While I busy myself turning my mammoth look at Jean Acker’s life and career, and her life-long association with Rudolph Valentino, from a three part post to a four part post, an opporunity presents itself for me to reshare my hour long chat about Rudy on local radio last year. The interviewer, Alan Porter Barnes, quizzes me during the sixty minutes, about how I first became interested in Valentino, allows me to talk about my travels, my Blog, Rudolph’s amazing career and some of his most important films, and asks me about my planned book about the Immortal Superstar. Along the way we play no less than four related tunes: Rudy singing Kashmiri Song (Pale Hands I Loved), The Beatles singing The Sheik of Araby, The Bangles singing Manic Monday, and Years and Years and MNEK singing Valentino.
The interview and the four tracks can be heard in full here:
100 years ago last month Rudolph Valentino married his first wife Jean Acker. It wasn’t, we know, a match made in heaven; and questions continue, to this very day, about what exactly was going on that November. There are questions, too, about what, if anything, was to be gained from the union. Just as there’s curiosity about the aftermath. I hope to answer these queries, in a three part post titled, not Questions, but Daisy Chained, for reasons that will eventually become clear. As far as I know this is the first ever deep investigation of this important figure in Rudy’s life.
Not long after I began looking properly at Rudolph Valentino, online and offline, in 2012, I thought about writing a book about him. But wait! Didn’t we already know all that there was to know? The biographies to date, particularly Emily W. Leider’s decade-old, Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino, had delivered to us a cornucopia of facts, so why – why? – go over the same ground? What could possibly be achieved? What angles were there on him that weren’t already exploited? For some time I thought about it. And thought some more. Then, late in 2013, I stumbled across The Sins of Hollywood, and everything changed.
I have to say, I do see why The Sins of Hollywood: An Expose of Movie Vice! has been on the whole largely ignored; after all, the light that it casts on Valentino isn’t a flattering one. His story, which is titled A Wonderful Lover, and is the eighth of twelve that recount the past off-set behaviour of several film industry notables, mainly focuses on what was going on at the Hotel Maryland, in Pasadena, in late 1918, and later, in Los Angeles, at the start of 1919. Whatever we might think of A Wonderful Lover and the eleven other tales by the anonymous ‘A Hollywood Newspaper Man’ – a person named Ed. Roberts – it’s the final few paragraphs that are important in this instance. As follows:
“The Dolfy met a movie girl. She was just on the edge of stardom, just going over the top. She helped him. Then she married him. That was his entry into pictures. He had done a few bits but was comparatively unknown.
“With the opportunities and the personal contact his marriage gave him, Adolfo moved fast. He met the right people. He had talent. Brains in both head and feet. His opportunity came and he took advantage of it. He could act. Had been acting all his life. That’s how he lived. His lessons in love-making stood him in good stead. All he had to do was be natural.
“When he finally hit the high mark he didn’t need the movie girl any more. She was a liability now, not an asset. So he canned her. Her career is about ended. His is just beginning.”
From page 62.
These closing lines enabled me to see the association of Dolfy/Adolfo (Rudy), and “the movie girl” (Jean), not from his perspective, but from hers. And it also helped me to find the way forward: I would write the biography of Jean Acker. It would be him through her eyes. Maybe I’d title it The First Mrs. Valentino — or something like that. It was a fresh viewpoint. One which would allow for closeups and medium and distance shots. The discoveries I made as I researched began to reveal to me a rather interesting person. Slowly but surely an individual emerged. No longer was she the derided and villified apendage. And I began to understand her a little, and, her motivations. I spent about six months writing and put it to the side. And what I wrote forms the backbone of this trio of posts.
I started, of course, at the start, and looked into her beginnings. Nowhere, I was reliably informed by people on the ground, was there a registered birth of a Harriet Ackers – her true name – in the state of New Jersey, for the year 1893. Likewise for 1892 or 1891. What there definitely was, however, in the 1900 Census, was a Hattie Ackers, born in Oct. 1891, and aged 8, residing on Market Street, Trenton, with Gershorn and Harriet Ackers, her grandparents. Also living at the address, were her Aunt, Maud L., a Boarder, named John Bice, and her apparent Father, Joseph, who had given his profession as Barber. The lack of a Mother was of interest. That there was no Birth Certificate, and Jean was named Harriet, after her paternal Grandmother, raises the possibility of illegitimacy. Certainly all censuses – 1900, 1905 and 1910 – show that one of her parents had abandoned her. And the whereabouts of Margaret Ackers/Acker during this time is a definite mystery. (By 1920, according to the Census that year, her father had married a woman named Virginia D. and moved to Lewistown, in Pennsylvania, where he worked as a Shoe Merchant.)
Her year of birth and family seemingly established – the 1910 Census does cast doubt on it and suggests it might’ve been 1892 – I sought evidence that she’d been born or raised on a farm. However in none of the three censuses did I find a rural location. In each instance – Trenton, Lambertville and Trenton – she was firmly in a city or a town. Yet, the fact that Lambertville bordered on open countryside, meant it was possible it had been there that she’d first experienced the outdoors, ran free and maybe learned to ride.
Three different homes in a decade didn’t suggest to me a particularly secure or stable upbringing. This was a family, for whatever reason, often on-the-move with little Harriet in tow. And considering this series of shifts, I began to see how they, and her lack of a mother, had probably shaped her. I imagined difficulties, strictness, dreariness. I saw a little girl desperate to escape. And I began to see that the life she sought for herself, and the person she eventually became, as she lived that life, was a direct result of all that she’d potentially endured during childhood. In fact, her earliest publicity when getting started in “the pictures”, suggests exactly that, filled as they are, with obvious invention and fantasy.
Hattie H. Ackers was no doubt still dreaming her dreams while working as a Milliner, or Hat Maker, in her late teens, in Trenton. (Employment we know about thanks to the 1910 Census.) I like to think that it was this position that led to her working alongside Howard Lee in the theatre “in a strong drama”. Something followed, according to her interview in The MOTION PICTURE Story Magazine, in 1913, by a season with Louis L. Hall’s Stock Company. (The L., it seems, stood for Leon.) And additional to her involvement with Lee and Hall she also spent some time in Vaudeville. Despite investigation, Howard Lee, has, unfortunately, failed to surface. And, if he existed at all, was, perhaps, just a small-time, amateur Thespian that never registered outside his home town or County. Louis Leon Hall, meanwhile, most definitely did. And a brief but prominent paragraph, in VARIETY, in mid. January 1912, reveals he had formerly headed: “… his own company in various New Jersey towns…” A sentence that appears to add weight to Jean’s explanation of how she was artistically occupied just prior to becoming a Minor Star in “the pictures”.
Minor stardom was less than a year away when she got her start at the dawn of true film-making in the United States. How she found herself at Siegmund Lubin‘s ‘Lubinville’, in Philadelphia, at the close of 1911, is unknown; but find herself there she did. As none of her early interviews give any clues we’re left to speculate. Perhaps she answered an advert. for staff and was soon put in front of the camera. Maybe she was spotted on the stage in Trenton and offered work. The usual route, taken by the likes of Blanche Sweet, who heard that the Biograph Co. needed people, filled out a form, and was ignored, until she met and spoke to D. W. Griffith, seems the least likely, considering the great distance between her home and the rapidly expanding Pennsylvanian concern.
The first interview that Jean Acker ever gave – she was Jean by this time, and not Harriet or Hattie, and the s had been dropped from her surname – is informative despite the serious make-believe it includes. (It’s plain she wasn’t born or brought up in St. Louis, Missouri, or, that her parents were Spanish.) Just two thirds of a single page, in the May 1912 edition of The MOTION PICTURE Story Magazine, we learn from it that: “She [loved] to act …. to pose, and …. to see upon the screen the pictures in which she [appeared].” Was, at that time, spending “three or four hours a day posing”. And would, in the evening: “… read, or write, or go to the theater… That she was “a talented writer”, with “many stories and scenarios to her credit”, is, if true, something of a surprise. Yet, what’s most apparent, in her exchange with Dorothy Harpur, for Harpur’s CHATS WITH THE PLAYERS, is Acker’s zest for life. And that, she’d at some point or other acquired a cute nickname, which was Billie.
Her spell at ‘Lubinville’, then America’s most up-to-date complex, would’ve been a great experience and definitely educational. Even today, more than 100 years later, the images of the structures in Eugene Dengler’s, five page, image-filled article, in the October 1911 issue of MOTOGRAPHY, impress. A bird’s eye view illustration, shows the extent of the operation, and its situation at the corner of 20th Street and Indiana Avenue. The three main structures forming an enclosure: an impressive glass and steel studio, a processing building, and, at the bend of the U, the administrative office. The studio itself, boasted enormous glazed doors, that could be opened when necessary; on hot days, water was made to cascade over the many glass roof panels, to keep them cool; actors were given the option of emerging from, or descending into, the floor (as if from a lower or higher level); ground-breaking, artifical lighting was in use; and there was sufficient floor space for several films to be created simultaneously. The plant also had a prop-making area, a costume department, various laboratories and drying rooms, and even a subsidised canteen.
After a year with Lubin we can imagine a very different Acker to the one who’d begun there. Films were in her blood now. By the end of 1912 she was a ‘Pro.’; a veteran of perhaps 20 or so varied shorts. Along with her often anonymous cohorts, she’d worked hard, back-to-back, in quickie westerns, comedies and dramas. Films such as: A Village Romance, The Surgeon’s Heroism, A Noble Enemy, A Poor Excuse That Worked. And also: The Heart of a Boss, The Office Favorite, Through the Drifts and The Poor Relation. (All early 1912.)
Is that Jean in a promotional image for The Substitute (1911)? Quite possibly. Of course we can’t be sure, but, considering her inclinations and abilities – later roles and love of danger – and the likeness of the Star pictured, it’s conceivable. (Interestingly this wasn’t the only Lubin cross-dressing story at the time, as, late in 1911, and not too long before she joined the studio, the organisation released My Brother, Agostino (1911), a curious tale of a woman forced to take the place at work of her husband, disguised as a male sibling. The ensuing romance, between Rosiana, masquerading as a man, and Rosa, another female, gave the production an interesting flavour that caused one reviewer to describe it as: “A really unusual story very cleverly and absorbingly told.”)
Zesty Billie Acker, the girl who’d gone from millinery to the stage to the Kliegls, was soon moving again. After approximately twelve months at ‘Pop’ Lubin’s state-of-the-art Lubin Manufacturing Co., we see that she’d been taken on by Carl Laemmle‘s IMP — an acronym for The Independent Moving Pictures Co., soon to become Universal Film Manufacturing Co. (and today, known simply, as Universal Pictures). Her girlie, late Summer Long Island break, with Catherine Tower, had been reported in the trade press. And the brief profile of her had appeared in The MOTION PICTURE Story Magazine. And yet it wasn’t enough for her. She wanted more — much more.
Nothing else can explain the move, which immediately paid-off, when she was featured, albeit incorrectly named but noticeably androgynous, on the cover of the February issue of MOTOGRAPHY. (Above.) That she was being treated differently by her new employer is clear, when we see the report inside the same issue, about how she was present at an exclusive theatre and supper party of sixteen, who were guests of Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Brenon. Her Boss, Mr. Laemmle, his wife, and Mr. and Mrs. King Baggot being four of the others present. March then saw her reported about again, when a newspaper declared:
“The Imp’s Ingenue, Little
Miss Acker, Delights in
From The Evening Standard, Ogden City, Utah, March 29th, 1913 (page 2).
The paragraph, accompanied by a reproduced press photograph, alongside similar images of two equally active, contemporary female personalities, Mary Charleson (at Vitagraph), and Ruth Roland (at Kalem), concentrated on the fact ‘Little Miss Acker’ was someone that loved: “… real, genuine excitement.” She claimed, the unknown writer said: “… she would rather jump from a moving train, ride a motorcycle at a fifty-mile clip, or ride in an aeroplane than eat.” The breaking of her leg at the time, while not sustained performing a stunt, was connected to one, due to her being on the back of future Leading Man (Frederic) Rodman Law’s motorcycle, when it was hit by a seven-passenger Touring Car, at the junction of Broadway and 42nd Street in New York. According to a report, Law was driving, with Acker and a Rosabella Phoner also on the ‘bike. (Law and Phoner had apparently jumped from an aeroplane earlier that day, at Coytesville, New Jersey.) Jean’s leg fracture was so bad that she was rushed to Long Island Hospital. Rodman, despite being thrown 30 feet, and fracturing his arm, made sure that she was taken care of first. Along with Rosabella. Who was lucky to escape with bruising of her face and arms.
At the time of this upset, Jean Acker had completed the two reel, 20 minute film In a Woman’s Power (1913). This, even by the standards of the day, flimsy, corny melodrama, with Jean playing a virtuous and forgiving wife, named Marcelle, who decides to hold onto her husband, despite his criminal past and the lure of a pre-Bara Vampish former love, was simultaneous to the single reel, ten minute comedy The Man Outside (1913). (A production, not to be confused with the similarly titled The Man From Outside, by Reliance, or the picture released that Autumn with the exact same name, by Essanay.)
TOMORROW FROM 2:00 P. M. to 11:00 P. M.
Bureaucratic tyranny in photo. Portrays the Muscovite
terror system, in two big reels.
An ad. for The PALACE, in The Bryan Daily Eagle and Pilot, Bryan, Texas, August 20th, 1913 (page 2)
It would only be after recovering, wherever that was, that Jean would be showcased in the sort of vehicle the public was being primed to expect to see her. Nihilist Vengeance (1913) is, we see from reviews and reports, exactly that sort of production; featuring, as it did, a bridge destroyed by three explosions, as ‘Little Miss Acker’, as the sweetheart of a wrongly condemned hero, thunderered across it in an open carriage, in an ultimately successful attempt to save him from an unjust death. An anonymous reviewer, writing for the Daily East Oregonian that September, praised the costumes but felt that the plot was: “… conventional.” More conventional still, and not as exciting, was another film at this time, titled Bob’s Baby. In the Gem comedy, unleashed that August, Acker dutifully acted as the cousin of Bob, played by Glen White. Surely wishing, as she did so, for another, far more exciting role. Eventually it would come.
I have to say I wondered at this point – 1913/1914 – about Acker’s sexuality. And also what effect being mainly attracted to women might’ve had on her, and her career chances, in what was an extremely male-dominated business. In later life she lived quietly with her Long-Term Partner, Lillian Chloe Carter; but nothing is known of her relationship, or relationships, before World War One. What, for example, did the person in the Winter road traffic accident, Rosabella Phoner, mean to her? And should anything be read into her 1912 vacation with Catherine Tower? Also, what was life like for Lesbians, at this time in the States?
Magnus Hirschfield, in the footsteps of the 19th Century pyschologist, Karoly Maria Hertbeny (or Karl-Maria Benkert), inventor of the term Homosexuality, was only just beginning work on The Homosexuality of Men and Women (1922), in which he delved into the mental, emotional and physical spheres. As well as how new technology, such as communications and transportation, were affecting their lives. The few specialists there were remained at odds about even the reasons for same-sex relationships. Prior to The Great War the conversation had barely started. In America, in 1915, before the United States entered the conflict, only the recently bailed Agitator, Emma Goldman, dared lecture on the subject of The Intermediate Sex — and not everywhere, either.
I consulted Leila J. Rupp’s 2009 publication, Sapphistries: A Global History Of Love Between Women, to get an idea of how Lesbians and Lesbianism were perceived. It was, I must say, of little assistance when it came to the years that I was interested in. Yet I did learn how, in 1919, an unnamed Sexologist suggested passive Lesbians were the result of social factors, and aggressive ones due to biology. 1913/1914 was, of course, a whole half decade behind this opinion. Many years before Berlin became a Sapphist paradise. And a decade and a half earlier, than either Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), or G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929). (The Well of Loneliness, by-the-way, was banned in the USA.)
Rupp’s book did yield the late Nineteenth Century Alice Mitchell/Freda (or Fred) Ward case in Memphis however. Proving that, from time-to-time, the general public was made aware of women who loved other women. It’s a saga so filled with incident – love letters, cross-dressing, marriage plans, a ring, a murder, press coverage, a trial and an asylym – that I’m frankly amazed it wasn’t made into a Blockbuster years ago.
Despite the lack of context, and few clues as to her partners, it strikes me as plain that while Jean managed to escape her unpleasant origins, she remained caught between convention and liberation, her public self and her real self. Forced, I’m sure, to behave one way, while yearning at times to act in another. It was a double life. And interview hints are too heavy in my opinion for it to have been anything else. Inner turmoil was virtually guaranteed. In the largely male-dominated industry in which she found herself she could accept, even encourage, advances from men, if she kept her involvement with Phoner, Tower, and others, such as it was, a secret. And she did — she had to. Her career completely depended on it. Plus, if she acted like one of the guys, then they might, perhaps, see her more as a Pal, or little sister, than a sex object. It was a perpetual high wire act and a tumble was inevitable.
Girl in a Daring
Leap for Movies
Column headline, page 1 of The Seattle Star, October 25th, 1913
In October, the young woman reported that March, as preferring to jump from a moving train, ride a fast motorcycle, or soar in aeroplane, than eat a meal, was to be seen across the nation, in the IMP two-reeler The Daredevil Mountaineer (1913). Several newspapers reviewed the film ahead of, and after, release. And many waxed lyrical about the main characters and an exciting stunt. The Seattle Star was so impressed, that Jean Acker and her co-Star were featured in a large, reproduced photo. on the front page. The write-up, describing Acker, as: “… as gritty a little girl as ever took her life in her hands to amuse ‘movie’ patrons.” Though The North Platte Semi Weekly Tribune perhaps summed it up best on November 21st: “The Dare-Devil Mountaineer” …. shows Rodman Law and Jean Acker as his sweetheart. Her mother takes her from mountain country to the city in order to marry her to a title, but the mountaineer elopes with her on a motorcycle. This daring escape makes a very thrilling scene.” The scene mentioned – Rodman and Jean pursued, while speeding along on a bike at 85 mph, with the chase culminating in a spectacular and all-too-real, forty foot fall from an open draw-bridge – was as daredevil as the title promised. And six months before The Perils of Pauline made an international Star of Pearl White, in 1914, we see that Jean Acker was already endangering her life for action addicted filmgoers.
Rodman Law – brother of a younger Aviatrix sister, and also known as Frank R. Law, but born Frederic Rodman Law – was the perfect screen partner for thrill-seeking Jean Acker. By now she had surely forgiven ‘The Human Fly’ (as he was nicknamed) for her ending up in hospital when his ‘bike collided with an automobile earlier that year. Had she willed the film to be? Or was it fate? Whatever, she’d placed herself, quite literally, in his hands. After all, this was a death-defier who’d successfully plunged over Stillwater Falls, Maine, in an open boat, for a Reliance film a few months earlier. And the previous year had managed to successfully parachute from both the Brooklyn Bridge and the torch of the Statue of Liberty.
If her film career was going well, we might wonder why it was that Acker was listed as a cast member of a play, Within the Law, at the end of the year. Her mention, buried in dense text, in the November 29th edition of The New York Clipper, is actually a retrospective look at the production, at the New York Lyric Theater — now, apparently, Foxwoods Theater. Further investigation revealed that Jean had in fact been attached to the hit play since mid. Summer, when a July issue of VARIETY gently trumpeted how the notable Producer, A. H. Woods, had engaged her for the part of Helen Morris. The short paragraph, also reminded those paying attention, that Miss Acker was familiar to film viewers; demonstrating that she had some pulling power, and was sufficiently known to be considered a good choice for such an important attraction.
The Within the Law storyline, of a woman wrongly accused of theft, imprisoned for three years, and then forced, on her release, to turn to criminality to survive, was a resonant one with audiences. Partly, because the playwright, Bayard Veiller, had once been a Police Reporter. And also due to the unsubtle, Suffragist subtext, which grounded it very much in the present. The advertised endorsement of Harriet Stanton Blatch, prominent Suffragette, in an April 1913 edition of The Sun newspaper, highlights this. The character, Mary Turner, played by Helen Ware and others, was patently the victim of a cruel and repressive male-dominated system. The play’s path to success – a rewrite, the departure of the original Producer, a disastrous 1911 Chicago opening, serious trading of interests and shares, and final success, in September 1912, at the newly-opened 42nd Street Eltinge Theater – was just as interesting. Afterwards followed no less than eight duplicate productions – Jean’s probable Amour Catherine Tower headed one – across the country. Several printed newpaper serialisations. And many months of popularity in London’s ‘West End’.
That December Jean Acker could look back on a year filled with incident and success. While not exactly a Superstar – MOTOGRAPHY magazine felt it important to advise readers that she was now on the stage and not in films which wasn’t strictly speaking correct – she had, nevertheless, carved herself something of a niche. Her work for ‘Pop Lubin’ and then Laemmle’s Universal (at IMP, Gem and Victor), had been of value, and established her, along with others, as an early, pioneering, Film Personality.
Might the early, pioneering Film Personality, enjoying the festive atmosphere of New York, have swept up or down Broadway, on the day the newly arrived, slightly rained-soaked Rodolfo Guglielmi, wide-eyed at all he saw, walked it? Or passed him on another day in her car, loudly honking her horn, as he failed to cross her path with sufficient speed? It’s not pointless speculation. These two young people were very much in Gotham at the same time. Simultaneously seeing identical sights. Breathing the same air. In America’s most vibrant city at one of the most exciting times in its history: the cusp of 1913/1914.
My research indicated 1914 wasn’t the year of progress that Jean had perhaps hoped for. She’s seldom mentioned in trade publications, or news titles; and when she is, it’s briefly. Like when she’s highlighted in Vesta Powell’s coverage of the The Screen Club’s second annual ball, in her ALL FOR THE LADIES About Women—Mostly column, in VARIETY, on February the 6th, 1914. Powell, who wrote under the name of PLAIN MARY, witnessed the gathering of early screen stars and their devoted public, at the impressive Grand Central Palace, on the night of January the 31st, and wrote about the event with an honesty that refreshes and amuses, even today. Her general observations aside we learn that the cream of East Coast Filmdom were in attendance. King Baggot, Mary Fuller and John Bunny. Leah Baird, Mrs. Maurice Costello, Pearl White, Florence La Badie and Jane Fearnley. Claire Whitney and Fannie Burke. PLAIN MARY’s attention was, unsurprisingly, drawn to the pretty outfits worn by the actresses. Jean Acker’s, she told her readers, was: “… a white taffeta gown with [a] yellow girdle and [a] small white lace cap.”
If anything, Acker managed to maintain her position but nothing more. Of course, at the time, it might not have seemed this way to her. We, now, down-the-line, have the ability to look back and see the peaks and the troughs. I do wonder about the switch from film-making to board-treading. Was her orientation the reason? Had she, perhaps, rejected the advances of a powerful Executive? Nowhere did I see any mention of a Boyfriend, or Fiancee, in 1912, 1913 and 1914. Or, for that matter, see her linked in any way with any man, young or old. And the absence of a male in her life spoke volumes. Though there were indeed many successful single females – Frances Benjamin Johnston for example – the majority of women could only go so far alone. A Husband, while not essential, absolutely gave a woman a different standing in society. Performers in large numbers were often married while remaining a Miss. (Mary Pickford being perhaps one of the most obvious.) Issues with any man or men along the way could’ve led to her being overlooked for parts. And we can’t discount the very real chance that she’d already been forced to submit, to secure at least one, or more, of her previous roles. As so many, male as much as female, did.
I feel strongly that Catherine Tower was important to her emotionally. And I don’t think it a coincidence they knew one another and that Tower preceded Acker as Helen Morris in Within the Law. The announcement of Catherine leaving was followed just a month later with the news of Jean’s arrival. It could have been a friendly favour, with the established actress putting her forward, or, simply the promotion of her Understudy. However, Jean Acker’s future entanglement with an even greater theatrical personality, Alla Nazimova, suggests a pattern, and so the possibility shouldn’t be dismissed. It’s also important – essential – to point out that this was a person with no mother’s wing under which to crawl. The Pickford’s, the Gishes, the Talmadges, and others, all had a steely parent to defend them, and to battle the studios and studio bosses on their behalf. Her Father being disengaged she naturally sought out a substitute. And substitutes no doubt sought her out. In the case of Nazimova most definitely.
How long Acker’s agreement with Woods was is unknown. The available information doesn’t make it easy to deduce when she ceased to be a cast member. Signed up in the Summer of 1913, we see that she’s still Morris at the end of the year. As for Spring and Summer 1914, if Tower remained engaged (which she did), then it’s safe to assume that Acker did too, and that it was a one year deal.
The assumption is given weight by the fact her next film, The $5,000,000 Counterfeiting Plot (1914), was, as The New-York Tribune details, premiered at the New York Theatre, on Monday, August 10th, 1914. Being a social creature, Jean was probably present to hear the central character, William J. Burns, an actual Detective who played himself in the six part Dramascope Co. serial, talk on the subject of crime. (Before or after the screening.) Based on actual, recent events, the production was unusual in that it was a 6 reel/six part feature. In 1914 the majority of films that were created were just one or two reels in length – ten or twenty minutes – and so an hour long presentation was very experimental. Only the great D. W. Griffith had so far dared to challenge the belief Americans wouldn’t sit through anything longer than thirty minutes. His Judith of Bethulia (1914) had had a delayed release by his previous employers that March. Yet to create the game-changing Birth of a Nation (1915) he, himself, released six reeler The Avenging Conscience (1914) that same month. All Star, Eclectic, World and Pasquali each nervously issued their own five reelers.
THE MOTION PICTURE WORLD gave The $5,000,000 Counterfeiting Plot a three quarter page in-depth review. And the reviewer, Hanford C. Judson, singled Jean Acker out for praise. Stating that her portrayal of another Helen, this time Helen Long, daughter of a villain, James Long, a Counterfeiter, gave: “… by its simplicity a strong-heart interest to the whole that tells mightily.” (Not bad!) However, it would seem the fresh, documentary-style production, filled with actual people, events and locations, not-to-mention superb acting, was just a bit ahead of its time. Too clever and overlong. Had it been shot a year or so later, like The Italian (1915), it may’ve fared better. Despite the re-enactment of the Philadelphia-Lancaster counterfeiting case being skilful, and advertisements featuring Burns having impact, the US wasn’t ready for a crime epic. It played here and there and was soon forgotten.
Then, as much as now, a poor career decision could be fatal. And I suspect Jean suffered a little due to The Dramascope Co. spectacular’s lack of success. Something which would explain why she fails to be mentioned in the press as starring in anything for several months. That her standing in the film community wasn’t affected by her lack of work is proven by her appearance in the same paragraph as Edwin August of Kinetophote, Mary Pickford of Famous Players Film Co. (soon to be Famous Players-Lasky Corp.), Pickford’s Mother, Ormi Lawley of the Lubin Manufacturing Co., and fellow daring female, Pearl White. The occasion, being another Screen Club Ball, this time on Thanksgiving eve, at the Hotel Astor, to raise money for the Belgian Relief Fund. Jean being very much a part of the efforts that night; as well as, perhaps, beforehand and afterwards, along with her contemporaries.
Her other mention, in the Saturday, December 5th, 1914, issue of VARIETY, on page 23, is about her inclusion as a cast member in the forthcoming Famous Players Film Co. John Barrymore vehicle, Are You a Mason? (1915). (See above.) Based, by Eve Unsell (writer of the screenplay), on Leo Ditrichstein’s turn of the centrury farce of the same title, the film was to be the illustrious Barrymore’s third cinematic venture. His first outing being An American Citizen (1914). And the second The Man From Mexico (1914). Releases that were also stage hits translated to celluloid by Zukor’s concern. (In fact, so confident was Famous Players Film Co., that a fourth theatrical adaptation, The Dictator, awaited him.)
From advance publicity, we know that Acker was carefully selected for her part in the story of a feisty young man, who pretends to his ambitious wife, in accordance with her wishes, that he’s become a Mason. THE NEW YORK CLIPPER, on December 6th, 1914, declared in CURRENT FILM EVENTS BY RIK, that it was: “An unusually important cast of Broadway favourites…” that had been collected to support ‘Jack’ Barrymore. And further, Famous Players Film Co., had: “… deemed it advisable to entrust the parts to the able talents of this unusual coterie of stage artists.” (Jean Acker’s fellow performers were: Alfred Hickman, Charles Dixon, Charles Butler, Ida Waterman, Lorraine Hulling, Harold Lockwood and Kitty Baldwin.)
Filming took place in and around New York in January and February. However, time spent studying the comedic enterprise, doesn’t reveal Jean’s role, or, indeed, the parts played by some of the others. And due to the fact that the film, along with his two earlier efforts, is lost, it’s impossible to have much of an idea. The few stills there are that exist mainly feature the Star alone in exaggerated poses.
If the majority of pre-release promotion praised the production to the heavens, then ‘Wynn’, reviewing for VARIETY, aimed to return it firmly to earth, as screenings commenced, at New York’s Strand Theatre, on March 22nd, 1915. More of an attack than a critique, from the start the writer described Are You a Mason? as: “A decidely mild comedy…” And it didn’t get better. Monotonous, conventional and poorly directed, ‘Wynn’ felt it failed to exploit the many obvious opportunities for humour in the play. And in its original form perhaps it did. As it appears that Adolph Zukor took note, and a re-edited, shorter version was soon released.
Yet, audiences in the middle of the Teens were less demanding than crtics, and Are You a Mason? was successfully and no doubt profitably screened for many months. What flaws there were didn’t affect Barrymore. And ‘Wynn’ didn’t blame him for them anyway. Jean, though, was overshadowed. As with the The $5,000,000 Counterfeiting Plot a big production had failed to take her anywhere. She was, it seems, on the slide; and probably had a slipping feeling as the year progressed.
Does this explain her professional disappearance for almost 36 months? It’s hard to say for certain. And yet she mysteriously vanishes from the business as far as I can see for that length of time. Four years of irregular mentions and images suddenly end and the reason isn’t clear. Had her lack of a contract hampered her? Did her choices over time spoil things? It’s seldom that a single decision ruins things; yet, a series of mistakes most definitely can. There’s little doubt that between 1914 and 1915 she moves with some difficulty from project to project. And that, despite the size and scale, they turned out not to be the opportunities she’d thought they’d be. Jean’s faltering at this time, would, I imagine, make her future success all the sweeter. And in Part Two I’ll be looking at those successes and the sweetness in the same detail that I have in Part One.
Thank you for reading this post in its entirety — I appreciate it. As usual, any and all references and research is available to anybody who asks, if they’re not already provided in the text, as a link, or, as an image. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about Jean Acker’s early life and career as much as I enjoyed writing about it. The second installment, looking at her years of stardom, and her meeting and marriage to Rudolph Valentino, will be posted a month from now, at the start of 2020. See you then!
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.’
As I said previously, in March (in New York Timeline (1913)), I’m totally fascinated by Rudolph Valentino’s first years in the USA; particularly those spent in and around New York from 1913 to 1917. Forty two or so months crammed with incident; six months of which are, apparently, an impenetrable void. This month, June, I look in some detail at 1914 — one of his most difficult years. Anyway, here is: New York Timeline (1914).
For Marchese Guglielmi the first few months of 1914 are, for-want-of-a-better-phrase, a Social Whirl. Determined to put behind him his miserable Festive Period, he plunges into the dance-mad city of New York. His accommodation, Giolito’s, at 108-110 W. 49th St., is situated just east of Broadway, ten blocks south of Central Park, ten or so more north west, of the gleaming and glistening, newly-opened Grand Central Station, and a quick walk away from several exciting afternoon and evening establishments. At which, by all accounts, he becomes a regular.
He calls on his fellow S. S. Cleveland passenger, Miss Eleanor Post, and they go riding in Central Park at least once. He also pays a visit and introduces himself (with a letter of introduction), to Social Butterfly, Schuyler L. Parsons Jr.; who invites him to remain for dinner and then join the various guests, when they go out to dance until the early hours.
Miss Post had, along with Marion Herrion, been the young woman who’d enjoyed many hours dancing the latest dances, with Rodolfo Guglielmi, in the Second Class dining room. (Their friendship didn’t last.) Mr. Parsons, meanwhile, was a person whose name appeared in the press with alarming regularity, as an attendee, of dinner and theatre parties, dance parties and other exclusive society events. It’s interesting that he featured in an amateur film, The Flame of Kapur (1916), as a villain, not dissimilar to the sort played by Valentino a few years later. (He was to be a friend of Rudy’s right to the end.)
Rodolfo continues to socialise hopeful it’ll lead to something. He reacquaints himself with three Paris friends: brothers Count Otto and Count Alex. von Salm-Hoogstraeten, and their friend, Georges/George T. Aranyi. The trio are in the US to play tennis, and Rodolfo no doubt watches them, at the National Indoor Championship Tournament, at the Seventh Regiment Armoury, 643 Park Avenue, in mid. February. Afterwards, in the evenings, the quartet enjoy nights out.
Austrians, Otto and Alex., and Frenchman George, too, were seemingly all a little older than their Italian playmate. (Otto was born in 1886 and Alex. (who would perish during WW1) in 1890.) So being in their company would’ve been something of an education for someone not yet 19. I personally don’t believe that the Salms taught Valentino to tango at the Central Park Zoo, as his female fellow passengers on the Cleveland said he already knew it. However, there’s no doubt they taught him other things, and that he was a willing Pupil.
The addiction of New Yorkers at this time to dancing is clear when we peruse the city’s newspapers and see how often it’s mentioned. At the start of the month a report states that the Pope has neither banned the Tango nor endorsed La Furlana. A review, days later, of The Laughing Husband, an operetta at the Knickerbocker Theatre, reveals how “Graceful Steps [Of] A New Sort” had been added to the U. S. adaptation, and that the chorus did “The Tango”. (You can listen to a medley here.) On the 9th, we see a story about 2,000 waiters, trotting, tangoing, dipping, maxixeing, and hesitating, at the Manhattan Waiters’ Association Annual Ball. (In many instances with each other.) On the 14th, we view fourteen recent or expected social gatherings, of which seven included dancing. The 17th saw the Castles, Vernon and Irene, explaining to Marguerite Mooers Marshall, a columnist, how to dance the Half and Half. And at the close of February, we learn that the Arabian Nights Ball, on the 26th, at the Folies Marigny, had begun at midnight, and had been: “… JUST ONE DANCE AFTER ANOTHER.”
Thanks to high living and nightly shenanigans, with the Salms, Aranyi, and with others, Rodolfo’s funds are dwindling; and as he commences the month, he begins to appreciate he’s unable to continue in the same fashion as in January and February. In order to save money he quits his quarters at Giolito’s, and moves to less expensive, unknown, Uptown rooms.
Knowing he’ll soon have to find employment, he’s also eager to seriously improve his basic English. He understands that what he learned at Nervi won’t be sufficient for him to be able to work, and he’ll be unable to improve it, while he’s surrounded by fellow Italians.
His departure from Giolito’s isn’t fixed in stone and it could easily have occurred in February. The reason being, that the position he secured as a Gardener (thanks to a letter of introduction (from his older brother Alberto), to outgoing Commissioner of Immigration, William Williams), commenced after the snow had melted. As I only saw bad snow reported locally in early March, and not later, we have to accept the possibility he was out of his initial accommodation earlier than was previously thought. Maybe even by the middle of February.
After some work, which included planting rhododendrons (which are still there and are referred to as ‘Rudy’s Rhodos’), his employment with Mr. Bliss, at his estate, at Brookville, outside the city on Long Island, abruptly ends, after he crashes a borrowed motorcycle. It’s also an issue that the return of Mrs. Bliss, from Europe, has ended plans for an Italian garden. Rodolfo himself isn’t enjoying being so far from Manhattan. And isn’t too pleased to be eating his meals with the other servants.
Cornelius N. Bliss Jr., a kind-hearted type, then President of the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, provides him with a letter of introduction, to the New York City Parks Commissioner, Louis F. La Roche. He also, amazingly, provides him with a small weekly allowance so that he can manage in the short term.
Rudy returns to Manhattan, able, just about, to manage on his recent earnings, and his allowance from Bliss. Despite his worsening situation, it seems, from time-to-time, that he’s still able to enjoy the cafes and restaurants.
Rodolfo Guglielmi doesn’t grasp that Mr. and Mrs. Bliss are two people who, in time, could’ve seriously helped him with a career as a Landscape Gardener. However, he did understand he was a million miles from entering, or being accepted in, Society. Painfully aware. And this was something of a problem for him.
After resettling back in the city, sometime in May, Rodolfo secures a less pleasant position as an Apprentice Park Gardener. He works the majority of the month. But eventually discovers that he’s unable to continue working, as the apprenticeship exam is open only to American citizens.
By now Cornelius N. Bliss Jr.’s small allowance has probably ceased. The little he’s earned in May is disappearing. And he searches for some other kind of employment.
It’s probably in May and June that he goes to the Waldorf-Astoria, one of the great New York hotels, to write on the their fine stationery to his mother (to reassure her that he’s alright and is doing well). That he eventually revealed this to his family, is known, thanks to his older brother, Alberto, mentioning it in a lengthy interview in 1977.
He manages to secure a position as a Bank Teller. However, due to poor English, or an inability to calculate quickly enough, or both, he loses this job. And is once again forced to look for another vacancy.
It’s now, in mid. June, that he catches the eye of ‘Dickie’ Warner – true name Richard H. Warner – a blonde, blue-eyed man in his late twenties, who’s as much of a Social Moth as Schuyler L. Parsons Jr.. Apparently, Dickie sees him: “… seated at the opposite side of the dancing space in company of several friends.” After a formal introduction they converse. And days later he invites him to dinner on the roof of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. On that warm evening, they afterwards sit drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, and Rodolfo opens his heart to the near stranger. Telling him he’s a foreigner in a foreign land. Isn’t getting anywhere in his profession. And is: “… too proud to seek aid from his family.” Dickie’s sympathetic and tells Rudy he can move into his apartment with him until things improve. Which, the very next day, he does. Warner helping him to pack his possessions at his “anything but cheerful” lodgings. Thus commences a quite lengthy and comfortable stay, at Dickie Warner’s gorgeously decorated two room studio, at 78 West 55th Street. Rudy wakes late each day; lounges about in pyjamas in Warner’s tulip wood bed; plays with the cat, Prunella; and talks on the telephone to his girlfriends. His host is irritated by his poor English but doesn’t mind his singing. (The song that he sings most often is Mamma Mia.)
Warner’s detailed – too detailed to be fabricated – account, which was published in the early Twenties, in a piece entitled, Before They Were Famous, in SCREENLAND, reveals much about Rudy half way through 1914. He continues to frequent some of the places he enjoyed earlier that year as and when he can. Has friends. And is still able to dress and present himself well. Warner remembered: “… distinctly, his dress suit, also the handiwork of a tailor in Taranto.” This pretty much proves false, the claim that Frank A. Mennillo took him to his New York tailor, to kit him out in more suitable, American garb. He was in May and June still wearing all of the garments he’d carried with him at the end of the previous year.
So far he’s moved from Giolitos, to Uptown, then out to Long Island, then back to Manhattan. (He also appears to have been in Brooklyn at some point in order to be able to save money.) Living with Dickie facilitates indolence. For the time being, at least, he seems in no hurry to do anything, except laze, pet Prunella, and speak for hours on the telephone. According to his host a stay of a few days stretches to many weeks. In my estimation at least a month to six weeks.
Rudy continues to live with Dickie. At some point the pair enjoy a trip to Long Beach; for so long, that Warner is forced to wire a friend in the city, and get them to climb through a window, in order to feed the cat.
At the end of the month World War One breaks out in Europe. However, as neither Italy nor America are initially involved, it doesn’t yet affect Rodolfo Guglielmi, or, his family.
After six or so weeks his stay with Warner ends. Where he goes next isn’t too clear. Yet it’s certain about now is when things begin to get very tough. For the next eight weeks he goes from poorly-paid job to poorly-paid job. He washes dishes, cleans automobiles, and polishes brass; anything that will give him enough money to be able to eat and pay for a place to sleep.
This is a period where he’ll move about even more frequently, staying a week here, then a week there. Always moving. He’s forced to pawn his belongings. What’s left is kept by a Landlady that he’d been unable to pay. In later years, he told Norma Talmadge a story about walking five miles to City Hall, in order to find work, and, after failing to, how he’d bought a “bologna sandwich” with his very last ten cents, before walking the five miles back. The fact Norma recalled such a story, in 1938, again shows he couldn’t possibly have had a Godfather during this time.
Nineteen-year-old Rodolfo continues to suffer. He eats at one, perhaps all, of the Horn & Hardart Co. Automats, on Broadway, Sixth Avenue and West 42nd St. And he sleeps at the downbeat, Mills Hotel, which charges 12 cents per night. When he can’t even afford that he doesn’t eat and sleeps on a bench in Central Park. (He also sleeps under the shrubbery and in all-night cinemas.)
There’s absolutely no evidence nineteen-year-old Rudolph Valentino was forced to commit any crime in order to survive; but we must consider the possibility he may have had no choice. It’s interesting, that in a letter home, he feels that any work is better than a life of crime. And it’s in this letter, according to the family, that he reveals he’d come very close to compromising his honour. So if he didn’t commit a crime it was certainly on his mind. The disappearance of the contents of his police file, decades ago, doesn’t allow us to be sure one way or the other. In a report, in The New-York Tribune, in 1910, vagrants were only arrested if they were considered to be a ‘Cadet’ — in-other-words, a person learning to be a street criminal. If they were, they were discharged, sent to a work house, or, fined. If Rudy slept on a park bench, he would simply be moved along; as Anthony Dexter was, as Valentino, in Valentino (1951). (A rare instance of accuracy in an otherwise largely inaccurate film.)
Broke and homeless things are so bleak that Rudy contemplates suicide. Then a Mystery Man he meets changes his luck. The person, apparently an Italian, takes him under his wing, shares his food and his bed, talks to him, gives him advice, and perhaps allows his guest to get a wash and to shave. The next day, or soon afterwards, after the suggestion, Rodolfo heads to Maxim’s/Cafe Maxim to speak to the piano player (who’s from Taranto). The piano player suggests talking to the Head Waiter there. When he does, The Head Waiter recalls him from earlier in the year, and offers him work as a dance partner for hire. (To dance with females who aren’t already accompanied by a male.) He accepts and commences that month. There’s no pay, but he can eat for free, keep any tips, and use an upper room, with a Victrola, to give dance instructions on the side.
A different version of Rodolfo’s spell as a dancer, at Cafe Maxim, is found in the owner, Julius Keller’s, 1939 memoir, Inns and Outs. Keller claims that he himself hired him. And that Rudy had been washing cars at a nearby garage. Keller says that he found the young man to be “dark and romantic in appearance”. Whether it was Keller’s or another proprietor’s innovation isn’t clear. But dance partners for hire were far from unique to Maxim’s. They were very much looked down upon at the time as it was considered to be an unsuitable profession for a Real Man.
Maxim’s was, along with Sherry’s, Delmonico’s, Luchow’s, Churchill’s, Rectors, Murray’s, and a few other venues, a restaurant that allowed patrons to dance. Their adverts in September declared that it was the “COOLEST and BEST VENTILATED DINING ROOM in TOWN”. That luncheon was just 60c. That dancing was from noon to close. And the cabaret was after 6:30 p. m.
Dark, romantic Rodolfo Guglielmi swiftly enhances his natural ability, and is an instant success with patrons. He returns to being a Marchese; but, perhaps due to the French atmosphere of the establishment, tells customers he’s a Marquis. By now he has many regular female dance partners. And these varied ladies generously tip him and shower him with small gifts.
In the third or fourth week of the month, Bonnie Glass (“the most original young person in the [dancing] profession”), and her former dance partner, Clifton Webb, arrive at Cafe Maxim and take a table. Glass has asked Webb to assist her in searching for a talented new partner, and they soon notice: “… a remarkably handsome, dark young man named Rudolph.” Bonnie is impressed by his tango and, on the spot, offers him the job. He tells her frankly that he doesn’t have the money to pay for the clothing required. And she tells him that she’ll cover the cost.
In Clifton Webb’s posthumously published autobiography, Sitting Pretty: the Life and Times of Clifton Webb, 2011, the then very notable Bonnie Glass had recently returned from Chicago. Checking her engagements in late 1914 I saw this to be the case. (She’d danced in Chicago recently with Al. Davis.) And so I trust both Clifton Webb’s memory and his story. It seems Bonnie had a partner – George Richmond – but he was temporary. And, as she had plans for 1915, that included re-opening the grille of Cafe Boulevard, at Broadway and 41st Street, as Cafe Montmartre, she required somebody reliable who’d be available nightly. (For me this settles once and for all the question of how they met and came to be a successful Act.)
It’s easy to imagine Rudy’s delight in being singled out by Bonnie and Clifton after they’d left and it all began to sink in. In no-time-at-all he would be able to quit the establishment and leave behind him, perhaps forever, the life of a Taxi Dancer — a life he found more than a little distasteful.
During the first two weeks of the month Rodolfo rehearses with Bonnie in the mornings and continues to work as a hired dancer, at Maxim’s, in the afternoons and evenings. He likewise continues to be the favourite of several ladies (as mentioned by Keller in Inns and Outs). And utilises the upper room, with the Victrola, to provide private instruction for a fee.
Mid. December, he dances for the first time with Glass, at Rector’s, in front of their “stage setting”, for an elegant New York audience seated amidst “fronded palms”. He’ll continue to do so for the rest of the month. And, though he fails to be credited at this point in any adverts, he’s buoyed by the realisation that bigger things lie ahead of him in 1915. In only a matter of months he’s turned his life completely around. This year, the Festive Period will not be the lonely, upsetting affair it was twelve months before.
Thank you so much for reading this post. As always, the sources are available to anyone who contacts me, if they’re not already embedded into the text, or added as an image. This latest timeline will be followed by others looking at the years 1915 to 1917. And I’ve planned standalone posts for his 1916 arrest and also the missing half year. See you all in July!
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!
It being a fact Valentino was born in the region of Puglia, or Apulia, in Southern Italy. And it equally being a fact he sought to escape that locality and his country of origin. Meant it was important that I travel there if I was to understand him and his motives — and so in 2014 I did. During the trip I went to Bari, to Taranto and Martina Franca. My final stop, Castellaneta, the most important of all, is the subject of my post this month.
Hard as it is to believe, it really is five whole years, a half decade, since I was preparing to go to Puglia for the first time. If I doubt it, the red – Rudy’s favourite colour – file I created for the trip, full to bursting with flight info., maps, tourist pamphlets, postcards, emails, print-offs, invitations, guest house and hotel details, people’s mobile numbers, and restaurant bills and general receipts, is proof the trip commenced on April the 29th, and ended May the 6th. Impossible to dismiss. All there right in front of me. Every day. Every hour. Every minute. Every second.
Of course it helped me when organising that I was no stranger to the unusually shaped nation. Even as a child I’d had inklings. For example, when my Bestie, Neil (half Italian on his mother’s side), returned to school after the Summer, wearing shoes with bubbled, melted soles, I knew it was a place of extremes. And when my own mother talked about her journey to the resort of Rimini, in the Sixties, the previous decade, I began to appreciate it was romantic. (The image of her, sunkissed and seated on a Sea Swing, is one I treasure.) Winning first prize in a Reader’s Digest competition, in the Eighties, and acquiring a book about the Romans in Britain, helped me understand it was of historical importance.
Before viewing Summertime (1955), Death in Venice (1971), Don’t Look Back (1973), or The Wings of the Dove (1997), I journeyed to Lido di Jesolo. Just a cheap package holiday in 1983, with my Aunt, Uncle and Sister; but for the first time I was able to taste proper oven-baked pizza, swim in the Adriatic, and to see and fall in love with pastel-coloured, time-worn Venice. As a Fashion Student I spent happy hours turning the pages of VOGUE Italia and L’UOMO VOGUE. As a Fashion Editor I saw, wrote about, and handled, some beautiful Italian clothing. Over two decades, either for work, or a holiday, I ventured to: Milan, Florence, Venice, Portofino, Rome and Sorrento.
However the deep South I didn’t know. Sorrento, near Naples, for a 2011 family wedding, was the closest I’d been to what’s known as ‘The Heel’. After looking for both flights and accommodation (and finding and paying for both), I began to properly research where I was heading. Looking I could see that the different areas had their own flavour. Gargano e Daunia was known for its deserted beaches and fish eateries. Puglia Imperiale for the broadnesss of the horizon, bright shades and a harsh moon-like terrain. Bari e la Costa, meanwhile, was characterised by golden beaches, its ports and the walls and palaces at Bari. Magna Grecia, Murgia e Gravine was a rocky place. Valle d’Itria was somewhere filled with cone-shaped, stone buildings called Trulli, amongst the vineyards and olive groves. And Salento, with its never ending coastline dotted with coves, was an area enfolded by two seas: the Adriatic and the Ionian.
Bari e la Costa, I experienced at Bari, between April 29th and May 1st. And Magna Grecia, Murgia e Gravine, I appreciated at Taranto, Martina Franca and Castellaneta, from May 1st to May 6th. The first glimpse of Castellaneta, and its situation, was from the window of the train between Bari and Taranto. It hadn’t crossed my mind that I would see it on the way to the second location. But I did. In the distance. Perched on the edge of the ten kilometer long Gravina di Castellaneta, or Gravina Grande ravine. And though it was on the horizon, just in sight, I felt something, something I’ve no words to describe.
The modern station being some distance from the town – the one used in Rudy’s day is now defunct and closed up – our Host awaited us and our luggage with a car. Arriving at the remote guesthouse that sunny Saturday afternoon (after a drive filled with much conversation and a Falcon above us at one point) I was keen to collect myself. So much had occurred since touching down at Bari on the 29th. Many calls and emails there to finalise appointments and meetings. Downtime, with visits to churches, and walks by the port, and in the backstreets. Followed by a memorable but very crammed two days at Taranto and Martina Franca. All leaving me feeling a little overwhelmed. So I took stock. Walked in the fields near the converted farmhouse; took some photographs; returned to the accommodation and added to my notebook; slept; viewed my images and film clips; watched some TV; and ate a delicious Italian home-made meal.
The next day was to be a long one. I had most of the 4th to enjoy exploring Castellaneta. And then, in the evening, from seven p.m., I was to be at the Premio Rodolfo Valentino event at Teatro Valentino. (An awards ceremony celebrating Italian Excellence.) That it was Sunday was, on one hand, an issue, and on the other not an issue. It would be quiet and everything would be closed. But it would also be so quiet and so closed that it would be easy to walk about. I could wander in the streets of Rudolph Valentino’s home town to my heart’s content soaking it all up. I could trace and retrace my steps. Snap away with my camera until the memory was full. Stand and stare at his birthplace for as long as I damn well wanted.
The problem was that it was raining heavily in the morning. So I waited and waited and waited — and waited some more. However, after lunch it was still raining, and it became clear that it was time to head to the historical centre (with an umbrella) and hope for the best. What could go wrong? I was a Brit. and used to steady drizzle! At two p.m. I began my investigation. I had four or so hours to explore! Plenty of time!
Though I started my inspection at the Comune di Castellaneta map (see above) I felt it was good to just walk and see where I ended up. All the signage in the tightly packed Old Quarter drew me to the Museo Valentino; which I knew was closed on that day, and on the next. Yet it was still good to locate it, so I could return there on my final morning, on the 6th. Here and there I saw adverts for the recently released biopic featuring Gabriel Garko as Rudolph Valentino: Rodolfo Valentino – La Leggenda (2013). And also a few A4 posters for the Premio Rodolfo Valentino event that night (which Garko would be attending). It was clearly a big deal locally and regionally.
After an initial easy stroll along the narrow streets and alleys I went to check the location of the theatre for the event later. Then, walked to a wet Via Roma, the main thoroughfare in Rudy’s time and today. It was here that I began to see the extent to which Rudolph Valentino is remembered – cherished, even – in Castellaneta. We might scoff at mid.-price fragrances that bear his professional name. Or think it a little tacky that a dry cleaner is named after him. (Generally I’m against profiting from a man so profited from in life and after death.) Yet at his place of origin it works. It’s appropriate. In fact, to be able to see all of the many ways in which he’s referenced, more than a century after his birth, is rather wonderful.
Sipping a classic Cappuccino, in the now faded, Bar Valentino/Caffeteria Valentino, was a real treat, as the establishment features in a Sixties short film about him, and where he came from; with interviews with his contemporaries and then young residents. It also allowed me to spend a bit of time out of the rain. And gave me the chance to look at what I’d photographed so far and how those images had turned out. (In some instances not so good.)
Fortified by caffeine I walked again through the Ancient Heart. Snapping and also re-snapping as I went – I found a wonderful plaster frieze on a side street on this second walk – with the intention to next view Valentino’s place of birth and the statue that stands nearby.
Finally – finally! – I was in front of his first home! What a moment! To be there where the story began! And get a true sense of the size – not so big – and the location! I looked at it from all angles – even the back – and took photographs until I felt I’d properly captured it. Here was where Rudy was born, heard his first lullaby, took his first steps, spoke his first words, heard his first bed time story… Going inside seemed out of the question — because it was. Suspicious, nervous looks from above, from the current occupant, when I walked down the side steps to the rear, made it totally clear it was pointless to attempt to knock on the door, or to ring any bell. Besides, my Italian was limited to phrase book phrases, and helpful little words, such as: thank you, hello and excuse me, etc.
After studying the Sixties memorial – at the time being prepared for restoration and now fully restored – it was only five-thirty p.m. What to do? Back along Via Roma I went to see what else I could find (grabbing a snack along the way). That I discovered, accidentally, the defunct train station from which, I assume, Rodolfo Guglielmi and his parents and his siblings departed for Taranto, in 1904, was a nice reward for my effort. And though it had been modernised before being closed, this was undeniably the spot at which his Grandfather, Pierre Philibert Barbin, had toiled, when the railway arrived at Castellaneta in the Nineteenth Century. And of course was the reason that his Mother and his Aunt settled so far away from France. Afterwards finding the apparently – seasonally? – closed nearby Alhambra Bar Valentino, the exterior painted a deep Rudy red, was a nice little extra. Did the owners know about The Hooded Falcon? The ambitious, doomed project of Natacha Rambova? And Valentino’s love of Spain? There was nobody around to ask!
As I wrote in some detail about the Premio Rodolfo Valentino event, at Teatro Valentino, in a piece for Chris. Roman’s, All About Rudolph Valentino Blog, in 2014, I’ll skip to the following day, the 5th, and my day-long return (in better weather), to Castelleneta. The purpose of this second bite of the cherry, was: to meet and speak with a local Historian; to view the spectacular Gravina, on the edge of which the town sits; to visit the beautiful Cathedral; go to the rival Valentino museum (the Pinacoteca); and to take yet more photographs of those narrow streets and alleys.
My morning appointment was an eye-opener, and helped me to understand better the activities of Valentino’s Grandfather, on his mother’s side. The Gravina di Castellaneta was breathtaking, and I and my travel companion, enjoyed a delicious lunch there of Italian supermarket delicatessen treats. The mainly Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Cathedral (Cattedrale di S. Maria Assunta gia di S. Nicola), with its sensational and very convincing faux marble columns, and the many Saints, and the glorious decorated ceiling, didn’t disappoint. And later in the bright afternoon sunshine I saw Castellaneta afresh.
The rain of the previous day had somehow obscured many treasures. On that pleasant Monday in May I could see everything more clearly. I saw the architectural mix. All of the many waves of history. The subtle, and sometimes, not-so-subtle colours. The stairways leading nowhere and the blocked off walkways. The teeny tiny windows and impossibly small doorways. It all assaulted me. And I could see that, though there had been obvious modernisation, these were still, for-the-most-part, the streets that Little Rodolfo had negotiated so long ago. The arches under which he’d passed. The corners around which he’d appeared or disappeared.
After a day that had filled up my brain to bursting point I needed to rest. And so back to the accommodation I went, to unwind, have a sleep, and to load everything I’d seen onto my laptop and my separate hard drive. However, it was all far from over, as, following a late dinner, Rudolph’s birth day began to approach. (He was born on the 6th.) Back in Bari or Taranto – I don’t recall – I’d bought a bottle of MUMM champagne for the occasion. And this had already been passed to our hosts to chill in their fridge for about 24 hours (to guarantee maximum iciness). As midnight approached they joined us in our quarters to share the moment. That they had no flutes was brushed aside by me. (That they’d (amazingly) never drunk Bubbly before seemed to add to the celebration.) And a little after midnight, we opened the bottle, saluted Rudy, and for about an hour shared the contents four ways. The trip was almost over. But I was happy rather than sad. (Was it the champagne?)
The next day the sun shone again. After breakfast on the roof, and loading our luggage into the vehicle of the hosts, it was time to head for the Fondazione Rodolfo Valentino Museo (Rodolfo) Valentino. An hour or so was all we had. And of course it was far from sufficient. However, our flight out of Bari, at three p.m., dictated that we be on our way in advance of lunchtime, and the museum didn’t open until ten a.m.
As anyone who’s been knows, the museum is small, but packs a punch. Entry is through a narrow doorway at the end of an open, vaulted space. Once inside, there’s a large reception area, with a desk, where you pay your modest entry fee (of just a few Euros) and can pick up pamphlets and booklets about the area; get advice and information; or book a trip or guided walk. In the initial space there’s also a glass cabinet filled with the most significant publications about Rudolph Valentino. (In it I noticed several I own.)
Then you move from space to space, eventually returning to where you began. There’s a wealth of framed material to view as you go. Some real gems. Two or three rooms are devoted to huge printed reproductions of his films. And there are a couple of room sets. One featuring a bed he’s understood to have slept in. And another, with an exotic tent, with a male mannequin dressed as a Sheik. The reasonably sized cinema runs films and instructional videos — but there was no time for that on this occasion.
I must say I’ve nothing but praise for the individuals who established it and those who now maintain it. Though I would personally make use of the space differently, were I running it, which I’m not, and obviously never will be, the fact it exists at all, when it could easily not, is something to be grateful for. In time it may develop into something more than it is. Perhaps add more artifacts, expand, and become more interactive. If it doesn’t it will still be important, and of interest, to those that are knowledgeable and those who aren’t. It was certainly a great full stop to my eight day trip to Southern Italy.
Castellaneta was everything I hoped it would be and so much more. And I recommend it as a destination if you’re interested in Rudolph Valentino. For me, as I said at the start, it was an absolute must. Somewhere along the way I was in a conversation, probably at Taranto, and was asked why I would go to his place of birth so long after he’d left, and when there was nobody alive that had known him. It was a good question. And the only answer I had was that that didn’t matter to me. Yes he was long gone. Yes his family and friends were dead. Yes it had changed. But I could still see his former home. I could still see the Gravina. I could still see those narrow passageways and streets and walk them. And if it’s true that an individual is often formed by experiences in the first seven years of existence, then it goes-without-saying that I had to see where his character had been formed. And, having done so, I believe I do know him better than I did. Much better.
The downside? There’s always a downside! Is that it’s still remote and sleepy. You could, like I did, struggle to find suitable lodgings. (The excellent Masseria I stayed at has since closed due to poor business.) And it’s not a Hot Spot or a Happening Place. In the early evening everything closes. And, as far as I could see, there are few good restaurants. All that said the people are charming and many, particularly those under forty, can speak English fairly well. There’s plenty to do and see during the daytime. And if you can drive you won’t need to be chauffeured as I was. If you do want to go, I think I’d recommend being based at Taranto and travelling up there for the day, maybe twice.
Thank you for reading this post about Castellaneta and walking in Rudy’s footsteps with me from beginning to end. It’s been fun to look back at the trip and share it with you all. In the future – I don’t know when – there’ll be posts about Taranto and Martina Franca. And I’ll also be posting about my visits to Perugia and Nervi in 2015. See you in May!
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!