The plaque which commemorates Valentino studying at the Marsano agricultural school.
So engrossed have I been, recently, in writing my book about Rudolph Valentino, that I’ve failed to devote myself to His Fame Still Lives. But there it is. The post I planned for late April has been moved to June. And to make sure there’s a post in May, I’m today presenting some images from my trip to his former place of education (close to Nervi, near Genoa), in 2015. This latest installment is titled simply: Sant’Ilario.
In 2014, I managed to get to Taranto, Martina Franca, and Castellaneta, in that order. And, as a result, was left wanting more. So, the following year, I decided to go to take a look at the other places in Italy Rudy had known well in his early years. Having been to where he’d lived, where his father had been born, and, to his own birthplace, it was clearly now time to go to the two places where he was otherwise resident and educated: Perugia and Sant’Ilario. (I also managed a fruitful archive stop as well.)
After taking the public bus – the best way to get near to where the establishment’s located – I walked the final distance up to the location from the S. Ilario church. As I’d arranged to meet with someone senior there, at a specific time, I went into the entrance way, and was soon taken to meet the individual. (This had been arranged through a contact in Genoa.) Then, after a short guided tour, which included seeing what I was told had been Rudy’s desk, I was taken to view his school records, as well as a couple of the text books he would’ve used. Afterwards, I was free to investigate the grounds, of what’s still a busy educational facility. As you’ll see, I snapped away, capturing, as much as I was able, some of the older structures, many of which had obviously fallen into disuse a long time before. It’s a magical spot, up high, looking out over the sea. And it wasn’t too difficult to picture the young Rodolfo Guglielmi there, between 1910 and 1912, with his life ahead of him. At the conclusion of my visit that afternoon, I really did feel I was just that little bit closer to him, and that he was closer to me.
The thirteen stops along the winding route. And the bus itself.
The view halfway up through the bus window.
Saint Hilary’s church. The final stop on the bus route.
The final approach. And the first glimpse of the institution.
The gates, at which Valentino had himself photographed, in 1923.
The interior plaque detailing the Founder and the establishment of the college.
A room door, with images of Rudolph Valentino as he appeared in The Son of the Sheik (1926), Camille (1921) and Monsieur Beaucaire (1924).
Pages in a textbook used by Rudy and his classmates.
Two further pages in a textbook used by Rudy and his classmates.
The cover of the volume that holds all of the examination results of Valentino and his contemporaries. (Sadly an attempt had recently been made to steal this.)
Rodolfo Guglielmi’s details in the volume (with an accompanying image).
The well-known image of a uniformed Rudolph Valentino and a contemporary. Probably taken around the time of their graduation. The institution had a military feel.
A negative of a classroom at the start of the Thirties. I was informed that the rooms had changed little by this time.
A structure that Rudy would’ve known during his time at the agricultural school.
The main entrance.
A sideview of the building. (No uniforms in the 21st C.)
A view from above of terracing. There is a great deal of terraced land around the complex.
One of the greenhouses.
A crumbling balustrade.
A much repaired stairway almost certainly used by Rudy during his time there.
Thank you for taking the time to look at this latest post on His Fame Still Lives. It’s a taste of what I saw and found that day, and I may add to it, when I have the time, or, create a fresh post, with further images and information. As I said I plan to publish my second April post sometime in June. And Part Three of my look at Jean Acker should follow that. See you next month!
While I busy myself turning my mammoth look at Jean Acker’s life and career, and her life-long association with Rudolph Valentino, from a three part post to a four part post, an opporunity presents itself for me to reshare my hour long chat about Rudy on local radio last year. The interviewer, Alan Porter Barnes, quizzes me during the sixty minutes, about how I first became interested in Valentino, allows me to talk about my travels, my Blog, Rudolph’s amazing career and some of his most important films, and asks me about my planned book about the Immortal Superstar. Along the way we play no less than four related tunes: Rudy singing Kashmiri Song (Pale Hands I Loved), The Beatles singing The Sheik of Araby, The Bangles singing Manic Monday, and Years and Years and MNEK singing Valentino.
The interview and the four tracks can be heard in full here:
100 years ago last month Rudolph Valentino married his first wife Jean Acker. It wasn’t, we know, a match made in heaven; and questions continue, to this very day, about what exactly was going on that November. There are questions, too, about what, if anything, was to be gained from the union. Just as there’s curiosity about the aftermath. I hope to answer these queries, in a three part post titled, not Questions, but Daisy Chained, for reasons that will eventually become clear. As far as I know this is the first ever deep investigation of this important figure in Rudy’s life.
Not long after I began looking properly at Rudolph Valentino, online and offline, in 2012, I thought about writing a book about him. But wait! Didn’t we already know all that there was to know? The biographies to date, particularly Emily W. Leider’s decade-old, Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino, had delivered to us a cornucopia of facts, so why – why? – go over the same ground? What could possibly be achieved? What angles were there on him that weren’t already exploited? For some time I thought about it. And thought some more. Then, late in 2013, I stumbled across The Sins of Hollywood, and everything changed.
I have to say, I do see why The Sins of Hollywood: An Expose of Movie Vice! has been on the whole largely ignored; after all, the light that it casts on Valentino isn’t a flattering one. His story, which is titled A Wonderful Lover, and is the eighth of twelve that recount the past off-set behaviour of several film industry notables, mainly focuses on what was going on at the Hotel Maryland, in Pasadena, in late 1918, and later, in Los Angeles, at the start of 1919. Whatever we might think of A Wonderful Lover and the eleven other tales by the anonymous ‘A Hollywood Newspaper Man’ – a person named Ed. Roberts – it’s the final few paragraphs that are important in this instance. As follows:
“The Dolfy met a movie girl. She was just on the edge of stardom, just going over the top. She helped him. Then she married him. That was his entry into pictures. He had done a few bits but was comparatively unknown.
“With the opportunities and the personal contact his marriage gave him, Adolfo moved fast. He met the right people. He had talent. Brains in both head and feet. His opportunity came and he took advantage of it. He could act. Had been acting all his life. That’s how he lived. His lessons in love-making stood him in good stead. All he had to do was be natural.
“When he finally hit the high mark he didn’t need the movie girl any more. She was a liability now, not an asset. So he canned her. Her career is about ended. His is just beginning.”
From page 62.
These closing lines enabled me to see the association of Dolfy/Adolfo (Rudy), and “the movie girl” (Jean), not from his perspective, but from hers. And it also helped me to find the way forward: I would write the biography of Jean Acker. It would be him through her eyes. Maybe I’d title it The First Mrs. Valentino — or something like that. It was a fresh viewpoint. One which would allow for closeups and medium and distance shots. The discoveries I made as I researched began to reveal to me a rather interesting person. Slowly but surely an individual emerged. No longer was she the derided and villified apendage. And I began to understand her a little, and, her motivations. I spent about six months writing and put it to the side. And what I wrote forms the backbone of this trio of posts.
I started, of course, at the start, and looked into her beginnings. Nowhere, I was reliably informed by people on the ground, was there a registered birth of a Harriet Ackers – her true name – in the state of New Jersey, for the year 1893. Likewise for 1892 or 1891. What there definitely was, however, in the 1900 Census, was a Hattie Ackers, born in Oct. 1891, and aged 8, residing on Market Street, Trenton, with Gershorn and Harriet Ackers, her grandparents. Also living at the address, were her Aunt, Maud L., a Boarder, named John Bice, and her apparent Father, Joseph, who had given his profession as Barber. The lack of a Mother was of interest. That there was no Birth Certificate, and Jean was named Harriet, after her paternal Grandmother, raises the possibility of illegitimacy. Certainly all censuses – 1900, 1905 and 1910 – show that one of her parents had abandoned her. And the whereabouts of Margaret Ackers/Acker during this time is a definite mystery. (By 1920, according to the Census that year, her father had married a woman named Virginia D. and moved to Lewistown, in Pennsylvania, where he worked as a Shoe Merchant.)
Her year of birth and family seemingly established – the 1910 Census does cast doubt on it and suggests it might’ve been 1892 – I sought evidence that she’d been born or raised on a farm. However in none of the three censuses did I find a rural location. In each instance – Trenton, Lambertville and Trenton – she was firmly in a city or a town. Yet, the fact that Lambertville bordered on open countryside, meant it was possible it had been there that she’d first experienced the outdoors, ran free and maybe learned to ride.
Three different homes in a decade didn’t suggest to me a particularly secure or stable upbringing. This was a family, for whatever reason, often on-the-move with little Harriet in tow. And considering this series of shifts, I began to see how they, and her lack of a mother, had probably shaped her. I imagined difficulties, strictness, dreariness. I saw a little girl desperate to escape. And I began to see that the life she sought for herself, and the person she eventually became, as she lived that life, was a direct result of all that she’d potentially endured during childhood. In fact, her earliest publicity when getting started in “the pictures”, suggests exactly that, filled as they are, with obvious invention and fantasy.
Hattie H. Ackers was no doubt still dreaming her dreams while working as a Milliner, or Hat Maker, in her late teens, in Trenton. (Employment we know about thanks to the 1910 Census.) I like to think that it was this position that led to her working alongside Howard Lee in the theatre “in a strong drama”. Something followed, according to her interview in The MOTION PICTURE Story Magazine, in 1913, by a season with Louis L. Hall’s Stock Company. (The L., it seems, stood for Leon.) And additional to her involvement with Lee and Hall she also spent some time in Vaudeville. Despite investigation, Howard Lee, has, unfortunately, failed to surface. And, if he existed at all, was, perhaps, just a small-time, amateur Thespian that never registered outside his home town or County. Louis Leon Hall, meanwhile, most definitely did. And a brief but prominent paragraph, in VARIETY, in mid. January 1912, reveals he had formerly headed: “… his own company in various New Jersey towns…” A sentence that appears to add weight to Jean’s explanation of how she was artistically occupied just prior to becoming a Minor Star in “the pictures”.
Minor stardom was less than a year away when she got her start at the dawn of true film-making in the United States. How she found herself at Siegmund Lubin‘s ‘Lubinville’, in Philadelphia, at the close of 1911, is unknown; but find herself there she did. As none of her early interviews give any clues we’re left to speculate. Perhaps she answered an advert. for staff and was soon put in front of the camera. Maybe she was spotted on the stage in Trenton and offered work. The usual route, taken by the likes of Blanche Sweet, who heard that the Biograph Co. needed people, filled out a form, and was ignored, until she met and spoke to D. W. Griffith, seems the least likely, considering the great distance between her home and the rapidly expanding Pennsylvanian concern.
The first interview that Jean Acker ever gave – she was Jean by this time, and not Harriet or Hattie, and the s had been dropped from her surname – is informative despite the serious make-believe it includes. (It’s plain she wasn’t born or brought up in St. Louis, Missouri, or, that her parents were Spanish.) Just two thirds of a single page, in the May 1912 edition of The MOTION PICTURE Story Magazine, we learn from it that: “She [loved] to act …. to pose, and …. to see upon the screen the pictures in which she [appeared].” Was, at that time, spending “three or four hours a day posing”. And would, in the evening: “… read, or write, or go to the theater… That she was “a talented writer”, with “many stories and scenarios to her credit”, is, if true, something of a surprise. Yet, what’s most apparent, in her exchange with Dorothy Harpur, for Harpur’s CHATS WITH THE PLAYERS, is Acker’s zest for life. And that, she’d at some point or other acquired a cute nickname, which was Billie.
Her spell at ‘Lubinville’, then America’s most up-to-date complex, would’ve been a great experience and definitely educational. Even today, more than 100 years later, the images of the structures in Eugene Dengler’s, five page, image-filled article, in the October 1911 issue of MOTOGRAPHY, impress. A bird’s eye view illustration, shows the extent of the operation, and its situation at the corner of 20th Street and Indiana Avenue. The three main structures forming an enclosure: an impressive glass and steel studio, a processing building, and, at the bend of the U, the administrative office. The studio itself, boasted enormous glazed doors, that could be opened when necessary; on hot days, water was made to cascade over the many glass roof panels, to keep them cool; actors were given the option of emerging from, or descending into, the floor (as if from a lower or higher level); ground-breaking, artifical lighting was in use; and there was sufficient floor space for several films to be created simultaneously. The plant also had a prop-making area, a costume department, various laboratories and drying rooms, and even a subsidised canteen.
After a year with Lubin we can imagine a very different Acker to the one who’d begun there. Films were in her blood now. By the end of 1912 she was a ‘Pro.’; a veteran of perhaps 20 or so varied shorts. Along with her often anonymous cohorts, she’d worked hard, back-to-back, in quickie westerns, comedies and dramas. Films such as: A Village Romance, The Surgeon’s Heroism, A Noble Enemy, A Poor Excuse That Worked. And also: The Heart of a Boss, The Office Favorite, Through the Drifts and The Poor Relation. (All early 1912.)
Is that Jean in a promotional image for The Substitute (1911)? Quite possibly. Of course we can’t be sure, but, considering her inclinations and abilities – later roles and love of danger – and the likeness of the Star pictured, it’s conceivable. (Interestingly this wasn’t the only Lubin cross-dressing story at the time, as, late in 1911, and not too long before she joined the studio, the organisation released My Brother, Agostino (1911), a curious tale of a woman forced to take the place at work of her husband, disguised as a male sibling. The ensuing romance, between Rosiana, masquerading as a man, and Rosa, another female, gave the production an interesting flavour that caused one reviewer to describe it as: “A really unusual story very cleverly and absorbingly told.”)
Zesty Billie Acker, the girl who’d gone from millinery to the stage to the Kliegls, was soon moving again. After approximately twelve months at ‘Pop’ Lubin’s state-of-the-art Lubin Manufacturing Co., we see that she’d been taken on by Carl Laemmle‘s IMP — an acronym for The Independent Moving Pictures Co., soon to become Universal Film Manufacturing Co. (and today, known simply, as Universal Pictures). Her girlie, late Summer Long Island break, with Catherine Tower, had been reported in the trade press. And the brief profile of her had appeared in The MOTION PICTURE Story Magazine. And yet it wasn’t enough for her. She wanted more — much more.
Nothing else can explain the move, which immediately paid-off, when she was featured, albeit incorrectly named but noticeably androgynous, on the cover of the February issue of MOTOGRAPHY. (Above.) That she was being treated differently by her new employer is clear, when we see the report inside the same issue, about how she was present at an exclusive theatre and supper party of sixteen, who were guests of Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Brenon. Her Boss, Mr. Laemmle, his wife, and Mr. and Mrs. King Baggot being four of the others present. March then saw her reported about again, when a newspaper declared:
“The Imp’s Ingenue, Little
Miss Acker, Delights in
From The Evening Standard, Ogden City, Utah, March 29th, 1913 (page 2).
The paragraph, accompanied by a reproduced press photograph, alongside similar images of two equally active, contemporary female personalities, Mary Charleson (at Vitagraph), and Ruth Roland (at Kalem), concentrated on the fact ‘Little Miss Acker’ was someone that loved: “… real, genuine excitement.” She claimed, the unknown writer said: “… she would rather jump from a moving train, ride a motorcycle at a fifty-mile clip, or ride in an aeroplane than eat.” The breaking of her leg at the time, while not sustained performing a stunt, was connected to one, due to her being on the back of future Leading Man (Frederic) Rodman Law’s motorcycle, when it was hit by a seven-passenger Touring Car, at the junction of Broadway and 42nd Street in New York. According to a report, Law was driving, with Acker and a Rosabella Phoner also on the ‘bike. (Law and Phoner had apparently jumped from an aeroplane earlier that day, at Coytesville, New Jersey.) Jean’s leg fracture was so bad that she was rushed to Long Island Hospital. Rodman, despite being thrown 30 feet, and fracturing his arm, made sure that she was taken care of first. Along with Rosabella. Who was lucky to escape with bruising of her face and arms.
At the time of this upset, Jean Acker had completed the two reel, 20 minute film In a Woman’s Power (1913). This, even by the standards of the day, flimsy, corny melodrama, with Jean playing a virtuous and forgiving wife, named Marcelle, who decides to hold onto her husband, despite his criminal past and the lure of a pre-Bara Vampish former love, was simultaneous to the single reel, ten minute comedy The Man Outside (1913). (A production, not to be confused with the similarly titled The Man From Outside, by Reliance, or the picture released that Autumn with the exact same name, by Essanay.)
TOMORROW FROM 2:00 P. M. to 11:00 P. M.
Bureaucratic tyranny in photo. Portrays the Muscovite
terror system, in two big reels.
An ad. for The PALACE, in The Bryan Daily Eagle and Pilot, Bryan, Texas, August 20th, 1913 (page 2)
It would only be after recovering, wherever that was, that Jean would be showcased in the sort of vehicle the public was being primed to expect to see her. Nihilist Vengeance (1913) is, we see from reviews and reports, exactly that sort of production; featuring, as it did, a bridge destroyed by three explosions, as ‘Little Miss Acker’, as the sweetheart of a wrongly condemned hero, thunderered across it in an open carriage, in an ultimately successful attempt to save him from an unjust death. An anonymous reviewer, writing for the Daily East Oregonian that September, praised the costumes but felt that the plot was: “… conventional.” More conventional still, and not as exciting, was another film at this time, titled Bob’s Baby. In the Gem comedy, unleashed that August, Acker dutifully acted as the cousin of Bob, played by Glen White. Surely wishing, as she did so, for another, far more exciting role. Eventually it would come.
I have to say I wondered at this point – 1913/1914 – about Acker’s sexuality. And also what effect being mainly attracted to women might’ve had on her, and her career chances, in what was an extremely male-dominated business. In later life she lived quietly with her Long-Term Partner, Lillian Chloe Carter; but nothing is known of her relationship, or relationships, before World War One. What, for example, did the person in the Winter road traffic accident, Rosabella Phoner, mean to her? And should anything be read into her 1912 vacation with Catherine Tower? Also, what was life like for Lesbians, at this time in the States?
Magnus Hirschfield, in the footsteps of the 19th Century pyschologist, Karoly Maria Hertbeny (or Karl-Maria Benkert), inventor of the term Homosexuality, was only just beginning work on The Homosexuality of Men and Women (1922), in which he delved into the mental, emotional and physical spheres. As well as how new technology, such as communications and transportation, were affecting their lives. The few specialists there were remained at odds about even the reasons for same-sex relationships. Prior to The Great War the conversation had barely started. In America, in 1915, before the United States entered the conflict, only the recently bailed Agitator, Emma Goldman, dared lecture on the subject of The Intermediate Sex — and not everywhere, either.
I consulted Leila J. Rupp’s 2009 publication, Sapphistries: A Global History Of Love Between Women, to get an idea of how Lesbians and Lesbianism were perceived. It was, I must say, of little assistance when it came to the years that I was interested in. Yet I did learn how, in 1919, an unnamed Sexologist suggested passive Lesbians were the result of social factors, and aggressive ones due to biology. 1913/1914 was, of course, a whole half decade behind this opinion. Many years before Berlin became a Sapphist paradise. And a decade and a half earlier, than either Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), or G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929). (The Well of Loneliness, by-the-way, was banned in the USA.)
Rupp’s book did yield the late Nineteenth Century Alice Mitchell/Freda (or Fred) Ward case in Memphis however. Proving that, from time-to-time, the general public was made aware of women who loved other women. It’s a saga so filled with incident – love letters, cross-dressing, marriage plans, a ring, a murder, press coverage, a trial and an asylym – that I’m frankly amazed it wasn’t made into a Blockbuster years ago.
Despite the lack of context, and few clues as to her partners, it strikes me as plain that while Jean managed to escape her unpleasant origins, she remained caught between convention and liberation, her public self and her real self. Forced, I’m sure, to behave one way, while yearning at times to act in another. It was a double life. And interview hints are too heavy in my opinion for it to have been anything else. Inner turmoil was virtually guaranteed. In the largely male-dominated industry in which she found herself she could accept, even encourage, advances from men, if she kept her involvement with Phoner, Tower, and others, such as it was, a secret. And she did — she had to. Her career completely depended on it. Plus, if she acted like one of the guys, then they might, perhaps, see her more as a Pal, or little sister, than a sex object. It was a perpetual high wire act and a tumble was inevitable.
Girl in a Daring
Leap for Movies
Column headline, page 1 of The Seattle Star, October 25th, 1913
In October, the young woman reported that March, as preferring to jump from a moving train, ride a fast motorcycle, or soar in aeroplane, than eat a meal, was to be seen across the nation, in the IMP two-reeler The Daredevil Mountaineer (1913). Several newspapers reviewed the film ahead of, and after, release. And many waxed lyrical about the main characters and an exciting stunt. The Seattle Star was so impressed, that Jean Acker and her co-Star were featured in a large, reproduced photo. on the front page. The write-up, describing Acker, as: “… as gritty a little girl as ever took her life in her hands to amuse ‘movie’ patrons.” Though The North Platte Semi Weekly Tribune perhaps summed it up best on November 21st: “The Dare-Devil Mountaineer” …. shows Rodman Law and Jean Acker as his sweetheart. Her mother takes her from mountain country to the city in order to marry her to a title, but the mountaineer elopes with her on a motorcycle. This daring escape makes a very thrilling scene.” The scene mentioned – Rodman and Jean pursued, while speeding along on a bike at 85 mph, with the chase culminating in a spectacular and all-too-real, forty foot fall from an open draw-bridge – was as daredevil as the title promised. And six months before The Perils of Pauline made an international Star of Pearl White, in 1914, we see that Jean Acker was already endangering her life for action addicted filmgoers.
Rodman Law – brother of a younger Aviatrix sister, and also known as Frank R. Law, but born Frederic Rodman Law – was the perfect screen partner for thrill-seeking Jean Acker. By now she had surely forgiven ‘The Human Fly’ (as he was nicknamed) for her ending up in hospital when his ‘bike collided with an automobile earlier that year. Had she willed the film to be? Or was it fate? Whatever, she’d placed herself, quite literally, in his hands. After all, this was a death-defier who’d successfully plunged over Stillwater Falls, Maine, in an open boat, for a Reliance film a few months earlier. And the previous year had managed to successfully parachute from both the Brooklyn Bridge and the torch of the Statue of Liberty.
If her film career was going well, we might wonder why it was that Acker was listed as a cast member of a play, Within the Law, at the end of the year. Her mention, buried in dense text, in the November 29th edition of The New York Clipper, is actually a retrospective look at the production, at the New York Lyric Theater — now, apparently, Foxwoods Theater. Further investigation revealed that Jean had in fact been attached to the hit play since mid. Summer, when a July issue of VARIETY gently trumpeted how the notable Producer, A. H. Woods, had engaged her for the part of Helen Morris. The short paragraph, also reminded those paying attention, that Miss Acker was familiar to film viewers; demonstrating that she had some pulling power, and was sufficiently known to be considered a good choice for such an important attraction.
The Within the Law storyline, of a woman wrongly accused of theft, imprisoned for three years, and then forced, on her release, to turn to criminality to survive, was a resonant one with audiences. Partly, because the playwright, Bayard Veiller, had once been a Police Reporter. And also due to the unsubtle, Suffragist subtext, which grounded it very much in the present. The advertised endorsement of Harriet Stanton Blatch, prominent Suffragette, in an April 1913 edition of The Sun newspaper, highlights this. The character, Mary Turner, played by Helen Ware and others, was patently the victim of a cruel and repressive male-dominated system. The play’s path to success – a rewrite, the departure of the original Producer, a disastrous 1911 Chicago opening, serious trading of interests and shares, and final success, in September 1912, at the newly-opened 42nd Street Eltinge Theater – was just as interesting. Afterwards followed no less than eight duplicate productions – Jean’s probable Amour Catherine Tower headed one – across the country. Several printed newpaper serialisations. And many months of popularity in London’s ‘West End’.
That December Jean Acker could look back on a year filled with incident and success. While not exactly a Superstar – MOTOGRAPHY magazine felt it important to advise readers that she was now on the stage and not in films which wasn’t strictly speaking correct – she had, nevertheless, carved herself something of a niche. Her work for ‘Pop Lubin’ and then Laemmle’s Universal (at IMP, Gem and Victor), had been of value, and established her, along with others, as an early, pioneering, Film Personality.
Might the early, pioneering Film Personality, enjoying the festive atmosphere of New York, have swept up or down Broadway, on the day the newly arrived, slightly rained-soaked Rodolfo Guglielmi, wide-eyed at all he saw, walked it? Or passed him on another day in her car, loudly honking her horn, as he failed to cross her path with sufficient speed? It’s not pointless speculation. These two young people were very much in Gotham at the same time. Simultaneously seeing identical sights. Breathing the same air. In America’s most vibrant city at one of the most exciting times in its history: the cusp of 1913/1914.
My research indicated 1914 wasn’t the year of progress that Jean had perhaps hoped for. She’s seldom mentioned in trade publications, or news titles; and when she is, it’s briefly. Like when she’s highlighted in Vesta Powell’s coverage of the The Screen Club’s second annual ball, in her ALL FOR THE LADIES About Women—Mostly column, in VARIETY, on February the 6th, 1914. Powell, who wrote under the name of PLAIN MARY, witnessed the gathering of early screen stars and their devoted public, at the impressive Grand Central Palace, on the night of January the 31st, and wrote about the event with an honesty that refreshes and amuses, even today. Her general observations aside we learn that the cream of East Coast Filmdom were in attendance. King Baggot, Mary Fuller and John Bunny. Leah Baird, Mrs. Maurice Costello, Pearl White, Florence La Badie and Jane Fearnley. Claire Whitney and Fannie Burke. PLAIN MARY’s attention was, unsurprisingly, drawn to the pretty outfits worn by the actresses. Jean Acker’s, she told her readers, was: “… a white taffeta gown with [a] yellow girdle and [a] small white lace cap.”
If anything, Acker managed to maintain her position but nothing more. Of course, at the time, it might not have seemed this way to her. We, now, down-the-line, have the ability to look back and see the peaks and the troughs. I do wonder about the switch from film-making to board-treading. Was her orientation the reason? Had she, perhaps, rejected the advances of a powerful Executive? Nowhere did I see any mention of a Boyfriend, or Fiancee, in 1912, 1913 and 1914. Or, for that matter, see her linked in any way with any man, young or old. And the absence of a male in her life spoke volumes. Though there were indeed many successful single females – Frances Benjamin Johnston for example – the majority of women could only go so far alone. A Husband, while not essential, absolutely gave a woman a different standing in society. Performers in large numbers were often married while remaining a Miss. (Mary Pickford being perhaps one of the most obvious.) Issues with any man or men along the way could’ve led to her being overlooked for parts. And we can’t discount the very real chance that she’d already been forced to submit, to secure at least one, or more, of her previous roles. As so many, male as much as female, did.
I feel strongly that Catherine Tower was important to her emotionally. And I don’t think it a coincidence they knew one another and that Tower preceded Acker as Helen Morris in Within the Law. The announcement of Catherine leaving was followed just a month later with the news of Jean’s arrival. It could have been a friendly favour, with the established actress putting her forward, or, simply the promotion of her Understudy. However, Jean Acker’s future entanglement with an even greater theatrical personality, Alla Nazimova, suggests a pattern, and so the possibility shouldn’t be dismissed. It’s also important – essential – to point out that this was a person with no mother’s wing under which to crawl. The Pickford’s, the Gishes, the Talmadges, and others, all had a steely parent to defend them, and to battle the studios and studio bosses on their behalf. Her Father being disengaged she naturally sought out a substitute. And substitutes no doubt sought her out. In the case of Nazimova most definitely.
How long Acker’s agreement with Woods was is unknown. The available information doesn’t make it easy to deduce when she ceased to be a cast member. Signed up in the Summer of 1913, we see that she’s still Morris at the end of the year. As for Spring and Summer 1914, if Tower remained engaged (which she did), then it’s safe to assume that Acker did too, and that it was a one year deal.
The assumption is given weight by the fact her next film, The $5,000,000 Counterfeiting Plot (1914), was, as The New-York Tribune details, premiered at the New York Theatre, on Monday, August 10th, 1914. Being a social creature, Jean was probably present to hear the central character, William J. Burns, an actual Detective who played himself in the six part Dramascope Co. serial, talk on the subject of crime. (Before or after the screening.) Based on actual, recent events, the production was unusual in that it was a 6 reel/six part feature. In 1914 the majority of films that were created were just one or two reels in length – ten or twenty minutes – and so an hour long presentation was very experimental. Only the great D. W. Griffith had so far dared to challenge the belief Americans wouldn’t sit through anything longer than thirty minutes. His Judith of Bethulia (1914) had had a delayed release by his previous employers that March. Yet to create the game-changing Birth of a Nation (1915) he, himself, released six reeler The Avenging Conscience (1914) that same month. All Star, Eclectic, World and Pasquali each nervously issued their own five reelers.
THE MOTION PICTURE WORLD gave The $5,000,000 Counterfeiting Plot a three quarter page in-depth review. And the reviewer, Hanford C. Judson, singled Jean Acker out for praise. Stating that her portrayal of another Helen, this time Helen Long, daughter of a villain, James Long, a Counterfeiter, gave: “… by its simplicity a strong-heart interest to the whole that tells mightily.” (Not bad!) However, it would seem the fresh, documentary-style production, filled with actual people, events and locations, not-to-mention superb acting, was just a bit ahead of its time. Too clever and overlong. Had it been shot a year or so later, like The Italian (1915), it may’ve fared better. Despite the re-enactment of the Philadelphia-Lancaster counterfeiting case being skilful, and advertisements featuring Burns having impact, the US wasn’t ready for a crime epic. It played here and there and was soon forgotten.
Then, as much as now, a poor career decision could be fatal. And I suspect Jean suffered a little due to The Dramascope Co. spectacular’s lack of success. Something which would explain why she fails to be mentioned in the press as starring in anything for several months. That her standing in the film community wasn’t affected by her lack of work is proven by her appearance in the same paragraph as Edwin August of Kinetophote, Mary Pickford of Famous Players Film Co. (soon to be Famous Players-Lasky Corp.), Pickford’s Mother, Ormi Lawley of the Lubin Manufacturing Co., and fellow daring female, Pearl White. The occasion, being another Screen Club Ball, this time on Thanksgiving eve, at the Hotel Astor, to raise money for the Belgian Relief Fund. Jean being very much a part of the efforts that night; as well as, perhaps, beforehand and afterwards, along with her contemporaries.
Her other mention, in the Saturday, December 5th, 1914, issue of VARIETY, on page 23, is about her inclusion as a cast member in the forthcoming Famous Players Film Co. John Barrymore vehicle, Are You a Mason? (1915). (See above.) Based, by Eve Unsell (writer of the screenplay), on Leo Ditrichstein’s turn of the centrury farce of the same title, the film was to be the illustrious Barrymore’s third cinematic venture. His first outing being An American Citizen (1914). And the second The Man From Mexico (1914). Releases that were also stage hits translated to celluloid by Zukor’s concern. (In fact, so confident was Famous Players Film Co., that a fourth theatrical adaptation, The Dictator, awaited him.)
From advance publicity, we know that Acker was carefully selected for her part in the story of a feisty young man, who pretends to his ambitious wife, in accordance with her wishes, that he’s become a Mason. THE NEW YORK CLIPPER, on December 6th, 1914, declared in CURRENT FILM EVENTS BY RIK, that it was: “An unusually important cast of Broadway favourites…” that had been collected to support ‘Jack’ Barrymore. And further, Famous Players Film Co., had: “… deemed it advisable to entrust the parts to the able talents of this unusual coterie of stage artists.” (Jean Acker’s fellow performers were: Alfred Hickman, Charles Dixon, Charles Butler, Ida Waterman, Lorraine Hulling, Harold Lockwood and Kitty Baldwin.)
Filming took place in and around New York in January and February. However, time spent studying the comedic enterprise, doesn’t reveal Jean’s role, or, indeed, the parts played by some of the others. And due to the fact that the film, along with his two earlier efforts, is lost, it’s impossible to have much of an idea. The few stills there are that exist mainly feature the Star alone in exaggerated poses.
If the majority of pre-release promotion praised the production to the heavens, then ‘Wynn’, reviewing for VARIETY, aimed to return it firmly to earth, as screenings commenced, at New York’s Strand Theatre, on March 22nd, 1915. More of an attack than a critique, from the start the writer described Are You a Mason? as: “A decidely mild comedy…” And it didn’t get better. Monotonous, conventional and poorly directed, ‘Wynn’ felt it failed to exploit the many obvious opportunities for humour in the play. And in its original form perhaps it did. As it appears that Adolph Zukor took note, and a re-edited, shorter version was soon released.
Yet, audiences in the middle of the Teens were less demanding than crtics, and Are You a Mason? was successfully and no doubt profitably screened for many months. What flaws there were didn’t affect Barrymore. And ‘Wynn’ didn’t blame him for them anyway. Jean, though, was overshadowed. As with the The $5,000,000 Counterfeiting Plot a big production had failed to take her anywhere. She was, it seems, on the slide; and probably had a slipping feeling as the year progressed.
Does this explain her professional disappearance for almost 36 months? It’s hard to say for certain. And yet she mysteriously vanishes from the business as far as I can see for that length of time. Four years of irregular mentions and images suddenly end and the reason isn’t clear. Had her lack of a contract hampered her? Did her choices over time spoil things? It’s seldom that a single decision ruins things; yet, a series of mistakes most definitely can. There’s little doubt that between 1914 and 1915 she moves with some difficulty from project to project. And that, despite the size and scale, they turned out not to be the opportunities she’d thought they’d be. Jean’s faltering at this time, would, I imagine, make her future success all the sweeter. And in Part Two I’ll be looking at those successes and the sweetness in the same detail that I have in Part One.
Thank you for reading this post in its entirety — I appreciate it. As usual, any and all references and research is available to anybody who asks, if they’re not already provided in the text, as a link, or, as an image. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about Jean Acker’s early life and career as much as I enjoyed writing about it. The second installment, looking at her years of stardom, and her meeting and marriage to Rudolph Valentino, will be posted a month from now, at the start of 2020. See you then!
There are few people more dedicated to preserving the memory of Rudolph Valentino, or promoting him and championing him and his career, than Mr. Tracy Terhune. As well as being a Preservationist, a Promoter and a Champion, he’s also a serious Collector; and thus an important Custodian, when it comes to Valentino-related artifacts and ephemera. His knowledge is immense. His generosity, kindness and openness even greater. He’s an Administrator of the long-established We Never Forget Valentino group on Facebook. And importantly, organises the annual Rudolph Valentino Memorial Service, which takes place each August 23rd, at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, in Los Angeles, at 12:10 p. m., the time of the passing of the Great Lover in 1926.
Tracy has kindly taken time out from his busy schedule to engage in a Q & A session with His Fame Still Lives. (Questions are in British English and answers are in American English.)
1. Tracy, hello, and thank you for agreeing to speak with HFSL. Two months ago, once again, you organised and hosted the Rudolph Valentino Memorial, at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, in Los Angeles. It must’ve been quite a task to pull it all together. Can you take us through the process? What exactly does it take to organise such an event?
The Valentino Memorial is such a time-honoured Hollywood event and I am so proud to be a part of it. The main part is to plan in advance, and I try to line up at least two speakers. That is the hardest part of putting on the event. People who have written books or recent projects are always considered. Some people even reach out with an idea. Some are declined, such as one year, a person wanted to hold a seance in the middle of the Memorial. Once the speakers are confirmed, I reach out to fill the rest of the program, which includes reading a selection of poems from Day Dreams, and the reading of the ending of the 23rd Psalm. If the Memorial is on a certain year, we may theme it accordingly, such as the 90th anniversary of the Memorial. The short videos that are shown are all custom-made specifically for the event, and contribute greatly to the Memorial itself. Some pay tribute to past participants, or to refresh the memory of a person who has a Rudy connection, such as Mae Murray or Ann Harding. Also, every year we have a short video, which I call the “Valentino Tribute Video” and it is done solely to stop and remember Rudolph Valentino. It changes each year.
I design and order the banners and also I design and print the programs. Sometimes additional ‘hand outs’ are given to those who attend, for example, this year, a hand-held fan with Rudy’s image and the date on it was given out. Other times it was recreation of the Mineralava ticket or a pin-back button for the 90th anniversary. The Cemetery provides the podium, the chairs and microphone. This year is the third year the Memorial has been broadcast on Facebook Live. That has proven to be very popular. All this comes together and makes what we all know as the Valentino Memorial Service.
2. I know that you’ve been organising and hosting the Memorial for quite some time now. For those who don’t know as much as I and others do, can you tell us how you got started, and maybe some of the highlights for you over the years??
I got a call from the Cemetery saying Tyler Cassity (the owner of the Cemetery) wanted me to be on the committee of organzing the Memorial. Bud Testa, who had done it on his own for nearly 50 years was in ill health, and Tyler wanted to bring a group together to plan the annual event. That is how I got started and this would be 2001. My first Memorial I attended was in 1996 and I have been at every one since then. The first time I spoke was 2002 to close the service with reading the prayer card that was handed out at the Valentino funeral in 1926. In 2004 my book came out which chronicled the entire history of the Valentino Memorial and I was the main speaker that year.
In those days there was a lot of turnover at the Cemetery and it wasn’t uncommon to come back the next year and it would be all new people running the place. In 2006 they had no one for the Emcee, and I said I would be willing, and I have continued since then. One thing is the guiding force in everything I do for the Memorial; that it is not about me, it is about honouring and remembering Valentino. Nor do I invite anyone who I feel would bring disrespect to him or to the Service itself. No speakers appear in “costumes”. Ask anyone who’s attended in the past few years and I am confident that they will tell you it is fun and interesting, but that it is a dignified, respectful event.
3. And going back further into time, I’m interested to learn of your very first inkling of Rudy. In other words: at what point in your life did you become aware of him?
I was first aware of Rudy because of the Brownlow Hollywood Series that I saw on public television. In the early 1980s I used to go to local revival houses to see silent films. My first silent film was Wings. At Universal around this time Mary MacLaren came in to visit and she told us about her dressing room being next to Rudolph Valentino’s on the Universal lot. It wasn’t until 1995 that the Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles was showing the Brownlow restoration of the The Four Horsemen.
I went in and saw that, and thought he had amazing screen chemistry and presence. I sought out books to learn more about him, and the only ones were at used bookstores, most of them highly fictionalized however. I came across the Irving Shulman bio and it was the first I read. It is still my favourite Valentino bio.
4. After you’d become aware of him and his career what were your thoughts? Before you knew as much as you do now? How did he strike you as a person early on?
My first impression of him was how sad, and lonely a person he was. He was used by everyone, I mean everyone. He was un-valued by the studios. (He left Metro, because they declined his request for a $50 a week raise, and they let him go! This after The Four Horsemen!) He was horribly used by his two wives. One had a sagging career and started using his name, yet, she had no qualms about dragging that name through the mud in the divorce trial. The other had an insatiable desire to be a power to reckon with within the movie industry and he was the means to obtain it. He was used by his Business Manager. The fact he wrote to his brother asking him to please write to him because he needed to know somebody still loved him. That’s very sad.
5. And what would you say was your biggest misconception — if you had any??
I only knew the standard legend that Rudolph Valentino was the Great Lover. I went into it assuming he was a big chaser of women, living up to his screen reputation. Nothing could be further from the truth. In private he was a quiet, homebody type, who enjoyed the company of those he trusted, a small circle of select friends within his social circle. That is who the true Rudolph Valentino was.
6. You have a vast collection of Rudy-related items which has grown over time. I’d like to ask you which was the very first thing you acquired and when??
The very first items I obtained were the Luther Mahoney items. They are pictured in the 1975 book about Valentino by Jack Scagnetti. I had recently read the book and saw those items pictured, and remember thinking: ‘I wonder who owns those now’. Two weeks later I attended a local memorabilia show and there they were, all in plastic bags and marked: “Personal Property of Rudolph Valentino”.
It turns out after Luther Mahoney’s death his daughter Madeleine Mohoney Reid inherited them, but she had recently died and they were sold off to a dealer, who in turn was selling them off piece by piece. I thought it was sad these were all kept together, and now this was happening. I bought several of the items and that is how I got started. That would be about 1997.
7. Having been lucky enough to see your Valentino collection three years ago I know that it’s very varied. I wonder if you could give us a quick overview of what it contains?
I have a good selection of photos, some quite rare. I enjoy lobby cards, and the one six-sheet from Society Sensation. It takes up a whole wall. What I enjoy most are items from the estate and personal documents. I have put most of my collecting efforts towards that area.
8. What’s the most unusual item that you have?
The 1920s mirror from the master bathroom in Falcon Lair which would have reflected Rudy’s face daily. The mirror was built into the wall and was original to the house which was built in 1923. It was given to me by the then owner of Falcon Lair as he had planned to remodel the bathroom and it would not be retained. True to his word, on my next visit, it was protected in bubble wrap waiting for me. Truly a one of a kind piece!
9. What’s the item that you cherish the most?
Three things. The Demi Tasse silver cup and saucer that is listed in the estate catalog as “This was Mr. Valentino’s personal set”. Also, the famed Eagle ring that he wore in three films: ‘A Sainted Devil’, ‘Cobra’, and of course ‘The Eagle’, where the ring actually became part of the plot line. I plan to donate this to the Academy for their new museum and I hope this happens. Lastly, his United Artists contract signed by Rudy.
10. Was there ever anything that you wanted that you couldn’t acquire?
Sometimes in auctions there are several items and I have to pick my battles. I have missed out on some items I would have liked to have but that is fine.
11. And if you don’t mind to share it with us which was your most recent acquisition?
Two Rudolph Valentino signed ocean liner farewell dinner menus, both from different voyages, that have the dates of the trip. One was signed by him and Nita Naldi. The other was signed by him to Louise, his personal Cook at home. He talks about how the food on this menu may sound good, but Oh! for Louise’s cooking! Very funny and heart-felt.
12. Looking back over Valentino’s all-too-brief life and career, what, in your opinion, was his greatest achievement? (If you feel there was more than one please tell us!)
I think his greatest achievement was something he did not live to see and that would be his enduring legacy. I would like to think he would be pleased to know that a Memorial would continue to be held 93 years after his passing. That people still care, each in their own way. That is an achievement and honor that none of his contemporaries in the movie industry are afforded.
13. And which, in your opinion, is his greatest performance and/or greatest film?
He was superb in The Four Horsemen. I think Moran of the Lady Letty is an often overlooked performance. I liked his pairing with Gloria Swanson in Beyond the Rocks. But I think his best film by far is The Son of the Sheik.
14. Why do you think people were so drawn to Rudolph Valentino, and why were women, particularly, so enamoured of him?
For females of his day it was the escapism that movies offered women and Rudy was the embodiment of that escape, the forbidden love that would whisk you away from the dishes and laundry, to passion and romance. For men, it was that he himself wanted to be like Valentino, to have that alluring charm for use on women.
15. I’m sending you back in a time machine to the Twenties. You’re in Rudy’s presence for a short while, maybe disguised as a Reporter, what do you ask him?
I’d ask him for his spaghetti recipe we’ve heard so much about.
16. If you could’ve given him one piece of advice what would it have been?
I’d have suggested he not marry Jean Acker nor Natacha Rambova; both were huge mistakes in completely different ways. Then I would kindly suggest he not take the negative articles too personally, to grow a thicker skin towards that.
17. If we know what his appeal was in the past, what is it about Valentino today, do you think, that continues to attract people to him?
His charisma still leaps from the screen. He still resonates with an audience. Valentino is forever. Long after we’re gone, someone, somewhere, will be watching ‘The Son of the Sheik’.
18. Valentino stirs up controversy, now, as much as he did in his lifetime. What do you think about this?
This is so true. I think it’s sad as well as unfortunate. So much hate has been unfurled in the name of Valentino. In my opinion there is pure fiction being published about Rudy even today by people; some, who call themselves ‘scholarly’! I believe fiction, hearsay, innuendo, and guesswork is being touted as fact. For the most part they are very much ignored within the Valentino Community.
19. Finally, what’s next for you, when it comes to Rudolph Valentino? Do you have any burning ambitions? Anything you’d like to do, or see happen, with regard to him?
I do have a couple of projects I am toying with. I’d like to update my book Valentino Forever, and also, I’d like to put together a photo. book of the history of the East coast and West coast funerals and the aftermath, using photos I have in my collection.
I would love to see the Brownlow ‘The Eagle’ released to Blu-ray. They are releasing a Blu-ray of the movie but it is not from that print source. Only two original camera negatives exist for Valentino films. ‘Cobra’ is one and ‘The Eagle’ is the other. A print was struck a decade ago and shown at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. It was razor-sharp and crystal clear on the big screen; you could see the gleam in his eye. It is a shame that print is locked away.
Tracy Terhune, thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions, about yourself, and about Rudolph Valentino. I really appreciate it.
Thank you, all, for taking the time to read through Mr. Terhune’s fascinating interview with HFSL about himself and Rudy. This is the first, of what’s planned to be, an irregular series over time. If anyone who enjoys this Valentino-focused Blog thinks that a person is deserving of being interviewed I’d love to hear your suggestion/s. Anyone respectful of Rudolph Valentino and his work and legacy will be considered. See you in November!
Debtor. Bankrupt. Business Failure. Wife-Beater. Child Kidnapper. Wanted Man. Fraudster. Not individually pretty labels, are they? How about collectively? Applied to one person? A person at times close – very close indeed – to Rudolph Valentino. A person, we’re led to believe, who was his loyal Sponsor and Protector in the United States. The unsavoury character in question? Frank A. Mennillo. A man apparently erased from the narrative. Purposely pushed aside and diminished. Not given his due. My findings indicate he never was the Godfather it’s claimed he was. That he was a Hanger On. And that he might very well have been a reason Rudolph Valentino never had any money. This post is titled simply: Frank.
Thanks to modern tech. it’s very easy to get to know the subject of the post this month on His Fame Still Lives. It’s all online. And it makes for interesting reading. Born April 10th, 1882, in Naples, Italy, like countless numbers of his contemporaries (including of course his future friend), he emigrated to America when young; though, unlike Valentino, he didn’t travel there in style.
Francesco Mennillo – his middle initial wasn’t used at this time – was just 22 years old when he boarded the S. S. Perugia, a vessel known for transporting marble, pumice, soap, olive oil and macaroni, etc., at Naples, on June 11th, 1904. The ship’s Steerage paperwork reveals that he travelled alone; his occupation was Merchant; that he was able to write; was a Southern Italian; had paid for his own passage; was carrying just $20; would be living with his cousin (on Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn); that he’d never been in prison, wasn’t a Polygamist, an Anarchist, or a Trouble Causer; that his health was good; and that he wasn’t deformed, or crippled.
Proof he spent the twelve months after arrival (on June 26th), living and working in the USA, is found in his 1905 petition for naturalization documents. (It was necessary to remain within a state for a year, and be resident in the country for five years, to be able to apply for citizenship.) That he was on his way to citizenship is the reason he declares, in 1906, on his return to America on the S. S. Italia, that he’s a Non-Immigrant Alien. And in that Manifest we see he’s still a Merchant; is single; brings $50 into the country; and is living with his brother, at Hester Street, Lower Manhattan.
This journey from the United States to Italy and back again was one he made practically every year between 1906 and 1911. (He failed to cross and recross the Atlantic only in 1907.) In 1909, by which time he was married, and was calling himself Frank, he returns on the S. S. Roma in the September. That his brothers, Ciro and Giovanni (respectively 22 and 12 at the time), followed him, on the S. S. Virginia, that December, suggests he’d been helping them to get ready eight weeks previously. (That the elder, Ciro, was at the time a Farmer, indicates a move which would significantly improve his prospects.)
His trip out and back, on the S. S. Madonna in 1910, was followed by a more impressive one the next year. In the Spring of 1911, he returned from Liverpool, Great Britain, on the Cunard Line Liner, RMS Lusitania — the ship famously torpedoed and sunk by the Germans just four years later. Though this was apparently a Second Class voyage, it’s safe-to-say, that with the assistance of immediate family, and contacts made in both New York and Naples, he was doing well. And had progressed, in a few short years, from Merchant or Trader, to Importer, had been married, and seen the birth of his son. (The petition for naturalization includes later info. about Arnaldo, who was born on March 7th, 1910.)
So, a surprise it is, to see in THE BROOKLYN DAILY EAGLE, on May 16th, 1912, that he’s listed the previous day, as a Debtor, owing $241.55 to a C. Frankel, with a judgement against him in favour of the Claimant. What had gone wrong, we might wonder, that he’d been unable to pay an amount today equivalent to more than six thousand dollars? Clearly things weren’t so great for Mr. Mennillo just one year on.
While Frank had been busying himself in the US, and travelling to and from Italy, young Rodolfo Guglielmi had also been on the move. In the year Mennillo emigrated alone the Guglielmi family shifted as a unit from Castellaneta to Taranto. In 1906, when the then, Francesco, headed back to America on the S. S. Italia, Rudy lost his father, and was sent away to a distant school in Perugia, where he spent several unhappy years; the serious unhappiness continuing until he found himself at agricultural college, at Nervi. After an ill thought-out trip to Paris, and many wasted months back at Taranto, at the very end of 1913 he climbed aboard the S. S. Cleveland, hoping for a fresh start in New York.
Was Frank A. Mennillo waiting to meet him when he arrived? In my opinion no. Having looked in great depth at the available evidence, I see nothing, anywhere, that gives even the vaguest hint that Mennillo had advance knowledge of his arrival, or, was at Brooklyn to greet him. (It’s actually claimed they met at Ellis Island, which First Class passengers were spared.) Consequently my March post (New York Timeline (1913)) didn’t mention it. The fact Valentino doesn’t allude to him once in his letter to his mother would be the first reason to doubt the assertion. After all, who would travel such a distance, getting ready to meet with a good friend of the family, which we’re told Frank was, and fail to devote even one sentence to them? There’s nothing. And here’s a second reason. Why, when he went into detail about his earliest weeks in the USA, with friends and family, two wives, a Manager, and journalists by the score, did he opt to leave out any Padrone? None of his intimates, between 1913 and 1926, ever recalled him telling them he’d been met, taken care of, or assisted in any way by anybody. Because he wasn’t. He was, as all – all – the material shows, alone, and finding his own way for the best part of three to six months. (And all confirmed by his older brother Alberto, when he was interviewed, in depth, in 1977, for the series HOLLYWOOD, broadcast in 1980.)
Yet the reason that Mennillo wasn’t Rudy’s Guide/Sponsor/Patron/Benefactor, has less to do with the lack of verification and more to do with his personal circumstances. This was a man who wasn’t in a position to help himself, let alone an eighteen-year-old who’d just arrived and had never left Europe. On May 14th, 1914, on page 16 of the New York Tribune, we see, once again, that “Frank Mennillo” owes a large amount of money (this time to L. Afeltra), and the judgement has gone against him. However this was merely a prelude to the total collapse of his business dealings in the November. As can be seen, on November 23rd, 1914, on page 14 of The New York Times – the Court Calendars column – Frank was expected to appear at the District Court, at 10:30 a.m. that day, for bankruptcy proceedings. Almost immediately the extent of his indebtedness was made public:
FRANK MENNILLO, salesman, of 367 [sic]
Broome [Street], filed petition individually and
as a partner [in] the former firm of Mennillo &
Lignanti, importers, with liabilities of $20,378
and no assets. Among the creditors are P. &
D. Samengo, Naples, Italy, $18,000, goods sold
in 1911; Bank of Rome, Naples, $1,200; and P.
Ballentine & Sons, Newark, $500.
From the New York Tribune.
Breaking down the information, we see that Mennillo was, in today’s money, a cool half million dollars in debt — not, to borrow a hackneyed phrase, something to be sniffed at. And that he also had no properties, no vehicles, nothing he could sell. We further learn that he was partnered in his endeavours by a Mr. Lignanti. And the partners owed money mainly to their fellow countrymen. (Lignanti and P. & D. Samengo have eluded me but P. Ballentine and Sons were manufacturers of strong beer.) We can see, as well, that the sum of $18,000 had been owed for several years, since 1911. And if we add together in our heads the three larger totals we understand a further $678 was owed to others. All of them, whoever they were, just as upset as the main creditors.
A person declared bankrupt in the Winter of 1914 had undoubtedly struggled for a good year. Perhaps even eighteen months. (In 1912 he was already a Debtor.) So the idea that Frank A. Mennillo could have been providing significant support to Rudolph Valentino at the time is nonsense. And if he was, then why do witnesses, such as ‘Dickie’ Warner, later say Valentino wasn’t living in great accommodation? And a wealthy, successful and well-connected fellow countryman, would’ve found a Dependant a good position somewhere. A really great one. And yet Rudolph was forced to go about looking for work. Went from menial job to menial job. Had, at one point, no job. Before finding a position as a Taxi Dancer. Obviously this isn’t a person with someone looking after them. Nothing suggests it.
It was late 1914. New York was booming. But Frank A. Mennillo was bust. Washed up. The following Spring things went from bad to worse. On March 24th, 1915, it was widely reported that Frank and wife, Zelinda, both now living at Bay Twenty-Ninth Street, in Brooklyn, had appeared in front of Supreme Court Justice Kelly. The reason: “… a suit for separation…” The reports laid bare that the marriage was on the rocks. Mr. Mennillo objected to his partner working as a School Teacher (at an Italian school conducted by the Children’s Aid Society). She preferred teaching to performing “domestic duties”. For her part Mrs. Mennillo claimed she’d been subjected to: “… cruel and inhuman treatment.” Not surprisingly Zelinda Mennillo was awarded custody of the five-year-old boy. (The report was wrong about the child’s age.)
I’ve no idea how you might feel about Frank abusing – perhaps physically hurting – his wife Zelinda. Perhaps you’ll think that it was just between the two of them and nothing to do with anybody else. However, I know for certain you’ll be as shocked as I was, that, soon after the judgement, he went to his son Arnaldo’s school (St. Hyacinth’s Academy, at Hawthorne, NY), kidnapped him, and told all who asked he’d packed him off to Italy. We know this to be a fact, due to newspaper reports, like the one in THE BROOKLYN DAILY EAGLE, on May 20th, 1916. Titled FATHER SURRENDERS SON, and subtitled Keeps Away Himself–Now Deputie [sic] Seek Him, the two paragraph column details how “Frank Mennillo” was at that time being sought by: “A squad of deputies of Sheriff Riegelman…” Having previously ignored a court order – maybe more than one? – to produce his son Arnold, now six, the small child had been suddenly and mysteriously produced (by a relation).
The brief, info.-packed TBDE article, concludes with the following: “Justice Blackmar …. instructed that Mennillo be brought into court to answer the charges against him.” That no further report was forthcoming doesn’t of course mean that he wasn’t. The issuing of “A warrant for contempt” as well as “a writ of attachment” was very serious indeed. His disappearance until 1917 suggests to me that he was given jail time and a fine. Certainly his assets, such as they were, would’ve frozen; making it impossible for him to do much in the short-to-medium term.
At the point Frank and Zelinda were at odds, in May 1916, and throwing verbal punches at one another in court, the now twenty-one-year-old Rodolfo Guglielmi (using the name Signor Rudolph), was engaged in his own ‘pas de deux’ in another arena. Having, from March to September 1914, endured six long months of terrible ups and downs, he had, quite literally, landed on his feet, when he secured work as a dancer-for-hire, at Cafe Maxim (or Maxim’s), at 110 West 38th Street, in Manhattan. This was followed by a year of exhibition dancing with Bonnie Glass. And then, when she retired, a switch to a rival female dancer extraordinaire, named Joan Sawyer.
However, his naming of Sawyer as the Other Woman, during the divorce of his on-off dancing partner – unbalanced Heiress Mrs. de Saulles – from her philandering husband, two months later, proved disastrous. And his options fell to zero when he was arrested in the September and the arrest was front page news. After laying low for half a year (due to acute embarrassment and being required to remain available for further questioning), he left the East Coast, in the Spring of 1917; heading West with a show: The Masked Model. (Appropriately titled considering his desire to disappear.) This mode of escape, once again, alerts us to the unlikelihood he had any serious support. A Godfather would simply have sent him the funds.
There’s no doubt that Frank – now using his middle initial – and Rudy were West, and at San Francisco, in the same year. Did their paths cross? I don’t believe so. We know that Mennillo was in the company of the Maffeis – D. V. Maffei, President of the Association of Italian Employees, and his son, William – in the October. (He travelled from East to West with William Maffei that month.) Yet, by the Autumn, Guglielmi was very firmly in L. A. He had been in S. F. in the June. And this is clear from his Draft Registration Card (on which he requested and received exemption (due to being an Alien)). So for them to have connected Frank would have had to have been there earlier too. If so, why was Rodolfo enjoying the company of Mr. and Mrs. Spreckles, and in and out of employment, and, on his way South after encountering Norman Kerry, formerly Norman Kaiser? And why are there no photographs of the two of them together at this point when there are several of him with others?
After a difficult 1918, when he lost his mother, had little film work, contracted influenza, and was tormented by a whole host of other problems, Rodolfo Guglielmi, now going by the name of Rodolphe De Valentina, and variants, was, in 1919, beginning to succeed in Moviedom. And though fame was still some way off, it was ahead, even if he didn’t know it. For Frank A. Mennillo the year began with his being linked to the already established American Olive Co. It not being difficult to search for the concern, on the internet, I’m curious to know where the idea Mennillo established it comes from. A relatively quick check revealed the American Olive Co. was in fact set-up before he ever placed a foot on Californian soil. For example, on August 27th, 1905, in the LOS ANGELES HERALD, at a time, you’ll recall, when the then Francesco Mennillo was concerning himself with getting settled on the East Coast, we see that the company was busy altering a factory building, at 1701 East Adams Street, to the tune of $5,000. Likewise, I wonder how he introduced the olive to the country, when, as early as 1907, the American Olive Co. was supplying “finest Ripe Olives in pint and quart cans” to retailers in Oregon. Cans! Which demonstrates a canning process in advance of Mr. Mennillo introducing one. It’s also a mystery how he was put out of business by any food poisoning scandal if the business wasn’t actually his. (A search for this disastrous breakout proved fruitless.)
That he did indeed own a share of the producers is proven by a March 7th, 1919, news item about Corporation Permits. (Shares issued were also issued to him.) As the extent of his holdings aren’t revealed, it’s possible that his interest was significant, and he was a driving force behind their expansion at the time; evidenced by a series of advertisements for label machine operators, and 50 women to peel tomatoes, etc. Yet was the expansion a good idea? And was Frank the person to mastermind it? Or, in any way, oversee it, if he did, in any way, oversee it? Perhaps not. After all his business dealings in the East had collapsed spectacularly.
That September/early October we see he went up the coast for ten days. Stopping: “… a day or two at the Belvedere in Santa Barbara …. from there [motoring] north [to visit] various olive ranches and other property…” that he owned. Of course this sounds good. Until we think about how a former bankrupt had managed to secure the necessary funds to acquire it. I think it’s safe for us to assume he borrowed heavily and was unable to keep up the repayments. And that at some point or another his disastrous past caught up with him. That he’s moved on entirely by the following year is emphasised by a report in THE MORNING PRESS, in July 1920, where we see he’s at the Ambassador Hotel, in L. A., in the company of Christian Demutopolos, a Greek Consul in the USA, Mr. Panagspolos the Consul General, and a Prosper Letternich.
That same month, twenty-five-year-old Rudolphe De Valentino/Rudolphe Valentine, was East, in his own sphere: Motion Pictures. The trip, necessitated by him being summoned to an interview, in April, about his arrest in 1916 and subsequent suing of the publishers of the varied titles that reported it, had led to two parts. First, as Joe Klingsby, in The Wonderful Chance (1920). Then, as Jose Dalmarez, in Stolen Moments (1920). However, there was a third part awaiting him, one that would finally secure him Stardom. The role of Julio Desnoyers in Metro Pictures Corp.’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921).
Anyone who ever read a biography about the life of Rudolph Valentino will know that The Four Horsemen (1921) was a huge hit. And he himself was a hit, nationally and internationally — particularly with females. No decent, well-researched biography fails to disclose his success, later that year, in The Sheik (1921); or, how The Sheik transformed him from a Star into a Superstar. His struggle to disassociate himself from the character that made him a Household Name – a battle he would ultimately lose – would begin in earnest the very next year. However, the role he hoped would lift him artistically, that of Juan Gallardo, in Blood and Sand (1922), didn’t reach the Valentino-hungry public until after he’d been arrested for Bigamy, and had embarked upon his One Man Strike. (To secure better working conditions and greater freedom at Famous Players-Lasky Corp.)
The sudden disappearance of the American Olive Co. in the national press in 1919/1920 does suggest it went out of business. Nowhere did I find a short piece, or a report of any length, that provided a reason (which you’d expect if the shut down had been notable). Whatever happened it’s clear that Frank A. Mennillo had turned his back on produce by the start of the new decade. In 1920, as we saw, he was associating with Greek diplomats on the West Coast. Later that year, in the September, his very definite involvement with The Italian American Republican League, would’ve seen him present at their convention in New York; the purpose of which, was, to: “… solidify the sentiment of voters of Italian origin in favor of Senator Harding and Gov. Coolidge in the November election.” At the gathering, at which representatives from 23 states were present, Frank was a witness to: the setting up of committees to organise women voters; Judge Pallotti’s resolution to repudiate the League of Nations; the endorsement of the Republican platform in full; the elevation of F. H. La Guardia to permanent Chairman; and the reading out of letters, to attendees, from Harding, Coolidge and Cabot, none of whom were able to be present.
Was it due to Frank being busy in the political arena that he failed to assist Rudy when he was accused of Bigamy? And was it his obligations in that sphere that prevented him from helping while he was out of work for six months? Wouldn’t a Padrino have put all responsibilities aside and stepped in? You’d think so. Unless he wasn’t a Padrino in the first place? That Frank A. Mennillo was indeed busy making the most of his connections at the time, is thrown into sharp relief, by a fascinating report on the front page of The New York Times, on Thursday, October 18th, 1923.
Titled, in capital letters, FRANK OF CONGRESS USED IN STOCK DEAL, the news item exposed a serious breach of Congressional rules by Mennillo. Specifically, that he’d sent out letters inviting ‘brother Republicans’ to invest in the [Auto Rim Lever Lock Corp.], not only on Congressional headed paper, and inside of Congressional envelopes, but also using the franking system of the Congress — an improper act and an illegal one. We read how one recipient (“a Republican of standing in New York”), who’d tipped off several newspapers, had described it as “one of the most extraordinary documents” he’d ever received. And how, when quizzed by telegram, the Congressman concerned, M. O. McLaughlin, of Newbraska, President of the company mentioned, denied knowledge of any letters, despite his signature being on them. (The entire letter was, to everyone’s embarrassment, reproduced by TNYT.)
According to the reporter “F. A. Mennillo” was quick to admit, under extreme pressure no doubt, that it was he, not the Congressman, who’d been at fault. How, without the knowledge of M. O. McLaughlin, he’d sent out the 150 invitations; 50 of which, maybe to the most important people, he admitted, had been franked in Washington. The lengthy explanation sounds concocted. And is full of excuses. Obviously it brought to a close his political career — not that it really was, ever, a political career as such.
His position as General Manager at the Auto Rim Lever Lock Corp. – their product, in case you’re wondering, was a patented device that made it easier to change automobile tyres – seems to have continued, however. In the following year he gave both Rudolph Valentino and Valentino’s Business Manager, S. George Ullman, the opportunity to purchase shares in the operation. And we have proof of this, in an image of the share certificate, given to Rudy by Frank, after he’d bought $1,000 worth of shares, on June 28th, 1924. (See above.)
By that Summer Valentino had put his differences with FP-L/ Paramount to the side and commenced filming of his second and final film for them: A Sainted Devil (1924). He was, he thought, secure. Back on top. He looked forward to working with J. D. Williams’ Ritz-Carlton Pictures; a lengthy break in Europe; and realising Natacha’s The Hooded Falcon. He also, after building up nothing but debt during his never-ending strike, had money. Something Mennillo would’ve known.
Of course it’s all part of the story that Rudy was a terrible spendthrift. And he was. As so many many witnesses, including Natacha, testified. He could easily spend more than he was earning, and did, however he was also what’s called A Soft Touch. And it’s my firm belief, based on a later incident, at which I’ll be looking here, that Frank tapped his super-famous fellow Italian for cash. Possibly large sums. Call it a hunch, or whatever you like, but he’s demonstrably hanging about in the later, more successful years, rather than the earlier period of uncertainty and struggle.
The comeback of Monsieur Beaucaire and A Sainted Devil wasn’t the plateau Rudolph Valentino thought it would be. And, though he couldn’t see it at that time, the out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire move to Ritz-Carlton Pictures, was to drag him down to a place he hadn’t been to since before The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. So, marvellous it appeared to be, when he was rescued by United Artists, and his first outing, The Eagle (1925), was a Smash. That he was tied into a highly dubious contract, once more largely brokered by the inept Ullman, which required him to locate the funds for the final three of five productions, mattered little in 1925. All that would sort itself when the time came. Yet it didn’t. Consequently, after his second spectacular, The Son of the Sheik (1926) had been completed, and he was on the road promoting it, he began to feel the heat about Vehicle Three.
Whatever was going on behind the scenes that Summer – we know a tired and stressed Rudy stayed East for longer than planned, and talked with the President of UA, Hiram Abrams – it was all to end in tragedy in the August. His collapse, at a private, early hours party in Manhattan, and subsequent hospitalisation and tragic death, led to one of the greatest outpourings of grief ever seen in the United States. And right there – yes you’ve guessed it! – was Frank A. Mennillo.
Frank had been in Rudy’s company on and off during the previous twelve months. We see them, for example, with Mae (Murray) and another gent., in a photograph taken in New York, before Rudy and then Mae sailed for Europe, in late 1925. That they saw one another on his return in the January is highly plausible. However, as Frank A. Mennillo was seemingly East and Rudolph Valentino was very definitely West, from February to June, they next saw each other late in July at New York. And it’s likely they spent some time together from the beginning of the following month, until the 15th, the day that Valentino was taken to hospital.
On page 216 of his book, Valentino as I Knew Him, S. George Ullman states, very clearly, that when he realised, on Sunday the 22nd, that Rudolph Valentino was weakening, he contacted: “… Frank Mennillo, one of Rudy’s dearest Italian friends.” Mennillo, Ullman recalls, arrived in the early evening. And, after being informed of how serious things really were, they went in to see Valentino in his room. Frank, we learn, spoke to Rudy in Italian, but Rudy responded in English, saying: “Thank you, Frank. I’m going to be well soon.” (That’s all we get.) Then we’re informed that: “All during the night the doctors, Frank Mennillo and I kept watch.” S. George Ullman going into the room every hour to see how he was faring. According to Ullman “At about six o’clock” they chatted. Then Valentino began to fade. There were some final words. A Priest was called. There was a single unintelligible word in Italian. And he passed away.
As I plan to write in the future about S. George Ullman, I’ll leave aside my issues with the account, and focus on the fact that Frank A. Mennillo was conspicuously involved before and after Rudolph Valentino was dead. And available, when Rudy’s brother, Alberto, arrived in the USA at the start of September. It was of course the case that many persons offered their assistance, as anybody would, in such a situation, yet was it simply this that led to him being at the centre of things? It strikes me Mennillo would’ve been extremely useful to Ullman when it came to dealing with the Guglielmi family. Helpful, when it came to persuading Valentino’s vulnerable, distraught older brother that an autopsy was unnecessary. And that his remains should definitely be interred in California, rather than returned to Puglia. Was it just this? I wonder. Is it possible that Frank knew what had really happened at The Mysterious Party? And was it sensible to keep Mr. Mennillo inside of the tent rather than outside of it?
I speculate in this way due to the fact that, in the following year, Frank A. Mennillo paid S. George Ullman a visit. The reason? To borrow $40,000 from the estate of his recently deceased Dear Friend. Yes still a lot of money! And the equivalent of over half a million today. Why, we might ask, would such a supposedly prudent man as Ullman grant such an incredible request — and he did grant it. What was in the background of Mennillo that would inspire such confidence? I haven’t seen a thing. (And use of the frank of Congress was in 1923 quite some time after he’d become Valentino’s Manager.) So I seriously wonder – really, I do – what it was he saw that I can’t. Perhaps someone can point out to me how a serial business failure could merit such an enormous monetary award? And if you imagine that late in the game he was a success? He wasn’t. And just how much of a disaster he continued to be, can be seen by looking, one last time, at what’s out there for all to view.
How badly things were going after the establishment of California Tomato Juice, Inc. is apparent when we inspect the Fifteenth Census of the United States in 1930. Being just three short years since Mennillo secured tens of thousand of dollars from a dead man, we might expect to see him doing well, prospering, living off the fat of the land, as they say. What we see instead, is that he’s living alone, without any wife or family, at a place called the Carlton Hotel, South Figueroa, Los Angeles. A hotel, occupied, not by people doing well, prospering, or living off the fat of the land, but by office workers, waitresses, salesmen and saleswomen, secretaries, soda fountain operators, cashiers, milliners, and musicians. Ordinary people. Getting by. Surviving. Hoping for a better life. And Frank’s occupation? He’s one of fifteen living there that have no occupation, are unemployed, and without prospects.
Frank A. Mennillo had tumbled far and fast without anybody to milk for money. Once he’d stood beside his friend Rudolph Valentino and basked in the reflected glory. Now, just a few years on, he stood alone and in the shadows, a nobody, without a job. I searched for mentions of him in the early to mid. Thirties and found none. His last few years were probably rather depressing — they certainly look it. And California Tomato Juice, Inc. was so obscure and low key, that it only gets highlighted in the state press, in 1935, when it finally goes out of business.
In November 1936, Associated Press informed Americans that Frank A. Mennillo, ‘the Olive King’, was dead. The short, three paragraph obituary framed him as a pioneering genius, trumpeting his connection to President Warren G. Harding, and claimed he’d been the Chairman of the Italian American Republican League. He was, the report said, born in Naples, Italy, had been at University there, and arrived in the USA in 1904. He had got his start in importing in New York, moved West, and then, in 1915, started the American Olive Co.
While there had been several Olive Oil Kings – Elwood Cooper and Charles Phillip Grogan are two examples – I saw no evidence Frank had been crowned thus in his lifetime. And while the connection to President Harding was genuine, in that he’d helped him in his bid to be elected, Mennillo had never been Chairman, as far as I’m aware. (That honour having been bestowed upon La Guardia.) Born in Naples, Italy, was correct; though I’d question his ability to study at Naples University and commence work as a Merchant by the age of 21/22. (I accept I may be wrong about that.) And he was not the person who established the American Olive Co., which was very much up and running before 1915.
The write up is plainly an attempt to present Frank as something other than he was. It looks good. And I can see that it was taken at face value when he was written about in the recent past. Which is a bit of a shame, because behind the white wash is a much more fascinating tale; but either you scrub off that white wash or you don’t. Francesco Mennillo/Frank Mennillo/Frank A. Mennillo/F. A. Mennillo had an interesting life. That said it really wasn’t any more interesting than a lot of others in his day. And it certainly wasn’t the life that’s been out there up until now.
And that’s why I wrote this post: to put the record straight. I’m not happy about people being misled for personal gain about Rudolph Valentino’s life. And they’re being totally misled in the case of Frank A. Mennillo. Of course they were friends, good friends, and as all good friends are they were there for each other. And yet these were not equals in any sense. I believe I’ve shown, with many examples, that the idea Mennillo was in a position to really help Valentino is a baseless one. It was Rudy who was useful to Frank, not the other way around.
I found no evidence that the two ever met before 1918/1919. And I didn’t see it presented in concrete terms by anyone anywhere that they did. No photographs. No letters. And no witness testimony. Nothing. Second or third hand memory recalled and passed along isn’t satisfactory. When people have been dead seventy or eighty years you really need to see something solid. For me their being in New York at the same time is a coincidence. They may, possibly, have encountered each other, but I don’t see how, when these are people moving in very different circles in 1914, 1915 and 1916. When we look at San Francisco we see the months don’t match. As well, once more, there are no photographs, letters or witnesses. And when Rudy is East, in 1920, it isn’t due to Frank, as Frank’s not East at that time. However, with the pair in the L. A. area, in the late Teens, we do have the right conditions for a first meeting. Perhaps one day I’ll find something that confirms it. I’ll be looking for it as-and-when-I-can I promise you.
I want to thank you for reading this post all the way through. It’s a long one, but there was no way to make it any shorter, without omitting vital information. I welcome any feedback. And if you have a question, or wish to see anything presented here, then please just ask me. I’ll be back next month, when the post will be: New York Timeline (1914).
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!