The Valentino Mystique author Allan Ellenberger answers five questions about silent film star Rudolph Valentino, who would have turned 111 years old yesterday. Valentino died at the height of his fame in 1926.
1 - Valentino was a personality - but was he an actor?
I believe that he was. He gives good performances, especially in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Blood and Sand, and The Eagle, among others. There were times, however, that he was inclined to overact, such as his eye-popping performance in The Sheik. But overall I don’t believe he could have achieved that level of popularity with his fans had he only been a pretty boy.
2 - In your book, The Valentino Mystique: The Death and Afterlife of the Silent Film Idol, you discuss in detail Valentino’s death, his funeral, and its aftermath. Are those stories about women killing themselves true?
To this day, a lot of Valentino enthusiasts will tell you that many distraught fans took their own life upon hearing the news of the Sheik’s death. One story revolves around a young Parisian elevator operator who was reportedly found nude on a hotel bed surrounded by photos of Valentino. In 1996 a short film called Taxi Dancer was made that supposedly told this story.
One documented suicide attempt took place on the Lower East Side of New York two months after Valentino’s death. On Halloween morning a twenty-year-old mother of two was found gravely wounded on the floor of her apartment surrounded by photos of Valentino. She told police that she wanted to join her idol in death but had unsuccessfully consumed iodine and took two shots at herself. She was arrested for violating the Sullivan law (she had a .22-calibre pistol in her possession without a permit) and was taken to the prison hospital ward.
The truth is that there is only one suicide that can be directly linked to Valentino. That occurred in London two days after the actor’s death. Peggy Scott, a 27-year-old actress, was found dead from poison in a friend’s flat, again, surrounded by photographs of Valentino and letters reportedly written to the young woman from the actor. Scott left several suicide notes expressing tremendous grief over Valentino’s death.
3 - At the funeral, Pola Negri, then a major film star, tried to steal the limelight from Valentino’s body. Is it true that they were having an affair right before he died? Or was that all a publicity stunt?
Negri and Valentino were having an affair before his death, but it was not an exclusive relationship. Valentino dated other women at the same time he was seeing Pola, mainly when he was traveling outside of Hollywood. However, the “publicity stunt” - at least in many people’s minds - came about after Valentino’s death and her so-called “performance” at the two funerals. Pola claimed that she and Rudy were engaged to be married but no one else was privy to this information, including Valentino’s manager and close confidant, George Ullman. That didn’t look good for Pola. Many believed that the actress went too far with her emotions over Valentino’s death, and that possibly hurt her career.
4 - Do you believe that Valentino would be as well known today had he died in the 1960s or 1970s?
Probably not. With some exceptions, there is something about dying young in Hollywood at the height of popularity that seems to assure lasting fame. Look at James Dean, Marilyn, and Elvis - all still very well-known today, but could the same be said had they died a natural death at old age? Had Valentino lived, he probably would have been affected by the coming of sound pictures and been limited in his film performances because of his accent. But it is always possible that he could have followed Greta Garbo and Ramon Novarro, and continued in leading roles. Whatever scenario his life would have followed, I doubt that his fame would continue with the same intensity that some fans now hold him up to.
5 - What would you say is Valentino’s legacy?
Sadly, I believe that Valentino’s legacy is his death. While he left behind several good films such as The Four Horsemen, Blood and Sand, and the recently discovered, Beyond the Rocks, it is his death and the way he is memorialized today that people remember the most. Each year on the anniversary of his death, crowds still gather at his crypt to venerate him. What other star of any generation can say that?