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Rudolph Valentino -- 1926
Valentino -- 1920



              (1895 – 1926)

         by Lawrence J. Quirk

Valentino -- 1922

     It was August 1926. The body of Rudolph Valentino lay in state at Campbell's Funeral Parlor, then at Broadway and W 66th St. in New York. Outside, in the broiling midsummer heat, on the steaming pavements, milled many thousands of the fabulous screen idol's female admirers (and more than a few male ones). Their voices were loud and raucous, the faces clammy with sweat. In their eyes could be read fascinating variations on the prevailing wild hysteria that had washed over New York since the news of Valentino's death of peritonitis at Polyclinic Hospital on W 50th St. on Monday, August 23rd. Inside the chapel, swallow-tailed, wing-collared, grim-faced attendants pushed and shoved at the unruly fans, who refused to keep their places in the line as they filed by the flower-banked open casket. Some boldly leaned forward to touch the waxen face; others attempted to grab "souvenirs" — a coat button, part of a tie (some had even come armed with scissors), a lock of the greased-down black hair — whatever they could get. Mortuary aides moved forward and pushed them roughly away, sometimes in the nick of time, and shortly other Campbell employees came rushing in with a glass cover for the bier, while nearby guards, newly deputized as reinforcements, hollered "pass on!",ignoring the pleas and wails of the tearful women who, hour after hour, over those hot August days, came to gaze and sob and pray — and all the while had not the slightest inkling that they were looking not at the body of the man who had been dubbed by the press Rudy Le Bien Aime (Rudy the Well-Beloved), but at a cleverly fashioned wax effigy.

Valentino with Alice Terry

     The wax dummy had been the clever inspiration of my uncle, James R. Quirk, then the powerful and prestigious editor-publisher of the respected and influential Photoplay Magazine. He had walked into the chapel, taken one look at his close friend Valentino's wasted body, and called a prompt halt to one of the 1920's worst occasions of near-barbarity. "It would have been a shame," Jimmy Quirk later told his chief writer Adela Rogers St. Johns, "to go on exposing Rudy to scenes like that. Why, in death, he looked like a very tired little boy!" So Jimmy had called in an artist who was skilled at creating perfect likenesses. The man had done his job well. Rudy Le Bien Aime lay in peace in a cool, dark vault downstairs, and Jimmy's wax figure did the "star" honors — and took the brutal punishment — for Valentino upstairs.
     Jimmy Quirk had arranged the funeral and chosen the casket, and  that was as it should have been, for Jimmy, who had protected, guided and consoled the ill-starred Rudy so many times during the film idol's 31 short years of life, knew Rudy would have wanted it that way. "Rudy Valentino treasured Jimmy's friendship more than that of any other man," Adela St. Johns told this writer in 1960. "How glad he would have been to have known that Jimmy was looking after things...."Several photographs of that funeral show Jimmy Quirk walking as one of the honorary pallbearers among the biggest movie names of that era: Adolph Zukor, Titan of Paramount; Marcus Loew, Big Daddy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; Douglas Fairbanks Sr., then at the height of his stardom; and the powerhouse film producer brothers, Nick and Joe Schenk. The dead man they were honoring had in life been privately a sad fellow, and in some respects a pathetic one. The flamboyant, sexually-charismatic star of such blockbuster movies as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), Blood and Sand (1922) and The Son of the Sheik (which had premiered just before his death) was inwardly a torn, confused, unhappy young man with a bisexual component that kept him constantly demoralized.

Valentino with Nazimova

     Shortly before his death, a Chicago newspaper had poked public fun at Valentino in the cruelest terms. It seemed that powder puffs had been installed in the men's room of a Chicago ballroom; the perpetrator claimed, loudly and shrilly, to the press that he had been inspired by Valentino's slicked-down, oily hair, then-novel wrist watches, slave bracelets, and other appurtenances of meticulous male grooming, 1926 style. Dubbed by the paper "The Pink Powderpuff" and "Rudy the Beautiful Gardener's Boy" (he had gardened in his obscure youth), Valentino had reacted with hysterical, defensive rage. He went about muttering, at times screaming, to all comers that the men of America had turned against him, that they were castigating him as a weak effeminate — and worse. Soon he was publicly challenging the unknown writer to a duel, determined as he was to "prove his manhood.."
     Jimmy Quirk, who knew the subtleties of public relations backwards and forwards, warned Rudy that he was making too much of it all, and that a scornful, dignified silence was the proper response. "It's all a lot of silly hoopla," he told Valentino, "and it will blow over in no time. Just laugh it off and get on with your life." But the hyper-sensitive, thin-skinned Valentino found this sage advice hard to take. Shortly thereafter, he developed an aggravation of an ulcerous stomach condition that had long festered in his system. It evolved into the peritonitis that killed him.

Rudolph Valentino

     Valentino, of course, was unduly and obsessively concerned with public slurs against his masculinity because he was harboring a secret that, if widely broadcast, could apply the coup-de-grace to his already shaky career. He had been humiliatingly impotent with both of his strong-minded wives, Jean Acker, the actress, and Natacha Rambova, the designer, ladies of eccentric cast who had buzzed busily among the Lesbian circle that surrounded the outre, sinisterly flamboyant actress Alla Nazimova of Camille and Salome fame. The marriages had been farces (once he had even been arrested for bigamy) and it was rumored that he had used these unlikely ladies as "fronts" to obscure his bisexual bents.
     Valentino had come a-cropper with the temperamental and tyrannical Natacha Rambova in a particularly lurid way, as her interference in his recent pictures (she was a filmic set designer and artistic consultant) had resulted in unpleasant comment on the effeminacy of his costumes and facial make-up in the ill-fated 1924 opus Monsieur Beaucaire, for which segments of the press had labeled him a "fop," "dandy," and "prancing popinjay.
     Valentino in truth had been a passionate, and indiscreet, Adorer of the Male since his obscure beginnings in the small Italian town of Castellaneta, where he had been born on May 6, 1895, and which, at 18, he had been forced to leave because of one homosexual liaison too many. In America by 1913, he had been a tango dancer in New York cabarets, had "gigoloed" with both women and men, and had figured -- and more than peripherally -- in more than one domestic scandal, including the murder of a husband by his wife. Circa 1916, he had even been arrested in a house of prostitution in Manhattan. (After he became famous, the studio seized and suppressed the police records after some fancy bribery operations.)


     Among the men with whom he had formed close relationships in New York was the handsome and dashing actor Norman Kerry; he had followed Kerry to Hollywood in 1917. Kerry, by then a film actor, had pushed him with directors and producers,, and after some three years of bits and supporting parts, often as a gigolo or heavy or criminal, he was cast in Rex Ingram's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The handsome director Ingram, on whom the by-then 24-year-old Valentino developed an intense crush, saw immediately that the camera was kind to this passionate, flashing-eyed young Italian, and he proceeded to showcase him in some highly sensual tango-dancing scenes, alternating with love sequences pairing Valentino with the straight Ingram's actress wife, Alice Terry. These, combined with some war heroics in the action sequences, catapulted Valentino overnight to major stardom.
     In 1921 and 1922 one hit movie followed after another — Moran of the Lady Letty, Blood and Sand, The Sheik, The Young Rajah, Camille with Nazimova (he was Armand). Valentino became the idol of America's women. Meanwhile he continued to pursue, with utmost secrecy, his homosexual amours, while bedding down, with varying degrees of success, those women, some famous, some obscure, who threw themselves recklessly at him.
     By 1924 Valentino was engaging in a passionate "romance" that "co-starred" the handsome, sensitive, rather delicate-spirited MGM star Ramon Novarro, who was then 25, and who was about to achieve top fame as the intrepid charioteer of MGM's super-opus Ben-Hur (1925). (Decades later, as an old man of 69, in 1968, Novarro was to be murdered by two young male hustlers he had picked up on the Los Angeles freeway; they would suffocate him with an art-deco, gold-plated dildo brutally rammed down his throat — it had been a present from his lover Valentino in the long-ago.) The policy of the studios on homo and bisexuality was frantically hush-hush. [NOTE: This was decades before the Modern-Day Gay Rights Movement and the new, healthier attitudes of today.] Novarro had proven himself a particularly difficult and sad case, as he was sexually compulsive, and an annoyed and alarmed Louis B. Mayerr MGM's studio boss, and his resourceful and protective publicity chieftain, Howard Strickling, had a time of it keeping Novarro's mishaps out of the papers.
     Ramon Novarro combined, somewhat ironically and incongruously, a fervent Roman Catholic faith (he had once aspired to become a monk) with a satyriacal obsession with handsome males. He had converted one of Jimmy Quirk's most prominent writers, the witty and charming young Herb Howe of Photoplay, to Catholicism. Concerned as much for Herb as for Ramon, Jimmy Quirk had to personally intercede with Louis B. Mayer to save Novarro's career at a time when Mayer had determined to be rid of him once and for all. The harried Ramon, at Strickling's insistence, had dated many beautiful actresses for public consumption, and to his secret disinterest, had even agreed to bed some of them, with inconclusive results. (William Haines, another homosexual actor, ran afoul of Mayer for the same reasons; he, too, hung on at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer by the skin of his teeth.)


     Ramon Novarro had a beautiful singing voice and a singularly sweet and gentle personality; everyone who knew him liked him, and sympathized with his plight. More self-accepting of his homosexuality than was the tormentedly guilt-ridden and image-obsessed Valentino, he gracefully withdrew from Rudy's life when he saw that he was only adding to his pain. Rudy, of course, had managed to become sexually successful — after a fashion — with a number of women, and the temperamental Paramount star, Pola Negri, had been madly in love with him in the period just before his death. She insisted to the press that they were "engaged," and proceeded to carry on, in theatrical Negri-style grief, at his funeral.
     Jimmy Quirk, while himself heterosexual (he had divorced his first wife to marry beautiful screen star May Allison) was ahead of his time in tolerance and understanding of human diversity and foibles. Jimmy's attitude was that everybody had a right to his-her special flavor of ice cream so long as a reasonably prudent public image was maintained, along with an avoidance of flagrant effeminacy and epicene conduct and the wildly self-destructive carryings-on for public consumption of which Hollywood had had more than its share by the mid-1920's, with the result that former Postmaster General Will Hays had been called in by the film moguls to "police" Movieland Morals via "moral-turpitude" stipulations that could lead to contract termination and kept everyone in Hollywood on edge.

Valentino grabs Vilma Banky

     Jimmy counseled Rudy to develop a thicker skin. "Ramon doesn't lose sleep over it, so why should you?" was the substance of his advice. But Valentino was haunted constantly by a sense of failure; he was convinced that he had come permanently a-cropper with women, and continued to court abuse and ridicule and ultimate professional disaster because of his male-male involvements. He fretted that America's film critics did not take him seriously as an actor, and when several of his pictures failed at the box office, he went into a major funk. That summer of 1926 he had been counting on The Son of the Sheik to put him back on top. Sadly he never lived to witness its eventual success.     
     Adela Rogers St. Johns vainly tried to assure Rudy that he remained an idol-supreme to millions of women who went to sleep dreaming of his dark bedroom eyes and tender, seductive embraces. But to the end Rudy persisted in feeling that he was a fake and a fraud. Rudy Valentino, I feel, died at the right time. He may well have been spared the has-been fate of many silent stars whose voices failed to match their pictorial allure when the Talkies came. He was not a man who would have taken well to aging; Rudy adored youth and beauty, in himself as in others. In dying at 31, in that August of 1926 years ago, Rudy Le Bien Aime may have been benisoned by a gracious act of Fate...


ADDED NOTE: Emily W. Leider in her 2003 biography of Valentino, Dark Lover [Farrar, Straus and Giroux] claims on page 391 that my statement in my August 1986 Quirk's Reviews [in which this article first appeared] that a wax dummy was substituted for Valentino's body “has never been substantiated.” If Leider had even bothered to contact me, which she did not, she would have learned that numerous people substantiated this fact to me, including Adela Rogers St. Johns, whom I knew well and interviewed often, later Photoplay publisher Kathryn Dougherty, historian Terry Ramsaye, and publisher Martin Quigley, among others. She mistakenly quotes in her notes [page 488] my article as being August 1978 when it was August 1986, and lists my name as being Lawrence T. Quirk instead of Lawrence J. Quirk, plus other mistakes. So much for Leider's own inaccuracies. Moreover, I was talking to people like Ramon Novarro thirty to forty years before Leider even began researching. I had first-hand knowledge she could not possibly have obtained many years later when many sources had died.  -- Lawrence J. Quirk

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Copyright 2005 Lawrence J Quirk; William Schoell