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!

New York Timeline (1914)

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As I said previously, in March (in New York Timeline (1913)), I’m totally fascinated by Rudolph Valentino’s first years in the USA; particularly those spent in and around New York from 1913 to 1917. Forty two or so months crammed with incident; six months of which are, apparently, an impenetrable void. This month, June, I look in some detail at 1914 — one of his most difficult years. Anyway, here is: New York Timeline (1914).

January

For Marchese Guglielmi the first few months of 1914 are, for-want-of-a-better-phrase, a Social Whirl. Determined to put behind him his miserable Festive Period, he plunges into the dance-mad city of New York. His accommodation, Giolito’s, at 108-110 W. 49th St., is situated just east of Broadway, ten blocks south of Central Park, ten or so more north west, of the gleaming and glistening, newly-opened Grand Central Station, and a quick walk away from several exciting afternoon and evening establishments. At which, by all accounts, he becomes a regular.

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Schuyler L. Parsons Jr., left, in a film, in 1916.

He calls on his fellow S. S. Cleveland passenger, Miss Eleanor Post, and they go riding in Central Park at least once. He also pays a visit and introduces himself (with a letter of introduction), to Social Butterfly, Schuyler L. Parsons Jr.; who invites him to remain for dinner and then join the various guests, when they go out to dance until the early hours.

Miss Post had, along with Marion Herrion, been the young woman who’d enjoyed many hours dancing the latest dances, with Rodolfo Guglielmi, in the Second Class dining room. (Their friendship didn’t last.) Mr. Parsons, meanwhile, was a person whose name appeared in the press with alarming regularity, as an attendee, of dinner and theatre parties, dance parties and other exclusive society events. It’s interesting that he featured in an amateur film, The Flame of Kapur (1916), as a villain, not dissimilar to the sort played by Valentino a few years later. (He was to be a friend of Rudy’s right to the end.)

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February

Rodolfo continues to socialise hopeful it’ll lead to something. He reacquaints himself with three Paris friends: brothers Count Otto and Count Alex. von Salm-Hoogstraeten, and their friend, Georges/George T. Aranyi. The trio are in the US to play tennis, and Rodolfo no doubt watches them, at the National Indoor Championship Tournament, at the Seventh Regiment Armoury, 643 Park Avenue, in mid. February. Afterwards, in the evenings, the quartet enjoy nights out.

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Austrians, Otto and Alex., and Frenchman George, too, were seemingly all a little older than their Italian playmate. (Otto was born in 1886 and Alex. (who would perish during WW1) in 1890.) So being in their company would’ve been something of an education for someone not yet 19. I personally don’t believe that the Salms taught Valentino to tango at the Central Park Zoo, as his female fellow passengers on the Cleveland said he already knew it. However, there’s no doubt they taught him other things, and that he was a willing Pupil.

The addiction of New Yorkers at this time to dancing is clear when we peruse the city’s newspapers and see how often it’s mentioned. At the start of the month a report states that the Pope has neither banned the Tango nor endorsed La Furlana. A review, days later, of The Laughing Husband, an operetta at the Knickerbocker Theatre, reveals how “Graceful Steps [Of] A New Sort” had been added to the U. S. adaptation, and that the chorus did “The Tango”. (You can listen to a medley here.) On the 9th, we see a story about 2,000 waiters, trotting, tangoing, dipping, maxixeing, and hesitating, at the Manhattan Waiters’ Association Annual Ball. (In many instances with each other.) On the 14th, we view fourteen recent or expected social gatherings, of which seven included dancing. The 17th saw the Castles, Vernon and Irene, explaining to Marguerite Mooers Marshall, a columnist, how to dance the Half and Half. And at the close of February, we learn that the Arabian Nights Ball, on the 26th, at the Folies Marigny, had begun at midnight, and had been: “… JUST ONE DANCE AFTER ANOTHER.”

March

Thanks to high living and nightly shenanigans, with the Salms, Aranyi, and with others, Rodolfo’s funds are dwindling; and as he commences the month, he begins to appreciate he’s unable to continue in the same fashion as in January and February. In order to save money he quits his quarters at Giolito’s, and moves to less expensive, unknown, Uptown rooms.

Knowing he’ll soon have to find employment, he’s also eager to seriously improve his basic English. He understands that what he learned at Nervi won’t be sufficient for him to be able to work, and he’ll be unable to improve it, while he’s surrounded by fellow Italians.

His departure from Giolito’s isn’t fixed in stone and it could easily have occurred in February. The reason being, that the position he secured as a Gardener (thanks to a letter of introduction (from his older brother Alberto), to outgoing Commissioner of Immigration, William Williams), commenced after the snow had melted. As I only saw bad snow reported locally in early March, and not later, we have to accept the possibility he was out of his initial accommodation earlier than was previously thought. Maybe even by the middle of February.

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The Bliss estate, to the right of Wheatly, Long Island.

April

After some work, which included planting rhododendrons (which are still there and are referred to as ‘Rudy’s Rhodos’), his employment with Mr. Bliss, at his estate, at Brookville, outside the city on Long Island, abruptly ends, after he crashes a borrowed motorcycle. It’s also an issue that the return of Mrs. Bliss, from Europe, has ended plans for an Italian garden. Rodolfo himself isn’t enjoying being so far from Manhattan. And isn’t too pleased to be eating his meals with the other servants.

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An image of Rudy gardening in 1914.

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Cornelius N. Bliss Jr., Rudy’s employer, in Spring 1914.

Cornelius N. Bliss Jr., a kind-hearted type, then President of the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, provides him with a letter of introduction, to the New York City Parks Commissioner, Louis F. La Roche. He also, amazingly, provides him with a small weekly allowance so that he can manage in the short term.

Rudy returns to Manhattan, able, just about, to manage on his recent earnings, and his allowance from Bliss. Despite his worsening situation, it seems, from time-to-time, that he’s still able to enjoy the cafes and restaurants.

Rodolfo Guglielmi doesn’t grasp that Mr. and Mrs. Bliss are two people who, in time, could’ve seriously helped him with a career as a Landscape Gardener. However, he did understand he was a million miles from entering, or being accepted in, Society. Painfully aware. And this was something of a problem for him.

May

After resettling back in the city, sometime in May, Rodolfo secures a less pleasant position as an Apprentice Park Gardener. He works the majority of the month. But eventually discovers that he’s unable to continue working, as the apprenticeship exam is open only to American citizens.

By now Cornelius N. Bliss Jr.’s small allowance has probably ceased. The little he’s earned in May is disappearing. And he searches for some other kind of employment.

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It’s probably in May and June that he goes to the Waldorf-Astoria, one of the great New York hotels, to write on the their fine stationery to his mother (to reassure her that he’s alright and is doing well). That he eventually revealed this to his family, is known, thanks to his older brother, Alberto, mentioning it in a lengthy interview in 1977.

June

He manages to secure a position as a Bank Teller. However, due to poor English, or an inability to calculate quickly enough, or both, he loses this job. And is once again forced to look for another vacancy.

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The roof restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in the Teens.

It’s now, in mid. June, that he catches the eye of ‘Dickie’ Warner – true name Richard H. Warner – a blonde, blue-eyed man in his late twenties, who’s as much of a Social Moth as Schuyler L. Parsons Jr.. Apparently, Dickie sees him: “… seated at the opposite side of the dancing space in company of several friends.” After a formal introduction they converse. And days later he invites him to dinner on the roof of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. On that warm evening, they afterwards sit drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, and Rodolfo opens his heart to the near stranger. Telling him he’s a foreigner in a foreign land. Isn’t getting anywhere in his profession. And is: “… too proud to seek aid from his family.” Dickie’s sympathetic and tells Rudy he can move into his apartment with him until things improve. Which, the very next day, he does. Warner helping him to pack his possessions at his “anything but cheerful” lodgings. Thus commences a quite lengthy and comfortable stay, at Dickie Warner’s gorgeously decorated two room studio, at 78 West 55th Street. Rudy wakes late each day; lounges about in pyjamas in Warner’s tulip wood bed; plays with the cat, Prunella; and talks on the telephone to his girlfriends. His host is irritated by his poor English but doesn’t mind his singing. (The song that he sings most often is Mamma Mia.)

Warner’s detailed – too detailed to be fabricated – account, which was published in the early Twenties, in a piece entitled, Before They Were Famous, in SCREENLAND, reveals much about Rudy half way through 1914. He continues to frequent some of the places he enjoyed earlier that year as and when he can. Has friends. And is still able to dress and present himself well. Warner remembered: “… distinctly, his dress suit, also the handiwork of a tailor in Taranto.” This pretty much proves false, the claim that Frank A. Mennillo took him to his New York tailor, to kit him out in more suitable, American garb. He was in May and June still wearing all of the garments he’d carried with him at the end of the previous year.

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Manhattan viewed from Brooklyn in 1914.

So far he’s moved from Giolitos, to Uptown, then out to Long Island, then back to Manhattan. (He also appears to have been in Brooklyn at some point in order to be able to save money.) Living with Dickie facilitates indolence. For the time being, at least, he seems in no hurry to do anything, except laze, pet Prunella, and speak for hours on the telephone. According to his host a stay of a few days stretches to many weeks. In my estimation at least a month to six weeks.

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July

Rudy continues to live with Dickie. At some point the pair enjoy a trip to Long Beach; for so long, that Warner is forced to wire a friend in the city, and get them to climb through a window, in order to feed the cat.

At the end of the month World War One breaks out in Europe. However, as neither Italy nor America are initially involved, it doesn’t yet affect Rodolfo Guglielmi, or, his family.

August

After six or so weeks his stay with Warner ends. Where he goes next isn’t too clear. Yet it’s certain about now is when things begin to get very tough. For the next eight weeks he goes from poorly-paid job to poorly-paid job. He washes dishes, cleans automobiles, and polishes brass; anything that will give him enough money to be able to eat and pay for a place to sleep.

This is a period where he’ll move about even more frequently, staying a week here, then a week there. Always moving. He’s forced to pawn his belongings. What’s left is kept by a Landlady that he’d been unable to pay. In later years, he told Norma Talmadge a story about walking five miles to City Hall, in order to find work, and, after failing to, how he’d bought a “bologna sandwich” with his very last ten cents, before walking the five miles back. The fact Norma recalled such a story, in 1938, again shows he couldn’t possibly have had a Godfather during this time.

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The entrance to a Horn & Hardart Co. Automat.

September

Nineteen-year-old Rodolfo continues to suffer. He eats at one, perhaps all, of the Horn & Hardart Co. Automats, on Broadway, Sixth Avenue and West 42nd St. And he sleeps at the downbeat, Mills Hotel, which charges 12 cents per night. When he can’t even afford that he doesn’t eat and sleeps on a bench in Central Park. (He also sleeps under the shrubbery and in all-night cinemas.)

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Men sleeping in a homeless sleeping shelter in the mid. Teens.

There’s absolutely no evidence nineteen-year-old Rudolph Valentino was forced to commit any crime in order to survive; but we must consider the possibility he may have had no choice. It’s interesting, that in a letter home, he feels that any work is better than a life of crime. And it’s in this letter, according to the family, that he reveals he’d come very close to compromising his honour. So if he didn’t commit a crime it was certainly on his mind. The disappearance of the contents of his police file, decades ago, doesn’t allow us to be sure one way or the other. In a report, in The New-York Tribune, in 1910, vagrants were only arrested if they were considered to be a ‘Cadet’ — in-other-words, a person learning to be a street criminal. If they were, they were discharged, sent to a work house, or, fined. If Rudy slept on a park bench, he would simply be moved along; as Anthony Dexter was, as Valentino, in Valentino (1951). (A rare instance of accuracy in an otherwise largely inaccurate film.)

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October

Broke and homeless things are so bleak that Rudy contemplates suicide. Then a Mystery Man he meets changes his luck. The person, apparently an Italian, takes him under his wing, shares his food and his bed, talks to him, gives him advice, and perhaps allows his guest to get a wash and to shave. The next day, or soon afterwards, after the suggestion, Rodolfo heads to Maxim’s/Cafe Maxim to speak to the piano player (who’s from Taranto). The piano player suggests talking to the Head Waiter there. When he does, The Head Waiter recalls him from earlier in the year, and offers him work as a dance partner for hire. (To dance with females who aren’t already accompanied by a male.) He accepts and commences that month. There’s no pay, but he can eat for free, keep any tips, and use an upper room, with a Victrola, to give dance instructions on the side.

A different version of Rodolfo’s spell as a dancer, at Cafe Maxim, is found in the owner, Julius Keller’s, 1939 memoir, Inns and Outs. Keller claims that he himself hired him. And that Rudy had been washing cars at a nearby garage. Keller says that he found the young man to be “dark and romantic in appearance”. Whether it was Keller’s or another proprietor’s innovation isn’t clear. But dance partners for hire were far from unique to Maxim’s. They were very much looked down upon at the time as it was considered to be an unsuitable profession for a Real Man.

Maxim’s was, along with Sherry’s, Delmonico’s, Luchow’s, Churchill’s, Rectors, Murray’s, and a few other venues, a restaurant that allowed patrons to dance. Their adverts in September declared that it was the “COOLEST and BEST VENTILATED DINING ROOM in TOWN”. That luncheon was just 60c. That dancing was from noon to close. And the cabaret was after 6:30 p. m.

November

Dark, romantic Rodolfo Guglielmi swiftly enhances his natural ability, and is an instant success with patrons. He returns to being a Marchese; but, perhaps due to the French atmosphere of the establishment, tells customers he’s a Marquis. By now he has many regular female dance partners. And these varied ladies generously tip him and shower him with small gifts.

In the third or fourth week of the month, Bonnie Glass (“the most original young person in the [dancing] profession”), and her former dance partner, Clifton Webb, arrive at Cafe Maxim and take a table. Glass has asked Webb to assist her in searching for a talented new partner, and they soon notice: “… a remarkably handsome, dark young man named Rudolph.” Bonnie is impressed by his tango and, on the spot, offers him the job. He tells her frankly that he doesn’t have the money to pay for the clothing required. And she tells him that she’ll cover the cost.

In Clifton Webb’s posthumously published autobiography, Sitting Pretty: the Life and Times of Clifton Webb, 2011, the then very notable Bonnie Glass had recently returned from Chicago. Checking her engagements in late 1914 I saw this to be the case. (She’d danced in Chicago recently with Al. Davis.) And so I trust both Clifton Webb’s memory and his story. It seems Bonnie had a partner – George Richmond – but he was temporary. And, as she had plans for 1915, that included re-opening the grille of Cafe Boulevard, at Broadway and 41st Street, as Cafe Montmartre, she required somebody reliable who’d be available nightly. (For me this settles once and for all the question of how they met and came to be a successful Act.)

It’s easy to imagine Rudy’s delight in being singled out by Bonnie and Clifton after they’d left and it all began to sink in. In no-time-at-all he would be able to quit the establishment and leave behind him, perhaps forever, the life of a Taxi Dancer — a life he found more than a little distasteful.

December

During the first two weeks of the month Rodolfo rehearses with Bonnie in the mornings and continues to work as a hired dancer, at Maxim’s, in the afternoons and evenings. He likewise continues to be the favourite of several ladies (as mentioned by Keller in Inns and Outs). And utilises the upper room, with the Victrola, to provide private instruction for a fee.

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A December 1914 advert for Glass’s appearance at Rectors.

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A 1914 illustration of Rectors Dining Room by ‘HAZ’.

Mid. December, he dances for the first time with Glass, at Rector’s, in front of their “stage setting”, for an elegant New York audience seated amidst “fronded palms”. He’ll continue to do so for the rest of the month. And, though he fails to be credited at this point in any adverts, he’s buoyed by the realisation that bigger things lie ahead of him in 1915. In only a matter of months he’s turned his life completely around. This year, the Festive Period will not be the lonely, upsetting affair it was twelve months before.


Thank you so much for reading this post. As always, the sources are available to anyone who contacts me, if they’re not already embedded into the text, or added as an image. This latest timeline will be followed by others looking at the years 1915 to 1917. And I’ve planned standalone posts for his 1916 arrest and also the missing half year. See you all in July!