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Rudolf Valentino in “The Sheik” (1921).

Rudolph Valentino – The Silver Screen’s First Matinee Idol

Rudolph Valentino was born Rodolfo Pietro Filiberto Raffaello Guglielmi, on May 6, 1895, in Castellaneta, Italy. His father was an Army officer and veterinarian. After immigrating to the United States in 1913, Valentino worked in New York and while touring with a production, which folded in Utah, he made his way west, first to San Francisco and then in 1917, to Hollywood. At first, Valentino only landed bit parts, often playing the bad guy.

Valentino captured the attention of screenwriter June Mathis, who believed that he was the perfect choice for the lead in “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (1921). He stole the hearts of female movie-goers by dancing a tango in his first scene in the film. The movie was a box office hit and the darkly handsome actor quickly became a star. He was the first super star, matinee idol of the famed silver screen. The mania around Valentino grew so rapidly that some women reportedly fainted when they saw him in his next picture “The Sheik” (1921). The following year, Valentino had another stellar success with “Blood and Sand.” This time around, he played bullfighter Juan Gallardo who falls under the spell of a charming seductress.

His career took a bit of a stumble when he married actress and set designer Natasha Rambova in Mexico in 1922. He had divorced his first wife, Jean Acker. After two years of marriage, they divorced in 1919. Valentino failed to wait a full year before marrying Rambova, which resulted in a charge of bigamy (he had to pay a fine). He allowed his second wife to direct his career, but the parts she selected were somewhat weak. While still a box office success, Valentino suffered a backlash for this change in his screen persona.

He soon separated from his second wife and returned to the kind of roles that made him famous. “The Eagle” (1925) featured him as a Russian soldier seeking to avenge the wrongs committed against his family by the Czarina. The following year, Valentino made a sequel of sorts to his earlier hit, “The Son of the Sheik.” This silent classic proved to be his last work.

On a promotional tour for “The Son of the Sheik,” Valentino became ill. He was taken to a New York hospital, where he had surgery on August 15, 1926, to treat acute appendicitis and ulcers. In the days after the surgery, Valentino developed peritonitis. The 31-year-old actor’s health quickly began to decline and his devoted fans swamped the hospital’s phone lines with calls for the ailing star. Valentino died on August 23, 1926. His last words were, “Don’t worry, chief, I will be all right.”

Valentino was given a huge send-off. For three days, thousands crowded the funeral home to view his body and say good-bye to the romantic idol. Then two funerals were held – one in New York and one in California.

Following Valentino’s death, The Arts Association of Hollywood proposed a monument. Despite the grandiose projects, no memorials materialized—and it slowly became apparent that the same would happen with Valentino’s final resting place. No decision was made as to where the actor’s body would finally rest. Would it be in Chicago, his birthplace or Hollywood? To solve the problem, at least temporarily, June Mathis offered her own crypt at Hollywood Cemetery’s Cathedral Mausoleum until an appropriate memorial could be decided upon or built. She died in New York less than a year later. As a good-will gesture, Silvano Balboni offered to have Valentino’s casket moved to his crypt next to Mathis’ until the Valentino estate ironed out its problems. He was moved to the tomb on August 8, 1927. It took eight years to finally iron out the details and eventually in 1934, the borrowed tomb was paid for and the legend could rest in peace.

For many years following his death, a woman in a black veil would place roses on the matinee idol’s grave. This continued for 28 years. Speculation abounded as to the identity of the woman. It was not discovered until after her death that the “Lady in Black” was confirmed to be Ditra Flame. When she was 14 and deathly ill in a hospital, Valentino, as a favor to her mother, went to her hospital bedside and placed a red rose in her hand. He told the young girl, ”You’re not going to die at all, you are going to live for many more years. But one thing for sure, if I die before you do, please come and stay by me because I don’t want to be alone.”

Miss Flame recovered and continued to visit the actor’s grave until 1954. She died, unmarried at the age of 78, in 1984. Over the years, there have been no fewer than 17 ‘Ladies in Black.’ Some were hired by Paramount Studios for publicity reasons, while others sought to promote their own fledgling screen careers.

Valentino had a magical and elusive quality that made him a legend. He possessed a tremendous charisma that shined through his appearances on the big screen. And his early death has only fueled his status as a revered pop icon.