Rudolph Valentino, Hollywood’s First Dreamboat

On this day nearly a hundred years ago, a gorgeous hunk of a heartthrob died unexpectedly, although handsomely. Rudolph Valentino was everything a star should be in life, and in death.

On May 6, 1895, a tiny baby future sex symbol was born in Castellaneta, Italy, to a French and an Italian set of parents. His life in Italy wasn’t a great success so just like that he moved to New York City because there was no such thing as tedious bureaucracy and prohibitive immigration rules back then. He spent money like he actually had any and ultimately wound up being a beautiful, well-dressed man who slept on park benches because he was destitute. His jobs included being a gardener, a waiter, and also a dance whore at ten cents a dance, just like in the song! Sometimes parts of the past were a little weird.

He managed to sleep his way upwards in society (I assume), dancing with socialites and heiresses, charming their expensive evening gowns right off — married or not. Ultimately, this led to a delicious scandal where society woman, Blanca de Saulles, was caught in her infidelity and Valentino had to testify in the messy divorce court proceedings. He was arrested for something called vice charges, de Saulles shot and killed her husband, and Valentino ultimately fled to Hollywood, where scandals don’t exist and vice is unheard of. He would finally be safe from making his own bad life decisions!

A simple boldly colored illustration of Valentino. Surrounding him are the words "Rudolph Valentino, the Human Heart Throb."
What an ordinary looking guy to be such an icon of lust. Don’t be mad at me, Ghost of Valentino!

He was deemed “”exotic”” and you know what that means in Hollywood, even still to this day: he was cast as a villain and a menace, repeatedly. Meanwhile, his mother died and what do you do to assuage such grief? You have a whirlwind marriage with a girl you just met and get married hours later!! In her defense, Jean Acker was a lesbian caught in a sordid love triangle with some other vamps and saw marriage to a man as an easy way out of that. Good, clear thinking leads to rational decisions! Six hours later, they were getting a formal separation because of the whole “sexual orientation” and probably “waking up sober in the cold light of day” thing. Live and learn! As an aside, the preposterous divorce laws of the time meant that it would take actual years to get that divorce, and then be unmarried for a whole year after that, so of course this led to him being arrested for bigamy not long after. Such is the way of things when you are the Great Lover.

He was cast in a Latin Lover role eventually, this nobody Valentino, which was a reluctant gamble by the studio. But this is how he became a superstar! Instantly! Overnight! “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” a movie I should see some day, was a block busting super success as he tangoed his way into the lurid thoughts of American movie-going women. After that, he became the Sheik, a sexual icon, and scanties across the land were exploded from lower bodies. Subsequently, men across America became bloated with jealousy and sour grapes.

Wildly colored illustration of Valentino in his problematic Bedouin outfit. In quote marks, there are words that say "Splurp splap hey girls look at me smolder!" The quote is credited to him.
“sizzle sizzle I’m the Sheik!”

After a series of dramas including flopped films, studio fights, salary strikes, another unhappy marriage, personal strife, and so on, Rudolph Valentino was cheated upon and reacted like a man scorned, furious and driven to murderous rage. But like many vain men, he was all talk and just had a normal messy very public divorce.

He became suicidal and melodramatic, living a risk-taking life and dating several women at the same time — some would say the greatest risk of all. He was also at odds with being called a “pink powder puff” who was “effeminizing the American man.” Stung to his macho core, he couldn’t let that slide. So he had a public boxing match where he showed his manly man muscle strength by beating some guy who was representing the journalist who doubted his masculinity. Also, he was ill for months and ignored it, because Sexy Italian Supermen do not feel pain. They do not get sick because sickness is for the weak.

Woops! That was yet another terrible life decision because it led to his death at the youthful age of 31 of a “ruptured gastric ulcer” and “general peritonitis.” Ouch! Doctors of 1926 were in the habit of not telling someone that they were dying, so right up until his slip into a coma and then the big sleep from there, he thought he was actually well enough to be released and was planning his future. Bleak!

But the drama didn’t end there. His estate was a whopping $3 million in debt, which was a lot of money back then! So his friend or executor or whatever needed to keep his name in the news in order to generate interest in his last movie, the Son of the Sheik. It worked out!

Close to a hundred thousand people jammed the streets in the Great White Way of NYC, breaking windows, rioting in their grief, and being crowd-controlled by old fashioned cops on horses. Pola Negri, one of his girlfriends before his death, took center stage and flew into hysterics and fainting. She collapsed repeatedly, and most notably ordered up a floral arrangement that spelled P O L A. Rudolph Valentino, you sure could pick ’em!

After this spectacle, his gorgeous dead body was sent to California, where he was interred in the crypt of his friend who died like the very next year, and the Great Depression ruined any plans to build him a memorial, or even his own burial plot. So he’s still there, basically sleeping on the couch of his well-meaninged friend for the rest of eternity. Be dead like you lived, I guess.

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