One of film’s first sex symbols, Rudolph Valentino, born in May 6 1895, grew up in Castellaneta, Italy, as the son of an Army officer and veterinarian. He attended military school, but he was rejected from the service. In 1912, Valentino went to Paris, but he failed to find work there. He ended up begging on the streets until he made his way to New York City the following year.
In New York, Valentino worked several menial jobs before becoming a nightclub dancer. He partnered with Bonnie Glass for a time, replacing Clifton Webb (who later became an actor). Valentino joined a national touring production, but it folded in Utah. The young performer then made his way to San Francisco where he resumed his dancing career. In 1917, Valentino set his sights on Hollywood.
At first, Valentino only landed bit parts, often playing the bad guy. In 1919, Valentino married actress Jean Acker, but their union was never consummated. According to several accounts, Acker locked Valentino out of their hotel room on their wedding night. According to experts, prior to the marriage, Acker had been in a romantic relationship with a woman.
Valentino captured the attention of screenwriter June Mathis, who believed that he was the perfect choice for the lead in ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ (1921). She had to work hard to convince the executives at Metro to sign Valentino, but they finally agreed. He stole the hearts of female movie-goers by dancing a tango in his first scene in the film. The movie was a box office hit, and the darkly handsome actor quickly became a star.
The mania around Valentino grew so rapidly that some women reportedly fainted when they saw him in his next picture ‘The Sheik’ (1921). This desert romance told the story of a Bedouin chief who wins over a cultured, Anglo woman (Agnes Ayres). The following year, Valentino had another stellar success with ‘Blood and Sand’. This time around, he played bullfighter Juan Gallardo who falls under the spell of a charming seductress Dona Sol (Nita Naldi).
Valentino’s reputation as a lothario was probably enhanced with his arrest for bigamy in 1922. Divorced from Acker in 1921, he failed to wait a full year before remarrying. He was taken into custody and forced to pay a fine after his 1922 wedding to actress and set designer Natasha (or Natacha, according to some sources) Rambova in Mexico. The pair remarried the following year. Valentino published a collection of poetry entitled ‘Day Dreams’ around this time, a work which reflected the couple’s interest in Spiritualism.
Rambova took a dominant role in managing her husband’s career, much to Valentino’s detriment. Some male critics and movie-goers were already put off by his somewhat androgynous style, and Valentino’s next few films accentuated this quality. His wife picked parts for him that made him seem more effeminate, as seen in 1924’s ‘Monsieur Beaucaire’. While still a box office success, Valentino suffered a backlash for this change in his screen persona.
Soon separated from his wife, Valentino returned to the kind of fare that made him famous. ‘The Eagle’ (1925) featured him as a Russian soldier seeking to avenge the wrongs committed against his family by the Czarina. The following year, Valentino made a sequel of sorts to his earlier hit, ‘The Son of the Sheik’. This silent classic proved to be his last work.
While he was still a popular draw at the box office, Valentino struggled the public and media perceptions of him. He challenged one newspaper writer to a fight after he was criticized in an editorial called “Pink Powder Puffs.” In response to the piece, Valentino wrote: “You slur my Italian ancestry; you ridicule upon my Italian name; you cast doubt upon my manhood.” Valentino also suffered from commonly held prejudices about immigrants, having been denied roles for being “too foreign.”
On a promotional tour for ‘The Son of the Sheik’, Valentino became ill. He was taken to a New York hospital, where he had surgery on August 15 1926, to treat acute appendicitis and ulcers. In the days after the surgery, Valentino developed an infection known as peritonitis. The 31-year-old actor’s health quickly began to decline, and his devoted fans swamped the hospital’s phone lines with calls for the ailing star. Valentino died nearly a week after entering the hospital, on August 23 1926. His last words were, “Don’t worry, chief, I will be all right.”
His reputation as the silent screen’s “Great Lover” haunted him after death. Some people claimed that he had been poisoned or shot by a jealous husband. Valentino was given a grand send-off. For three days, thousands crowded a funeral home to view his body and say good-bye to the romantic idol. Then two funerals were held, one in New York and one in California. Actresses Mary Pickford and Gloria Swanson were among the mourners.
Perhaps not a great actor, Valentino had a magical and elusive quality that made him a legend. He possessed a tremendous charisma that shined through his appearances on the big screen. And his early death has only fueled his status as a revered pop icon.