Rudolph Valentino is possibly the most famous star of the silent film era. He was born in Italy in 1895, and immigrated to the United States at age 18. Initially, he settled in New York City, doing odd jobs and giving tango lessons to keep afloat.
His start in show business came as part of a dancing company, and from there he accepted bit parts in movies until his career took off. Apart from his work as an extra, Valentino starred in 14 films between 1921 and 1926, most notably The Sheik.
His movies, experts say, don’t meet the high bar other films of the era set. I guess that’s true but people don’t watch his movies for the cinematography, if you know what I mean (wink!)
In 1926, Valentino collapsed without warning at a hotel in NYC. Doctors diagnosed appendicitis and a ruptured ulcer, and performed successful emergency surgery. His health improved.
On the seventh day, Valentino’s condition worsened. He spent two days slipping in and out of a coma, before passing away at age 31. Interestingly, Valentino never realized he was dying. At the time, it was customary for doctors to conceal the knowledge of impending death from their patients. In the short periods of lucidity the actor had, the doctors told him he was making a good recovery.
Valentino, unaware of his peril, was preoccupied with an article he read just before his collapse. It referred to him as a “pink powder puff” who created an effeminate effect on men. The criticism stung, and when the doctors hovered over him after the operation, telling him how well he’d done, he murmured: “Did I behave like a pink powder puff?” He must have been pleased with the doctor’s reply: “No sir, you’ve been very brave.”
Valentino, for all his fame, was not a successful man. Both his marriages ended in divorce and he died penniless. There wasn’t even enough money to pay for a final resting place; his body was laid to rest in a friend’s crypt.
The reaction to his death was unprecedented. Immediately following the announcement, two fans outside the hospital attempted suicide. Two distraught Japanese girls leapt to their death in a volcano. Thousands of fans lined the streets and tried to force their way into the funeral home and later, into the funeral service at Saint Malachy’s in NYC.
Rudolph Valentino left more than his movies behind. There are two known recordings of his singing and a book of poems he authored called Day Dreams. His singing and poetry were disparaged by the industry, and even Valentino thought the opera recordings were bad. But it seems to me that he writes and sings with great intensity, which is probably only a dim reflection of the magnetism he exuded in life.
The arms of the earth broke through the sod
And clenched his fist in derision,
For clay knows not the might of God,
It has but earthy vision.
The finger of God wrote in the sky
A sign of mighty fire:
“Reach up to me for I am Life”
But earth could reach no higher.
With strength of muscle, with might and main,
Earth struggled and then defied,
But God stretched forth His hand of Love
And Earth was glorified.
Check out Valentino singing opera on Archive.org. It’s not as exciting as being kidnapped by the sultry sheik, but it’s closer than many of his fans ever got.