The life of Rudolph Valentino is a classic story of rags to riches, and one of personal tragedy. Valentino arrived in New York in 1913, as an 18-year-old immigrant from Italy, without a word of English, and struggled through jobs like gardening and dishwashing. His good looks came to his rescue when he became a dancer in New York nightclubs; he was, in fact, a gigolo for lonely society women.
But he took his dancing seriously and got a job in a travelling musical which took him to California. Encouraged by an actor friend to try Hollywood, he won a series of small parts, usually playing the villain because of his "foreign" looks.
In 1919 he married a young actress, Jean Acker, which proved disastrous as she was a lesbian. But the following year saw the big breakthrough in his career, playing the Latin hero in 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse'. He won rave reviews, but Metro pictures refused to give him any credit or a pay raise.
He took up an offer from Paramount to play 'The Sheik', and instantly became a superstar. Post-war women went crazy for his dark, mysterious looks and the wanton way the sheik treated the heroine, both in sharp contrast to the "boy next door" films of the time. At public appearances, fans mobbed him and tore at his hair and clothes.
It was during this period that he met the love of his life, set designer Natacha Rambova. The ambitious Rambova virtually took over his career, selecting his films, designing his clothes and fighting with directors. Unfortunately, she had little idea of what made a good commercial film and, after a string of flops, the studios were reluctant to work with Valentino because of her influence.
Another personal disaster for Valentino occurred when he married Natacha before his divorce to Jean Acker had been finalized. He was put in jail as a bigamist, and only avoided conviction at trial by pleading that the marriage had never been consummated, another humiliation for the man called "the Great Lover".
Eventually, Valentino was virtually forced to choose between Natacha and his career. United Artists offered him a huge contract on the condition that Natacha be barred from the set. Rudolph hoped she would take this as a cue to start raising the family he wanted, but instead she left him, heading off for New York and France to pursue her career (unsuccessfully). Valentino was heartbroken and begged for reconciliation, but she divorced him.
The split did help his career, however, and his first film for United, 'The Eagle' was a big hit. He was in New York to publicize the second, 'Son of the Sheik', when he collapsed with appendicitis and a ruptured ulcer. Surgery was at first called a success, but complications ensued and, after a one week battle, Valentino succumbed to blood poisoning and died at the age of 31. The nation was in shock and there were riots at the funeral home, as fans charged past police to see the body. His body was returned to L.A. for burial, where there was another near riot.
Valentino left behind a mountain of debt and his estate had to be sold at auction. He left Natacha the sum of "one dollar, and no more". But despite his death, the fascination with Valentino continued; fan mail poured in for another ten years, studio heads searched in vain for the "next Valentino", and a mysterious "woman in black" began appearing at his grave.
Filmgoers have debated ever since whether Valentino would have survived the switch to talking pictures which came three years after his death. Many, including Chaplin, felt he was a good enough actor to do so.
What is certain is his legacy of creating a new type of romantic hero, paving the way for Gable, Flynn and all who came after.