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“the Overloved One”

July 2024
15min read

featuring the death of RUDOLPH VALINTINO
Based on the actual events —With— POLA NEGRI

The New York premiere of The Son of the Sheik , in late July of 1926, was a smash success: when Rudolph Valentine, the star of the film, made a personal appearance at the theatre, he was mobbed. Screeching females clawed at him, stole his hat, and tore off his coat pockets. One high-spirited flapper tackled the Latin lover by the ankles and, frantic for a souvenir, started unlacing his shoestrings. He had to be rescued by a squadron of police.

There had been indications that Valentino’s reign as the screen idol of women was nearing its end, but the rousing reception given him in New York that summer seemed to belie such notions. Indeed, he appeared to have reached a new peak of popularity, with the prospect of a long career ahead of him; he was only thirty-one. Then, shortly before noon on August 15, he suddenly gasped, clutched at his side, and collapsed. He was rushed to Polyclinic Hospital, where his ailment was diagnosed as appendicitis. Valentino underwent surgery; his condition was pronounced good, and it was said he was on his way to recovery. But on August 21 he suffered a relapse. Pleurisy developed, and at ten minutes past noon on August 23, he died.

Valentino’s body was taken that evening to the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Church, a mortuary at Broadway and Sixty-sixth Street. There, clad in full evening dress, he was laid on a draped catafalque and put on display, surrounded by large candles, in the Gold Room. It was announced that the public woidd be allowed to file past the bier and pay respects to the actor starting the following afternoon.

Next morning, a crowd began to gather outsideCampbell’s hours before the doors opened. By early afternoon the queue stretched for nine blocks, snarling traffic completely at Columbus Circle and its feederstreets, seven blocks south, and extending up Broadway past Seventy-second. At first the crowd was orderly. Women sobbed in their sorrow. Then it was rumored that the funeral home would not open its doors. No one knew where the report originated; in any event, order quickly dissolved.

H. L. Mencken, who had interviewed Valentino during one of the actor’s visits to New York, described the Sheik as “catnip to women.” He added: “But what women!” What women, indeed. The frenzied mob rioted and tried to break into the mortuary, shattering a massive plate-glass window. Three policemen, a photographer, and many of the charging women were cut by flying pieces of glass. Mounted police moved in, pushing back the mob with their horses. Some women fainted; others were bowled over and trampled on. All day the riot continued. Ambulances were summoned and more than one hundred police reinforcements were rushed to the scene. Shortly before midnight, when most of the rioters dispersed, the exhausted police were left victors on a field of battle littered with hats, shoes, and torn clothing. The city had never before seen a wake quite like it.

The next day, mourners began to assemble outside Campbell’s at dawn. They waited patiently enough until nine o’clock, when the doors were opened, and then, with a wild roar, fought—fought not only with the phalanx of police but with one another—in a frantic scramble to get into the Gold Room. Police reserves again were called out, and the crowd was held in check. Then S. George Ullman, Valentino’s manager, announced that because of the disorder and “lack of reverence,” the actor’s body would not be shown to the public. The edict was not accepted without grumbling and threats, and there even was talk of storming the Campbell “Bastille.” But by the next day, August 26, the fans had settled down to watch various celebrities file into the funeral parlor.

Historians often have commented sourly on the disparity between the amount of newspaper space given to Charles W. Eliot, who died on August 22, 1926, and that given to Valentino, who died the following day. The ninety-two-year-old Eliot, president emeritus of Harvard and the country’s leading educator, received obituaries averaging perhaps a column in length. Valentino received pages of mention for days on end. But the women of America, and those of the world at large, knew Rudy; they had never heard of Eliot. Valentino, though he appeared to be just another handsome Italian, somehow exuded magnetism on the silent screen. To millions upon millions of women he was Romance as Romance ought to be, not the way it was in their homes.

Agatha Hearn, a New York mother, could not stand the thought that the Sheik was gone forever. Waiting outside Campbell’s funeral parlor was enough catharsis to many mourners, but Mrs. Hearn believed her grief was too great for that: she shot herself. When her body was found, a sheaf of Valentino photographs was clutched in her hand. A Bronx housewife attempted suicide because of “my love for him,” but failed. In London, Peggy Scott, a twenty-six-year-old dancer, made away with herself and left behind a note: “It is heartbreaking to live in the past when the future is hopeless—please look after Rudolph’s pictures.” In Japan, two girls clasped hands and leapt into a fiery volcano. In Rome, where the death was regarded by some as a greater calamity than Caruso’s, Mussolini exhorted women to become mothers, not suicides. What can best be described as “grief riots” were staged by women in manv narts ol the world.

On August 29, against this background of international wailing, Pola Negri, the tempestuous Polish actress, arrived in New York from Hollywood. She summoned newsmen to lier suite in the Ambassador Hotel and, with sobs and sighs, told how heartbroken she was over the death of her beloved “fiance.” The news of this engagement came as a surprise to many of Valentino’s friends, although the actor had spent much time in Miss Ncgri’s company since his second wife had divorced him in i()%5. Photographers were invited into the suite, and after the actress had wept, her bosom heaving in anguish, she remembered her duties as hostess and broke open a case of whiskey.

Miss Negri then left to pay her respects at Valentino’s bier. She arrived in the Gold Room heavily swathed in black, although her veil was just Rimy enough to permit cameras to capture the inconsolable grief limned on her face. To the delight of the photographers, when she caught sight of the corpse she swooned dead away. After considerable difficulty she was brought around and, supported by lriends, she tottered out into the street. There her swelling sobs were drowned in the sea of sorrowing cries sent up by the multitude.

On August 30 Valentino’s body, now in an elaborate casket, was placed in a hearse. A twelve-car cortege, preceded by a motorcycle escort, travelled down Kroadway to St. Malachy’s, the actors’ church on West Kortyninth Street, where a solemn high Requiem Mass was to be celebrated. The crowds were thick and the rooftops were filled with watchers, Cries of “Good-by, Rudy!” rose on every side.

The public was not admitted to the services, for fear riots would break out again and the body would be desecrated. Five hundred persons were invited to attend; they included celebrities, journalists, and photographers. A tremendous throng, filling all Hroadway from Forty-seventh to Sixty-ninth streets, was held in (heck by battalions of patrolmen and mounted’ police, while riot squads were kept on alert.

When the hearse arrived, and the cofRn—blanketed with pink roses—was carried inside, the quiet sniffling of the crowd turned into low moans. The honorary pallbearers were Douglas Fairbanks, Marcus Locw, Nicholas and Joseph Schenck, Sydney Kent, and Adolph Zukor. They were followed into the church by Mary Pickford, Madge Hcllamy, Richard Dix, and many other stars of the screen—and the low wailing began to mount to a crescendo. Jean Acker, Valentino’s first wife, wearing no veil and bearing herself with dignity, walked into the church all but unnoticed. Hut when Miss Negri appeared again, shrouded in black, a new chorus of sobs and lamentations erupted from the throng. The bereaved actress had to be helped up the church steps.

Father Edward F. Leonard, pastor of St. Malachy’s, officiated, and several priests from other parishes were in the sanctuary. The organ played Spaeth’s “Miserere” as the processional hymn, and right away it became apparent that Miss Negri would not be able to control her grief. Gounod’s “Ave Maria” was played at the offertory of the mass, and this seemed to intensify her deep sorrow. According to the recent recollections of an old newspaperman, when Massenet’s “Elegy” was sung, the keening of the actress could be heard rising far above the notes of the booming pipe organ. Soon, however, the roving photographers who had been taking pictures of her were ejected for disrupting the service, and their removal seemed to have a calming effect on the actress. She was in complete control of herself as the casket was sprinkled with holy water, accompanied by the chant: “Oh, God, to whom it belongeth always to show mercy—we humbly beseech Thee for the soul of Thy servant, Rudy.”

Chopin’s “Funeral March” was played as the coffin was carried outside—on its way, it turned out, not to a cemetery, but back to the Campbell funeral parlors for further exhibition. When the doors opened, the vast crowd surged forward in an effort to touch the coffin and to inspect the celebrities at closer range, and police unlimbered their clubs as they cleared the way. Miss Negri slowly rose from her pew and paused in the vestibule while snapshots were taken; when she emerged into the sunlight, her grief overcame her again. She was led down the church steps amid the piteous sobs of the crowd and the whirring sound of newsreel cameras.

The sorrow of Valentine’s fans was no doubt as genuine as such sorrow can be. But it did not lack artificial stimulation. In the decades since 1926, the story of the forces operating behind the scenes has gradually become known. It is now clear that at least five publicity-seeking groups or individuals were at work, each hoping to profit from the occasion. Each had a stake in intensifying and prolonging the mourning period—and the publicity men acted with wellorganized speed.

Foremost among the press agents were those of VaIentino’s studio in Hollywood, whose owners had been stunned when they learned of the death of their star. What would happen to The Son of the Sheik? Would they get their investment back? It was decided in conference that public interest in the dead actor must be kept at fever pitch for at least a week, time enough to rush prints out to theatres in this country and abroad. Press agents in Hollywood were instructed to round up testimonials to Valentino’s acting genius in his last picture. Tom Mix, Conway Tearle, John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks, William Boyd, and other stars obliged. The publicity artists in New York were instructed to turn out brief biographies of the actor, to pass out thousands of stills from the movie, and to co-operate with newspapers and anyone else seeking, for whatever reasons, to publicize Rudolph Valentino.

The boss of the studio’s press agents bore the unlikely name of Oscar Doob. He was aware that in the last few weeks of his life Valentino had suffered some loss of popularity and reputation. Though he was the idol of women, most men had regarded the star with indifference, while others had contemptuously termed him a lounge lizard, a pretty boy, and a gigolo. Newspapers, too, had begun to jeer at the long sideburns of the “reformed dishwasher.” The Chicago Tribune had deplored the effeminization of the American male, blaming much of it on the influence of the “Powder Puff Hero” and his Sheik movies.

It was Doob who had engineered the favorable reception of Valentino when he had made his personal appearance at the New York premiere. Now that the star was dead, the first move in Doob’s campaign to keep the actor’s name alive was to announce the Sheik’s last words. Rudy had said, Doob solemnly declared, “Let the tent be struck!” This was regarded as a dignified deathbed message, with a fine literary ring to it. It had the added attraction of reminding the public of the Arabian tent in which Ttic Son of the Sheik wooed Vilma Banky, the Hot Paprika from Hungary. (There was also a popular song of the day, “The Sheik of Araby,” with some piquant lines about creeping into a lady’s tent.)

Before the phrase hit print, however, a bright publicity man remembered that these were almost the identical words spoken in 1870 by Robert E. Lee on his deathbed. Valentino’s parting message was hastily revised. He had been misheard by an intern whose familiarity with the English language was slight. What Valentino had really said was: “I want the sunlight to greet me— DON’T PULL DOWN THE SHADES !”

It was feared that these last words were a little too lengthy for a deathbed statement—in addition to being an elaboration of the more succinct dying utterance of Goethe ∗—but, to the relief of Doob, they caught the fancy of the public and were relayed all over the world.

“Mehr Licht,” he said. Incidentally, according to one of the doctors who attended Valentine, the star did not speak a word in English after 6:30 A.M. on August 23, the day he died.

Doob now passed the ball to the press agent for the Campbell undertaking establishment. He was a man named Klemfuss—Harry C. Klemfuss, an old hand at the game. Klemfuss’ first move was to hire thirty persons at a dollar a head to stand in line outside the mortuary. The standees made no effort to file inside; their job was to attract the mob. When the mob came and, to Klemfuss’ satisfaction, staged a splendid disturbance, the Campbell name was in all the headlines.

Klemfuss also stationed an honor guard of blackshirted “Fascisti” at the Valentino bier and then encouraged a liberal organization to protest their presence there. The resulting controversy made front-page newspaper stories. When Klemfuss banned the blackshirts from the premises, Campbell’s name again was on page one. The publicity man was most obliging to reporters. Before the funeral, he had arranged for pictures to be taken of the cortege as if it were travelling down Broadway to the church. The newspapers hit the streets with the photographs before the procession actually got under way.

The third publicity seeker was S. George Ullman. Having served as Valentino’s manager, he was now available for hire as the spiritual and financial guide of any other big-time star. In addition, Ullman was promoting three Valentino books about to be published. One, supposedly written by Ullman, was titled Valentino As I Knew Him . Another was a book ghostwritten for Valentino on How to Keep Fit . Still another was a volume of poetry purportedly written by the actor. Valentino previously had taken credit for a published diary and a book of poems. Four books were quite an achievement for a man who, according to some detractors, could neither read nor write English.

Rudy’s poetry—he was regarded as a sort of Shelley in buskins—always sold well to his women fans. One of the most quotable of the poems in his posthumous volume was called “On Babies,” written under the spiritual influence of Walt Whitman:

Texture of a butterfly’s wing, Colored like a dawned rose, Whose perfume is the breath of God. Such is the web wherein is held The Treasure of the Transcendent The priceless gift—the Child of Love.

The fourth entry in the Valentino publicity sweepstakes was Alberto Valentino, Rudy’s older brother. He stepped eagerly forward, hoping to use some of his brother’s posthumous fame as a springboard to stardom himself.

Alberto spent much of his time stoutly defending the Valentino pedigree and background. Presumably Valentino was born Rodolfo Guglielmi—at Castellaneta, Italy, on May 6, 1895—for this was the name he used on his wedding licenses. Alberto said Rudy’s full name was Rodolfo Alonzo Raffaelo Pierre Filibert Guglielmi Di Valentina d’Antonguolla. Moreover, the Valentina was an ancient papal title conferred on the family, and the d’Antonguolla signified the right to certain royal property, so that although it was not generally known, Rudy was actually of noble descent.

Far from being illiterate, Alberto said, his brother was at home in five languages, and was a graduate of the Royal Academy of Agriculture at Genoa. Nor had he ever been, as some claimed, an apprentice barber on Mulberry Street. True, he had worked as a gardener on a big Long Island estate, but only for a short time before taking up a brilliant career as a professional dancer, which led him to Hollywood. The newsmen soon tired of interviewing Alberto, and although he got as far as a screen test, his movie aspirations appear to have ended with that.

Publicity group number five was composed of gentlemen devoted to furthering the movie career of Pola Negri. At first the lady did not intrude on the scene, remaining in Hollywood and letting the press agents speak for her. They darkly confided to newspapermen that Valentino’s last words had been falsified. This news failed to staler the iournalists. but the new deathbed version did take them by surprise. What Rudy had actually said—and this on the authority of an unnamed doctor who had been with the actor at the end—was simply: “Pola, I love you, and will love you in eternity.” Officials at her studio said Pola was the one and only true love of Valentino’s life, that she was grief-stricken, and that she would soon appear in a sensational new movie to be shown at all the better houses.

Two days passed after Valentino’s death, and nothing was heard from Miss Negri. By now, accounts of the disturbances in New York and abroad had impressed Hollywood, and it was clear that Valentino’s death was driving other news off the front pages. The actress promptly announced that she was boarding a train for New York, hoping to arrive in time for the funeral of her “fiancé.” The sultry Polish Lorelei evidently did not read the newspapers, for she declared she had just learned of the death of her beloved. Under ordinary circumstances she would have arrived too late for the funeral, since the train trip took four days. But when she reached New York on August 29, the Campbell establishment was still showing the body to selected visitors.

After the funeral on the following day, Miss Negri returned to her hotel, pursued by a flock of reporters. The actress refused to receive the press, feeling it was not in good taste to do so, she said, so soon after the obsequies of her fiancé. She sent word out that in all likelihood she would spend the rest of her days in a cloister. Of course, she would first have to fulfill her movie commitments—she could not break her word.

The newsmen wanted to question Miss Negri about her engagement to Valentino, for they thought it had been sponsored by the studio. Valentino often had been questioned about marrying the actress and he had always been evasive. “Ask the lady,” he had said diplomatically. Now, however, it was announced that she had collapsed. Physicians were trying to calm her.

As the day wore on, the actress made a wonderful recovery and was able once more to visit the Campbell mortuary, where Valentino was again on display. There, the beaming Klemfuss told reporters, the coffin was opened by special permission of the Health Department so that Miss Negri could get one last glimpse of her beloved Sheik. Klemfuss estimated she had spent a full hour mourning at the bier, alternately weeping and praying. As the actress left, she informed reporters, in a heavy Polish accent and with tears coursing down her cheeks, that she never would be able to fall in love again.

Valentino’s body remained in the Gold Room for three more days after the funeral. The mortuary by then had sheltered it for ten days, and rival undertakers may have wondered if Campbell’s was the permanent custodian of the famous body. But Valentino’s final resting place, naturally, was to be California. As if unable to wrench himself away, Frank E. Campbell, head of the undertaking establishment, announced he would accompany the body as far as Chicago aboard the funeral train.

Police insisted the coffin be smuggled onto the train to avoid any public commotion. On the afternoon of September 2, it was taken through a baggage entrance at Grand Central Station, put in a freight elevator, and stealthily carried aboard the train.

The mourners making the four-day journey to Hollywood occupied a chartered compartment car directly behind a special car where the body was stowed. Alberto Guglielmi (or Valentino), S. George Ullman, Pola Negri, Frank E. Campbell, and W. H. Hull, manager of Campbell’s, were all there. Harry C. Klemfuss did not make the trip.

Miss Negri issued a statement thanking her many movie fans “who have offered me their sympathy in this dark hour of my sorrow.” After the train left, hundreds of grim-faced mourners lingered for an hour in the concourse of the station before they realized they had missed the coffin.

A few days later word filtered back to newspapermen about the devoted activities of Miss Negri aboard the death train. The lady in black was so indefatigable in making appearances on the rear platform at various stops that, it was said, when the train halted at 4 A.M. at Albuquerque to take on water, she automatically stumbled to her feet and reeled to the back platform. There she began to weep into her handkerchief, much to the bewilderment of her audience, two drunken Indians wrapped in blankets.

When the body reached Hollywood, another funeral service was held and the actor at last was interred in a crypt, fifteen long days after his death. The story was given scant space in New York newspapers. New Yorkers by then were sated with news about the Sheik.

Today it is clear that of the five sets of publicity seekers who hoped to profit by dramatizing Valentino’s death, only two achieved any lasting success. The decision of the movie studio to “pep up” and prolong the mourning period—it was stretched from the usual one week to two—seems to have been a sound one as far as box-office returns were concerned. The Son of the Sheik smashed records in all sections of the country, and when the film opened in London a line formed fifteen hours before performance time. It could be argued that Valentino himself benefited by his death. He had died in debt, but the success of his last picture wiped out the deficit and gave a $600,000 credit balance to his estate.

Thanks to Klemfuss, Campbell’s funeral parlor also prospered. Campbell’s was just another struggling business in 1926; today it is one of the best-known undertaking firms in New York.

The other three participants in the campaign did not fare so well. Alberto, Rudy’s brother, never met success as an actor. Ullman drifted into obscurity. Pola Negri held on briefly as a star but, with the advent of the talkies, was quickly eclipsed. (She did make a belated comeback in Walt Disney’s The Moon-Spinners in 1964, playing a somewhat less tempestuous role than was her wont in silent days.)

Miss Negri continued to make headlines for a while during the twenties, however. In an interview in New York, she had told reporters that the best way she could honor the memory of her fiancé was to buy the well-known oil painting of Valentino in the costume of an Argentine gaucho—“even if it costs me a million dollars,” she vowed. Newspapermen had speculated on how high the price might go with Miss Negri bidding against a host of Valentino admirers. The answer came in December, 1926, when the auction of the actor’s private possessions was held. The gaucho picture was sold for $1,550. Pola neither appeared nor submitted a bid. A few days later, just before Christmas, Miss Negri was heard from again. In that season of good will to men, she sued the Valentino estate for $15,000, alleging she had lent the Sheik that sum of money and had not been repaid.

It was left to Natacha Rambova, née Winifred Hudnut, Valentino’s second wife, to sound a hopeful note after the tumult had subsided. Arriving from Europe some weeks after the burial of the Sheik, Rambova told reporters she had established contact with Rudy through a medium of the spirit world. “I have many valuable friends up here and am happy,” Rudy told her. “Caruso likes me. So does Wally Reid and Sarah Bernhardt, both of whom are doing well in the movies up here. Sarah has been particularly kind to me. These spirits do the same thing as they did on earth, but, of course, in a different way: they act with more soul now.”

Valentino, said Rambova, at first resented being given small parts in movies made in heaven. But he had resigned himself to serving a period of apprenticeship—just as Wally and Sarah had done—and would work his way up to becoming a star again. Rambova quoted Rudy as saying: “On earth, the clever artiste could portray any part given him by a director. Not so, here in heaven. All is sincerity.”

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