Part I of the PBS Special "The Italian Americans" featured the Southern Italian-born actor, Rudolph Valentino. While reading about his life and career, I stumbled upon this fascinating bio written for IMDB..
IMDb Mini Biography By: Hala Pickford
Born in 1895 to a French mother and Italian father Rudolph Valentino grew up in Italy. His father died while he was young, and his mother spoiled him. He did poorly in school, and eventually ended up studying agriculture. After a stint in Paris he returned to Italy broke. Many times Valentino referenced something he did being the cause of being sent away. His journey to New York City took place just under 9 months before Jean Valentino would be born.
In New York City Valentino met with his Padrino (Godfather) Frank Mennillo who helped him secure a job and a place to live. Eventually Valentino was hired as a taxi dancer (someone who danced with various women in a café for 10 cents a dance). A good looking and gifted dancer he rose above the ranks and began performing for New York society elite. Infatuated and conducting an affair with married society woman Blanca de Saulles he testified in her defense during her divorce trial. Her husband John, a prominent businessman was not pleased and had Valentino arrested on vice charges that to this day are not clear (the records were wiped clean in the 1920s). After surviving this scandal Blanca shot her now ex-husband and Valentino left New York, hoping to avoid a new wave of scandal.
He ended up in San Francisco where his Padrino Frank Mennillo had since relocated to. He soon met Norman Kerry who suggested he try his hand at silent films. Valentino headed to Los Angeles on Kerry's advice, and began making the rounds at studios. A deeply exotic and alluring man his type was usually used for 'heavies' or villains. Eventually he eked out a living mostly co-starring in b-rated pictures.
During this time his mother died, devastating him. Hoping to recover from this shock he fell in love with fellow small time actress Jean Acker. Acker, a lesbian, was involved in a love triangle with powerful actresses Grace Darmond and Alla Nazimova. Valentino, unaware of her orientation, proposed. Acker accepted seeing it as a safe way out of her conundrum without ruining her career. The two were married at a party and after dancing all night headed for their hotel room. Acker locked Valentino out and the marriage was never consummated. Valentino, not understanding, sent her love letters for months begging her to 'forgive' him for whatever it was he had done, and to be his wife. Eventually it must have been explained to him because he moved on and the pair separated, though not divorced.
Soon after this Metro Executive June Mathis spotted him in a small part in the Clara Kimball Young film "Eyes of Youth". Mathis was in charge or writing and producing the epic film "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse". She chose the mostly unknown Valentino to play Latin lover Julio. Though executives were hesitant Mathis eventually got her way. She mentored Valentino and the two became close friends, and possibly were romantic at one time.
|"The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse"|
Without consulting any of his friends, let alone a lawyer, Valentino signed with Famous Players-Lasky again making a paltry salary. Famous Players cast him in perhaps his most famous role "The Sheik" in 1921. The Sheik was a cultural phenomena and much to Valentino's chagrin it was the image most associated with him. Ironically 5 years later it would also be his last film role.
|"Blood and Sand"|
"The Young Rajah" was not a hit, and Valentino was furious over the whole situation. Famous Players-Lasky ordered him to start work on a new film, but he refused and started refusing his salary (despite the fact he was in debt and actually owed the studio money from helping with his divorce). The matter played out in the press and Valentino embarked on a "One Man Strike" from Famous Players-Lasky. Famous Players obtained a court order forbidding him to work at all, though this was eventually was reduced to just work in film. Valentino insisted his strike was not about money but for artistic control, indeed he turned down an offer of $7,000 a week...a huge improvement over his last salary.
During this time to keep afloat Valentino wrote a book of poetry, gave interviews, and eventually accepted an offer to promote Minervala Beauty Clay via a dance tour. He also hired former Minervala advertising man George Ullman to be his business manager. The tour was a major success and afterwords he and his wife visited Europe. When they returned he signed with Ritz Carlton, though he still owed 2 films to Famous Players. His comeback picture, "Monsieur Beaucaire" was a French action comedy. Rambova had a major hand in the production, and when the film flopped she was blamed. His next film an artistic Latin Lover feature "A Sainted Devil" also did not fair well. Now free from Famous Players he and Rambova set upon creating their dream project "The Hooded Falcon".
"The Hooded Falcon" was a disaster, with double the advanced budget spent on costumes alone. After asking Mathis to write a script for the film Valentino, Rambova, and the directer felt it not up to par. Informed by George Ullman, Mathis promptly refused to have anything to do with Valentino or Rambova. She ran off and eloped with an Italian cameraman. She would not make up with Valentino until a few months before his death. Eventually The Hooded Falcon was scrapped, and the duo's contract terminated with Ritz Carlton. They had made only one film, a quickie named "Cobra" which also did not perform well.
At this time Valentino and Rambova's marriage became strained. Rightly or wrongly Rambova was blamed for his failures in the press. Reportedly children was another issue: Valentino desperately wanted children, while Rambova did not. Ironically the only person to dispute this was Ullman, who constantly feuded with Rambova. A contract from United Artists was offered to Valentino, giving him all sorts of freedoms and a good salary. It has long been said Rambova was stipulated via contract to not be on set or have any involvement in his films with UA, but that is untrue. Rambova was still miffed and Valentino and Ullman offered to finance a film for her that became "What Price Beauty?"
She had an affair with her cameraman causing Rudy to vow he would kill the man. Only George Ullman could dissuade them. Divorce papers were drawn up and Rambova left for New York. The press assumed she had left then announced the divorce out of the blue, when in reality both knew during their final kiss that a divorce was in the works. Rambova eventually obtained her divorce in France.
Rudy was not mourning the loss of Rambova however. He was dating Mae Murray and Pola Negri concurrently, as well as several other beauties. This only ended when Mae wed a Mdivani (Pola would later marry his brother.)
Valentino had been ill for several months, but refused to see a doctor. In August 1926 the pain was so bad a doctor was called, and he was transferred to a hospital in New York City. He had ulcers, which were operated on. Everyone believed he would be fine, and doctors gave optimistic reports. Valentino himself thought he would recover soon, he asked to be moved back to his hotel with a nurse to attend to him. The doctors refused. A few days after the surgery Valentino took a turn for the worse, his lungs were filled with fluid and infection had set in. He died on August 23rd, 1926 at the age of 31 with Frank Mennillo and George Ullman at his side. Everyone was shocked, and though there had been celebrity deaths before his, the public's reaction was extremely intense.
George Ullman was the executor of his estate. Hoping to help keep Valentino's name in the papers long enough to promote "Son of the Sheik" (Valentino's estate was $3 million in debt, leaving no money to take care of his affairs or even bury him) he decided to allow a public viewing. However the viewing became a madhouse, and Ullman pulled the plug abruptly. A funeral was held in New York. The body was transported across the country to Los Angeles where another funeral was held, and Valentino was buried. June Mathis had a row of crypts at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. She offered to loan Valentino one of her crypts. However she died herself in 1927, and Valentino was moved into what would have been her husband's crypt. In the 1930's, Mathis' husband sold the crypt to the Valentino family, Valentino lies in the 'borrowed' crypt to this day.
There were many plans for memorials and statues after his death, however Mathis' death, and the Great Depression put an end to these. Today about 60% of Valentino's films still survive, including his most noteworthy ones. He's still remembered as The Great Lover of the Silver Screen.
A beautiful montage of Valentino's life..