Thursday, December 27, 2012

First Impressions: Affairs Valentino

If you want a fully researched, well documented, and accurate biography of former superstar Rudolph Valentino which reveals groundbreaking discoveries about his life, then you owe it to yourself to read Evelyn Zumaya’s Affairs Valentino – a volume covering not only the actor’s life, but his afterlife as well.

Although we have written previously on the major findings of the author’s research, we are taking a second round with the screen legend’s life and legacy after finally obtaining and reading a rare copy of her book.
We should like to dispense quickly with remarks about the book’s format and literary deportment by first stating that it is written in an engaging style facilitated by a technique which may leave it open to undue criticism – a point we will address momentarily.

The book is a large 8 ½” x 11” paperback volume with lean production values. The text is double spaced as one would expect in a term paper, but this format makes reading a breeze. It is also illustrated with rare photos – and some not so rare – which add interest to the narrative.

The book sadly lacks an index and footnotes - in spite of its rich bibliography, the former omission hardly explainable in the days of electronic word processors. The text is speckled with grammatical, lexical, and typographical errors which should be cleansed in a second edition.

Returning to our point of narrative style, the author has chosen to use dramatizations to vivify the story, a technique which may make it appealing to a popular audience, but one which will not endear it to establishment historians and academics. All of which is unfortunate because the substance of this scholarly triumph makes it worth every penny this out of print book may cost.

Aside from some of these rather pedantic remarks, we must admit that the author is a very capable writer who has selected a fluent style which makes the book a rapid read. She alternates between history of Valentino’s life, and the very complicated aftermath left in the wake of his death – complications which extend to the present time.

Valentino is probably an easy character for many people to like if for no other reason than he was rich, famous, and good looking. On the other hand, once you look past the glitz, you see a highly flawed man whose life swung out of control and flamed out at a very young age.

A teenaged Valentino arrived in America 2 days before Christmas 1913 on the USS Cleveland at the instigation of his family who, for all practical purposes, disowned him for youthful indiscretions which brought shame to his very traditional southern Italian Catholic family.

Although lacking absolute proof, Zumaya speculates, with reasonable evidence which she presents in her book, that Valentino had a fling with an older Italian woman resulting in a pregnancy which embarrassed the family. The solution was to send young Rudolph into the cold to America where a padrino, Frank Menillo, awaited to sponsor him in his new country – in the vortex of America’s melting pot – New York City. Frank would come many times to Rudy’s aid to pry him loose from some sticky predicament – often of a financial nature.

The child would be given to his brother Alberto for rearing, a responsibility we believe he resented.

With limited education, Valentino scraped by with dancing jobs which put him in high society and in bed with another man’s wife. Escaping that melee, Valentino eventually wound up in California where he spent a few years as a starving actor before making his big break in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse under the tutelage of June Mathis, a major screenwriter of the day.
Along the way, he married an actress, Jean Acker, who refused to consummate their marriage. Although no conclusive evidence is rendered, the best explanation is that she was a lesbian who rashly entered into the marriage under outside pressures. Other legal documents indicate she had a physical condition preventing sexual relations, but she lived with her companion Chloe Carter for most of her life.

It did not take long for the emotionally wounded Valentino to find solace in Natacha Rambova, a stepdaughter of a wealthy businessman who maintained many residences worldwide, including one on the French Riviera and San Francisco’s Nob Hill – facts unknown to Valentino until well into their affair.
Although they met in a torrent of love and lust, their marriage would end 3 years later in a torrent of hate and anger. She was an avant-garde, bohemian free spirit who wanted to share professionally in Valentino’s career, but who in the end was shut out.

It is perhaps this controlling feature which secured the wedge between them, but in the final analysis, it seems that Natacha loved Natacha rather than her husband. Through the use of detectives, Rudy caught her carrying on with a cameraman, a discovery which broke the camel’s back of their unraveling marriage. Any complaints from Valentino on this score would probably resemble the pot calling the kettle black, but what hurt Valentino the most was his wife’s refusal to bear him children. She allegedly had 3 or 4 abortions, a matter which caused Valentino considerable pain, making reconciliation impossible.
Valentino’s career zoomed upward after The Shiek which made him the first cinematic global superstar – a fame he retained even during his walkout on The Famous Players-Lasky which lasted into 1923. His astute business manager, George Ullman, kept him afloat financially by taking him on tour to promote Mineralava beauty cream. Ullman was hired on the advice of Valentino’s closest advisor – Black Foot – a demon he conjured up in one of his daily trances and automatic writing sessions.

Ullman forms an important part of the story – especially after Valentino’s death. The two men became fast friends with Ullman constantly performing a 7 ball juggling act to keep his boss solvent. Valentino was accustomed to high living from his first steps on American soil – even though he spent some very  lean years with Natacha in a cramped bungalow with an odd assortment of animals he picked up from the studio.
In his final 18 months – especially after his divorce from Natacha – Valentino's boozing, womanizing, and smoking took its toll – to the point where Valentino was a certified alcoholic. It is possible that his alcoholism finally undid him when he died of acute perforated ulcers – a condition insufficiently treatable at the time.

The disintegration of Valentino before his friend and business manager’s eyes was a painful sight, a sight Ullman craftily hid from the public - along with Rudy's many other indiscretions.
When Valentino died unexpectedly, the task of burial and estate executor fell upon Ullman, as Valentino had wished it in his will, but a task made enormously more complicated by one of the dishonest men he kept on his sizeable household staff.

We find that his handyman, Lou Mahoney, a corrupt former New York City cop, tore out a page of Valentino’s will which left the estate to his ostensible nephew Jean. We learn along the way that Jean was most likely his son from his affair in Italy which caused his family to exile him to America. The will stipulated that George would be the executor of the estate and continue to run Rudolph Valentino Productions in the event of his death.
This chicanery by Mahoney created a series of interminable legal battles between Rudy’s brother Alberto and Ullman. George only knew about the unamended will which named Alberto, his sister Maria, and his former wife’s Aunt Teresa as heirs. The amendment stated that these persons would only receive a monthly stipend until Jean reached the age of 25. Oh, and Natacha would receive a one dollar bill.

George mistakenly advanced disbursements to the presumed heirs from the estate for which an appeals court would find him liable some years later after a copy of the missing page turned up in the divorce attorney’s files and was submitted to the court. This ruling, even after George had rehabilitated the estate's finances to the point where he paid off all of Valentino’s staggering 300,000 USD debt, and built equity to 300,000 USD at the onset of the depression. The greed of Alberto would undo all of this heroic accomplishment.
These legal battles ruined George financially but eventually vindicated him against charges of incompetence, embezzlement, or fraud in an appeals court's stinging rebuke of the lower probate court’s decisions. Alberto was a sleaze of the first order whose first question to George when he walked the plank off the boat for his brother’s burial was, “How big is the estate?”

The battle lines were drawn with the Valentino family bitterly opposed to George. Jean inherited this animosity especially when the depleted estate left him with precious little except for intellectual property which he used to "extort" large sums of money in his life as a semi-professional litigant. Jean finally relinquished George from the staggering debt he owed him by court decree 30 years after his father’s death.
Prior to that, the story took an even more fascinating twist. Famous Hollywood producer and executive William Self formed a fake friendship with George in order to swindle him out of the few Valentino memorabilia he managed to salvage from the Valentino estate.

Self, a very well to do executive living in exclusive Bel Air, would later steal George’s few remaining mementos which he kept in his garage, even after George had naively given him one of them each year for his birthday under the assumption that Self would safeguard them. In reality, he was passing them along (for sale) to Jean, or trading them with a person whom Zumaya identifies as the Evanston collector.
Self – it appears – stole the probate court records exonerating George from the County Courthouse in Los Angeles and sold them to the Evanston collector. Self, who also had an intense interest in Frank Baum, creator of the Wizard of Oz, also apparently stole Baum’s probate records. If these accusations can be proven, it makes Self a felon and I believe that they could be proven.

Although Zumaya mercifully spares us psychologizing about Valentino, I am not so generous. Valentino was a self indulgent, irresponsible, reckless spendthrift who luxuriated in the finest things money could buy. But at the same time he could be quite generous as the author documents. He enjoyed life, spent beyond his means, but I think in the end he wanted to transcend his materialistic morass.
By transcending, I believe that he wanted a family – a wife and kids. His two failed attempts to acquire these elusive possessions sent him into a depression from which he never recovered, and whose pain he medicated with liquor and 100 Turkish black tobacco cigarettes per day. The refusal of the fascist Italian courts to grant adoption of his son Jean probably sealed Rudy’s fate.

Zumaya has faced viciously barbaric opposition to her work, which has compelled her to cease publication of this fine book. This is a disastrous pity for she has done more than any other researcher to advance our understanding of this fascinating screen legend.
If you find her book, buy it and don’t flinch at the price. It tells a story worthy of any Hollywood scandal.

Affairs Valentino, Evelyn Zumaya, 2011

Copyright 2012 Tony Bonn. All rights reserved.

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Tim Mahoney said...
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