Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filiberto Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolla, who would be known professionally as Rudolph Valentino, was born on May 6, 1895 in Castellaneta, Italy. Valentino’s Italian father Giovanni, a veterinarian, died when the actor was only 11 years old. His mother, Marie, who was French, raised the boy and his three siblings on her own.
Valentino was a poor student, who wanted to get by on his good looks and charisma. Eventually, he attended an agricultural school in Genoa, Italy, where he eventually graduated. With difficulty finding employment in both Paris, France as well as his native Italy, he decided to head across the Atlantic Ocean. He arrived at Ellis Island in New York City on December 23, 1913. He was 18 years old.
Valentino’s early days in New York City were filled with suffering and misery. Due to performance issues, he was unable to hold down a job long-term. This included being a busboy at the restaurant Murray’s, which was on 42nd Street. Nevertheless, he befriended his co-workers and they would always sneak him free food.
Eventually, Valentino found work as a dancer. First through restaurateur Joe Pani, who hired him and Joan Sawyer to dance the tango at his nightlife hotspots Castles-by-the-Sea, the Colony, and the Woodmansten Inn. Once he was better established he went to work at Maxim’s Restaurant-Cabaret.
Relationship with Blanca de Saulles
While working as a dancer Valentino became involved with Blanca de Saulles. She was the wife of a wealthy businessman and real estate magnate, John de Saulles. Although it has been debated, it is believed that they were in a platonic relationship. This is because he testified on her behalf in court that her husband had been unfaithful.
In an act of defiant revenge, Mr. de Saulles had Valentino arrested on a trumped-up vice charge. With no real evidence to charge him, he was released after a few days in jail on a $1,500 bond. Subsequently, the charges against him were dropped. In the ensuing days, Bianca unloaded a pistol on her ex-husband over custody of their son on August 3, 1917.
In order to avoid any publicity or testimony in the de Saulles murder trial, Valentino left town and headed west. He joined a theatre company in Utah and soon was in a production of Robinson Crusoe, Jr. with Al Jolson, which was headed to Los Angeles.
After a brief stint in San Francisco starring in the play Nobody Home, Valentino, and his friend and fellow actor, Norman Kerry headed back to L.A. Their goal was to try to break into the movie business. Kerry and Valentino were roommates at the Alexandria Hotel at 501 South Spring Street before Valentino went out on his own, renting a room on the Sunset Strip.
Silent Movies and First Marriage
While living on the Sunset Strip Valentino began to appear in movies. His first on-screen appearance in Hollywood was merely as an extra in the 1917 movie Alimony. Deemed too exotic looking to be a leading man by the Hollywood Brass, Valentino began to find steady work as the “heavy” in bit parts in many movies. Examples of this were Eyes of Youth (1919) and Passion’s Playground (1920).
On November 6, 1919, Valentino married actress Jean Acker. Acker was a lesbian involved with a silent actress and eventual proprietor of the Garden of Allah Hotel. Valentino met Acker at a party two months prior to their wedding. They soon began to see each other socially, before engaging in a “lavender marriage.” These marriages, which involved homosexual stars, were typically arranged by the studio to hide their sexual orientation from the public.
Valentino, who was unaware of Acker’s sexual orientation, was locked out of his hotel room on his wedding night by his bride before the marriage could be consummated. Valentino tried in vain to “win her back” by writing Acker love letters. Eventually, he gave up and filed for divorce.
While en route to Palm Springs, Florida, Valentino read a copy of the Vicente Blasco Ibáñez novel The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The book immediately captured Valentino’s imagination. After a bit of research in the trade rags, he learned that the rights to the book were owned by Metro Pictures.
Valentino traveled to New York City and went to Metro’s headquarters. When he arrived he learned that the studio executive June Mathis was trying to find him to cast him as Julio Desnoyers in the picture. Mathis was the second most powerful woman in Hollywood after Mary Pickford. Subsequently, Valentino was signed to a salary of $350 per week for the movie. However, he did not get along with the movie’s director Rex Ingram, and Mathis was forced to moderate between the pair.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) became a smash hit at the box office earning over $1,000,000. As a result, Valentino was cast as the leading man in the Alla Nazimova vehicle Camille (1921) at Metro. The costume designer for this film, Natacha Rambova (born Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy) become romantically involved with Valentino soon after filming began.
Upon release, Camille was considered too avant-garde for audiences and did poorly at the box office. Valentino made one more film for Metro, The Conquering Power (1921), which was a hit at the box office. Once the movie was released, Valentino quit the studio as they had refused to give him a pay raise.
Famous Players and Marriage Scandal
Not long after leaving Metro, Valentino signed with Famous Players-Lasky. He talked Mathis into joining him at the studio. The pair had developed a close bond during the making of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Valentino even thought of her as a second mother. Part of her arrangement with Famous Players was that she would continue to write and develop projects for Valentino.
“She (Mathis) discovered me, anything I have accomplished I owe to her, to her judgment, to her advice and to her unfailing patience and confidence in me.”
– Rudolph Valentino
Producer Jesse L. Lasky recognized the star power in Valentino. As a result, he cast him as the lead in his new picture, The Sheik (1921). The movie was a huge hit, earning over $1,500,000 at the box office on a budget of $200,000. He followed this movie up with Moran of the Lady Letty (1922) with Dorothy Dalton. He also appeared in Beyond the Rocks (1922), which co-starred Gloria Swanson.
After completing filming of the movie Blood and Sand (1922), Valentino married Rambova on May 13, 1922, in Mexicali, Mexico. Although he was divorced from Acker at the time, it had been less than a year since the marriage had been dissolved. California law at the time did not recognize a divorce as being official until a year after the paperwork had been filed. Subsequently, Valentino was arrested for bigamy. Famous Player refused to help Valentino in any way, including posting bail for his release from jail.
After a group of friends pooled their money to get Valentino out on bail, he and Rambova lived in separate apartments in New York City. They officially and legally remarried at the Lake County Court House in Crown Point, Indiana on March 14, 1923.
Between his arrest for bigamy and his remarriage to Rambova, Valentino was involved in a pay dispute with Famous Players. This resulted in him going on strike from the studio. At the time, Valentino was making $1,250 per week and felt he was underpaid as Mary Pickford earned over $8,000 per week. The average American made $2,000 per year at this time. Valentino even refused to accept the paychecks that were his until the dispute was resolved.
Famous Players, who were still reeling from the Fatty Arbuckle scandal, offered Valentino $7,000 per week. Before Valentino had officially accepted the offer, Variety announced the deal was done. This angered Valentino who summarily rejected it. Valentino, at this point, was over $80,000 in debt and refused to return to Famous Players. He needed to find work outside of the movie business.
Mineralava Dance Tour
Valentino signed with a new manager in late 1922, George Ullman. He presented Valentino with the opportunity of doing a dance tour sponsored by Mineralava Beauty Clay Company. This would have marketing synergy for his female fans across the country. Valentino agreed and the tour was announced on January 23, 1923.
The tour, which featured Valentino dancing with Rambova, began in February, lasting 17 weeks and going through 88 cities nationwide. The pair also judged beauty contests, which were sponsored by Rambova’s stepfather Richard Hudnut, who produced cosmetics. Each winner was brought to New York City on November 23, 1923, with one being crowned the ultimate winner at Madison Square Garden. David O. Selznick produced a short film about this event entitled Rudolph Valentino and his 88 American Beauties.
Falcon Lair and Ritz-Carlton
It was during this period that Rambova really took control of Valentino’s career. Valentino returned to the movie business when he received a joint offer from Ritz-Carlton Pictures and Famous Players for $7,500 a week. He accepted the offer at the behest of Rambova and agreed to make two movies for Famous Players and four for Ritz-Carlton.
The two movies he made for Famous Players, Monsieur Beaucaire and The Sainted Devil, both released in 1924 were commercial failures. His first movie for Ritz-Carlton was to be The Hooded Falcon (1924), with a screenplay by June Mathis. Rambova thought the script was terrible and asked that it be rewritten. Furious, Mathis refused and didn’t speak to Valentino for two years. Rambova then took over scriptwriting duties on the movie, while Valentino shot the movie Cobra (1925). As the months dragged by, the pre-production budget for The Hooded Falcon ballooned out of control. As a result, Ritz-Carlton opted to terminate his contract.
While working on pre-production for The Hooded Falcon, Valentino built a lavish estate at 1436 Bella Drive in Bel Air. He dubbed his new home ‘Falcon Lair.’ The 4,700 square foot home was built on a four-acre lot by legendary architect Wallace Neff at a cost of $175,000.
Final Roles and Death
Around the time Valentino was making the movie Cobra for Ritz-Carlton, he was approached by Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks to join them at United Artists, for $10,000 a week. However, this was to be without Rambova and her now-notorious meddling.
Valentino accepted the deal, but it caused problems in his marriage. So much so that when the shooting began on The Eagle (1925), Rambova decided to take a “marital vacation” from Valentino. The marriage wouldn’t recover, and they divorced later that year.
After traveling to Europe to promote The Eagle, Valentino returned to Hollywood to film The Son of the Sheik (1926). Valentino didn’t want to make the movie, but he was nearly destitute and needed the cash in order to pay his mounting debts. At the premiere on July 9, 1926, Valentino reconciled with Mathis.
Valentino began to feel in poor health while filming The Son of the Sheik and It continued to worsen over the following months. Eventually, he collapsed at the Hotel Ambassador on Park Avenue in New York City on August 15, 1926. Valentino was admitted to the New York Polyclinic Hospital, where he was diagnosed with appendicitis and gastric ulcers. After surgery, he developed peritonitis and his condition worsened. The doctors knew he was going to die. Yet, they let him believe he would recover fully. On August 23, Valentino fell into a coma and died a few hours later. He was only 31 years old.
Mobs of people reportedly north of 100,000 swarmed the streets of New York City during his funeral on August 30, 1926. Over 100 mounted police officers were used in restoring order during this calamitous riot. Valentino’s funeral mass was held at Saint Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church. However, a second funeral was held at the Catholic Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills, when his body returned via train to California.
Since Valentino was young when he died, he had no burial arrangements made. Mathis decided to let Valentino be interred in the crypt she had purchased for her now ex-husband. This would be a temporary solution until a final one was available. However, Mathis died of a heart attack in 1927, before these arrangements could be made. She was buried in the crypt next to the one Valentino’s remains were housed in. Both are still interred next to each other nearly 100 years later at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
Valentino’s estate, including Falcon Lair, was left to his brother, sister, and Rambova’s aunt Teresa Werner. The property and his belongings were auctioned off to pay his debts. Tobacco heiress Doris Duke owned and lived in the home from 1952 until her death in 1993. The house was eventually razed in 2006.
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