Paris, City of Light

A Paris postcard from Spring 1912. Note the Bi-plane (some of which circled the Eiffel Tower).

It’s taken me quite some time to write about Rudolph Valentino’s pre World-War-One stay in Paris. Why? Well, there were just other more pressing topics, I suppose. Not that this point in his life isn’t one which requires proper examination — it does. So, without further delay, here’s my look at what was an extremely formative experience, for the man then known as Rodolfo Guglielmi. A post that I title: Paris, City of Light.

Rudolph Valentino’s Mother.

For an individual that was half French, on his Mother’s side, the capital of France was an understandably attractive destination. Though born in Italy (in Castellaneta, in Puglia), he had, thanks to Marie Berthe Gabrielle Barbin, his Mother, a dual identity from birth. There’s little doubt that her lullabies were in her native tongue. And that she spoke to him in French as much as in Italian — as she probably had with her earliest offspring, the sadly short-lived, Bice; and, Rodolfo’s older Brother, Alberto. Any French-speaking between the siblings – Alberto, Rodolfo, and their younger sister, Maria – was naturally reinforced by chit-chat with Mrs. Guglielmi. And between her and their maternal Aunt Mrs. Galeone. Despite not being a Teacher it’s likely she taught them to both read and write French too.

Bedtime stories, we know, were told to the already dreamy and escapist little Rodolfo. And we can easily imagine his questions prompting them. Tales of daily life back in France and of relatives there; of his late, maternal French Grandfather, Pierre Philibert Barbin, who’d constructed the local railway line and the impressive railway bridge; of French kings and queens and heroes and heroines; and of the awful Franco-Prussian conflict, of 1870-1871, when Donna Gabriella had endured the Siege of Paris and The Commune. Though the Guglielmi children were firmly rooted in Italy, and were Italians submerged in local bounty, it’s hard to imagine them not enjoying French cooking. And while their devout Maman may’ve been seated in, and prayed and confessed at, a Castellanetan church, we assume she continued to observe French saints’ days. Due to all of this and more, while it very much existed in his head, his mind’s eye, from quite early, the so-called City of Light was a place he could almost smell and touch. A metropolis he seemed to know without having actually known it. And, that from far away, seductively outstretched her arms to him.

Valentino’s former college in 2015.

If France and its capital, Paris, had called him all his life from a distance, when he found himself enrolled at the Marsano School of Practical Agriculture, at Sant’Ilario Ligure/Saint Hillary Liguria, late in 1910, that call became very hard to resist. The location of the college, high above the resort of Nervi, and not too distant from sophisticated, cosmopolitan Genoa, was one which brought him closer than ever before to the French border. Consequently, a day trip in his uniform to picturesque Nervi, would’ve exposed to him to glamorous international visitors — Nervi having been, for well over a decade, a retreat and a place of recuperation, for nobles and notables. As far back as 1898, the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess of Baden had visited their Daughter, the Crown Princess of Sweden and Norway. In 1900, the Ranee of Sarawak, Lady Brooke, stayed for a period. In 1905, Mr. Hay, the U. S. Secretary of State, had been resident in order to rest and improve his health. And just a few years before, the great Eleanora Duse, a fellow Italian, had recovered from a serious chest infection there. Perhaps, just as important for the romantically-inclined teenager, it was a very popular destination for honeymooners.

According to the Biographer, Emily W. Leider, in her biography, Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino (2003), Rodolfo sought the embrace of Paris in 1912. But did he? It’s a question we ask because there’s evidence to suggest otherwise.

In her Doctor of Philosophy Dissertation, Rudolph Valentino: The Early Years, 1895-1920, published in 2009, Jeanine T. Villalobos states:

“… by Spring 1912 he was still unemployed and without direction. And so, Valentino would remember in his autobiography, he ignored his ‘family’s entreaties’, and ‘pocketed what little money [he] had and dashed away to Paris to see what might be seen.’ His claim that he went against his family’s wishes is contradicted by Alberto’s account, who would remember that the trip had actually been a gift from [Gabriella] for Rodolfo’s fine performance at San’Illario.” [Sic.]

However, the existence of a communication with old friend, Bruno Pozzan, from July 1912, reveals he planned to holiday in Milan that Summer; before returning to Sant’Ilario Ligure/Saint Hillary Liguria, to sit his final exams. Surviving records, preserved at what’s still, today, a centre for agricultural learning, and which I had the good fortune to see, prove beyond doubt that he graduated at the very end of October that year, and not before. (Please see above.) In my opinion it’s inconceivable his Mother would reward Rodolfo for doing well before graduation. Or, sanction his expedition, at the all-too-tender age of 17. Also, the six or so weeks between the end of October and the start of Christmas, isn’t the stay of several months that we’re informed of by Villalobos, in her Doctor of Philosophy Dissertation. Begging the further question: impulsive though he certainly was, would he have dared to skip the Festive Season? We might wonder, too, if he would travel to Paris at a time of year virtually guaranteed to be chilly, and more than a bit depressing. With dark mornings and even darker evenings.

While he doesn’t supply a definite month, or year, in the third edition of his book of recollections, Valentino As I Knew Him (1927), S. George Ullman highlights his accomplishments at the Marsano School of Practical Agriculture, as being the main motivation for his trip. And, how his conquest of “that metropolis” was a sweet one, so long as he had sufficient funds. As we see:

“… success seemed to go to his head, for nothing would now do but that he must go to Paris to conquer that metropolis. At first, since he had some money, he was quiet successful, for youth and manly good looks he found to be at a premium.

“As soon, however, as his money was gone, he found things vastly different and, in a panic, he sent home for more funds.”

From pages 23 and 24.

We can’t totally rule out the closing weeks of 1912 and shouldn’t. Yet the fact that, according to the family, there are no postcards, letters or photography, to firmly fix the sojourn in the twelve month period of 1912, does open up the possibility it was early 1913 that he travelled to the capital. (A present that Christmas?) And this supposition is given weight by Robert Florey, who, in his talks with his friend Rudolph Valentino, in 1923, for a proposed biography, was told by him he was “hardly eighteen years old”, and he was relating occurrences “ten years later”. Neither of which suggests 1912, as Rudy was eighteen in the May of 1913, and 1923, is a decade removed, exactly, from 1913.

Couples dancing le Tango at Magic City. A popular, sprawling attraction, not too far from the Eiffel Tower.

Whenever he experienced it, either in the Winter of 1912, or, the Spring of 1913, Paris was at her zenith. “… expressing herself in whatever task, high or low, she may undertake.” (As it was put in The Genius of Paris, in The Times newspaper, on Thursday May the 8th, 1913.) This being the year of Igor Stravinsky‘s Rite of Spring, Apollinaire’s Alcools, Synthetic Cubism, Marcel Proust‘s Swann’s Way, and Alain-Fourniers Le Grand Meaulnes. To employ a well-worn and overused phrase, it was: the place to be. And the teenage Rudy was right there in the middle of it.

Of course what was to prove to be significant later, was to sweep away, forever, the old, wasn’t really the focus of Rodolfo Guglielmi. His focus, was that she was “the city of pleasure”; and this he sought at this time far more than he sought “the city of thought”. And yet, if we turn to the Paris that’s described in Cecily Mackworth’s, Guillaume Apollinaire and the Cubist Life (1961), we find ourselves presented with somewhere where pleasure and thought combine. Which assists us in seeing the City of Light as Rodolfo Guglielmi saw it. Beyond the stones that spoke. And the history – centuries of it – at every turn. (Much of which would’ve been apparent to our story and history-loving young Adventurer.)

The Poet Guillaume Apollinaire drawn by Pablo Picasso at the start of WW1.

Mackworth’s careful, forgotten biography of the Poet Apollinaire, frames the city as if it were a painted scene. And, crucially, gives us a central character who walks its streets, and mixes with its populace. In fact, a fellow Italian (at least by birth, having been born in Rome, in 1880); of parents of differing nationalities; that was multi-lingual; blessed with: “… inexhaustible physical and mental energy…”; loved to cook; was a lover of innovation but also a traditionalist, and wasn’t exactly great at handling money, according to friend Rene Nicosia. (Nicosia thought his associate unbalanced.) In Chapter Two, the Author quotes her Subject as having said the following: “What can I do to be happy like an innocent child?”

Alcools, the title of Guillaume’s important and ground-breaking anthology, translates as alcohols plural, and is representative of a desire to experience life instantly, in a single gulp, rather than in an orderly way; which really couldn’t be more appropriate, when considering Rodolfo’s own desire to grab life with both hands. The essence of Apollinairean Aesthetics, Simultaneity, is at the core of this Child of Southern Italy’s experience of France’s foremost city. A city which gave and gave, yet, also, took and took. Simultaneously, he enjoys the all too visible and resonant past, as well as the vital, throbbing present. Gadgets of the day. Transportation. The fashions. And personalities.

And personalities that the Poet Apollinaire knew. Marinetti, Picasso, Ricciotto Canudo, Max Jacob, Modigliani, Paul Leautaud, Sar Peladan, Stanislas de Guita, Robert and Sonia Delauney, Vlaminck, Andre Derain, Francis Carco, Suzanne Valadon, Utrillo, Jean Cocteau, Pierre Reverdy and many, many others. All of them making the city what it was and what it would become. ((Filippo Tommaso) Marinetti, Riccioto Canudo and (Amedeo Clemente) Modigliani being just three Italians who made their home and their reputation in France. Luigi Russolo being another.)

While Rodolfo Guglielmi had to have spent the majority of his time in pleasure-seeking, that pleasure-seeking would’ve exposed him to what’s termed: the Heroic Era of Bohemianism. Montmartre and the increasingly fashionable Left Bank. Montparnasse, with its Cafe du Dome, where rich Germans and Americans congregated, and La Rotonde (Cafe), the Slav rendezvous. (At the time that Valentino was in Paris Pablo Picasso regularly visited Rotonde — as did his enemy, Vlaminck, a Partygiver.)

The work of Picasso circa 1912/1913.

Of course I don’t suggest, for a minute, that Rudolph Valentino, as he was later known, met and chatted with any of those people mentioned above, let alone Pablo Picasso. There’s no evidence he appreciated what’s known as Modern Art, or, subscribed wholesale to modern viewpoints. However, he was in the same city at the same time as these figures, and therefore might’ve seen them; and they, of course, him. And in the forthcoming version of his time in Paris in this post, he does meet with artists, plural; though, what type of artists they were isn’t actually revealed.

The city of pleasure-seeking creators of imagery and thinkers of thoughts was also a city of other interesting individuals. Occultism was extremely trendy/fashionable. Hashish and opium were utilized to reach deep into the unknown. Fortune tellers, sorcerers and Black Art practitioners were on hand. Such as: Madame Salamour, Marguerite and Madame Deroy. Josephin Peladan, or Sar Peladan, could read the future in shadows — a person’s shadow. Previously listed Poet, Max Jacob, tried to see the future with horoscopes. Anyone having looked properly into the life of Valentino, will be aware he semi-seriously dabbled in this area with his future Wife, Natacha Rambova.

The central character who walked the city’s streets in Guillaume Apollinaire and the Cubist Life (1961) is The Flaneur delineated in Maude Annesley’s My Parisian Year (1912). A Parisian male, with no true equivalent elsewhere, one of “hundreds”, who paraded from: “… the Madeleine to the Faubourg Montmartre …. strolling along as if there was no such thing as business in the world.” “… of every class.” “… dramatists, journalists, and writers of all sorts, fonctionnaires, business men, petits rentiers, boursiers, ‘sportsmen,’ artists, retired shopkeepers, actors, vieux militaires…” We can well imagine the wide-eyed, impressionable Rodolfo picking up stylistic tips, from these all too visible and loquacious gentlemen. Who stopped so suddenly, at kiosks and shop windows, that people would collide with them.

Was it in France that Rudy got the shopping bug? It wouldn’t be surprising, if he saw the stores Annesley describes, in some detail, in the same Chapter, VII/Seven. The paste jewellery sellers, for example, one with: “… an eye-torturing invention of turning stands.” The stands turning in different directions and lit: “… by whirling electric lights.” Or: “… the Gramophone shop.” an establishment where you could sit and listen to music on discs through receivers that you placed against your ears. (The Author wasn’t alone in enjoying standing outside and watching the expressions of those hearing: “… operas, ‘pieces,’ songs, singers and so on…”) Any new shop opening, she informs us, was instantly noticed by “The Flaneur”.

It seems likely that Signor Guglielmi found himself, along with flaneurs and others, stopping to look too. A pastime in the metropolis. And and not just at windows. Bill-stickers pasting elevated boarding bills were a “great attraction”. New roads and houses being built attracted crowds. As did streets, where traffic was prevented due to repaving, and a chattering “cheap-jack”/Street Seller might be stationed, surrounded by flaneurs. Paris was, in these times, a place where small and large crowds gathered around performances, or, demonstrations. An old man selling mechanical toys. Perspiring strong men lifting cannon balls or each other on a single hand. Or a blindfolded Clairvoyant describing a person they couldn’t see.

Typical cafe staff in 1912.

According to Maude Annesley flaneurs could be seen: “… from after lunch up to quite late at night. “The busiest time…” being “… the l’heure de l’aperitif–five to seven.” A time, she tells us, when the cafes were at their fullest. The Flaneur seated at a table with his “favourite drink before him”. A “concoction” created by a Sommelier. “… a few drops of this, a spoonful of that, and a dash of the other…” the mixture then having either iced water or “eau de seltz”/fizzy water added to it. In Annesley’s opinion the l’heure aperitif was a charming spectacle. And one that was very much a part of: “… the joie de vivre of the Parisian.”

American Kate Carew’s reporting from the city, in late January 1913, is another angle, on what she, herself, labels: “Childish, playful Paris.” In KATE CAREW CREEPS INTO THE CENTRE OF PARISIAN GAYETY, we enjoy a light-hearted view of France, the French and their Capital. One in which we see the inner workings of French Life. And this is useful when considering the fact Rudy could easily have been accommodated by his Great Uncle Alphonse Barbin. (Though this might’ve somewhat cramped his style.)

Carew’s full page piece bursts with inside information about Parisian Life; a life lived between December and April, when the city wasn’t crawling with tourists. Her stay in La Belle Paris, commences at Gare du Nord train station, with effusive kisses on the cheeks from her hosts. And ends with her observation that the city was: “… a quaint little village …. the playground of a charming, simple folk…” In between she happily endures: “… the season of the Reveillons, of Noel, of St. Sylvestre and la danse et le bridge.” Bridge playing being extremely popular at the time.

Major discovery it was, that to be a single woman amongst married women and men, was to be viewed with suspicion. And so much so that it was necessary, at the dinner table, to talk loudly and never to whisper to the man next to her, so that the other women could hear. Also, that private evening gatherings, even of as many as 30 persons, were often, ‘sans ceremonie’, or without formal attire. And that to wear a fashionable low-cut evening gown was to invite the question: ‘Aren’t you afraid of catching cold?’ Card playing in Paris, was, she discovered, a very different affair to card playing in London. In the French capital it was a noisy and jolly pursuit, with much chatter; whereas, in the British capital, it was a far more sober activity, quieter, and less filled with conversation.

Katie doesn’t inform us which theatre she attended or what the play was about. However, she does explain that performances ended late (usually at about midnight); meaning that getting to bed early, particularly on Christmas Eve., was an impossibility. After much eating and drinking there was dancing. “Round dances and square dances, all very decorous. No ‘turkey trots’ or ‘bunny hugs.'” Such fashionable, up-to-the-minute stepping, considered shameful by Bourgeois Paris.

A Winter visit to Montmartre, on New Year’s Eve. 1912, was likely to be ‘harmless’ and inoffensive, she was informed. Compared with the naughtiness that bubbled up in the Spring and Summer months. Carew very much hits her stride at this point, when she writes about climbing: “…up to the heights of Montmartre…” to commence: “… exploring ‘Hell,’ ‘Heaven’ and ‘Annihilation.'” A place she finds peopled, not with milling non-French, but with natives, weaving their way here and there, amongst: “… the red lights and flames and snakes of Hell and the skulls and coffins…” “… real Montmartre element-apaches and their best girls, honest laborers and their sweethearts…” Next she relates how she enjoyed the “entertainments in the tiny theatres attached” to the cabarets there. And: “… blushed a bit at the vulgarity…”

Perhaps Kate Carew’s most interesting foray, considering Rodolfo Guglielmi’s eventual, future occupation, is her visit to: “… a picture theatre, the largest in Paris.” A place: “… packed from top to bottom with palpitating, eager, childish humanity waiting to be thrilled.” Carew finds that they got what they paid for. As follows:

“And what do you think thrilled them?

“Not scenes of crime or adventure or risky, vulgar scenes.

“There weren’t any of these.

“Just sentiment.

“Mothers united to their little children, brothers and sisters’ sacrifices, erring ones restored to favour, etc.

“The more absurdly sentimental a scene was the more it was appreciated.

“Things which would have made the same class of people in London smile coldly and murmur ‘Slush!’ and cynical Americans mutter ‘Nonsense!’ delighted simple Paris to her very soul.”

It strikes me as almost impossible, that the later Valentino failed to follow in the footsteps of this inquisitive Journalist, in entering “the largest” movie palace in the city. And if not that, then another, smaller, yet no less busy one, nearby; or, in another arrondissement/city district. And if so, received, like Carew, an education. Saw the power of the new medium to delight and move. To elicit “constant ahs! and ohs! of appreciation”. To even cause some viewers to cry.

The version of his time in Paris that I mentioned earlier, is an extract that I found some years ago, from the story of his life, published in Lo Schermo/The Screen, late in 1926, and following his untimely death. It’s a beautifully worded, thought-provoking excerpt, not surprisingly named, A Parigi/In Paris, which was fully re-printed in a publication titled: Intorno a Rodolfo Valentino, Materiali italiani 1923-1933, curated by Sylvio Alovisio and Giulia Carluccio (2009).

The version commences with Rudy recalling the relief he felt, when he escaped the city after overcoming several ups and downs there. And reveals it was stories (“Certain fantastic adventures…”) of the capital that inspired him to go. Accounts of trips that he’d heard during his time in Venice, in 1909, while attempting to win one of the 30 places at the Engineering School of the Royal [Italian] Navy.

Next, we see that his mind was made up, when he encountered a Parisian female, or a woman heading for Paris, on a train, as follows:

“... I had the distinct sensation of entering a novel rather than a second-class compartment; in an atmosphere that lit up and smelled of love at times, and that at times surrounded me with darkness, mystery.

The beautiful woman who had attracted me, with her precocious forms, her black pupils which lit up with irresistible flashes of voluptuousness, her lips as tender as rose petals, fully justified my guilt.”

Consequently, he asks his Mother if he can “follow this woman”, securing money from his widowed Parent, “her paternal inheritance”, in order to leave to: “…fight and to win the battle of his life.”

A fashionable hairstyle of early 1913.

Wondering, as we read, if this attractive person is real, or merely symbolic of his destination, we eventually see that she’s very much flesh and blood. However, the constant use of the phrase, Fata Morgana – mirage on land or sea – when referring to her, is a little confusing. Or perhaps he refers to the opportunity that presents itself: to plunge into the pool that’s Paris. As seen here:

“And I can indeed assume that if this Fata Morgana of unexpected and colossal fortune had not flattered me, I would not have risked my little money and my own fate for that woman.”

And yet:

“… in the depths of my soul there was neither esteem nor love for the [C]ourtesan who was at my side and who, I understood very well, attracted only my ardent desire for a [woman] in the morning of her virility!”

An unknown boulevard at night (painted in 1912).

Rodolfo then relates that he arrived in Paris at night. A “thousand lights” sparkling. The “city of fashion and sensuality” lighting “high flames” in his soul. Further:

“I immersed myself with my woman, who introduced me to her artist friends and their following of lovers, in the vortex of pleasure. The operetta with all its champagne, its revelry, its sensuality badly disguised as sentimental lace, the operetta of the [T]abarin, the long vigils in tails, the thousand adventures of workers, the operetta with all its colours and its dazzling and ephemeral lights; that’s what my life was like.”

So we see that the hardly eighteen-year-old Rodolfo is “immersed” in a “vortex of pleasure”. A vortex which is generated by nights at the operetta; which is a whirl within the greater whirl of the wider city. Cheap yet fun. Colourful and “dazzling”. Having described the location, the atmosphere and the sights seen, he next touches on the effect upon him. How he’s fundamentally changed:

Having lost every hindrance and every country shyness, softened the line of my figure and acquired the elegance of the stroke, I danced, I loved, I was disputed; I enjoyed moments of supreme pleasure, I felt the deep abatement of morning awakenings after the satiated desires of women and champagne. I was running for a bad slope.

“Having got into the habit of spending one hundred francs as if they were pennies, it made me a great [L]ord. My impeccable clothing which I now knew how to wear[,] with that barely perceptible snobbery which is at the height of nobility and from which I never fell, as it was easier, into ridicule; the pallor of my cheeks, the male line of my figure, all of this – friends and lovers themselves reiterated it to me in the languid pauses of amorous oddities – all this therefore made sure that the most beautiful women did not deny me their favours.”

A couple tangoing in late 1912.

According to this account Rudy’s inhibitions were swept away in the ebb and flow of Parisian Nightlife. He relaxed. And consequently found himself able to dance with ease. His dancing obviously making him even more appealing than he already was — so handsome, poised and well-dressed. He admits to lovers plural. Clearly telling us he expanded his carnal activities beyond the nameless Courtesan. And these lovers were mirrors who reflected back to him who he was. So confident and alluring had he become, that: “… the most beautiful women” couldn’t deny him: “… their favours.”

The use of the word “nobility” is interesting. Was Rodolfo Guglielmi already pretending to be an Italian Marchese? Or did he simply not deny it if he was asked? If not, he was surely rubbing shoulders with the titled; the sons and daughters of European nobles, who sought fun and distraction, and freedom, from their stiff and mannered Victorian Era parents. Sought to immerse themselves in a more interesting, stimulating culture. To apply a later term, A Scene, that was peopled by: artists, prostitutes (of both sexes), performers, homosexuals, writers, transvestites and other fringe types.

And yet we sense already – “I was running for a bad slope.” – impending danger. This Youth, unlike those he’s encountering, isn’t cushioned by a wealthy family, solid connections, or any safety net. And he confesses as much:

“Hence the prodigality to which the exuberance of my youthful desire urged me would certainly have led me to lose my health if first, by fortune, I had not finished losing my money, and to the last cent.

“But I believe that not even this luck would have benefited me if fate had not hit me cruelly and [in a] salutary [way] to make me reflect on what I was doing and to make me return to serenely consider those around me.

The confessing continues:

“The woman who had drawn me to Paris and pushed me into the path of vice had long since disappeared. It can be said that I had not even noticed. Other women had passed by my side, such as for one night, such as for whole days of intoxication.”

An interesting French Gramophone advert from 1913. Long before the Twenties roared records were played at parties.

Vice? A word not used lightly we suspect. “… pushed me into the path of vice…”? We’re left wondering the extent to which he was pushed. How far did he go? The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines Vice as: moral depravity or corruption: wickedness. Google Search throws at us the following: “… vice is a practice, behaviour, or habit generally considered immoral, sinful, criminal, rude, taboo, depraved, degrading, deviant or perverted…” Whatever happened, as a result of regularly being in the company of this “woman”, she was eventually no longer there. And was supplanted by others: “… for one night …. for whole days of intoxication.”

A polished Rudy after his Paris trip and before his shift to the USA.

Rudy then expands. Explaining that none had known how to “imprison” him. Or been “treacherous”. They were “insatiable” or “calculating”. Yet never wanting more than some: “… bank notes, a jewel…” or: “… a vigorous embrace.”

However, there was one who did embody treachery, As he tells us:

“… after having lived those three days that preceded my departure and which began when I met the female who must have been my last Parisian adventure[,] and the only one who has indelibly imprinted the mark of disgust in my soul.

“Don’t ask me the name of this woman; don’t ask me about her status. [She] is still alive and I have no desire to publicly qualify [her]. If [she reads] these notes of mine, [she] will undoubtedly recognize [herself]; and she will feel in my words all the contempt with which I honour her.

This anonymous woman was the Lover of his Friend. And he explains that the minute he was introduced to her he: “… felt a thrill…” he was unable to “understand”. Fear or desire? Or both? He wasn’t sure.

The associate was enduring the loss of his mother who’d recently died. And so lacking in funds was he, that he was unable: “… to honour her with a worthy burial…” The reason? “… all his possessions had [been] turned into jewels and a toilette for this woman to whom he remained bound with the tenacity of a castaway, looking for in her only one good smile, only one comforting caress.”

Rodolfo then explains what happened between the Lover of his nameless Friend and himself:

“We were in their apartment. Suddenly my friend got up abruptly and went out. I had offered to accompany him. He refused.

“I remained alone with her who, until then, had maintained a sphinx-like demeanour and had not animated the silence that, after her introduction, had formed between the three of us with just one word.

“When my friend went out, she got up.

“A robe with wide lapels of frothy white wool enveloped the magnificent line of her body.

“We had known each other [only] for a few minutes.

“We had been alone for a while. The echo of the thud with which my friend had closed the door still vibrated [in] the silence of the room. She stared at me sharply with a soft but very quick gesture as she freed herself of her robe and, in her dazzling nakedness, she pulled me close, sucking her lips greedily.

“I believed that her desire was [real] and, selfishly, I justified it.

“But, later, I understood. She wanted to run away with me right away. I replied that I could not. I had no more than a few hundred francs.

“And I showed her my [pocket book/wallet].

“She smiled; then deviated a little. She pointed to my rings, leant over them, she said they looked as beautiful to her as ever. She asked me for them.

“And she asked them while looking at me. And that look from her was my salvation.

“As I saw in that gaze all my Parisian life [lit] up, [and] I read in that gaze all the baseness of the desires by which I was surrounded[,] and all the humiliation that my dignity underwent by accepting them. I do not know how to say it better. I would have been a novelist if I had known how to write.

“From the house I immediately flew. And three days later from Paris.”

Extracted from La Vita di Rodolfo Valentino, Lo Schermo (The Screen), Rome, Issue 17, Dec. 11th, 1926.

So Valentino was a visitor at his friend’s residence and meets his friend’s Partner for the first time. A woman, and a questionable one, who, once again, remains an Enigma. A female with a “magnificent body”. Unafraid to reveal it to a near stranger she’d known for just: “… a few minutes.” Uninhibited. Aware of her beauty and its effectiveness. (Initially effective, anyway.) A person ready to leave her current Boyfriend and “run away” with another almost on a whim. A person he feels that he can be saved from, and ultimately reject, when she goes so far as to attempt to strip him of the little he has left; his jewellery. So awful was the experience, that he soon exits the City of Light, not to return for ten long years.

The episode is a remarkable one. So vivid, so startling — even today. How true is it? Hard to say. Just as it’s hard to say how true the entire section is, or, the rest of La Vita di Rodolfo Valentino. I like to see specifics and there are almost none. No names. No streets. No places. No dates. Very very little indeed. Which you’d expect if it was a confection. Yet, it’s undeniably in the spirit of Rodolfo Valentino; fills in the gaping void; and chimes with what we have to compare it with. For example, Villalobos, who, though she wonders if it wasn’t bragging, presents on Page 108 of her Dissertation, interesting lines that detail Rudy’s activities in Taranto. Activities which more than echo his behaviour in the French Capital:

“‘A little while ago,’ he writes Bruno [Pozzan], ‘a 17-year-old singer came to Taranto and with her I’m having an immensely good time. Then while I’m courting the singer, I was also making love to other girls, leaving one and then taking up with another.'”

And Leider, who, on Page 40 of Dark Lover, gives us the following:

“During his weeks in Paris, Rodolfo experienced at least two setbacks, folded into the glitter. and excitement. The first, predictably enough, was that he ran short of funds and had to wire home for money. The second, more mysteriously, involved some kind of unpleasantness with a young music-hall dancer.”

A source which doesn’t predate his first trip to the city, yet, very much predates his second, the potted history of his life, in ACTEURS D’ECRAN: RUDOLPH VALENTINO, Les Bons Soirs et le mauvais (supplement), (page 3 of 4), Bonsoir, Wed., May 9th, 1923, compresses his escapade into a single sentence:

“He left to attend the agricultural school in Genoa, which he left to get in touch with life. His beginnings were joyful, and he spent a few thousand pounds, both in Paris and on the Cote d’Azur, until the day his family cut him off, putting an end to his easy existence and his excesses.”

The Cote d’Azur we’ll arrive at with Rudy, soon enough, in a future post. Meantime, we leave him about to depart La Ville Lumiere, poorer monetarily, if richer in knowledge. He has lived and loved, loved and lived. Quaffed champagne and drained bitter dregs. Danced in and out of the lives of several people. Encountered: intellectuals, swells, streetwalkers, vendors, bankers, occultists, addicts, artists, theatrical types, stall holders, general workers, shopkeepers, the beautiful and the ugly, politicians, the idle rich and the idle poor. In more ways than one eaten his fill. The Rodolfo Guglielmi we see in the well-known image of him in evening dress, upright, monocle in one eye, and pristine white evening glove in his hand, is a product of France not Italy, of Paris not Taranto. And it’s this totally transformed Rodolfo, worldly and polished, his horizon broadened, his appetite for adventure whetted, who’ll declare that Italy is too small for him — because it was.

Not for ten long years, after a series of downs and ups, will he return to France and it’s glittering capital. And thereafter, be drawn again and again, to almost his second home. A place where this dual on the inside and on the outside man would feel welcome, at ease, respected as an Artist, taken seriously. Did this internationally famous Valentino, so many times a French or France-related character on screen, smile to himself wryly, on occasion, during his stays there? Virtually guaranteed, I’d say!


I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading this lengthy look at Rudolph Valentino’s stay in Paris, City of Light. A stay that can’t, unless material suddenly emerges, ever be fully understood, beyond the bare bones that we have. That will always be a little frustrating when it comes to hard facts. As always, my sources are included as links, or, presented as an image. And I welcome your thoughts and any questions you might have. See you all next time!

At the Villa d’Or

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Plage de Juan-les-Pins by Claude Monet.

According to Max Saunders, in his Ford Madox Ford biography, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life: Volume II: The After-War World (1996), in the July of 1925, Jean Rhys, the Writer, left Paris on what she’d been told was a fast train, but actually turned-out to be a slow one. Her ultimate destination: The Azure Coast or Cote D’Azur/Costa D’Azur (aka The French Riviera). Specifically: Juan-les-Pins.

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Jean Rhys sometime in the Twenties.

The reason for her uncomfortable journey, in the heat of Summer, was a commission to assist a wealthy American woman, a Mrs. Winifred Hudnut, with writing a book about reincarnation and furniture. (It was, it appears, Mrs. Hudnut’s firm belief, that: “… happiness could be reached by living in the same costumes and decors of your previous lives.”) That Rhys was unable to type, or take shorthand, and wasn’t in-any-way-shape-or-form acquainted with the twinned subjects, doesn’t seem to have made much difference. And her stay of about eight weeks or so, at the Hudnut’s impressive mid. Nineteenth Century mansion, Chateau de Juan les Pins, was a fairly pleasant one. Her Hostess, and Host, Dickie Hudnut (cosmetics and fragrances Tycoon, and step-father to Natacha Rambova, the second wife of Rudolph Valentino), taking excellent care of her. Or so it seemed.

It turned out the first project and a second – Mrs. Hudnut required Miss Rhys to ghost write a book of fairy tales too – never reached fruition, due to her being paid a pittance, or the uninvited attentions of Mr. Hudnut, or both. (Natacha’s ‘Uncle Dickie’ apparently enjoyed kissing her on the way to and from the Casino at Monte Carlo each weekend.) And Jean Rhys returned to the French capital and the arms of her Lover Ford Madox Ford. However, the experience wasn’t wasted. And just two years later, in 1927, Rhys published a collection of stories titled: The Left Bank and Other Storiesfeaturing, as the twentieth tale, At the Villa d’Or. A compact yet richly detailed, thinly veiled look, at not just the Hudnuts themselves, but also life at their gorgeous sanctuary.

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I’d known about At the Villa d’Or for quite some time and had been unable to access it anywhere. Both the 1927 collection, and a 1987 publication by Penguin, Jean Rhys the Collected Short Stories, eluded me. And the story was absent from any other published selection. So I was extremely pleased, last year, to learn that Penguin Modern Classics had issued a reprint of the Eighties book in 2017. Having now read it, it in my opinion gives invaluable insight into two important people in Rudy’s life, as well as his possible favourite home from home. The six page story takes us beyond the passages devoted to the chateau in biographies. Just as it brings to life surviving images. We see them before us. Hear them speak. And get a good sense of their inclinations.

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Left to right Margaret Dinwoodey, Teresa Werner, Natacha Rambova, Rudolph Valentino, Winifred Hudnut and Richard Hudnut.

Of course it was necessary under the circumstances for Rhys to make some serious alterations. Jean herself becomes Sara (Cohen) of Montparnasse (a singer rather than an author). Mrs. Winifred Hudnut and Mr. Richard Hudnut become Mr. and Mrs. Robert B. Valentine. Paul Ivanovitch the artist – another guest in 1925 – becomes Yvan Pauloff. And one of the important servants becomes Charles. Though Uncle Dickie, as Bobbie Valentine, was transformed into The Boot-Lace King, he talks to her, as Sara, about “the curve of a bottle”, and also explains how he started life “in a chemist’s shop”. Meanwhile, Winifred, despite the name change, appears to be untouched — decorative, talkative and filled with concern.

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Rudolph and Natacha at the chateau, with his dog, Kabar.

I suspect Rudolph Valentino had already died by the time Jean Rhys completed At the Villa d’Or; hence the use of a variant of his professional surname for the slightly disguised Hudnuts. Natacha Rambova makes a fleeting appearance, offstage, as Mrs. Valentine’s unnamed, but extremely famous Movie Star daughter; who, like the conspicuously absent Rudolph Valentino, receives “a thousand love-letters per month” and was “mobbed” in London. (Rhys didn’t bump into either Valentino or Rambova, due to the pair being on the West Coast of the USA at the time, and about to split up.) Anyway, I reproduce here the entire story, and hope that it’s as enjoyable for those who read it as it was for me. Added, you’ll see, are a couple of helpful illustrative images.

 

At the Villa d’Or

 

Sara of Montparnasse had arrived that afternoon at the Villa d’Or, and it was now 9:30 P.M.; dinner was just over, it was the hour of coffee, peace, optimism.

    From the depths of a huge arm-chair Sara admired the warmly lovely night which looked in through the open windows, the sea, the moon, the palms — the soft lighting of the room.

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    The very faint sound of music could be heard from the distant Casino at intervals, and on the sofa opposite Mrs Robert B. Valentine reclined, dressed in a green velvet gown with hanging sleeves lined with rosy satin. Mr. Robert B. Valentine, The Boot-Lace King, sprawled in another huge arm-chair, and five Pekinese [sic] were distributed decoratively in the neighbourhood of Mrs Valentine. It might have been the Villa of the Golden Calf.

    ‘And very nice too,’ thought Sara.

    Charles came in to take away the coffee-tray, and to present Mr Valentine with a large, blue book.

    Charles was like the arm-chairs, English. He was also, strange to say, supple, handsome, carefully polite. But then Charles was definitely of the lower classes (as distinct from the middle).

    ‘The Chef is there, sir,’ said he — and ‘Anything more, Madame?’

    ‘Nothing, Charles,’ said Mrs Valentine with a hauteur touched with sweetness.

    Charles retreated with grace, carrying the tray. He looked as though he enjoyed the whole thing immensely. His good looks, his supple bow from the waist, his livery . . .

    ‘It must be fun,’ thought Sara, ‘to be butler in a place where everything is so exactly like a film.’

1925

    Mrs Valentine’s daughter of Los Angeles, Cal., was the most famous of movie stars. She received a thousand love-letters per month. In London she was mobbed when she went out . . . There was a glamour as distinct from money over the household . . .

    Mr Valentine put on horn-rimmed spectacles and opened the blue book which told of risotto of lobster, of becassine glacee sur lac d’or, of green peppers stuffed with rice.

    After a prolonged study of it he announced like some saint turning his back on the false glitter of this world:

    ‘He’s got haricots verts down for to-morrow, darling — wouldn’t you like some rice for a change?’

    Mr. Valentine was a vegetarian, a teetotaller, a non-smoker, and example of the law of compensation like most American millionaires.

    Mrs Valentine moved a little impatiently on her sofa, and through her dignified charm, pierced a slight fretfulness.

    ‘I’m just dead sick of rice, Bobbie,’ said she. ‘Couldn’t we have some ham for a change?’

    ‘He says he can’t get a ham,’ said Mr Valentine doubtfully. ‘He says he’d have to send to Paris for a ham.’

    The lady sat up suddenly and announced with energy that it was all nonsense, that she had seen lovely hams in the corner shop in Cannes — that anyone who couldn’t get a ham in Cannes couldn’t get one anywhere.

    I’ll speak to him, darling,’ Mr. Valentine told her soothingly.

    He got up and walked alertly out. He wore a purple smoking suit and under the light his perfectly bald head shone as if it were polished. He was extremely like some cheerful insect with long, thin legs.

    When he’d gone, Mrs Valentine leant back on to her sofa and half closed her eyes. She was such a slender lady that, sunk into the sofa cushions, she seemed ethereal, a creature of two dimensions, length and breadth, without any thickness. Her shoes were of gold brocade and round her neck glittered a long necklace of green beads with which she fidgeted incessantly — her hands being white and well manicured, but short, energetic and capable, with broad, squat nails.

    A Romantic, but only on the surface; also an active and energetic patroness of the Arts, fond of making discoveries in Montparnasse and elsewhere.

    So Mr Pauloff, a little Bulgarian who lived in Vienna, occupied a sumptuous bedroom on the second floor. He painted.

    Sara, who sang, was installed on the third floor, though, as she was a female and relatively unimportant, her room was less sumptuous.

Casino

‘It makes me feel sad, that music in the night.’ declared Mrs Valentine. ‘The man who is singing at the Casino this week is Mr van den Cleef’s gardener. Isn’t it just too strange? A Russian –a prince or something. Yes. And he only gets –what does a gardener get? I don’t know — so he sings at the casino in the evening. Poor man! And so many of them — all princes or generals or Grand Dukes . . . Of course most unreliable . . . Why, my dear Miss Cohen, I could tell you stories about the Russians on the Riviera — Well! Strange people — very strange. Not like us. Always trying to borrow money.’

    She went on to talk of the Russian character, of her tastes in music, of Mr Valentines eighteenth century bed, of the emptiness of life before she became a spiritualist, of automatic writing.

    ‘Yes, yes,’ said Sara patiently at intervals.

    After all, this was a tremendous reaction from Paris. In Paris one was fear-hunted, insecure, one caught terrifying glimpses of the Depths and the monsters who live there . . . At the Villa d’Or life was something shallow . . . that tinkled meaninglessly . . . shallow but safe.

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    Through Mrs. Valentine’s high-pitched drawl she strained her ears to hear some faint sound of the sea and imagined the silken caress of the water when she would bathe next morning. Bathing in that blue jewel of a sea would be voluptuousness, a giving of oneself up. And coming out of it one would be fresh, purified from how many desecrating touches. 

    Poor Sara . . . also a Romantic!

    As Mrs Valentine was describing the heroism of a famous American dancer who acted as a secret service agent during the war and averted a catastrophe to the Allies by swallowing documents at the right moment, Mr Pauloff and Mr Valentine came in.

    ‘Well, I’ve told him about that ham, darling,’ said the Boot-Lace King brightly.

    He added in a lower tone: ‘Yes, nood, but not too nood, Mr Pauloff.’ 

    ‘There will be a drapery,’ the Bulgarian assured him.

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    Mr Pauloff had painted Mrs Valentine two years ago surrounded by her Pekinese [sic], and made her incredibly beautiful. Then he had painted Mr. Valentine with exquisite trousers and the rest, brown boots and alert blue eyes. 

    He was now decorating the panels of Mr Valentine’s bedroom door with figures of little ladies. And a tactful drapery was to float round the little ladies’ waists. After all he had been a court painter and he had learned to be miraculously tactful. A polite smile was always carved – as it were – on his ugly little face; in his brown, somewhat pathetic eyes was a looked of strained attention.

    ‘In courts and places like that,’ as Mr Valentine said, ‘they learn nice manners. Well I guess they just have to . . .’

    ‘I understand, I quite understand,’ the artist said diffidently, but with finality, ‘I will drape the figures.’

    Then he [handed] a bundle of press-cuttings which he was holding to Sara and asked if she could read them aloud.

  ‘You have so nice, so charming a voice, Miss Sara.’

    Sara, overcome by this compliment, proceeded to read the cuttings which were form the English papers of fifteen years before.

    ‘Mr Yvan Pauloff, the famous Bulgarian artist . . .’

  As Sara read Mrs. Valentine closed her eyes and seemed to sleep, but Mr Valentine, crossing his legs, listened with great attention; as to the artist himself, he heard it all with a pleased smile, fatuous but charming.

    Then he went — radiant — to fetch some photographs of his most celebrated pictures. Mr Valentine said quickly:

    ‘You see, deary, there you are; he is a great artist. His name on a picture means something — means dollars.’

    ‘Dollars aren’t Art, Bobbie,’ answered Mrs. Valentine loftily.

Mr Valentine muttered something, and walking to the window surveyed the view with a proprietor’s eyes.

    ‘Come out onto the terrace and look at the stars, Miss Sara,’ said he. ‘Now that star there, it’s green, ain’t it?’

    ‘Quite green,’ she agreed politely, following him out.

    He glanced sideways at her, admiring the curves of her figure — he liked curves — the noble and ardent sweep of her nose — that saving touch of Jewish blood!

    He proceeded to pour out his soul to the sympathetic creature:

    ‘My wife’s always talking about Art. She thinks I don’t understand anything about it. Well, I do. Now, for instance: Bottles — the curve of a bottle, the shape of it — just a plain glass bottle. I could look at it for hours . . . I started life in a chemist’s shop — I was brought up amongst the bottles. Now the pleasure I get in looking at a bottle makes me understand artists . . . D’you get me?’

    ‘Why, that’s absolutely it,’ said Sara warmly in response to the note of appeal in his voice. ‘You understand perfectly.’

    ‘Would you like to come to Monte with me Sunday?’ asked Mr Valentine in a lower tone, grasping Sara’s arm above the elbow.  ‘I’ll teach you to play roulette.’

    ‘Yes, it would be fun,’ said Sara with a great deal of enthusiasm.

    From inside the Villa came the sweet and mocking music of ‘La Berggere Legere’.

    And there’s my wife playing the Victrola — Time for my billiards,’ chirped Mr Valentine.

    He went briskly up the steps and hauled away an unwilling Mr Pauloff to the billiard-room. 

    ‘Sometimes,’ said Mrs Valentine to Sara, ‘I play the Victrola for hours all by myself when Bobbie is in the billiard-room, and I think how strange it is that lovely music — and the voices of people who are dead — like Caruso — coming out of a black box. Their voices — themselves in fact — And I just get frightened to death — terrified. I shut it up and run upstairs and ring like mad for Marie.’

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    The marble staircase of the Villa d’Or was dim and shadowy, but one or two electric lights were still lit near the famous (and beautiful) portrait of Mrs Valentine.

    ‘When I see the portrait,’ said the lady suddenly, ‘I’m glad to go to bed sometimes.’

In her huge bedroom where the furniture did not quite match, where over the bed hung a picture representing a young lady and gentleman vaguely Greek in costume, sitting on a swing with limbs entwined in a marvellous mixture of chastity and grace — this was a relic of the days before Mrs. Valentine had learned to appreciate Picasso — Sara opened the windows wide and looked out on the enchanted night, then sighed with pleasure at the glimpse of her white, virginal bathroom through the open door — the bath salts, the scents, the crystal bottles.

    She thought again: ‘Very nice too, the Villa d’Or.’

 

The End.