His birth in Castellaneta, Italy in 1895 may have gone unremarked upon. But movie idol Rudolph Valentino’s death, 89 years ago today, on August 23, 1926 at age 31 devastated his millions of brokenhearted fans and many Hollywood friends, and left behind a string of lovers, ex-lovers, and debts.
The actor known as the “Latin Lover” passed away quite suddenly of peritonitis and a perforated ulcer while in New York promoting what would turn out to be his final film, Son of the Sheik, a sequel to his 1921 hit, The Sheik.
Los Angeles was treated to a special preview of Son of the Sheik on July 8, 1926 at the Million Dollar Theater downtown at 3rd & Broadway. Valentino and “40 of his famous friends” attended the event, which must have snarled Broadway traffic even worse than usual. Pola Negri, Valentino’s latest paramour, recalls in her autobiography, Memoirs of a Star, that the audience “stood and cheered.”
After the very public funeral in New York, brother Alberto Guglielmi consented to let Valentino be buried in his adopted home town of Hollywood. The Golden State Ltd. bearing the actor’s body west arrived in Los Angeles on September 6. The next day a private mass was held at the Church of the Good Shepard in Beverly Hills, after which the silver and bronze casket was interred in a crypt in the mausoleum of Hollywood Cemetery. In contrast to the circus-like atmosphere of New York, the proceedings were quiet and dignified, attended only by family and close friends.
Only a year before his death, Valentino, having separated from wife Natacha Rambova, moved into a fabulous hilltop estate in Beverly Hills that he named Falcon Lair. It was sold at auction on December 10, 1926, ostensibly to pay off some of his debts. Jules Howard of New York was the successful bidder, paying a reported $145,000.
Before buying Falcon’s Lair, Valentino’s home was 6776 Wedgewood Pl. in Hollywood’s Whitley Heights neighborhood, which he still owned at the time of his death. It went up for auction on December 11, 1926.
One of Valentino’s former Whitley Heights neighbors also died far too soon in 1926: the beautiful Barbara La Marr. Before she passed away on January 30 at age 29 from complications of tuberculosis and nephritis, she’d lived at 6672 Whitley Terrace. La Marr’s funeral in Los Angeles had been mobbed by thousands of fans, setting the precedent for big celebrity funerals like Valentino’s.
Valentino’s clothes, furniture, books, artworks and other personal effects were sold at auction throughout the month of December 1926 starting the 14th. Actress Bebe Daniels bought some of his antique weaponry collection, which she owned until the late 1940s.
Spirit messages were all the rage in the fall of 1926 due in part to the well-publicized attempts by Sir Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini’s widow to contact the late magician, who’d passed away suddenly on October 31. Valentino’s most recent ex-wife, Natasha Rambova, claimed she had received messages from Rudy from beyond the grave. The actor’s first wife, Jean Acker, scoffed at the claim, adding that even if it were true, such messages “should have been too sacred to broadcast.”
Valentino has proved a hardy corpse, with Hollywood myth insistent on placing him at bars in or riding his horse into the lobby of buildings that didn’t exist in his lifetime. Legends aside, his films still pack the house whenever they’re shown at silent film festivals, and fans from around the world continue to visit him in Hollywood.