He was born—deep breath now—Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguella, and came to be known as the Great Lover, the Latin Lover, the Sheik…or simply Rudy to his friends. One of the first male heartthrobs of cinema’s silent era, Rudolph Valentino’s short life was filled with astronomical success and fame, but also plagued with toxic criticism, tumultuous love affairs, bad fortune, and poor health. Taken from us too soon but leaving a doozy of a life story behind, here are 45 revealing facts about one of early cinema’s most intoxicating stars.
Rudolph Valentino Facts
45. Meant To Be
Valentino was born in Castellaneta, Italy on May 6, 1895—the same year the Lumière brothers recorded the first ever piece of motion picture film.
44. Momma’s Boy
He was born to a French mother and an Italian father. His father generally disapproved of his unconventional nature, but he could do no wrong in his mother’s eyes. She and he were very close.
43. Do You Even Lift Bro?
As a teenager, he was rejected from a naval academy because he was considered too physically slight for the program. He enrolled in an agricultural school in Genoa instead, where he earned a certificate and where the daily labor helped him to bulk up. We all know where his destiny truly lied though, and it wasn’t out in the fields of Italy.
42. Childhood Tragedy
Tragedy would come to define the Latin Lover’s final years, but it was actually a part of his life from an early age. His older sister, Beatrice, died when she was an infant, and his father died when he was just 10 years old.
Valentino initially sought his fortune in Paris in 1912, and it was here that he learned the tango. He returned to Italy soon after but, unable to find employment, he made the move across the pond to New York in 1913.
40. The Big, Rotten Apple
The “Great American Melting Pot” hasn’t always been an easy place to integrate oneself, and sure enough, New York City living was not easy on Rudy. Money was drastically tight; he took on odd jobs like bussing tables and gardening, and sometimes slept in Central Park or in all-night movie theaters that continuously ran movies.
39. Taxi for Rudy
Valentino’s luck started to turn around in 1914, when he started getting work as a taxi dancer at Maxim’s Restaurant-Cabaret with fellow tango aficionado Joan Sawyer. Taxi dancers were on hand to dance with women who came to the clubs unescorted, often providing them with private lessons. It wasn’t sex work, per se, but was perceived as being more or less the same thing at the time.
38. Extra, Extra!
While making a steady living as a dancer, Valentino supplemented his income by pursuing and landing small roles in movies. His first part was as an extra in the 1917 film Alimony, which is now sadly lost.
37. Waiting List
The archetypal all-American leading man was almost exclusively fair-skinned when Valentino was trying to break into the industry. Valentino’s dark complexion—and the warped sensibilities of the time—meant that he was always playing criminals, gangsters, and heavies, and the leading man stardom that lay just around the corner was but a wistful dream.
36. Superstardom Awaits
Valentino finally landed his first leading role in 1918, as a diabolical Italian nobleman in The Married Virgin. Knowing that most people wouldn’t be able to pronounce his last name, it was here that he asked to be billed as Rodolpho di Valentini—soon simplified to Rudolph Valentino.
35. More Than Just a Pretty Face
Not that anyone would have guessed at the time, but Valentino spoke at least four languages: English, Spanish, French, and Italian.
34. He’s Got Something
Screenwriter June Mathis had seen Valentino in one of his early screen roles, and was so struck by his screen presence that she insisted he play the role of Julio in her adaptation of WWI novel The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
She and director Rex Ingram, who was initially hesitant, even decided to expand Valentino’s role in the film after seeing the early rushes. The film was transformed from an ensemble piece into more of a star vehicle for Valentino, and Mathis wrote additional scenes to showcase his unique talents. Specifically, she wrote a scene in which Valentino’s character stole another man’s woman, and together they danced the tango.
33. The Latin Lover is Born
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse propelled Valentino into superstardom and cemented his “Latin Lover” image. Photoplay raved about his performance, calling him “the continental hero, the polished foreigner, the modern Don Juan,” while Picture-Play Magazine claimed that Valentino was “such a fine actor that you forget how handsome he is and how well he dances”.
32. Unequal Footing
Valentino was only paid $350 a week, considerably less than his co-stars. On top of this, he had to provide his own costumes, which set him back thousands.
31. Box Office Gold
A critical darling, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was also a bona fide box office smash. It was one of the first films to make $1 million at the box office, and is still the sixth-highest grossing silent film ever made. Valentino was suddenly a bankable star if ever there was one.
30. Studio Stupidity
Despite the overwhelming evidence following The Four Horsemen’s release, Metro refused to acknowledge that Valentino had become a star and immediately dumped him into a B-movie called Uncharted Seas. Fittingly, Valentino realized he was being undervalued and soon left them for the uncharted seas of the Famous Players-Lasky studio.
29. Second Time’s The Charm
Though being forced into a bit part in Uncharted Seas instead of allowing his star to shine was undoubtedly slap in the face from Valentino’s studio, it turned out to be somewhat providential; it was on this film that Valentino would meet his second wife, ballet dancer and costume designer Natacha Rambova.
28. Bigamous Blunder
Valentino and Rambova married in Mexico on May 13, 1922, but because it hadn’t been a full year since he had divorced his first wife, as required by California law at the time, Valentino was arrested for bigamy. His studio refused to post bail and he spent a few days in jail, until eventually a few of his friends scraped together the cash to have him released. The charges were ultimately dismissed.
27. The Sheik Emerges
After quitting Metro and taking up with Famous Players-Lasky, Valentino would go on to nab the title role in his most famous film, 1921’s The Sheik. The film was not critically lauded but was an enormous commercial success, and it came to define his legacy in many ways.
26. More Studio Woes
Valentino was not paid well at Famous Players-Lasky, and didn’t take well to the studio’s focus on artless, commercially-minded pictures. He soon garnered a reputation as a bit of a whiner, and the studio began enforcing a part of their contract that forbade him to seek work with other studios. In response, Valentino went on a one-man strike against the studio.
25. Mixed Messages
In order to pay the bills while caught up in a contract dispute with his studio, Valentino—together with his wife—took a gig as a dancing spokesperson for a cosmetics company in 1923, and hosted beauty contests along the way. As he and Rambova toured around the country tangoing their hearts out to promote the products, Valentino used every opportunity to publicly rail against his superiors at the studio and their commercial greed, galvanizing the rift between them. Despite being at the height of his fame, it would be two years before he’d star in another film.
24. Sign of the Times
Valentino was active at a time when traditional modes of masculinity were clung to with an icy grip, and gay-bashing was rife. Despite persistent speculation and rumors about his sexuality—along with the notion that his relationships with Acker and Rambova were merely “lavender marriages”—by all credible accounts, Valentino was straight. The relentless scrutiny left him feeling constantly insecure about his masculinity.
23. Boxed In
Many male journalists were offended—or threatened—by Valentino’s less-mainstream brand of masculinity, and decried its undeniable influence on Hollywood and on men in general. One scathing indictment, in particular, stood out to Valentino; a Chicago Tribune piece that came to be known as “the pink powder puff” article, which blamed Valentino for the presence of a powdering station the writer had encountered in a men’s bathroom. Valentino wrote to the paper, challenging the writer to a boxing match. This never materialized.
22. The Fatal Collapse
During the press tour for his final film, The Son of the Sheik—which opened to critical acclaim in August 1926—he collapsed and was hospitalized due to a perforated ulcer. Fans stood outside Polyclinic Hospital in New York for a week, but he succumbed to infection around midday on August 23. He was only 31 years old when he died.
21. Braver Than Most
At one point while bedridden and deathly ill, Valentino asked his doctor, “And do I now act like a ‘pink powder puff’?” His doctor reportedly responded that he was actually “braver than most.”
20. Famous Last Words
Supposedly, among his last words before passing were, “Don’t pull down the blinds. I feel fine. I want the sunlight to greet me”.
19. Going, Going, Gone
Due to Valentino’s lavish taste and exorbitant spending, his estate was in debt when he died. All of his belongings were sold four months after his passing, with his manager and long-time friend S. George Ullman acting as auction administrator.
18. Burial Blues
Add another to the long, sad line of tragic details that defined Valentino’s final years. Valentino was in serious debt at the time of his death, and his heirs could not afford a burial plot for him. Friend and screenwriter June Mathis agreed to loan him one of the spaces she owned at Hollywood Park Cemetery on a temporary basis, so that he could be interred without delay upon his body’s arrival in Los Angeles from New York. However, Mathis died the following year, all further memorial plans for him fell through during the Depression, and so his body remained in that temporary space.
17. The Whispers Persist
Befitting a man who was plagued by rumors and speculative whispers while he was alive, the urban legends surround Valentino post-mortem are appropriately numerous. Among them are a supposedly cursed ring that he purchased in San Francisco, thought by some the more superstitious among us to be the source of his misfortune in life and that of those who the ring passed on to, and there’s also the supposition that his dog Kabar haunts the LA Pet Cemetery in Calabasas, California.
16. Funeral Hysterics
Valentino’s passing left mourners in a state of inconsolable grief. Over 100,000 desolate mourners lined the streets outside the church where his funeral service was held, there were riots, and a number of suicide attempts were reported.
15. Phony Guard of Honor
Everyone wanted a piece of the publicity pie following Valentino’s death. Inside the funeral home where Valentino’s body lay, four Black Shirt honor guards stood nearby as a form of tribute. The guards were thought to have been sent by Benito Mussolini, but it was later revealed that the whole this was a publicity stunt and that the men were actors hired by the funeral home.
14. The Third Wife?
Valentino had been involved with Polish actress Pola Negri prior to his death, though it was believed that both were just using the relationship for publicity—Negri to bolster her career, and Valentino to reassert his manhood in the eyes of his critics, so to speak.
At his funeral, Negri fainted over his coffin in hysterics. She claimed to have been Valentino’s future third wife, and his widow, and she had even sent a massive floral display spelling out “POLA”, just to hammer the point home.
13. Valentino and Naldi
Before there was Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, before there was Bogart and Bacall, there was Valentino and Naldi. He was paired with actress Nita Naldi in four movies: Blood and Sand (1922), A Sainted Devil (1924), The Hooded Falcon (1924) and Cobra (1925).
12. Valentino’s Doggos
Valentino was an ardent dog lover. Never one to resist an opportunity for flair, he had an Irish Wolfhound that he named “Centaur Pendragon” and a Great Dane named “Kabar”.
11. A Sheik in the Sheets
The Latin Lover would inadvertently come to play an intimate role in people’s bedroom, at least in spirit. In the 1930s, Sheik Condoms were introduced, named after his most famous role, and featured his silhouette on the packaging for years.
10. Post-Mortem Musical Mentions
A number of musicians have made reference to Valentino in their music in the years since his death. Among these are the Corrs, Leo Sayer, the Bongos, the Bangles, and the Kinks, whose 1972 song “Celluloid Heroes” features the lines “Rudolph Valentino looks very much alive. And he looks up ladies’ dresses as they sadly pass him by.”
9. Valentino’s Vaselinos
At the time, there were countless men who imitated Valentino’s distinctive, heavily-pomaded hairstyle and adopted his general demeanor. These guys were not-so-affectionately referred to as “Vaselinos.”
8. Not So Silent After All
He might have been a silent star, but Valentino had a pretty decent set of pipes. He recorded two songs in 1923, “Kashmiri Love Song” from The Shiek and “El Relicario” from Blood and Sand for Brunswick Records, both of which were released on the CD “Rudolph Valentino: He Sings & Others Sing About Him”.
7. Streets Ahead
His name lives in more ways than one; namely on a portion of Irving Boulevard in Hollywood, which was renamed Rudolph Valentino Street in 1978.
6. A Poet (and Now You Know It)
He published a volume of poetry titled “Day Dreams” in 1923. Written during a period of unsatisfactory acting work, apparently these poems were the result of Valentino’s brief interest in the occult and spiritualism. Shortly after the actor’s death, ex-wife Natacha Rambova claimed that they had been written in a trance as he channeled the words from deceased poets and his own spirit guides.
5. Heaven Couldn’t Wait
Following Valentino’s death, a bogus photo of the actor was published in a tabloid called the New York Graphic. What was so bogus about it, you ask? Well, it showed nothing less than Valentino’s ascendancy into heaven. The paper’s circulation got a major boost as a result of the picture.
When Valentino was a taxi dancer in New York City, he befriended Chilean heiress Blanca de Saulles, and thus became embroiled in one of the biggest New York scandals of the teens. Blanca was unhappily married to John de Saulles, a prominent businessman. When the couple divorced, Valentino testified in court in support of Blanca’s claims that John had been having an affair with Valentino’s dancing partner, Joan Sawyer. After the divorce, John used his political connections to have Valentino arrested on unspecified—and most likely false—charges. Valentino’s bail was lowered from $10,000 to $1,500, and after a few days in jail he paid and was released.
His reputation suffered greatly. The trial and subsequent scandal were so highly publicized that Valentino found himself unable to get a job, and he was shunned by a number of his old friends and dance colleagues. After the trial, Blanca shot her husband dead after a custody dispute for the couple’s son had turned ugly, and Valentino left town for fear of being called on as a witness in another scandalous and damaging trial. He joined a traveling musical which eventually took him to California.
3. Unlucky in Love
Valentino impulsively married his first wife, actress Jean Acker, in 1919, two months after they met. Acker had only seemed to be interested in women at the time, and had reportedly been involved in a love triangle with actresses Grace Darmond and Alla Nazimova.
Whether or not she was ever actually romantically interested in Valentino is unclear, but her decision to marry him was one she regretted almost immediately. She locked Valentino out of their hotel room on their wedding night, the couple separated soon after, and Acker moved back in with girlfriend Grace Darmond soon after.
They finalized their divorce in 1922, but ironically became good friends afterward.
2. Not-So-Smooth Sailing
Valentino’s second marriage was even rockier than the first. Rambova and Valentino lived in separate apartments in New York City while they waited out the year required of them by the courts, and they legally remarried on March 14, 1923. Rambova was not popular with a number of Valentino’s friends—June Mathis among them, whom he fell out with. The marriage disintegrated to the point where Rambova was contractually banned from his sets towards its end, and they divorced in 1925. It was a bitter end, too—Valentino left Rambova one single dollar in his will. Ouch.
1. The Woman in Black
For decades after Valentino’s death, a veiled woman in black has arrived at his tomb on the anniversary of his death to place a single rose on his grave. The identity of the woman was a mystery at first, until it was revealed that the whole thing was—you guessed it—a publicity stunt, this time cooked up by press agent Russel Birdwell in 1928. When this got out, several copycats vied to be the new “Woman in Black” and the tradition continued. Film historian Karie Bible is the most recent to have taken up the mantle.