Rudolph Valentino, the silent film icon who starred in the sixth highest grossing silent film of all time (the $375 in ticket sales from “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” allowed the entire studio staff to eat nothing but oysters for a week), was named Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolla. A clip from the film shows that he could cut a rug and smoke cigarettes with panache.
He was one of the first pop icons who inspired hysteria in ladies, much as Frank Sinatra, Liberace and Elvis Presley would a few decades later. But, unlike all of these famous, complex, and vastly overrated men, he died at the right time to guarantee his legend status. At the age of 31, too young for anyone to go, he expired due to complications from appendicitis and ulcers.
At his public funeral in NYC, 10,000 people walked past his coffin to pay their respects. It was claimed that a few despondent fans took their own lives.
Well, darn it, this is all kind of depressing.
Here’s a poem I wrote about Valentino many years ago, back in the days before mobile phones, the Internet, and environmentally responsible toilet paper.
Valentino Returns to Castellaneta
It’s a car with red seats
that he drives into the small dirty town
where he was born.
He wears a scarf, long and white,
that he bought in Barcelona
for a price that makes Ritz-Carlton Pictures squirm.
It twists around his cauliflower ear,
it tickles his imperfection.
He anticipates parades, admiration,
a pat on his silky back from the citizens of his hometown.
His wife Natacha refused to accompany him.
“l will go no further south,” she sniffed
settling further into the couch,
pulling her five Pekingeses around her like a rug.
But Valentino presses on
demanding some kind of triumph
over a time in life which would give him none.
In Castellaneta, he smiles into the sun,
teeth Hollywood white, waiting for applause.
The people are only confused.
Who is this strange man
who smells like the inside of a coach car,
who examines each tree
for his own personal effect on it?
Imagine Valentino’s pride
when someone pulls from their pocket
a copy of Photoplay,
his face mirroring the face on the cover.
The issue has been translated into curly Italian words,
the words he wrote in the magazine about this town,
his place in it. The story tells nothing
of his father’s disappointments
at having a son who skipped agricultural school and hid in the fields
who refused to learn how to steer the plow,
how to clean dung off its wicked blades.
Instead, he claims, his family is noble, important,
his father (long dead) a renaissance man.
They begin to laugh
for no one is important here.
Valentino becomes frightened as they jeer and taunt him.
Dirty hands reach out from the crowd demanding money,
vegetables and garbage pelt his car,
his silk shirt, his smooth skin.
He barely makes it to his car before he is covered
in the failure of the past to conform,
in the failure of one people to be exactly like another.
Valentino is crushed, he speeds north
through Italy to his Pekingese-stroking wife.
“It was lovely,” he tells her.
“They had a banquet with what little money they had.
Though meager, it meant more to me
than a meeting with Mussolini.
Sometimes the damage that the past inflicts
can be repaired with the slightest gesture.”
He smiles wearily at Natacha.
She does not regret staying behind.