May 11, 1921 — Valentino Writes a Check: Reconstructing The Fascinating Backstory About This Very Special Collectible…

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

Source: University of Southern California, USC Libraries Special Collections,

“Dick” Whittington Photography Collection, 1924-1987

This bank branch was located on a side street a few blocks from both Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards and also what is now Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

The Los Angeles Times Sun., Sep 4, 1921 Pg. 69

The months before and after this check was written were pivotal in the life and career of Rudolph Valentino. Here’s a timeline of what happened:

  • Completes his work on The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, November 1920 (see this prior post for details).
  • 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.”

Source: Clough, Albert L. A Dictionary of Automobile Terms. The Horseless Age Company. New York, 1913.

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.

Source: CaddyInfo – Cadillac Conversations Blog

More details from The (New) Cadillac Database:

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.

Rudolph Valentino in his restored Cadillac (private collection)
as noted in Donna Hill’s book
Rudolph Valentino–The Silent Idol, pg.196

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:

Rebuilt 1914 Cadillac Engine – First Start in 65 Years! (Posted Feb 11, 2020)

1915 Cadillac Starting. (Posted May 21, 2009)

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…


ADDENDA

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.

View of the new display room

Parker, Harold A., 1878-1930, photographer

The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Garden

3. National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form Submitted January 2, 1996

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.


Sources:

AFI Catalogue

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)

U.S. Inflation Calculator, 1913-Present (Learn how this calculator works. The US Inflation Calculator uses the latest US government CPI data…to adjust for inflation and calculate the cumulative inflation rate through the prior month. Example: The U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics will release the Consumer Price Index (CPI) with inflation data for April on May 12, 2021. (See a chart of recent inflation rates.)

Clough, Albert L. A Dictionary of Automobile Terms. New York: The Horseless Age Company, 1913.

Coachbuild.com. The Coachbuilders Encyclopedia.

CaddyInfo–The Cadillac Conversations Blog

The (New) Cadillac Database The (New) Cadillac Database© was originally compiled by Yann Saunders, a member of the Cadillac & La Salle Club, Inc., the Society of Automotive Historians and the Classic Car Club of America. It is now being updated and maintained by DLM Group, Inc.

Ellenberger, Allan R. The Valentino Mystique, the Death and Life of the Silent Film Idol. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2005.

Hill, Donna L. Rudolph Valentino, The Silent Idol–His Life in Photographs. RVG, 2019. (self-published)

Leider, Emily W. Dark Lover, The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2003.

Mackenzie, Norman A. The Magic of Rudolph Valentino. London: The Research Publishing Company, 1974.

Scagnetti, Jack. The Intimate Life of Rudolph Valentino. Middle Village, New York: Jonathan David Publishers, Inc., 1975.

Shulman, Irving. Valentino. New York: Trident Press, 1967.

Walker, Alexander. Rudolph Valentino. New York: Stein and Day, 1975.

Zumaya, Evelyn. Affairs Valentino, A Special Edition. Torino, Italy: Viale Industria Pubblicazionni, 2015.

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