The Death of a Heartthrob.
Rudolph Valentino was only thirty one when he died in 1926 and the world – well, the female theatre-going world – was distraught.
He was one ofthe most popular silent movies stars of the day notably for the film The Sheik.
This film told of a young woman- a British aristocrat – who was kidnapped in North Africa by the supposedly brutal, but undeniably sexy and smouldering,Valentino in the title role.
This fed the fantasies of almost every female who saw him in action as the ill suited pair fell in love. Women loved him – men thought he was undermining the all-American male and declared that he was gay. (This controversy went on for years but research tends to show that this was nothing more than rumour.)
Often cast as the ‘Latin lover’ you would expect that his early death was due to a duel with a jealous husband or that he had been poisoned by a woman scorned. But in fact, Valentino died in hospital of peritonitis. The (female) world mourned.
The media and the studios weren’t happy either as Valentino was the goose that laid the golden egg for both factions. This is why the owner of the sensationalist tabloid, the Evening Graphic, concocted one of the most bizarre photoshoots in history. The owner was a man called Bernarr MacFadden – you can read more about him here.
He sent two photographers to the Frank E.Campbell Funeral Church on Broadway where Rudolph Valentino’s body was supposed to be. Why two photographers? Well,one was detailed to take the shots, the other to lie in an empty coffin being photographed. Their job quickly done, they hightailed it back to the office where it was subjected to the 1920s version of photoshopping.
The picture of the photographer lying in the coffin was doctored and Valentino’s face – presumably from their archives – was superimposed onto it thus giving MacFadden’s newspaper an ‘exclusive’. In fact, Valentino’s body had not even arrived at the funeral parlour until after the photograph was splashed all over the front page of the tabloid.
When the funeral took place, women screamed and fainted in the streets. Actress Pola Negri received a great deal of attention when she wept hysterically at the funeral claiming that she and Rudolph had been engaged and had been due to be married in a week’s time. Was this true or not? Who knows but it certainly got her a great deal of attention despite the fact that Rudolph had never mentioned this ‘engagement’ to anyone.
The Lady in Black
Two years later an enterprising filmmaker called Russell Birdwell ‘just happened’ to be in the vicinity of Valentino’s grave on the anniversary of the death of the movie star. This meant that he had the ‘luck’ to film the mysterious lady in black.
She appeared out of the morning mist, knelt in front of the grave, left a red rose and departed as eerily as she had arrived into the lingering mist. A new tradition was born. Every year at least one ‘lady in black’ would appear on the fateful anniversary.
Birdwell eventually confessed that when he filmed the original lady in black it had been no accident. Hollywood columnist, Heed Hopper, claimed that the event had been initiated by a local florist whose premises were right by the cemetery. His goal was to get as many women as possible to buy flowers to leave on the last resting place of their hero – from his store, of course.
From time to time, the lady in black still shows up.
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