dancing partner – unbalanced Heiress Mrs. de Saulles – from her philandering husband, two months later, proved disastrous. And his options fell to zero when he was arrested in the September and the arrest was front page news. After laying low for half a year (due to acute embarrassment and being required to remain available for further questioning), he left the East Coast, in the Spring of 1917; heading West with a show: The Masked Model. (Appropriately titled considering his desire to disappear.) This mode of escape, once again, alerts us to the unlikelihood he had any serious support. A Godfather would simply have sent him the funds.
There’s no doubt that Frank – now using his middle initial – and Rudy were West, and at San Francisco, in the same year. Did their paths cross? I don’t believe so. We know that Mennillo was in the company of the Maffeis – D. V. Maffei, President of the Association of Italian Employees, and his son, William – in the October. (He travelled from East to West with William Maffei that month.) Yet, by the Autumn, Guglielmi was very firmly in L. A. He had been in S. F. in the June. And this is clear from his Draft Registration Card (on which he requested and received exemption (due to being an Alien)). So for them to have connected Frank would have had to have been there earlier too. If so, why was Rodolfo enjoying the company of Mr. and Mrs. Spreckles, and in and out of employment, and, on his way South after encountering Norman Kerry, formerly Norman Kaiser? And why are there no photographs of the two of them together at this point when there are several of him with others?
After a difficult 1918, when he lost his mother, had little film work, contracted influenza, and was tormented by a whole host of other problems, Rodolfo Guglielmi, now going by the name of Rodolphe De Valentina, and variants, was, in 1919, beginning to succeed in Moviedom. And though fame was still some way off, it was ahead, even if he didn’t know it. For Frank A. Mennillo the year began with his being linked to the already established American Olive Co. It not being difficult to search for the concern, on the internet, I’m curious to know where the idea Mennillo established it comes from. A relatively quick check revealed the American Olive Co. was in fact set-up before he ever placed a foot on Californian soil. For example, on August 27th, 1905, in the LOS ANGELES HERALD, at a time, you’ll recall, when the then Francesco Mennillo was concerning himself with getting settled on the East Coast, we see that the company was busy altering a factory building, at 1701 East Adams Street, to the tune of $5,000. Likewise, I wonder how he introduced the olive to the country, when, as early as 1907, the American Olive Co. was supplying “finest Ripe Olives in pint and quart cans” to retailers in Oregon. Cans! Which demonstrates a canning process in advance of Mr. Mennillo introducing one. It’s also a mystery how he was put out of business by any food poisoning scandal if the business wasn’t actually his. (A search for this disastrous breakout proved fruitless.)
That he did indeed own a share of the producers is proven by a March 7th, 1919, news item about Corporation Permits. (Shares issued were also issued to him.) As the extent of his holdings aren’t revealed, it’s possible that his interest was significant, and he was a driving force behind their expansion at the time; evidenced by a series of advertisements for label machine operators, and 50 women to peel tomatoes, etc. Yet was the expansion a good idea? And was Frank the person to mastermind it? Or, in any way, oversee it, if he did, in any way, oversee it? Perhaps not. After all his business dealings in the East had collapsed spectacularly.
That September/early October we see he went up the coast for ten days. Stopping: “… a day or two at the Belvedere in Santa Barbara …. from there [motoring] north [to visit] various olive ranches and other property…” that he owned. Of course this sounds good. Until we think about how a former bankrupt had managed to secure the necessary funds to acquire it. I think it’s safe for us to assume he borrowed heavily and was unable to keep up the repayments. And that at some point or another his disastrous past caught up with him. That he’s moved on entirely by the following year is emphasised by a report in THE MORNING PRESS, in July 1920, where we see he’s at the Ambassador Hotel, in L. A., in the company of Christian Demutopolos, a Greek Consul in the USA, Mr. Panagspolos the Consul General, and a Prosper Letternich.
That same month, twenty-five-year-old Rudolphe De Valentino/Rudolphe Valentine, was East, in his own sphere: Motion Pictures. The trip, necessitated by him being summoned to an interview, in April, about his arrest in 1916 and subsequent suing of the publishers of the varied titles that reported it, had led to two parts. First, as Joe Klingsby, in The Wonderful Chance (1920). Then, as Jose Dalmarez, in Stolen Moments (1920). However, there was a third part awaiting him, one that would finally secure him Stardom. The role of Julio Desnoyers in Metro Pictures Corp.’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921).
Anyone who ever read a biography about the life of Rudolph Valentino will know that The Four Horsemen (1921) was a huge hit. And he himself was a hit, nationally and internationally — particularly with females. No decent, well-researched biography fails to disclose his success, later that year, in The Sheik (1921); or, how The Sheik transformed him from a Star into a Superstar. His struggle to disassociate himself from the character that made him a Household Name – a battle he would ultimately lose – would begin in earnest the very next year. However, the role he hoped would lift him artistically, that of Juan Gallardo, in Blood and Sand (1922), didn’t reach the Valentino-hungry public until after he’d been arrested for Bigamy, and had embarked upon his One Man Strike. (To secure better working conditions and greater freedom at Famous Players-Lasky Corp.)
The sudden disappearance of the American Olive Co. in the national press in 1919/1920 does suggest it went out of business. Nowhere did I find a short piece, or a report of any length, that provided a reason (which you’d expect if the shut down had been notable). Whatever happened it’s clear that Frank A. Mennillo had turned his back on produce by the start of the new decade. In 1920, as we saw, he was associating with Greek diplomats on the West Coast. Later that year, in the September, his very definite involvement with The Italian American Republican League, would’ve seen him present at their convention in New York; the purpose of which, was, to: “… solidify the sentiment of voters of Italian origin in favor of Senator Harding and Gov. Coolidge in the November election.” At the gathering, at which representatives from 23 states were present, Frank was a witness to: the setting up of committees to organise women voters; Judge Pallotti’s resolution to repudiate the League of Nations; the endorsement of the Republican platform in full; the elevation of F. H. La Guardia to permanent Chairman; and the reading out of letters, to attendees, from Harding, Coolidge and Cabot, none of whom were able to be present.
Was it due to Frank being busy in the political arena that he failed to assist Rudy when he was accused of Bigamy? And was it his obligations in that sphere that prevented him from helping while he was out of work for six months? Wouldn’t a Padrino have put all responsibilities aside and stepped in? You’d think so. Unless he wasn’t a Padrino in the first place? That Frank A. Mennillo was indeed busy making the most of his connections at the time, is thrown into sharp relief, by a fascinating report on the front page of The New York Times, on Thursday, October 18th, 1923.
Titled, in capital letters, FRANK OF CONGRESS USED IN STOCK DEAL, the news item exposed a serious breach of Congressional rules by Mennillo. Specifically, that he’d sent out letters inviting ‘brother Republicans’ to invest in the [Auto Rim Lever Lock Corp.], not only on Congressional headed paper, and inside of Congressional envelopes, but also using the franking system of the Congress — an improper act and an illegal one. We read how one recipient (“a Republican of standing in New York”), who’d tipped off several newspapers, had described it as “one of the most extraordinary documents” he’d ever received. And how, when quizzed by telegram, the Congressman concerned, M. O. McLaughlin, of Newbraska, President of the company mentioned, denied knowledge of any letters, despite his signature being on them. (The entire letter was, to everyone’s embarrassment, reproduced by TNYT.)
According to the reporter “F. A. Mennillo” was quick to admit, under extreme pressure no doubt, that it was he, not the Congressman, who’d been at fault. How, without the knowledge of M. O. McLaughlin, he’d sent out the 150 invitations; 50 of which, maybe to the most important people, he admitted, had been franked in Washington. The lengthy explanation sounds concocted. And is full of excuses. Obviously it brought to a close his political career — not that it really was, ever, a political career as such.
His position as General Manager at the Auto Rim Lever Lock Corp. – their product, in case you’re wondering, was a patented device that made it easier to change automobile tyres – seems to have continued, however. In the following year he gave both Rudolph Valentino and Valentino’s Business Manager, S. George Ullman, the opportunity to purchase shares in the operation. And we have proof of this, in an image of the share certificate, given to Rudy by Frank, after he’d bought $1,000 worth of shares, on June 28th, 1924. (See above.)
By that Summer Valentino had put his differences with FP-L/ Paramount to the side and commenced filming of his second and final film for them: A Sainted Devil (1924). He was, he thought, secure. Back on top. He looked forward to working with J. D. Williams’ Ritz-Carlton Pictures; a lengthy break in Europe; and realising Natacha’s The Hooded Falcon. He also, after building up nothing but debt during his never-ending strike, had money. Something Mennillo would’ve known.
Of course it’s all part of the story that Rudy was a terrible spendthrift. And he was. As so many many witnesses, including Natacha, testified. He could easily spend more than he was earning, and did, however he was also what’s called A Soft Touch. And it’s my firm belief, based on a later incident, at which I’ll be looking here, that Frank tapped his super-famous fellow Italian for cash. Possibly large sums. Call it a hunch, or whatever you like, but he’s demonstrably hanging about in the later, more successful years, rather than the earlier period of uncertainty and struggle.
The comeback of Monsieur Beaucaire and A Sainted Devil wasn’t the plateau Rudolph Valentino thought it would be. And, though he couldn’t see it at that time, the out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire move to Ritz-Carlton Pictures, was to drag him down to a place he hadn’t been to since before The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. So, marvellous it appeared to be, when he was rescued by United Artists, and his first outing, The Eagle (1925), was a Smash. That he was tied into a highly dubious contract, once more largely brokered by the inept Ullman, which required him to locate the funds for the final three of five productions, mattered little in 1925. All that would sort itself when the time came. Yet it didn’t. Consequently, after his second spectacular, The Son of the Sheik (1926) had been completed, and he was on the road promoting it, he began to feel the heat about Vehicle Three.
Whatever was going on behind the scenes that Summer – we know a tired and stressed Rudy stayed East for longer than planned, and talked with the President of UA, Hiram Abrams – it was all to end in tragedy in the August. His collapse, at a private, early hours party in Manhattan, and subsequent hospitalisation and tragic death, led to one of the greatest outpourings of grief ever seen in the United States. And right there – yes you’ve guessed it! – was Frank A. Mennillo.
Frank had been in Rudy’s company on and off during the previous twelve months. We see them, for example, with Mae (Murray) and another gent., in a photograph taken in New York, before Rudy and then Mae sailed for Europe, in late 1925. That they saw one another on his return in the January is highly plausible. However, as Frank A. Mennillo was seemingly East and Rudolph Valentino was very definitely West, from February to June, they next saw each other late in July at New York. And it’s likely they spent some time together from the beginning of the following month, until the 15th, the day that Valentino was taken to hospital.
On page 216 of his book, Valentino as I Knew Him, S. George Ullman states, very clearly, that when he realised, on Sunday the 22nd, that Rudolph Valentino was weakening, he contacted: “… Frank Mennillo, one of Rudy’s dearest Italian friends.” Mennillo, Ullman recalls, arrived in the early evening. And, after being informed of how serious things really were, they went in to see Valentino in his room. Frank, we learn, spoke to Rudy in Italian, but Rudy responded in English, saying: “Thank you, Frank. I’m going to be well soon.” (That’s all we get.) Then we’re informed that: “All during the night the doctors, Frank Mennillo and I kept watch.” S. George Ullman going into the room every hour to see how he was faring. According to Ullman “At about six o’clock” they chatted. Then Valentino began to fade. There were some final words. A Priest was called. There was a single unintelligible word in Italian. And he passed away.
As I plan to write in the future about S. George Ullman, I’ll leave aside my issues with the account, and focus on the fact that Frank A. Mennillo was conspicuously involved before and after Rudolph Valentino was dead. And available, when Rudy’s brother, Alberto, arrived in the USA at the start of September. It was of course the case that many persons offered their assistance, as anybody would, in such a situation, yet was it simply this that led to him being at the centre of things? It strikes me Mennillo would’ve been extremely useful to Ullman when it came to dealing with the Guglielmi family. Helpful, when it came to persuading Valentino’s vulnerable, distraught older brother that an autopsy was unnecessary. And that his remains should definitely be interred in California, rather than returned to Puglia. Was it just this? I wonder. Is it possible that Frank knew what had really happened at The Mysterious Party? And was it sensible to keep Mr. Mennillo inside of the tent rather than outside of it?
I speculate in this way due to the fact that, in the following year, Frank A. Mennillo paid S. George Ullman a visit. The reason? To borrow $40,000 from the estate of his recently deceased Dear Friend. Yes still a lot of money! And the equivalent of over half a million today. Why, we might ask, would such a supposedly prudent man as Ullman grant such an incredible request — and he did grant it. What was in the background of Mennillo that would inspire such confidence? I haven’t seen a thing. (And use of the frank of Congress was in 1923 quite some time after he’d become Valentino’s Manager.) So I seriously wonder – really, I do – what it was he saw that I can’t. Perhaps someone can point out to me how a serial business failure could merit such an enormous monetary award? And if you imagine that late in the game he was a success? He wasn’t. And just how much of a disaster he continued to be, can be seen by looking, one last time, at what’s out there for all to view.
How badly things were going after the establishment of California Tomato Juice, Inc. is apparent when we inspect the Fifteenth Census of the United States in 1930. Being just three short years since Mennillo secured tens of thousand of dollars from a dead man, we might expect to see him doing well, prospering, living off the fat of the land, as they say. What we see instead, is that he’s living alone, without any wife or family, at a place called the Carlton Hotel, South Figueroa, Los Angeles. A hotel, occupied, not by people doing well, prospering, or living off the fat of the land, but by office workers, waitresses, salesmen and saleswomen, secretaries, soda fountain operators, cashiers, milliners, and musicians. Ordinary people. Getting by. Surviving. Hoping for a better life. And Frank’s occupation? He’s one of fifteen living there that have no occupation, are unemployed, and without prospects.
Frank A. Mennillo had tumbled far and fast without anybody to milk for money. Once he’d stood beside his friend Rudolph Valentino and basked in the reflected glory. Now, just a few years on, he stood alone and in the shadows, a nobody, without a job. I searched for mentions of him in the early to mid. Thirties and found none. His last few years were probably rather depressing — they certainly look it. And California Tomato Juice, Inc. was so obscure and low key, that it only gets highlighted in the state press, in 1935, when it finally goes out of business.
In November 1936, Associated Press informed Americans that Frank A. Mennillo, ‘the Olive King’, was dead. The short, three paragraph obituary framed him as a pioneering genius, trumpeting his connection to President Warren G. Harding, and claimed he’d been the Chairman of the Italian American Republican League. He was, the report said, born in Naples, Italy, had been at University there, and arrived in the USA in 1904. He had got his start in importing in New York, moved West, and then, in 1915, started the American Olive Co.
While there had been several Olive Oil Kings – Elwood Cooper and Charles Phillip Grogan are two examples – I saw no evidence Frank had been crowned thus in his lifetime. And while the connection to President Harding was genuine, in that he’d helped him in his bid to be elected, Mennillo had never been Chairman, as far as I’m aware. (That honour having been bestowed upon La Guardia.) Born in Naples, Italy, was correct; though I’d question his ability to study at Naples University and commence work as a Merchant by the age of 21/22. (I accept I may be wrong about that.) And he was not the person who established the American Olive Co., which was very much up and running before 1915.
The write up is plainly an attempt to present Frank as something other than he was. It looks good. And I can see that it was taken at face value when he was written about in the recent past. Which is a bit of a shame, because behind the white wash is a much more fascinating tale; but either you scrub off that white wash or you don’t. Francesco Mennillo/Frank Mennillo/Frank A. Mennillo/F. A. Mennillo had an interesting life. That said it really wasn’t any more interesting than a lot of others in his day. And it certainly wasn’t the life that’s been out there up until now.
And that’s why I wrote this post: to put the record straight. I’m not happy about people being misled for personal gain about Rudolph Valentino’s life. And they’re being totally misled in the case of Frank A. Mennillo. Of course they were friends, good friends, and as all good friends are they were there for each other. And yet these were not equals in any sense. I believe I’ve shown, with many examples, that the idea Mennillo was in a position to really help Valentino is a baseless one. It was Rudy who was useful to Frank, not the other way around.
I found no evidence that the two ever met before 1918/1919. And I didn’t see it presented in concrete terms by anyone anywhere that they did. No photographs. No letters. And no witness testimony. Nothing. Second or third hand memory recalled and passed along isn’t satisfactory. When people have been dead seventy or eighty years you really need to see something solid. For me their being in New York at the same time is a coincidence. They may, possibly, have encountered each other, but I don’t see how, when these are people moving in very different circles in 1914, 1915 and 1916. When we look at San Francisco we see the months don’t match. As well, once more, there are no photographs, letters or witnesses. And when Rudy is East, in 1920, it isn’t due to Frank, as Frank’s not East at that time. However, with the pair in the L. A. area, in the late Teens, we do have the right conditions for a first meeting. Perhaps one day I’ll find something that confirms it. I’ll be looking for it as-and-when-I-can I promise you.
I want to thank you for reading this post all the way through. It’s a long one, but there was no way to make it any shorter, without omitting vital information. I welcome any feedback. And if you have a question, or wish to see anything presented here, then please just ask me. I’ll be back next month, when the post will be: New York Timeline (1914).
It being a fact Valentino was born in the region of Puglia, or Apulia, in Southern Italy. And it equally being a fact he sought to escape that locality and his country of origin. Meant it was important that I travel there if I was to understand him and his motives — and so in 2014 I did. During the trip I went to Bari, to Taranto and Martina Franca. My final stop, Castellaneta, the most important of all, is the subject of my post this month.
Hard as it is to believe, it really is five whole years, a half decade, since I was preparing to go to Puglia for the first time. If I doubt it, the red – Rudy’s favourite colour – file I created for the trip, full to bursting with flight info., maps, tourist pamphlets, postcards, emails, print-offs, invitations, guest house and hotel details, people’s mobile numbers, and restaurant bills and general receipts, is proof the trip commenced on April the 29th, and ended May the 6th. Impossible to dismiss. All there right in front of me. Every day. Every hour. Every minute. Every second.
Of course it helped me when organising that I was no stranger to the unusually shaped nation. Even as a child I’d had inklings. For example, when my Bestie, Neil (half Italian on his mother’s side), returned to school after the Summer, wearing shoes with bubbled, melted soles, I knew it was a place of extremes. And when my own mother talked about her journey to the resort of Rimini, in the Sixties, the previous decade, I began to appreciate it was romantic. (The image of her, sunkissed and seated on a Sea Swing, is one I treasure.) Winning first prize in a Reader’s Digest competition, in the Eighties, and acquiring a book about the Romans in Britain, helped me understand it was of historical importance.
Before viewing Summertime (1955), Death in Venice (1971), Don’t Look Back (1973), or The Wings of the Dove (1997), I journeyed to Lido di Jesolo. Just a cheap package holiday in 1983, with my Aunt, Uncle and Sister; but for the first time I was able to taste proper oven-baked pizza, swim in the Adriatic, and to see and fall in love with pastel-coloured, time-worn Venice. As a Fashion Student I spent happy hours turning the pages of VOGUE Italia and L’UOMO VOGUE. As a Fashion Editor I saw, wrote about, and handled, some beautiful Italian clothing. Over two decades, either for work, or a holiday, I ventured to: Milan, Florence, Venice, Portofino, Rome and Sorrento.
However the deep South I didn’t know. Sorrento, near Naples, for a 2011 family wedding, was the closest I’d been to what’s known as ‘The Heel’. After looking for both flights and accommodation (and finding and paying for both), I began to properly research where I was heading. Looking I could see that the different areas had their own flavour. Gargano e Daunia was known for its deserted beaches and fish eateries. Puglia Imperiale for the broadnesss of the horizon, bright shades and a harsh moon-like terrain. Bari e la Costa, meanwhile, was characterised by golden beaches, its ports and the walls and palaces at Bari. Magna Grecia, Murgia e Gravine was a rocky place. Valle d’Itria was somewhere filled with cone-shaped, stone buildings called Trulli, amongst the vineyards and olive groves. And Salento, with its never ending coastline dotted with coves, was an area enfolded by two seas: the Adriatic and the Ionian.
Bari e la Costa, I experienced at Bari, between April 29th and May 1st. And Magna Grecia, Murgia e Gravine, I appreciated at Taranto, Martina Franca and Castellaneta, from May 1st to May 6th. The first glimpse of Castellaneta, and its situation, was from the window of the train between Bari and Taranto. It hadn’t crossed my mind that I would see it on the way to the second location. But I did. In the distance. Perched on the edge of the ten kilometer long Gravina di Castellaneta, or Gravina Grande ravine. And though it was on the horizon, just in sight, I felt something, something I’ve no words to describe.
The modern station being some distance from the town – the one used in Rudy’s day is now defunct and closed up – our Host awaited us and our luggage with a car. Arriving at the remote guesthouse that sunny Saturday afternoon (after a drive filled with much conversation and a Falcon above us at one point) I was keen to collect myself. So much had occurred since touching down at Bari on the 29th. Many calls and emails there to finalise appointments and meetings. Downtime, with visits to churches, and walks by the port, and in the backstreets. Followed by a memorable but very crammed two days at Taranto and Martina Franca. All leaving me feeling a little overwhelmed. So I took stock. Walked in the fields near the converted farmhouse; took some photographs; returned to the accommodation and added to my notebook; slept; viewed my images and film clips; watched some TV; and ate a delicious Italian home-made meal.
The next day was to be a long one. I had most of the 4th to enjoy exploring Castellaneta. And then, in the evening, from seven p.m., I was to be at the Premio Rodolfo Valentino event at Teatro Valentino. (An awards ceremony celebrating Italian Excellence.) That it was Sunday was, on one hand, an issue, and on the other not an issue. It would be quiet and everything would be closed. But it would also be so quiet and so closed that it would be easy to walk about. I could wander in the streets of Rudolph Valentino’s home town to my heart’s content soaking it all up. I could trace and retrace my steps. Snap away with my camera until the memory was full. Stand and stare at his birthplace for as long as I damn well wanted.
The problem was that it was raining heavily in the morning. So I waited and waited and waited — and waited some more. However, after lunch it was still raining, and it became clear that it was time to head to the historical centre (with an umbrella) and hope for the best. What could go wrong? I was a Brit. and used to steady drizzle! At two p.m. I began my investigation. I had four or so hours to explore! Plenty of time!
Though I started my inspection at the Comune di Castellaneta map (see above) I felt it was good to just walk and see where I ended up. All the signage in the tightly packed Old Quarter drew me to the Museo Valentino; which I knew was closed on that day, and on the next. Yet it was still good to locate it, so I could return there on my final morning, on the 6th. Here and there I saw adverts for the recently released biopic featuring Gabriel Garko as Rudolph Valentino: Rodolfo Valentino – La Leggenda (2013). And also a few A4 posters for the Premio Rodolfo Valentino event that night (which Garko would be attending). It was clearly a big deal locally and regionally.
After an initial easy stroll along the narrow streets and alleys I went to check the location of the theatre for the event later. Then, walked to a wet Via Roma, the main thoroughfare in Rudy’s time and today. It was here that I began to see the extent to which Rudolph Valentino is remembered – cherished, even – in Castellaneta. We might scoff at mid.-price fragrances that bear his professional name. Or think it a little tacky that a dry cleaner is named after him. (Generally I’m against profiting from a man so profited from in life and after death.) Yet at his place of origin it works. It’s appropriate. In fact, to be able to see all of the many ways in which he’s referenced, more than a century after his birth, is rather wonderful.
Sipping a classic Cappuccino, in the now faded, Bar Valentino/Caffeteria Valentino, was a real treat, as the establishment features in a Sixties short film about him, and where he came from; with interviews with his contemporaries and then young residents. It also allowed me to spend a bit of time out of the rain. And gave me the chance to look at what I’d photographed so far and how those images had turned out. (In some instances not so good.)
Fortified by caffeine I walked again through the Ancient Heart. Snapping and also re-snapping as I went – I found a wonderful plaster frieze on a side street on this second walk – with the intention to next view Valentino’s place of birth and the statue that stands nearby.
Finally – finally! – I was in front of his first home! What a moment! To be there where the story began! And get a true sense of the size – not so big – and the location! I looked at it from all angles – even the back – and took photographs until I felt I’d properly captured it. Here was where Rudy was born, heard his first lullaby, took his first steps, spoke his first words, heard his first bed time story… Going inside seemed out of the question — because it was. Suspicious, nervous looks from above, from the current occupant, when I walked down the side steps to the rear, made it totally clear it was pointless to attempt to knock on the door, or to ring any bell. Besides, my Italian was limited to phrase book phrases, and helpful little words, such as: thank you, hello and excuse me, etc.
After studying the Sixties memorial – at the time being prepared for restoration and now fully restored – it was only five-thirty p.m. What to do? Back along Via Roma I went to see what else I could find (grabbing a snack along the way). That I discovered, accidentally, the defunct train station from which, I assume, Rodolfo Guglielmi and his parents and his siblings departed for Taranto, in 1904, was a nice reward for my effort. And though it had been modernised before being closed, this was undeniably the spot at which his Grandfather, Pierre Philibert Barbin, had toiled, when the railway arrived at Castellaneta in the Nineteenth Century. And of course was the reason that his Mother and his Aunt settled so far away from France. Afterwards finding the apparently – seasonally? – closed nearby Alhambra Bar Valentino, the exterior painted a deep Rudy red, was a nice little extra. Did the owners know about The Hooded Falcon? The ambitious, doomed project of Natacha Rambova? And Valentino’s love of Spain? There was nobody around to ask!
As I wrote in some detail about the Premio Rodolfo Valentino event, at Teatro Valentino, in a piece for Chris. Roman’s, All About Rudolph Valentino Blog, in 2014, I’ll skip to the following day, the 5th, and my day-long return (in better weather), to Castelleneta. The purpose of this second bite of the cherry, was: to meet and speak with a local Historian; to view the spectacular Gravina, on the edge of which the town sits; to visit the beautiful Cathedral; go to the rival Valentino museum (the Pinacoteca); and to take yet more photographs of those narrow streets and alleys.
My morning appointment was an eye-opener, and helped me to understand better the activities of Valentino’s Grandfather, on his mother’s side. The Gravina di Castellaneta was breathtaking, and I and my travel companion, enjoyed a delicious lunch there of Italian supermarket delicatessen treats. The mainly Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Cathedral (Cattedrale di S. Maria Assunta gia di S. Nicola), with its sensational and very convincing faux marble columns, and the many Saints, and the glorious decorated ceiling, didn’t disappoint. And later in the bright afternoon sunshine I saw Castellaneta afresh.
The rain of the previous day had somehow obscured many treasures. On that pleasant Monday in May I could see everything more clearly. I saw the architectural mix. All of the many waves of history. The subtle, and sometimes, not-so-subtle colours. The stairways leading nowhere and the blocked off walkways. The teeny tiny windows and impossibly small doorways. It all assaulted me. And I could see that, though there had been obvious modernisation, these were still, for-the-most-part, the streets that Little Rodolfo had negotiated so long ago. The arches under which he’d passed. The corners around which he’d appeared or disappeared.
After a day that had filled up my brain to bursting point I needed to rest. And so back to the accommodation I went, to unwind, have a sleep, and to load everything I’d seen onto my laptop and my separate hard drive. However, it was all far from over, as, following a late dinner, Rudolph’s birth day began to approach. (He was born on the 6th.) Back in Bari or Taranto – I don’t recall – I’d bought a bottle of MUMM champagne for the occasion. And this had already been passed to our hosts to chill in their fridge for about 24 hours (to guarantee maximum iciness). As midnight approached they joined us in our quarters to share the moment. That they had no flutes was brushed aside by me. (That they’d (amazingly) never drunk Bubbly before seemed to add to the celebration.) And a little after midnight, we opened the bottle, saluted Rudy, and for about an hour shared the contents four ways. The trip was almost over. But I was happy rather than sad. (Was it the champagne?)
The next day the sun shone again. After breakfast on the roof, and loading our luggage into the vehicle of the hosts, it was time to head for the Fondazione Rodolfo Valentino Museo (Rodolfo) Valentino. An hour or so was all we had. And of course it was far from sufficient. However, our flight out of Bari, at three p.m., dictated that we be on our way in advance of lunchtime, and the museum didn’t open until ten a.m.
As anyone who’s been knows, the museum is small, but packs a punch. Entry is through a narrow doorway at the end of an open, vaulted space. Once inside, there’s a large reception area, with a desk, where you pay your modest entry fee (of just a few Euros) and can pick up pamphlets and booklets about the area; get advice and information; or book a trip or guided walk. In the initial space there’s also a glass cabinet filled with the most significant publications about Rudolph Valentino. (In it I noticed several I own.)
Then you move from space to space, eventually returning to where you began. There’s a wealth of framed material to view as you go. Some real gems. Two or three rooms are devoted to huge printed reproductions of his films. And there are a couple of room sets. One featuring a bed he’s understood to have slept in. And another, with an exotic tent, with a male mannequin dressed as a Sheik. The reasonably sized cinema runs films and instructional videos — but there was no time for that on this occasion.
I must say I’ve nothing but praise for the individuals who established it and those who now maintain it. Though I would personally make use of the space differently, were I running it, which I’m not, and obviously never will be, the fact it exists at all, when it could easily not, is something to be grateful for. In time it may develop into something more than it is. Perhaps add more artifacts, expand, and become more interactive. If it doesn’t it will still be important, and of interest, to those that are knowledgeable and those who aren’t. It was certainly a great full stop to my eight day trip to Southern Italy.
Castellaneta was everything I hoped it would be and so much more. And I recommend it as a destination if you’re interested in Rudolph Valentino. For me, as I said at the start, it was an absolute must. Somewhere along the way I was in a conversation, probably at Taranto, and was asked why I would go to his place of birth so long after he’d left, and when there was nobody alive that had known him. It was a good question. And the only answer I had was that that didn’t matter to me. Yes he was long gone. Yes his family and friends were dead. Yes it had changed. But I could still see his former home. I could still see the Gravina. I could still see those narrow passageways and streets and walk them. And if it’s true that an individual is often formed by experiences in the first seven years of existence, then it goes-without-saying that I had to see where his character had been formed. And, having done so, I believe I do know him better than I did. Much better.
The downside? There’s always a downside! Is that it’s still remote and sleepy. You could, like I did, struggle to find suitable lodgings. (The excellent Masseria I stayed at has since closed due to poor business.) And it’s not a Hot Spot or a Happening Place. In the early evening everything closes. And, as far as I could see, there are few good restaurants. All that said the people are charming and many, particularly those under forty, can speak English fairly well. There’s plenty to do and see during the daytime. And if you can drive you won’t need to be chauffeured as I was. If you do want to go, I think I’d recommend being based at Taranto and travelling up there for the day, maybe twice.
Thank you for reading this post about Castellaneta and walking in Rudy’s footsteps with me from beginning to end. It’s been fun to look back at the trip and share it with you all. In the future – I don’t know when – there’ll be posts about Taranto and Martina Franca. And I’ll also be posting about my visits to Perugia and Nervi in 2015. See you in May!
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.” (It appears ‘Lou’ confused Brock and Co. with Tiffany and Co.)
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!