“Basket” versus “Casket”– How (and When) Was Rudolph Valentino’s Body Removed to the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Church? (UPDATED 10/3/21)

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?

Source: Columbia University Libraries

Source: International News Photos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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 the original, basic design 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.

The Brooklyn Eagle, Tuesday, August 14, 1926, Page 1
Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania
Tuesday Evening, August 24, 1926, Page 13
Modesto Bee, Modesto, California. Thursday, August 26, 1921, Page 1
(Apparently picked up wire image that had gone to another publication called The News-Herald)
The New York Daily News, Tuesday, August 24, 1926 (NEWS photo)
The sign by the door says “Private Entrance
The caption reads “Note girls who lean perilously around the corner of the building…”

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?

Updated: 10/3/2021

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.

Source: RoadsideAmerica.com

(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 The New 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?


NOTE 1 EMBARKATION HOSPITAL NO. 4, NEW YORK CITY.a

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.

791

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.


SOURCES

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.

Pictures of the Polyclinic Hospital. Archived at Columbia University Libraries, Seymour B. Durst Old York Library/Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library.

Stepno, Bob. “The Evening Graphic’s Tabloid Reality.” Written as a PhD Candidate, UNC-Chapel Hill
School of Journalism and Mass Communication, July 1997. http://www.stepno.com/unc/graphic/

Time of day Information: New York, New York–Sunrise, Sundown and Day Length, August 2021; definition of civil twilight; definitions of “evening“.

Thinkwillow.com

U.S. Army Medical Department, Office of Medical History Chapter XXXIII, Section VII: Other Embarkation and Debarkation Hospitals. 790-791, Embarkation Hospital No. 4, New York City Statistical data, United States Army Embarkation Hospital No. 4, New York City, N. Y.,  from November 4, 1918, to August 15, 1919, inclusive.

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

Zumaya, Evelyn and Renato Floris. The Rudolph Valentnio Case Files: The Research Discoveries of Evelyn Zumaya & Renato Floris. Torino, Italy: Viale Industria Pubblicazioni, 2021.

Rudolph Valentino…….August 23, 1926

95 Years Ago…


The Tampa Tribune, Sunday, September 12, 1926 (McNaught Syndicate, N.Y.)

It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather, our concern must be to live while we’re alive–to release our inner selves from the spiritual death that comes with living behind a facade designed to conform to external definition of who and what we are.

–Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

At the end, Rudolph Valentino was struggling with both himself and the facade that he felt was controlling his life…

Rest in peace.

Photo by Flo Maderebner on Pexels.com

The Summer of 1926: Rudolph Valentino, Victor Mansfield Shapiro, and Pink Powder Puffs…The Last Publicity Stunt

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.

New York University entry for 1916, U.S. College Student Lists, Ancestry.com

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.

Photoplay, July 1922
“I hate Valentino!” in the same issue

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 Los Angeles 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

Source: The Divo and the Duce, Giorgio Bertellini

…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.

“…this challenge is not for the purpose of publicity”…This is not publicity…”

Note the opening salvo…the reference to the “fresh gardenia a London-tailored lapel.”

Also note that Valentino stated that he was an American citizen, which was not true; he had only filed a Declaration of Intent in November 1925.

The Associated Press interview conducted in New York on July 20 added more color to the “Exclusive” carried by the Los Angeles 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) (See Note 2). And Simon Constable, in a blog 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 Morning Herald, 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 The Chicago 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, The Chicago 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…



NOTES

NOTE 1: “Founder Albert E. Smith, in collaboration with coauthor Phil A. Koury, wrote an autobiography, Two Reels and a Crank, in 1952.[16] 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.

Box 4

7. Harry L. Reichenbach – greatest movie press agent

8. Experiences publicizing Rudolph Valentino


SOURCES

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.

Wikipedia entry: Vitagraph Studios, redirected from V-L-S-E, Incorporated.