One of the first true heartthrobs of the silver screen died 90 years ago today, on August 23rd 1926.
Silent cinema idol Rudolf Valentino was just 31 and at the height of his fame when he died from a ruptured ulcer, sending thousands of female fans into a hysterical state of mass mourning the like of which had not been seen before. Dozens of suicide attempts were reported!
Born Rodolfo Guglielmi in Castellaneta, Italy, he emigrated to America at the age of 18, working variously as a gardener, dishwasher and waiter before building a minor career as a vaudeville (music hall) dancer. He also found that his striking good looks could earn him money, working as a 'gigolo' for several older wealthy women.
In 1917 he moved to Hollywood to seek work in the fast growing movie industry and after appearing on film as a dancer he was picked up by several casting agents as a reliable Latin villain type. He had small roles in several films before a memorable scene of Valentino dancing a passionate tango in "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" made him an overnight sensation.
Major roles in romantic dramas such as "The Sheik" (1921), "Blood and Sand" (1922) and "The Eagle" (1925) made him into Hollywood's first make sex symbol, idolised and adored by millions of female fans. Known as "The Great Lover", his personal life was often stormy, with two failed marriages blamed on his relentless womanising.
He was dating sultry Polish actress Pola Negri when he made his final film "The Son of the Sheik", which opened to great acclaim in August 1926. But just a few days later he was hospitalised in New York due to a ruptured ulcer. Hundreds of fans kept a week-long and often tear-filled vigil outside the hospital, but shortly after noon on August 23rd it was announced he had died from infection.
Valentino's body lay in state for several days at a New York funeral home, where thousands of mourners rioted, smashed windows and fought with police in desperate attempts to get a glimpse of the deceased star.
A week after his death a funeral service was held at a New York church attended by several Hollywood stars including Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson and Douglas Fairbanks. Pola Negri appointed herself chief mourner and obligingly fainted for photographers several times between the train station and the chapel. Apparently overcome with grief, she collapsed theatrically in a dead faint right next to Valentino's coffin, where she had installed a huge floral arrangement spelling out her name, Pola, in capital letters.
After the service Valentino's body was taken to Hollywood where another funeral service was held before he was finally laid to rest in a crypt in Hollywood Memorial park. Each year on the anniversary of his death a mysterious "Lady in Black" appeared at his tomb and left a single red rose.
Although her identity was disputed, the most likely candidate was Ditra Flame, who claimed Valentino had visited her in hospital when she was seriously ill at 14, bringing with him a red rose. She said she had kept up her annual pilgrimage to Valentino's grave for 30 years before finally giving up because several other "Ladies in Black" had started to imitate the ritual.
Despite his relatively brief movie Career, Valentino had clearly made a huge impact and originated the concept of a male sex symbol on the silver screen. However, several commentators predicted if he had not died he would have been unlikely to make a successful transition to the "talking pictures", which began with the release of "The Jazz Singer" just a year after Valentino's death.