When I needed a distraction, in the Autumn of 2018, I arranged to have my computer read to me Discretions and Indiscretions, the 1932 autobiography of Lady Duff Gordon. (A book I seriously recommend by-the-way.) Rudy was the farthest thing from my mind at the time. So imagine my surprise, when, deep into the memoir, he appeared. All I can say about it is: sometimes all roads lead to him.
The arresting tale, at the end of Chapter Twenty-One, between pages 262 and 266, is such an interesting one that I’ve brought it forward (so it’s shared sooner rather than later). I’m certain that anybody even remotely interested in Valentino’s contemporary impact will enjoy it. So, without further delay, here’s that fascinating recollection, which is titled: Through Fire For A Smile.
We’re eased into the story by Lady Duff Gordon first relating how she was visited at the Pavilion Mars, her Paris home, by (Vicente) Blasco Ibanez, “the great Spanish novelist”. The celebrated author of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – who also wrote Blood and Sand (1908) – was, she seems to enjoy telling us: “… an untidy, rather gross man, coarse in appearance, very different from the spiritual philosopher…” that she expected he’d be. The reason for her mentioning Ibanez, we soon see, is that his World War One novel had at that time, very recently, been adapted for the Silver Screen. And had, as a result, made Rudolph Valentino famous. Everyone was talking about the Star. Further:
“Women especially were raving over him, from my Mannequins, who used to collect every portrait of his they could find, to rich Americans who used to send him wonderful presents.”
One such woman she tells us, was the wife of a Chicago millionaire, a customer of hers. (Duff Gordon was a Fashion Designer with her own atelier and traded under the name Lucile.) Youthful. Beautiful. With an indulgent husband. She was, we’re told: “… perfectly happy in a placid easy way…” Perfectly happy, that is, until she went to see the newly issued spectacular and was instantly beguiled by Rudy as Julio Desnoyers. Over and over she went to watch the film, thinking all-the-while about how she could arrange it so that she could: “… bring about a meeting…” between herself and the: “… incredibly handsome Italian boy.”
Eventually, Lady Duff Gordon explains, the anonymous wife made up her mind to write to the object of her affection. When the first letter was – surprise – unanswered, she wrote again and then again. Soon she was sending small gifts of: socks and ties, etc. Then bigger and more expensive items, such as: a gorgeous dressing gown that had cost her $200 (which is $3,000 PLUS in today’s money). At long last, probably after several months and a small mountain of presents, she received a reply.
Her persistence had paid off, and she was, we’re informed, in ‘seventh heaven’, despite the letter he sent being simply a charming but formal Thank You. Instead of seeing the answer for what it truly was, the lady seemingly grasped at it. And, after leaving her generous, but frankly dull husband a note, set-off for Hollywood on the train in order to follow her heart and be with her idol. The storyteller makes it clear that she was very: “… determined to force the situation with Rudolph Valentino.”
The train journey was certainly interminable. But she had the letter. And doubtless a collection of gorgeous promotional images and other items to distract her. We picture her making a plan in her head — perhaps on paper too. Looking at maps of Los Angeles. Studying the varied locations – his home and studio etc. – where she felt it was likely she had a chance to see him in the flesh. Up close, or, from a distance. Thinking about what she would say. Thinking about what he would say. Thinking about what she would wear. Thinking about what he would be wearing. Exactly where she went, and when she went, isn’t divulged, but sometime after arriving at her destination the obsessed woman did indeed manage to orchestrate a meeting. Valentino, already: “… accustomed to the adoration of thousands of women…” was, it seems, polite but nothing more. “… not the least interested…” we learn. In fact he gave her permission to depart, bowing, with his signature formal bow. (Congé in French.)
The pursuer was not to be snubbed, or dissuaded. She stayed in Hollywood and stalked her quarry at every opportunity. Following him when: “… she could get knowledge of his movements…” Again she wrote letters — this time extremely passionate. The most beautiful flowers were sent. Wine was delivered. And he also received cigars and other items from her; perhaps on a daily basis. “… anything she could think of.” was dispatched in an effort to secure another meeting. To have his attention and his time for even an hour. Less. She had to see him. Just had to.
Meanwhile her husband was beside himself. He was “distressed” and “humiliated” and decided to act. Gossip about his wife was driving him insane. After arriving in California he managed, amazingly, to meet and speak with the man that his wife was obsessed with. Lady Duff Gordon explains that Valentino:
“… assured him, and quite truthfully, that he had no wish whatsoever to rob him of his wife, and that he would be actually relieved if the lady would leave Hollywood.”
After some time the husband was able to persuade his wife to go away with him if not to return to him. The trip, to Europe, included France, and while in Paris the infatuated woman went to see Duff Gordon at Lucile, in order to arrange the creation of “a number of dresses”. During the many consultations (each costing £20) she told the Designer all about her infatuation with star of The Sheik.
According to Lady Duff Gordon the sending of long letters continued — as did the gifts. Parcels: “… containing all sorts of presents, cigarette-cases and valuable antiques and jewellery, were dispatched regularly to Hollywood.” Lady Duff Gordon goes on to say that she felt that:
“… on the surface the story had all the elements of comedy, the amorous woman, the indifferent film star and the injured husband; in reality it was a tragedy. This woman who all her life had had every wish gratified was inconsolable over her failure to attract the man on whom she had centred her love. Her face grew haggard and wretched as the weeks passed and there was no letter from him.”
Duff Gordon explains that she, herself, never met Valentino. However, she knew other women who: “… would have gone through fire for a smile from him.” And knowing his affect at the time well she says that he cast a spell on “women of all types”. All of them, she says: “… saw in him the wonderful exotic lover of their dreams.”
Interestingly the woman that Rudy himself “loved best of all”, Natacha Rambova, was a person Lady Duff Gordon herself had met. A decade earlier, when she was Winifred de Wolfe and was the stepdaughter of Elsie de Wolfe’s brother, she had encountered her regularly due to her friendship with Elsie. Neither exotic or very beautiful at that time, she was, she recalls: “… slim [and] graceful …. with big dark eyes and a wide mouth…” A shy and lonely girl at finishing school in Versailles. A “romantic child” who “lived in a dream world.” Who once told her (at a theatre date or lunch or dinner): “Some day I shall meet some man like a fairy prince and love him for ever and ever.” As Duff Gordon says, the Prince, Rudy, didn’t give her the happy ending she so desperately wanted.
As we know all-too-well Rudolph Valentino was a Fairytale Prince for countless numbers of women the World over. We know that. Just as we know a significant percentage of that multitude was fanatical. Almost every published biography gives a sense of the lengths to which his devoted followers were prepared to go, while he lived, and even after he died. How he was mobbed on the street. Mauled. Practically stripped naked. The Millionaire’s wife was not unique, as Lady Duff Gordon made clear. Yet what did set her apart, was the fact she was, due to her own or her husband’s wealth, in a position to fully live out her fantasy. The majority of his female devotees – of course there were many men too – were just too physically distant — as well as being of limited means. They were in remote US states, or somewhere in Central or South America, or deepest France, or in Russia. Forced to content themselves with gazing at him from a theatre seat, or in a magazine, or on a postcard, or cigarette or chocolate card. Their mania was no less maniacal than the subject of the story of course. No less heartfelt. No less passionate. No less sustained. Personally I wonder about their own letters and small gifts to Rudy. How many arrived during his half decade of success is hard to say. Certainly the abundant communications would make fascinating reading now, if they hadn’t been, as they surely were, discarded. And thinking about what he received as presents? Personal images? Poems? Locks of hair? Tiny trinkets? Embroidered items? We can only imagine. They would surely have filled a small warehouse to capacity!
In his hurriedly issued 1926 book, Valentino as I Knew Him, S. George Ullman wrote of the privilege of being able to peruse the “pathetic, misspelled and ignorantly written letters” which arrived. And how it was very apparent from the contents, that in the eyes of the writers, Valentino epitomised Romance. “… crests, monograms and insignia…” were also, according to Ullman, much in evidence. Though no examples are given of the people of “standing and intelligence” who breathed “the most intense admiration”.
And if we doubt Ullman’s disclosure that it was said: “… Valentino’s fan mail exceeded that of any other screen idol.” we can certainly trust the to-camera testimony of Paul Ivano, an earlier witness. Who, in Episode Six of: Hollywood, at 33:28, details how, in 1921, Rudy was receiving between six and eight bags of mail a day. Sacks filled with requests for images that were accompanied by a 25 cent piece/’quarter’. (Money which enabled them to eat between productions.) Further evidence is to be found in the film magazines of the period. Filled as they are with a deluge of letters, reproduced weekly or monthly, depending on the title’s regularity, we quickly appreciate the breadth and the depth of his popularity. As well as who his many followers were. Like liberally scattered confetti questions and yet more questions litter the correspondence pages. How old is he? How tall is he? Where was he born? Is he married? Which studio is he with? What’s his next film to be? In the Summer of 1921, the breakthrough year, a Frances B. thought it high time Motion Picture Magazine published an interview with her favourite. That Autumn, in the same publication, Lillian Crozier, an admirer since Passion’s Playground (1920), wished him ever greater recognition. And in a letter at the year’s close, to PHOTOPLAY, home-made fudge from ‘Mixie’ was heading his way. The following May, a male fan, Russell B. H., “a fine looking boy”, who’d enclosed a “mighty good photo.” of himself, asked Motion Picture Magazine if they thought he could be a future Rudolph. And with Rudymania sweeping the Globe, the same magazine that Summer featured Texas Pat, Old Pal, and Mildred H. — all of them completely smitten.
The letter of John L. Cunningham, in PICTURE-PLAY MAGAZINE, in April 1923, praising the publication’s defence of Rudy’s One Man Strike, was typical of the time. The public was “for him.” Had “stood by him in other adversities”. And would “continue to be loyal.” In 1924 we naturally see communications focused on his return to the Silver Sheet. And in 1925 about how his detractors were just plain wrong. (PHOTOPLAY alone that year being full to bursting point with his supporters.) People like M. L. S., of New York, for whom he was “subtle and compelling”; Maud Filkins, of St. Louis, who believed him to be “the king of sheiks”; M. J. Segal, of Hastings, who contended he was not a ‘common actor’; and Alma Cooper, of Huntingdon, who disliked the way he was picked on and hounded. And in 1926, with the business ever more crowded with similar personalities, and general criticism of him mounting, he still managed to rally undying support.
The varied titles also assist us with partially recovering, if not totally reconstructing, a handful of the limitless sightings and meetings. Names are missing or present. Images are missing or present. Yet, more-often-than-not, we find that the accounts usually give us a good idea of what fans were prepared to do, to get near, or nearly near. One I like is from 1925. Early that year a person in Detroit, Michigan, identified only by their initials (A. U.), was in touch with the Editor of Motion Picture Magazine with an amusing tale. After boiling down Valentino’s appeal to him being: “… the hero of the love affair you always longed for, but never had.” the communicator related how they and a friend had met the star the year before at the Famous Players-Lasky studio. When Rudy began to walk in their direction the woman accompanying the writer was keen to be introduced. But said first, very seriously, whilst removing her wedding band and slipping it into her pocket: “Please introduce me by my maiden name. And don’t mention my husband or my baby.”
If Valentino didn’t initially know the marital status of his nameless Chicagoan pursuer, he was certainly fully aware of it after her humiliated husband met with him. His own relationship, with Natacha Rambova (the Winifred de Wolfe of yesteryear), had begun in late 1920, but was not common knowledge during 1921. And this perhaps encouraged our unknown Stalker to imagine herself as his next Consort. However, the divorce from his estranged first wife Jean Acker, and subsequent arrest on a charge of Bigamy, in 1922, made their association front page news. And their second, legal marriage, in 1923, meant he was no longer available to anyone, other than Mrs. Valentino.
Failure to bewitch the man of her dreams had, we know, left her haggard and wretched. So we can imagine the effect of realising that his latest spouse placed him beyond her reach for a long time — potentially forever. Since first gazing at him at some cinema in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, in the Summer or Autumn of 1921, followed, we must assume, by as many of his other picture plays as possible, her every thought had been of him. She had done everything in her power to make him take an interest in her. Written to him incessantly. Spent a small fortune on gifts. Become dislocated completely from her normal existence. Abandoned her husband, family and friends to be near him. Stalked him for weeks on end. Given herself over, totally, in mind, body and soul. All to no avail. She had passed through fire for a smile and been left horribly burnt. Seeing him happy in publicity with a woman other than herself must’ve been the last straw. Duff Gordon concludes her account by explaining the haggard, wretched and defeated Lady eventually returned to the United States. And sometime afterwards – she fails to be specific about exactly when – she: “… read one morning of her death from an overdose of a sleeping draught.” Suicide was, it seems, the only way out for her. The only way to find peace.
Crazy, I know, but I decided to attempt to identify the undisclosed, distraught person in Lady Duff Gordon’s tragic tale. There seemed to me to be enough to go on. She was from Chicago. Aged between maybe 30 and 40. Had a very wealthy husband. And had died after consuming a dangerous quantity of a sleeping aid. Also the individual’s death had been widely reported. If Duff Gordon had been able to learn of it on the other side of the Atlantic, then it couldn’t be too hard to find in contemporary newspapers. Or could it?
The first possibility was a middle-aged woman named Mrs. Janet Mickel. Mrs. Mickel’s death had been front page news on the 27th of April 1922, the day after her death, in Chicago, on the 26th. She seemed a perfect fit, being, as she was: a renowned Beauty, seemingly wealthy and well-connected, 40 or 43 years of age (depending on the source), and the estranged wife of an important man. Significantly she’d attempted suicide six times previously. And had died, at the seventh attempt, from an overdose of Veronal — a particularly powerful barbiturate. Going against her, despite her suitability, was that no reason was given for her taking her own life. Also, she was apparently originally from Bay City, Michigan. However, she had moved to Chicago the previous year, and of course The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had been generally released in 1921. She’d also not been seen by her family, particularly her father, for six long months — which allows for trips both to the Pacific Coast and to Europe. Non-disclosure of her motivation isn’t hard to understand if she was the Valentino-obsessed woman that had so embarrassed her husband already.
The second, though much less likely candidate, was “society matron” Florence Manly Hood. Again on the front pages of several titles as a suicide, she’d died in Chicago after ingesting poison at a hotel, on Sunday, the 15th of November, 1925. The fact that Mrs. Manly Hood’s husband, Mr. Walter M. Hood, chose not to pursue a prosecution of her male companion, John A. Cashin (pictured above in the clipping), is very interesting I think. Speaking to reporters just days later he stressed his belief that: “… her mind was unbalanced…” And further added that: “… she had swallowed poison while under the influence of liquor.” Against her is that Mrs. Hood wasn’t from Chicago either. Also, her spouse was a Lawyer, rather than millionaire. (Though he could easily have been a wealthy legal man, and her knowing, intimately, a wealthy man like Cashin shows she did indeed move in such circles.) The year of her death is also problematic.
Perhaps one day I’ll find the time to search again. Perhaps not. Duff Gordon’s memory may not have served her too well. If she purposely altered some details the Crazed Fan is lost in time forever. Regardless, Lady Duff Gordon’s riveting if sad story gives and gives when it comes to insight. The anonymous subject would be followed in time by others – one as late as 1934 – that likewise failed to realise the man who graced the screen wasn’t the man who walked the earth. (A mistake still made today.) I think it’s best articulated by the pseudonymous, Ben-Allah, who in 1926 speedily penned and published Rudolph Valentino: His Romantic Life and Death; which I understand was the first of the tributes in book form.
“While unsavoury to refer to it, many a fair flower tossed herself at the silken, black hair of the Beloved Sheik only to be received courteously and graciously, but never passionately.
He who in life and death has been the imaginative sweetheart of the majority of girls on the globe, never harbored an ambition to posses them. The emotion that flamed so fiercely on the screen was not a vicious one away from the flickers.”
(From pages 86 and 87.)
Thank you so much for reading this latest post in its entirety — I really appreciate it. As always there’s no list of sources as they’re mostly built into the text or added as links. If, however, anyone has a question about anything here I’m very happy to answer. And to provide any clarification that I can. See you in February!