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.

His first wife, Jean Acker, was the sometime lover of Alla Nazimova, who starred in the silent Salome. Leider writes: ‘He didn’t even realise that Jean was primarily a lesbian, or so he would insist to his friends; people often see only what they want to see.’ That includes biographers and book reviewers: I see only what I want – a silent idol happy to service men. Jean and Rudy never consummated the marriage: on their wedding night, the bride locked out the groom and fled to her lover Grace Darmond’s apartment.

No matter. Rudy liked to ‘batch’. Here’s how his friendship with Paul Ivano, a consumptive photographer, began: Princess Helen Troubetzkoy

knocked at the bungalow door of a friend, Paul Ivano, at two in the morning to ask if Rudy could be put up in his spare room. Ivano agreed, delighted to learn that his uninvited guest spoke French. They went horseback riding in the morning and found they couldn’t stop talking. ‘He stayed two weeks, which was all right. I bought the food and he cooked it. He was a good cook. And we became friends.’

Eventually, ‘Rudy invited Paul Ivano to move in with him. They shared a small place in the Formosa Apartments.’ The Formosa lacked a video cam to document resident fornications, so who knows? Leider acknowledges flexibility of the erotic situation chez Valentino/Ivano: because Rudy lured women to the apartment but then fell asleep before passion quickened, ‘the woman would end up in bed with Ivano while Rudy spent the night sleeping upright in an armchair in the living room.’ Nitty-gritty sex bored our hero. A fellow actor recalls that ‘he’d turn those big slumberous eyes on some woman and she’d just about swoon with delight, but he couldn’t have cared less. He was usually thinking about the spaghetti and meatballs he was going to have for dinner that evening.’

Whenever sexuality remains vague, limitless or tentative, we biographers, readers, sexologists and journalists hastily classify: while I problematically assert Valentino’s queerness, Leider sides with sensible, solid, straight-leaning facts. I opt for rumour: anything to rescue Rudy from the prison of what theorists call ‘heteronormativity’. Sometimes Leider loosens the padlock:

Ivano dismissed as ‘a lot of baloney’ the latterday gossip that Rudy was a homosexual, angrily insisting: ‘He was a nice, normal human being.’ But he confirmed that – except when Rudy was with Natacha Rambova, the woman who became his second wife – Rudy seemed content with a passive stance when it came to actual sex.

Not that we should trust Ivano as normalcy’s adjudicator and avatar: he had an affair with woman-loving Nazimova.

Natacha Rambova, too, played part-time sapphist. She may well have bedded Mercedes de Acosta, paramour to Garbo and Dietrich. Irene Sharaff, costume doyenne, muses on Mercedes and Natacha’s bond: ‘Exactly what happened between them I don’t know for certain . . . But they were both very deeply involved with each other for a while, and they were both sexually free.’ Nazimova and Rambova collaboratively fashioned Valentino as queer icon in Camille – a noble instance of lesbians inventing what then gets reclassified, post facto, as gay male culture (Terry Castle’s Noel Coward and Radclyffe Hall: Kindred Spirits analyses this phenomenon). Leider mentions that Nazimova tweezed Valentino’s eyebrows and ‘applied blue-black shadow to his eyelids and obvious lipstick to his lips’, while Natacha ‘had him shampoo away the patent-leather gloss’. Afterwards, she ‘fluffed his locks with curling irons . . . From the start, Natacha used Valentino as her personal manikin, turning his head and body into a canvas for her art.’ Thus Rambova and Nazimova spawned a tweezed, rouged ‘Valentino’ as their pet, their starry sex-toy.

The book’s kinkiest scene involves a three-way. Leider tells the story well (my rude and interruptive commentary appears in bracketed italics):

The chief witness to their [Valentino and Rambova’s] supercharged intimacy was Paul Ivano, who was saving money by bunking on the living-room couch at the bungalow. [Money-saving scheme, indeed: camp out at your bisexual buddy’s.] (At this time he was involved with Nazimova, so the two couples sometimes made a foursome: mixed doubles.) Decades later, asked by Anthony Slide whether Natacha was a lesbian, Ivano responded with an emphatic ‘No, no, no, no.’ [Again, fuck-buddy Ivano posthumously tries to whitewash the star’s erotic disposition.] He went on to describe the time Rudy woke him at four in the morning, in a panic. Natacha had passed out during lovemaking, and Rudy was sure he had killed her. [A star’s priapic force, unleashed, is lethal.] Ivano asked Rudy, who still had an erection, if he and Natacha had been making whoopee. [Why was Rudy still erect? Wasn’t the allegedly unconscious wife a turn-off? Or did the erection gain new purpose in transit from bedroom to living-room? Was the fiction of the ‘passed-out’ wife merely an excuse to flash Paul?] He [Rudy] said: ‘Oh yes, for quite a while.’ Ivano then awakened Natacha by dropping a sponge soaked in water on her.

Erect Rudy, altruistic Paul, comatose Natacha: how can I describe or classify this sexual situation, except to call it Hollywood, and to admire it – and wish to emulate it – with every inch of my body?

Ivano and Valentino, staying together at San Francisco’s St Francis Hotel while filming Moran of the Lady Letty, enjoyed a brisk and bacchic itinerary:

After shooting outdoors from seven in the morning until seven at night, they’d bathe, put on bathrobes, and order dinner in. Then they’d sleep a few hours, setting the alarm for midnight. After they got up and dressed, Dorothy Dalton’s car, sans Dorothy, would meet them, and they’d cruise the joints on the Barbary Coast. ‘San Francisco was a very lively town in those days.’

‘Dorothy Dalton’s car, sans Dorothy’: treasure this phrase. Friends of Dorothy, the boys rely on D.’s vehicle for transportation into alternative scenes.

When Natacha and Valentino were separated, ‘Rudy needed and depended heavily on his male friends,’ and the parties were ‘strictly stag’. Leider gives a gilded portrait of Rudy’s bachelor existence: his friends, including Ivano, ‘stop by to discover him looking like a Fin-de-Siècle decadent, stretched out on his black velvet couch, smoking a cigarette and reading D’Annunzio. At 5 a.m. they share a breakfast that includes avocados, which they called alligator pears.’

Men who imitated Valentino’s trademark patent-leather hair were nicknamed ‘Vaselinos’, at once a racial slur and a reference to a personal lubricant once popular among homosexuals. Metonymically adjacent to ‘Vaselino’ is ‘dandy’, which Valentino played to the hilt. In The Young Rajah, as in other roles, he ‘dons jangling bracelets on his wrists and forearms and a ring for every finger. Bare-chested, he’s covered with brown body paint and draped with ropes of twined pearls.’ Natacha thought that Rudy ‘looked best nude’, and cinematographers complied, providing as many semi-clad shots as censorship allowed. A hearty advocate of physical culture, Valentino advised readers of his published fitness regimen ‘to do their exercises wearing as little clothing as possible’.

Valentino’s queer CV includes these tidbits: he endorsed Mineralava face cream, wore a notorious ‘platinum slave bracelet’ (Natacha’s gift), and considered Walt Whitman his favourite poet. (Rudy himself published a poetry book, Day Dreams, containing lyrics ‘psychically received’ through automatic writing.) So connected was Valentino, in the public eye, with masculinity’s questionable outer limits, that a homophobic editorial in the Chicago Tribune, entitled ‘Pink Powder Puffs’, blamed Valentino for the presence of powder vending machines in a Chicago men’s room. Alas, the pundit said, ‘Hollywood is a national school of masculinity,’ and Valentino its fey primer: ‘Do women like the type of “man” who pats pink powder on his face in a public washroom and arranges his coiffure in a public elevator?’ This columnist was not alone in expressing distaste for Valentino’s revisionary maleness. A Photoplay writer ranted: ‘I hate Valentino! All men hate Valentino. I hate his oriental optics; I hate his classic nose; I hate his Roman face; I hate his smile; I hate his patent-leather hair; I hate his Svengali glare; I hate him because he dances too well.’

Three more of Valentino’s unclassifiable affairs (think Bergman’s Persona) deserve mention. A prime inamorato was André Daven, eventually co-director of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Valentino’s description of their first encounter betrays a refreshing absence of homosexual panic: ‘The minute he came into the room I spotted him as a “type” . . . Young Daven is an extraordinarily good-looking chap . . . with amazing eyes, fine physique and of a compelling attraction . . . Almost any man can “spot” a beautiful woman. But very few men, so Natacha tells me, can recognise the unusual or attractive in another man.’ The two bucks, who physically resembled each other, played brothers in Monsieur Beaucaire, where Valentino got to ‘strut half naked in another prolonged dressing scene’. Leider disagrees with David Bret’s claim, in Valentino: A Dream of Desire, that Valentino was ‘a closeted gay man whose close friendships with men involved sex . . . and that Natacha was exclusively a lesbian who enjoyed setting up her husband with other men.’ Yet she muses, after mentioning that Daven and Valentino went off together on a Florida vacation, sharing a secluded bungalow: ‘Exactly what they did and felt we don’t know, but this seems to have been a genuine love affair.’

A second passionate friend of Rudy’s was his manager, George Ullman, who describes his initial impression of Valentino in terms that Rock Hudson – or Patricia Nell Warren – would recognise: ‘I had no idea of his magnetism, nor of the fine quality of his manhood. To say that I was enveloped by his personality with the first clasp of his sinewy hand and my first glance into his inscrutable eyes, is to state it mildly. I was literally engulfed, swept off my feet, which is unusual between two men.’

One of Valentino’s last entanglements was with the bisexual Pola Negri, who ruined her own reputation by trying, in the words of a funeral-parlour usher, ‘to turn Valentino’s funeral into “a premiere for Pola Negri”’, and who ended her long, uneven career by playing, in Disney’s The Moonspinners (1964), a ‘cameo role as a millionairess who leads a cheetah on a leash’. Fact: Valentino had a nose for classy lesbians. ‘The passive Rudy was surely attracted,’ Leider writes, to Negri’s ‘commanding, “imperially darling” personality, but he may not have known of her attraction to women.’ I question the ‘may not have known’: alternatively, Valentino’s deliberate ignorance allowed him to remain sexually ambidextrous, aloof from absolutes.

He died at 31 of complications (pleurisy, peritonitis) following ‘acute appendicitis and perforated gastric ulcers’. Waking from surgery, Valentino’s first words to George Ullman were: ‘Did I behave like a pink powder puff or like a man?’ Post-lib, I needn’t share poor Rudy’s terror at being called a pink powder puff; I can enjoy the luxury of advancing louche interpretations – insinuations – that secure my own sanity.

He lived and died a clothes-horse. By the end, he owned

30 business suits, 7 riding coats, 7 Palm Beach suits, 60 pairs of gloves, 7 dressing robes, 10 complete dress suits, 4 lounging suits, 6 coloured Japanese pyjamas, 111 assorted ties, 6 high silk dress hats, 9 grey and white felt hats, 26 white full-dress ties, 146 pairs of socks, 28 pairs of assorted spats, 22 white vests, 13 assorted canes, 17 white silk drawers, 59 pairs of assorted shoes, 110 silk handkerchiefs (embroidered with the initials RVG), 10 overcoats, 1 black velvet English riding habit, 1 grey corduroy hunting suit, 10 pairs of suspenders, 6 pairs of garters with tassels. And this is just a partial list.

What a list! It adds to his ‘fag’ cachet. The posthumous auction of Valentino’s possessions flopped, netting ‘a disappointing $96,654’, but if I could travel back in time, I’d attend that sale, buy a pair of Valentino’s white silk drawers, and try them on for size.

Memento mori: a famous brand of prophylactic was named after Rudy’s roles in The Sheik and Son of the Sheik. Any man slipping on a Sheik was slipping on a Valentino. Thus his image sheathed phalli worldwide: condom-as-haunting, condom-as-memorial, condom-as-widow’s-veil.