There are few people more dedicated to preserving the memory of Rudolph Valentino, or promoting him and championing him and his career, than Mr. Tracy Terhune. As well as being a Preservationist, a Promoter and a Champion, he’s also a serious Collector; and thus an important Custodian, when it comes to Valentino-related artifacts and ephemera. His knowledge is immense. His generosity, kindness and openness even greater. He’s an Administrator of the long-established We Never Forget Valentino group on Facebook. And importantly, organises the annual Rudolph Valentino Memorial Service, which takes place each August 23rd, at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, in Los Angeles, at 12:10 p. m., the time of the passing of the Great Lover in 1926.
Tracy has kindly taken time out from his busy schedule to engage in a Q & A session with His Fame Still Lives. (Questions are in British English and answers are in American English.)
1. Tracy, hello, and thank you for agreeing to speak with HFSL. Two months ago, once again, you organised and hosted the Rudolph Valentino Memorial, at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, in Los Angeles. It must’ve been quite a task to pull it all together. Can you take us through the process? What exactly does it take to organise such an event?
The Valentino Memorial is such a time-honoured Hollywood event and I am so proud to be a part of it. The main part is to plan in advance, and I try to line up at least two speakers. That is the hardest part of putting on the event. People who have written books or recent projects are always considered. Some people even reach out with an idea. Some are declined, such as one year, a person wanted to hold a seance in the middle of the Memorial. Once the speakers are confirmed, I reach out to fill the rest of the program, which includes reading a selection of poems from Day Dreams, and the reading of the ending of the 23rd Psalm. If the Memorial is on a certain year, we may theme it accordingly, such as the 90th anniversary of the Memorial. The short videos that are shown are all custom-made specifically for the event, and contribute greatly to the Memorial itself. Some pay tribute to past participants, or to refresh the memory of a person who has a Rudy connection, such as Mae Murray or Ann Harding. Also, every year we have a short video, which I call the “Valentino Tribute Video” and it is done solely to stop and remember Rudolph Valentino. It changes each year.
I design and order the banners and also I design and print the programs. Sometimes additional ‘hand outs’ are given to those who attend, for example, this year, a hand-held fan with Rudy’s image and the date on it was given out. Other times it was recreation of the Mineralava ticket or a pin-back button for the 90th anniversary. The Cemetery provides the podium, the chairs and microphone. This year is the third year the Memorial has been broadcast on Facebook Live. That has proven to be very popular. All this comes together and makes what we all know as the Valentino Memorial Service.
2. I know that you’ve been organising and hosting the Memorial for quite some time now. For those who don’t know as much as I and others do, can you tell us how you got started, and maybe some of the highlights for you over the years??
I got a call from the Cemetery saying Tyler Cassity (the owner of the Cemetery) wanted me to be on the committee of organzing the Memorial. Bud Testa, who had done it on his own for nearly 50 years was in ill health, and Tyler wanted to bring a group together to plan the annual event. That is how I got started and this would be 2001. My first Memorial I attended was in 1996 and I have been at every one since then. The first time I spoke was 2002 to close the service with reading the prayer card that was handed out at the Valentino funeral in 1926. In 2004 my book came out which chronicled the entire history of the Valentino Memorial and I was the main speaker that year.
In those days there was a lot of turnover at the Cemetery and it wasn’t uncommon to come back the next year and it would be all new people running the place. In 2006 they had no one for the Emcee, and I said I would be willing, and I have continued since then. One thing is the guiding force in everything I do for the Memorial; that it is not about me, it is about honouring and remembering Valentino. Nor do I invite anyone who I feel would bring disrespect to him or to the Service itself. No speakers appear in “costumes”. Ask anyone who’s attended in the past few years and I am confident that they will tell you it is fun and interesting, but that it is a dignified, respectful event.
3. And going back further into time, I’m interested to learn of your very first inkling of Rudy. In other words: at what point in your life did you become aware of him?
I was first aware of Rudy because of the Brownlow Hollywood Series that I saw on public television. In the early 1980s I used to go to local revival houses to see silent films. My first silent film was Wings. At Universal around this time Mary MacLaren came in to visit and she told us about her dressing room being next to Rudolph Valentino’s on the Universal lot. It wasn’t until 1995 that the Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles was showing the Brownlow restoration of the The Four Horsemen.
I went in and saw that, and thought he had amazing screen chemistry and presence. I sought out books to learn more about him, and the only ones were at used bookstores, most of them highly fictionalized however. I came across the Irving Shulman bio and it was the first I read. It is still my favourite Valentino bio.
4. After you’d become aware of him and his career what were your thoughts? Before you knew as much as you do now? How did he strike you as a person early on?
My first impression of him was how sad, and lonely a person he was. He was used by everyone, I mean everyone. He was un-valued by the studios. (He left Metro, because they declined his request for a $50 a week raise, and they let him go! This after The Four Horsemen!) He was horribly used by his two wives. One had a sagging career and started using his name, yet, she had no qualms about dragging that name through the mud in the divorce trial. The other had an insatiable desire to be a power to reckon with within the movie industry and he was the means to obtain it. He was used by his Business Manager. The fact he wrote to his brother asking him to please write to him because he needed to know somebody still loved him. That’s very sad.
5. And what would you say was your biggest misconception — if you had any??
I only knew the standard legend that Rudolph Valentino was the Great Lover. I went into it assuming he was a big chaser of women, living up to his screen reputation. Nothing could be further from the truth. In private he was a quiet, homebody type, who enjoyed the company of those he trusted, a small circle of select friends within his social circle. That is who the true Rudolph Valentino was.
6. You have a vast collection of Rudy-related items which has grown over time. I’d like to ask you which was the very first thing you acquired and when??
The very first items I obtained were the Luther Mahoney items. They are pictured in the 1975 book about Valentino by Jack Scagnetti. I had recently read the book and saw those items pictured, and remember thinking: ‘I wonder who owns those now’. Two weeks later I attended a local memorabilia show and there they were, all in plastic bags and marked: “Personal Property of Rudolph Valentino”.
It turns out after Luther Mahoney’s death his daughter Madeleine Mohoney Reid inherited them, but she had recently died and they were sold off to a dealer, who in turn was selling them off piece by piece. I thought it was sad these were all kept together, and now this was happening. I bought several of the items and that is how I got started. That would be about 1997.
7. Having been lucky enough to see your Valentino collection three years ago I know that it’s very varied. I wonder if you could give us a quick overview of what it contains?
I have a good selection of photos, some quite rare. I enjoy lobby cards, and the one six-sheet from Society Sensation. It takes up a whole wall. What I enjoy most are items from the estate and personal documents. I have put most of my collecting efforts towards that area.
8. What’s the most unusual item that you have?
The 1920s mirror from the master bathroom in Falcon Lair which would have reflected Rudy’s face daily. The mirror was built into the wall and was original to the house which was built in 1923. It was given to me by the then owner of Falcon Lair as he had planned to remodel the bathroom and it would not be retained. True to his word, on my next visit, it was protected in bubble wrap waiting for me. Truly a one of a kind piece!
9. What’s the item that you cherish the most?
Three things. The Demi Tasse silver cup and saucer that is listed in the estate catalog as “This was Mr. Valentino’s personal set”. Also, the famed Eagle ring that he wore in three films: ‘A Sainted Devil’, ‘Cobra’, and of course ‘The Eagle’, where the ring actually became part of the plot line. I plan to donate this to the Academy for their new museum and I hope this happens. Lastly, his United Artists contract signed by Rudy.
10. Was there ever anything that you wanted that you couldn’t acquire?
Sometimes in auctions there are several items and I have to pick my battles. I have missed out on some items I would have liked to have but that is fine.
11. And if you don’t mind to share it with us which was your most recent acquisition?
Two Rudolph Valentino signed ocean liner farewell dinner menus, both from different voyages, that have the dates of the trip. One was signed by him and Nita Naldi. The other was signed by him to Louise, his personal Cook at home. He talks about how the food on this menu may sound good, but Oh! for Louise’s cooking! Very funny and heart-felt.
12. Looking back over Valentino’s all-too-brief life and career, what, in your opinion, was his greatest achievement? (If you feel there was more than one please tell us!)
I think his greatest achievement was something he did not live to see and that would be his enduring legacy. I would like to think he would be pleased to know that a Memorial would continue to be held 93 years after his passing. That people still care, each in their own way. That is an achievement and honor that none of his contemporaries in the movie industry are afforded.
13. And which, in your opinion, is his greatest performance and/or greatest film?
He was superb in The Four Horsemen. I think Moran of the Lady Letty is an often overlooked performance. I liked his pairing with Gloria Swanson in Beyond the Rocks. But I think his best film by far is The Son of the Sheik.
14. Why do you think people were so drawn to Rudolph Valentino, and why were women, particularly, so enamoured of him?
For females of his day it was the escapism that movies offered women and Rudy was the embodiment of that escape, the forbidden love that would whisk you away from the dishes and laundry, to passion and romance. For men, it was that he himself wanted to be like Valentino, to have that alluring charm for use on women.
15. I’m sending you back in a time machine to the Twenties. You’re in Rudy’s presence for a short while, maybe disguised as a Reporter, what do you ask him?
I’d ask him for his spaghetti recipe we’ve heard so much about.
16. If you could’ve given him one piece of advice what would it have been?
I’d have suggested he not marry Jean Acker nor Natacha Rambova; both were huge mistakes in completely different ways. Then I would kindly suggest he not take the negative articles too personally, to grow a thicker skin towards that.
17. If we know what his appeal was in the past, what is it about Valentino today, do you think, that continues to attract people to him?
His charisma still leaps from the screen. He still resonates with an audience. Valentino is forever. Long after we’re gone, someone, somewhere, will be watching ‘The Son of the Sheik’.
18. Valentino stirs up controversy, now, as much as he did in his lifetime. What do you think about this?
This is so true. I think it’s sad as well as unfortunate. So much hate has been unfurled in the name of Valentino. In my opinion there is pure fiction being published about Rudy even today by people; some, who call themselves ‘scholarly’! I believe fiction, hearsay, innuendo, and guesswork is being touted as fact. For the most part they are very much ignored within the Valentino Community.
19. Finally, what’s next for you, when it comes to Rudolph Valentino? Do you have any burning ambitions? Anything you’d like to do, or see happen, with regard to him?
I do have a couple of projects I am toying with. I’d like to update my book Valentino Forever, and also, I’d like to put together a photo. book of the history of the East coast and West coast funerals and the aftermath, using photos I have in my collection.
I would love to see the Brownlow ‘The Eagle’ released to Blu-ray. They are releasing a Blu-ray of the movie but it is not from that print source. Only two original camera negatives exist for Valentino films. ‘Cobra’ is one and ‘The Eagle’ is the other. A print was struck a decade ago and shown at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. It was razor-sharp and crystal clear on the big screen; you could see the gleam in his eye. It is a shame that print is locked away.
Tracy Terhune, thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions, about yourself, and about Rudolph Valentino. I really appreciate it.
Thank you, all, for taking the time to read through Mr. Terhune’s fascinating interview with HFSL about himself and Rudy. This is the first, of what’s planned to be, an irregular series over time. If anyone who enjoys this Valentino-focused Blog thinks that a person is deserving of being interviewed I’d love to hear your suggestion/s. Anyone respectful of Rudolph Valentino and his work and legacy will be considered. See you in November!
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.
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 Stories, featuring, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
‘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.
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.
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.’
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.’
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.’
On His Fame Still Lives this October I’ll be posting about A Sainted Devil (1924). Writing about this lost Valentino spectacular, for Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount, has required me to research very deeply. And, naturally, that research involved reading, in its entirety, the basis for the film: the Rex Beach short story Rope’s End. A tale the like of which I’ve never read before; featuring, at its heart, a personality like none I’ve ever encountered. However, before we tackle not just the sensational story, but also the equally sensational protagonist that lives and breathes on the pages, we need to pause, briefly, and see what was going on in the life of Rudolph Valentino.
By the Summer of 1921, after less than twelve months, Valentino had moved on from the pre M-G-M Metro Pictures Corp., the studio that had made him a Star, to Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount. At his new studio, where he became a Superstar, in The Sheik (1921), and was then utilised, in quick succession, in Moran of the Lady Letty (1922), Beyond the Rocks (1922), Blood and Sand (1922), and The Young Rajah (1922), he became seriously dissatisfied. His dissatisfaction arising from a combination of: low salary, several broken promises, and a general lack of control and poor material.
What followed was his extended One Man Strike; which lasted a whole year, from 1922 to 1923. A twelve month spell, when, prevented from appearing in any motion picture, he danced his way across the US with his second wife, promoting Mineralava beauty products; published an exercise book and a collection of poems; and even attempted, unsuccessfully, to become a singer. By the Summer of 1923, however, he’d reached a settlement with his employer. And, after a lengthy trip to Europe, followed by another, briefer one, he returned to work at the start of the next year, in an ambitious adaptation of Monsieur Beaucaire. (A short 1900 novel by Booth Tarkington.)
The question of what would follow the expected Smash Hit of Beaucaire – in the end it wasn’t the massive success they thought – wasn’t answered quickly. Much time passed and many possibilities were rejected before the Beach story was settled on. Thanks to Natacha Rambova, his former wife, who, in 1930, published The Truth About Rudolph Valentino, her version of their life together, we know a great deal about the making of what was to become A Sainted Devil. And what we aren’t told by her we can discover from other sources. However, let’s return to the production later, after we’ve enjoyed looking at the inspiration. (Actual text is in bold.)
Beach’s brilliant yarn opens with the following paragraph:
A round moon flooded the thickets with gold and inky shadows. The night was hot, poisonous with the scent of blossoms and of rotting tropic vegetation. It was that breathless, overpowering period between the seasons when the trades were fitful, before the rains had come. From the Caribbean rose the whisper of a dying surf, slower and fainter than the respirations of a sick man; in the north the bearded, wrinkled Haytian hills lifted their scowling faces. They were trackless, mysterious, darker even than the history of the island.
After this great opening, the atmosphere established to the point where we can almost smell it, we now survey the scene. A thatched roof, on four posts, food spread upon a table, and a candle, undisturbed by even a whisper of a breeze, burning quite steadily. Close by another “thatched shed” under which soldiers are gathered ’round a fire. And about, in the “jungle clearing”, huts that have seen better days in which men can be heard talking.
We’re next introduced to the Villain: “Petithomme Laguerre, colonel of tirailleurs, in the army of the Republic…” Seated at the table, in his blue and gold uniform, disappointed with the food he just ate even more than the lack of plunder in the village. He mulls over the day from the comfort of a grass hammock that, like the property, belongs to a Julien Rameau.
We then receive some context:
On three sides of the clearing were thickets of guava and coffee trees, long since gone wild. A ruined wall along the beach road, a pair of bleaching gate-posts, a moldering house foundation, showed that this had once been the site of a considerable estate.
These mute testimonials to the glories of the French occupation are common in Hayti, but since the blacks rose under Toussaint l’Ouverture they have been steadily disappearing; the greedy fingers of the jungle have destroyed them bit by bit; what were once farms and gardens are now thickets and groves; in place of stately houses there are now nothing but miserable hovels. Cities of brick and stone have been replaced by squalid villages of board and corrugated iron, peopled by a shrill-voiced, quarreling race over which, in grim mockery, floats the banner of the Black Republic inscribed with the motto, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”
Once Hayti was called the “Jewel of the Antilles” and boasted its “Little Paris of the West,” but when the black men rose to power it became a place of evil reputation, a land behind a veil, where all things are possible and most things come to pass. In place of monastery bells there sounds the midnight mutter of voodoo drums; the priest has been succeeded by the “papaloi,” the worship of the Virgin has changed to that of the serpent. Instead of the sacramental bread and wine men drink the blood of the white cock, and, so it is whispered, eat the flesh of “the goat without horns.”
But where is Julien Rameau? Hanging by his wrists from a nearby tamarind tree! Soon Petithomme Laguerre speaks to him. Saying:
“So! Now that Monsieur Rameau has had time to think, perhaps he will speak,” said the colonel.
Yet Rameau’s reply is the same one he’d been giving since the beginning of his torment: that he has no riches. Growing increasingly bored, the colonel tells a subordinate, named Congo, to: “… bring the boy!” And also “a girl”. And we subsequently learn they are man and wife. And that the man is named Floreal.
Congo “and another tirailleur” duly appear with young Floreal Rameau and his equally youthful wife. Both have their hands tied behind their backs. The husband is silent. His wife is in tears.
Now we’re supplied with a good description of the Anti Hero:
Floréal Rameau was a slim mulatto, perhaps twenty years old; his lips were thin and sensitive, his nose prominent, his eyes brilliant and fearless. They gleamed now with all the vindictiveness of a serpent, until that hanging figure in the shadows just outside turned slowly and a straying moonbeam lit the face of his father; then a new expression leaped into them. Floréal’s chin fell, he swayed uncertainly upon his legs.
“Monsieur–what is this?” he asks Colonel Petihomme Laguerre. And then commences a conversation between the Captor and the Captive. The Aggressor wants their money. And the Victim reiterates that there’s none.
When his wife agrees with him Laguerre notices her beauty:
Her arms, bound as they were, threw the outlines of her ripe young bosom into prominent relief and showed her to be round and supple; she was lighter in color even than Floréal. A little scar just below her left eye stood out, dull brown, upon her yellow cheek.
Floreal’s young wife is disgusted by Laguerre, but is forced to reveal her name, which is Pierrine. When he asks her to tell him where their riches are hidden she replies:
“I know nothing,” she stammered. “Floréal speaks the truth, monsieur. What does it mean–all this? We are good people; we harm nobody. Every one here was happy until the–blacks rose. Then there was fighting and–this morning you came. It was terrible! Mamma Cleomélie is dead–the soldiers shot her. Why do you hang Papa Julien?”
Then her young husband becomes hysterical and begs on his knees for mercy. Telling the Colonel to take what they have: “fields, cattle, a schooner”. However their evil Tormentor hasn’t been listening. And, instead, has been eyeing Pierrine. Which makes Floreal even more desperate:
Floréal strained until the rawhide thongs cut into his wrists, his bare, yellow toes gripping the hard earth like the claws of a cat until he seemed about to spring. Once he turned his head, curiously, fearfully, toward his young wife, then his blazing glance swung back to his captor.
Now Floreal Rameau’s worst fears become reality. Despite his attempt to appeal to their Tormentor, Petihomme Laguerre, Laguerre orders orders his men to beat Floreal’s poor father, while he takes the son’s wife into his personal custody, to perhaps suffer a fate worse than death. Floreal Rameau flings himself in front of the Colonel but fails to stop him. And now watches, helplessly as his wife is led away and his father is brutalized:
Floréal shrank away. Retreating until his back was against the table, he clutched its edge with his numb fingers for support. He was young, he had seen little of the ferocious cruelty which characterized his countrymen; this was the first uprising against his color that he had witnessed. Every blow, which seemed directed at his own body, made him suffer until he became almost as senseless as the figure of his father.
His groping fingers finally touched the candle at his back; it was burning low, and the blaze bit at them. With the pain there came a thought, wild, fantastic; he shifted his position slightly until the flame licked at his bonds.
Colonel Laguerre returns to see if the torturing of Julien Rameau is effective. Not noticing that the son, Floreal Rameau, is burning his restraints with the candle on the table. After telling Floreal that he’ll be guarded during the night, and then dealt with the next day, he departs; having: “… an appetite for pleasanter things than this.”
Floreal then cries out to no avail:
“Laguerre! She is my wife–by the Church! My wife.”
Congo and Maximilien, the two subordinates of the Colonel, talk between themselves about the fact that they believe there’s no money. They then decide they’ll kill Floreal’s father, take “the boy back to his prison”, and get some rest. While Congo attends to the old man – who’s not surprisingly expired – Maximilien approaches the son in order to lead him to where he’ll be kept prisoner. Telling him, as he does so, that he’ll be shot tomorrow.
Yet, the desperate, ingenious Floreal, who has by now freed his hands, deftly removes Maximilien’s machete from its sheath. After mortally wounding the unsuspecting owner he then pursues his fellow trooper/’tirailleur’, Congo, who’s head he cracks open, like: “… a green cocoanut, with one stroke.”
Floreal Rameau has time to cut down the body of his dead father but is soon aware that the other men are seeking out their weapons. Thus, as they begin to shoot at him, he quickly disappears into the jungle, as they continue to fire blindly. Laguerre almost fails to subdue them and the first part of the tale ends thus:
The road to the Dominican frontier was rough and wild. All Hayti was aflame; every village was peopled by raging blacks who had risen against their lighter-hued brethren. Among the fugitives who slunk along the winding bridle-paths that once had been roads there was a mulatto youth of scarcely twenty, who carried a machete beneath his arm. In his eyes there was a lurking horror; his wrists were bound with rags torn from his cotton shirt; he spoke but seldom, and when he did it was to curse the name of Petithomme Laguerre.
After the horrifying, blood-soaked opening, Rex Beach tells us what happened to Floreal in the aftermath. How he became resident in the neighbouring country. Gave himself a new name. Learned the language. And became a Seaman. (He had, it seems, been “born of the sea”.) Furthermore:
But he could not bring himself to utterly forsake the island of his birth, for twice a year, when the seasons changed, when the trades died and the hot lands sent their odors reeking through the night, he felt a hungry yearning for Hayti. During these periods of lifeless heat his impulses ran wild; at these times his habits changed and he became violent, nocturnal.
Inocencio Ruiz, as he’s now known, is shunned by women and by men. And people talk of him suspiciously. The suspicious talk is wonderful:
“This Inocencio is a person of uncertain temper. He has a bad eye.”
“Whence did he come?” others inquired. “He is not one of us.”
“From Jamaica, or the Barbadoes, perhaps. He has much evil in him.”
“And yet he makes no enemies.”
“Um-m! A peculiar fellow. A man of passion–one can see it in his face.”
Our Anti Hero’s homeland, Hayti, has, we discover, become peaceful again. And the man that he hates is now ‘General Petithomme Laguerre, Commandant of the Arrondissement of the South’. Inocencio hears of this and departs in a shady Barkentine. He cruises the Caribbean “seeing something of the world and tasting of its wickedness.” After twelve months, at Trinidad, he acquainted himself with a “Portuguese half-breed”, the Captain of a Schooner. Inocencio was eventually promoted to Mate. And then, after a gambling session, won the ship from the “half-breed”.
We’re next in Colon (Panama). During what the author terms ” the French fiasco” of “De Lesseps”. (This information means the story is set in the 1860s and 1870s.) There in “the wickedest, sickest city of the Western Hemisphere”, he:
… heard the echo of tremendous undertakings; there he learned new rascalities, and met men from other lands who were homeless, like himself; there he tasted of the white man’s wickedness, and beheld forms of corruption that were strange to him. The nights were ribald and the days were drear, for fever stalked the streets, but Inocencio was immune, and for the first time he enjoyed himself.
Solitary Inocencio thinks of Hayti and Pierrine. And we’re informed that:
In time the mulatto acquired a reputation and gathered a crew of ruffians over whom he tyrannized. There were women in his camp, too, ‘Bajans, Sant’ Lucians, and wenches from the other isles, but neither they nor their powdered sisters along the back streets of Colon appealed to Inocencio very long, for sooner or later there always came to him the memory of a yellow girl with a scar beneath her eye, and thoughts of her brought pictures of a blue-and-gold negro colonel and an old man hanging by the wrists. Then it was that he felt a slow flame licking at his tendons, and his hatred blazed up so suddenly that the women fled from him, bearing marks of his fingers on their flesh.
Inocencio Ruiz sails for weeks with his Motley Crew. Often visiting the Haytian coast for no reason. He hears gossip about Petithomme Laguerre who has plans one day to be the President. This stirs him to action. And, with the help of “a French clerk in the Canal offices”, he composes an extremely clever letter to His Excellency, General Petihomme Laguerre, Commandant of the Arrondissement of the South, Jacmel, Republic of Hayti. In the communication the Clerk recommends Ruiz. And tells the ambitious Laguerre that there are 200 rifles available at a good price. And that Inocencio is prepared to meet him and discuss the sale.
Antoine Leblanc, the letter writer, expresses doubts about the scheme. But Inocencio Ruiz, the former Floreal Rameau, is adamant. And says, dramatically:
“When I die I shall have no enemies to forgive, for I shall have killed them all,” he said, simply.
We now move to conclusion. Inocencio’s ship, the Stella, arrives at Jacmel, Hayti, and drops anchor. An anchored “Haytian gunboat” worries him, as he hadn’t counted on it being present.
A band was playing in the square, and there were many soldiers. Inocencio did not go ashore. Instead he sent the letter by a member of his crew, a giant ‘Bajan’ whom he trusted, and with it he sent word that he hoped to meet His Excellency, General Laguerre, that evening at a certain drinking-place near the water-front.
We then are told by Beach:
The sailor returned at dusk with news that set his captain’s eyes aglow. Jacmel was alive with troops; there had been a review that very afternoon and the populace had hailed the commandant as President. On all sides there was talk of revolution; the whole south country had enrolled beneath the banner of revolt. The gunboat was Laguerre’s; all Hayti craved a change; the old familiar race cry had been raised and the mulattoes were in terror of another massacre. But the regular troops were badly armed and the perusal of Inocencio’s letter had filled the general with joy.
Captain Ruiz goes to the rendezvous early and sits drinking rum while waiting. (Due to “his threatening eyes” he’s unmolested.) An “older and infinitely prouder” Laguerre finally arrives in a “parrot-green” uniform. “With age and power he had coarsened, but his eyes were still bloodshot and domineering.” They greet each other:
“Captain Ruiz?” he inquired, pausing before the yellow man.
“Your Excellency!” Inocencio rose and saluted.
Ruiz isn’t recognised by Laguerre and a discussion ensues. Eventually the Captain persuades the General to accompany him alone to view the merchandise. They then depart for the Stella:
The moon was round and brilliant as they walked out upon the rotting wharf-all wharves in Hayti are decayed-the night had grown still, and through it came the gentle whisper of the tide, mingled with the babel from the town. Land odors combined with the pungent stench of the harbor in a scent which caused Inocencio’s nostrils to quiver and memory to gnaw at him. He cast a worried look skyward, and in his ungodly soul prayed for wind, for a breeze, for a gentle zephyr which would put his vengeance in his hands.
Inocencio rows the unsuspecting Petihomme out to the Stella:
… as they neared the Stella a breath came out of the open. It was hot, stifling, as if a furnace door had opened, and the yellow man smiled grimly into the night.
The crew of the Stella are amazed to see the General. But their Captain reveals nothing to them of his plan. The ‘Monsieur le General’ is guided towards the cabin. And this is then followed by: “… the sound of a blow, of a heavy fall, then a loud, ferocious cry, and a subdued scuffling, during which the crew stared at one another.”
Afterwards Inocencio emerges and gives orders for them to set sail. A faint breeze means the ship moves slowly, but surely, and Inocencio seats himself upon the deck-house, and drums “his naked heels upon the cabin wall.” Furthermore:
He lit one cigarette after another, and the helmsman saw that he was laughing silently.
Dawn broke in an explosion of many colors. The sun rushed up out of the sea as if pursued; night fled, and in its place was a blistering day, full grown. The breeze had died, however, and the Stella wallowed in a glassy calm, her sails slatting, her booms creaking, her gear complaining to the drunken roll. The slow swells heeled her first to one side, then to the other, the decks grew burning hot; no faintest ripple stirred the undulating surface of the Caribbean. Afar, the Haytian hills wavered and danced through a veil of heat. The slender topmast described long measured arcs across the sky, like a schoolmaster’s pointer; from its peak the halyards whipped and bellied.
“Captain!” The ‘Bajan waited for recognition. “Captain!” Inocencio looked up finally. “There–toward Jacmel–there is smoke. See! We have been watching it.”
Their Captain nods. He knows that the ship approaching them is the “Haytian gunboat” that he saw at Jacmel. His crew are uneasy and demand to know who the man is that was brought aboard the night before. When they discover his identity they’re aghast. But Inocencio is unfazed and tells “the Bajan” to locate a new rope, make it: “… fast to the end of this halyard and run it through yonder block.”
Captain Ruiz then returns to General Laguerre in the cabin:
Laguerre was sitting in a chair with his arms and legs securely bound, but he had succeeded in working considerable havoc with the furnishings of the place as well as with his splendid uniform. His lips foamed, his eyes protruded at sight of his captor; a trickle of blood from his scalp lent him a ferocious appearance.
Gradually Inocencio reveals to Petihomme not only who he is but also what his captive’s fate will be. The conversation goes as follows:
“All Hayti could not buy your life, Laguerre!”
Some tone of voice, some haunting familiarity of feature, set the prisoner’s memory to groping blindly. At last he inquired, “Who are you?”
“I am Floréal.”
The name meant nothing. Laguerre’s life was black; many Floréals had figured in it.
“You do not remember me?”
“N-no, and yet—”
“Perhaps you will remember another–a woman. She had a scar, just here.” The speaker laid a tobacco-stained finger upon his left cheek-bone, and Laguerre noticed for the first time that the wrist beneath it was maimed as from a burn. “It was a little scar and it was brown, in the candle-light. She was young and round and her body was soft–” The mulatto’s lean face was suddenly distorted in a horrible grimace which he intended for a smile. “She was my wife, Laguerre, by the Church, and you took her. She died, but she had a child—your child.”
The huge black figure shrank into its green-and-gold panoply, the bloodshot eyes rested upon Inocencio with a look of terrified recognition.
Inocencio Ruiz, now Floreal Rameau once more, further torments his former Tormentor. And then takes him on deck. Petihomme Laguerre is briefly hopeful when he sees the smoke rising from the gunboat in the distance. But before he can finish what he’s saying his Captor slips the new rope around his wrists. Then a dramatic moment:
“Give way!” he ordered.
The crew held back, at which he turned upon them so savagely that they hastened to obey. They put their weight upon the line; Laguerre’s arms were whisked above his head, he felt his feet leave the deck. He was dumb with surprise, choked with rage at this indignity, but he did not understand its significance.
The sailors haul Laguerre higher and higher into the air until: “… his feet had cleared the crosstree.” Then:
“Make fast!” Inocencio ordered.
Laguerre was hanging like a huge plumbob now, and as the schooner heeled to starboard he swung out, farther and farther, until there was nothing beneath him but the glassy sea. He screamed at this, and kicked and capered; the slender topmast sprung to his antics. Then the vessel righted herself, and as she did so the man at the rope’s end began a swift and fearful journey. Not until that instant did his fate become apparent to him, but when he saw what was in store for him he ceased to cry out. He fixed his eyes upon the mast toward which the weight of his body propelled him, he drew himself upward by his arms, he flung out his legs to break the impact. The Stella lifted by the bow and he cleared the spar by a few inches. Onward he rushed, to the pause that marked the limit of his flight to port, then slowly, but with increasing swiftness, he began his return journey. Again he resisted furiously and again his body missed the mast, all but one shoulder, which brushed lightly in passing and served to spin him like a top. The measured slowness of that oscillation added to its horror; with every escape the victim’s strength decreased, his fear grew, and the end approached. It was a game of chance played by the hand of the sea. Under him the deck appeared and disappeared at regular intervals, the rope cut into his wrists, the slim spar sprung to his efforts. In the distance was a charcoal smear which grew blacker.
As Laguerre nears destruction Inocencio counts. Taunts him from below. And reminds him of his past victims. And then:
A cry of horror arose from the crew who had gathered forward, for Petithomme Laguerre, dizzied with spinning, had finally fetched up with a crash against the mast. He ricocheted, the swing of the pendulum became irregular for a time or two, then the roll of the vessel set it going again. Time after time he missed destruction by a hair’s-breadth, while the voice from below gibed at him, then once more there came the sound of a blow, dull, yet loud, and of a character to make the hearers shudder. The victim struggled less violently; he no longer drew his weight upward like a gymnast. But he was a man of great vitality; his bones were heavy and thickly padded with flesh, therefore they broke one by one, and death came to him slowly. The sea played with him maliciously, saving him repeatedly, only to thresh him the harder when it had tired of its sport. It was a long time before the restless Caribbean had reduced him to pulp, a spineless, boneless thing of putty which danced to the spring of the resilient spruce.
Once dead, Laguerre is lowered, and slipped into the still sea. We then have a beautiful sentence:
The sky was glittering, the pitch was oozing from the deck, in the distance the Haytian mountains scowled through the shimmer.
And the story ends thus:
Inocencio turned toward the approaching gunboat, which was very close by now, a rusty, ill-painted, ill-manned tub. Her blunt nose broke the swells into foam, from her peak depended the banner of the Black Republic, symbolic of the motto, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” The captain of the Stella rolled and lit a cigarette, then seated himself upon the cabin roof to wait. And as he waited he drummed with his naked heels and smiled, for he was satisfied.
Reading through Rope’s End, which I’ve obviously abbreviated, without removing vital components, there’s no doubt it was a superb tale. And it’s easy to see why Natacha Rambova and Rudolph Valentino felt it would be an exciting vehicle for him. Featuring, as it does, an exotic central figure, in a foreign, tropical location; plenty of tension, with many opportunities for serious dramatic acting, and emoting; changes of scene and also changes of costume; a cast of interesting supporting characters; and the triumph, if in a dark, very twisted way, of good over evil.
Naturally there were several obstacles to be overcome. It was unthinkable, at that time, due to racial prejudice, that Rudy could portray a ‘Mulatto’. While he’d certainly already embodied a desert Sheik, a coarse Spaniard, and an Indian Prince, each time this had been made acceptable in some way. (Usually by revealing he wasn’t, in fact, completely ethnic.) Also, for the same reasons, there was no way any African American could play opposite him, as a foe. And, lastly, there would need to be an adjustment when it came to the wife that dies. Possibly by showing a happy life before the arrival of the soldiers and giving the audience flashbacks throughout. Or by reuniting them at the conclusion. (In the original she dies giving birth to Petihomme Laguerre’s child.)
In The Truth About Rudolph Valentino, in 1930, Rambova was clear, that before Valentino departed for a short break in Florida, in May 1924, he’d been very happy with the script. According to Natacha, that submitted and approved narrative, was: “… centered about a revolution in South America, full of the color, fire and dramatic situations that had characterized ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’, the plot was motivated by war…”
This all shows, that while Forrest Halsey, who’d already adapted Tarkington’s Beaucaire, had shifted the action from the Caribbean Islands to Latin America, and at the same time most likely dumped the sea going sections, he’d very much preserved the uprising that was the reason Floreal/Inocencio becomes vengeful. What the “color, fire and dramatic situations” exactly were is a mystery. No doubt the adapted character was a wandering, rootless individual (on dry land rather than at sea), that found himself in a series of compromising situations. Natacha Rambova’s mentioning of TFHotA (1921) suggests this.
Having undergone significant, yet satisfactory alteration, it was therefore a shock when the script was further altered during Valentino’s absence. Rambova explains that: “… after the story had been accepted, bought and paid for, the powers behind the throne suddenly decided that for the sake of international policy (or expense) all traces of war must be eliminated. In other words, the very reason for the story, the spinal column of the beast, was amputated. What remained were a few fragmentary incidents strung together by a threadbare plot and given the title ‘A Sainted Devil’.”
Moreover: “I objected loudly to this mutilation of a fine story; it took all of the pep from the picture. I predicted it would be a failure. But my objections were promptly overruled and, rather than cause more trouble, I sank into quiescence. It was the last picture of our contract with Famous Players and we didn’t want more litigation. Anything for peace!”
If we accept her version – I do by-the-way – Rope’s End had gone from being an extremely exciting, if vicious, work, with a simple to understand central character, shifting against a series of visually exciting, exotic backdrops. To a still relatively exciting, perhaps less bloodthirsty storyline, with, again, a simple to understand central character, operating in a colourful, fiery and dramatic world. To, finally, a lacklustre story, devoid of meaning, with a motiveless, certainly unchallenged central character, moving from scene to scene in an environment that was unexceptional.
Personally, with the necessary changes mentioned earlier, I visualise, without difficulty, Rudolph Valentino as Floreal Rameau. I see him as the unworldly, virginal, defiant young Husband. I see him, on his knees, helpless and begging for mercy. I see him transforming and becoming, when given no alternative, instinctive, animal and a murderer. I see him as the forever-changed, lonely unsatisfied drifter; as a fugitive who broods about the past and lives in the moment. I see him as the Master of the Stella with his ugly crewmen. And lastly, I see him, face to face with his wicked adversary, fully prepared to punish him, for the deaths of his mother, and, his father and wife.
It’s a great shame that Famous Players Lasky/Paramount couldn’t or wouldn’t see him as Rameau too. That they made the decision to drastically alter the “accepted, bought and paid for” adaptation. That they put production costs and expediency before great art and good storytelling. That they decided, after all, not to let bygones be bygones. For me, it’s obvious Rudy was denied the opportunity to surpass himself, in The Four Horsemen…, The Sheik and Blood and Sand. Yes, the times were against him, yet that was as nothing compared to having his employers not fully on his side. Immediately afterwards, though they didn’t know it for about another year, the Valentino’s were no longer a Hollywood Power Couple. Backing down over A Sainted Devil (1924), would lead to them being given the run around about The Hooded Falcon, which was never realised. Cobra (1925), which was to follow A Sainted Devil, was Valentino’s second – third in the opinion of some – flop in a row.
The issues that surrounded the adaptation of Rex Beach’s Rope’s End, 95 years ago this year, are of interest to me, and I hope they’ve interested you. If not, at the very least, I’m sure you enjoyed, at least a little, getting to know the story on which it was based. If, like me, you’ve come to appreciate the main character, then my time hasn’t been wasted. It’s possible you may even feel, as I do, that there was a great opportunity for Valentino to excel that he was denied. As explained at the very start I’ll be looking fully at the film A Sainted Devil (1924) this Autumn. Maybe you’ll join me for that? I do hope so! Enjoy the the Reel Infatuation Blogathon, today, tomorrow and Sunday. It’s wonderful to be given the opportunity to be part of it!
There are few items associated with Rudolph Valentino that are more emblematic than his Slave Bracelet. And it goes without saying this Blog would be doing him an injustice, were I never to properly look at it, or, into it. Of course I realise that I tread well-trodden ground. This is a trail much tramped and I see the footprints in front of me as I walk. Yet, I think I can, regardless, present new information — if that doesn’t sound conceited. Here then is: The Slave Bracelet.
A whole half year after Valentino’s untimely demise, aged 31, a man named Robert V. Steele wrote an interesting, lengthy article. Titled in capitals: DID ‘POWDER PUFF’ CAUSE RUDY’S SUDDEN DEATH? the syndicated full page piece, published Tuesday, March 1st, 1927, on page six of the THE KEY WEST CITIZEN, was accompanied by a sizeable image of the deceased Superstar, as usual immaculately dressed, with his pipe in his right hand and his Slave Bracelet on show. Had “Rudy-of-the-Slave-Bracelets” been hastened to an early death by the “knockout” blow of the ” ‘Pink Powder Puff’ editorial?” Steele asked.
For those wondering what the ‘Pink Powder Puff’ editorial was we’ll come to it later. In the meantime, I can reveal it declared, in-no-uncertain-terms, that slave bracelets were an indication of effeminacy, and worse, degeneracy. By wearing one Valentino was an effeminate man and a degenerate man. Encouraging effeminacy and degeneracy. A bad influence, if you like. A menace. Of course, now, as then, we know this to be ridiculous. Fallacious if we’re being charitable. An odious slur if we aren’t. Yet we might wonder – I do – how it was that such a laughable standpoint could’ve been voiced let alone printed. To find out we must delve a little.
There’s absolutely no question that at the turn of the Twentieth Century in America bracelets of all types were the preserve of females. And if we’re in any doubt – I know one or two of you will be – we need only consult the art and literature of the day, newspapers or magazines and their advertisements, and of course picture plays/films. A 1902 report, reproduced in THE SAINT PAUL GLOBE, but originating in the “Brooklyn Eagle” (actually The Brooklyn Daily Eagle), features what appears to be the first mention of a Slave Bracelet in the United States in the early 1900s. Titled HISTORY AND TRAGEDY CONNECTED WITH OLD JEWELS, and subtitled Could Old Heirlooms Talk They Would Tell Strange and Wonderful Stories, it details, at great length, a new craze among the sophisticated for antique or reproduction antique items. A mania fuelled by: “Art jewelers …. paying enormous sums for antique ornaments…” “… exclusive and high-priced jewelers…” who were: “… sending out agents to procure for them the former treasures of bankrupt aristocrats.” We learn how one establishment was offering customers a reproduction of an “Egyptian bracelet”. (Hand-crafted, hammered gold medallions of a sphinx, a woman’s head and a snake, each in relief and linked together by jewels.) And that: “The heavy band of the Greek slave…” was: “… another fad of the moment.” Large, and made of burnished gold or black onyx, a: “Mrs George Cornwallis-West…” was anticipating delivery of: “… a Greek slave bracelet to be made of blackened ivory studded with diamonds…” expected to cost her $3,000. (It isn’t clear if Cornwallis-West’s order was a band or a chain. Suggesting the phrase was then a little flexible.)
It’s probable the trend was driven by late Nineteenth Century archaeological finds. And representations of ancient history, or exotic slave markets, in paintings and prints. That early cinema contributed is undeniable. The Vitagraph Company of America’s, A Tale of a Harem, in 1908, featured the loss of a bracelet by one character and its discovery by another. And in the Selig Polyscope Company’s, The Wife of Marcius (1910), a bracelet is used unsuccessfully by one Roman to win the heart of another’s wife. Slave bracelets appeared from time-to-time in serialised stories too, in local, statewide and national news publications. Perhaps the best pre-War period example being the one in David Potter’s, I Fasten a Bracelet, J. B. Lippincot Co., 1911. Presented in instalments as late as 1914, it’s an odd tale of a man named Craig Schuyler, who returns from Sumatra to menace his former Fiancee, Ellen Sutphen, and also her mother, in their own home. The bracelet of the title is a crude iron African Slave Bracelet Craig forces Ellen to wear. And as a modern symbol of enslavement it weirdly echoes the claimed future enslavement of Rudy by his second wife. But more about all that later.
We’ve seen how, up to 1914, bracelets were an exclusively feminine item on one side of the Atlantic; but what about on the other side, in Europe — and beyond. Inhabitants of the Continent were, it seems, as enamoured of antique or reproduction antique pieces as Americans were, if not more so; if we trust the press of the period, which of course we do. In France – France, particularly Paris, being the initiator of rages then, and for many decades afterwards – we find bracelets galore in article after article in the newspapers and supplements of the Belle Epoque. For example, Histoire d’un bracelet, in 1901. The amusing tale of a well-known lady of society who, after requesting from two wealthy male friends a souvenir of a memorable event, received 25,000 Francs from each, bought a single bracelet worth 50,000, and, after pretending to the first it was worth 25,000, and allowing him to borrow it to show to his wife, not only lost it to her in return for a copy worth 25,000, but was confronted by the man’s spouse at a later date wearing the 50,000 Franc bracelet!
I confess I didn’t expect to find, as early as 1909, a news item that revealed the genesis of the bracelet for men in modern times. (Such information would elude me I was sure.) As big a surprise was that the origin wasn’t, as I anticipated, France. That the place where bracelets for men became The Vogue was Great Britain – or England as it was referred to at that time – amazed me. In fact, I’m stunned that the heart of the British Empire, filled as it was with so many stiff upper lips, would spawn such a tradition. And yet it did. As follows:
As women become masculinized, they take over all the situations considered to be the preserve of men, and have fun at the expense of men, with delicacies, and with futilities that were considered reserved for the weaker sex. They want to put the bracelet in fashion.
Already, these last years, the young elegants have adopted the carrying on their manicured fingers of expensive rings. Here in England they declare that the bracelet is ‘chic’.
Until recently, the bracelet was offered by the English to their fiancees; it was the gift of ‘alliance’, the symbol of union. Today, in New Bond [Street], young people choose themselves these jewels and declare them elegant.
November 25th, 1909.
The insightful, gossipy piece, by an anonymous correspondent for L’UNIVERS ET LE MONDE, is helpful to us on several levels. Firstly that it touches on the fact that females were becoming more assertive and making decisions for their males. Secondly that that meant they were feminising, or softening, their men. Thirdly that there was a definite appetite amongst certain males – Young Elegants – to acquire adornments. And fourthly, that, in England at least, where the fad commenced, it was “a symbol of union.” Soon all of this will prove to be very useful.
We must assume – and I think we do assume – that the fad reported about in 1909 made its way inevitably across the English Channel and was for-ever-more seen as a French Thing. That the Young Elegants with polished nails jumped onto the trend, is supported by Emily W. Leider, in her 2003 biography, Dark Lover: the Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino. On page 325 she explains that “young male artists” working for La Gazette de [sic] Bon Ton in 1912, were labelled “the Beau Brummels”, or alternately “Knights of the Bracelet”, due to their practice of parading about with conspicuous wrist jewellery. And that it was known to be a Gallic affectation after, is reinforced by an aggressively-toned paragraph in a film industry title in the Twenties; which states very clearly – the writer knew what they were talking about I suppose – that: “… Frenchmen during the war started to wear various bracelets and wristwatches…” (See above.) Researching the subject as much as I could in the time that I had, I discovered it wasn’t just Frenchmen that wore bracelets in the trenches. The fact that I found an image of “an unidentified Australian soldier from the 2nd Division”, wearing a metal wrist chain with an identity disc, on the Australian War Memorial website, shows other nationals wore them too. (It seems tags were introduced so bodies could be identified and some combatants began wearing them on a chain.) I lastly throw into the mix a profile of Ivan Mozzhukhin/Ivan Mosjoukine/Ivan Moskine, in which he’s credited as having been personally responsible for their popularity (at least in Europe). And that: “The slave bracelet is worn by all loyal aristocrat Russians who still hope for the return of the Little Father to his rightful place.” Of course this information (in UNIVERSAL WEEKLY, on April 9th, 1927), isn’t at odds with the former, if a few exiled Russians in Paris after 1917 took-up the wearing of bracelets already popular there.
As we know, despite several attempts to do so, Rudolph Valentino didn’t fight in The War to End All Wars. And yet not too long after the conflict ended he did indeed possess and wear a bracelet. This fact, proven by close examination of images taken between 1920 and 1922 where his wrists are visible, is often overlooked. And it possibly backs up Jean Acker’s later claim in an interview that she’d given him his Slave Bracelet. (There’s no denying it appears soon after their ill-fated wedding towards the end of 1919.) Of course the chain we see in candid and promotional shots is a light-weight, far less impressive piece, than the one given to him by his next partner Natacha Rambova. But there it is and it can’t be dismissed.
The story of how he received that replacement bracelet is a well-known one but it bears repeating. About four weeks before Christmas, 1924, Luther H. Mahoney, employed earlier in the year by the Valentinos as a Handyman/Bodyguard/General Help, was given “a drawing of a slave bracelet to take to Tiffany’s” in Los Angeles by Natacha. Her wish was to have the exclusive jewellers create the trinket (out of platinum) in time to give to Rudy on Christmas Day. According to Mahoney – who at the time was surprised that he – “a man” – would receive such a present – she got her wish. And he was, Luther revealed: “… very happy with the gift. He agreed that it was a wonderful gift, and he wore it all the time.” (It appears ‘Lou’ confused Brock and Co. with Tiffany and Co.)
S. George Ullman, as ever placing himself centre stage, fails to mention the involvement of Luther H. Mahoney. And we soon see why. In his version, in: Valentino: as I Knew Him (1926), at the beginning of Chapter Eleven, he, not ‘Lou’, was the person responsible for arranging for the fateful piece to be crafted. That Ullman doesn’t give any timescale, or mention the manufacturer, or even the cost, suggests he wasn’t. (And what Business Manager would run an errand of this nature anyway when there was a very available Handyman/Bodyguard/General Help on hand?) Yet, he was, without question, a witness to proceedings on Christmas Day. His verbose recollections, while giving us no more than the remembrances of his foe, do set the stage quite nicely for the ensuing silliness in the New Year, as well as in the one following: 1926.
Slave bracelets had been noticeable in the USA for twelve months by the end of 1924 — but, as intimated, on the wrists of women rather than men. (I found no advertisements for bracelets of any type for males.) Natacha was, she almost certainly knew, breaking with convention when she fastened one to her husband. (A man in any walk of life that year was likely to receive cufflinks or something similar.) However, looking back to the 1909 report, and pausing for a moment, we realise she was a person who made her own decisions, that enjoyed having fun with how a man looked, had been exposed to artistic types/Young Elegants, was creative and imaginative and practised at demonstrating her abilities, a woman, and, above all, a woman seeking very much to cement her alliance. Rudy, for his part, was a European who already had a penchant for anything glittery. He owned scores of rings, shirt studs and tie pins, wrist watches and pocket watches. And as already stated he’d previously worn a bracelet. If it was a departure for Mahoney, or for Ullman, or anyone else, it wasn’t for Valentino. He was in tune with his partner and she was in tune with him. To the extent he also purchased for her something for the wrist: a breathtaking watch with a face that was a moonstone edged with diamonds.
According to Luther Rudolph knew: “Many remarks were made about the bracelet. He was aware of them, but …. never paid any attention to such comments… …they just rolled off him, like water off a duck’s back.” For eighteen months or so he could perhaps ignore the rumblings here and there. (The one above about Red Grange in 1925 is typical.) None, as far as I know, were particularly vicious, and besides he was busy; first with The Eagle (1925), and then with The Son of the Sheik (1926). That is, until Sunday, July 18th, 1926, when The Chicago Tribune published an anonymously-written, insulting piece, headed with the words: PINK POWDER PUFFS.
S. George Ullman divulged the following about the day on which Rudolph Valentino saw red when he saw and read the defamatory editorial:
“Although we were in Chicago only between trains, we went to the Blackstone. Here I was handed the now famous editorial which originally appeared in The Chicago Tribune. … this scurrilous attack embittered the last days of Rudolph Valentino, killing his usual joy and causing him more mental anguish than any other article ever written about him …. the infamous anonymous attack …. I recognized as coming from the same poison pen which earlier in the year had, without cause and without reason, attacked my friend.
As I read this cowardly and yellow attack my countenance must’ve changed, for Rudy, watching me, immediately asked what was wrong.
If he had not caught me in the act of reading it I think I would never have allowed him to see it, so profoundly do I regret the irritating and saddening effect it had upon him. He …. read it… His face paled, his eyes blazed and his muscles stiffened.
I shared his anger, for it seemed to me then, and I have never changed my opinion, that not in all my experience with anonymous attacks in print had I ever read one in which the name of an honest gentleman had been dragged in the mud in so causeless a manner”
Pages 182, 184 and 185 of Valentino as I Knew Him.
Reading Ullman’s reminiscence we see that if they hadn’t gone to The Blackstone Hotel, or bothered with reading the newspapers there, things may’ve turned out differently. Just as things could’ve been different if S. George Ullman had refused to allow Rudolph Valentino to see the dreadful column after he’d looked at it himself. After all a Manager protects as much as manages — if they’re any good at their job. Being the sceptic I am it all makes me wonder. The timing, right in the middle of issues with United Artists, and, if we believe Mahoney, with Ullman himself, is a little suspect. As is the PPP piece being published on the exact day that Valentino arrived in Illinois. Not the previous day. Not the day after. (It’s as if they knew he’d be there.) Maybe I look too deeply. Or maybe I see what others can’t. I’m not sure. Luther H. Mahoney is clear that on previous occasions Rudolph Valentino failed to take offence. That it was all “water off a duck’s back.” This time he became volcanic. Cool laughter turned to bubbling lava. Did Ullman, contrary to his recollection, stir things up? Did he actually advise him to act? There’s no witness to corroborate his account. And what did he mean about recognising “the same poison pen”? And his “experience with anonymous attacks in print”? The same poison pen? His experience? A classic example of Parapraxis? I’m left wondering. I’m sure I’m not alone.
Rudy responded instantly, on the spot, before leaving Chicago. His answer passed to “a representative” of the offending publication’s rival: The Chicago Herald-Examiner. The thrust of the Pink Powder Puffs piece – that he was influencing young men to wear: “… masculine cosmetics …. floppy pants and slave bracelets…” he sidestepped. Preferring instead to castigate the unknown individual, and challenge him to a one-off, private man-to-man fight in Chicago. If pink powder and outre trousers didn’t feature in Rudy’s response the bracelet did:
“… the wrist under a slave bracelet may snap a real fist into your sagging jaw…”
That Rudolph Valentino never received a reply and was unable to face his critic is very much part of The Legend. As is the fact everyone knew; that he was constantly speaking of it; and was questioned about it in his final weeks of life. We know his frustration led him, with obvious assistance from some quarter, to setting-up his own photographed and filmed contest. And that after his operation, a month after the appearance of the written attack, it was reported his first words were a question: had he, he asked, behaved like a Pink Powder Puff. A week later he was dead. And that was that.
Except that it wasn’t. In the short time between the PPP piece, and his death, Above the Neck Is The Man, Rudolph, was published. Also anonymously written, it was a defence, not only of the mystery writer employed, or not, by The Chicago Tribune, but also of the right of that person to: “… observe life and comment thereon.” More importantly it got to the heart of the matter avoided by the target: Rudy’s undeniable influence upon young men in the USA. As we see:
“… does Rudolph remember? He, being a film actor about whom miles of newspaper columns have been written to adequately describe …. his ability at screen love making, must know that his earning power has been built by publicity probably more than by his histrionic capabilities. Can he forget, if he read the slush, that he was pictured as the pace setter in styles; that he cut his hair to a pointed side-burn; that he wore green suits and pink gaiters to tickle the heart of femininity? Perhaps, it was because his publicity men demanded that and more of him.
Didn’t Rudolph know that when the youth of America adopted his styles and were called ‘sheiks’ that it was money in his pocket and the pockets of those who distribute his pictures? He must have suspected, if he did not know.
And if the indignant Mr. Valentino observed the trend of youth toward cosmetics and vaselined hair, he must have claimed credit or scorned responsibility, just as you please about the issue. Rudolph Valentino lived by the sword of publicity.”
From The San Bernardino Sun, July 31st, 1926.
Green suits? Pink gaiters? A reference to Monsieur Beaucaire (1924)? Regardless, I find Above the Neck Is The Man, Rudolph to be a crucial, overlooked item. And an item that highlights the way in which Valentino was exploited by his “publicity men”. If nothing else it rationalises the situation and contextualises it. Yet I must add I feel it supports the idea Rudolph Valentino was actively encouraged to make a song and dance about the Pink Powder Puffs write up. That the person or persons encouraging him didn’t have a proper perspective on the situation is obvious. Had they they would’ve seen that it was actually a golden opportunity for Rudolph Valentino to embrace and defend his popular appeal. To wrap himself up in it. To own his impact and elevate it, rather than allow the wordsmith to, and diminish it. I have to say I like his first wife Jean Acker’s response at the time: “How silly. Anyone ought to know that every motion-picture player has to use a powder puff!”
Above the Neck Is The Man, Rudolph doesn’t, when it could’ve, mention slave bracelets on the wrists of Rudy’s contemporaries in Hollywood. (That’s right he wasn’t the only male Star wearing one in 1925 and 1926.) Just a few short months after being given the bracelet by Natacha Rambova, Rudolph Valentino had influenced Jack Gilbert to acquire one. And he can be seen wearing it, in The Merry Widow (1925), filmed during the first half of the next year. My Eagle Eyes have spotted them on a number of others. Erich von Stroheim for example. And even on the wrist of Rex Ingram. That Rudy was singled out for sporting one therefore seems rather odd. Perverse. If fellow film stars and directors at the exact same time weren’t chastised then why was he?
The Slave Bracelet continued to be a popular item in the late Twenties and well into the Thirties. It’s popularity driven by a whole new breed of screen star. Ironically it began to embody ruggedness and toughness. Though the men weren’t necessarily more rugged than they’d been in Valentino’s day, the times – it was obviously The Depression – were a whole lot tougher. After the Second World War, alongside the Identity Bracelet (which we saw originated in the previous international conflict), it became more widespread; reaching a peak in the Fifties, when almost every notable male personality appeared to own one. In the Seventies, before, during and after the Disco Era, it was once again much displayed. Before dying a bit of a death in the following decade.
That I owned and wore one myself, for about five or so years in the Nineties, was a total accident. Walking down a city street in Asia one day, in 1994, I noticed on my left, on the ground, on a thick red cloth, a selection of silver items for sale: chains, key rings, rings, etc. After realising that it wasn’t the usual low-quality street jewellery my eye was drawn to the silver bracelets. There were several. The same design, but all clearly individually made, and very striking. I asked to see one and tried it on. It was made of generous links that were obviously hand-made but expertly crafted. It was heavy, but not too heavy to feel comfortable, and it fit me perfectly. For a moment I stood there looking at it glinting in the strong sunlight. Then I said that I wanted it. And it was bought. For a whole half decade I never took it off. I wore it in bed. I wore it in the shower. I wore it day and night indoors and out. I swam with it on. Wore it to restaurants and nightclubs and parties. I wore it wherever I went in the UK and abroad and it never fell off. Not once. I loved it — it was part of me.
Having owned one I understand Rudy’s attachment. And I really do understand because it was bought for me that day by my partner at the time. Ours was a long-distance affair and we were often separated. However I always had the Slave Bracelet to remind me. A solid and very special item. A chain of links that I’d been given by a person who was my everything. Of course nobody made fun of me for wearing it. If anyone ever remarked on it I told them the story, but that didn’t happen very often, maybe once or twice. That I wore it at all is, I believe, thanks to Rudolph Valentino. And even though mine, like his far more precious one, is missing, it’s an everlasting item. Eternal. Living in my memory, and in photographs, like the one that I’ve added to this post.
I’m not sure that The Slave Bracelet requires any kind of conclusion. Did Rudy-of-the-Slave-Bracelets, to answer Robert V. Steele, die prematurely due to the PPP editorial? And because he wore wrist jewellery? For me no. I already looked into his tragic end, some months ago, in The Mysterious Party, and arrived at the supposition he drank something toxic. Hopefully I’ve laid out my findings regarding the origins of the bracelet as an item for men clearly. And shown how it originated as a feminine piece, that became a symbol of union in England, and then, very quickly, a fashionable adornment, a useful war time piece, a trendy Hollywood accoutrement, then, finally, an enduring mark of masculinity and virility. Without a doubt Rudolph Valentino popularised the bracelet in Hollywood in the Twenties. It was after he received it from Natacha Rambova that it began to appear on the wrists of his contemporaries. Yet it was clearly by accident rather than by design. He absolutely didn’t set out to start any kind of mania. Those that he wore afterwards/at the same time were part-and-parcel of the trend he’d begun — a trend that continues to ripple outwards to this very day. Try typing Men’s Slave Bracelet into Google and you’ll see that they’re available in varied designs, in all sorts of metals, and at different price points.
I thoroughly enjoyed writing The Slave Bracelet and I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading it. That you did read it through means a great deal to me. And if you have any questions or information, have something to add, or think I was mistaken about something, I’m very happy to hear from you. See you again next month!
When I needed a distraction, in the Autumn of 2018, I arranged to have my computer read to me Discretions and Indiscretions, the 1932 autobiography of Lady Duff Gordon. (A book I seriously recommend by-the-way.) Rudy was the farthest thing from my mind at the time. So imagine my surprise, when, deep into the memoir, he appeared. All I can say about it is: sometimes all roads lead to him.
The arresting tale, at the end of Chapter Twenty-One, between pages 262 and 266, is such an interesting one that I’ve brought it forward (so it’s shared sooner rather than later). I’m certain that anybody even remotely interested in Valentino’s contemporary impact will enjoy it. So, without further delay, here’s that fascinating recollection, which is titled: Through Fire For A Smile.
We’re eased into the story by Lady Duff Gordon first relating how she was visited at the Pavilion Mars, her Paris home, by (Vicente) Blasco Ibanez, “the great Spanish novelist”. The celebrated author of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – who also wrote Blood and Sand (1908) – was, she seems to enjoy telling us: “… an untidy, rather gross man, coarse in appearance, very different from the spiritual philosopher…” that she expected he’d be. The reason for her mentioning Ibanez, we soon see, is that his World War One novel had at that time, very recently, been adapted for the Silver Screen. And had, as a result, made Rudolph Valentino famous. Everyone was talking about the Star. Further:
“Women especially were raving over him, from my Mannequins, who used to collect every portrait of his they could find, to rich Americans who used to send him wonderful presents.”
One such woman she tells us, was the wife of a Chicago millionaire, a customer of hers. (Duff Gordon was a Fashion Designer with her own atelier and traded under the name Lucile.) Youthful. Beautiful. With an indulgent husband. She was, we’re told: “… perfectly happy in a placid easy way…” Perfectly happy, that is, until she went to see the newly issued spectacular and was instantly beguiled by Rudy as Julio Desnoyers. Over and over she went to watch the film, thinking all-the-while about how she could arrange it so that she could: “… bring about a meeting…” between herself and the: “… incredibly handsome Italian boy.”
Eventually, Lady Duff Gordon explains, the anonymous wife made up her mind to write to the object of her affection. When the first letter was – surprise – unanswered, she wrote again and then again. Soon she was sending small gifts of: socks and ties, etc. Then bigger and more expensive items, such as: a gorgeous dressing gown that had cost her $200 (which is $3,000 PLUS in today’s money). At long last, probably after several months and a small mountain of presents, she received a reply.
Her persistence had paid off, and she was, we’re informed, in ‘seventh heaven’, despite the letter he sent being simply a charming but formal Thank You. Instead of seeing the answer for what it truly was, the lady seemingly grasped at it. And, after leaving her generous, but frankly dull husband a note, set-off for Hollywood on the train in order to follow her heart and be with her idol. The storyteller makes it clear that she was very: “… determined to force the situation with Rudolph Valentino.”
The train journey was certainly interminable. But she had the letter. And doubtless a collection of gorgeous promotional images and other items to distract her. We picture her making a plan in her head — perhaps on paper too. Looking at maps of Los Angeles. Studying the varied locations – his home and studio etc. – where she felt it was likely she had a chance to see him in the flesh. Up close, or, from a distance. Thinking about what she would say. Thinking about what he would say. Thinking about what she would wear. Thinking about what he would be wearing. Exactly where she went, and when she went, isn’t divulged, but sometime after arriving at her destination the obsessed woman did indeed manage to orchestrate a meeting. Valentino, already: “… accustomed to the adoration of thousands of women…” was, it seems, polite but nothing more. “… not the least interested…” we learn. In fact he gave her permission to depart, bowing, with his signature formal bow. (Congé in French.)
The pursuer was not to be snubbed, or dissuaded. She stayed in Hollywood and stalked her quarry at every opportunity. Following him when: “… she could get knowledge of his movements…” Again she wrote letters — this time extremely passionate. The most beautiful flowers were sent. Wine was delivered. And he also received cigars and other items from her; perhaps on a daily basis. “… anything she could think of.” was dispatched in an effort to secure another meeting. To have his attention and his time for even an hour. Less. She had to see him. Just had to.
Meanwhile her husband was beside himself. He was “distressed” and “humiliated” and decided to act. Gossip about his wife was driving him insane. After arriving in California he managed, amazingly, to meet and speak with the man that his wife was obsessed with. Lady Duff Gordon explains that Valentino:
“… assured him, and quite truthfully, that he had no wish whatsoever to rob him of his wife, and that he would be actually relieved if the lady would leave Hollywood.”
After some time the husband was able to persuade his wife to go away with him if not to return to him. The trip, to Europe, included France, and while in Paris the infatuated woman went to see Duff Gordon at Lucile, in order to arrange the creation of “a number of dresses”. During the many consultations (each costing £20) she told the Designer all about her infatuation with star of The Sheik.
According to Lady Duff Gordon the sending of long letters continued — as did the gifts. Parcels: “… containing all sorts of presents, cigarette-cases and valuable antiques and jewellery, were dispatched regularly to Hollywood.” Lady Duff Gordon goes on to say that she felt that:
“… on the surface the story had all the elements of comedy, the amorous woman, the indifferent film star and the injured husband; in reality it was a tragedy. This woman who all her life had had every wish gratified was inconsolable over her failure to attract the man on whom she had centred her love. Her face grew haggard and wretched as the weeks passed and there was no letter from him.”
Duff Gordon explains that she, herself, never met Valentino. However, she knew other women who: “… would have gone through fire for a smile from him.” And knowing his affect at the time well she says that he cast a spell on “women of all types”. All of them, she says: “… saw in him the wonderful exotic lover of their dreams.”
Interestingly the woman that Rudy himself “loved best of all”, Natacha Rambova, was a person Lady Duff Gordon herself had met. A decade earlier, when she was Winifred de Wolfe and was the stepdaughter of Elsie de Wolfe’s brother, she had encountered her regularly due to her friendship with Elsie. Neither exotic or very beautiful at that time, she was, she recalls: “… slim [and] graceful …. with big dark eyes and a wide mouth…” A shy and lonely girl at finishing school in Versailles. A “romantic child” who “lived in a dream world.” Who once told her (at a theatre date or lunch or dinner): “Some day I shall meet some man like a fairy prince and love him for ever and ever.” As Duff Gordon says, the Prince, Rudy, didn’t give her the happy ending she so desperately wanted.
As we know all-too-well Rudolph Valentino was a Fairytale Prince for countless numbers of women the World over. We know that. Just as we know a significant percentage of that multitude was fanatical. Almost every published biography gives a sense of the lengths to which his devoted followers were prepared to go, while he lived, and even after he died. How he was mobbed on the street. Mauled. Practically stripped naked. The Millionaire’s wife was not unique, as Lady Duff Gordon made clear. Yet what did set her apart, was the fact she was, due to her own or her husband’s wealth, in a position to fully live out her fantasy. The majority of his female devotees – of course there were many men too – were just too physically distant — as well as being of limited means. They were in remote US states, or somewhere in Central or South America, or deepest France, or in Russia. Forced to content themselves with gazing at him from a theatre seat, or in a magazine, or on a postcard, or cigarette or chocolate card. Their mania was no less maniacal than the subject of the story of course. No less heartfelt. No less passionate. No less sustained. Personally I wonder about their own letters and small gifts to Rudy. How many arrived during his half decade of success is hard to say. Certainly the abundant communications would make fascinating reading now, if they hadn’t been, as they surely were, discarded. And thinking about what he received as presents? Personal images? Poems? Locks of hair? Tiny trinkets? Embroidered items? We can only imagine. They would surely have filled a small warehouse to capacity!
In his hurriedly issued 1926 book, Valentino as I Knew Him, S. George Ullman wrote of the privilege of being able to peruse the “pathetic, misspelled and ignorantly written letters” which arrived. And how it was very apparent from the contents, that in the eyes of the writers, Valentino epitomised Romance. “… crests, monograms and insignia…” were also, according to Ullman, much in evidence. Though no examples are given of the people of “standing and intelligence” who breathed “the most intense admiration”.
And if we doubt Ullman’s disclosure that it was said: “… Valentino’s fan mail exceeded that of any other screen idol.” we can certainly trust the to-camera testimony of Paul Ivano, an earlier witness. Who, in Episode Six of: Hollywood, at 33:28, details how, in 1921, Rudy was receiving between six and eight bags of mail a day. Sacks filled with requests for images that were accompanied by a 25 cent piece/’quarter’. (Money which enabled them to eat between productions.) Further evidence is to be found in the film magazines of the period. Filled as they are with a deluge of letters, reproduced weekly or monthly, depending on the title’s regularity, we quickly appreciate the breadth and the depth of his popularity. As well as who his many followers were. Like liberally scattered confetti questions and yet more questions litter the correspondence pages. How old is he? How tall is he? Where was he born? Is he married? Which studio is he with? What’s his next film to be? In the Summer of 1921, the breakthrough year, a Frances B. thought it high time Motion Picture Magazine published an interview with her favourite. That Autumn, in the same publication, Lillian Crozier, an admirer since Passion’s Playground (1920), wished him ever greater recognition. And in a letter at the year’s close, to PHOTOPLAY, home-made fudge from ‘Mixie’ was heading his way. The following May, a male fan, Russell B. H., “a fine looking boy”, who’d enclosed a “mighty good photo.” of himself, asked Motion Picture Magazine if they thought he could be a future Rudolph. And with Rudymania sweeping the Globe, the same magazine that Summer featured Texas Pat, Old Pal, and Mildred H. — all of them completely smitten.
The letter of John L. Cunningham, in PICTURE-PLAY MAGAZINE, in April 1923, praising the publication’s defence of Rudy’s One Man Strike, was typical of the time. The public was “for him.” Had “stood by him in other adversities”. And would “continue to be loyal.” In 1924 we naturally see communications focused on his return to the Silver Sheet. And in 1925 about how his detractors were just plain wrong. (PHOTOPLAY alone that year being full to bursting point with his supporters.) People like M. L. S., of New York, for whom he was “subtle and compelling”; Maud Filkins, of St. Louis, who believed him to be “the king of sheiks”; M. J. Segal, of Hastings, who contended he was not a ‘common actor’; and Alma Cooper, of Huntingdon, who disliked the way he was picked on and hounded. And in 1926, with the business ever more crowded with similar personalities, and general criticism of him mounting, he still managed to rally undying support.
The varied titles also assist us with partially recovering, if not totally reconstructing, a handful of the limitless sightings and meetings. Names are missing or present. Images are missing or present. Yet, more-often-than-not, we find that the accounts usually give us a good idea of what fans were prepared to do, to get near, or nearly near. One I like is from 1925. Early that year a person in Detroit, Michigan, identified only by their initials (A. U.), was in touch with the Editor of Motion Picture Magazine with an amusing tale. After boiling down Valentino’s appeal to him being: “… the hero of the love affair you always longed for, but never had.” the communicator related how they and a friend had met the star the year before at the Famous Players-Lasky studio. When Rudy began to walk in their direction the woman accompanying the writer was keen to be introduced. But said first, very seriously, whilst removing her wedding band and slipping it into her pocket: “Please introduce me by my maiden name. And don’t mention my husband or my baby.”
If Valentino didn’t initially know the marital status of his nameless Chicagoan pursuer, he was certainly fully aware of it after her humiliated husband met with him. His own relationship, with Natacha Rambova (the Winifred de Wolfe of yesteryear), had begun in late 1920, but was not common knowledge during 1921. And this perhaps encouraged our unknown Stalker to imagine herself as his next Consort. However, the divorce from his estranged first wife Jean Acker, and subsequent arrest on a charge of Bigamy, in 1922, made their association front page news. And their second, legal marriage, in 1923, meant he was no longer available to anyone, other than Mrs. Valentino.
Failure to bewitch the man of her dreams had, we know, left her haggard and wretched. So we can imagine the effect of realising that his latest spouse placed him beyond her reach for a long time — potentially forever. Since first gazing at him at some cinema in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, in the Summer or Autumn of 1921, followed, we must assume, by as many of his other picture plays as possible, her every thought had been of him. She had done everything in her power to make him take an interest in her. Written to him incessantly. Spent a small fortune on gifts. Become dislocated completely from her normal existence. Abandoned her husband, family and friends to be near him. Stalked him for weeks on end. Given herself over, totally, in mind, body and soul. All to no avail. She had passed through fire for a smile and been left horribly burnt. Seeing him happy in publicity with a woman other than herself must’ve been the last straw. Duff Gordon concludes her account by explaining the haggard, wretched and defeated Lady eventually returned to the United States. And sometime afterwards – she fails to be specific about exactly when – she: “… read one morning of her death from an overdose of a sleeping draught.” Suicide was, it seems, the only way out for her. The only way to find peace.
Crazy, I know, but I decided to attempt to identify the undisclosed, distraught person in Lady Duff Gordon’s tragic tale. There seemed to me to be enough to go on. She was from Chicago. Aged between maybe 30 and 40. Had a very wealthy husband. And had died after consuming a dangerous quantity of a sleeping aid. Also the individual’s death had been widely reported. If Duff Gordon had been able to learn of it on the other side of the Atlantic, then it couldn’t be too hard to find in contemporary newspapers. Or could it?
The first possibility was a middle-aged woman named Mrs. Janet Mickel. Mrs. Mickel’s death had been front page news on the 27th of April 1922, the day after her death, in Chicago, on the 26th. She seemed a perfect fit, being, as she was: a renowned Beauty, seemingly wealthy and well-connected, 40 or 43 years of age (depending on the source), and the estranged wife of an important man. Significantly she’d attempted suicide six times previously. And had died, at the seventh attempt, from an overdose of Veronal — a particularly powerful barbiturate. Going against her, despite her suitability, was that no reason was given for her taking her own life. Also, she was apparently originally from Bay City, Michigan. However, she had moved to Chicago the previous year, and of course The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had been generally released in 1921. She’d also not been seen by her family, particularly her father, for six long months — which allows for trips both to the Pacific Coast and to Europe. Non-disclosure of her motivation isn’t hard to understand if she was the Valentino-obsessed woman that had so embarrassed her husband already.
The second, though much less likely candidate, was “society matron” Florence Manly Hood. Again on the front pages of several titles as a suicide, she’d died in Chicago after ingesting poison at a hotel, on Sunday, the 15th of November, 1925. The fact that Mrs. Manly Hood’s husband, Mr. Walter M. Hood, chose not to pursue a prosecution of her male companion, John A. Cashin (pictured above in the clipping), is very interesting I think. Speaking to reporters just days later he stressed his belief that: “… her mind was unbalanced…” And further added that: “… she had swallowed poison while under the influence of liquor.” Against her is that Mrs. Hood wasn’t from Chicago either. Also, her spouse was a Lawyer, rather than millionaire. (Though he could easily have been a wealthy legal man, and her knowing, intimately, a wealthy man like Cashin shows she did indeed move in such circles.) The year of her death is also problematic.
Perhaps one day I’ll find the time to search again. Perhaps not. Duff Gordon’s memory may not have served her too well. If she purposely altered some details the Crazed Fan is lost in time forever. Regardless, Lady Duff Gordon’s riveting if sad story gives and gives when it comes to insight. The anonymous subject would be followed in time by others – one as late as 1934 – that likewise failed to realise the man who graced the screen wasn’t the man who walked the earth. (A mistake still made today.) I think it’s best articulated by the pseudonymous, Ben-Allah, who in 1926 speedily penned and published Rudolph Valentino: His Romantic Life and Death; which I understand was the first of the tributes in book form.
“While unsavoury to refer to it, many a fair flower tossed herself at the silken, black hair of the Beloved Sheik only to be received courteously and graciously, but never passionately.
He who in life and death has been the imaginative sweetheart of the majority of girls on the globe, never harbored an ambition to posses them. The emotion that flamed so fiercely on the screen was not a vicious one away from the flickers.”
(From pages 86 and 87.)
Thank you so much for reading this latest post in its entirety — I really appreciate it. As always there’s no list of sources as they’re mostly built into the text or added as links. If, however, anyone has a question about anything here I’m very happy to answer. And to provide any clarification that I can. See you in February!
My recent deep digging into the contemporary press coverage of Rudolph Valentino’s hospitalisation, treatment, and subsequent death, yielded several stories. Some I shared. Others I plan to. One, as yet undisclosed, and of which I already had an inkling, refuses to wait — I’m calling it: The Mysterious Party.
Barclay H. Warburton Jr. is familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in The Great Lover’s tragic demise. The eye-catching name aside – the H. stood for Harding – he’s a conspicuous component. At the centre of events. Hard to miss. One reason he stands out further, at least for me, is that despite his importance on that fateful eve., even in the very best accounts, he’s barely more than a Homicide Squad chalk outline. A second, is how in the aftermath of the late-night-early-morning party he hosted, and at which his celebrated guest collapsed in agony, he, also, was operated upon. Time to fill in the blank and to look at why.
Buzzy, as he was known to friends and associates, was born in 1898 in Philadelphia, and was the middle offspring (of three), of Major Barclay H. Warburton Sr., and Mary Brown Wanamaker. After a comfortable childhood – both parents were wealthy and connected – and good schooling, he enlisted with the Signal Corps, when the United States of America entered WW1. Service on the European Continent followed. And he rose to the rank of Lieutenant while part of the Occupational Force. Late in 1919, following his discharge, he married Rosamond Lancaster. In 1922, a son, predictably named Barclay H. Warburton the Third, was born. And some years later a daughter followed.
From the early to the middle Twenties Warburton worked for a Philadelphia morning newspaper. (Unsurprising, considering that his maternal grandfather established The Evening Telegraph there, and his father oversaw the title from 1896.) Then, at the age of just 26, in 1924, he was installed as the President of The New York Daily Mirror, a new tabloid, apparently the brainchild of William Randolph Hearst. And though he moved on, the appointment and shift to New York were what brought him into contact with Valentino, and chained him to him for all time.
Their first meeting seems clear cut. In her early 2000s biography, Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino, Emily W. Leider indicates they were introduced by Schuyler L. Parsons Jr. (pictured above left), in 1926. Consulting Valentino As I Knew Him, S. George Ullman’s book the same year, we see Rudy “revived” the acquaintance of Warburton and Parsons, as well as others. Consequently he already knew him. Some light is thrown on the length of his acquaintance with Schuyler by a brief 2009 article, that states they had known each other since 1914. As Barclay arrived in New York a decade later, it’s obvious Parsons was in a position to introduce them, probably around the time that the TNYDM launched, or, in the following 12 months. (A recently unearthed, incomplete piece, from a Forties publication, hints at Valentino also being on very good terms with Mrs. Warburton.)
Whenever and wherever, they hit it off. And why not? After all, they were generational contemporaries; sophisticates, with a taste for the finer things; and moved in the same, elevated circles. The enthusiastic, boyish pair also had common ground in respective, hasty first marriages (in the same year and at about the same time), a mutual interest in flight, and, that they both regularly dabbled in amateur filmmaking. They had recently even been through similar, public Paris divorces. (In both instances the grounds were abandonment.)
The similarities ended there. While they had each had a busy year up to August, their activity and notoriety levels were not comparable. Warburton began 1926 preparing for a leisurely if lengthy scientific cruise to the Galapagos Islands, and Ecuador, with W. K. Vanderbilt, the future husband of his first wife. By Spring he was back in The States. And, after a spell in society, he headed to Paris for his divorce, returning from there as late as the end of July. Valentino, meanwhile, had been driven along mercilessly by his celebrity. His divorce from second wife, Natacha Rambova, became final in January. And after a near death experience the following month (when his vehicle collided with a pole), he leapt, literally, into the making of his final film, The Son of the Sheik. Before, during and after which, he was dogged by questions about his will-they-won’t-they affair with Pola Negri. While he did manage to enjoy himself a little with his family, during their stay at Falcon Lair, his home, as soon as TSotS had premiered (in L. A.) he set off on a gruelling promotional tour. And it was during this he was affronted by the infamous Pink Powder Puff article.
Though advised against reacting to the insulting piece – it appeared on the 18th of July in the Chicago Tribune – Valentino felt he must. His subsequent scornful letter and its public challenge to the anonymous writer to meet to fight failed to bear fruit adding to his fury. Reporters who asked him for a quote received pithy statements. And he was seen to walk in a different, more aggressive manner, with his chest out and chin a little higher. So it was against this backdrop, that Buzzy born-into-money Warburton, who didn’t really work, and had plenty of it, met to socialise, with Rudy not-born-into-money Valentino, who did, and never had enough. Material wealth and an appetite for distraction teamed with celebrity wealth and an appetite for distraction.
In a strange, emotional, and not wholly reliable interview, published immediately after Valentino passed, one of the distractions, eye-witness and “Follies girl” Marion Benda, revealed this particular round of socialising had begun on the 12th of August. Marion, who had known him for three weeks, after an intro. by Ali Ben [sic] Haggin, explained Rudolph had been the host that night of a party, at which: Greta Nissen, Sigrid Holmquist, Harry Richman, Malcolm Sinclair, Barclay Warburton jr., Frances Williams, Ann Pennington, herself and several others were present. (Malcolm Sinclair was more likely Mal. St. Clair.) Was it at this Thursday night gathering of screen and stage performers that he was invited to repeat the experience just 48 hours later? Or was it during his stay, the next night, at Schuyler L. Parsons Jr.’s three bedroom Islip home ‘Pleasure Island’? Regardless, he accepted; despite being aware that a punishing week lay ahead, starting at Philadelphia on the Monday.
The enjoyment at the weekend commenced under a cloud. According to longtime friend and former co-star, Dagmar Godowsky, when she saw him in the early evening of the 14th at the Colony Restaurant, Rudolph Valentino wasn’t on speaking terms with his manager, S. George Ullman. Because of this, and because she had joined Ullman at his table, Godowsky was unable to talk to Valentino (with a gentleman and two ladies), at his, nearby. What was the reason for the fallout between Star and Manager? It was a mystery at the time and afterwards to his friend. And we are no wiser 92 years later. Had they quarrelled about Rudy’s partying (as hinted at in Valentino As I Knew Him)? Or was it something else? A more serious matter? There are, oddly for a person who otherwise goes into great detail, few clues in Ullman’s recollections. No mention at all of the meal, or of Godowsky, or where R. V. went that night and who he was with. Just as there’s no mention, either, of the fact reported by the press, that Rudy altered his plans to return West, in order to meet with Hiram Abrams, then President of United Artists Corp. What transpired at the meeting is a mystery. And Abrams’ own unexpected death in November meant he never penned a memoir.
What we do know, for a fact, is that after his early meal, Rudolph Valentino headed for the Apollo Theater with Barclay H Warburton Jr., to again see George White’s Scandals of 1926. Advertised widely as the “World’s Greatest Show” with the “World’s Greatest Cast”, the attraction, White’s eighth in a row, was then in its second month and doing excellent business; even though the prime seats were $55 (or $783.07 in today’s money). (Weekly takings in the November would reach half a million in today’s money.)
After “… settings as gorgeous and costly as ever, costumes as lovely and minute as ever, sketches and burlesques as funny as ever …. Tom Patricola …. the Fairbanks Twins …. Eugene and Willie Howard …. and Ann Pennington…” Rudy ventured backstage with his companion and met and spoke with cast members. On his HOLLYWOODLAND site, in 2014, the biographer Allan R. Ellenberger, uploaded a series of posts titled: The last days of Rudolph Valentino. In Part One he explains how Rudy and Buzzy were first invited to a party at the home of Lenore Ulric, but that he declined the offer, preferring instead the option of Warburton’s apartment, at 925 Park Avenue. (The building in 1922 and more recently is below.)
Why was Buzzy’s abode preferable to Lenore’s? The distance? Number of guests? The decor.? If RV wanted a quiet, comfortable night it wasn’t to be. A report, published the day after his death, detailed how, when the party commenced, there were “fourteen or sixteen persons present”. As the investigation promised by friends never happened only a handful were ever named. Warburton, Benda, and Richman being three, with Frances Williams and “a girl named Hayes” another two. The rest were known either to them or to Valentino. Yet there had to be a smattering of friends of friends seeking proximity to the Megastar. At least a few were Scandals cast members. Marion Benda probably brought along a pal or two from her own show. And there were certainly some other men — but who we don’t know.
Immediately suspect is the time it began. 10 p. m.? Hard to accept if they’d first been at the Scandals spectacular with the curtain going up at 8:15 p. m. A two hour long show, with Rudy backstage, and then a journey uptown, makes even 11 p. m. look rather improbable. The next improbability, is the fourteen to sixteen guests reducing to five, and the main attraction, by about 1:00 a. m. Obviously begging the question: if the get-together commenced after eleven/close to twelve, would there be hardly anyone there that early? It’s just inconceivable that theatre types or performers working in the evening, and the idle rich, with no job to go the next day, would be scurrying home to bed “in little pairings” between midnight and an hour after midnight.
Harry Richman retrospectively told reporters that it was at about 1:30 a. m., “after some drinks, music and dancing”, that Rudolph Valentino suddenly became ill. And it was soon after that he was rushed to his apartment at the Ambassador. Yet, in other reports, a time of 8:30 a. m. was given. With him being taken directly to the New York Polyclinic Hospital rather than to his accommodation. Both stories cannot be correct. For me the second is the more sensical, especially if we take into consideration the cover story – yes there was a cover story – concocted for the consumption of clamouring newsmen, by Ullman, the former publicist, and Warburton, the former newsman.
In that false account, at least the first version of it, Rudy was in his suite at his hotel in the late morning, when, according to a nameless Valet, he: “… put his hand to his body and fell unconscious in a faint.” In this concocted, cinematic tale (embellished by S. George Ullman later), the Valet called on Ullman and his wife, who, strangely, notified Warburton, who in turn was in touch with a Dr. Paul E. Durham. (The involvement of BHW Jr. in the earliest story, is clearly due to the fact he was seen to be involved on the 15th, and thus needed to be mentioned.) In the later, more believable, and undoubtedly true version, Rudolph Valentino collapses before 9 a. m. at 925 Park Avenue, is seen there by Durham, Barclay H. Warburton Jr.’s physician. And is then taken, at some point in the late morning, either to the Ambassador Hotel, or, more probably, to the Polyclinic. (We are not assisted by the ambulance paperwork which mentioned no departure point.)
Personally I’m troubled by this initial deception. Duplicity on the part of Rudy’s Manager and Friend is hard to comprehend if, as we are led to believe, the stricken man was simply afflicted by appendicitis and a ruptured gastric ulcer. Telling lies about where he had been, and involving in the deception a servant, a spouse, a professional physician and probably others, rings serious alarm bells to use a hackneyed phrase. It makes no sense at all. Just as it would make no sense to lie if he’d broken his arm, or been in a fight and been knocked out. And if that’s not strange enough it gets stranger still.
Few know that on the 15th of August, while Rudolph Valentino awaited a Surgeon, or actively resisted any procedure (the accounts differ), his employee, S. George Ullman, was busy preparing a bland press statement bereft of detail. What happened to that original bulletin is anybody’s guess; but, as reported, the pressmen didn’t buy it. Their ability to smell a rat was triggered. They pushed hard for a proper explanation and got one. Then, having received tip offs, they turned their collective attention to Barclay H. Warburton Jr., and a serious game of cat and mouse commenced.
When they tracked him down on the 16th Warburton stuck to the script, declaring, flatly, that there had been no party at his apartment on the 14th and 15th. However, when this denial was contradicted by Richman, he was back under the spotlight. Feeling the heat he appeared to make himself scarce. In reality, however, he had been checked into another exclusive medical establishment, this time The Harbor Sanitarium, at 667 Madison Avenue. (Where, incidentally, Valentino’s good friend and fellow star of Monsieur Beaucaire, Bebe Daniels, had recuperated in the Spring after a fall from her horse.)
The reason for his entry? Nervous collapse? A hangover? No. Neither. His admittance was for an operation. Exactly when isn’t really known. A report on the 21st of August indicates it was carried out on the 20th — but was it? It’s difficult to trust anything issued, or, to believe it was a minor procedure, unrelated to his party, as was claimed. His unavailability after the 16th could mean that his own procedure was quite soon after Rudy’s, as early as that day, or the 17th. In fact it looks more and more likely the more we look. And the most amazing thing is that the specialists who attended to Rudolph also attended to Barclay.
While across town Valentino fought for his very existence, physically cut-off – Ullman being the exception – from concerned friends and associates, Warburton was engaged in his own battle, likewise removed, at least from the eyes of the intrigued and the curious. So long as Rudolph Valentino was the main story Barclay H. Warburton Jr. could breathe easy. However, after rallying, the Screen Idol began to fade and fast. By the morning of the 23rd he was in a coma. Just after midday he expired. The official cause of death was: Septic Endocarditis.
If there were reports of BHW Jr.’s minor op. in advance of Rudy’s death then it means several newspapers believed there was a story. And that’s because there was. On the 23rd and 24th of August, the front and inside pages of local, citywide and regional titles were naturally devoted to deceased Star. Yet, in amongst the heartbreaking details of his final hours, the tributes from the great and the good, and the illuminating back story, again and again we see questions asked, questions that were far from easy to answer. About what had really happened eight days earlier on the 15th. And why there was any mystery about any of it. The one person who could clear it all up wasn’t talking. In fact, he continued to stay silent, secluded at his expensive, private sanctuary, on Madison Avenue.
Then, suddenly, in the late afternoon of the 27th, a few days after the death of his party guest, Barclay H. Warburton Jr. emerged. Intrepid and tenacious scoop-hungry newsmen had stayed on his case. And they even managed to snap him as he departed. Yet, despite reappearing, he still wasn’t talking. At least not to the press — and if anybody knew what the press were like it was Buzzy.
This was a person who was good at keeping quiet. Good at revealing as little as possible when it mattered. And of course it mattered now more than ever after Rudy’s expiry. To read the vivid reports on the 27th and the 28th, and look closely at the accompanying exclusive picture, is to be there in the moment. Jack O’Brien’s piece in The New York Daily News, Barclay’s own former title, is one of the best:
“At 5:35 p. m. yesterday a tall, slim, stooping figure in a turn-down college boy hat slipped out of the rear door of the Harbour sanitarium at 667 Madison ave. The figure held animated converse in the alley with a person who later turned out to be his valet. Then the figure darted nervously into a 15 and 5 taxicab and was whirled away.”
O’Brien went on to explain how everybody – “from superintendant to doorman” – at the facility had worked hard to keep his impending exit a secret. Again, we might wonder why, if the stay was simply for a minor operation. And we might wonder why he did not, at the very least, wish to say something about the passing of Valentino. Who, as he had remained holed up at his exclusive sanitarium, had been lying in state at Campbell’s.
Most interesting of all is the sentence ending the second paragraph: “The young society man plainly looked ill as he left.” And if we ourselves look closely at the shot of BHW Jr. walking towards the waiting vehicle, we see a stooped, undeniably thin individual under the clothing. The suit actually looks far too big, almost as if it had been borrowed, from a more substantial individual. And in a way it had been borrowed — from the man he had been before the 15th and could never ever be again.
After the 28th of August there’s silence. Why? We’re forced to speculate. Plainly ill he needed to continue to recuperate. A lengthy recuperation, out of sight, in Manhattan, or with a friend, or at his parents’, would’ve meant the story fizzled. Something he wanted. And something others wanted too. Or perhaps phone calls were made and the story was killed. We must remind ourselves that the atmosphere immediately after the death of Rudolph Valentino was feverish. And the air was thick with speculation. Had Rudy been poisoned? Was it murder? The phrase Foul Play was much bandied about. And S. George Ullman, Rudy’s Manager, and Joe Schenck, his Employer at United Artists, weren’t slow to pour cold water on all theories and rumours.
Despite attempting to return to normality BHW Jr. never really did. In the months after Valentino’s death, the New York funeral and eventual interment, Warburton was once again seen on the town. People whispered behind their hands when he appeared. And thought things behind their eyes when they said hello. A syndicated, society columnist enjoyed reminding their readers his name was forever connected with the death of the Star, who had fallen ill, at his party; and that many believed it was due to bad liquor.
Barclay H. Warburton Jr. lived for another decade, but was unable to stick at or make a success of anything. Interestingly, like three of the other five witnesses (Richman, Benda and Williams), he became involved in the film industry. (In his case he was employed by William Fox’s Fox Film Corp.) As the decade hurtled towards its inevitable conclusion he was frequently referred to in the press in negative terms. If he was affected in any way by The Wall Street Crash, it didn’t prevent him preparing for a solo World flight, which he promptly cancelled in order to marry for the second time. Death, by his own hand, came five years later, when his shotgun discharged itself into his stomach, while he was out hunting alone. At the time – the 26th of November 1936 – it was reported as having been an accident.
I would like to conclude this lengthy initial post by saying I’m truly amazed by what I’ve found and read. I now struggle to believe in its entirety the official version. Frankly, I’m shocked there was no investigation, as was hoped for, by Valentino’s friends; and it goes without saying that today there would be one. There were, in my opinion, grounds for at least some sort of basic, limited inquest. Alone the repeated consistent inconsistencies were a basis. Cleverly those in control played on his passing being sufficiently tragic. The placing of the body on public display, 24 hours after death, was the true masterstroke, as it meant it was put beyond the reach of the authorities. Of course, before all that, the fact that S. George Ullman (with Barclay H. Warburton Jr.’s say-so/permission), began, without delay, to deflect attention from the location of Rudy’s collapse, and why he was even in the Polyclinic, is extremely concerning. People more generous than me may say it was simply the desire to protect his employer that prompted the manager to act this way. But I was brought up to believe that a lie is a lie. And the bigger the lie gets the worse it is. And, as I pointed out, if this was indeed, as was repeatedly stated, just an appendicitis and a ruptured gastric ulcer, there was absolutely no need for anyone to hide anything. (An appendicitis was then and is now a very common occurrence.)
So why did they? The other guests are of interest. Of sixteen – potentially there were more – present that night/morning only six are known. What was being drunk and who supplied it is also something to be considered. And I think that the two are connected. The mystery guests at the mystery party are the key to understanding what is not understandable if you fail to focus on them. The fact that the Superstar Guest and the Socialite Host were both hospitalised at about the same time and for the same reason – they even had the same people operate on them – points in no other direction for me. The only difference is that one died and the other lived — even if his decade of existence was a sort of living death. I don’t think this is wild speculation by any stretch of the imagination. Particularly when we know that people often died, or were blinded, or brain damaged, by Bootleg Booze.
As for Valentino being seriously unwell for many many months I’m sceptical. I searched and searched for the word bicarbonate in Valentino As I Knew Him and drew a blank. As I also drew a blank when I looked for any mention of pains, stomach trouble, or anything of a similar nature. Ullman says simply that “his color was bad” on the 14th. And that it was normally “marvellous”. Wouldn’t he of noticed something in the months leading up to August? On hearing of his hospitalisation two of those closest to him, Pola, his ‘fiancee’, and Alberto, his brother, who had been with him that Spring and Summer, expressed total amazement. And there are other examples. Why would friends suggest the need for an investigation if they thought it was historic? Nothing was a secret in Hollywood! All that said I’m prepared to believe – in fact do firmly believe – that he was tired, depressed and very run down. All of this contributed to his inability to be able to survive the double op. And an appendicitis is something that would explain any abdominal discomfort he was supposedly seen to be suffering from. His indigestion, much mentioned after he was no longer around, may simply have been just that: indigestion. Stress brings it on. And he was extremely stressed and upset, was he not?
I was, after reading them very carefully, forced to dismiss almost entirely the varied interviews of Marion Benda. With the exception of her detailing of the party on the 12th none of it really added up. Here and there there was evidence that she had been at the Park Avenue apartment and I discounted the rest. By the 24th she was, as she admitted herself to reporters, in the middle of a breakdown. (It’s ominous that Benda was also attended to by the Polyclinic team.) Like Warburton she would never be the same. After claiming to have been secretly married to Valentino, and having conceived his child, she attempted several times to kill herself after WW2. At the start of the Fifties she finally succeeded.
It only remains for me to say that I have not listed, individually, any sources. Anybody with questions about them, or wishing to receive copies, is more than welcome to ask me and I’ll endeavour to supply them. Thank you for reading this in its entirety.
So, today, just 24 hours after the 92nd anniversary of his demise, I begin this modest Blog about Rudolph Valentino. Quietly. Without fuss. But with the intention of it being, first a sort of stop-off point, and then, steadily, post by post, a useful and informative resource for anyone who, like me, is genuinely fascinated by one of the most fascinating of all the fascinating Silent Era personalities. (Let’s face it there were a few.) His Fame Still Lives will be a monthly exercise, a post every four weeks, delving into a performance, or the making of one of his many films, a photograph, a person he knew, or a place he went, or something he owned. Along the way it will be a space to share my thoughts, my past research, my likes and dislikes, my experiences generally and my Rudy-related travels. Thank you for reading and see you in September!