A man should control his life. Mine is controlling me.
Even in an era of instant celebrity and media overload, it is almost impossible to comprehend the fame of silent film star Rudolph Valentino. He wasn’t the first American film star, or even the first male cinema heartthrob, but audience around the world found the first bonafide sex symbol in this affable immigrant from southern Italy. Although often labeled “exotic,” the shifting demographics in the United States made him the archetype of the new America. He wasn’t exotic as much as he was the future.
Never comfortable with the attention and near hysteria that followed him, his monumental fame and fortune brought him little happiness, and his life was a parade of tragedy, culminating in his death at 31. In those three decades, Rudolph (“Rudy” to those he knew) Valentino would arguably find only one moment of real happiness: in an Indiana courthouse in 1923.
Rudolph Valentino’s trip to Crown Point wasn’t announced, but it didn’t take long for word to spread across that cinema’s biggest star had just arrived at the Hub of Lake County. In the 1920s, Crown Point was a nondescript city on the very fringe of Chicagoland, but nondescript doesn’t mean unknown. The city’s courthouse, nicknamed the “Marriage Mill,” had received much attention for its no-wait wedding licenses. Although US laws varied state-by-state in the 1920s, couples generally had to wait anywhere from a few days to a couple months to receive a marriage license. Indiana’s “Marriage Mill” was the early 20th century equivalent of a one-hour photo. As picturesque as Crown Point might have been in 1923, Rudy Valentino came for only one reason—to legally marry a woman he loved.
Valentino Arrives in America
The momentum of Rudolph Valentino’s fame was such that he remains one of the most celebrated figures in Hollywood history even today, easily as famous as Charlie Chaplain, despite having fewer films and a shorter career.Born Rodolfo Pietro Filiberto Raffaello Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguella, eighteen-year-oldRudy arrived on Ellis Island in 1913. His mother and many villagers in his hometown of Castellaneta had loved the affectionate boy, whose good looks were readily apparent at a young age.
His father, on the other hand, had disliked his son and the attention he received, a pattern of male jealousy and envy that would plague Rudy his entire life. Rudy’s father died when the boy was only eleven, and Rudy no longer had the luxury of childhood. He had to earn his living. After trying and failing in Italy and Paris, the young man decided his fortunes waited in America.
Despite his polished manners and friendliness, Rudy Valentino could not adapt to the working-class grind and rarely held onto a job more than a few weeks. In that first delicate year in New York, a sometimes-homeless Rudy Valentino stayed alive through his persistent job hunting (he easily received and lost a dozen jobs from 1913-1914) and the generosity of his friends.
It wasn’t until a restaurant owner discovered the young man’s talents as a dancer and performer that Rudy finally found his calling. For $50 a week (about $1200 a week today), Rudy and a partner would entertain diners by performing the tango, a new dance fad out of South America. Rudy might not have been a great busboy, gardener, or dishwasher, but he was a hell of a dancer. Like Madonna once sang, he could “strike a pose.”
Homeless Immigrant to Movie Idol
Before entering the silent film industry, Rudy Valentino tried desperately to join the US military for service in World War I, but his immigrant status and his incomplete paperwork listed him as a citizen of Italy, preventing his fighting overseas. He even traveled to Canada in an attempt to join their military, but was again denied. Later on, his critics would needle the cinema idol for his failure to serve, labeling him a “coward” and infuriating Valentino.
The blossoming Hollywood film industry welcomed Rudy Valentino, pushing the dark-haired, dusky-skinned star into villainous (and somewhat racist) roles. Although his popularity as an exotic actor gained him a small following, he still made only a few hundred dollars a week, a fraction of what his costars made. Rudy furiously fought to find a vehicle to showcase his abilities as an actor. He finally got his foot in the movie-goers’ door with a one-two punch of films in 1921: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and The Sheik, both among the most profitable films of the silent era.
Although he found the professional success he had worked so hard for by 1921, his personal life had fallen apart. He had fallen in love with actress Jean Acker, who used the somewhat naive Valentino to shake off tabloid rumors that she was a lesbian. The rumors were true, but so was Rudy’s love for Acker. She refused to consummate the marriage, famously locking him out of their hotel room the night of their wedding.In 1921, as his film career took off, a heartbroken Valentino sought and received a divorce from Acker, citing her desertion of the marriage. Not one to hold grudges, he generously agreed to a substantial alimony for Acker and they later became friends.
The sudden fame both shocked and haunted Valentino. No one, especially not Valentino, had been prepared for the hysterical devotion of his fans…and the rabid hatred of his detractors. Fan injuries during autograph sessions were commonplace. The cult of celebrity—the tabloid headlines, the journalists, mobbing fans—disgusted him. In an interview, he told Chicago journalist Henry Louis Mencken that his entire film career, which he worked so hard to cultivate, overcoming poverty and bigotry, turned out to be “a vast and preposterous nothing…destructive alike to his peace and his dignity.” Mencken would later summarize Valentino’s persona in a single word: unhappy.
Born Winifred Shaughnessy, Natacha Rambova carved a Hollywood career for herself by talent and vamping. Although as humbly American as apple pie, she reinvented herself as exotic and worldly, becoming industry onto herself in the film industry. She was a costume designer, a set designer, fashion designer, dancer, and an actress. With women’s suffrage only a few years old in the United States, Natasha’s shocking intellect transformed her into a force of nature. If Rudy was the new American man, she was easily the new American woman: ambitious, intelligent, and shrewd. After leaving Hollywood years later, she would become an expert in the growing field of Egyptology, earning two Mellon Grants and later editing and contributing to some of the most respected texts in the field. But in 1922, her substantial gaze was fixed solely on Rudy Valentino.
Their whirlwind romance, which began on a film set in 1921, culminated in their 1922 marriage in Baja Mexico. Rudy Valentino thought he had found the happiness he desired, until he returned to the United States and officials arrested him for bigamy. His divorce from Jean Acker, which had been a disastrous marriage from the start, was not quite a year old before he remarried, thus illegal in American law. Rudy Valentino was handcuffed and America’s most famous celebrity was thrown in jail. His studio, wanting to distance themselves from their young star’s scandal, declined to post the $10,000 bail, leaving his friends to gather funds and bail him out.
Word of Valentino’s 1923 visit spread across the town like fire through a cornfield, and Hoosiers (mostly women) left their homes and jobs by the hundreds to catch a glimpse of Valentino on the courthouse square. Natacha and Rudy had hoped to find a courthouse closer to the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago, where they were currently staying. They chose Crown Point because it was available and far enough away that city journalists would likely not find them. They were right.
Only a couple local reporters made it to the scene and the Crown Point license office had the couple married and filed within a couple hours. The new Mr. and Mrs. Valentino planned to return to the Blackstone that evening. However, they were so grateful for the city’s courteous reception that Valentino circled the courthouse square twice, signing autographs and greetings fans for hours after the wedding.
That moment of happiness Valentino found in Crown Point would not last. Rambova would prove to be a controlling figure in Valentino’s personal and professional life. Valentino’s one constant in his life, his friends, distanced themselves from Rudy, distrusting the ambitious machinations of Rambova. When his studio contract came up for renewal, an added clause forbade his wife from setting foot on the set while Valentino worked, since they considered her a destructive distraction.
His marriage to Rambova ended in 1925 in a bitter divorce. His will would later leave her just $1. His career stalled and his marriage over, the vultures of entertainment media descended on the actor.
Tragedy to the End
Valentino frequently voiced his low opinion of tabloid journalists, and they responded by sowing a field of baseless rumors about the popular actor: that he was a coward, that he was a homosexual, that all his marriages had been fakes, that he was illiterate. In cases of libel, published lies must be proven financially or physically harmful, which is notoriously difficult even today (that gulf is what allows the National Enquirer to exist).
The gentlemanly Valentino at first tried to ignore these rumors, until an article accused Valentino of turning American men into “powder puffs” and then shamed Rudy’s mother. That was the line. Valentino publicly challenged the reporter to a boxing match. The reporter refused, but allowed a former boxer and current sportswriter for the New York Evening Journal to take his place. The outcome? To put it in coarse terms, Valentino beat the s—t out of him.
In 1926, after complaining of stomach pains for days, an agonized Rudy Valentino was rushed to a New York hospital. Doctors diagnosed the actor with both appendicitis and ulcers and performed surgery, but in the days before surgical antibiotics, this cure was as bad as the disease. He developed peritonitis and suffered monumental pain for eight days. Doctors told him little about his condition, although they knew it most likely fatal, and his death at 31 came as a surprise to almost everyone, Valentino included.
Reflective of his fans’ hysterical devotion, over 100,000 mourners showed up at his funeral. Mourning turned to mobbing and soon officers lined the sidewalks, restoring order as fans and friends paid last respects. It was a scene that Rudy, no doubt, would have hated…but would not have surprised him.
Valentino, a Century Later
Other than the handful of interviews and testimony of friends, there are few revelations into the “real” Rudolph Valentino. Later, it became inexplicably fashionable to depict him as a closeted and misunderstood homosexual, all evidence and testimony supporting it has been either disproved or debunked. Today’s public should rightly not be relieved in this, of course; only relieved that the truth is told.
Like most movie stars from the silent era, his style of acting does not translate well a century later, making even box office smashes like The Sheik seem hammy and contrived. It’s important to remember the pioneer days of motion pictures were exactly that: pioneer days. Moviemakers were still learning to walk. Given the crude technology of his day, the public doesn’t even possess a recording of Valentino’s actual speaking voice, but only two mediocre recordings of an impromptu singing performance.
Instead of focusing on the mysteries of Valentino’s life, we should focus instead on what we do know: he was kind, gentlemanly and courteous. He detested bad manners and was more concerned with the quality of his pictures than his public image, a rarity in Hollywood of yesterday AND today. He never grew comfortable with his throngs of devoted fans, but this discomfort never led to discourtesy. He did his best to ingratiate himself to them, even if it made him blush. Most of all, he led a short and tragic life. Disliked by his father, fending for himself as a young immigrant in an often hostile city, he pulled himself into a world of fame and fortune with a little luck and a lot of talent, but there found mostly loneliness, libel and exploitation.
Although his reputation as a timeless film star is inarguable, that epic reputation would probably bring him little comfort if he were alive today. For him, that afternoon in Crown Point, among a small crowd of friendly fans and with his new, legal wife on his arm, would probably be far more timeless.