The nineteenyearold son of a veterinary in Castellaneta in the south of Italy was shipped off to America like a lot of other unmanageable young Italians when his parents gave up trying to handle him, to sink or swim and maybe send a few lire home by international postal moneyorder. The family was through with him. But Rodolfo Guglielmi wanted to make good.
He got a job as assistant gardener in Central Park but that kind of work was the last thing he wanted to do; he wanted to make good in the brightlights; money burned his pockets.
He hung around cabarets doing odd jobs, sweeping out for the waiters, washing cars; he was lazy handsome wellbuilt slender goodtempered and vain; he was a born tangodancer.
Lovehungry women thought he was a darling. He began to get engagements dancing the tango in ballrooms and cabarets; he teamed up with a girl named Jean Acker on a vaudeville tour and took the name of Rudolph Valentino.
Stranded on the Coast he headed for Hollywood, worked for a long time as an extra for five dollars a day; directors began to notice he photographed well.
He got his chance in The Four Horsemen and became the gigolo of every woman’s dreams.
Valentino spent his life in the colorless glare of klieg lights, in stucco villas obstructed with bricabrac oriental rugs tigerskins, in the bridalsuites of hotels, in silk bathrobes in private cars.
He was always getting into limousines or getting out of limousines,
or patting the necks of fine horses.
Wherever he went the sirens of the motorcyclecops screeched ahead of him flashlights flared,
the streets were jumbled with hysterical faces, waving hands, crazy eyes; they stuck out their autographbooks, yanked his buttons off, cut a tail off his admirablytailored dress suit; they stole his hat and pulled at his necktie; his valets removed young women from under his bed; all night in nightclubs and cabarets actresses leching for stardom made sheepseyes at him under their mascaraed lashes.
He wanted to make good under the glare of the million-dollar searchlights
of El Dorado:
the Sheik, the Son of the Sheik;
He married his old vaudeville partner, divorced her, married the adopted daughter of a millionaire, went into lawsuits with the producers who were debasing the art of the screen, spent a million dollars on one European trip;
he wanted to make good in the brightlights.
When the Chicago Tribune called him a pink powderpuff and everybody started wagging their heads over a slave-bracelet he wore that he said his wife had given him and his taste for mushy verse of which he published a small volume called Daydreams and the whispers grew about the testimony in his divorce case that he and his first wife had never slept together,
it broke his heart.
He tried to challenge the Chicago Tribune to a duel;
he wanted to make good
in heman twofisted broncobusting pokerplaying stockjuggling America. (He was a fair boxer and had a good seat on a horse, he loved the desert like the sheik and was tanned from the sun of Palm Springs.) He broke down in his suite in the Hotel Ambassador in New York: gastric ulcer.
When the doctors cut into his elegantlymolded body they found that peritonitis had begun; the abdominal cavity contained a large amount of fluid and food particles; the viscera were coated with a greenishgrey film; a round hole a centimeter in diameter was seen in the anterior wall of the stomach; the tissue of the stomach for one and onehalf centimeters immediately surrounding the perforation was necrotic. The appendix was inflamed and twisted against the small intestine.
When he came to from the ether the first thing he said was, “Well, did I behave like a pink powderpuff?”
His expensively massaged actor’s body fought peritonitis for six days.
The switchboard at the hospital was swamped with calls, all the corridors were piled with flowers, crowds filled the street outside, filmstars who claimed they were his betrothed entrained for New York.
Late in the afternoon a limousine drew up at the hospital door (where the grimyfingered newspapermen and photographers stood around bored tired hoteyed smoking too many cigarettes making trips to the nearest speak exchanging wisecracks and deep dope waiting for him to die in time to make the evening papers) and a woman, who said she was a maid employed by a dancer who was Valentino’s first wife, alighted. She delivered to an attendant an envelope addressed to the filmstar and inscribed from Jean, and a package. The package contained a white counterpane with lace ruffles and the word Rudy embroidered in the four corners. This was accompanied by a pillowcover to match over a blue silk scented cushion.
Rudolph Valentino was only thirtyone when he died.
His managers planned to make a big thing of his highly-publicized funeral but the people in the streets were too crazy.
While he lay in state in a casket covered with a cloth of gold, tens of thousands of men, women, and children packed the streets outside. Hundreds were trampled, had their feet hurt by policehorses. In the muggy rain the cops lost control. Jammed masses stampeded under the clubs and the rearing hoofs of the horses. The funeral chapel was gutted, men and women fought over a flower, a piece of wallpaper, a piece of the broken plateglass window. Showwindows were burst in. Parked cars were overturned and smashed. When finally the mounted police after repeated charges beat the crowd off Broadway, where traffic was tied up for two hours, they picked up twenty-eight separate shoes, a truckload of umbrellas, papers, hats, torn-off sleeves. All the ambulances in that part of the city were busy carting off women who’d fainted, girls who’d been stepped on. Epileptics threw fits. Cops collected little groups of abandoned children.
The fascisti sent a guard of honor and the antifascists drove them off. More rioting, cracked skulls, trampled feet. When the public was barred from the undertaking parlors hundreds of women groggy with headlines got in to view the poor body
claiming to be exdancingpartners, old playmates, relatives from the old country, filmstars; every few minutes a girl fainted in front of the bier and was revived by the newspapermen who put down her name and address and claim to notice in the public prints. Frank E. Campbell’s undertakers and pallbearers, dignified wearers of black broadcloth and tackersup of crape, were on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Even the boss had his fill of publicity that time.
It was two days before the cops could clear the streets enough to let the flowerpieces from Hollywood be brought in and described in the evening papers.
The church service was more of a success. The police-cornmissioner barred the public for four blocks round.
Many notables attended.
America’s Sweetheart sobbing bitterly in a small black straw with a black band and a black bow behind, in black georgette over black with a white lace collar and white lace cuffs followed the coffin that was
covered by a blanket of pink roses
sent by a filmstar who appeared at the funeral heavily veiled and swooned and had to be taken back to her suite at the Hotel Ambassador after she had shown the reporters a message allegedly written by one of the doctors alleging that Rudolph Valentino had spoken of her at the end
as his bridetobe.
A young woman committed suicide in London.
Relatives arriving from Europe were met by police reserves and Italian flags draped with crape. Exchamp Jim Jeffries said, “Well, he made good.” The champion himself allowed himself to be quoted that the boy was fond of boxing and a great admirer of the champion.
The funeral train left for Hollywood.
In Chicago a few more people were hurt trying to see the coffin, but only made the inside pages.
The funeral train arrived in Hollywood on page 23 of the New York Times.
Excerpted from U.S.A. by John Dos Passos. Copyright by H. Marston Smith and Elizabeth H. Dos Passos, executors of the estate of John R. Dos Passos. By permission of Elizabeth H. Dos Passos.