In the mid. 1970’s, the Italian magazine, STOP, decided to commemorate half a century since the passing of Rudolph Valentino, with a thoughtful article, featuring a lengthy interview with one of his closest childhood friends; a man named: Guiseppe/Joseph Nico. In the month he passed, 95 years ago, it seems appropriate to post that translated interview here; an interview, which I can say is one of the most interesting items I’ve found, during the course of my research into the earliest years of this remarkable, endlessly fascinating man. I hope you’ll enjoy what I’m titling: Joseph Nico.
The place where I was born is called Rudolph Valentino’s Castellaneta. It is a small town located at almost the very tip of Italy, on a hill, overlooking the sea. Castellaneta is a famous city. And every year there’s a pilgrimage of thousands of women who still remember him, who cried and suffered for him, and that carry the handkerchiefs soaked with tears, on August 23rd, 1926, in boxes, the day their Lover left them forever.
Valentino, Star, was their Idol. For years he filled their lives and their dreams. The magnetic gaze of Rudy. His almond-shaped eyes. His smile. The way he kissed the women, and held them in his strong arms, caused guilty, sinful shivers.
Life was a little less harsh in those five years when their “Forbidden Lover” intoxicated with perverse fascination. In theatres, in cities large and small, and in modest provincial towns, where a muted piano translated, musically, the images flickering on the screen, so many sins were eaten, and husbands and boyfriends were betrayed with thoughts. Rudolph Valentino really had an almost magical power to bring down many virtues… his memory at a distance of fifty years has remained intact.
In France, the U. S., Australia and Japan, all over the [W]orld you can say, there are specialised travel agencies. And the place where the tourists stop is in Castellaneta, the city of Valentino.
In this week’s newspapers and magazines, from all corners of the [E]arth, there are long articles about Rudolph Valentino, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of his death. Here in Castellaneta his memory is still alive. Visitors who travel the road that leads to the town, can see, to the left, the monument that the city has erected. It’s a two metre high statue, ceramic and blue, which embodies the [A]ctor in the role of the Protagonist in his most famous – [final] – film The Son of the Sheik [(1926)]. Just nearby you see the house where the Star was born, on May 6th, 1895. A beautiful Baroque-style building with balconies.
We had the good fortune to meet with Mr. Joseph Nico, who is 81 years old, the same age [Valentino] would be if he were alive today. Joseph Nico has always lived in Castellaneta and was a Schoolfriend of Rodolfo. With him he also spent his early teens. Until Rudy moved to Sant’Illario.
The old man remembers a great deal about the childhood of Rudolph, who he knew well. Being his Playmate he received his confidences. His story is new and surprising in many respects. And also demonstrates the precocity of the sentimental youth who would become the greatest Seducer of the 20th Century.
“My childhood,” Mr. Nico begins, “was spent entirely with Rodolfo. My friend was a cute boy and breezy. He always had new ideas in his head and was also ready to implement them. Rodolfo came from a solid family. Borghese. (Bourgeois.) The father was a man of authority here in Castellaneta, and was the Veterinarian of the area. Dr. Giovanni/John Guglielmi had married a French Woman of noble birth, Maria/Marie [Berthe] Gabrielle Barbin. And at birth the child was baptized with the names: Rodolfo Pietro Filiberto Raffaello.
“To be honest, I found it odd that a guy of his position came to play with us, the children of poor people, but Rodolfo preferred ordinary people to the rich. Even when he returned from Hollywood to Castellaneta, and was here with his Isotta Fraschini, a kilometre long, he embraced us.
“Rudolph, as I said, was a smart one — and very early. The girls made him turn his head and he ran to them. I remember one episode, when we were about 10, to dismiss a lively compliment, a girl gave him a slap. Yet he, in response, just stroked her blonde braids. Everyone spoke of what had happened between the Son of the Veterinarian and small Luciana.
“On the rare occasions there arrived in the countryside a travelling show, he was always in the front row, and devouring, with his eyes, the actresses. The Chanteuse especially polarising his attention. To see them better Rodolfo would sneak behind the scenes. And then return and tell us all what he saw, with such a liveliness and seductive colour, that we were spellbound for days.
“The Parish Priest, when he learned of this behaviour, scolded him in front of everyone, and didn’t allow him even Confession. However, he charmed the older man and moved him and was allowed both Confession and Communion. The two remained good friends. And when he was famous and rich, and came back to his home town, he gave many dollars to the Parish.
Joseph Nico fails to tire of telling stories. His elderly memory is lively. And wakes up when he rummages through the distant memories of early youth.
“Only at school,” he continues, “my friend didn’t do well. He didn’t like to be bent over books, and preferred games and entertainment. Bravado with friends. In that time women used to fill skins with oil for sale. In the morning a cart passed to collect oil for a cooperative. Rudolph was hiding behind a door, and, before the man could pick up the skin full of oil, he broke the skin with a large stone, that then flooded the road with the slimy liquid. Rudolph’s Father, who the Cart Driver had gone to to complain, raised his hands to Heaven, and compensated the poor man for the damage. Rodolfo was then put in the corner. Then double-locked in his bedroom. But the room had a small balcony which was near to the gutter pipe. So, without a second thought, Rodolfo opened the window and slid down the pipe to the street, where I was waiting for him.
“For beautiful clothing Rudy had a real fanaticism, and his Mother sent him around looking like a [P]rince; yet, his clothes didn’t last long due to the violent games in which he indulged. On Sunday, however, at Mass, my friend was really dapper. I still have in front of my eyes his blue sailor suit with white spats, hair combed and parted, and smooth and shining with grease.
“At the parties of rich friends he was always present because all vied to invite him. But it was the girls who often pressured their brothers to make sure he wasn’t missing. His charm and conversation had an effect on them. And they were all in love with him. In Castellaneta there were many handsome boys, yet none was like him, no one had his eyes, his magnetism. The most beautiful girls were his friends.
“Yet one was able to resist and her name was Felicity Sasserego. She lived in Saint Hillary where Rudy went to complete his agricultural studies. He confided in me that he was in love with her. Yet she wouldn’t have anything to do with him. And didn’t trust that ‘Rooster’ that was behind all the skirts. Rodolfo for the first time in his life wept for love. He who would later be able of reach for millions of women tasted the bitterness of defeat. And perhaps it was this disappointment that ripened his resolve to seek his fortune far from his Homeland.”
The memories of the elderly friend of Rodolfo stopped here. Tears forming in his eyes and running down his cheeks. Mr. Nico can’t help but think that if Valentino had stayed there in Castellaneta he wouldn’t have become one of the most famous men in the World, but would, perhaps, still be alive; and be there beside him, to drink a good glass of wine.
I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading this translation, of an enlightening, yet all-too-brief interview, with Mr. Joseph Nico, the childhood friend of Rudolph Valentino. And I hope that you’ll return to read the next post about the greatest Seducer of the 20th Century. Do like this post and comment if you have the time. Thank you!
In the New York office of William A. DeFord, on May 6th, 1920 (incidentally, his 25th Birthday), a pre-fame Rodolfo Guglielmi was asked to read through and sign, a transcription of an interrogation of him conducted the previous month, on April 14th. This forgotten examination, set-up to determine the exact sequence of events four years earlier, when he was seized by a Vice Squad, was located by me in 2016 and received in its entirety a year later. The pages that I produce here, in full, for the first time, give us incredible insight, not just into that September 1916 raid, but also into what happened afterwards. Due to the length of the discussion, as you can see, it was necessary to divide it into two, with this second post featuring the rest and being titled: The 1920 Interview (Part Two).
Previously, with leading questions, Rudy has been asked to describe the events as he recalled them, on September the 5th, 1916. (The law enforcers’ arrival. What happened when he and his Landlady were escorted, first to the District Attorney’s office, and then, to Rosalsky’s chambers. And exactly what he was wearing that day. Etc.) We left the interrogation on Page Nineteen, where DeFord wished to be certain about what Guglielmi recalled. In particular to establish the existence of any paperwork — which did exist. The page ended with a question about Thym being accused of: “… conducting a disorderly house and paying [protection] money to the police of the city of New York…” A query Valentino appears to have answered positively. (She was accused of this in the chamber of the Justice.)
Mr. De Ford presses the then Mr. Guglielmi to see if he recalls Mrs. Thym being accused of paying money to the police. Or that he himself was charged with “… procuring girls …. for the purposes of illicit sexual intercourse…” Rudy is vague to the point where it appears he’s being evasive or hiding something. However, it must be said, several years have passed since the day it all happened.
On Page 21 Rodolfo doesn’t recall being labelled a Blackmailer. Or Georgiana being labelled one. And when asked if he recalls being accused of extorting money he replies: “No, I can’t recollect that.”
The questions continue about what he remembers and doesn’t remember.
William A. De Ford asks Rodolfo Guglielmi several questions about what he did and didn’t know was going on at that time. From his answers it appears he recalls knowing very little.
On this page his Questioner asks him about any crimes he was ever charged with. The questions are similar and all elicit the exact same response: “No!”
Page 25 covers questions about his incarceration (not at The Tombs), his bail (which was reduced thanks to his Representative), and his later Habeas Corpus proceeding (at the Supreme Court in late 1916).
On this page De Ford pushes hard to know what Guglielmi understood by the phrase: got the goods.
It’s at this point that William A. De Ford starts to wrongfoot Rodolfo Guglielmi. By design or by accident we can’t know. Regularly he points out to the Plaintiff that his earlier answers to questions were either incorrect or incomplete. Each time succeeding in getting Rudy to agree that he misremembered or was incorrect. And this is achieved by De Ford contrasting the later Valentino’s current answers with those he gave in late 1916.
On Page 29, the Interviewer, Mr. De Ford, extracts from the Plaintiff, Mr. Guglielmi, an admission that in late 1916, in front of Judge Philbin, at his Habeas Corpus Hearing, he explained that he’d been told that he was being held as a Material Witness. Previously he’d said that he hadn’t been told this.
And yet, despite having his own recorded answer read out to him, he says further down the page, that he discovered he was a Material Witness when he read that night’s newspaper in the detention centre.
Here, De Ford seems to enjoy skewering Guglielmi, when he forces him back to the question about being held as a Material Witness; and then, afterwards, whether he understood that he was potentially going to be charged with extortion.
William A. De Ford again gets Rodolfo Guglielmi to admit that he has answered earlier questions incompletely. And that he’s misremembered what happened on the day of his seizure.
Rudy almost seems to want to deny what he was accused of.
Once again the Interrogator manages to return the Answerer to his responses to “Mr. Justice Philbin” in late 1916. Proving that he was indeed fully aware, in September of that year, exactly what was happening to him. All contrary to his previous replies where he denied he knew anything, other than that he was a ‘Pimp’, and that Thym was a Madam.
Half of this page concerns Rudy’s testimony, late in 1916, about his occupancy of a room at Mrs. Thym’s. (He was a Tenant not a Visitor.) The other half is about whether or not he’d promised to provide information in order to have his bail reduced. His answer is always a categorical no.
PAGES 34 AND 35
De Ford continues to push for an answer, other than a no, regarding an offer for the $10,000 bail to be reduced. Frustratingly he fails to ask the Interviewee what he means when he says more than once: “I was tricked.”
Here the interview begins, finally, to wind down. And we get a nice explanation form Rudy himself (who would know) of his early days as a Dancer from late 1914.
PAGES 37 AND 38
The lengthy interview ends oddly with questions about his shoes in court. With the purpose of the very final page, being a chance for the then Rodolfo to read through what was typed-up, and approve it and sign it.
I want to thank all those who have taken the time to read, first Part One, and now, Part Two, of this truly fascinating Q & A session, in New York, in the Spring of 1920. Which it’s my absolute pleasure to put on this Blog for free and for all time. For many decades we’ve wondered exactly what happened that day, and, what transpired afterwards. We now know. Even if there remain unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions. See you all next month!
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. Awfuly 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 installment, 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!
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!
On His Fame Still Lives this October I’ll be posting about A Sainted Devil (1924). Writing about this lost Valentino spectacular, for Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount, has required me to research very deeply. And, naturally, that research involved reading, in its entirety, the basis for the film: the Rex Beach short story Rope’s End. A tale the like of which I’ve never read before; featuring, at its heart, a personality like none I’ve ever encountered. However, before we tackle not just the sensational story, but also the equally sensational protagonist that lives and breathes on the pages, we need to pause, briefly, and see what was going on in the life of Rudolph Valentino.
By the Summer of 1921, after less than twelve months, Valentino had moved on from the pre M-G-M Metro Pictures Corp., the studio that had made him a Star, to Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount. At his new studio, where he became a Superstar, in The Sheik (1921), and was then utilised, in quick succession, in Moran of the Lady Letty (1922), Beyond the Rocks (1922), Blood and Sand (1922), and The Young Rajah (1922), he became seriously dissatisfied. His dissatisfaction arising from a combination of: low salary, several broken promises, and a general lack of control and poor material.
What followed was his extended One Man Strike; which lasted a whole year, from 1922 to 1923. A twelve month spell, when, prevented from appearing in any motion picture, he danced his way across the US with his second wife, promoting Mineralava beauty products; published an exercise book and a collection of poems; and even attempted, unsuccessfully, to become a singer. By the Summer of 1923, however, he’d reached a settlement with his employer. And, after a lengthy trip to Europe, followed by another, briefer one, he returned to work at the start of the next year, in an ambitious adaptation of Monsieur Beaucaire. (A short 1900 novel by Booth Tarkington.)
The question of what would follow the expected Smash Hit of Beaucaire – in the end it wasn’t the massive success they thought – wasn’t answered quickly. Much time passed and many possibilities were rejected before the Beach story was settled on. Thanks to Natacha Rambova, his former wife, who, in 1930, published The Truth About Rudolph Valentino, her version of their life together, we know a great deal about the making of what was to become A Sainted Devil. And what we aren’t told by her we can discover from other sources. However, let’s return to the production later, after we’ve enjoyed looking at the inspiration. (Actual text is in bold.)
Beach’s brilliant yarn opens with the following paragraph:
A round moon flooded the thickets with gold and inky shadows. The night was hot, poisonous with the scent of blossoms and of rotting tropic vegetation. It was that breathless, overpowering period between the seasons when the trades were fitful, before the rains had come. From the Caribbean rose the whisper of a dying surf, slower and fainter than the respirations of a sick man; in the north the bearded, wrinkled Haytian hills lifted their scowling faces. They were trackless, mysterious, darker even than the history of the island.
After this great opening, the atmosphere established to the point where we can almost smell it, we now survey the scene. A thatched roof, on four posts, food spread upon a table, and a candle, undisturbed by even a whisper of a breeze, burning quite steadily. Close by another “thatched shed” under which soldiers are gathered ’round a fire. And about, in the “jungle clearing”, huts that have seen better days in which men can be heard talking.
We’re next introduced to the Villain: “Petithomme Laguerre, colonel of tirailleurs, in the army of the Republic…” Seated at the table, in his blue and gold uniform, disappointed with the food he just ate even more than the lack of plunder in the village. He mulls over the day from the comfort of a grass hammock that, like the property, belongs to a Julien Rameau.
We then receive some context:
On three sides of the clearing were thickets of guava and coffee trees, long since gone wild. A ruined wall along the beach road, a pair of bleaching gate-posts, a moldering house foundation, showed that this had once been the site of a considerable estate.
These mute testimonials to the glories of the French occupation are common in Hayti, but since the blacks rose under Toussaint l’Ouverture they have been steadily disappearing; the greedy fingers of the jungle have destroyed them bit by bit; what were once farms and gardens are now thickets and groves; in place of stately houses there are now nothing but miserable hovels. Cities of brick and stone have been replaced by squalid villages of board and corrugated iron, peopled by a shrill-voiced, quarreling race over which, in grim mockery, floats the banner of the Black Republic inscribed with the motto, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”
Once Hayti was called the “Jewel of the Antilles” and boasted its “Little Paris of the West,” but when the black men rose to power it became a place of evil reputation, a land behind a veil, where all things are possible and most things come to pass. In place of monastery bells there sounds the midnight mutter of voodoo drums; the priest has been succeeded by the “papaloi,” the worship of the Virgin has changed to that of the serpent. Instead of the sacramental bread and wine men drink the blood of the white cock, and, so it is whispered, eat the flesh of “the goat without horns.”
But where is Julien Rameau? Hanging by his wrists from a nearby tamarind tree! Soon Petithomme Laguerre speaks to him. Saying:
“So! Now that Monsieur Rameau has had time to think, perhaps he will speak,” said the colonel.
Yet Rameau’s reply is the same one he’d been giving since the beginning of his torment: that he has no riches. Growing increasingly bored, the colonel tells a subordinate, named Congo, to: “… bring the boy!” And also “a girl”. And we subsequently learn they are man and wife. And that the man is named Floreal.
Congo “and another tirailleur” duly appear with young Floreal Rameau and his equally youthful wife. Both have their hands tied behind their backs. The husband is silent. His wife is in tears.
Now we’re supplied with a good description of the Anti Hero:
Floréal Rameau was a slim mulatto, perhaps twenty years old; his lips were thin and sensitive, his nose prominent, his eyes brilliant and fearless. They gleamed now with all the vindictiveness of a serpent, until that hanging figure in the shadows just outside turned slowly and a straying moonbeam lit the face of his father; then a new expression leaped into them. Floréal’s chin fell, he swayed uncertainly upon his legs.
“Monsieur–what is this?” he asks Colonel Petihomme Laguerre. And then commences a conversation between the Captor and the Captive. The Aggressor wants their money. And the Victim reiterates that there’s none.
When his wife agrees with him Laguerre notices her beauty:
Her arms, bound as they were, threw the outlines of her ripe young bosom into prominent relief and showed her to be round and supple; she was lighter in color even than Floréal. A little scar just below her left eye stood out, dull brown, upon her yellow cheek.
Floreal’s young wife is disgusted by Laguerre, but is forced to reveal her name, which is Pierrine. When he asks her to tell him where their riches are hidden she replies:
“I know nothing,” she stammered. “Floréal speaks the truth, monsieur. What does it mean–all this? We are good people; we harm nobody. Every one here was happy until the–blacks rose. Then there was fighting and–this morning you came. It was terrible! Mamma Cleomélie is dead–the soldiers shot her. Why do you hang Papa Julien?”
Then her young husband becomes hysterical and begs on his knees for mercy. Telling the Colonel to take what they have: “fields, cattle, a schooner”. However their evil Tormentor hasn’t been listening. And, instead, has been eyeing Pierrine. Which makes Floreal even more desperate:
Floréal strained until the rawhide thongs cut into his wrists, his bare, yellow toes gripping the hard earth like the claws of a cat until he seemed about to spring. Once he turned his head, curiously, fearfully, toward his young wife, then his blazing glance swung back to his captor.
Now Floreal Rameau’s worst fears become reality. Despite his attempt to appeal to their Tormentor, Petihomme Laguerre, Laguerre orders orders his men to beat Floreal’s poor father, while he takes the son’s wife into his personal custody, to perhaps suffer a fate worse than death. Floreal Rameau flings himself in front of the Colonel but fails to stop him. And now watches, helplessly as his wife is led away and his father is brutalized:
Floréal shrank away. Retreating until his back was against the table, he clutched its edge with his numb fingers for support. He was young, he had seen little of the ferocious cruelty which characterized his countrymen; this was the first uprising against his color that he had witnessed. Every blow, which seemed directed at his own body, made him suffer until he became almost as senseless as the figure of his father.
His groping fingers finally touched the candle at his back; it was burning low, and the blaze bit at them. With the pain there came a thought, wild, fantastic; he shifted his position slightly until the flame licked at his bonds.
Colonel Laguerre returns to see if the torturing of Julien Rameau is effective. Not noticing that the son, Floreal Rameau, is burning his restraints with the candle on the table. After telling Floreal that he’ll be guarded during the night, and then dealt with the next day, he departs; having: “… an appetite for pleasanter things than this.”
Floreal then cries out to no avail:
“Laguerre! She is my wife–by the Church! My wife.”
Congo and Maximilien, the two subordinates of the Colonel, talk between themselves about the fact that they believe there’s no money. They then decide they’ll kill Floreal’s father, take “the boy back to his prison”, and get some rest. While Congo attends to the old man – who’s not surprisingly expired – Maximilien approaches the son in order to lead him to where he’ll be kept prisoner. Telling him, as he does so, that he’ll be shot tomorrow.
Yet, the desperate, ingenious Floreal, who has by now freed his hands, deftly removes Maximilien’s machete from its sheath. After mortally wounding the unsuspecting owner he then pursues his fellow trooper/’tirailleur’, Congo, who’s head he cracks open, like: “… a green cocoanut, with one stroke.”
Floreal Rameau has time to cut down the body of his dead father but is soon aware that the other men are seeking out their weapons. Thus, as they begin to shoot at him, he quickly disappears into the jungle, as they continue to fire blindly. Laguerre almost fails to subdue them and the first part of the tale ends thus:
The road to the Dominican frontier was rough and wild. All Hayti was aflame; every village was peopled by raging blacks who had risen against their lighter-hued brethren. Among the fugitives who slunk along the winding bridle-paths that once had been roads there was a mulatto youth of scarcely twenty, who carried a machete beneath his arm. In his eyes there was a lurking horror; his wrists were bound with rags torn from his cotton shirt; he spoke but seldom, and when he did it was to curse the name of Petithomme Laguerre.
After the horrifying, blood-soaked opening, Rex Beach tells us what happened to Floreal in the aftermath. How he became resident in the neighbouring country. Gave himself a new name. Learned the language. And became a Seaman. (He had, it seems, been “born of the sea”.) Furthermore:
But he could not bring himself to utterly forsake the island of his birth, for twice a year, when the seasons changed, when the trades died and the hot lands sent their odors reeking through the night, he felt a hungry yearning for Hayti. During these periods of lifeless heat his impulses ran wild; at these times his habits changed and he became violent, nocturnal.
Inocencio Ruiz, as he’s now known, is shunned by women and by men. And people talk of him suspiciously. The suspicious talk is wonderful:
“This Inocencio is a person of uncertain temper. He has a bad eye.”
“Whence did he come?” others inquired. “He is not one of us.”
“From Jamaica, or the Barbadoes, perhaps. He has much evil in him.”
“And yet he makes no enemies.”
“Um-m! A peculiar fellow. A man of passion–one can see it in his face.”
Our Anti Hero’s homeland, Hayti, has, we discover, become peaceful again. And the man that he hates is now ‘General Petithomme Laguerre, Commandant of the Arrondissement of the South’. Inocencio hears of this and departs in a shady Barkentine. He cruises the Caribbean “seeing something of the world and tasting of its wickedness.” After twelve months, at Trinidad, he acquainted himself with a “Portuguese half-breed”, the Captain of a Schooner. Inocencio was eventually promoted to Mate. And then, after a gambling session, won the ship from the “half-breed”.
We’re next in Colon (Panama). During what the author terms ” the French fiasco” of “De Lesseps”. (This information means the story is set in the 1860s and 1870s.) There in “the wickedest, sickest city of the Western Hemisphere”, he:
… heard the echo of tremendous undertakings; there he learned new rascalities, and met men from other lands who were homeless, like himself; there he tasted of the white man’s wickedness, and beheld forms of corruption that were strange to him. The nights were ribald and the days were drear, for fever stalked the streets, but Inocencio was immune, and for the first time he enjoyed himself.
Solitary Inocencio thinks of Hayti and Pierrine. And we’re informed that:
In time the mulatto acquired a reputation and gathered a crew of ruffians over whom he tyrannized. There were women in his camp, too, ‘Bajans, Sant’ Lucians, and wenches from the other isles, but neither they nor their powdered sisters along the back streets of Colon appealed to Inocencio very long, for sooner or later there always came to him the memory of a yellow girl with a scar beneath her eye, and thoughts of her brought pictures of a blue-and-gold negro colonel and an old man hanging by the wrists. Then it was that he felt a slow flame licking at his tendons, and his hatred blazed up so suddenly that the women fled from him, bearing marks of his fingers on their flesh.
Inocencio Ruiz sails for weeks with his Motley Crew. Often visiting the Haytian coast for no reason. He hears gossip about Petithomme Laguerre who has plans one day to be the President. This stirs him to action. And, with the help of “a French clerk in the Canal offices”, he composes an extremely clever letter to His Excellency, General Petihomme Laguerre, Commandant of the Arrondissement of the South, Jacmel, Republic of Hayti. In the communication the Clerk recommends Ruiz. And tells the ambitious Laguerre that there are 200 rifles available at a good price. And that Inocencio is prepared to meet him and discuss the sale.
Antoine Leblanc, the letter writer, expresses doubts about the scheme. But Inocencio Ruiz, the former Floreal Rameau, is adamant. And says, dramatically:
“When I die I shall have no enemies to forgive, for I shall have killed them all,” he said, simply.
We now move to conclusion. Inocencio’s ship, the Stella, arrives at Jacmel, Hayti, and drops anchor. An anchored “Haytian gunboat” worries him, as he hadn’t counted on it being present.
A band was playing in the square, and there were many soldiers. Inocencio did not go ashore. Instead he sent the letter by a member of his crew, a giant ‘Bajan’ whom he trusted, and with it he sent word that he hoped to meet His Excellency, General Laguerre, that evening at a certain drinking-place near the water-front.
We then are told by Beach:
The sailor returned at dusk with news that set his captain’s eyes aglow. Jacmel was alive with troops; there had been a review that very afternoon and the populace had hailed the commandant as President. On all sides there was talk of revolution; the whole south country had enrolled beneath the banner of revolt. The gunboat was Laguerre’s; all Hayti craved a change; the old familiar race cry had been raised and the mulattoes were in terror of another massacre. But the regular troops were badly armed and the perusal of Inocencio’s letter had filled the general with joy.
Captain Ruiz goes to the rendezvous early and sits drinking rum while waiting. (Due to “his threatening eyes” he’s unmolested.) An “older and infinitely prouder” Laguerre finally arrives in a “parrot-green” uniform. “With age and power he had coarsened, but his eyes were still bloodshot and domineering.” They greet each other:
“Captain Ruiz?” he inquired, pausing before the yellow man.
“Your Excellency!” Inocencio rose and saluted.
Ruiz isn’t recognised by Laguerre and a discussion ensues. Eventually the Captain persuades the General to accompany him alone to view the merchandise. They then depart for the Stella:
The moon was round and brilliant as they walked out upon the rotting wharf-all wharves in Hayti are decayed-the night had grown still, and through it came the gentle whisper of the tide, mingled with the babel from the town. Land odors combined with the pungent stench of the harbor in a scent which caused Inocencio’s nostrils to quiver and memory to gnaw at him. He cast a worried look skyward, and in his ungodly soul prayed for wind, for a breeze, for a gentle zephyr which would put his vengeance in his hands.
Inocencio rows the unsuspecting Petihomme out to the Stella:
… as they neared the Stella a breath came out of the open. It was hot, stifling, as if a furnace door had opened, and the yellow man smiled grimly into the night.
The crew of the Stella are amazed to see the General. But their Captain reveals nothing to them of his plan. The ‘Monsieur le General’ is guided towards the cabin. And this is then followed by: “… the sound of a blow, of a heavy fall, then a loud, ferocious cry, and a subdued scuffling, during which the crew stared at one another.”
Afterwards Inocencio emerges and gives orders for them to set sail. A faint breeze means the ship moves slowly, but surely, and Inocencio seats himself upon the deck-house, and drums “his naked heels upon the cabin wall.” Furthermore:
He lit one cigarette after another, and the helmsman saw that he was laughing silently.
Dawn broke in an explosion of many colors. The sun rushed up out of the sea as if pursued; night fled, and in its place was a blistering day, full grown. The breeze had died, however, and the Stella wallowed in a glassy calm, her sails slatting, her booms creaking, her gear complaining to the drunken roll. The slow swells heeled her first to one side, then to the other, the decks grew burning hot; no faintest ripple stirred the undulating surface of the Caribbean. Afar, the Haytian hills wavered and danced through a veil of heat. The slender topmast described long measured arcs across the sky, like a schoolmaster’s pointer; from its peak the halyards whipped and bellied.
“Captain!” The ‘Bajan waited for recognition. “Captain!” Inocencio looked up finally. “There–toward Jacmel–there is smoke. See! We have been watching it.”
Their Captain nods. He knows that the ship approaching them is the “Haytian gunboat” that he saw at Jacmel. His crew are uneasy and demand to know who the man is that was brought aboard the night before. When they discover his identity they’re aghast. But Inocencio is unfazed and tells “the Bajan” to locate a new rope, make it: “… fast to the end of this halyard and run it through yonder block.”
Captain Ruiz then returns to General Laguerre in the cabin:
Laguerre was sitting in a chair with his arms and legs securely bound, but he had succeeded in working considerable havoc with the furnishings of the place as well as with his splendid uniform. His lips foamed, his eyes protruded at sight of his captor; a trickle of blood from his scalp lent him a ferocious appearance.
Gradually Inocencio reveals to Petihomme not only who he is but also what his captive’s fate will be. The conversation goes as follows:
“All Hayti could not buy your life, Laguerre!”
Some tone of voice, some haunting familiarity of feature, set the prisoner’s memory to groping blindly. At last he inquired, “Who are you?”
“I am Floréal.”
The name meant nothing. Laguerre’s life was black; many Floréals had figured in it.
“You do not remember me?”
“N-no, and yet—”
“Perhaps you will remember another–a woman. She had a scar, just here.” The speaker laid a tobacco-stained finger upon his left cheek-bone, and Laguerre noticed for the first time that the wrist beneath it was maimed as from a burn. “It was a little scar and it was brown, in the candle-light. She was young and round and her body was soft–” The mulatto’s lean face was suddenly distorted in a horrible grimace which he intended for a smile. “She was my wife, Laguerre, by the Church, and you took her. She died, but she had a child—your child.”
The huge black figure shrank into its green-and-gold panoply, the bloodshot eyes rested upon Inocencio with a look of terrified recognition.
Inocencio Ruiz, now Floreal Rameau once more, further torments his former Tormentor. And then takes him on deck. Petihomme Laguerre is briefly hopeful when he sees the smoke rising from the gunboat in the distance. But before he can finish what he’s saying his Captor slips the new rope around his wrists. Then a dramatic moment:
“Give way!” he ordered.
The crew held back, at which he turned upon them so savagely that they hastened to obey. They put their weight upon the line; Laguerre’s arms were whisked above his head, he felt his feet leave the deck. He was dumb with surprise, choked with rage at this indignity, but he did not understand its significance.
The sailors haul Laguerre higher and higher into the air until: “… his feet had cleared the crosstree.” Then:
“Make fast!” Inocencio ordered.
Laguerre was hanging like a huge plumbob now, and as the schooner heeled to starboard he swung out, farther and farther, until there was nothing beneath him but the glassy sea. He screamed at this, and kicked and capered; the slender topmast sprung to his antics. Then the vessel righted herself, and as she did so the man at the rope’s end began a swift and fearful journey. Not until that instant did his fate become apparent to him, but when he saw what was in store for him he ceased to cry out. He fixed his eyes upon the mast toward which the weight of his body propelled him, he drew himself upward by his arms, he flung out his legs to break the impact. The Stella lifted by the bow and he cleared the spar by a few inches. Onward he rushed, to the pause that marked the limit of his flight to port, then slowly, but with increasing swiftness, he began his return journey. Again he resisted furiously and again his body missed the mast, all but one shoulder, which brushed lightly in passing and served to spin him like a top. The measured slowness of that oscillation added to its horror; with every escape the victim’s strength decreased, his fear grew, and the end approached. It was a game of chance played by the hand of the sea. Under him the deck appeared and disappeared at regular intervals, the rope cut into his wrists, the slim spar sprung to his efforts. In the distance was a charcoal smear which grew blacker.
As Laguerre nears destruction Inocencio counts. Taunts him from below. And reminds him of his past victims. And then:
A cry of horror arose from the crew who had gathered forward, for Petithomme Laguerre, dizzied with spinning, had finally fetched up with a crash against the mast. He ricocheted, the swing of the pendulum became irregular for a time or two, then the roll of the vessel set it going again. Time after time he missed destruction by a hair’s-breadth, while the voice from below gibed at him, then once more there came the sound of a blow, dull, yet loud, and of a character to make the hearers shudder. The victim struggled less violently; he no longer drew his weight upward like a gymnast. But he was a man of great vitality; his bones were heavy and thickly padded with flesh, therefore they broke one by one, and death came to him slowly. The sea played with him maliciously, saving him repeatedly, only to thresh him the harder when it had tired of its sport. It was a long time before the restless Caribbean had reduced him to pulp, a spineless, boneless thing of putty which danced to the spring of the resilient spruce.
Once dead, Laguerre is lowered, and slipped into the still sea. We then have a beautiful sentence:
The sky was glittering, the pitch was oozing from the deck, in the distance the Haytian mountains scowled through the shimmer.
And the story ends thus:
Inocencio turned toward the approaching gunboat, which was very close by now, a rusty, ill-painted, ill-manned tub. Her blunt nose broke the swells into foam, from her peak depended the banner of the Black Republic, symbolic of the motto, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” The captain of the Stella rolled and lit a cigarette, then seated himself upon the cabin roof to wait. And as he waited he drummed with his naked heels and smiled, for he was satisfied.
Reading through Rope’s End, which I’ve obviously abbreviated, without removing vital components, there’s no doubt it was a superb tale. And it’s easy to see why Natacha Rambova and Rudolph Valentino felt it would be an exciting vehicle for him. Featuring, as it does, an exotic central figure, in a foreign, tropical location; plenty of tension, with many opportunities for serious dramatic acting, and emoting; changes of scene and also changes of costume; a cast of interesting supporting characters; and the triumph, if in a dark, very twisted way, of good over evil.
Naturally there were several obstacles to be overcome. It was unthinkable, at that time, due to racial prejudice, that Rudy could portray a ‘Mulatto’. While he’d certainly already embodied a desert Sheik, a coarse Spaniard, and an Indian Prince, each time this had been made acceptable in some way. (Usually by revealing he wasn’t, in fact, completely ethnic.) Also, for the same reasons, there was no way any African American could play opposite him, as a foe. And, lastly, there would need to be an adjustment when it came to the wife that dies. Possibly by showing a happy life before the arrival of the soldiers and giving the audience flashbacks throughout. Or by reuniting them at the conclusion. (In the original she dies giving birth to Petihomme Laguerre’s child.)
In The Truth About Rudolph Valentino, in 1930, Rambova was clear, that before Valentino departed for a short break in Florida, in May 1924, he’d been very happy with the script. According to Natacha, that submitted and approved narrative, was: “… centered about a revolution in South America, full of the color, fire and dramatic situations that had characterized ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’, the plot was motivated by war…”
This all shows, that while Forrest Halsey, who’d already adapted Tarkington’s Beaucaire, had shifted the action from the Caribbean Islands to Latin America, and at the same time most likely dumped the sea going sections, he’d very much preserved the uprising that was the reason Floreal/Inocencio becomes vengeful. What the “color, fire and dramatic situations” exactly were is a mystery. No doubt the adapted character was a wandering, rootless individual (on dry land rather than at sea), that found himself in a series of compromising situations. Natacha Rambova’s mentioning of TFHotA (1921) suggests this.
Having undergone significant, yet satisfactory alteration, it was therefore a shock when the script was further altered during Valentino’s absence. Rambova explains that: “… after the story had been accepted, bought and paid for, the powers behind the throne suddenly decided that for the sake of international policy (or expense) all traces of war must be eliminated. In other words, the very reason for the story, the spinal column of the beast, was amputated. What remained were a few fragmentary incidents strung together by a threadbare plot and given the title ‘A Sainted Devil’.”
Moreover: “I objected loudly to this mutilation of a fine story; it took all of the pep from the picture. I predicted it would be a failure. But my objections were promptly overruled and, rather than cause more trouble, I sank into quiescence. It was the last picture of our contract with Famous Players and we didn’t want more litigation. Anything for peace!”
If we accept her version – I do by-the-way – Rope’s End had gone from being an extremely exciting, if vicious, work, with a simple to understand central character, shifting against a series of visually exciting, exotic backdrops. To a still relatively exciting, perhaps less bloodthirsty storyline, with, again, a simple to understand central character, operating in a colourful, fiery and dramatic world. To, finally, a lacklustre story, devoid of meaning, with a motiveless, certainly unchallenged central character, moving from scene to scene in an environment that was unexceptional.
Personally, with the necessary changes mentioned earlier, I visualise, without difficulty, Rudolph Valentino as Floreal Rameau. I see him as the unworldly, virginal, defiant young Husband. I see him, on his knees, helpless and begging for mercy. I see him transforming and becoming, when given no alternative, instinctive, animal and a murderer. I see him as the forever-changed, lonely unsatisfied drifter; as a fugitive who broods about the past and lives in the moment. I see him as the Master of the Stella with his ugly crewmen. And lastly, I see him, face to face with his wicked adversary, fully prepared to punish him, for the deaths of his mother, and, his father and wife.
It’s a great shame that Famous Players Lasky/Paramount couldn’t or wouldn’t see him as Rameau too. That they made the decision to drastically alter the “accepted, bought and paid for” adaptation. That they put production costs and expediency before great art and good storytelling. That they decided, after all, not to let bygones be bygones. For me, it’s obvious Rudy was denied the opportunity to surpass himself, in The Four Horsemen…, The Sheik and Blood and Sand. Yes, the times were against him, yet that was as nothing compared to having his employers not fully on his side. Immediately afterwards, though they didn’t know it for about another year, the Valentino’s were no longer a Hollywood Power Couple. Backing down over A Sainted Devil (1924), would lead to them being given the run around about The Hooded Falcon, which was never realised. Cobra (1925), which was to follow A Sainted Devil, was Valentino’s second – third in the opinion of some – flop in a row.
The issues that surrounded the adaptation of Rex Beach’s Rope’s End, 95 years ago this year, are of interest to me, and I hope they’ve interested you. If not, at the very least, I’m sure you enjoyed, at least a little, getting to know the story on which it was based. If, like me, you’ve come to appreciate the main character, then my time hasn’t been wasted. It’s possible you may even feel, as I do, that there was a great opportunity for Valentino to excel that he was denied. As explained at the very start I’ll be looking fully at the film A Sainted Devil (1924) this Autumn. Maybe you’ll join me for that? I do hope so! Enjoy the the Reel Infatuation Blogathon, today, tomorrow and Sunday. It’s wonderful to be given the opportunity to be part of it!
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!
Perhaps my favourite story about Rudolph Valentino is the one related by Viola Dana, in the 1970s, when Dana contributed to Episode Six of Hollywood. As the bitter-sweet tale is about Christmas, and Christmas is approaching, I felt it would be an appropriate final post before the end of 2018. So here goes!
Dana begins to tell her tale right after we learn that it’s 1919, and Rudy’s wife, actress Jean Acker, has left him. It’s Christmas and he’s depressed and lonely. As follows:
I said: What are you doing for Christmas?
He said: Well, nothing.
I said: Haven’t you any place to go?
He said: Well, no, I don’t.
I said: Well you sure do. I said: You’re going to come home with me. This is our Big Night. My mother and father will be there. And the presents. And you’re going to be right with us.
He said: Oh that’ll be marvellous.
So we made him Santa Claus. I had a red cape. And we put a red hat on him. And we got cotton and put a white beard on him. And he… handed out the presents.
A lot of people have… it’s made me laugh… a lot of people, you know, said, oh how well they knew Rudy… and what they did for him and all that sort of thing. And I think, hmm, well, there was one Christmas they forgot about Rudy, before he was anything. After he did The Four Horsemen that was… different.
Viola’s vivid, compact account is crammed with detail. The two friends encountered each other somewhere in LA (seemingly on Christmas Eve.), and after hellos and small talk the conversation naturally switched to the subject of Christmas. It appears she sensed he wasn’t just alone on the street but was also alone full stop. And once her suspicion was confirmed, told him, in no uncertain terms, he wasn’t going to stay alone. That night – maybe the next morning – they dressed him up as Saint Nicholas, and got him to hand out all of the gifts. When she reflects on how things were after he became a Star (as Julio in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) the umbrage is noticeable. Before he achieved fame nobody had any time for him; after, many claimed to have been there to assist.
Dana gives us a wonderful festive gift herself when she delivers her recollection. It’s a package filled with insight into her life and his. And yet it leaves us seriously wondering on two fronts. First of all, how could he possibly be so solitary, at a time of year that’s all about joining together with friends and family? And, secondly, who were the people that weren’t there and later claimed to have been so helpful to him for so long?
At the end of 1919 Viola Dana had much to celebrate. The year had seen the release of no less than eight of her starring vehicles. One in January, two in March, another in April, two more in June and July, a further one in the November, all followed by one more in the December. (The actual total was nine if we include the re-release of a 1917 film Blue Jeans.) As the issuing of the last of the eight, The Willow Tree, was just days away, on the 29th of the month, The Teens were unquestionably ending on a high. And with a new decade ahead who knew what she might yet achieve.
Professional success was, perhaps, all the more satisfying due to her having lost her first husband, John Hancock Collins, in the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918. His sudden demise, that October, robbed her not only of her partner, but also the person responsible for writing and directing her films. (The first of 1919, The Gold Cure, was their last as a Star Writer/Director team.) Despite this terrible blow – perhaps because of it – she continued working, managing to actually strengthen her position at Metro Pictures Corporation, her studio; thanks in large part to June Mathis; fully, or jointly responsible, for no less than four scenarios: The Parisian Tigress, Some Bride, The Microbe and The Willow Tree.
If we get the impression from her Hollywood interview that Dana wasn’t a personality with airs and graces, it’s confirmed by a laudatory Motion Picture Magazine profile, late in 1920, titled: Peter Pan Dana. The writer, Hazel Shelley, states early (in paragraph one) that: “… Miss Dana doesn’t exercise her queenly prerogative and sit commandingly on her throne, she mingles democratically with her subjects and does her share of the work and a bit more.” That she was a person who snatched “every bit of joy and fun” that she was able to out of the hour. And that the green-eyed, long-lashed Actress was a jolly comrade: “… a fearless child, demanding and getting out of life—everything.” With an omnipresent mood that was: “… a combination of pep and jazz and giggles.” Such, then, was the person who rescued Rudolfo Valentino. An individual who was never above anyone. That lived her life to the fullest. And that was a lot of fun to be with. Exactly the sort of company he required at such a low point.
1919 had for Viola Dana been a year of steady solid progress. The exact opposite was the case for Rudolph Valentino. If his name changes – Rudolpho De Valintine, Rudolphe De Valentina, Rudolph Valentino, Rodolph Valentine, Rudolfo Valentino – aren’t, all by themselves, indicative of instability, then the varying quality of his roles certainly is. Going, as he did, from a minor cast member; to a bit part player; to a key cast member; to again a minor cast member; to an uncredited extra; to a minor cast member; and lastly, once again, to a minor cast member. Without the security of any kind of contract at a studio he was adrift, anchorless, at the mercy of the turbulent waves of the sea that was the industry at the time.
Working alongside Mae Murray, in The Delicious Little Devil and The Big Little Person, two Universal Special Attractions directed by her husband Robert Z. Leonard, appeared to be a progression, yet, cruelly, took him nowhere. Interestingly, who exactly threw the lifeline is questionable, due to the recent discovery of an interview, with Leonard, in which he takes credit for adding Rudy to Murray’s films. The hopeful approached him one evening at an establishment asking him if he could be her dance partner. So impressed was ‘Bob’ that he added him, first to one film, and then to a second. (The fact he confuses the productions with Princess Virtue and Face Value isn’t necessarily of consequence.)
In Virtuous Sinners, in which friend Norman Kerry starred as a Society Crook, he barely registered. (A blessing as it was a ‘picture’ so terrible that Wid’s DAILY suggested it would be suitable only for: “… a single day’s showing …. in a theatre catering mainly to transients.”) In A Rogue’s Romance he fared a little better (clearly making the most of his role as an uncredited Apache Dancer), but was far from a significant participant. And in his next, The Homebreaker, he again wasn’t credited. Several stories at this time underscore his quiet desperation as he bounced from one project to another. One, related by Sessue Hayakawa, in his 1960 autobiography Zen Showed Me the Way, features Valentino going to see the Japanese Actor and almost pleading to be included in any future production. Hayakawa explains to his reader it was an impossibility, however, due to them being far too similar to one another.
According to Emily W. Leider, on page 92 of Dark Lover: the Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino, it was at this point that Dorothy Gish requested Rudy be included in the cast of her next vehicle Out of Luck. Though he wasn’t exactly a main character, it was, without question, a significant step up from everything he’d done since working with Mae. And it was to also inexorably lead him to the role of Clarence Morgan in Eyes of Youth; the role understood to be the singular reason Mathis cast him as Julio, in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921).
One evening in early September, following his contribution to Eyes of Youth, at Harry Garson’s Garson Studios, Inc., at Edendale, Rudy found himself at a popular nightspot at Venice, called the Ship Cafe. After a while he spotted a New York acquaintance, Dagmar Godowsky, and went over to her in order to speak. According to Dagmar, in her lengthy interview in Rosenberg and Silverstein’s The Real Tinsel, when she introduced him to everyone at her table the temperature plunged. Everybody gathered – there to celebrate the conclusion of Alla Nazimova’s next spectacular – followed the furious Star’s lead and gave him the cold shoulder. Once the humiliated Rudy had withdrawn Nazimova berated Godowsky for daring to present a such a figure to her and her guests; a man notoriously caught up in the shocking de Saulles scandal two years earlier. “What in the world is all this? Why would she be so annoyed?” Miss Godowsky thought to herself at home. Why indeed!
Within a week Valentino became seriously acquainted with one of the young women at the Ship Cafe just days earlier. It was to be a meeting of two rather similar individuals. People somewhat battered and bruised by their recent experiences in life, and, during their time as performers on film. A little insecure. Lonely. Victims, both, of the great Diva Nazzy. Two unconnected souls needing connection, about to connect, without even the faintest inkling of the far-reaching consequences. But then, in the moment, who can see too far ahead?
Miss Jean Acker had also been invited to the home of Pauline Frederick that night, and instantly recognised the beautifully dressed, well-mannered European man so horribly insulted by ‘Madame Nazimova’. He asked her to dance. She declined. And instead they sat under “a California moon” and talked, and talked — and then talked some more. The discussion is unrecorded – the terrible Ship Cafe incident and the film-making business are two obvious topics – but we know they found themselves understanding and liking one another very much indeed.
Jean, more than three years his senior, perhaps spoke of her successful return to motion pictures twelve months earlier. How she’d occupied herself prior to that; her early career up to about 1915-1916; her beginnings at ‘Lubinville’ in 1911: and previously her early days employed as a Milliner. Rudy had his own tale to tell of course. How he’d recently worked with Clara Kimball Young, and, in reverse order, Dorothy Gish, Earle Williams, and Mae Murray. That before all of this he had been a dancer (on both coasts); had arrived from Italy almost six years ago; had emigrated at the age of eighteen; and was trained as an Agriculturalist.
A two month long courtship commenced, culminating in marriage, just before or after midnight on November the 4th, or 5th. (The Tuesday or the Wednesday.) It would seem Rudy had proposed several times – no less than seven according to one source – and on each occasion was gently rebuffed. On the Tuesday, while out riding, he suggested an elopement to Santa Ana, which was, once more, refused, as that evening they were to attend an important party at the home of Maxwell Karger, Director General of Metro Pictures. At the bash – a farewell celebration for the studio President, Richard Rowland and his wife – friends of the pair dared them to get married that night. After checking with Mr. Karger that it would be alright, they hurtled into Los Angeles in Acker’s car, secured a special ‘after hours’ license, located a willing minister (who was Rev. James I. Myers of the Broadway Christian Church), and returned to the Karger residence and were wed.
Considering the nuptials were spontaneous, and happened so late at night without any real warning, it’s surprising there was so much press coverage in the newspapers and in trade magazines. (Even VARIETY mentions it — twice.) We can of course assume that due to the fact it was a significant studio affair there would have been at least two or three journalists present. However, the fact it continued to be a story as late as December 20th – in Motion Picture News – is difficult to understand, when we consider the turn of events. Of course we don’t complain as the varied reports help us to piece it all together. And my favourite, due to its prophetic quality, is coverage in the November 22nd issue of Camera! In which Rudy’s recent, breath-taking fall from a balcony, in Ambition, later titled Once to Every Woman, and released in 1920, is compared to his dive into the arms of his first wife. The difference obviously being that in the 1920 Universal-Jewel Production de Luxe there was a soft landing.
As I plan, in the not-too-distant-future, a serious and in-depth look at the life and career of Jean Acker based on previous research, I won’t go into too much detail now about the events in the early hours of the next day and the next morning. It’s no secret that Acker slammed the door of her Hollywood Hotel room in the face of Valentino. Or that there was subsequently an odd series of encounters and incidents involving the couple in the four weeks between mid. November and mid. December. Suffice to say, that by the time Valentino reached Christmas Eve. 1919, he was a different man to the one that had been cheered and had his back patted at the start of the previous month.
The individual who accidentally met with Viola, on that Wednesday in the penultimate week of the year, was wondering if he would ever have a sustained run of luck. 1919 had been a roller coaster of ups and downs, yet he had clung to the handrail no-matter-what, and was as hopeful as he could be under the circumstances. After a two week break – the fortnight was supposed to have been his Honeymoon – he had commenced work under the banner of First National with Katherine MacDonald’s company, on her next vehicle Passion’s Playground. As far as I know, after this engagement, he was without a serious opportunity, until ‘Max’ Karger awarded him what turned out to be another small role, in the May Allison film The Cheater. (Hopefully, one day, the subject of another post.)
He did not, like his Hostess on Christmas Day, have the support of his family. This was a person who had long ago lost his father, and less than two years before, at the very start of 1918, had been deprived of his mother. His two siblings, Alberto, his older brother, and Maria, his younger sister, were alive but many thousands of miles away. Of course instead of actual family he naturally had friends that he could turn to — right? A person so busy in Hollywood over the course of a year surely wasn’t wanting in any respect in that department was he? He wouldn’t be left high and dry at a time of year that’s about family and friends?
There’s obviously a great deal of truth in what Viola Dana says at the very end of her contribution. Where was Mae Murray? Trying desperately all day to reach him on the telephone? No. She wasn’t. We might begin to seriously question if their walks together under the stars in Central Park in New York years earlier ever happened. If she ever knew him at all, in fact, before he spoke to ‘Bob’ at the Vernon Country Club in 1918. How about Emmett J. Flynn? His director twice. So eager in later years to broadcast how he’d given Rodolfo his start. He just had to be searching around for him didn’t he? No. Absolutely not. And the others? Norman Kaiser now Norman Kerry? And Dorothy Gish? How about ‘Dougie’ Gerrard his friend since 1917? And of course there were others — people like Frank A. Mennillo. Why was his Sponsor and Benefactor so absent? Could it be that he, too, wasn’t the friend he later claimed to be in the early days?
We wonder – I’m convinced I’m not alone in thinking this! – what would’ve happened to Rudolph Valentino 99 Christmasses ago had his and Viola’s paths not crossed. Where would the struggling Actor without prospects, without his wife, and without family or friends have ended up? I shudder at the thought. A chill comes over me just picturing him alone again as he was in December 1913. And I think, too, about young people just like him today. Without prospects. Without a partner. With no family to turn to or any friends on hand. Actually, let’s not think about that, as it’s just too awful to think about!
Instead let’s see Rudolph Valentino as he was on December 25th. In a busy, happy home. Part of the fun. Laughing. Enjoying delicious food. For 48 hours or so forgetting his many troubles. And maybe getting some good advice from Viola, or one of her famous sisters, or from their mother. Perhaps we’ve pinpointed a turning point. Perhaps spending time with them was just the tonic that he needed. As we know 1920 would be the year that he secured the role of Julio Desnoyers in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. A belated festive gift, maybe? What fame did certainly ensure was no more lonely Christmasses.
First of all I want to say thank you so much for reading this post all the way through — I really appreciate it. As usual I’m not adding sources here, but those not mentioned in the text, partially, or fully, are available to anyone who takes the time to ask. May I wish all of you a very enjoyable and memorable Festive Period. And if you are able why not think about including someone who has nowhere to go. After all, it might just transform them, and their lives, you never know. See you in 2019!
Had Rudolph Valentino not become seriously ill and died 92 years ago, he would, right about now, have been busy filming his third spectacular for United Artists Corp., at the Fairbanks-Pickford Lot, in California. Cellini, the tentative title, we know. But what was it about? Who was to star in it? Which director had been selected? These questions and others need answering.
What got me really interested in this unmade project – I already was a bit by-the-way – was something “motion picture magnate” Joseph M. Schenck said to reporters on the 17th of August 1926. Having failed, along with Screenstar wife Norma Talmadge, to gain entry to Valentino’s Polyclinic suite, the Chairman of the Board of Directors was pressed for a statement. Surprisingly, he revealed how the death of ‘The Great Lover’, should it occur, could cost United Artists $3,000,000 to $4,000,000. (Four million dollars then being $57,000,000 now.) His blunt pronouncement woke me up to the scale of the pact between Joe and Rudy. There was a great deal riding on each of the five productions (two of which had been completed). Nothing had been uncovered yet. The more I looked the more I found. With perhaps the most fascinating item being a tiny, blink-and-you’d-miss-it report, about how seriously unhappy Rudolph was, and that he was planning to cancel his contract and leave the studio. But more about that later.
The origins of the vehicle that was never to be? Perhaps the credit for the idea should be handed to Robert G. Lisman, who, in his The Play, From The Picture Angle column, in the November 15th 1924 issue of Motion Picture Magazine, wrote:
“THE FIREBRAND,” a comedy by Justus Mayer, presented by Schwab, Liveright and Mandel, at the Morosco Theatre on October the 15th, 1924.
The hero is Cellini, the famous Italian sculptor of the fifteenth [sic] century. At a glance the play appears to be a dramatization of a “Decameron Night.” [sic] The lines are salacious but nothing very censorable happens. Romance and action are always good picture material and with slight changes this play should make a good vehicle for Valentino.”
If Rudy didn’t see this suggestion – he probably would’ve – it proved to be a prophetic one. And a quick look at the play shows why Lisman reached the conclusion he did. And also why others (including Valentino) did too.
Edwin Justus Mayer‘s play, his first, was, as VARIETY stated that month: “… rattling good entertainment…” In the title’s review by Edba, the central character is Benvenuto Cellini, a Florentine Creative Genius whose many transgressions have, so far at least, been overlooked due to his value as an artist. Recent lawlessness can’t be condoned, however, and Allesandro Duke of Florence is on his way to pass sentence of death. When the Duke sees Angela, Benvenuto’s love interest, he’s distracted and fails to order the execution. After inviting Cellini to the palace he departs with the girl; before the arrival of the Duchess, who, likewise, invites the craftsman. (To regain Angela he agrees.) At the ducal seat, after more killing with his sword, Benvenuto has to find a way to retrieve his girl, while placating the Duke’s amorous wife. Following hilarity on the balcony he escapes to his studio for one last night of bliss before he dies. Attempting to complete his art there before dying, and tired of love, he dispatches Angela to Duke Allesandro. Cheats death, again, at the hands of Ottaviano, Allesandro’s cousin. And soothes the wrathful Duchess with an artful explanation as to why he never arrived in her boudoir. The play concludes with them making fresh plans for that evening.
The Firebrand was aided by two things: Mayer’s talent and the Male Lead. Having been employed on the East and West coasts by Goldwyn Pictures Corp., from 1919 to 1922, Edwin Justus Mayer had, as his still amusing and insightful syndicated column for the concern in those years testifies, learned all about film-making. Meanwhile, the Star, Joseph Schildkraut, a stage actor, had already performed successfully in front of the camera; most notably under the direction of D. W. Griffith in Orphans of the Storm. And, interestingly in this context, had, the previous year, portrayed a Valentino-like character opposite Norma Talmadge, in The Song of Love. (No wonder then that Robert G. Lisman saw Rudy in the part!)
Though his clever work was ripe for the Silver Sheet and one of its icons its pathway was far from smooth. Firstly there had already been two films with the same title. One, with Virginia Pearson, in 1918, produced by Fox Film Corp. And another, with Franklyn Farnum, in 1922, released by Phil Goldstone. Yet the true obstacle was that in the Spring of 1925 the office of Will H. Hays announced that the play was banned from ever being adapted for the screen. Why wasn’t made clear. But banned it was. Alongside They Knew What They Wanted, and two novels, The Green Hat and The Constant Nymph.
A year later, and before a solution to the problem was revealed, a small piece in the May 26th 1926 edition of VARIETY, demonstrated, to anyone taking notice, that Rudy’s issues went way beyond questionable scenes and dialogue. The single column, three paragraph report, on page 15, headed: Valentino, Needing Money, May Switch to Get It, is one I never encountered before. And, for me, it’s another reason RV was suffering so much that August. In essence, he was considering switching from United Artists to P. D. C.: the Producers Distributing Corporation. The reason? Money!
The report reveals that Joe Schenck was contractually obliged to fund only two of the five films the concern would distribute. By the Summer he had. So it was now S. George Ullman’s responsibility to secure cash from Wall Street to cover the further productions. Had he? Did he have clout in the finance district? Perhaps not. Could it be why Rudolph met with the United Artists’ President instead of returning West? Was it why he and his Business Manager weren’t speaking? We don’t know. Regardless, the article gives us a tantalising glimpse into the financial turmoil that year; as well as hinting at the distinct possibility that, without the funding or a successful shift to DeMille, his career was at a standstill once again, and potentially over for good.
Despite money troubles, in the June and July announcements came thick and fast. The Firebrand would be the basis for Rudolph Valentino’s next “starring vehicle”. Edwin Justus Mayer would prepare the scenario from his own work minus offending segments. John Emerson had sold the property to Joseph M. Schenck for $20,000 (which was then denied by Schenck). Estelle Taylor was to be Rudy’s co-Star. And Fred Niblo would be the film’s director.
Taylor, despite her obvious charms, stood in stark contrast to Vilma Banky, RV’s Female Lead in The Eagle (1925) and The Son of the Sheik (1926). However, though the narrative was largely comedic, the role (of the Duchess of Florence) required someone with a hint of wickedness. And as this was something she’d already demonstrated by the truck load, as Lucrezia Borgia, in John Barrymore’s 1926 epic Don Juan, it meant she was ideal.
The fact they were well acquainted – Estelle was married to Rudy’s Pal ‘Jack’ Dempsey – was a bonus. Had it influenced the decision? Hard to say. But as Valentino was known to enjoy working with friends it wouldn’t be a surprise. How comfortable they were in each other’s company is clear in the press image of them, breakfasting, reproduced in Donna L. Hill’s 2010 publication: Rudolph Valentino the Silent Idol.
Fred Niblo, another friend, had already directed Rudolph Valentino four years earlier in Blood and Sand. Previous to that he’d been Doug. Fairbanks Sr.’s director twice. (The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Three Musketeers (1921).) And, after, the chief director of Ben-Hur (1925). His affinity with both the Star and United Artists meant that he was an excellent choice.
We can only imagine the conversations between these two reunited individuals had it been possible for them to again collaborate. Rudy had, as we know, been June Mathis’ favourite to portray Judah. Were it not for the ‘One Man Strike’ his studio – on good terms with Mathis – might’ve considered loaning him. He would then have been in Italy with Niblo, in 1924 and 1925, after the Metro-Goldwyn merger. Sadly it wasn’t to be.
Not much more is known about the planned film. Certainly players were lined up to fill the other key roles — yet who they were isn’t apparent. Perhaps somewhere in the United Artists’ archives, or elsewhere (with Mayer’s papers for example), there are notes and memoranda that relate to it. And possibly sketches for sets were stored and saved. I saw no mention, anywhere, of the person responsible for the look of the film; though it was, almost certainly, William Cameron Menzies. As for the costumes? Gilbert Adrian is, in my opinion, the most likely person. Though it could easily have been another.
When it comes to his dress, we are able to picture Rudy as his fellow countryman, when we view him in the imaginary Sixteenth Century sequence in Cobra (see above top). And we can likewise get a rough idea, looking at him in the image I discovered two years ago (see above bottom), in which he’s attired in costume of the same era. (And in which, by some strange twist of fate, he portrays Benvenuto Cellini.) If he could sport a beard in 1925 and 1926 (in TSotS) then past issues with facial hair – his modest growth in 1924 for the doomed The Hooded Falcon had elicited comment – were probably behind him. Not a bad thing, as Cellini was seriously bearded.
I saw nothing anywhere about what Rudolph Valentino was feeling about the planned blockbuster. And this is understandable as he was busy promoting The Son of the Sheik. It’s hard to imagine his attitude towards depicting Benvenuto Cellini as being anything but enthusiastic in principal. He had, according to reports, here and there, longed to portray a famous Italian. (Cesare Borgia being an example). And he was never more at home than when he embodied a Rebellious Lover. The film based on the play offered the opportunity to be both. As well as to engage in lengthy sword fights, and dispatch or outwit opponents; to inhabit wonderful, palatial interiors; be at the heart of an amusing if infuriating love triangle; and to employ his underused comedic skills. I like to think his copy of The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini was tucked into his luggage in the final weeks. It was certainly in the auction of his belongings at the close of the year.
The barrage of reports about RV’s next project was soon replaced by a blitz of headlines relating to his untimely death. Schenck’s nightmare had come to pass: there would be no Cellini. The careful preparations since May – probably earlier – were of no use. Much time and effort had been wasted. And his anger and frustration in the interviews he agreed to in the aftermath was palpable. Almost instantly, and without hesitating, he laid bare, before Americans and the World, the most private information of the dead Icon. All Rudy had in his bank account was a few hundred dollars. He had, he said, recently earned over a million dollars and spent every cent. He was a gullible man easily parted from his cash. Had no investments to speak of and only a little property. A personal insurance policy that was just $50,000. A weekly salary that was $6,500 and totalled $338.000 per annum. And a profit share (of the net profits) of The Eagle and The Son of the Sheik amounting to 50%.
I find the hard frankness of JMS astonishing. Hadn’t the barely cold Valentino suffered enough already? Did he need to be subjected to further humiliation? Exposed on the 23rd of August, and on subsequent days, as a reckless thoughtless simpleton, who had no common sense, and never thought about the future? Even if it was partly, or wholly true, was it necessary to reveal such particulars? And to tip revelations on the corpse like the contents of an emptied waste paper basket?
To my mind, the only explanation is that Schenck, Ullman, and any others, needed to prepare the groundwork. And sure enough I discovered that, inside a fortnight, it was announced nothing would prevent a pay out on the policies held by United Artists. (According to VARIETY the total was $425,000.) The deceased Screen Star had been an extremely unwell individual who foolishly failed to seek medical attention. And he had also lived beyond his means and run up serious debts. These two derogatory halves of the story combined to form a compelling, advantageous whole; one that to this very day weighs heavy. When it was disclosed he had received an advance of $100,000, as well as a payment against his expected future profits, nobody batted an eyelid. Soon it was further explained that the profits on other pictures easily covered his borrowing. And the $90,000 expended on Cellini would be deducted from his insurance payout.
That Joe was an unsentimental, hard-nosed business man is clear. Undeniable. Plain as it could be. And such was his lack of sentiment that he soon began attempting to rescue Cellini. Signed to a two year contract, with Feature Productions Inc., the production side, Estelle Taylor was going nowhere. The status of Fred Niblo in the months immediately after Rudolph’s death isn’t so obvious. However, we know that by the 2nd of November it had been announced he would direct Norma Talmadge, in Camille. As for a replacement for Rudolph Valentino, it appears several established personalities were considered; with ‘The Great Profile’ John Barrymore (above) being the favourite.
Yet despite Schenck’s best efforts to inject life into the project it seemed doomed. Did the people optioned find the notion a little tasteless? Likely. Would the legendary Barrymore have wanted to step into the dead man’s shoes? Doubtful. The word went out that there were serious problems resuscitating the production. A fervent fan of Joseph Schildkraut, Jackie Cathewe, wrote into Picture-Play in early 1927. In the letter, headed Why Not Joseph Schildkraut?, in the What Fans Think section, Cathewe explained that instead of making The Firebrand heavy and historical, he had turned it into a show of tempestuous love and subtle and exquisite comedy. He should be “borrowed from DeMille” as he was “the perfect choice”. “Schildkraut and Estelle Taylor—marvelous!” was the enthusiastic final declaration. High and dry since the passing of Rudy, forced to go public about being jobless and worried about her career prospects, I suspect the Actress would’ve agreed. But it never happened.
Benvenuto Cellini, orfévre, médailleur, sculpteur: recherches sur sa vie, sur son œuvre et sur les pièces qui lui sont attribuées by Plon, Eugène (Text by); Paul Le Rat (Etchings by)
So the story ends there? There never was a film about Cellini based on The Firebrand? Well actually, no, there was. And in my opinion, having viewed it twice, it comes pretty close to what was planned in the Autumn of 1926. In fact in all honestly it’s difficult not to see Rudolph Valentino as the main character; so filled is it, with history, opulence, pretty women, action, romance and more. For me, in watching it, we see what might’ve been had what occurred not occurred.
It was at the end of 1933 that Ralph Wilk revealed, in his A LITTLE from “LOTS” column, in THE Film DAILY, that popular actor Fredric March would be starred in The Affairs of Cellini (instead of Les Miserables). The picture, Wilk detailed, would be Fredric’s first for Joseph M. Schenck’s and Darryl Zanuck’s recently formed 20th Century Pictures. A conflation of Benvenuto Cellini’s autobiography, and Edwin Justus Mayer’s play, it was to be directed by Gregory LaCava, and adapted by Bess Meredyth. With the 1st of February set as the start date.
In Estelle Taylor’s place was cast Constance Bennett. With the Duke and Angela, the two other central roles, awarded to Frank Morgan and Fay Wray. (Morgan, incidentally, had a decade earlier been Duke Allesandro onstage, in the original theatrical production.) For some reason the title changed a few times before completion. Switching from The Affairs of Cellini – Meredyth’s idea? – to The Firebrand and then back again. Unusually for the times little was leaked about the actual process of filming. (For instance I saw no reports from the set.) And there was absolutely nothing anywhere about the fact that it had once been intended for Valentino.
Following the pre-merger 20th Century Pictures logo, the original, briefer fanfare, and the credits (with Bennett billed above March), the film opens on Morgan’s Allesandro de’ Medici, listening to a lengthy list of imminent executions. Despite being absent from the scene, Cellini is still part of the proceedings, as his recent, outrageous acts are discussed at length. (And he’s also listed.) The Duchess, whose interest in the Artist was limited to the fact he’s creating golden plates for her imminent dinner, is suddenly intrigued when she hears how a Venetian female victim was seduced. Because of this she persuades the Duke to hang him after the tableware is completed.
In the next segment we’re in Benvenuto’s workshop. A knocking sound is responded to by an assistant; and the genius craftsman descends, like Fairbanks Sr., through a secret ceiling entrance. Thinking himself safe, he wakes the sleeping Angela and attempts to make love to her, then buys her from her grotesque mother (brilliantly played by Jessie Ralph). Duke Allesandro arrives. And after a lengthy exchange he takes the love interest away. Ottaviano, his mortal foe, then unleashes a bunch of heavies/roughs who Cellini must overcome. (Which he does in Valentinoesque fashion). Next arrives the Duchess in disguise. And while gentle music plays she uses her own persuasive powers to get what she wants. Cellini will create and bring to her a golden key that night at 9 p. m.
The Duke – at the Summer Palace not the Winter as the Duchess thinks – wines and dines Angela. So when the Duchess arrives the young beauty is sent out onto the balcony until she’s gone. Benvenuto appears on the top of a high wall. Jumps to a large tree branch. And then makes his way to the ground before scaling the palace and climbing onto the now empty balcony. On the stroke of nine he unlocks the door, and enters the Duchess’s quarters, where he finds her in a vampish, seductive mood. Things don’t go well at first and Bennett’s character utters what I thought was an interesting line:
“Well it’s just as well I found you out. The tragedy of all great ladies is to discover that the men with the most exaggerated reputations make the poorest lovers.”
March’s Cellini then menaces Bennett’s Duchess. Slaps her (which makes her faint). And begins to carry her to a low couch. However, a crash in Morgan’s character’s quarters wakes her, and alerts her to something odd. Angela is sent to the balcony again. Where Benvenuto finds her. And while he carries her off to his secret mountain hideaway, we are much entertained by the Duke and Duchess, repeatedly encountering each other on the balcony, while looking for their respective absent lovers.
Fay Wray’s Angela is unimpressed by the mountains. And her pining for the Duke and the luxury of the palace make Fredric March’s Benvenuto decide to leave her there and return to Florence. Due to there being a reward for his capture he goes to the Duchess and skilfully lies. Eventually melting her heart by reading aloud the poetry that won over the girl in Venice. (As The Affairs of Cellini is a post Code motion picture we don’t see any of the lovemaking between the pair.)
The palace and its grounds are being searched after the discovery of Cellini’s disguise in the gardens. And so the Duchess sends him to the Duke’s apartment thinking it the safest place. However, he’s discovered there by Ottaviano, and taken to the dungeons, where it appears he will finally die. The Duke arrives keen for him to be hung. Closely followed by the Duchess keen for him not to be hung. Thanks to Constance’s Duchess his life is spared once more. And he reveals to Frank’s Duke the whereabouts of Angela.
The film now builds to a conclusion. As requested Benvenuto has brought Angela to the banquet for which he created the tableware. This poses a problem, of course, as Cellini knows that the Duchess will be unhappy to see him with such an attractive female. (She never set eyes on her before.) The Duke, pleased to see his bit-on-the-side again, tells his wife that Angela is the Artist’s Muse and Model and that they’ll be married. So angry is the Duchess that she arranges for Benvenuto Cellini’s wine to be poisoned and suggests he propose a toast. Then, when his toast is to her, not his supposed future wife, and he drinks the wine and dies, she’s distraught. However, a goblet tumbles, and we become aware that Ottaviano has succumbed, and Cellini switched their vessels, and pretended to be dead. The ending is a happy one with both couples – the Artist and his Duchess and the Duke and his Angela – together in harmony.
Contrasting the play in 1924 with the movie in 1934 we see few serious discrepancies in the first half. The majority – the palace, the workshop and the balcony – is the same. Only when the action shifts to the lair in the mountains do we start to notice differences – the hideaway, the return to the palace, the dungeon and the banquet – to what VARIETY‘s Edba reviewed. Clearly the attack by Ottaviano’s henchmen was moved from late in the play to early. And the additions in the second half were thought necessary to balance out the previous fast-paced action.
For me, Cellini’s dramatic arrival at his studio, his time with Angela, and the fracas there are all pure Valentino. As is the athleticism (on both occasions) when he arrives at the Summer Palace. It’s more than easy to envisage him romancing the rival females. And being as comedic as he had been in The Eagle when it was called for. (With his Muse and her mother, the repeated sentences of death, on the balcony, reading from the book and doing a balancing act between the Duke and the Duchess at the dinner.)
Naturally a silent film would’ve been a little different. And yet so visual is The Affairs of Cellini that it appears to be a silent with dialogue. This makes me suspect much of the original was left untouched. And a good, if minor example, is the moment that Bennett’s Duchess purposely drops a purse for March’s Cellini to pick up. Something that would’ve been beautifully done in the pre Talkie days, but which seems pretty incongruous five or so years later. Thinking about that exchange I visualise cutting between Estelle Taylor and Rudolph Valentino. Her hand in the air. His eyes watching the purse fall. Back to her and an intertitle. Back to him and an intertitle. Back to her. And then him stooping down to the floor to pick it up with a smile.
Does Fredric March measure up? Is he a good replacement? No. Not for me. Great as he was he’s obviously not Rudy. This was Valentino’s project and he’s a tough act to follow. I understand from researching that his wife purchased The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini for him; however, for all his prep., there’s something lacking in his performance. A dearth, perhaps, of what Rudolph Valentino had and nobody else did — or ever would. With all this in mind it doesn’t surprise me The Affairs of Cellini was a box office failure. Maybe Joseph M. Schenck should’ve let well alone as they say. I suppose he couldn’t.
It’s a pity Rudolph Valentino was denied the opportunity to add a notable Italian to his previous international characterisations of: an Argentine (Julio), an Arab (Ahmed), a Spaniard (Gallardo), and a Russian (Dubrovsky). I think he would’ve been excellent in the role. Unfortunately he was to really die, as himself, before he could pretend to die, as Benvenuto Cellini. I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing that his passing in reality had been like his passing in the story. And that, like the character, he could’ve reawakened, to the consternation of all those gathered around.
As with The Mysterious Party I’m not listing my sources. However, once more, should anybody want to know what they were I’m only too happy to supply. My thanks for reading this lengthy piece in its entirety — I appreciate it.
My recent deep digging into the contemporary press coverage of Rudolph Valentino’s hospitalisation, treatment, and subsequent death, yielded several stories. Some I shared. Others I plan to. One, as yet undisclosed, and of which I already had an inkling, refuses to wait — I’m calling it: The Mysterious Party.
Barclay H. Warburton Jr. is familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in The Great Lover’s tragic demise. The eye-catching name aside – the H. stood for Harding – he’s a conspicuous component. At the centre of events. Hard to miss. One reason he stands out further, at least for me, is that despite his importance on that fateful eve., even in the very best accounts, he’s barely more than a Homicide Squad chalk outline. A second, is how in the aftermath of the late-night-early-morning party he hosted, and at which his celebrated guest collapsed in agony, he, also, was operated upon. Time to fill in the blank and to look at why.
Buzzy, as he was known to friends and associates, was born in 1898 in Philadelphia, and was the middle offspring (of three), of Major Barclay H. Warburton Sr., and Mary Brown Wanamaker. After a comfortable childhood – both parents were wealthy and connected – and good schooling, he enlisted with the Signal Corps, when the United States of America entered WW1. Service on the European Continent followed. And he rose to the rank of Lieutenant while part of the Occupational Force. Late in 1919, following his discharge, he married Rosamond Lancaster. In 1922, a son, predictably named Barclay H. Warburton the Third, was born. And some years later a daughter followed.
From the early to the middle Twenties Warburton worked for a Philadelphia morning newspaper. (Unsurprising, considering that his maternal grandfather established The Evening Telegraph there, and his father oversaw the title from 1896.) Then, at the age of just 26, in 1924, he was installed as the President of The New York Daily Mirror, a new tabloid, apparently the brainchild of William Randolph Hearst. And though he moved on, the appointment and shift to New York were what brought him into contact with Valentino, and chained him to him for all time.
Their first meeting seems clear cut. In her early 2000s biography, Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino, Emily W. Leider indicates they were introduced by Schuyler L. Parsons Jr. (pictured above left), in 1926. Consulting Valentino As I Knew Him, S. George Ullman’s book the same year, we see Rudy “revived” the acquaintance of Warburton and Parsons, as well as others. Consequently he already knew him. Some light is thrown on the length of his acquaintance with Schuyler by a brief 2009 article, that states they had known each other since 1914. As Barclay arrived in New York a decade later, it’s obvious Parsons was in a position to introduce them, probably around the time that the TNYDM launched, or, in the following 12 months. (A recently unearthed, incomplete piece, from a Forties publication, hints at Valentino also being on very good terms with Mrs. Warburton.)
Whenever and wherever, they hit it off. And why not? After all, they were generational contemporaries; sophisticates, with a taste for the finer things; and moved in the same, elevated circles. The enthusiastic, boyish pair also had common ground in respective, hasty first marriages (in the same year and at about the same time), a mutual interest in flight, and, that they both regularly dabbled in amateur filmmaking. They had recently even been through similar, public Paris divorces. (In both instances the grounds were abandonment.)
The similarities ended there. While they had each had a busy year up to August, their activity and notoriety levels were not comparable. Warburton began 1926 preparing for a leisurely if lengthy scientific cruise to the Galapagos Islands, and Ecuador, with W. K. Vanderbilt, the future husband of his first wife. By Spring he was back in The States. And, after a spell in society, he headed to Paris for his divorce, returning from there as late as the end of July. Valentino, meanwhile, had been driven along mercilessly by his celebrity. His divorce from second wife, Natacha Rambova, became final in January. And after a near death experience the following month (when his vehicle collided with a pole), he leapt, literally, into the making of his final film, The Son of the Sheik. Before, during and after which, he was dogged by questions about his will-they-won’t-they affair with Pola Negri. While he did manage to enjoy himself a little with his family, during their stay at Falcon Lair, his home, as soon as TSotS had premiered (in L. A.) he set off on a gruelling promotional tour. And it was during this he was affronted by the infamous Pink Powder Puff article.
Though advised against reacting to the insulting piece – it appeared on the 18th of July in the Chicago Tribune – Valentino felt he must. His subsequent scornful letter and its public challenge to the anonymous writer to meet to fight failed to bear fruit adding to his fury. Reporters who asked him for a quote received pithy statements. And he was seen to walk in a different, more aggressive manner, with his chest out and chin a little higher. So it was against this backdrop, that Buzzy born-into-money Warburton, who didn’t really work, and had plenty of it, met to socialise, with Rudy not-born-into-money Valentino, who did, and never had enough. Material wealth and an appetite for distraction teamed with celebrity wealth and an appetite for distraction.
In a strange, emotional, and not wholly reliable interview, published immediately after Valentino passed, one of the distractions, eye-witness and “Follies girl” Marion Benda, revealed this particular round of socialising had begun on the 12th of August. Marion, who had known him for three weeks, after an intro. by Ali Ben [sic] Haggin, explained Rudolph had been the host that night of a party, at which: Greta Nissen, Sigrid Holmquist, Harry Richman, Malcolm Sinclair, Barclay Warburton jr., Frances Williams, Ann Pennington, herself and several others were present. (Malcolm Sinclair was more likely Mal. St. Clair.) Was it at this Thursday night gathering of screen and stage performers that he was invited to repeat the experience just 48 hours later? Or was it during his stay, the next night, at Schuyler L. Parsons Jr.’s three bedroom Islip home ‘Pleasure Island’? Regardless, he accepted; despite being aware that a punishing week lay ahead, starting at Philadelphia on the Monday.
The enjoyment at the weekend commenced under a cloud. According to longtime friend and former co-star, Dagmar Godowsky, when she saw him in the early evening of the 14th at the Colony Restaurant, Rudolph Valentino wasn’t on speaking terms with his manager, S. George Ullman. Because of this, and because she had joined Ullman at his table, Godowsky was unable to talk to Valentino (with a gentleman and two ladies), at his, nearby. What was the reason for the fallout between Star and Manager? It was a mystery at the time and afterwards to his friend. And we are no wiser 92 years later. Had they quarrelled about Rudy’s partying (as hinted at in Valentino As I Knew Him)? Or was it something else? A more serious matter? There are, oddly for a person who otherwise goes into great detail, few clues in Ullman’s recollections. No mention at all of the meal, or of Godowsky, or where R. V. went that night and who he was with. Just as there’s no mention, either, of the fact reported by the press, that Rudy altered his plans to return West, in order to meet with Hiram Abrams, then President of United Artists Corp. What transpired at the meeting is a mystery. And Abrams’ own unexpected death in November meant he never penned a memoir.
What we do know, for a fact, is that after his early meal, Rudolph Valentino headed for the Apollo Theater with Barclay H Warburton Jr., to again see George White’s Scandals of 1926. Advertised widely as the “World’s Greatest Show” with the “World’s Greatest Cast”, the attraction, White’s eighth in a row, was then in its second month and doing excellent business; even though the prime seats were $55 (or $783.07 in today’s money). (Weekly takings in the November would reach half a million in today’s money.)
After “… settings as gorgeous and costly as ever, costumes as lovely and minute as ever, sketches and burlesques as funny as ever …. Tom Patricola …. the Fairbanks Twins …. Eugene and Willie Howard …. and Ann Pennington…” Rudy ventured backstage with his companion and met and spoke with cast members. On his HOLLYWOODLAND site, in 2014, the biographer Allan R. Ellenberger, uploaded a series of posts titled: The last days of Rudolph Valentino. In Part One he explains how Rudy and Buzzy were first invited to a party at the home of Lenore Ulric, but that he declined the offer, preferring instead the option of Warburton’s apartment, at 925 Park Avenue. (The building in 1922 and more recently is below.)
Why was Buzzy’s abode preferable to Lenore’s? The distance? Number of guests? The decor.? If RV wanted a quiet, comfortable night it wasn’t to be. A report, published the day after his death, detailed how, when the party commenced, there were “fourteen or sixteen persons present”. As the investigation promised by friends never happened only a handful were ever named. Warburton, Benda, and Richman being three, with Frances Williams and “a girl named Hayes” another two. The rest were known either to them or to Valentino. Yet there had to be a smattering of friends of friends seeking proximity to the Megastar. At least a few were Scandals cast members. Marion Benda probably brought along a pal or two from her own show. And there were certainly some other men — but who we don’t know.
Immediately suspect is the time it began. 10 p. m.? Hard to accept if they’d first been at the Scandals spectacular with the curtain going up at 8:15 p. m. A two hour long show, with Rudy backstage, and then a journey uptown, makes even 11 p. m. look rather improbable. The next improbability, is the fourteen to sixteen guests reducing to five, and the main attraction, by about 1:00 a. m. Obviously begging the question: if the get-together commenced after eleven/close to twelve, would there be hardly anyone there that early? It’s just inconceivable that theatre types or performers working in the evening, and the idle rich, with no job to go the next day, would be scurrying home to bed “in little pairings” between midnight and an hour after midnight.
Harry Richman retrospectively told reporters that it was at about 1:30 a. m., “after some drinks, music and dancing”, that Rudolph Valentino suddenly became ill. And it was soon after that he was rushed to his apartment at the Ambassador. Yet, in other reports, a time of 8:30 a. m. was given. With him being taken directly to the New York Polyclinic Hospital rather than to his accommodation. Both stories cannot be correct. For me the second is the more sensical, especially if we take into consideration the cover story – yes there was a cover story – concocted for the consumption of clamouring newsmen, by Ullman, the former publicist, and Warburton, the former newsman.
In that false account, at least the first version of it, Rudy was in his suite at his hotel in the late morning, when, according to a nameless Valet, he: “… put his hand to his body and fell unconscious in a faint.” In this concocted, cinematic tale (embellished by S. George Ullman later), the Valet called on Ullman and his wife, who, strangely, notified Warburton, who in turn was in touch with a Dr. Paul E. Durham. (The involvement of BHW Jr. in the earliest story, is clearly due to the fact he was seen to be involved on the 15th, and thus needed to be mentioned.) In the later, more believable, and undoubtedly true version, Rudolph Valentino collapses before 9 a. m. at 925 Park Avenue, is seen there by Durham, Barclay H. Warburton Jr.’s physician. And is then taken, at some point in the late morning, either to the Ambassador Hotel, or, more probably, to the Polyclinic. (We are not assisted by the ambulance paperwork which mentioned no departure point.)
Personally I’m troubled by this initial deception. Duplicity on the part of Rudy’s Manager and Friend is hard to comprehend if, as we are led to believe, the stricken man was simply afflicted by appendicitis and a ruptured gastric ulcer. Telling lies about where he had been, and involving in the deception a servant, a spouse, a professional physician and probably others, rings serious alarm bells to use a hackneyed phrase. It makes no sense at all. Just as it would make no sense to lie if he’d broken his arm, or been in a fight and been knocked out. And if that’s not strange enough it gets stranger still.
Few know that on the 15th of August, while Rudolph Valentino awaited a Surgeon, or actively resisted any procedure (the accounts differ), his employee, S. George Ullman, was busy preparing a bland press statement bereft of detail. What happened to that original bulletin is anybody’s guess; but, as reported, the pressmen didn’t buy it. Their ability to smell a rat was triggered. They pushed hard for a proper explanation and got one. Then, having received tip offs, they turned their collective attention to Barclay H. Warburton Jr., and a serious game of cat and mouse commenced.
When they tracked him down on the 16th Warburton stuck to the script, declaring, flatly, that there had been no party at his apartment on the 14th and 15th. However, when this denial was contradicted by Richman, he was back under the spotlight. Feeling the heat he appeared to make himself scarce. In reality, however, he had been checked into another exclusive medical establishment, this time The Harbor Sanitarium, at 667 Madison Avenue. (Where, incidentally, Valentino’s good friend and fellow star of Monsieur Beaucaire, Bebe Daniels, had recuperated in the Spring after a fall from her horse.)
The reason for his entry? Nervous collapse? A hangover? No. Neither. His admittance was for an operation. Exactly when isn’t really known. A report on the 21st of August indicates it was carried out on the 20th — but was it? It’s difficult to trust anything issued, or, to believe it was a minor procedure, unrelated to his party, as was claimed. His unavailability after the 16th could mean that his own procedure was quite soon after Rudy’s, as early as that day, or the 17th. In fact it looks more and more likely the more we look. And the most amazing thing is that the specialists who attended to Rudolph also attended to Barclay.
While across town Valentino fought for his very existence, physically cut-off – Ullman being the exception – from concerned friends and associates, Warburton was engaged in his own battle, likewise removed, at least from the eyes of the intrigued and the curious. So long as Rudolph Valentino was the main story Barclay H. Warburton Jr. could breathe easy. However, after rallying, the Screen Idol began to fade and fast. By the morning of the 23rd he was in a coma. Just after midday he expired. The official cause of death was: Septic Endocarditis.
If there were reports of BHW Jr.’s minor op. in advance of Rudy’s death then it means several newspapers believed there was a story. And that’s because there was. On the 23rd and 24th of August, the front and inside pages of local, citywide and regional titles were naturally devoted to deceased Star. Yet, in amongst the heartbreaking details of his final hours, the tributes from the great and the good, and the illuminating back story, again and again we see questions asked, questions that were far from easy to answer. About what had really happened eight days earlier on the 15th. And why there was any mystery about any of it. The one person who could clear it all up wasn’t talking. In fact, he continued to stay silent, secluded at his expensive, private sanctuary, on Madison Avenue.
Then, suddenly, in the late afternoon of the 27th, a few days after the death of his party guest, Barclay H. Warburton Jr. emerged. Intrepid and tenacious scoop-hungry newsmen had stayed on his case. And they even managed to snap him as he departed. Yet, despite reappearing, he still wasn’t talking. At least not to the press — and if anybody knew what the press were like it was Buzzy.
This was a person who was good at keeping quiet. Good at revealing as little as possible when it mattered. And of course it mattered now more than ever after Rudy’s expiry. To read the vivid reports on the 27th and the 28th, and look closely at the accompanying exclusive picture, is to be there in the moment. Jack O’Brien’s piece in The New York Daily News, Barclay’s own former title, is one of the best:
“At 5:35 p. m. yesterday a tall, slim, stooping figure in a turn-down college boy hat slipped out of the rear door of the Harbour sanitarium at 667 Madison ave. The figure held animated converse in the alley with a person who later turned out to be his valet. Then the figure darted nervously into a 15 and 5 taxicab and was whirled away.”
O’Brien went on to explain how everybody – “from superintendant to doorman” – at the facility had worked hard to keep his impending exit a secret. Again, we might wonder why, if the stay was simply for a minor operation. And we might wonder why he did not, at the very least, wish to say something about the passing of Valentino. Who, as he had remained holed up at his exclusive sanitarium, had been lying in state at Campbell’s.
Most interesting of all is the sentence ending the second paragraph: “The young society man plainly looked ill as he left.” And if we ourselves look closely at the shot of BHW Jr. walking towards the waiting vehicle, we see a stooped, undeniably thin individual under the clothing. The suit actually looks far too big, almost as if it had been borrowed, from a more substantial individual. And in a way it had been borrowed — from the man he had been before the 15th and could never ever be again.
After the 28th of August there’s silence. Why? We’re forced to speculate. Plainly ill he needed to continue to recuperate. A lengthy recuperation, out of sight, in Manhattan, or with a friend, or at his parents’, would’ve meant the story fizzled. Something he wanted. And something others wanted too. Or perhaps phone calls were made and the story was killed. We must remind ourselves that the atmosphere immediately after the death of Rudolph Valentino was feverish. And the air was thick with speculation. Had Rudy been poisoned? Was it murder? The phrase Foul Play was much bandied about. And S. George Ullman, Rudy’s Manager, and Joe Schenck, his Employer at United Artists, weren’t slow to pour cold water on all theories and rumours.
Despite attempting to return to normality BHW Jr. never really did. In the months after Valentino’s death, the New York funeral and eventual interment, Warburton was once again seen on the town. People whispered behind their hands when he appeared. And thought things behind their eyes when they said hello. A syndicated, society columnist enjoyed reminding their readers his name was forever connected with the death of the Star, who had fallen ill, at his party; and that many believed it was due to bad liquor.
Barclay H. Warburton Jr. lived for another decade, but was unable to stick at or make a success of anything. Interestingly, like three of the other five witnesses (Richman, Benda and Williams), he became involved in the film industry. (In his case he was employed by William Fox’s Fox Film Corp.) As the decade hurtled towards its inevitable conclusion he was frequently referred to in the press in negative terms. If he was affected in any way by The Wall Street Crash, it didn’t prevent him preparing for a solo World flight, which he promptly cancelled in order to marry for the second time. Death, by his own hand, came five years later, when his shotgun discharged itself into his stomach, while he was out hunting alone. At the time – the 26th of November 1936 – it was reported as having been an accident.
I would like to conclude this lengthy initial post by saying I’m truly amazed by what I’ve found and read. I now struggle to believe in its entirety the official version. Frankly, I’m shocked there was no investigation, as was hoped for, by Valentino’s friends; and it goes without saying that today there would be one. There were, in my opinion, grounds for at least some sort of basic, limited inquest. Alone the repeated consistent inconsistencies were a basis. Cleverly those in control played on his passing being sufficiently tragic. The placing of the body on public display, 24 hours after death, was the true masterstroke, as it meant it was put beyond the reach of the authorities. Of course, before all that, the fact that S. George Ullman (with Barclay H. Warburton Jr.’s say-so/permission), began, without delay, to deflect attention from the location of Rudy’s collapse, and why he was even in the Polyclinic, is extremely concerning. People more generous than me may say it was simply the desire to protect his employer that prompted the manager to act this way. But I was brought up to believe that a lie is a lie. And the bigger the lie gets the worse it is. And, as I pointed out, if this was indeed, as was repeatedly stated, just an appendicitis and a ruptured gastric ulcer, there was absolutely no need for anyone to hide anything. (An appendicitis was then and is now a very common occurrence.)
So why did they? The other guests are of interest. Of sixteen – potentially there were more – present that night/morning only six are known. What was being drunk and who supplied it is also something to be considered. And I think that the two are connected. The mystery guests at the mystery party are the key to understanding what is not understandable if you fail to focus on them. The fact that the Superstar Guest and the Socialite Host were both hospitalised at about the same time and for the same reason – they even had the same people operate on them – points in no other direction for me. The only difference is that one died and the other lived — even if his decade of existence was a sort of living death. I don’t think this is wild speculation by any stretch of the imagination. Particularly when we know that people often died, or were blinded, or brain damaged, by Bootleg Booze.
As for Valentino being seriously unwell for many many months I’m sceptical. I searched and searched for the word bicarbonate in Valentino As I Knew Him and drew a blank. As I also drew a blank when I looked for any mention of pains, stomach trouble, or anything of a similar nature. Ullman says simply that “his color was bad” on the 14th. And that it was normally “marvellous”. Wouldn’t he of noticed something in the months leading up to August? On hearing of his hospitalisation two of those closest to him, Pola, his ‘fiancee’, and Alberto, his brother, who had been with him that Spring and Summer, expressed total amazement. And there are other examples. Why would friends suggest the need for an investigation if they thought it was historic? Nothing was a secret in Hollywood! All that said I’m prepared to believe – in fact do firmly believe – that he was tired, depressed and very run down. All of this contributed to his inability to be able to survive the double op. And an appendicitis is something that would explain any abdominal discomfort he was supposedly seen to be suffering from. His indigestion, much mentioned after he was no longer around, may simply have been just that: indigestion. Stress brings it on. And he was extremely stressed and upset, was he not?
I was, after reading them very carefully, forced to dismiss almost entirely the varied interviews of Marion Benda. With the exception of her detailing of the party on the 12th none of it really added up. Here and there there was evidence that she had been at the Park Avenue apartment and I discounted the rest. By the 24th she was, as she admitted herself to reporters, in the middle of a breakdown. (It’s ominous that Benda was also attended to by the Polyclinic team.) Like Warburton she would never be the same. After claiming to have been secretly married to Valentino, and having conceived his child, she attempted several times to kill herself after WW2. At the start of the Fifties she finally succeeded.
It only remains for me to say that I have not listed, individually, any sources. Anybody with questions about them, or wishing to receive copies, is more than welcome to ask me and I’ll endeavour to supply them. Thank you for reading this in its entirety.
So, today, just 24 hours after the 92nd anniversary of his demise, I begin this modest Blog about Rudolph Valentino. Quietly. Without fuss. But with the intention of it being, first a sort of stop-off point, and then, steadily, post by post, a useful and informative resource for anyone who, like me, is genuinely fascinated by one of the most fascinating of all the fascinating Silent Era personalities. (Let’s face it there were a few.) His Fame Still Lives will be a monthly exercise, a post every four weeks, delving into a performance, or the making of one of his many films, a photograph, a person he knew, or a place he went, or something he owned. Along the way it will be a space to share my thoughts, my past research, my likes and dislikes, my experiences generally and my Rudy-related travels. Thank you for reading and see you in September!