Ah. I knew some excuse would come along for me to write about one of my most beloved fantasy men. One of my favorite actors. One of the most handsome men in my mind’s menagerie of gorgeous hunks.
Rudolph Valentino. The original gorgeous hunk. The original heart throb. The man who put the Latin Lover on the map of women’s hearts. The sleek, brooding panther who invented “bedroom eyes”. The young film idol who rode onto the screen in 1921 and put the word “sheik” into the world’s vocabulary, making the word an icon that symbolized exotic passion and smoldering eyes. The first Great Lover of the Silver Screen.
Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Piero Filiberto Guglielmi was born on this day, in 1895, in Castellaneta, Italy. Today is his 114th birthday. So—happy birthday, Valentino!
I’m not going to go into a lengthy biography. I only want to dedicate a birthday card to the man who came here in 1913, as a kid of 18. The kid who, by the age of 26 became the biggest male sex symbol in history by shocking the world with his exotic, erotic tango scene in “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”.
The story behind this legendary role was the stuff dreams were made of — a proverbial but true “rags to riches” story. A powerful screen writer, June Mathis, by chance spotted him in a miniscule role in a film and knew she’d found “her” man for the role of Juan Gallardo in the much-anticipated production of “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” — the role that every big-name movie star vied for. She used her weight to get the unknown, dark-skinned kid in the lead role for the film; her hunch paid off. Rudolph went to bed the night of the premier as a nobody immigrant kid from Italy — a bit part player, usually cast as a “heavy” because of his dark coloring — and woke up a sensation with the face that would launch women’s hearts to romantic depths until this very day.
The primo celebrità of all time was born.
When he played the role of Ahmed Ben Hassan in “The Sheik”, bringing to life the sweltering sexuality of Edith Hull’s novel of the same name, he only cemented his standing as the greatest screen lover of all time. A position which, in my mind, has never been usurped.
Rudolph Valentino. You might have never seen one of his films. But very few can hear the name and not immediately summon a vision of romance. Even if you can’t place his face, you know when you hear the name Valentino that it means romance, it means sensuality, seduction. You just know it. Your mind is immediately swept to black lace and tangos, blacker than black hair, hypnotic eyes, kisses on the palms of hands, romance under the desert stars, lips speaking silent words of passion, tuxedoes, swank grace, feline masculinity.
Behind the bigger than life veneer, though, stood a man who actually was very simple and very much in awe of his sex symbol status. A man who loved good books and owned an extensive library. A man who loved poetry (even had a book of beautiful poems published), good music, art, and who knew several languages. An extremely educated man. He loved animals. He fenced, rode horseback with the skill of a seasoned equestrian (did most of his own riding in his films, even the dangerous scenes). He loved to cook, especially for friends in his own home. He was a man whose real life was a far cry from the sizzling persona on the screen — a sweet, decent, loving man. A man who wanted desperately to shake his “sheik” image and find serious roles — he was, in fact, a very good actor.
He separated from his wife, Natacha Rambova, in 1925. Their parting at the train station was a highly publicized event — a photo journalist feeding frenzy. Photos still remain of their parting kiss as she stood on the train steps. They were to never meet again in life.
On August 15, 1926, during a stop in New York City for a promotional tour for his final film (tragically, no one could know it was indeed to be his last film), “The Son of the Sheik,” Valentino was stricken with an attack caused by a perforated ulcer. He was hospitalized in New York and lingered until August 23, then succumbed to complications of this condition.
His passing affected the public in a way unlike anything the world had ever seen. Public pandemonium ensued. At only 31 years old, The Great Lover was dead. Over 100,000 mourners packed the streets in New York where his body lay in state. His body was returned to California to be interred, where it still remains, in Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
I’m not sure why I’m doing this tribute to him. I have nothing to add that isn’t already common knowledge. I suppose I do so, wishing that those who only think they know who Rudolph Valentino is would stop for a moment to know him. Watch a silent film. You’d be surprised how beautiful his films are — how really interesting silent films are in general. A world of art that should be explored, where treasures of the senses wait, ready to delight.
So, happy birthday, Rudolph Valentino. You would have been 114 years old today. My, my. But, as tragic as your too-early death was, it served to forever stamp the picture of your youth, at the height of your beautiful life, forever in my mind.