In July 2020 I was once again digging through bins of photos and personal items related to my family. Suddenly, I had an overwhelming urge to delve into the life of Rudolph Valentino…On my other blog named Open Range Ramblings I have recounted how I came to be inspired by the legendary racehorse, Secretariat. The connection came out of the blue late one night …and the same thing happened that July 2020 evening. Suddenly, it was as if Rudolph Valentino had become part of my life.
A series of rapidly unfolding coincidences, synchronicities, and “signs” cemented my feeling that a connection was there….
At some theaters across the U.S. and Canada, the presentation of The Sheik was accompanied by a “prologue” before the film was shown. Music, singing, desert scenes–all were presented to put the audience in the mood for the film. But one prologue went drastically wrong…
At the New York premiere on November 6 at the Rialto at Times Square, Manhattan, several opening features entertained the audience. In the review by Harriet Underhill carried in the New YorkTribune the next day, a description of the program was included.
Out in Calgary, Canada, a scene “showing a tent in the desert” was offered at the Capitol Theater.
“A tent in the desert; a very pleasing baritone …”
The Calgary Daily Herald, Tuesday, November 29, 1921. Page 8
On the same day, in Winnipeg, Canada, at another Capitol Theater, the prologue furnished “a realistic scene from the very heart of the hot, sand-covered desert, with colorful lighting effects playing its whole gamut of glitter upon it. The curtains part with the sun partially clouded….”
“The colorful background changes into many pleasing hues, the glitter of all vanishing with the opening scenes of the feature.”
The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, Tuesday, November 29, 1921. Page 10
In both theaters, a song titled “Till the Sands of the Desert Grow Cold” was presented, This was a popular song composed in 1911. There are several renditions on Youtube, but this video by Tim Grayck which features a 1912 recording by Donald Chambers also has lyrics to follow along with to about Minute 1:30 and really gives a sense of what audiences going to see The Sheik may have experienced. Here is a link to the full lyrics for the song, which was composed in 1911.
These spectacular introductions to The Sheik certainly got the audience in the mood for the film…but, on the first day of “Sheik Week” a terrible tragedy occurred in New Haven, Connecticut that evening of November 27, 1921.
As the late newspaper editions hit the streets, the headlines revealed the the evolving story of horror.
According to The New York Tribune, the frame building was already 100 years old. It had been a church before it was sold to Yale University and was used as an auditorium and music school for 20 years. One story said that the building was altered for use as a movie theater six years before The Sheik was booked for that night.
There was different reporting on how and where the fire started– from an ember from an incense lamp in front of the screen (The New York Tribune) or from a flash from the left wing of the stage which set the curtain a blaze (Daily News). The difference is understandable as the scene would soon turn into chaos. The incense lamp seems to be the most likely scenario given The New York Tribune background report:
The New York Tribune,
Monday, November 28, 1921. Page 2
One hundred Yale students, some of whom became victims of the fire, were in the audience and they tried to urge order, but exits were blocked. People were trampled and many in the balcony were trapped as flames moved from the proscenium arch of the stage and climbed rails and onto the seats. People in the balcony jumped down onto those below who were trying to escape. The New York Evening News reported that many children were in the audience and parents were injured as they tried to lift them above the mass of flailing bodies surrounding them. People already standing in the lobby waiting for the second show were pushed back into the street as a rush of people tried to escape through the house doors of the theater. The walls caught fire and flames swept to the side where there was one window which opened on to the fire escape, which was the site of a horrific scene:
“…charred beyond identification…”
Daily News, New York, New York
Monday, November 28, 1921. Page 1
Although every piece of firefighting equipment in New Haven reportedly rushed to the scene, the Rialto was completely destroyed, along with the Hyperion theater building at the rear.
“…The fire burned for more than two hours and a half…”
Daily News, New York, New York
Monday, November 28, 1921. Page 2
Lawrence R. Carroll, the manager of the theater and his assistant, James Carter, were initially detained by authorities but were released on their own recognizance (The New York Evening World, November 28, 1921, Page 8). The Final Edition of the Daily News reported that the coroner was prepared to issue manslaughter charges against Carroll (Monday, November 28, 1921, Page 2).
1. The Prizma Color system, according to Wikipedia, “was a color motion picture process, invented in 1913 by William Van Doren Kelley and Charles Raleigh.
2. The New York Evening World from November 28, 1921 carried another film-related story right next to the New Haven theater fire headlines along with a full banner across the top of the paper. That story was titled “Arbuckle In His Own Defense Goes On Stand And Gives His Version of Actress’s Death.” It’s a story still remembered to this day, unlike the fatal New Haven fire.
In my previous post I detailed the dueling Los Angeles premieres Rudolph Valentino enjoyed on October 30, 1921–the “Western” premiere of Camille and the “pre-release” debut of The Sheik. The Sheik then premiered in New York in two theaters–on November 6 at the Rialto at Times Square in Manhattan and in Brooklyn at the Rivoli.
The day after the premiere, the ad for The Sheik in The New York Tribune heralded first day attendance–20,000 on the opening day–although it shared the ad space with another Paramount Film, Peter Ibbetson. The following week, the ad for The Sheik on November 13 was far bigger and featured exciting descriptions of the film as the picture entered its second week at the Times Square Rialto.
Like her Los Angeles counterpart a week earlier, New York Tribune critic Harriet Underhill panned the story line of The Sheik in her review the day after the film opened.
Harriet Underhill writing in
The New York Tribune
Monday, November 7, 1921. Page 8.
…Kindly play “Hearts and Flowers.“
But Harriet Underhill’s critical appraisal seemed to soften as she commented, “…The Sheik, almost got us at certain moments in the performance yesterday at the Rivoli Theater. It is probably that this was so because the title role is played by Rudolph Valentino, and most any woman would try to bear it with equanimity if he carried her away on his Arabian steed to be the queen of the caravan.” While commenting that Agnes Ayres “doesn’t do anything in particular with Diana Mayo, the young lady who was the object of Ahmed’s desire,” she had much more to say about Valentino. She noted the “very wide eyes” that reminded her of Theda Bara but overall she was impressed by his screen presence as a “fine young animal, with a sense of humor and a predilection for vamping” instead of what she feared might be a portrayal as a “conservative and dignified person.”
The New York Times critic (name unknown) wrote a review that could be described as “tepid.” After discussing how the novel offered “no little amusement for the book reviewers,” he continued:
Again the writer must confess that he has not read the novel from which the photoplay under review has been derived. He knew he would have to see the picture sooner or later. Isn’t that enough?” ….Agnes Ayres is the girl and Rudolph Valentino is the sheik. Both of them can make the characters they impersonate seem real in a picture, which gives any character a chance to seem real.
(The New York Times, Monday, November 7, 1921. Page 20)
The New York Daily News critic, writing under the name “McElliott” was unhappy over the fact that the picture had been “denatured.” (“The Sheik” Has Been Denatured for the Movies, Daily News, Tuesday, November 8, 1921. Page 21.)
Daily News, New York, New York
Tuesday, November 8, 1921. Page 17
McElliott the critic finished with an attempt at humor about Valentino:
“The picture is beautiful as to photography and as to Agnes Ayres, playing the trapped Diana. She and Mr. Valentino are worth looking at, whatever the story. However, I like Rodolfo not so much in one of his turbans. The other is becoming.”
On November 20, 1921 The Sheik was released at over 250 theaters across the country and newspapers like the Arkansas Democrat announced “Sheik Week” to the public and noted the New York opening box office success. A month later, revised box office numbers confirmed the initial reports.
Where did the numbers come from? They were provided in a press release produced by Paramount Pictures that would become part of ads and picked up as “news” stories by papers across the nation.
Below is a “news” article from the Clarion-Ledger, Jackson, Mississippi (actually the Paramount publicity release) which shows the text in readable form:
Clarion-Ledger, Jackson, Mississippi
Sunday, December 25, 1921. Page 4
Headlines from newspapers across the country reflected the excitement and anticipation as The Sheik opening rolled out:
“Arabian Romance Makes Thrilling Drama for Screen..Spectacular Settings a Feature of ‘The Sheik’, Plot One of Interest“–South Bend News-Times, South Bend, Indiana. Monday, November 28, 1921
“The Sheik, Tremendous in Power, Wildly Exciting, at the Opera House“–Bangor Daily News, Bangor, Maine. Tuesday, December 13, 1921
“‘Sheik’s’ Story of Man Breaking Girl’s Strong Will, Many Stirring and Thrilling Scenes in Great Photodrama“–Great Falls Tribune, Great Falls, Montana. Sunday, December 25, 1921
“At Last ‘The Sheik’ with Romance, Thrills and Valentinoat the Regentand That’s That!“–The Wichita Eagle, Sunday Morning, November 27, 1927. Page 31
The headline from the Wichita Eagle set the stage to let readers know what the Wichita public could expect to see. And although a New York critic felt the film was “denatured” the Wichita columnist was careful about telling readers how the film had survived the state board while letting parents know that, even so, the film “wasn’t for children.” The accompanying ad heightened the public’s eagerness to join the anticipated crowds at the theater.
“At Last ‘The Sheik’ with Romance, Thrills and Valentino at the Regentand That’s That!“
The Wichita Eagle, Sunday Morning, November 27, 1921. Page 31
While The WitchitaEagle writer was concerned about children, a professor in Chicago had a different reaction…
We probably will never know exactly what that psychology professor discussed with his students after they saw The Sheik, but one hundred years later, we know that the arrival of The Sheik not only thrust Rudolph Valentino to a new level of fame, but also triggered a wave of reaction that turned the spotlight onto the shifting relationships between women and men. It played right into the spirit of the newly-liberated 1920’s and the beginning of “the Jazz Age.” But society hadn’t moved THAT far as the story had to work around the subject of interracial relationships/marriage. One hundred years later, we are still talking about The Sheik and although it may seem like a relic from a distant age, the echoes of the themes are still with us today.
1. Emily Leider, in her biography Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino, mistakenly states that the film premiered in New York on October 30, page 167.
2. Agnes Ayres also appeared in The Affairs of Anatol. See my previous post for more details on the overlap of cast members who appeared in this film and The Sheik.
SCROLL DOWN TO FIND INFORMATION ABOUT THE NEW BLU-RAY ANNIVERSARY RELEASE OF “THE SHEIK” COMING ON NOVEMBER 2, 2021!
The Wednesday, October 26, 1921 edition of the Los Angeles Evening Express inadvertently presented a snapshot of the “before” of Rudolph Valentino’s career as the motion picture world awaited the premiere of the film version of Edith M. Hull’s wildly popular novel The Sheik. Page 29 had three items–2 short announcements and one advertisement–that summed up the state of Valentino’s status up until the film was shown. The announcement of the arrival of Nazimova’s Camille focused on how Nazimova was adding her modern interpretation of the play to the long history the history other actresses in the role. Another ad for The Affairs of Anatol included a notice that the next coming attraction at the Rialto would be The Sheik. The third item was the full announcement about how a special arrangement was made to present The Sheik a month ahead of general release as producers were anxious to have the reaction in Los Angeles, the film industry company town.
First “Western” Showing October 30, 2021. No mention of Rudolph Valentino in the role of Camille’s lover Armand Duval…it was all about Nazimova.
Agnes Ayres played Annie Elliot, a thieving farmer’s wife who becomes one of Anatol’s “affairs”.
“The Sheik” was the next coming attraction in the ad…
Producers wanted favorable “expert” opinion of the LA public to bolster the later nationwide release.The film premiered on November 6 in New York and released nationwide on November 20, 1921 (not the 25th as initially reported in this article).
Nazimova’s production of Camille had been introduced at a reception and special preview showing at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York City on Wednesday, September 7. She traveled to New York to attend the event, along with her set/costume designer Natacha Rambova and her leading man Valentino, who were now a couple. After spending some more time in New York (Nazimova attended nearly every play on the boards at the time), the party left New York on September 18 to return to Los Angeles. Distribution of the film began on September 26, 1921, with a “Western” premiere planned in Los Angeles for Sunday, October 30, 2021.
Meanwhile, The Affairs of Anatol was ending its run at Grauman’s Rialto and a notice for the coming attraction of The Sheik was included in the final ads of the run. Agnes Ayres, who played Annie Elliot in The Affairs of Anatol and a fellow cast mate, Ruth Miller, who had played an uncredited role as a maid named name Marie, would both appear in The Sheik–Ayres in the lead role of Lady Diana Mayo and Miller as Zilah, the serving girl attending Lady Diana in the film. And, although Valentino’s paramour Rambova thought Hull’s novel was trash, she would appear in an uncredited role as an “Arabian Dancer.”
On Sunday, October 30, 1921, both Camille and The Sheik premiered in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Times, Sunday, October 30, 1921, Page 61.
Camille opens at the California Theatre
A large, approx. quarter-page ad for the film (much reduced in size!) Note the small credit given to Valentino at the bottom of the ad.
Ad in the Los Angeles Evening Express, Monday, October 31, 1921, Page 25 after The Sheik premiere on Sunday, October 30, 1921.
The top billing for Ayres in The Sheik may also have been helped along by the fact that she was involved in a long-term affair with her married boss, Jesse Lasky, head of Paramount. She had started at Vitagraph in New York, but had been brought to Hollywood by Jesse Lasky sometime in 1920 to film a Civil War story entitled Held by the Enemy. After receiving glowing reviews, she was placed under contract at Paramount and her long-term relationship with Lasky began. (It would end in late 1923 when she met and married Manuel Reachi.)
Some announcements from venues where Camille had already been shown did give passing attention to Valentino. But, it was Nazimova’s film and the character he played was subordinate to her Camille. In the words of film critic Alexander Walker, Valentino was “a pliant supplicant, not a seducer, forever dropping on to one knee to signify his fidelity.” (Page 37, Rudolph Valentino).
After Camille opened in Los Angeles, a smaller ad for the film appeared in the Los Angeles Express on Tuesday, November 1, this time with no mention of Valentino at all…but the day after the premiere (Monday, October 31) on Page 24, a reviewer named Milton Lathrop did notice Valentino…and in glowing terms.
Milton Lathrop did not mention any specific scenes from the film but Alexander Walker would later note that“the earliest hint of what was to become one of his most seductive features occurs in this film. It is when he breaks the bank in a gambling casino–he’s been playing to kill the pain of losing Camille–and with a sudden, unanticipated flash of cruelty he seizes her arms, forces them behind her and pinions them there while he plants a kiss on her lips. This was the ‘cruel’ Valentino. This was the so called ‘sex menace’. This was the element of ‘threat’ in him that worked its way up the scale of romantic emotions he stirred up in the hearts of women.” (Page 37, Rudolph Valentino.) Of course, this energy is in dramatic contrast to the “dignified portrayal of the naive lover” that Lathrop had mentioned in his review decades earlier.
In the same edition, on the very next page (Page 25) of the Los Angeles Evening Express, a review of The Sheik by a different critic named Charles A. Goss appeared under the title “‘The Sheik’ A Beauty, But Oh, The Story!” He wrote:
To enjoy the production it becomes necessary to ignore the story entirely and to focus the interest upon the beauty of the settings. Vast stretches of sand waste and shifting dunes are relieved only by the cluster of palm trees that form an oasis here and there and by the picturesque caravans of the Arabian dignitaries. Those of the interior are not without charm also, for they exhibit a prodigality of luxury that recalls the tales of the "Arabian Nights."...The story however, might be the dream of a sweet young thing who had eaten too many caramels and chocolate sundaes. The subtitles, probably from Miss Hull's book, are pretty trite.
But, when Goss observed the players, his tone changed. He noted the how Valentino was without peer in the way he displayed the “shifting emotions of this young barbarian the product of the desert and of Paris schooling.” It seems Goss saw the contrast of the “barbarian” versus the “handsome” actor and the character’s underlying “Paris schooling”; without using the term “sex menace,” he sensed the “threat” versus “the allure” that attracted a female audience. He didn’t mention “popping eyes” or any other distractions that later reviews would see…he noticed the force of Valentino’s charisma.
“Valentino’s the whole show…”
…quoting a “young lady who sat nearby”
…Reviewer Charles A. Goss
Los AngelesEvening Express, Monday,
October 31, 1921, Page 25.
Until this point Valentino had made steady progress in his career. On October 30, 1921 the megastar phase of his career would begin…
The 100th Year Anniversary Blu-Ray Restoration of “The Sheik”
After some delay, the 100th Year Anniversary Blu-Ray Release of “The Sheik” will be released and available on Amazon on November 2, 2021. Pre-ordering is available. Each link below offers slightly different information about how the new release was restored and the film. .
1. Nazimova’s contract with Metro would come to an end in mid-1922. Waning popularity and differences about the types of films she would work on led to the split. She had already begun planning her production company while she was in New York at the preview of Camille. According to an essay at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website, once Nazimova left Metro, “… the studio changed the film’s publicity campaign and gave top billing to Valentino.”
2. Gloria Swanson, Bebe Daniels, and Wanda Hawley all future co-stars with Valentino also appeared in The Affairs of Anatol. And, the role of Mr. Nazzer Singh, a Hindu hypnotist who hypnotized Gloria Swanson’s character Vivian in the film was none other than Theodore Kosloff…yes, the onetime lover of Natacha Rambova.
The intense media interest in the death of Rudolph Valentino finally reached its end on September 7, 1926 when his 2nd funeral was held in Los Angeles and he was finally interred in the crypt at Hollywood Cemetery (now called Hollywood Forever Cemetery).
The day was in marked contrast to the out-of-control days in New York City when his public viewing was held. Originally planned to continue until Friday, August 27, it was cut short after the viewing deteriorated into an uncontrolled, mob-like event.
In an article under the headline “Premonition of Early Death,” John W. Considine, Jr., who produced Valentino’s pictures, revealed that “Valentino several times remarked to me, “I shall die young. I know it, and I shall not be sorry. I would hate to live to be an old man.” (The Tribune, Scranton, Pennsylvania, August 24, 1926, Page 2 (Dateline: Los Angeles, August 23, Associated Press).
He got his wish, but much sooner than he would have anticipated. And one of his wishes as he fought for his life was that he would have a public viewing in the event he died.
Valentino had suffered greatly and had wasted to a shadow of the image he projected on the screen. The morticians who received his body at Campbell’s Funeral Church had a difficult job to do. A “secret embalming process” supervised by W. H. Hull, claimed Valentino’s body would stay in it’s final state “practically forever.” It was the same process used to embalm Enrico Caruso, who had died in August 1921 in Italy.
The Miami Herald (Miami, Florida) Tuesday, August 24, 1926, Page 8
In The Times Union (Brooklyn, New York) dated Wednesday, August 25, 1926 (Page 15), reporter Ted Le Berthon recounted what had transpired the day before (August 24) in an evocative piece entitled “VALENTINO RIOTS A MORBID ORGY.”
...Rudolph Valentino's cold, lifeless image, waxen and unreal, laying like a flat, smashed thing, beneath a glass cover, on the second floor of Campbell's Funeral Church, was the goal of this stubborn, screaming crowd....[About 2 P.M.] By now, reporters and cameramen had been permitted to view the dead Rudy in his last personal appearance. Peering through the glass coffin cover was like looking through a glass case in a museum.
“He only weighed 102 when he died,” one employe of the undertaking firm whispered.
His nose was sharply defined, a little ridged; he face, pitifully small, and inclined, for some reason, to one side. Those eyes, that had “burned to the cores of women’s beings,” were closed. That face, that wore make-up so often in the bustling multi-colored cinema studios, was delicately powdered. The thin, sunken lips were thinly rouged, the brows penciled. It did not seem possible that this was Rudolph Valentino. From the eyes of those standing about, one sensed a sickening desire to be away, quickly.
The heavy smell of flowers suggested great fields of death. One wondered if some substitution had not been made. Surely this mashed body, with claw-like hands was not the ardent lover, in whose veins had coursed fiery blood, consuming a romance-hungry world in its glow, made ubiquitous by the universal markets of the cinema.
Le Berthon describes how at “About 3 o’clock [on Tuesday, August 24], it was decided to admit the first line of the city’s mourners.” It was raining and the line went up a winding staircase to the room where Valentino lay. Le Berthon relates the mood of the visitors:
…disappointment about his burial clothes, giggling, and surprise over his thin hair…
The following day, on Wednesday, August 25, the body had been relocated to the ground floor to help keep the lines moving more efficiently. The reporting by United Press described how the bier was placed in the center of the room and how the crowd circled and exited through a side door through a florist shop adjacent to the Campbell’s Funeral Chapel. Although there were still “giggling girls of high school age” waiting to enter when the doors opened at 9 A.M., the United Press story commented that “While yesterday the throng was perhaps a bit inclined to be unexpectedly gay, today the attitude seemed change. There was more showing of reverence…The scene was more somber–an atmosphere heightened by dull, drizzling fog” (The Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, August 25, 1926, Page 2).
When the doors opened at 9 A.M., the first two people on line were two tourists from Terre Haute, Indiana, who had arrived at 6 A.M. Margaret Kenley and Josephine Attman had planned to leave the day before but “We couldn’t return without seeing Valentino…We were going home yesterday but we simply had to stay” (The Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Wednesday, August 25, 1926, Page 2).
Another visitor was a woman who said she had seen Valentino two years before:
The early reports of “more reverence” on Wednesday were soon revised in late editions of papers like The Brooklyn Daily Times:
The Dayton Herald in Dayton, Ohio came to this conclusion in their Wednesday edition (Page 4):
“excited curiosity…laughing and chatting…”
George Ullman’s full comments were reported by the Associated Press:
"This has gone far enough," Ullman said. The lack of reverence shown by the crowds, the disorder and rioting since the body was first shown, have forced me to this decision. Tonight at midnight the doors will be closed to the public and the body placed in a vault here in the funeral church until Monday. It will be viewed only by friends and associates." (A.P. syndicated report from the Fort Worth-Telegram, Fort Worth, Texas, Thursday, August 16, 1926, Page 4.)
Ullman was still shaken by what he had seen. On Thursday, August 26, he was quoted in a United Press report: “I loved Valentino so,” he said, “that I thought the whole world would reverence him” (Courier-Post, Camden, New Jersey, Thursday, August 26, 1 926, Page 14). From the same newspaper:
“normal decorum and dignity now prevails…”
At the end Valentino’s animals mourned him, without judgment...
Yaqui and Valentino in The Son of the Sheik
Kabar and Valentino, returning from Europe on the Leviathan, January 1926
This post has been updated as of 10/3/2021. I am including a new photo from a copy of the New York Daily News that I have obtained. The paper is dated August 24, 1926 and is one of several editions published that day. The new photo shows another view of the removal of Valentino's body from the hospital
Once again, my interest has been piqued by differences in the “lore” about Rudolph Valentino.
Following his passing at the New York Polyclinic Hospital, the body of Rudolph Valentino made the journey to the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Church, which at the time, was located at Broadway and 66th Street. (The Polyclinic was located at 341-351 West 50th Street, New York, New York. The current address of the clinic building, now converted into condominiums, is 345-349 W. 50th Street as indicated in a picture taken by Allan Ellenberger on a visit to the site and also confirmed using Google Earth.)
The question is how and when did Valentino’s body leave the Polyclinic Hospital?
Polyclinic Hospital building in the foreground showing a courtyard and the alley out to 51st Street (visible at the right).
Google Earth, 5/24/2019
The clinic at a different angle and time of day showing increased shadows around the building and one wall of the interior courtyard (faintly visible on the right side of the courtyard.) The courtyard will be discussed further, below.
Google Earth, 6/22/2021
See NOTE 1 below for a detailed description of the hospital plant at the time it was designated as “Embarkation Hospital No. 4, New York City” by the Government in 1918 during World War I. Although officially designated as an “Embarkation Hospital” it actually functioned as a “Debarkation Hospital” for the most part, used by patients returning from overseas. The description gives a great deal of information about theoriginal, basicdesign of the hospital.
There are multiple descriptions of how the body of Valentino exited the hospital…and when. According to Emily Leider (Dark Lover, Page 387), the exit was by “a side door.” Jeanne De Recqueville (Rudolph Valentino, Page 126) describes how the body, in a “wicker basket,” was “brought an interior courtyard…loaded onto a truck [which would] slip away through a back alley,” which is clearly visible in the above photo.
Allan R. Ellenberger (The Valentino Mystique: The Death and Afterlife of the Silent Film Idol) describes how crowds outside the clinic had become so large that it was impossible for the hearse to approach from the rear of the building on West 51st Street. So the police spread the rumor that the removal would be from the front entrance: “Remarkably, the ruse worked, and the majority of the crowd moved slowly back to 50th Street just long enough for the hearse to circle the block and pull up in a spot cleared by the police ” (Page 56).
Ellenberger then goes on to quote–indirectly–a reporter from The New York World. Ellenberger must have had trouble finding the original source and my efforts have failed as well. (The paper had several incarnations and there are gaps in what editions are available, even at the Library of Congress.) Ellenberger’s source is derived from an article entitled “Legend of Valentino, Part 1” in Movie Classics, June 1973, Page 13. I’ve managed to track down this issue as well as the issue including Part 2, so it will be interesting to see the actual article. So, with a bit of caution about sourcing, here is what this unidentified reporter claims to have witnessed:
As two-forty (2:40) that afternoon the stillness was interrupted by the sound of the elevator descending from the floors above... As the elevator doors opened, the reporter witnessed the undertaker's basket being wheeled out and rolled down the corridor toward the back door..."There waited Campbell's 'wagon.'...Rudolph Valentino beloved idol of millions going out the back door of Polyclinic Hospital in a wicker basket! That was dramatic enough. But to add to the drama, someone had thrown a piece of gold cloth over the top of the basket!'"
UPDATE: I received a copy of the Movie Classics magazine cited above the day after I posted this blog article. The reporter says he worked for the New York American (very few, scattered holdings in libraries, what might be a full collection is on microfilm at the New York Public Library). He apparently sent a letter years later to the Hollywood Citizen, signing it as” E.B., Landsdale Street, North Hollywood, California.” He actually first refers to the basket as a “casket” then later calls it a “wicker basket.” So, he may have seen the type of wicker “corpse” basket picture below. More notable is the fact that there is NO mention of any specific time of the body being moved.
Looking at the lower picture, apparently taken after the transfer of the body to the hearse, there does appear to be a light-colored surface visible…most likely the “gold cloth.” But it’s hard to discern a basket if one looks at the two picture showing the actual transfer. Wouldn’t a “wicker basket” have been a light color?
Another view of the removal of the body from the hospital from a different edition of the New York Daily News, August 24, 1926.
From my collection
Baskets were used by undertakers to receive bodies. Here is an example from 1882…
Jesse James’ wicker “corpse” basket used to take his body to a funeral parlor in 1882. Located at Heaton-Bowman-Smith and Sidenfaden Chapel Funeral Museum, St. Joseph, Missouri.
(Interestingly, one hundred years after Valentino’s passing, wicker baskets are becoming available for those wanting a more natural or eco-friendly burial . Manufacturers seem to most prevalent in Britain and Australia. The selection is quite extensive at a site called Thinkwillow.com. Most are light colored or a light brown; if they are painted, the integrity of the coffin* can be compromised. [See NOTE 2 below]. )
But looking at the the top photographs, although they are grainy, nothing looking like a wicker basket is visible. In fact, a close look seems to show something solid and dark colored.
Frank Mallen’s Story as Related in His Book “Sauce for the Gander”
From my collection
None of the authors mentioned have referenced a source written well before they wrote their books about Valentino. In 1954 Frank Mallen published Sauce for the Gander: The Amazing Story of a Fabulous Newspaper. This book is the story of The New York Evening Graphic, known for its notorious “composographs”–a name created by the founding editor Emile Gauvreau–but which the public and Graphic staffers continued to call “composites.” Not a new technique, the overlaying of pictures into patterns or designs was already used in magazines and newspaper layouts. The Graphic pushed the method of to the limit to increase circulation and keep their readers once they had them. The composites were montages, cut and pasted together to create pictures of events when actual pictures were not available, for example, the front-page picture of Valentino, “lying on the operating tables with arms folded, surrounded by doctors and nurses standing around, apparently waiting for the signal to plunge into his interior organs” (Pages 72-73).
Composite from the “Composite Gallery” in Sauce for the Gander. Description by Frank Mallen:
“This composite was dreamed up to show Rudy Valentino just before the fatal operation in Polyclinic Hospital. To carry out the romantic theme a nurse is depicted caressing his head, while another used the occasion to smile at her prettiest.” (10 photographs)
In her earlier book, Affairs Valentino: A Special Edition (2015, first and second editions, 2011 and 2013, respectively), Zumaya included a description of the body’s removal from a manuscript by George Ullman, Valentino’s business manager. According to this manuscript, “two workmen heft their load into the back of a waiting truck strategically parked in a back alley” (Page 11). But in her most recent work published in June 2021, entitled The Rudolph Valentino Case Files: The Research Discoveries of Evelyn Zumaya & Renato Floris, Zumaya does include the account by Frank Mallen, summarizing his story in a chapter named “Frank Mallen’s Composographs” Pages 194-198) of how Rudolph Valentino arrived at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Church. (See Note 3.)
In his book, Mallen tells the story in several sections: “Death of a Movie Star” (the section of interest for this discussion); Pageant of Tribute”; “Behind the Valentino Curtain”; “The Last Picture”; “The Journalistic Miracle of the Ages”; “Izzy Kaplan”; “Funeral Train”; and “The Lady in Black” (Pages 72-100).
Mallen actually had planned to resign from the paper after he had been assigned to the “picture desk” as Picture Editor. With no interest or experience in the post, he was ready to quit…but before he could do so, Valentino had slipped into a coma and he suddenly was in the middle of shepherding photographers and artists through this news bonanza.
I grabbed my phone and called Frank Campbell, the undertaker..."Valentino just died. Are you getting the body?" I yelled into the transmitter. For a moment there was deep throbbing silence, and then I heard sobs. He was crying. I kept shouting at him...With impatience I kept asking if he would get the body. For exasperating moments he made no reply. Then his voice returned, strong and vibrant. As though I had offended him by my implication that Valentino could possibly go to any other undertaking establishment he said: "Why of course we are getting the body." He bit off every word.
Mallen then relates that a short time later, he learned that Campbell had made a deal with United Artists, when death hadn’t even been deemed imminent. The deal was “if they would let him handle the funeral, in the event of death, he (Campbell) would make Valentino’s pictures more popular and profitable than ever…an amazing and startling proposition” because before this moment pictures died with their stars (Page 74). Campbell employed a publicity man, Harry Klemfuss, who would mastermind the funeral events right up to the final services in Los Angeles on September 7th, 1926.
Mallen describes how, soon after talking to Campbell, The Graphic “scooped” the reporters from other news outlets by producing a composite of Valentino lying in state with Campbell agreeing to keep the secret (Page 74):
Soon two Graphic reporters were speeding in a taxi to the Campbell Funeral Church at Broadway and 66th Street. One photographed the other lying on a catafalque and then both took pictures of the Gold Room from various angles. They rushed the them back to the office, I had [Harry] Grogin, the composite genius, superimpose Valentino's face over that of the prone lensman and transfer the result onto the Gold Room. He did a masterful job in record time. Within an hour we had Valentino lying in state on our front page. We forgot to say it was a composite. Then I called Campbell and asked him to keep our secret.
It is at this point in the story that Mallen has an entirely different account about the timing and removal of the body from the Polyclinic Hospital:
Although Valentino's body actually was still at Polyclinic Hospital and was not removed until that evening, even the sharpest of newsmen believed it had been photographed by us at Campbell's. They were sure Campbell had performed some sleight-of-hand magic in transferring the body, probably to thwart competing undertakers, despite the fact they had watched all the hospital exits and had not seen it come out. When the casket finally emerged they were certain it contained somebody else's body to cover up a fast one Campbell had put over them in favor of the Graphic.
Mallen then recounts how “angry newspapermen descended on the funeral parlor along with some of the throngs who had seen The Graphic. Harry Klemfuss defused the situation by inviting the reporters and photographers in to look around; they even inspected every corpse that was there.” After satisfying them that they had not been double-crossed he took them to a nearby speakeasy where their anger was quickly submerged in liquids and they shook their heads over the gall of The Graphic” (Page 75).
SO…we find that we have Mallen’s mention of a “casket” versus a wicker basket/undertaker’s basket; the removal from the Polyclinic Hospital in a hearse versus a truck, although the vehicle does look like a hearse rather than a truck, in my opinion; and a very specific time of transfer of two-forty (2:40) in the afternoon versus “that evening.” The Update above which discusses the quotation from Movie Classics magazine raises a question about this specific 2:40 time, but an earlier afternoon removal time still can’t be ruled out.
Looking at the pictures of the removal at the hospital, the transfer appears to be occurring in daylight. But what is meant by “evening”? It’s a subjective term with many definitions! Broadly speaking, it can mean the time between afternoon and nightfall, beginning a few hours before sunset; or sometimes defined as being between 4 and 9 o’clock. In August 1926, New York was on Daylight Savings Time, as it is now; “civil twilight,” also known as “dusk,” the period when the Sun sets and dips just below the horizon, would end about 8 PM. Regardless, as clearly shown in the pictures of the clinic at the top of this page, the courtyard of the hospital would be in shadows at least part of the day which makes it even hard to discern on which side of the courtyard the exit was located. Since it’s hard to find pictures of how the sun hits the building in real time, could the photographs of the transfer, particularly the large photograph from TheNew York Daily News, been taken with a flash, either in the early afternoon, possibly at 2:40 P.M. or later that day?
As I continue researching the life of Rudolph Valentino, I will be on the lookout for any information about that fateful day of August 23rd, 1926 that can provide a more definitive answer to my original question:
How (and When) Was Rudolph Valentino’s Body Removed to the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Church?
The hospital of the New York Polyclinic Medical School and Hospital was leased by the Government on October 20, 1918. The hospital was located at 345 West Fiftieth Street, New York City, 3 miles from the center of activities of the port of embarkation, three blocks from Pier 90 at Fiftieth Street and Hudson River, and one-half block from the electric car lines on Eighth and Ninth Avenues. The building was an 11-story, fireproof structure of steel and concrete, and contained a basement, a cellar, and a subcellar. It had been designed for use as a hospital, and had been completed in 1912. Its ground area was 100 feet square and its gross floor space was 110,000 square feet. Within it there were 94 private rooms and wards, 4 operating rooms, and a number of rooms which had been used for clinical and didactic purposes, and which were readily convertible into wards. These rooms and wards gave a bed capacity of approximately 450. The building contained a kitchen of sufficient capacity to feed 800 persons at one meal; a bakery adequate to prepare all the bread needed for the hospital; a laundry equipped to meet all needs; and a heating plant that not only heated the building in which it was located but five dwellings adjoining the hospital. All stairways were of steel and concrete construction, and they were equipped with fire doors. There were three large elevators ample in size to accommodate stretcher cases. The institution was lighted by both gas and electricity; and, to guard against a temporary failure of the city water supply, had reserve tanks for water on its roof.
From October 20, 1918, the day it was taken over for Medical Department use, until December 18, the building was cleaned, and preparations were made for the reception of patients. During much of this period of time the main hospital building was used as quarters for nurses who were being mobilized for duty overseas. There were a few patients in hospitals representing members of the command, nurses from overseas, etc.; but on December 19, 1918, the hospital was formally opened by the admission of 176 patients from overseas.
aThe statements of fact appearing herein are based on the “History, Embarkation Hospital No. 4, New York City,” by Lieut. Col. J. L. Robinson, M. C., U. S. A., while on duty as a member of the staff of that hospital. The material used by him in the compilation of the history comprised official reports from the various divisions of the hospital. The history is on file in the Historical Division, Surgeon General’s Office, Washington, D. C.-Ed.
Thereafter, the hospital, though designated an embarkation hospital, functioned principally as a debarkation hospital. On August 15, 1919, the hospital was abandoned.
NOTE 2 There IS a difference between a “coffin” and a “casket.” A coffin is shaped more closely to that of a human body, wider at the shoulders, tapered toward the feet, while a casket is rectangular (oblong) with right angles and without tapering toward the base.
NOTE 3 Zumaya includes the “surgery” composite in her discussion and also includes a picture that is described as a “Composograph of Rudolph Valentino in the Gold Room at Frank E. Campbell’s Funeral Home.” However, this picture actually shows the front page of the Daily Mirror under the headline “Many Hurt at Bier of Valentino” and is actually a cropped version of a picture that is a part of series showing “ardent fan Eva Miller” praying at the bier. A full picture also appeared on the front page of The New York Daily News; the Bettmann Archive states the originals were taken on August 25, 1926. Other versions of this picture are also sourced from the Hulton Archive. Various angles of this Eva Miller picture can be seen at Bing.com Images.
De Recqueville, Jeanne.Rudolph Valentino. Translated by Renato Floris, Edited and Annotated by Evelyn Zumaya. French Edition, 1978. Torino, Italy: Viale Industria Pubblilicazioni, Translation Edition, 2020.
Leider, Emily W. Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003.
Mallen, Frank. Sauce for the Gander: The Amazing Story of a Fabulous Newspaper. White Plains, New York: Baldwin Books, 1954.
In 1926 Hiram Abrams was the managing director of United Artists, the company that had Rudolph Valentino under contract. On May 22, Valentino signed a new three-picture deal with John W. Considine, Jr. head of the producing unit which made the Valentino pictures; his next film, based on the life of Benvenuto Cellini, was already being developed. Also in May, Abrams made a publicity hire, Victor Mansfield Shapiro, to assist in the buildup to the release of Valentino’s next picture, The Son of the Sheik.
According to the U.S., College Student Lists, 1763-1924 at Ancestry.com, Shapiro graduated from New York University with a B.S. degree in 1913. The 1916 entry for New York University reveals that after graduation, Shapiro worked for The New Yorker in the art-editorial areas and as a cartoonist and Advertising Manager for a publication named Violet.
The information included in the student list was apparently collected before Shapiro’s next career move. By 1916, Shapiro was working for V-L-S-E, Incorporated. V-L-S-E was a partnership between four film distribution companies–Vitagraph, Lubin, Selig, and Essanay–which had been formed in 1915, with Albert Smith named as president.
We know this because Shapiro was among those who participated in the formation of the Associated Motion Picture Advertisers. Prominent members during the first year of the Associated Motion Picture Advertisers (AMPA) in 1916 included men who would later be involved with Rudolph Valentino: Executive Board members Jesse Lasky of the Photoplay Company and Harry Reichenbach of the Frohman Amusement Company. Included in the list of general members was “V. Mansfield Shapiro , V.S.L.E.”
But just after AMPA was formed, there were changes involving the V-L-S-E organization. According to Wikipedia, a “proposed a merger of the distribution companies Paramount Pictures and V-L-S-E with Famous Players Film Company and Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, … was foiled by Adolph Zukor. When Vitagraph purchased a controlling interest in Lubin, Selig, and Essanay. V-S-L-E was dissolved on August 17, 1916, V-L-S-E head Albert Smith finally sold the remaining part of the company to Warner Brothers on April 20, 1925. (See Note 1 below for an interesting reference to Smith’s autobiography in which he refers to hiring a 17-year-old Rudolph Valentino.)
We don’t know exactly when Victor Mansfield Shapiro became an independent publicity man, but by 1926 he was a big enough player in the business to be hired by Hiram Abrams to devise a publicity campaign to help boost Valentino’s appeal; his last film, The Eagle, had received good reviews but yield only modest returns at the box office. Valentino needed “a hit” because his star power was perceived as being on the wane as Ramon Navarro and John Gilbert gained popularity. (See the headline below.) Previews of The Son of the Sheik in Santa Monica and Burbank went well and on July 9 the Los Angeles premiere filled Grauman’s Million Dollar Theatre to capacity with one of the largest and most brilliant gathering of film stars at the time. The reaction pleased both the studio and Valentino and it looked like they were on the way to the hit they wanted.
Valentino left his home for what would be his last time to start his publicity tour, arriving on July 15 at his first stop in San Francisco for a press event, where he met Mayor “Sunny” Jim Rolph before heading to Chicago en route to New York. Still complaining of stomach pains which had plagued him since February when he was shooting The Son of the Sheik, he carried a large supply of sodium bicarbonate with him on the train. (His brother Alberto had departed California the day before with his wife and son Jean, also heading to New York where they would depart on July 24 for the return trip to Italy.)
Just before Valentino arrived in Chicago for a layover of a few hours before connecting with the train to New York, the editorial “Pink Powder Puffs” appeared on Page 10 of The Chicago Tribune on Sunday, July 18, 1926. With that editorial, Shapiro saw the opening he needed to power his publicity campaign.
Valentino had already been the target of innuendo, racist comments and mockery well before this piece was published. As early as 1922, Photoplay‘s Dick Dorgan called Valentino a “bum Arab” and invoked the term “wop” in a satire of The Sheik; a few months later, in the July edition which featured Valentino on the cover, Dorgan produced the “Song of Hate.” Valentino was so angered that he demanded that the studio bar Dorgan from the studio lot.
The “Pink Powder Puff” editorial that appeared in The Chicago Tribune on Sunday, July 18, 1926 (Page 10)
“…Better a rule by masculine women than by effeminate men.”
When The LosAngeles Times reprinted the editorial, it added an earlier, even more caustic editorial (the Five-Yard McCarty piece) that had been published on November 19, 1925, as well as an “exclusive” report about the reaction delivered by Valentino when he arrived in New York on July 20. At the same time the cartoon by Harry Haenigsen which appeared in The New York Evening World on July 21 clearly expressed the view that a boxing match would become a major public relations event even though Valentino insisted his challenge was “real” and “not for the purpose of publicity.”
Reprint in the Los Angeles Times (July 21, 1926) with the earlier “Five-Yard McCarty” piece published in November 1925, alongside a story about the “challenge” letter in response
(Scroll down to see the original draft of the “challenge” letter)
“Isn’t Life Complicated?” Cartoon The New York Evening World, July 21, 1926, Page 16
Note the depiction of Valentino at the top left of the cartoon
…Needing a “hit”… New York Daily News, Sunday, January 4, 1925
Note, by contrast, the article about the Barthelmess household which ran next to the story about Valentino’s waning drawing power. His previous film, The Eagle, while well-reviewed, had only been a modest box office success.
The Associated Press interview conducted in New York on July 20 added more color to the “Exclusive” carried by the LosAngeles Times:
"I'm mad," Valentino rasped out to reporters. "I'll make whoever wrote that foul stuff look like a full moon. This is no publicity stunt. I'm really mad. I can't understand how the editor of the Chicago Tribune let that editorial get into the paper."
"I'm am not angered by the reference to my being the son of a gardener. What made me mad is the whole tone of the insulting thing. In Italy in the absence of the name of the writer of an article the editor may be challenged. I regret that system is not in vogue here." (AP story as printed in the Waco-News Tribune, [Waco, Texas] Wednesday, July 21, 1926, Page 5)
Before the Shapiro papers came to light, Alan Elllenberger quoted a press agent named Oscar Doob in The Valentino Mystique who claimed that “he was the one who suggested that Valentino challenge the “Pink Powder Puffs” editorial writer to a duel” and that he “needed a publicity stunt because we were getting ready to open one of his latest pictures” (Page 17) (SeeNote 2). And Simon Constable, in ablog piece describing the incident, speculates that Valentino’s business manager George Ullman actually was the one who “stirred things up” and goes so far to wonder Ullman could have protected Valentino more if he hadn’t shown him the newspaper that day.
However, material uncovered by Giorgio Bertellini brings a new perspective to the whole incident. Bertellini is Professor/Director of Graduate Studies, Department of Film, Television, and Media at the University of Michigan. His latest work, entitled The Divo and the Duce: Promoting Film Stardom and Political Leadership in 1920’s America,… “won the 2019 American Association of Italian Studies book award, for the category ‘Film/Media.'”
And it is the archival material belonging to Victor Mansfield Shapiro that Bertellini has examined which sheds new light on what may have transpired during the latter half of July 1926. (The description of the contents of the archive is below.)
The entire work is available at JSTOR, a site that “provides access to more than 12 million academic journal articles, books, and primary sources in 75 disciplines.” The direct link to the book is here. Of particular interest is Chapter 6 entitled Stunts and Plebiscites (Pages 145-162). Also, quite by accident, I found that anyone with a Kindle can download the entire book for free.
(I originally had embedded the PDF available at JSTOR into this post but decided to clarify the Terms and Conditions with JSTOR and was advised that doing so would breach their terms…so, I need to take a different route, which follows below.)
A short summary of the ground covered by Bertellini was included in a review in The Sydney MorningHerald, which to date is the only discussion of the book and the Valentino-related information that I have found in the general press. The article entitled Macho men: The links between Valentino and Mussolini by Desmond O’Grady was published on June 14, 2019.
[The image]the Italian-born Valentino also was distorted. Bertellini illustrates this with a discovery about the 1926 Pink Powder Puff scandal in Chicago. The Chicago Tribune published an anonymous editorial lamenting Valentino’s encouragement of the installation of powder puffs in men’s toilets. Valentino responded indignantly to this slur and offered to prove his virility by boxing a bigger and more athletic man "Buck" O’Neal. Valentino knocked him out. (Editor's Note: the correct spelling is "O'Neil".)
Bertellini has found proof that it was all a publicity stunt arranged by a PR man, Victor Shapiro, because Valentino’s sequel to his most successful film, The Sheik, had not aroused much interest in Chicago. The fake scandal changed that.
The following section presents the key points revealed by the Shapiro material as discussed in The Divo and the Duce.
Shapiro already had a major career as an independent publicity man and had actually met Valentino on the set of The Eagle in 1925. He became UA’s publicity man for Valentino and it seems he may have ghostwritten a number of Valentino’s articles near the end of his life. “Shapiro at first expressed the sort of conventional thinking that emerged out of brainstorming sessions in UA’s Publicity and Still Photography Departments. The sessions centered on ‘how to make Rudolph Valentino more acceptable to men customers.'” The usual tactics would involve photos of Valentino sparring with Jack Dempsey, riding horses, polo with Douglas Fairbanks, or perhaps photographing him as female reporters were invited to watch Valentino engaging in exercise while “nude from the waist up.” This was the “play the Sheik card” strategy and would carry the tagline “Men, why be jealous of Rudy Valentino? You, too, can make love like he does. See ‘Son of the Sheik.'” But there were doubts that this approach would make enough of a splash to “revive Valentino’s career” (Page 149).
Shapiro followed the conventional approach, sending profiles which emphasized Valentino as “sensual with animal grace,” photographs, etc. to the press, first-run theaters, and picture outlets but this “only caused a ripple with the males.” “Shapiro recounted how the “Pink Powder Puff” editorial fell outside the scope of conventional thinking and achieved the ultimate goal of any publicity campaign: ‘get the opening'” (Page 150).
Shapiro’s transcripts reveal that his boss Abrams had started negotiations for the distribution of The Son of the Sheik with the largest theater chain in Chicago, Balaban and Katz. They rejected his offer of exhibition rights, and wanted to lower the price, claiming that “Valentino didn’t mean a thing in Chicago.” This is what set things in motion, as Abrams asked Shapiro to created a “publicity campaign unmatched in [Valentino’s] career” (Page 150).
On July 10, Shapiro said he was instructed by Abrams to send “the livest wire” on his staff “to do something about Valentino” when he stopped in Chicago between trains. Jimmy Ashcroft* was the pick; he was told to leave New York and get to Chicago and get “‘something on the front page, something–anything, provocative and entertaining.”‘ Shapiro met on July 12 as Ashcroft left for Chicago to give final instructions; both were on the same page (Page 150). (*Elsewhere referred to as “John” Ashcroft.)
The “opening” came when TheChicago Tribune published the “Pink Powder Puff” editorial on Sunday, July 18, 1926. Shapiro spotted it, as he called it, as a potential “Valentine to Valentino.” Valentino arrived in Chicago on July 19. Ashcroft showed him the piece (which Shapiro designates as “A”) and began “stoking up [his] indignation.” Then, Ashcroft gave a prepared reply (referred to as “B”) to William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago Herald-Examiner, TheChicago Tribune‘s arch competitor. Within hours, Hearst had the prepared reply over the newswires and his papers across the country. The speed of the response further encouraged other editorial managers around the country to take the “Pink Powder Puff” piece seriously even though some recent academic analysis suggests the piece was really an ironic tone, not to be taken literally (Page 150) and was simply written in the typically sarcastic style of the day.
The response/”challenge” letter signed by Valentino (described as “B” by Shapiro)…
Note the misspelling of the word “defy” as “defi” in two places.
Note the scribbled addition to the third paragraph…which bears no likeness to the handwriting of Valentino as seen in original letters.
The note reads:
“Didn’t know who you are or how big you are but this challenge stands if you are as big as Jack Dempsey.”
Source: Worthpoint.com auction lot
Shapiro then instructed Ashcroft to “keep [Valentino] fired up” on the way to New York as Ashcroft and Shapiro and his assistant, Warren Knowland were pulling together what to do next before Valentino and Ashcroft arrived in New York (Page 150-151).
Give him some printable catch lines, have him carry a copy of the novel Cellini, his next picture. We'll have photos at the station, a press conference at the hotel, with Prohibition's best handing out copies of, of Chicago editorial and Rudy's answer. Then it's up to ye gods, and ye gods it was (laughter).
Shapiro contacted his friend Lloyd “Red” Stratton of the Associated Press on the morning of July 20, told him where Valentino would be staying and “suggested” the AP would have first access, although not exclusive access, to Valentino. Everything was ready in advance. The welcome would include a police escort for Valentino from Grand Central Station to the Ambassador Hotel. (George Ullman would recall that “the sight of motorcycle traffic officers clearing the way for his triumphal car always thrilled him” (The S. George Ullman Memoir, Page 215). At the station, the crowd needed to be controlled, with the station guards managing to get Valentino into his car without having his clothes ripped off. Shapiro finally met George Ullman and they discussed who would be handling what: Shapiro would handle the “picture end” of the publicity, while Ullman would stick to the “personal matters.” However, according to Shapiro, in reality, he was handling everything. (This included his idea that “‘Rudy was to receive the press in his blue and green silk robe and purple pajama, for the benefit of the lady reporters [laughter].'”)
By that afternoon the Associated Press and the Hearst papers were carrying the story and from that point on, the phones rang non-stop with requests for interviews–“every news outlet in town, fan and general magazines, foreign press, film critics, males and females, sport writers” called and they all received personal interviews. More than 100 members of the media filed in and out of Valentino’s suite (Page 151).
Bertellini goes on to relate Shapiro’s descriptions of the staged match between Valentino and Frank “Buck” O’Neil on the hotel rooftop in front of a Pathe’ cameraman, which the author describes “as the promotional equivalent, as a staged event, of Valentino’s prepared response to the press.” Satirical cartoons, like the one pictured above, considered the “challenge” to fight an anonymous editorial writer as nothing other than a stunt. But, it was an effective stunt, because Shapiro received a report from Ashcroft in Chicago that the papers were breaking stories about how “‘the Balaban and Katz crowd never, never again would say Valentino doesn’t mean a thing there.'” Ashcroft also told Shapiro that when Valentino returned to Chicago for The Son of the Sheik‘s premiere, another statement (referred to as “C” by Shapiro) to the anonymous author of the Pink Powder Puff editorial would be ready.
The premiere of The Son of the Sheik at the Strand in New York was greeted with “mobs of spectators,” long lines and big ticket sales; a few days later the scene would be repeated at the premiere in Chicago. Valentino arrived at the train station to an enthusiastic crowd and shouted, “Mr. Editor, I am here. I am ready. Where are you?” He posed with flexed muscles and boxed with a welterweight named “Kid” Hogan at a gym in the Loop (Leider, Dark Lover, Page 375). Valentino’s second prepared statement ( “C” ) in which Valentino stated that he felt “vindicated” was issued and went national in a few hours.
"The heroic silence of the writer who chose to attack me with any provocation in The Chicago Tribune leaves no doubt as to the total absence of manliness in his whole makeup. I feel that I have been vindicated."
When Valentino went back East and appeared in Atlantic City on August 3rd, the crowds were there, too, and after his appearance at that premiere, he went to the Gus Edwards revue. There, where Valentino would dance his last tango, he was given a pair of boxing gloves just in case he got a chance to use them on the author of the “powder puffs” editorial. When The Son of the Sheik opened in Brooklyn a few days later the crowds came out again to fill the theater. Bertellini relates how Shapiro thought the entire effort was “‘the most extensive and intensive publicity break in Rudy’s short life,”‘ described himself and Valentino as “‘more than passable actors”…and recalled that Valentino “‘was acting his resentment'” (Pages 151 and 153).
Shapiro’s remarks seem to be a true recollection of the situation, namely, that Valentino willingly participated in the scheme. In the context of his stressful physical condition as well as the pressure of needing The Son of the Sheik to be a hit to not only enhance his career but also to help relieve his worrying financial predicament (large debts), Valentino played his role to the hilt, not only in print, but in speaking with reporters. In the “challenge” letter shown above and in the subsequent interview in the Los Angeles Times report, he made a point of saying that this was “not for the purpose of publicity” which sounds disingenuous. While claiming that he had written the letter, he told the Associated Press in New York on July 20 “…I handed it to my publicity agent and let him do the rest.” And Ellenberger writes that “Valentino later alluded to the act that someone else may have suggested or at least helped with the challenge when, in Chicago ten days later, he said: ‘I’m not boasting about my physical strength. I never should have allowed my press agent to make such a point of fact'” (The Valentino Mystique, Page 17).
But, was he really “[acting] his resentment” as Shapiro states? Shapiro wasn’t an intimate of Valentino, so he most likely didn’t have the deepest insight into Valentino’s emotional states. His job was to churn out publicity. There is very little doubt that Valentino did find the editorial insulting and that it took a toll on him. Unfortunately, Valentino’s words and actions provided a field day for the cartoonists and writers who scented blood and ratcheted up the pressure. (I’ve found a number of articles from papers all over the country whose tone mocked his statements and dress, even as they delivered the facts of the story.) Valentino had become a running joke.
Valentino was genuinely disturbed by what he felt was as an assault on his image as a man as well as the racist overtones of the piece. The “slave bracelet” became a point of contention regarding Valentino’s “manliness.” His manager George Ullman recounts how as they were traveling from Chicago to New York after the anonymous editorial was published, Valentino’s “whole being was disorganized” and that the words “stuck in Rudy’s craw….Rudy repeated the words more times than I heard him utter any other phrase in all the years I knew him” (The S. George Ullman Memoir, Page 78).
After nearly two weeks of publicity generated by the “Pink Powder Puffs” editorial and with only one more scheduled appearance in Philadelphia, Valentino was free to enjoy himself…and he did with a whirlwind of socializing at New York City venues, attending shows, and visiting Long Island’s Pleasure Island on weekends to escape the city heat. One weekend he went out to Long Island with his old friend George Raft; Raft recalled that “He looked pretty bad and …as we pulled up to to this fabulous home he told me ‘…It’s all been great, but I am a lonely man'” (George Raft, Lewis Yablonsky, Page 43). He took up with showgirl Marian Benda, while dealing with Pola Negri who was left behind working in Los Angeles. He mended fences with his first wife Jean Acker, Adolph Zukor and his old friend June Mathis. He discussed his next film project based on the life of the Benvenuto Cellini with his future co-star Estelle Taylor, the wife of his friend Jack Dempsey, four days before he was stricken.
He indulged in excessive drinking and eating and taking copious amounts of sodium bicarbonate for what he called his “nervous indigestion.” Adela Rogers St. Johns, also staying at the Ambassador Hotel in New York, recalls how just before being stricken with his fatal illness, he rummaged through her bathroom medicine cabinet in search of sodium bicarbonate after indulging in a heavy lunch of snails and told her how the fling with Pola wasn’t real, bemoaning how “Pola always drives me to the bicarbonate of soda.” And, he was still not over his divorce, telling St. Johns that “In the courts, she divorces me. Can you divorce in the heart?” (Love, Laughter and Tears: My Hollywood Story, Pages 177-178).
Even though he felt “vindicated” and was indulging in non-stop partying, Valentino remained preoccupied with anguish over the Pink Powder Puffs sneer and the effects of the publicity campaign. About a week to ten days before he was stricken, Valentino sought a meeting with H. L. Mencken, the famous critic and essayist. Mencken, who wrote for The Baltimore Sun, was known as the “Sage of Baltimore” and described the meeting after Valentino died.
...So he sought counsel from the neutral, aloof and aged. Unluckily, I could only name the disease, and confess frankly that there was no remedy...He should have passed over the give of he Chicago journalist, I suggested, with a lofty snort--perhaps, better still, with a counter gibe He should have kept away from the reporters in New York. But now, alas, the mischief was done. He was both insulted and ridiculous, but there was nothing to do about it. I advised him to let the dreadful farce foll along to exhaustion. He protested that it was infamous...Sentimental or not, I confess that the predicament of poor Valentino touched me. It provided grist for my mill, but I couldn't quite enjoy it...Here was one who had wealth and fame. And here was one who was very unhappy (Prejudices, Sixth Series, Pages 308,311).
(“Prejudices” is available at Archive.org. The short, poignant film “Goodnight Valentino” which depicts the meeting is available here.)
In the April 15, 1922 issue of Pantomime magazine, Valentino was the subject of a column entitled “Read ‘Em and Know ‘Em“– “A ‘Mental’ Photograph of Rodolfo Valentino“. Asked what his favorite motto was, he replied “Live and Let Live!” When the slave bracelet that his then wife Natacha Rambova gave him started garnering attention, George Ullman noted that Valentino ignored “their jibes and insults” (The S. George Ullman Memoir, Page 117). Luther Mahoney, who became Valentino’s handyman, also stated that Valentino “never paid any attention to such comments from such people. He was not used to making bad remarks about people so they just rolled off him, like water off a duck’s back” (The Intimate Life of Rudolph Valentino, Page 71). But the Pink Powder Puffs attack was harder to deal with that July. As Adela Rogers St. Johns commented “Although all of us, Herb Howe, Jimmy Quirk, me bugged him to, Valentino couldn’t let it alone….It was the last straw, somehow” (Love, Laughter and Tears, Page 176).
Valentino was rushed to the Polyclinic Hospital on Sunday, August 15. When he awoke after surgery from the ether his first words were “Did I behave like a pink powder puff or like a man?”
Victor Mansfield Shapiro was still on the job when , although he was out of town and first read the newspapers reports of Valentino’s hospitalization on August 16. According to his recollections, “‘I didn’t believe it. Nonsense!’ So he called his assistant, Knowland, fearing that Knowland had been ‘pulling a stunt without [his] knowledge'” (Bertellini, Page 153).
Although Shapiro, Ullman and UA hoped it would quickly pass, in the meantime they saw it as another publicity opportunity. Shapiro and Knowland went to the "press room at the hospital" and even though Ullman was in charge of "personal publicity," the crisis called again for a breach of contractual protocol: "Biographies and pictures of Valentino were passed out by Knowland."...He died on August 23, 1926, to the apparent surprise of everyone--his fans, the studio, and his publicists. The latter group was to react to it in ways that would frame both his passing and afterlife. (Bertellini, Pages 153-154)
…and that reaction would be seen in a funeral, unlike any funeral 1920’s New York had ever seen before…
NOTE 1: “Founder Albert E. Smith, in collaboration with coauthor Phil A. Koury, wrote an autobiography, Two Reels and a Crank, in 1952. It includes a very detailed history of Vitagraph and a lengthy list of people who had been in the Vitagraph Family. In the text of the book he also refers to hiring a 17-year-old Rudolph Valentino into the set-decorating department, but within a week he was being used by directors as an extra in foreign parts, mainly as a Russian Cossack.” –Wikipedia
NOTE 2: Ellenberger also states that the studio and Valentino’s manager George Ullman would hire “forty press agents to handle and publicize the funeral” to keep Valentino’s name in the public eye (page 62).
The Victor Mansfield Shapiro Archive
Title: Victor Mansfield Shapiro Papers , Date (inclusive): 1915-1967 Repository: University of California, Los Angeles. Library. Department of Special Collections. Los Angeles, California 90095-1575 Abstract: Victor Mansfield Shapiro was a independent publicity man for the Hollywood film industry. The collection consists of public relations and promotional materials relating to the motion picture industry, including questionnaires, codes, biographies, scrapbooks, clippings, photographs, and tapes of interviews with transcripts.
7. Harry L. Reichenbach – greatest movie press agent
8. Experiences publicizing Rudolph Valentino
Bertellini, Giorgio. The Divo and the Duce:Promoting Film Stardom and Political Leadership in 1920s America. 1st ed., vol. 1, University of California Press, 2019. JSTOR
Ellenberger, Allan R. The Valentino Mystique: The Death and Afterlife of the Silent Film Idol. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2005.
Editors of Fourth Estate: A Weekly Newspaper for Publishers, Advertisers, Advertising Agents and Allied Interests. United States: Fourth Estate Publishing Company, 1916.
Leider, Emily W. Dark Lover: The LIfe and Death of Rudolph Valentino. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.
Mencken, H. L. Prejudices, Sixth Series. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1927. (Available for free download at Archive.org.)
Scagnetti, Jack. The Intimate Life of Rudolph Valentino. Middle Village, New York: Jonathan David Publishers, Inc., 1975.
St. Johns, Adela Rogers. Love, Laughter and Tears: My Hollywood Story. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1978.
Ullman, George. The S. George Ullman Memoir: The Real Rudolph Valentino By the Man Who Knew Him Best. Torino, Italy: Viale Industria Publicazionio, 2014.
Yablonsky, Lewis. George Raft. New York: A Signet Book, New American Library, 1974.
The filming of Camille had been completed in February 1921 and Rudolph Valentino’s next film, The Conquering Power began production one week later, with filming completed a few weeks later by the end of March 1921, with some work in April for retakes. In the meantime, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse premiered on March 6, 1921.
The Conquering Power was released a few days after Valentino began work on The Sheik on July 5, 1921. Valentino hadn’t worked from the end of March after filming The Conquering Power ended until the start of production on the film that would make his career explode later that year.
Tumult surrounded the production of “The Conquering Power.” The team that had produced The Four Horsemen included June Mathis, who wrote the script, and Rex Ingram, who would direct. Tensions with Metro arose over money almost immediately and conflict between Valentino and Ingram hung over the production.
The script was based on Honore’ de Balzac’s novel “Eugenie Grandet” which was part of Balzac’s series of novels about post-Revolutionary France under the title “The Human Comedy” (La Comedie Humaine) published between 1829-1950. It was written in 1833. The story opens in 1819 after the country has settled down after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. While Balzac was writing the story he developed his idea for “The Human Comedy” and quickly released a second edition, “revising the names of some of the characters so that Eugénie Grandet then fitted into the section: Scenes from provincial life (Scènes de la vie de province) in the Comédie.” (Wikiwand.com)
The novel was drastically truncated and story elements altered. The opening scene of Charles Grandet’s wild birthday party does not exist in the novel, for example. June Mathis’ script tried to shift the focus to Valentino and elevate the character of Charles into a romantic hero (Leider, page 144). And while he goes Martinique secretly engaged to Eugenie and returns years later and reunites with her in the film, the book is dramatically different. He does go to the West Indies among other places while making a fortune as a slave trader, which is not mentioned in the film; he asks Eugenie for his freedom to marry a woman from a noble family to enhance his status when he is back in Paris (saying he does not love her); and after Eugenie releases him she marries an old family friend without love, with the understanding that the marriage will never be consummated. After her husband dies, Eugenie lives frugally as she always has and gives her wealth to charity. The romantic reunion with Charles in the film after years apart never happens in the novel.
Against the advice of June Mathis, during the announcement of the film to the press, Valentino approached Ingram to ask him to talk to Metro’s Maxwell Karger about an increase in salary over the $350 a week that he was making. Ingram refused and Natacha Rambova thought Valentino should talk to Karger directly, which he did. Karger at that point was unwilling to raise his salary which didn’t satisfy Valentino.
Meanwhile, Natacha coached Valentino on how to enhance his importance for his future in pictures. She emphasized the importance of the people who lit the set, called juicers, and what he should tell the makeup people. He picked over the width of the lapels on coats. Valentino also groused about his lack of camera time but the reality was that his character was absent from long stretches of the book. When he displayed his new attitude on the set, the real friction between himself and Ingram began even as Ingram was already wary as Valentino’s performance in The Four Horsemen had gained so much attention at the expense of Ingram’s masterful direction.
Gag shot which belies the stress on the set….
Publicity portrait of, from left, director Rex Ingram, Rudolph Valentino, and Alice Terry from THE CONQUERING POWER, 1921. 7×9 b&w photographic print.
Source: Publicity portrait from the Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
Ingram focused on the visual effects of the film. He would film his fiancee Alice Terry, who played Eugenie, with gauze in front of the camera to emphasize her fragility and ethereal nature (Shulman, page 153). Valentino became increasingly temperamental to the point where Ingram one day left the set to go to Karger to demand a replacement and start the picture all over again with a young actor named Ramon Samaniegas, the future Ramon Navarro. Valentino, knowing that the studio considered Ingram to be the more important asset at this point, went to Karger and tried to explain that he simply wanted to do his best and hoped for a better situation with Ingram…Karger said the studio had decided to give him a $50 a week raise for the last few weeks of filming which didn’t make Valentino completely happy (Shulman, page 152). June Mathis would act as a buffer between him and the director, assuring him that Ingram would not deliberately sabotage Valentino with poor lighting or shooting angles and the film was finally completed. Although the situation had been patched up, when asked if he would make another picture with Alice Terry and Valentino, Ingram replied with a firm “No.” And he would not deny that he had wanted to scrap the picture and start over again with another actor.
By the time the picture opened on July 8, 1921, Valentino had left Metro to sign a contract with Jesse Lasky at Famous Players-Lasky. Ingram was praised for his direction and photographic effects and innovative lighting (Leider, page 144), while Valentino was praised in The New York Times for “his finished performance as Charles Grandet. He is a pantomimist of marked ability.” (The New York Times, July 10, 1921). However, the film didn’t achieve the box office success that had greeted The Four Horsemen. Some critics did not like the shift to modern dress from what would have been worn in the early 1800’s. But polling had been done which showed that at the time, the public wasn’t interested in costume drama and June Mathis in the opening title acknowledges that “commercialism tells us that you, Great Public, do not like the costume play.”
But tastes would shift, at least among the women in the audience. The Sheik opened in two theaters in New York, the Rialto on October 30, 1921, then moving to the Rivoli the next week, smashing attendance records. According to Emily Leider, after Valentino became identified as the Sheik, when his pre-Sheik films were circulated, including The Conquering Power, “female patrons left the theater disappointed if the revived picture scanted” on love scenes.
A theater manager in Wisconsin complained that after seeing The Conquering Power his lady patrons gave him "a terrible razz...as they expected to see Valentino float through five or six reels of lovemaking."
On May 11, 1921 Rudolph Valentino wrote check No. 10008 in green ink payable to Walter M. Murphy Motors Co. for the sum of $200.00, drawn on his account at the Hollywood Branch of the Citizens Trust and Savings Bank, Los Angeles. It was signed “R. Valentino.” I have touched it only one time. It is extremely thin and the paper almost feels like fabric…so different from the stiff paper we see in our modern day checks. Perhaps time has taken its toll…100 years is such a long time ago, yet this check is part of my life now.
Interior of the Citizens Trust and Savings Bank, Hollywood Boulevard & North McCadden Place, Los Angeles, Ca, 1928
Quickly begins work on Uncharted Seas, filming during December 1920 (see this prior post for details). Meets Natacha Rambova. First formal date Christmas week, 1920 at a costume ball, Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles.
Filming of Camille underway January-February 1921. First wife Jean Acker files for divorce, January 17, 1921. Valentino fully smitten with Rambova during this time and relationship develops. They soon begin to co-habit at Rambova’s Sunset Boulevard bungalow.
The Conquering Power begins production one week after filming of Camille is completed.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse premieres March 6, 1921.
Filming of The Conquering Power completed in a few weeks by the end of March 1921. After this film, Valentino will have no work until July 1921. Money is very tight during this time.(Valentino is in debt, paying off his New York tailors for all the suits he had made to use in The Four Horsemen. During especially lean times, he hunts and eats mussels found at the beach.)
Also in March, the American edition of The Sheik, by E.M. Hull, appears and becomes an immediate success.
Jesse Lasky of Famous Players-Lasky Corporation has been negotiating the rights for Hull’s The Sheik, finally purchasing the rights for $12,500.
Valentino leaves Metro Pictures after the completion of filming The Conquering Power, following friction during filming and money issues. Valentino offered the lead role in The Sheik. Signs a 2 picture deal with an option for an extension with Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. In a letter to Adolph Zukor dated July 2, 1921, Lasky writes that he is “fortunate in getting Valentino, the remarkable boy who played the lead in The Four Horsemen” and that casting the film has just finished.
July 5, 1921…The Sheik begins production and filming ends by late August.
The Conquering Power released July 8, 1921.
Camille released September 26, 1921.
The Sheik released October 30, 1921.
What would make Rudolph spend $200.00 (about $2960.00 in 2021) at Murphy Motors while not working, paying off debts and hunting for dinner during months without income? It seems to have been the NEED FOR SPEED.
As a youth in Taranto, Italy following his stint in agricultural school, cars were a way to pass the time. He was already attracted to speed. From Emily Leider’s Dark Lover, page 36:
In her book, Rudy: An Intimate Portrait of Rudolph Valentino By His Wife Natacha Rambova, Rambova spends quite a bit of time recounting Valentino’s preoccupation with cars, commenting how “Automobiles from the first were Rudy’s downfall.” He purchased a Mercer, which was considered to be the first sports car, on installment. The Mercer Series 5 was produced between 1919 and 1922 with prices over these years ranging from $3,675 – $5,650 making it on the high end of automobile prices. (Rounding off to $5,000, for example, a Mercer bought for that price in 1921 would cost $73,988 in 2021!) There were 6 body types including sedans, with the “sports car” version often called a “Speedster” in ads. It could reach speeds of 70-80 mph. (Rambova commented that “Rudy always had expensive tastes”….)
This ad for a 1920 Sport Model shows the appeal this car would have had for Valentino.
Chicago Tribune, Sun., September 4, 1921, Pg. 82.
When his acting jobs stopped at the end of March 1921, Valentino eventually lost the car and about half of what he had put into it. So, without a car of his own, he borrowed Rambova’s Buick “runabout” which she acquired when she started working at Metro Studios sometime in 1919. The term “runabout” was going out of use by 1915 when it was replaced by the term “roadster”. The original runabouts were very light cars usually without doors, windows or roofs usually seating 2 passengers and they eventually became virtually indistinguishable from roadsters. Roadsters were more refined with concave “hoods” over the dashboard which would deflect moving air away from the front passengers. (Hooded dashboards were also found on speed cars.) We don’t know if she bought a used “runabout” or newer model “roadster” but they were quite similar in appearance although seats in the runabout were further to the rear of the vehicle than they were in the roadster. Rambova fitted her car out with extras–“mirrors, spotlights, canteens, etc.”
Whichever car Rambova owned, it lacked enough “pick-up” to suit Valentino. He scoured ads and had his connections at the studio on the lookout for a second-hand car that would meet his standards. He finally found a 1914 Cadillac, according to Rambova, which still had remnants of blue paint on the body and then campaigned to convince Rambova to allow him to trade in her runabout for the Cadillac. He even pocketed $400 on the trade. For Valentino, it was all about the motor; it had good speed even though it was not a racer–it could hit 70 mph–and it had “marvelous pick-up.” As for the body…no problem, it could be brought up to like new condition “in a week.”
And so the deal was done!
Valentino already had some experience with Cadillacs because while filming The Four Horsemen, he was ferried to the set in a Cadillac studio limousine.
The model year of the Cadillac he bought varies, with most sources, including Leider, saying the car was a 1914 model, while Donna Hill in Rudolph Valentino-The Silent Idol says it was the 1915 version. While Cadillac made models that looked very similar from year to year, there is one critical difference between these two production years. Part of the discrepancy may be due to the fact that Cadillac introduced a new engine in late 1914 for the 1915 production year.
Introduced in 1914 as the standard engine for all 1915 models, Cadillac’s first V8, the Type 51, used a 90-degree layout with three main bearings, L-head combustion chambers and water cooling...Cadillac’s initial design was a true high speed engine...the first use of a thermostatically controlled cooling system that was eventually adopted by all car manufacturers...soon earned world-wide praise for unprecedented smoothness and performance. The L-Head was on the Ward’s 10 Best Engines of the 20th century list.
1914: The last of the 4-cylinder Cadillac models. The motor was rated 40HP.
1915: New Cadillac V8 model dubbed "The sweetest running car in the world". "The ultimate in motor car engines" was the verdict of the industry's representative engineers. ...Top speed was a conservative 55-65 mph...
Trivia: On August 29, 1915, a stock Cadillac V8 drove a distance of 72 miles in 77 minutes and beat by 12 minutes the express Vandalia passenger train between Indianapolis and Terre-Haute, Indiana. On some stretches the car reached a speed of 75 mph. Remember this is 1915 and the car is a stock Cadillac!
Dropping down a body during the assembly of a 1914 Cadillac touring model which was nearly identical to the 1915 version.
A restored 1914 Cadillac…looking very similar to Valentino’s car.
But, note some of the differences in the photo below which are found on Valentino’s car: the custom trim, the glass windscreen in front of the passengers, and the location of the small “spots” located over the front fenders.
According to Evelyn Zamaya in her book Affairs Valentino (page 78), Valentino would work on the car during lunch hours during the final days of filming The Sheik. Rambova relates in her memoir that “he worked untiringly on the transformation of this ugly duckling, fitting it out with two strong “spots” on either side of the windshields, a cigarette lighter on the driving board, and many other improvements all installed by himself.” These other improvements included mirrors, a custom trim and, as Rambova comments, “After a good coat of black paint–egg-shell finish–and much polishing of the nickel trimmings, it really didn’t look so bad.” However, she reported that the car would break down at “the most inopportune moments,” which Valentino brushed off as being something that happened with powerful motors. And and it also guzzled oil and gas. But…for Valentino, it was a REAL car…
And here is something truly amazing: We can actually hear what Valentino heard when he started the engine! Watch these videos on Youtube:
It’s quite something to hear this engine running and imagining Valentino working on it, 100 years ago.
This brings us back to the check written to Walter M. Murphy Motors. Murphy Motors was founded in 1920 in Pasadena, California as a dealer for Simplex automobiles. It added Leland Lincolns to its roster and then Duesenbergs. The “coach building” aspect of Murphy’s Motors began as an unplanned aside. Basically, the company started to change the top and paint on the Leland Lincolns because Murphy’s clientele thought the original designs were not modern or flashy enough and because he thought the engineering of the Lincolns was poor. Murphy bought equipment and brought in staff from the New Jersey-based Healey and Company and by 1922 began making a name among wealthy clients, which included industrialists, movie stars and car aficionados, by building custom bodies on top of the basic chassis of many brands.
Murphy is known to have built on Bentley, Bugatti, Buick, Cadillac, Cord, Crane-Simplex, Doble, Dorris, Essex, Ford, Hispano-Suiza, Hudson, Isotta- Fraschini, Lincoln, Locomobile, Marmon, Mercedes-Benz, Mercer, Minerva, Packard, Peerless, Pierce-Arrow, Rolls-Royce and Simplex chassis, but they are most famous for their work on the Duesenberg Model J. Source: Coachbuild.com, The Coachbuilders Encyclopedia
It seems logical to assume that Valentino wrote this check on May 11, 1921 for $200.00 to buy parts from the Walter M. Murphy Motors Company that he needed for his restoration work. It is quite likely that he would have asked for advice and perhaps would have some work like the new paint job and custom trim done by the company itself.
So, today marks the 100 year anniversary of the day Rudolph Valentino went over to Pasadena to an auto business, bought parts, chatted about his treasured second-hand Cadillac, and then went home to work on it…
And the proof of how he spent that day is in the check…
NOTE: An image of the check is now posted in the My Memorablilia/Book Collection section of this blog.
1. Valentino’s used Cadillac was apparently gone by the time of his death in August 1926. In the list of estate items in auctioned off only the following vehicles are listed: the 1925 Isotta Fraschini; the 1925 Avion Voisin; a 1926 Franklin Coupe; a 1925 Chevrolet Roadster, and a 1922 Ford Truck. Source: Allan R. Ellenberg, The Valentino Mystique. page 182.
2. A photo of the showroom of Walter M. Murphy Motors which was relocated in to West Colorado Avenue, Pasadena in 1920. Photo ca. 1927.
Walter M. Murphy Motors, 285 West Colorado, Pasadena, ca. 1927.
Listing for Early Auto-Related Properties in Pasadena, California
American companies (which came to be concentrated in southern Michigan) along with their European counterparts would often ship their high performance chassis to New York and Los Angeles were there was a strong market for luxury cars.6 Local custom coach builders would then complete the automobile according to the individual taste of the patron. One such company was the Walter M. Murphy Motor Company of Pasadena.Walter M. Murphy came from a Detroit family that had made its fortune in lumbering. An uncle, William H. Murphy was a stockholder in Henry M. Leland’s Cadillac as well as a backer of Henry Ford’s early automotive ventures. Before entering the custom body5 Peter Ling, America and the Automobile: Technology. Reform and Social Change. p. 127.6 Duesenberg, Lincoln, and Cadillac were the first American made luxury cars able to compete with the European imports such as Mercedes and Rolls Royce. business, Murphy sold Simplex and Locomobile cars. In 1920, he moved into new facilities at 275-85 West Colorado Boulevard and became the California distributor for the new Lincoln luxury car. He expanded into the body business as a result of the Lincoln’s poor engineering and conservative styling. After Lincoln was acquired by Ford in 1922, Murphy turned to building custom bodies for a variety of luxury car chassis at his Pasadena plant at 37-55 North Vernon Avenue (now St. John Street); however, Murphy built more bodies on Duesenberg chassis than any other coach builder in the United States. Murphy’s forte was in designing convertibles and roadsters.
Section F: Associated Property Types Page 18-19 Automobile showrooms are significant under criterion B if they are associated with individuals who pioneered and/or innovated the automobile sales business in Pasadena. Walter Murphy, for example, was one of the most significant figures in the history of automobiles in the United States. He was a nationally recognized leader in the sale and manufacturing of luxury automobiles, including Lincolns and Duesenbergs.
Rambova, Natacha. “Rudy: An Intimate Portrait of Rudolph Valentino by His Wife Natacha Rambova.” News Clippings of the Life of Natacha Rambova & Rudy Valentino with Complete Transcript of her Book. Middletown, Delaware: Self-published, 2021. (book available at Ebay, ISBN 9798565516371)
He capers, he dances, he has eyes of youth, he writes verses, he speaks holiday, he smells April and May.
Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor
–III, ii, 71.
On with the dance! let joy be unconfined;
No sleep til morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet
To chase the glowing hours with flying feet.
Byron, Child Harold’s Pilgrimage,
–canto III, st. 22
Fame is the thirst of youth.
Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,
–canto III, st. 45.
To me it seems that youth is like spring, an over-praised season–delightful if it happen to be a favored one, but in practice very rarely favored and more remarkable, as a general rule, for biting east winds than genial breezes.
–Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh, (1903), ch.5
Source of Quotations:
Bartlett, John. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. 14th ed. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1968.