The Ship Café was one of the most fully articulated examples programmatic architecture, a trend in Los Angeles a century in which buildings were designed to look like an object – the Brown Derby restaurant housed in a derby hat-like dome was perhaps the best known example. Built in 1905 by Baron Long, the developer of the luxurious Biltmore Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, the Ship Café was a full-scale replica of a Spanish galleon built over the water alongside a pier. It was a folly in tribute to the sixteenth-century explorer Juan Cabrillo, the first European to sail up the coast of California.
When Alla Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino met for the first time at the Ship Café in October 1919, she was 40 and at the pinnacle of her fame – a household name nationwide and beyond. He was 24 and unknown among the general public, just starting out in Hollywood. Neither of them could have imagined that in just half a century, Nazimova would be forgotten and Valentino would be considered one of Hollywood’s immortals. The encounter was a brief incident during the wrap party for Alla’s latest film, “Stronger Than Death.” In her party were Metro executive Maxwell Karger, Alla’s faux husband Charles Bryant, her current girlfriend Jean Acker, the actress Dagmar Godowsky and other Metro contract players.
Valentino was there as a featured dancer in the floor show, performing as Rodolpho de Valentina. (His real name was Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolla.) Dagmar, who knew him in New York, went over after his performance to invite him to the Metro table, intending to introduce him to her influential friends.
But Nazimova recognized the young man, too. She knew him as an infamous scandal figure from New York. He’d been a popular taxi dancer at Maxim’s, an upscale nightclub, and, rumor had it, a male prostitute and procurer. But his claim to infamy was that he’d been the third party in a high-society love triangle that had resulted in his lover’s murdering her husband.
When Dagmar returned to the table with the young man she noticed that an icy silence had descended upon the table. Madame’s spine had stiffened and her face was frozen in distaste. “How dare you bring that gigolo to my table?” she hissed at Dagmar. “How dare you introduce that pimp to Nazimova?” Valentino turned on his heel and walked away.
Jean Acker, for one, was embarrassed by Alla’s rudeness. The next night she ran into Rudy at a party in Beverly Hills. A romance of a sort developed. One thing led to another, and on November 5 – just a few days after they’d met – Jean and Rudy were married at the Hollywood Hotel. Nazimova was not pleased and was not among the Metro bigwigs who attended.
The honeymoon was short-lived, however. After the ceremony, Jean refused to allow Rudy into the bridal suite. Humiliated and drunk, Valentino, the movies’ future Latin lover, caused a scene by banging tearfully on her door, begging her to let him in.
In another surprising development, Nazimova’s friend June Mathis, a powerhouse producer at Metro, cast Valentino in an important supporting role in the studio’s epic about World War I, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” Early word during production was that the film was going to be a hit, and that Valentino had delivered a break-through performance.
Sensing an opportunity to help create buzz for “Camille,” Nazimova cast him to play her love interest, Armand. At a pre-production meeting he met another of Alla’s protégées, her artistic director, Natacha Rambova (née Winifred Shaughnessy). Filming began on March 10, and by that time, a romance had developed between Rudy and Natacha. After filming wrapped every day, he would go home with her and make a spaghetti dinner for her and friends like the producer June Mathis. He admired Natacha’s strength and aloofness. She saw him as a work in progress, someone she could cultivate and groom. Soon, they were entwined in what would prove to be a consequential romance.
The predictions about Valentino’s performance in “Four Horsemen” proved to be correct. The Hollywood press seemingly could not get enough of him, but as they dug into his past, they discovered his pending divorce from Jean Acker. Rudy was advised not to respond to reporters’ inquiries about his marriage, but Jean agreed to be interviewed at length.
“We started life together, with little else but love,” she told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. “Fame and fortune found him. He deserved his success, and I’m proud of him. But the best of him, that part of him I loved and still love, gave way before the wonderful things that came with success, and left me only memories.” Jean told the Times she was ill and couldn’t work, and that she was in $2,500 in debt. Later that month, the divorce trial was postponed to the fall.
The release of “The Sheik” in the fall boosted Valentino’s ascent to stardom. His portrayal of Ahmed Ben Hassan, a European-educated Arabian sheik who pursues a beautiful young British woman across the desert, established him as a great screen lover and the movies’ first male sex symbol.
A few days before the film opened, he had signed with the Famous Players-Lasky Company at $2,000 a week. It was the most prestigious studio at the time, but it was reeling from a series of scandals involving some of biggest and most popular stars – drug-related deaths, rape and murder charges, the mysterious death of an A-list director – and the studio’s top brass were risk-averse.
Valentino was nervous when his divorce proceedings began on November 21. The courtroom was packed with his newfound fans and dozens of reporters. Jean’s testimony, which cast him in an unfavorable light – as both penniless and living off and vain and dismissive of her – was reported around the world. She also testified that on one occasion he hit her. When asked about his assets, Valentino said he owned three cars, that he had about $1,500 in cash and no life insurance.
The judge ruled in Jean’s favor on March 4, 1922. Under California law then, it was an interlocutory decree, meaning the divorce would not become final until a year later. When the year passed and the divorce was final, Jean would be awarded a one-time alimony payment $12,000.
Rudy and Natacha were living together but maintained separate digs for propriety’s sake. He was increasingly worried that the gossip columns might reveal he and Natacha were living in sin and increasingly found the prospect of waiting a year to be unnerving. Rudy’s and Alla Nazimova’s mutual friend, Dagmar Godowsky, offered a suggestion. She had recently married Frank Mayo, a Universal player, during the interlocutory period of his divorce. They had circumvented the court decree by marrying across the Mexican border in Tijuana. They were advised that California’s interlocutory divorce laws did not apply to marriages outside the United States.
Desperate to make it legal, the couple decided to proceed. Natacha called her mother Winifred Senior hoping for her approval. She had very recently married Richard Hudnut, a millionaire perfume and cosmetics magnate. Winifred welcomed the news. She dispatched her new husband to Los Angeles in May to bless the marriage. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times Richard Hudnut said that he and Natacha’s mother were pleased. “Mr. Valentino is a young man of personal charm and comes from an excellent old Italian family,” he said.
The Times’ story misidentified Natacha as Richard’s daughter, with the headline, “Miss Hudnut Will Wed Movie Star.”
The wedding party left Los Angeles in early May. They traveled in two roadsters. In the first car were Natacha Rambova, Valentino’s two prized German shepherds and Douglas Gerrard, a friend of Rudy. In the second car were Alla Nazimova and her young lover, Paul Ivano. Valentino had driven ahead to Mexico to make arrangements. They stayed overnight in Palm Springs at the home of a friend of Natacha. The next morning they traveled another 100 miles south, past El Centro, California, into Mexico. They drove through Mexicali’s Centro Civico to the mayor’s official residence, where they were expected and warmly greeted by the mayor and a contingent of American consular officials.
Nazimova stood as a matron of honor, and Douglas Gerrard was best man. Afterwards, the mayor feted the party with champagne and a lavish lunch under the hot midday sun, with music provided by a 40-piece band.
They stayed in Palm Springs a few days. The morning after they returned to Los Angeles, they were greeted with a headline in the Times that morning read, “Question Valentino Marriage: Possible Bigamy Angle Disclosed by Wedding to Perfumer’s Heiress.” There had been publicity about their engagement, but the date and location of their marriage had been secret. Obviously, someone had tipped the authorities. The first sentence may have contained a clue: “Legal authorities and Jean Acker … began delving into law books yesterday to determine if his marriage to Winifred Hudnut, in Mexicali, Mex., last Saturday is illegal.”
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office launched a full-scale investigation the next day. Investigators called Jean Acker in for an interview, while detectives were dispatched to locate witnesses in Palm Springs, El Centro and Mexicali. Next came word that the U.S. Department of Justice was looking into the case to see if Valentino had violated the Mann Act, which prohibited transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes. That night, with a scandal brewing, Valentino was the guest of honor at a dinner party at the Los Angeles Athletic Club attended by cowboy-star-turned-director Fred Thomson, San Francisco Chief of Police Daniel J. O’Brien and others.
Since there was no doubt that the couple had married, the legal question centered on whether they had cohabitated after the wedding. The fact of the marriage itself was not sufficient to convict on a charge of bigamy. Evidence was required to prove the marriage had been consummated. Of course, Rudy and Natacha had secretly been cohabitating for months. But as a matter of law, prosecutors would have to prove the couple had had sex subsequent to tying the knot.
A few days later the district attorney announced he had sufficient evidence to file charges of two counts of bigamy against Valentino. The first count was simple bigamy – he’d married Natacha before his divorce was final. The second count was the first of its kind ever filed in California. It asserted that “on or about the fifteenth of May, the defendant unlawfully and feloniously cohabitated with said Winifred Hudnut in the county of Riverside and at different other places, all within the State.” The penalty for bigamy was from one to ten years in prison, or a fine of up to $5,000.
The next day, May 20, was a Saturday, but arrangements were made for Valentino to turn himself in. He was arraigned, and bail was set at $10,000. Rudy’s friends arranged the bail. Upon his release he issued a statement. “I have loved deeply, but in loving I may have erred,” the statement read. “I will say that the love that made me do what I have done was prompted by the noblest intentions that a man could have.”
The trial began in June. The media circus outside the courthouse had become a familiar sight at sensational trials in Los Angeles. Inside, the courtroom was packed every day with reporters and fans, mostly women hoping to get a glimpse of Valentino.
The main issue centered on whether Rudy and Natacha consummated their marriage. Housekeepers at the cottage where the wedding party stayed in Palm Springs testified that there were two beds and a couch in the house, and that all were occupied each night. When asked to identify the friends who stayed at the house, one of the housekeepers referred to one of the occupants as a “strange lady.” When shown a photo, the woman identified the lady as Alla Nazimova. As soon as the identification was made, a subpoena was issued for Nazimova.
Paul Ivano, Rudy’s friend and Alla’s young lover, testified that he shared a room with Valentino. He also said that when the couple returned to Los Angeles, Rudy and Natacha slept in their own homes. Later that day a deputy sheriff nabbed Nazimova and served her with a subpoena as she was boarding a train for New York.
The trial recessed for the weekend on Friday, but on Monday the judge announced at the outset of proceedings that the evidence presented has been insufficient to prove that Rudy and Natacha had consummated their marriage. Charges were dropped, bail was returned and Rudy was set free. He later released a statement: “Though I am rejoiced at the wonderful news of my acquittal and exoneration, still there is a tear of regret because of the enforced absence of the woman who has been my inspiration and counselor in my art.”
When the interlocutory period of Valentino’s divorce ended the following spring, Rudy and Natacha were on a publicity tour in the Midwest. On March 14, 1923, at the courthouse in Crown Point, Indiana, they were legally married at last.
Death of Idol
Two years later August 1925], gossipists were abuzz about Natacha Rambova’s announcement she was taking a “vacation” from Valentino. The course of their marriage had taken a sharp turn in recent months. After a string of early hits, Rudy’s studio had assigned him to projects in which his talents were wasted. It got so bad, at least from his and Natacha’s point of view, that he refused the new projects they assigned him.
Famous Players-Lasky sued him. Valentino counter-sued. A stalemate ensued during which Rudy, who was arguably at the height of his powers and appeal, made no movies. It didn’t help that the studio saw Natacha as a problem. She certainly had a great deal of influence over Rudy, especially regarding his career choices. She was also domineering toward him, even at the studio in front of other actors and the crew. Rightly or wrongly, many people in Rudy’s orbit held her responsible for his poor career choices.
As part of Valentino’s settlement with Famous Players-Lasky, he agreed to make two more films, “Monsieur Beauclaire” and “A Sainted Devil,” both released in 1924. Neither was a big hit, but he remained a big star, and was able to secure a lucrative deal with United Artists. There was one hitch, however. His contract stipulated that Natacha was forbidden from the sets when he was working. It was his decision to agree to that humiliating stipulation, and it was that decision that prompted Natacha’s “vacation.”
On Monday, August 16, 1926, Alla Nazimova received unsettling news from New York. Rudolph Valentino had fallen ill, and his condition was dire. He’d been hospitalized and undergone surgery. Doctors had repaired a small hole in the lining of his stomach; they’d also removed his appendix, which was acutely inflamed. Even so, his condition was critical, and he expected to remain in the hospital for several days.
Valentino’s most recent film, “Son of the Sheik,” had been distributed by United Artists. The studio head, Nazimova’s friend Joe Schenck, and his wife, the film star Norma Talmadge, left their home in Maine for New York immediately upon hearing the news. Pola Negri, the beautiful young exotic star Valentino had been dating, was in the middle of a shoot and announced that she had to remain in Hollywood. From Paris, Natacha Rombova cabled get well wishes. In fact, the only significant woman in his life who visited the hospital was Jean Acker, with whom he’d recently reconciled.
Even so, the hospital was flooded with telegrams and cards from Valentino’s fans and Hollywood friends. On Thursday, his temperature returned to normal and he appeared to be on the mend. He issued a statement in gratitude for the well wishes. “Some of the tributes that have affected me the most have come from my ‘fans’ – friends – men, women and little children,” Valentino wrote. “God Bless them. Indeed I feel that my recovery has been greatly advanced by the encouragement given me by everyone.”
On Saturday, however, Rudy’s condition worsened. The infection was spreading, and dire development in the days before the development of antibiotics. Pleurisy developed the next day as the infection entered his lungs. After having been turned away several times, Joe Schenck and Norma Talmadge were allowed to visit. They were alarmed by Rudy’s appearance, but he was lucid. “Hello, boss,” he said, when he saw Schenck.
An X-ray the next day, Monday, August 23, revealed the peritonitis was spreading. Later that evening he fell into a coma. At a little past noon on August 23, he died. He was 31 years old.