Call it Hollywood

Wayne Koestenbaum

  • Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino by Emily Leider
    Faber, 514 pp, £8.99, November 2004, ISBN 0 571 21819 9

Rudolph Valentino, according to his first-rate biographer, Emily Leider, who has already distinguished herself by writing the definitive book on Mae West, had a ‘slightly cauliflowered’ left ear. Most photographs hide this ear, as did his protective cinematographers, so I must struggle to imagine it. If I were to write a brief memoir about my relation to Valentino or to his legacy, I might entitle it ‘In Search of Valentino’s Slightly Cauliflowered Left Ear’. Ear, queer: the proof of Valentino’s heterosexuality that Leider amasses in her elegantly worded, richly detailed chronicle does not persuade me, and so I fabricate an underground, chimerical story of Valentino’s queerness. As a contrarian category, queerness may be passé, and yet, reading Dark Lover, I feel nostalgia for the notion that gorgeous, sexually ambiguous movie stars provide grist for the gay mill. ‘Outing’, however morally dubious, thrills a reader who twists received stories for the pleasure of twisting. And Valentino’s tale doesn’t need much manipulation.

After emigrating from Italy to New York City, Rodolfo Pietro Filiberto Raffaele Guglielmi dug into Gotham’s libertine byways. Leider quotes Valentino’s recollection of how he secured shelter: ‘One rainy evening a man hailed me on the street and dragged me under an awning. He had a room nearby and we slept that night with our feet in each other’s face.’ Valentino originally worked as a ‘taxi-dancer’, like Gwen Verdon’s character in Sweet Charity. Listen to Leider: ‘In addition to dancing at the restaurant, he gave private lessons in an upstairs room . . . which had a Victrola for playing recorded dance tunes like “Songe d’Automne”. Whether sex sometimes followed one of Signor Rodolfo’s dancing sessions is anybody’s guess.’ Gay-for-pay: I’ll guess that sex followed, with women and (why not?) with men. He wasn’t the first to climb the ladder from prostitute to superstar. As Alexander Walker, quoted by Leider, observes: ‘There is a parallel here with Greta Garbo’s early experience as a lather-girl in a back-street barber’s in Stockholm. She, too, would cash in later on her early training in the arts of servicing and beguiling the opposite sex.’ Skip the exclusive emphasis on the opposite sex: stardom is a full service profession, and Garbo and Valentino were versatile.

Soon, Valentino relocated to that Gold Rush city immortalised by Jeanette MacDonald’s (and Judy Garland’s) San Francisco: there, according to Leider, Rudy ‘saw no alternative but to revert to his gigolo past, eking out a living by giving lessons and dancing for hire at Tait’s Café on O’Farrell Street and at the Cliff House’. In Frisco, Valentino befriended Norman Kerry (who played a nude scene for Erich von Stroheim). Leider squelches the gay backstory:

Rumours of a homosexual relationship between Kerry and Rodolfo persist, but remain just that: rumours . . . The two did form a close bond, and did share an apartment for a time in Los Angeles, but while they were together both went out with women . . . Close to the same age, the dark-haired boon buddies looked enough alike to pass as noble Italian brothers in a film called Passion’s Playground.

Without rumour, how could queer history thrive? The rumour mill is my Encyclopaedia Britannica.

When Kerry and Valentino moved to the Alexandria Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, Kerry, naturally, ‘picked up the tab’; Valentino was adept at being kept. In Tinseltown, he turned himself into a spectacle, a fashion plate: on Sundays sur la plage, according to Leider, ‘he promenaded in a white bathing suit, leading two white Russian wolfhounds on leashes.’ Indeed, Valentino worked the dunes.

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