The Death and Afterlife of Rudolph Valentino

In 1926, it looked like Rudolph Valentino was back on track to reclaiming his title as one of the top stars of the silent screen.  The last few years of his career had been riddled with studio contract disputes and box office disappointments.

But then he started a new contract with United Artists and things started to look up again.  His first film for United Artists, The Eagle, brought in good reviews and did modestly at the box office.  Then in 1926, Valentino had the opportunity to do The Son of the Sheik, a sequel to his 1921 sensation, The Sheik.  Even though he loathed being known for The Sheik, he was in no position to turn down something that he knew would be a smash hit.  He was right and when The Son of the Sheik was released in July of 1926, it was extremely well received.  Some even hailed it his best film.  Just over a month later, Valentino was dead at the age of 31.  However, he would prove to be even more notorious dead as he was alive.

The day of Valentino’s funeral has been dubbed “The Day Hollywood Wept.”  It wasn’t the first time a big-name star had died, but it was the first celebrity death that turned into a total spectacle.  There were reports of fans committing suicide.  Speculation swirled about how he died.  Surely a young man with Valentino’s reputation must have gone out in some fantastically scandalous way, right?  Perhaps a heartbroken lover was out for revenge.  (Of course, the truth is far less exciting.  He died from complications following surgery for a perforated ulcer.)  When his body was laid out for viewing in New York, over a hundred thousand fans lined the streets for the chance to have one last look at their idol.  Rumors circulated that the staff of the funeral home was so worried about his body being damaged by fans throwing themselves on the coffin that they secretly replaced his body with a wax mannequin for the viewing.  Fans began to riot outside the funeral home and extra police had to be brought in to keep the crowd under control.  Pola Negri, who claimed to be engaged to Valentino at the time, repeatedly fainted during the funeral service.  The list of pallbearers read like a short list of who’s who in Hollywood and included names such as Douglas Fairbanks, Adolph Zukor, and Marcus Lowe.  And that’s was just at the New York funeral.

After his east coast memorial services, he was put on a train for a five day trip back to Hollywood.  At every stop the train made, people came out to pay their respects.  Once he made it back to Hollywood, there was another star-studded funeral and once again, thousands upon thousands of fans were there.  Of course, there had to be a little behind the scenes drama as well.  Given that Valentino died so young and so unexpectedly, he hadn’t come up with a burial plan for himself.  Not only that, he was in quite a bit of debt at time of his death so not only did his estate not know where to put him, they didn’t have any money to do anything with him, either.  June Mathis, who had written some of his most memorable films, offered the use of a mausoleum crypt she owned to hold him temporarily until a proper memorial could be built elsewhere.  However, those memorial plans never materialized and the temporary solution became a permanent one. Valentino remains in that crypt to this day.

Now, you might think that all the hullabaloo surrounding his death would die down after a while, right?  Oh, no.  Legends surrounding his death just kept on being born.  On the first anniversary of his death, a mysterious woman dressed completely in black was spotted bringing flowers to his crypt and continued to do so every year after that.  People wanted to know who she was and what compelled her to do this.  Was she a devoted fan?  A former lover?  Or possibly just the creation of a press agent.  The most accepted story is that The Lady in Black had met Valentino once when she was very ill and he assured her that she would go on to outlive him.  All he asked is that she remember him when he was gone, so bringing him flowers was her way of honoring that request.  Over the years, there have been several Ladies in Black and to this day, Ladies in Black still bring flowers to his crypt.

This August will mark the 86th anniversary of Rudolph Valentino’s death and interest in Valentino’s death still hasn’t waned.  Hollywood Forever Cemetery has hosted a memorial event on the anniversary of his death every year since 1928.  He has also become a pretty popular target for paranormal investigators.  The first person to kick off this trend was actually Valentino’s second wife, Natacha Rambova, who wrote a book about her life with him and how she believed his spirit would contact her.  If you do a YouTube search for “Rudolph Valentino Ghost” you will find videos of ghost hunters trying to get EVPs of Valentino’s ghost.  I once watched a show called Haunted Hollywood that basically suggested half of Hollywood is haunted by Valentino.  Nearly nine decades later and people are still fascinated by the idea of making contact with The Great Lover.

This is my second contribution for the Gone Too Soon Blogathon hosted by Comet Over Hollywood. Please head on over there and check out some of the other wonderful contributions!

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13 comments

  1. Fabulous. I’m a little too obsessed by celebrity death cults. Surprisingly I’ve yet to visit Hollywood Forever, but it’s something that’s been on my to-do list for years. Next time I’m in LA! (I say that every time.)

    1. If I ever go to LA, I’m definitely going to have to pay a visit to Hollywood Forever. There are just too many people there I’d like to visit.

    1. There really is. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is, but there’s something about him that people just can’t get enough of. He’s one star that just won’t fade.

  2. What a wonderful post about Valentino and his mystique! After reading about how many people are buried at Hollywood Forever, I’m starting to realize how important it is in Hollywood’s history.

  3. It’s hard to believe that fans killed themselves when Rudy died and I can’t see loving a celebrity to that extent. Today, there’s always a media circus when someone of stature passes on and I find it ridiculous. While researching for Thelma’s Todd’s bio I read the interviews that Pola Negri gave days after Valentino died. What a mess! Melodramatic and Oscar worthy acting on her part. I’ve never believed their relationship was that serious.

    You’ve done a lovely tribute to Rudy and it’s only fitting that the mass hysteria and mourning was highlighted.

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    1. I really wonder how much truth there is to the stories about fans committing suicide. On one hand, there was so much mayhem surrounding his death, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true. But while researching this post, I realized that sometimes it could be hard to tell where the truth ended and media hype began. Especially since it happened so long ago and some of the rumors have been repeated for so long that they’ve just become accepted as fact. I actually found one website that was very adamant about the wax mannequin rumor being true.

      And as for Pola, to say she was just too much would be a severe understatement. I didn’t read any of the interviews she gave at the time, but I did watch the episode of the series “Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film” that covered Valentino’s death. One of the people interviewed in it had helped organize his funeral and he said that Pola had ordered this six foot by four foot arrangement of red roses with her name spelled out twelve inches high with white roses. He was so appalled by it that he refused to let it be put out, which made Pola absolutely furious.

  4. My grandmother attended his funeral in New York in 1926. Was at Hollywood Forever last year on the anniversary of his death and will be there again this year. After all these years, he is not forgotten…..quite amazing.

    1. Wow! That is incredible! I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to have been part of the crowd at his funeral. And the fact that she still goes to the memorial services at Hollywood Forever…wow. I’m truly impressed by her dedication!

  5. Valentino was indeed incredible. I can’t think of another star that made such an amazing impact on his fans then and the generations of fans to this date. I have visited his crypt many times and will be attending the 86th anniversary service at Hollywood Forever. The more I learn about this wonderful man puts a deeper understanding in my heart of why he was and still is so beloved. He will always be Hollywood Royalty.

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