Long Before Clark Gable or Brando, James Dean or Elvis, Paul Newman, Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp – the First Pop Icon Glam Rock Superstar Held the World at His Feet. His Name was Rudolph Valentino. And Long before National Enquirer, Vanity Fair or TMZ, Valentino managed to Achieve SuperStar Fame & Weave a Tangled Web of Personal Scandal to rival that of any Modern-Day Star….and so it Begins ~
At the Turn of the 20th Century, Los Angeles was but a sleepy Pueblo, just coming into its own as a City. San Francisco had already established a huge Shipping trade by virtue of its Great Bay, however crippled she was by the Earthquake of 1906. The City would rebuild to hold the Panama-Pacific International Exposition just nine years later.
Other Cities in Southern California were sought out by Easterners as a Place to flock to for the Climate. Towns like Redlands and Riverside were Reached by Rail from parts Eastward for their Hot Springs and balmy climates in the Days before Modern Medicine, as Folk travelled West for a Climate to Cure what ailed them, or an opportunity to work in the New Agricultural Paradise, Miles and Endless Miles of Lemons, Oranges and every kind of Virgin FarmLand Crop to Sow as Far as the Eye Could See. California Towns South and East were larger and more Established than Los Angeles at that time, nearer and more accessible from the East by Railway and Rural Roads in the Days before Highways.
But The Sleepy L.A. Pueblo had begun to grow, with an incredibly varied terrain, Mountains, Sea, Growing Cityscape and cheap, endless land just waiting for any Entrepeneurial Spirit to Come Along. Recent improvements to the City Infrastructure had only recently arrived, like Electric Streetlights. In 1912, A Former New York actor came to town, his name was Mack Sennett. With financial backing from Adam Kessel and Charles O. Bauman of the New York Motion Picture Company, Sennett founded Keystone Studios in Edendale, California, (which is now a part of Echo Park). The original main building, the first totally enclosed film stage and studio in history, is still there. Many important actors started their careers with Sennett, including Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson,The Keystone Cops, Bing Crosby, and W. C. Fields.
On the Other Side of the World, a Young Italian named Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Piero Filiberto Guglielmi, born in 1895 from the small village of Castellaneta, had moved to Paris at the age of 17. However, unable to find much work, he returned to Italy, then still struggling, made his way to America by way of Ellis Island and New York City in 1913. As Irony and Fate would have it, the very first ‘moving picture’ was shown in Paris the year of Valentino’s birth. Rumor has it that Rodolfo, the middle child, (his siblings were Alberto and Maria), was his mother’s favorite and a handsome son. She doted on him and lavished him with attention. As one would expect, Rodolfo grew into a wild child, spoiled and of the belief that he could get away with anything. His teachers didn’t share that belief, and Rodolfo was expelled from many schools before he managed to graduate from the Academy of Agriculture with a diploma in the Science of Farming. Rodolfo moved to Paris and studied apache dancing while still a teenager. He obtains a position working as a dancer at Maxim’s. In 1913, after he had collected the $4000 inheritance coming his way, Rodolfo took off for New York.
He meets Bonnie Glass, who is in need of a new dancing partner to tour New York clubs and the Vaudeville circuit. Valentino is billed as Signor Rodolfo. After Ms. Glass retires, Rodolfo dances with Joan Sawyer and continues to tour in vaudeville on the East Coast, all the while perfecting his penchant for Argentine Tango. Valentino did whatever else he could to get by: he bussed tables and became something of a gigolo. During this time, Valentino fell madly in love with a married society woman named Blanca de Saulles. Mme. de Saulles had been unhappily married long before she had met Valentino and eventually divorced her husband John. Perhaps trying to win de Saulles over (she had never returned his affections) Valentino testified at the trial. John de Saulles was extremely powerful and had Valentino arrested on trumped up vice charges. The arrest was highly publicized and shortly after Blanca shot and killed her husband over a custody dispute. Rodolfo wisely left New York with a traveling musical that included Al Jolson and changed his name from Guglielmi to the now known ‘Valentino’.
Valentino soon joined an operetta company that travelled to Utah where it disbanded, then travelled to San Francisco where he meets the actor Norman Kerry, who is Mary Pickford’s leading man. Kerry convinces him to try a career in films. Many of Valentino’s peers had delved into acting in New York before making their migrations West, and as many stars would do later, Brando, Paul Newman, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean – all acted extensively in New York before coming to Hollywood. Around 1917, Valentino made the exodus to Hollywood, completely bypassing the New York movie scene before making his migration West. Almost immediately he procured his first movie role – albeit a small one – in the film Alimony, thanks to his Tango abilities. There is some discrepancy on what his first movie role is-he apparently appeared uncredited in a few other films before Alimony, such as My Official Wife (1914, starring Clara Kimball Young) and The Foolish Virgin (1916). Rudolph Valentino made just over 20 films before his big breakout role, and in none of these did he play the smoldering lover he would become so famous for. He was still finding his footing in Hollywood, and this included finding the right name for himself. Handsome Irish or English white men were the romantic types of the day, (Jack Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Thomas Meighan) while anyone deemed ‘not white’ was unable to obtain such roles. Foreign looking actors usually were given nothing but evil villain roles. Valentino would eventually be the first to change this with the help of his mentor June Mathis. Despite playing ‘heavies’, Valentino’s early roles show his natural acting talent. At a time when some stars still overacted (remnants of early 1900 stage acting) Valentino portrayed his characters in a natural way. He also showcased his skill for comedy during these years in films like “All Night” in 1918.
At various times, he has been credited as M. Rodolfo De Valentina, M. Rodolpho De Valentina, M. De Valentina, R. De Valentina, Rudolpho De Valentina, Rudolpho De Valentine, Rudolph DeValentino, Rudolpho Valentina, Rodolph Valentine, Rudolph Valentine and Rodolph Valentino. Some of these early films include: All Night (1918),Virtuous Sinners, Eyes of Youth (both 1919), Passion’s Playground and The Sinner (both 1920). He primarily played the ‘villain’ in these early films. Most, but not all of these early films are Lost Forever, the highly soluble, flammable and volatile film stock from the period meant many were lost or destroyed due to minimal copies made, exposure to light or simple poor handling and archiving.
In 1919 Rodolfo began a courtship and impulsively married the actress Jean Acker—who through her later affairs in the Garden of Allah would prove to be a lesbian—on their wedding night, she locked him out of her bedroom. The marriage was never consummated. Rudolfo struggled with his reluctant wife and seemingly still unaware of her being a lesbian, writes her impassioned letters and sends her three photos inscribed with endearments of a loving husband. His efforts failed and in late December, an announcement is made of their official separation and they divorced in 1921. She and Valentino remained friends for the rest of his life. Jean Acker went on to have a minor career as an actress for the majority of her long life, she died in 1978. She kept the name Valentino her entire life, obviously no doubt to some advantage.
Several factors now came into play as to the direction of Valentino’s career, about to soar on a steep path of fame. Valentino would meet his Mentor. Her name was June Mathis, and she was the first female movie executive, having wrote the 6th best selling silent film of all time, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Ms. Mathis saw an Exotic, Erotic persona in Valentino that other Studio Execs had missed, always passing on him for the White Leading Men of the Day….Douglas Fairbanks, Chaplin, the Lot of Them, and their Stars were about to be Eclipsed.
Mathis was the Staff Scenarist at Metro Studios and the Driving Force behind the new film, “Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse”. Calling Valentino to her office, she offers him the plum lead role of Julio – a decision that proves to be a Huge Hit for Metro, making Valentino an Overnight Sensation.
Another Factor to give rise to Valentino’s ‘Exotic’ looks and persona, halfway Around the World in Egypt, though several of the foremost excavators over the past century had declared there was nothing left to find in the Valley of the Kings, Howard Carter and his sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, spent a number of years, 31 in all – and a lot of money searching for a tomb they weren’t sure existed. In November 1922, they found it. Carter had discovered not just an unknown ancient Egyptian tomb, but one that had lain nearly undisturbed for over 3,000 years. What lay within astounded the world….The Nearly Unbelievable Solid Gold Treasures revealed in King Tutankhamen’s Tomb.
Suddenly All the World and of course the World of Hollywood was Mad for all Things Art Deco Egyptian. Or Aztec, Mayan, Arabian..Chinese…Anything Exotic. Hollywood Built Shrines to All of Them in form of Huge Exotic Theaters, even naming one The Shrine. All Still Stand in Hollywood Today and are All California Cultural Treasures. Much to his Good Fortune, His Rising Star, Exotic Looks and the Persona of Rudolph Valentino – all just happened to perfectly coincide with This Exotic Moment in Time…He Would Fill Those Theaters One and All, without ever Speaking One Word on Film.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, released in 1921, became a commercial and critical success – being one of the first films to make $1,000,000 at the box office. One of the best selling silent films ever. The film made Valentino a sensation, earning him Instant Fame, merging his emergence perfectly to The World’s Sudden Obsession with Everything Exotic Era of the Roaring 20’s ~
Metro continued only paying Valentino $350 a week (when most stars made several thousand a week). Valentino was never wise with business dealings and suffered from similar contract and money issues his whole life. When he died in 1926, his estate was heavily in debt, something not expected of a star of his stature.
To add to his troubles Metro threw him into a ‘B’ picture, “Uncharted Seas” (now lost), which would foreshadow his artistic and power struggles with studios and movie moguls his entire career. During this period Valentino meets the great Russian actress Alla Nazimova, who is preparing to film an adaptation of “Camille”.
By 1918, Alla Nazimova had signed a contract with Metro and continued to make 11 films for them over the next three years. She was making around $13,000 a week in 1917. Nazimova lived with actor Charles Bryant during this period, although the two never married. It was well-known that Nazimova was bisexual. She apparently had affairs with not only Valentino’s not-quite ‘ex’, but with several of his other lovers of the Day. Lucky Girl, indeed. Her first real artistic triumph came with the filming of “Camille” in 1921 which had sets designed by Natacha Rambova and co-starred Rudolph Valentino. This marked the beginning of the Rambova-Valentino love affair.
Natacha Rambova – was an American silent film costume and set designer, artistic director,screenwriter, producer and occasional actress. Ms. Rambova was born Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy, in Salt Lake City. (What a difference a name makes) ! At age 17 Rambova fell for 32 year old Ballet & Opera star Theodore Kosloff . While in England she posed as a governess to Kosloff’s wife and child. Rambova returned to America and began touring with the Kosloff company. In addition to dancing she began costume designing as well. After the tour ended Kosloff had been hired by Cecil B. DeMille to perform as well as contribute designs. Rambova joined him and was dismayed to find herself as part of Kosloff’s “arty harem”. Kosloff had taken several lovers amongst the dancers, who would perform with his company, teach at his studio, and assist him uncredited in his film work. Rambova took to researching historical accuracy for her designs, which Kosloff would then use without giving her credit, stealing her sketches and claiming them as his own.
Rambova soon had enough of Kosloff stealing her Ideas & with him. Being Talented, Smart & Beautiful, who better to latch onto than the Most Available Hollywood Batchelor of the Day? And Voila ~ Mr. & Ms. Valentino were married in Mexico in May, 1922. Only One Problem ~ Mr. Valentino was still married to his former wife Jean Acker ~ No Bueno.
And So the Valentino Saga Shifted into High Gear, with Fame & Modest Fortune, a list of upcoming Films that would make Rudolph Valentino known to the World ~ His Life was about to become increasingly Complex. Ruled by by his Heart more so than his Head ~ On & Off-Screen, Valentino’s own life was like that of one of his Romantic Characters..and so a California Icon he Became. He was 25.
Valentino’s next Film was Camille. Having met Alla Nazimova, who had been at work on the film adaptation, his Rising Star and the astute business sense of June Mathis evolved him into starring opposite Ms.Nazimova. Natacha Rambova was elected as Costume Designer on the film and she possessed a great talent in her role. Pictures of her costumes and the film itself showcased her skills. Valentino began pursuing her and a courtship with Rambova during filming. Initially he makes a poor impression but perhaps his skill at Romance and Growing Fame persuaded her toward him. At any rate they are living together by the close of production on Camille. And the Plot thickens. The former Ms. Valentino, Jean Acker files for divorce.
The Valentino’s, objects of derision in the Press for charges of Bigamy, had been living in Sin within the Romantic Paradise of The Garden of Allah, a Group of Spanish Bungalows built on the grounds of the Palatial Home of none other than Valentino’s co-star, Ms. Nazimova. Paramount Studios had bestowed Nazimova with the home and grounds when the star was at her apex so she might enjoy a glamorous retreat in the burgeoning Hollywood community. A 1959 LA Times article discusses those early years:
‘To garnish the gift, [Nazimova] built Hollywood’s largest swimming pool—65 x 45 ft.—and had it shaped like the Black Sea of her girlhood. The pool hung like a dewy sapphire around the heart of her garden.
And when she made her garden over, Nazimova was bountiful. In the big revamp, she showered $1.5 million on the place, built 25 unique villas of Spanish design and packed them with the last word in charm and fashion’…
The Garden of Allah was torn down in the late 1950’s, nearly forgotten and having fallen into disrepair, before the days of Hollywood’s Cultural Awareness and Preservation for her Landmarks. It is now a generic shopping center, devoid of any of the Hollywood History, Scandals, Fashionable Parties, Romance, and the ‘Black Sea’ swimming pool for which it was known.
2 excellent articles on this time :
“They Paved Paradise, and put up a Parking Lot”
– Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi” ~ 1970.
Truer Words were Never Spoken.
And So ~ although Rudolph was briefly arrested and jailed, the Valentino’s were able to move on from his bigamy charges & scandal to be legally & officially married. And, as all Hollywood SuperStars are Wont to Do, it was time to go House-Hunting…
Rudy and Natacha jointly purchase a home in the fashionable Whitley Heights section of Hollywood at 6770 Wedgewood Place, in December. Natacha moves in while Rudolph lives in a bungalow nearby until the divorce proceedings are concluded. They anticipate a Spring Wedding…Rudolph is about to embark on his Next Picture -“Beyond the Rocks“, co-starring one of the Biggest Stars of The Day, Ms. Gloria Swanson. It is a Busy, Rapidly Accelerating Time & A Happy One. However ~ as in the Theatrics True to Every form of Melodrama, from Ancient Rome to Shakespeare to the Modern Day Silver Screen of the Roaring 20’s, Alas, Forever it is Not to Be…
And What of Valentino the Man ? For now he had Become truly a A Star ~ Known to Millions, with the means to indulge in The Roaring 20’s Life to its Fullest. He was an avid horseman, not only as his screen persona but in his personal life as well. Hollywood and Los Angeles was almost rural in those days. A ‘Freeway’ was an unknown contrivance, unnecessary for another 20 years. The Red Line streetcars were ‘urban transportation’, automobiles had been on the recently paved streets no more than 10 years. Wealthy and indeed all classes of people were still well-versed in horses and their presence throughout the land. Valentino maintained an increasing stable of horses and loved riding them in the Hollywood Hills. By all accounts he was an excellent rider.
A New Wife, Hollywood Home, Fame and the relatively new mode of transportation ~ The Automobile. Valentino had Distinctly European tastes in all. No doubt in todays terms he would have had a garage full of vintage Ferraris and their equal. He was an avid lover of Dogs as well, and from this point on in his personal life, a majority of photographs show him with his beloved dogs by his side. Upon the death of one of his favorites, Kabar, Valentino had the dog interred in his own plot at a Hollywood Cemetery normally reserved for the human species, such was his love for him.
This seems to say a lot about him as a man.
Rudolph Valentino went on to become an Even Bigger Star ~ perhaps the biggest star in Hollywood, ever. It’s quite easy to find that to be an arguable point, however I daresay nearly no one reading my story was around to experience his Fame at that time. In researching and writing this entry,
I found just an incredible amount of information and images about him, certainly more so than I have encountered on any other California subject I’ve written about, including 60’s Rock, The Doors, and almost any subject I’ve ever researched online. Images of him and his Film Posters in several languages, Spanish, Dutch, German, French, Arabic. An Incredible Cultural Presence in the 1920’s era of Communication – He certainly was adored by his public. I think not only for his films but also a certain sensitivity to life, and the enjoyment of at all costs, having risen from a mixed life of middle-class, then near poverty to achieve his Glorified position. Having grown up in Southern California and influenced by Grandparents somewhat similar in styles and tastes to Valentino and his wife, it became quite clear to me where, as a young couple, they got their inspiration. And for whatever remains of that, I appreciate having grown up in a place touched by those influences. Valentino, Nazimova and Rambova, along with other Famous People in California of the Day, established a Style & Culture level that influenced Fashion, Architecture and an entire environmental persona in California that, However Lost we have become in a Modern Day World of strip malls, urban crime, media, freeways, ‘impersonal internet sociability’, cellular & digital communication filling the air around us, density and a jaded hurried non-awareness of the Place We Live. Somehow images of how California was, and what remains ~ seem important to seek out. There are many, many places, facts & trivia to detail the remainder of Valentino’s Life, and Death, the Endless Mystique of A World Without Valentino Since. Indeed the majority of his fame began at the point I leave us here in my dialogue ~
What made him so vital in the Hollywoodland Days of his Fame and now, were Visual Images Without Words that are Timeless.