I attended a memorial service yesterday for a man I never knew who died over 35 years before I was born. And although I have seen his face many times, I have never once heard his voice.
Silent film lover Rudolph Valentino died in Manhattan on August 23, 1926, and yesterday at exactly ten minutes past noon – the time of his death – his annual memorial service began in the same Hollywood mausoleum where he has been interred for the past 84 years.
Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Piero Filiberto Guglielmi Di Valentina D’Antonguolla was born in Italy in 1895 and caught a boat to America when he was only 18. He quickly found work in New York as a dance instructor, and first gained fame in his new land as part of a tawdry love triangle in which his lover, a Chilean heiress, shot and killed her husband. Young Rudy quickly got out of town by joining an acting troupe heading for the West Coast.
He supported himself in Los Angeles by acting in small roles and by teaching the Tango to doting older women. He played a bit part as a heavy in a film called The Eyes of Youth, which caught the attention of screenwriter June Mathis. She felt that Valentino would be perfect for the starring role in The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, a novel she was adapting for the screen. Coincidentally, Valentino tried out for the lead and met Ms. Mathis, who had been trying to track down the unknown Italian for months.
Four Horsemen was released in 1921 and made Valentino an international star. He quickly followed this hit with two others: The Sheik and Blood and Sand. Over the next five years he had more hits, but was usually on the verge of bankruptcy due to his lavish lifestyle and expensive divorces.
He died suddenly at the age of 31 from a ruptured appendix. It was only days after the premiere of The Son of the Sheik, which many critics believe to be his finest film. June Mathis offered to house his body temporarily in a family crypt while a permanent resting place was chosen for him. Sadly, Ms. Mathis died from a heart attack shortly after Valentino’s passing. Her husband felt it only appropriate that Valentino’s body be left in the crypt permanently and for his wife to be interred alongside her former best friend.
By the first anniversary of Valentino’s death, his friend Ditra Flamė began appearing at his gravesite in mourning clothes clutching a single red rose, beginning the tradition of the “Lady in Black.” There have been several “Ladies” during the past eight decades and the current titleholder, Karie A. Bible (no lie), spoke to yesterday’s packed memorial.
Ironically, if Valentino hadn’t died in 1926, it may have been his career that would soon have perished. The Silent Era ended the following year and Valentino, like most heavily-accented foreigners, would have probably lost his studio contract and slipped away from the world’s collective memory.
His premature passing was a tragic ending to his life, but came at the perfect time to create a Hollywood legend – a legacy that is still honored every August 23 at 12:10 P.M.