Thursday, 17 January 2013

Valentino: That Bay Reporter Feature

Issue: Vol. 43 / No. 3 / 17 January 2013
by Seth Hemmelgarn
10 Jan 2013
San Francisco users of the gay hookup site Grindr have named District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener as their “local ...
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Legendary star's gay life


New biography of Latin lover Rudolph Valentino

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Few important silent screen stars are remembered by the general public. Most that are (Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, Lillian Gish, Buster Keaton, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford) had success in talkies. A major exception is Rudolph Valentino, who died before the advent of sound. His last name remains synonymous with romantic Latin lover. David Bret's anecdotal but generally accurate biography Valentino (Carroll & Graf, $25.95) captures the tension that being homosexual caused this object of unprecedented female sexual fantasies.
Rodolpho Alfonso Raffaelo Pierre Filibert di Valentina d'Antonguolla (1895-1926) was born in a provincial Italian town to a modest middle-class family. After studying agriculture, he sailed to New York in 1914. He worked as a Tango dancer, gigolo (sleeping with both sexes) and occasional movie extra. He toured in theatrical revues, one of which brought him to Hollywood. Despite appearing in 17 films, usually in small roles, male studio executives didn't consider him leading-man material. MGM writer June Mathis felt differently, and insisted he play Julio Desnoyers in Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (1920) from Spanish author Vicente Blasco Ibanez's best-selling novel. She expanded his part, and he became a star.
Over the next five years, he made 13 pictures, most huge hits. These included The Sheik (21), which inspired the popular song, "I'm the Sheik of Araby," Blood and Sand, Beyond the Rocks with Swanson (22), Cobra, The Eagle (25), and Son of the Sheik (26). Straight men disliked him intensely. An infamous Chicago Tribune editorial, "Pink Powder Puffs," decried his effeminacy and unhealthy influence on young American males. Among the criticisms was his popularizing "slave bracelets," predecessors of ID bracelets. Valentino, an experienced pugilist, challenged the anonymous author to a boxing match as a test of his masculinity. The invitation went unanswered.
Brett, author of sensationalist biographies of Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Errol Flynn, Freddie Mercury, Maria Callas, Elvis Presley, and Maurice Chevalier, goes into considerable detail about Valentino's sexual experiences, likely lovers, and physical attributes. Brett claims that after his first homosexual encounter, Valentino told friends, "It didn't hurt that much," and accepted his orientation. Starting in 1921, he writes, Valentino frequented Los Angeles' notorious Torch Club, where gay men met for sex. One night, a homely movie mogul ordered Valentino to get "on your knees, pretty boy." Brett adds that among his partners was young Gary Cooper. Valentino was buffed, handsome and, Brett reminds readers on what seems like every third page, exceptionally well-endowed. Ramon Novarro, whose popularity as a silent-screen Latin lover was second only to Valentino's and who had an affair with him, reportedly owned a 10-inch sterling-silver dildo modeled on the Italian's penis— a souvenir of their romance.
Many of Brett's assertions are impossible to prove, and while he provides a bibliography, there are no source notes. Some of his statements are well-documented — the affair with Novarro, for example. The Cooper anecdote is unlikely — most sources don't have the handsome future star in Hollywood until 1924. (Cooper briefly roomed with and befriended gay aspiring actor Andy Lawlor, but was primarily heterosexual, alas.)
Brett is better analyzing Valentino's complex relationship with women, including his wives, actress Jean Acker, and Natacha Rambova, born Winifred Shaughnessy and step-daughter of cosmetics tycoon Richard Hudnutt. Both were lesbians. The marriage to Acker was unconsummated. Rambova was a member of legendary theatrical and early movie star Nazimova's Sapphic circle. She was a talented designer, sometime actress, and domineering personality. Whether she was ever physically intimate with Valentino is uncertain. Her influence on his career was harmful — she insisted he portray sexually androgynous men while wearing costumes she designed that revealed his well-proportioned body. Studio executives and directors detested her, and finally, she and Valentino separated acrimoniously.
Valentino smoked and drank heavily, ate rich foods, caroused, and seldom rested. He developed a perforated ulcer, and died in Manhattan following surgery to repair it. Brett astutely compares the unprecedented hysteria and media circus that his death triggered to that which followed Princess Diana's demise.
Thousands of female fans lined railroad tracks to watch the casket as it headed to Hollywood. A few women and one male, a hotel bellboy who had a one-night-stand with the actor, committed suicide. Actress Pola Negri claimed she and Valentino were to have been married. She made a well-publicized trip to New York to accompany the body west. Swanson, who loathed him, lamented his passing. In Hollywood, many of his lovers, including Andre Daven, whom Valentino called "the love of his life," Paul Ivano, and Novarro, escorted the casket to its grave. Chaplin was a pallbearer.
He earned record sums, but spent lavishly and died deeply in debt. On May 6, 1930, on what would have been his 35th birthday, the mysterious "Woman in Black" first appeared at his tomb, carrying flowers, a ritual that lasted for decades. Despite Brett's claims to the contrary, Valentino the actor seems very rooted in his time and place. His nostril-flaring, bug-eyed approach to passion induces giggles from modern audiences. It's unlikely his career would have survived talkies.
He was, in most respects, an ordinary man of exceptional beauty who couldn't reconcile an artistic nature to the demands of unimaginable fame that forced him to deny his true self. Like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, his early death assured immortality. It's a splendid irony that when straight men are hailed as "Valentinos," the reference is to a gay superstar.

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