Rudolph Valentino Week, Part II (“O, untimely Death”)

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In the summer of 1926, NYC was locked in the throes of a brutal, miserable heatwave. Rudy had the great misfortune to arrive in the city during this heatwave, as part of his cross-country promotional campaign for The Son of the Sheik. He had also recently been divorced by his wife Natacha, which totally broke his heart.

In addition to a horrific heatwave and heartbreak, he was still smarting from the cruel “pink powder puff” allegation made by an anonymous Chicago Tribune editorialist on 18 July. This writer, who didn’t have the balls to sign his own name, said some quite nasty things:

A powder vending machine!  In a men’s washroom! Homo Americanus! Why didn’t someone quietly drown Rudolph Guglielmo, alias Valentino, years ago?… 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?… Hollywood is the national school of masculinity. Rudy, the beautiful gardener’s boy, is the prototype of the American male.

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Rudy wanted to challenge this anonymous coward to a duel, but since duels were illegal, he settled for taking boxing lessons from his friend Jack Dempsey. He also defended his masculinity and personal tastes in an interview with The Herald Examiner. Dempsey put him in touch with sportswriter Frank “Buck” O’Neil, and they had a public boxing match on the roof of the Ambassador Hotel to prove his masculinity.

The New York première of The Son of the Sheik was 9 July, and proved a most smashing success. It left critics and viewers in no doubt about Rudy’s masculinity. He was extremely well-built, with a muscular physique that could easily flatten an opponent.

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On 15 August 1926, Rudy collapsed by the Hotel Ambassador in NYC, and was found spitting up blood and doubled over. He’d already had ulcers, but had refused to see a doctor owing to a superstitious old-country fear. He’d also been going to clubs and speakeasies, was a heavy smoker, and was taking some kind of medicine meant to prevent baldness. The heat probably exacerbated pre-existing health issues.

Rudy was rushed to the Polyclinic on the Lower East Side, and X-rays determined he had gastric ulcers in the abdomen (including a large perforated ulcer) and appendicitis. There was also a very serious infection. Rudy was immediately taken to surgery, and when he awoke, he vomited blood, was feverish, and groaned in agony.

16–20 August saw him in a great deal of pain, feverish, and being fed via vitamin injections. He was unable to eat due to the pain, and developed peritonitis. On 18 August, his doctors gave him a very positive prognosis, and told the media no further updates were necessary.

Everything changed on 21 August.

Rudy came down with very bad pleurisy in the left lung, and it progressed rapidly due to his already weak health. Like most doctors of the era, Rudy’s doctors too deliberately withheld the news that he was probably going to die. Rudy firmly believed he was going to get better.

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On the evening of 22 August, his pain increased even more, and he received Last Rites, though was unable to take Communion.

In the early hours of 23 August, Rudy regained consciousness and had a pleasant chat with his doctors about his future. Then he lapsed back into horrific pain, fell into a coma, and shortly after noon, the Angel of Death took him away at only 31 years old.

An official came out of the hospital to break the news to the mob of female fans standing vigil outside, and pandemonium broke out. Women began screaming and fainting. Some of them passed out. As it turned out, this was just a foretaste of the mob scene which was to follow by his funeral and wake.

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If only Rudy hadn’t had such a fear of doctors and hospitals, he’d taken better care of his health to begin with, there hadn’t been such a brutal heatwave, and antibiotics had existed, this dear, sweet soul might have enjoyed a longer life, and not died in such terrible, protracted agony.

Now this beautiful man belongs to the ages.

P.S.: Happy heavenly 70th birthday to Keith John Moon, the greatest drummer ever!

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3 thoughts on “Rudolph Valentino Week, Part II (“O, untimely Death”)

  1. Dying at age 31 is tragic and particularly poignant when the person is so beloved by the public and with so much promise in the future. His early demise probably contributed to his legendary status since he might have eventually just faded into a has been once famous actor like happened to many past stars. We’ll never know, but it’s interesting to speculate where his career might have gone.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

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    • That’s one of the great unknowns. He could’ve transitioned well to sound, or he could’ve been one of the many silent stars whose shelf life expired in the early sound era. I once saw the suggestion that, had his career lasted long enough for him to become an elder actor, he might’ve been a good choice for the title role in The Godfather.

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  2. Poor Rudy, every time I read about the details of his death, I’m hit powerfully by what a truly horrible last few days – so fraught with pain and suffering – they must have been for him. Let us all hope that he’s been able to rest in peace at least.

    xoxo ♥ Jessica

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