• Industry

Forgotten Hollywood: Rudolph Valentino – “The Great Lover”

On August 15, 1926, thousands of fans mobbed the Polyclinic hospital in New York City where Rudolph Valentino had just died after a bout of acute appendicitis, perforated ulcers and peritonitis. In the week before his passing, letters, telegrams, calls and gifts flooded into the hospital as he battled for his life. Updates on his health were given to the press at regular intervals by his doctors. Ten thousand showed up the day after he died and had to be corralled by 150 policemen. The mob turned hysterical when doors to the Frank E. Campbell funeral parlor were opened, smashing windows in their fervor to get inside; many people were injured. The hysteria continued the following day as 200,000 lined up to view his body, with weeping women wearing widows’ weeds. As mourners tried to rip locks of hair off the body, the coffin was closed. The actress Pola Negri, claiming to be Valentino’s fiancée, screamed and fainted in front of his coffin and the attendant photographers.

Crowds in the thousands were outside St. Malachy’s church for the funeral ceremony, and then Valentino’s body was taken to Hollywood on a train for another funeral attended by Gloria Swanson, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks before he was laid to rest in Hollywood Memorial Park. One woman poisoned herself two days later with photos of Valentino around her, and there are many more apocryphal tales of suicide attempts by distraught fans.

Valentino was 31 when he died, leaving an estate of about $1 million including “his two homes, three Isotta Fraschini cars, three other automobiles, the yacht Phoenix, dueling pistols and medieval arms, 40 suits, 50 pairs of shoes, 300 neckties, 1,000 pairs of socks” according to Time magazine of September 20, 1926. He left his divorced second wife, actress Natacha Rambova, $1.

‘The Great Lover’ was born Rodolfo Pietro Filiberto Raffaello Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguella in Castellaneta, Italy, on May 6, 1895. As a teenager, his family sent him to agricultural school in Genoa, then he took off to Paris where he discovered a love of dancing and gambling and returned home broke. In 1913 when he was 18, his family packed him off again, buying him a steerage ticket on a ship to the US. Guglielmi would spend the next few years scrambling for a living in New York City, waiting tables, gardening, and working as a taxi dancer – a man who danced with single women in dancehalls. Eventually, he achieved fame of a sort at Maxim’s nightclub where he was the featured attraction, Signor Rodolfo.

This fame allowed him to befriend wealthy women, one of whom was Blanca de Saulles, a Chilean socialite in an unhappy marriage. Guglielmi testified against her husband in their divorce trial, and the infuriated ex-husband avenged himself by getting Guglielmi arrested on vice charges. Then the ex-wife shot the man in a custody dispute, and Guglielmi fled town to avoid getting further embroiled in the drama. He went west to San Francisco and then ended up in Hollywood to try his luck in the movies.

Bit parts came his way at first. Legend has it that D.W. Griffith said of him after a casting session, “He’s too foreign-looking. The girls would never like him.” Valentino was always cast as a villain in his first roles as he did not have the all-American look typical of leading men of the day.

But he managed to get a role in Metro Pictures’ 1921 film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as a French expatriate, this time with the moniker Rudolph Valentino, and his tango with costar Beatrice Dominguez made him an overnight sensation, the film grossing over $4 million, the sixth highest-grossing silent film to date.


In Valentino’s next picture, Uncharted Seas (1921), he would meet his second wife, production designer Natacha Rambova, nee Winifred Shaughnessy of Salt Lake City. (In 1919, Valentino had married actress Jean Acker on impulse. She was a lesbian reportedly dating movie star Alla Nazimova; the marriage was never consummated as the bridegroom was locked out of the bedroom and an ‘interlocutory’ divorce was granted only in 1922.)


Rambova had a hand in casting Valentino opposite Nazimova in the 1921 melodrama Camille, and his career kept soaring. A rumored lesbian, she was the production designer on that film as well. After one more film with Metro (The Conquering Power), Valentino decamped for Famous Players-Lasky which would cast him in the role that he is forever associated with, The Sheik. It was directed by George Melford and costarred Agnes Ayres who played the headstrong British aristocrat captured by an Arab sheik who then falls in love with him. Valentino earned $1,000 a week for the film, up from the $350 that Metro had been paying him.


The eponymous book of the movie was written by E.M Hull and featured the rape of the woman by the sheik, a development the movie left out. But the theme of miscegenation seemed to resonate with the moviegoing female public, and the film broke attendance records in its first week alone, with reports of women fainting at screenings. It made $1 million in its first year, popular all over the world including in Valentino’s native Italy. The word ‘sheik’ entered the popular culture referring to a man on the prowl, his target a ‘Sheba.’ The song “Sheik of Araby” was inspired by the film. 

In Moran of the Lady Letty (1922), Valentino was cast as a Spaniard who gets kidnapped by pirates. Then came the melodrama Beyond the Rocks opposite Gloria Swanson, with another of the tango scenes that made him famous. In Blood and Sand, Valentino played yet another Spaniard, this time a bullfighter, another huge success for him, which probably had something to do with the next scandal in his life.

He and Rambova had married in Mexico and then Valentino was arrested on bigamy charges as California law required a one-year wait period following that ‘interlocutory’ divorce. There was a sensational trial, the marriage was annulled, and the couple had to separate for a year. Valentino issued a statement vowing to remarry Rambova as soon as possible, saying “this year’s delay will not in any way lessen our love … The love that made me do what I have done was prompted by the noblest intention that man could have. I loved deeply, but in loving, I may have erred” according to Emily W. Leider’s Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino.

Valentino’s next film, The Young Rajah, in which he plays the son of an Indian maharaja, was his biggest flop to date. He decided not to return to Famous Players and declared a one-man strike against the studio after Lasky refused to pay him more money. The studio went to court to prevent him from working with any other companies.

Valentino and Rambova remarried in 1923. Since he was forbidden to work for other studios, the two started on a nationwide dancing tour to tango in front of live audiences, Valentino also judging beauty contests in each city. He settled his dispute with Famous Players that same year, and Rambova took over the management of his career to its detriment. His next pictures were lavishly produced with exotic costumes and sets, but Monsieur Beaucaire, The Sainted Devil, Cobra and The Hooded Falcon all lost money. Valentino then signed with United Artists on the condition that Rambova would have no association with his pictures, and that was the end of their marriage.


Son of the Sheik was released in 1926, Valentino reprising his role as the sheik and also playing the sheik’s son in a double role opposite Vilma Banky.

Cut to the next scandal when Valentino took exception to an anonymous editorial entitled ‘Pink Powder Puffs’ in the Chicago Tribune of July 18, 1926, in which the writer blamed him for the ‘degeneration into effeminacy’ of males because of the powder puffs he found in a hotel men’s room. “Hollywood is the national school of masculinity. Rudy, the beautiful gardener’s boy, is the prototype of the American male … Why didn’t someone quietly drown Rudolph Guglielmo [sic] alias Valentino, years ago?” it said. Infuriated, Valentino invited the author to fight him in a boxing match, and one was actually set up on the rooftop of the Ambassador Hotel. Frank “Buck” O’Neil, a sportswriter for the New York Evening Journal, agreed to stand in for the author. Valentino managed to knock him to the ground in front of all the cameras. Whether the punches exacerbated his ulcer condition is unknown, but the next month saw him rushed to the hospital where he would die.

There were other Valentino detractors that did not hide behind anonymity. Dick Dorgan, writing tongue-in-cheek in Photoplay of July 1922, in an article entitled “A Song of Hate,” expressed himself this way –

“I hate Valentino! All men hate Valentino. I hate his oriental optics; I hate his classic nose; I hate his Roman face; I hate his smile; I hate his glistening teeth; I hate his patent-leather hair; I hate his Svengali glare; I hate him because he dances too well; I hate him because he’s a slicker; I hate him because he’s the great lover of the screen; I hate him because he’s an embezzler of hearts; I hate him because he’s too apt in the art of osculation; I hate him because he’s leading man for Gloria Swanson

Here’s Charlie Chaplin’s take from “My Autobiography” published in 1964: “Valentino had an air of sadness. He wore his success gracefully, appearing almost subdued by it. He was intelligent, quiet and without vanity, and had great allure for women, but had little success with them, and those whom he married treated him rather shabbily … No man had greater attraction for women than Valentino; no man was more deceived by them.”