From U.S.A. Valentino’s death was an international sensation, provoking several suicides. The silent-film star had appeared in Blood and Sand in 1922 and The Eagle in 1925. He died a year before the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, was released. Dos Passos was a leading novelist of the Lost Generation, publishing Manhattan Transfer in 1925.
He hung around cabarets doing odd jobs, sweeping out for the waiters, washing cars; he was lazy handsome wellbuilt slender good tempered 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 bric-a-brac, 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,
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 admirably-tailored 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 milliondollar searchlights
of El Dorado:
the Sheikh, the Son of the Sheikh;
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 slavebracelet 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 sheikh 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 greenishgray 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 expensivelymassaged 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 highlypublicized 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 twentyeight 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 crepe, 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.
©1938 by John Dos Passos. Used with permission of Lucy Dos Passos Coggin on behalf of the Estate of John Dos Passos.