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Storm in the Desert

Originally written for a Westminster College writing class, spring 2006.

Rudolph “The Sheik” Valentino married his second wife—a great-granddaughter of Mormon patriarch Heber C. Kimball—in 1922 and then again, legally, in 1923. Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy took it from there.

“He does not look like your husband. He is not in the least like your brother. He does not resemble the man your mother thinks you ought to marry.”
—a 1920s fan magazine describes Rudolph Valentino

Women fainted in theaters during Rudolph Valentino’s movies, and his premature death in 1926 provoked thousands of rioting fans to break out windows in the funeral parlor to see his corpse. A modern-day equivalent would be if Leonardo DiCaprio had died soon after appearing in Titanic. A mysterious, heavily veiled “Woman in Black” appeared every year on the anniversary of Valentino’s death to leave roses at his crypt in Los Angeles. Who was this “sheik,” the “male Helen of Troy,” “the Phantom Rival in every domestic establishment”? And what was Valentino’s connection to the Beehive State?

Rudolph Valentino—even with his stiff acting and uneven teeth—became a silent-film icon of the Jazz Age and America’s first superstar. Born Rodolfo Alfonzo Raffaelo Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina D’Antonguolla, he sailed to New York City in 1918 at age 23. After shortening his name and dancing as a movie extra, Valentino rocketed to fame playing an Arab prince in The Sheik, a 1921 film shot in the coastal dunes of California. His trance-like gaze, flowing robes and headdresses, and kitschy entrances on rearing Arabian horses projected lust and drama at a time when Americans saw overt sexual advances only in foreign settings. Valentino stormed Hollywood during Prohibition, the “flapper era,” at a time when many Italian-Americans were known only as gangsters. Called the “Great Lover,” Rudolph Valentino was actually a sensitive son, poet, good cook, and a devoted animal lover. Fan mail was answered in long, artful letters which he dutifully dictated. His star rose in direct proportion to how many photos of him—the less clothes the better—the fan magazines published.

Valentino’s star crossed with Natacha Rambova, a Utah pioneer’s great-granddaughter, on the set of Camille in 1920. Valentino recalled their first meeting, saying, “She never looked to right or left. She seemed frozen.” In fact, Rambova saw herself as a kind of Cleopatra: a trained ballerina and exotic beauty with wide-set eyes given to static poses. She was not interested in hearth and home. She wanted art, beauty, design, and spirituality, and she was willing to reinvent herself many times throughout her life to get them.

Rambova was born Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy in Salt Lake City on January 19, 1897. Her mother was Winifred “Muzzie” Kimball, a granddaughter of Heber C. Kimball, one of the original Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Brigham Young’s First Counselor. Baby Winifred’s father was Michael Shaughnessy, a widowed Irish-Catholic Union colonel in the Civil War, whose gambling problems and drinking soon broke up their marriage. Muzzie scandalized her Mormon family by converting to Catholicism, getting divorced, and then developing an independent career as an interior designer in her new marriage to Edgar de Wolfe. As she decorated mansions for the rich and famous, Muzzie became a millionaire.

One way Muzzie spent her money was to send young Winifred, called “Wink,” to boarding school in England and then to study ballet in New York under Russian émigré Theodore Kosloff. At Kosloff’s insistence, Wink changed her name at age 17 to “Natacha Rambova,” reportedly one of Kosloff’s former students who had died before reaching her artistic potential. Rambova felt this new name expressed her true inner artistic self. Following her mother’s example of rejecting a traditional Mormon woman’s role as wife and mother, this name change was one of Rambova’s many stormy reinventions in her life.

Soon impressing others more with her designing talent than her dancing, Rambova soon caught the eye of the Russian actress and impresario Alla Nazimova with her avant garde yet historically accurate costume designs. Nazimova asked Rambova to leave New York and join her production company.

Rambova created the sets, the costumes, and “the look” of Nazimova’s production of Camille in 1920. It was there she met Valentino, who was then relatively unknown. She immediately set about changing his appearance. Seeing Valentino as a mannequin, she shampooed and curled his hair, dressed him, and turned his body into a canvas for her art. The shy, poetic Valentino started courting the dark, elegant Rambova. She later remembered,
At that time I was very serious, running about in low-heeled shoes and taking squints at my sets and costumes. Rudy was forever telling jokes and forgetting the point of them, and I thought him plain dumb. Then it came over me . . . that he was trying to please, to ingratiate himself. . . . ‘Oh, the poor child,’ I thought. ‘He just wants to be liked—he’s lonely.’ It wasn’t love at first sight. I think it was good comradeship more than anything else.”

Soon calling each other “Babykins,” they were soon devoted friends and lovers. They enjoyed camping in the arid San Jacinto Mountain canyons near Palm Springs, and Valentino cooked as his mother Maria Berta had taught him in Italy, creating his signature dish of six-foot-long spaghetti noodles and meatballs for Natacha and their friends. Perhaps he saw in her the woman to bear him children and create a happy home. In Valentino, Rambova saw her dreams of culture, fame, and art.

Fame had begun garroting Valentino after The Sheik which was filmed just after Camille. Movie ads proclaimed:

“SEE the heroine, disguised, invade the Bedouin’s secret slave rites
SEE her captured by bandit tribesmen and enslaved by their chief
SEE the Sheik’s vengeance, the storm in the desert, a proud woman’s heart surrendered”
Valentino’s flamboyant, flowing costumes for The Sheik were designed by Rambova, sharing almost equal critical billing with the young Italian’s acting. Rambova soon started trying to steer him away from the steamy roles that had made him famous and was more interested in art film opportunities, upsetting studio heads and fans. Continuing disagreements about Valentino’s career direction, his erratic driving, and whether to start a family were to prove fatal to their relationship.

In 1922, they were married in Mexicali, Mexico, but Valentino was immediately jailed because his brief marriage to actress Jean Acker had not been legally dissolved. This started one of Valentino’s many media circuses as adoring, frenzied fans struggled to get near their idol. The bigamy trial was “like a gangster’s funeral,” according to a court reporter, “with armed guards . . . to keep the flappers from literally crushing Rudy to death. Femininity, in all shapes and ages, jammed the courtroom.” As legal matters were worked out, Rambova and Valentino had to keep up an elaborate show of celibacy. After a mandatory waiting period once the bigamy charges were dropped, they were finally legally married in Indiana in April 1923. Their happiness was to be short-lived.

After further fights with the movie studios,Valentino and Rambova—both trained dancers—went on a tango tour to promote Mineralava Beauty Clay in 88 American cities. They arrived in Salt Lake City in a private railroad car named “The Colonial,” outfitted with Turkish carpets, gilt mirrors, and two well-publicized separate bedrooms. In advance advertisements, Rambova was referred to as “the little pigtailed Shaughnessy girl” who’d grown up to capture the heart of the love king of Hollywood. Rambova was furious. She considered a summation of her life much more than that. She and Valentino danced at Saltair Palace and, beyond a beach roped off to keep fans at bay, Rambova and Valentino floated in the Great Salt Lake with Natacha’s relatives.
Succumbing to the frustration of arguing over his career, Valentino eventually signed a contract clause barring Rambova from his movie sets. They separated in 1925, filming a goodbye for cameras at Union Station in Los Angeles. That scene would be the last time they ever saw each other.

After their eventual divorce in early 1926, Valentino was depressed and suicidal. On a promotional tour for The Sheik’s sequel The Son of the Sheik, Valentino ate poorly, indulged in late hours, and drank excessively. Collapsing at a friend’s apartment, he died in agony in the August heat at a New York hospital from complications of a perforated ulcer. He was 31. On hearing news of his death, Rambova sequestered herself in her bedroom while Valentino’s butler Lou Maloney quickly and quietly removed the negligees of actress Pola Negri from the Great Lover’s California mansion. In spite of Valentino’s smoldering on-screen persona and playboy reputation, Maloney was very sensitive to a Catholic sense of propriety.

Rambova eventually left her bedroom and lived another 40 years. She married Spaniard Alvaro de Urzάiz, moved to Mallorca, and studied the spiritual messages in Egyptian art. Eventually divorcing Urzάiz, she continued to collect Nepali, Tibetan, and Egyptian artwork on her many trips. As her mother had developed a friendship with Utah Museum of Fine Arts director Owen Horsfall, Rambova decided to donate her artwork to the UMFA. The “Rambova Collection” of Egyptian art is exhibited on the museum’s first floor.

Rambova developed schleroderma, a degenerative condition affecting the esophagus, stomach, and kidneys, aggravated by the anorexia nervosa she had battled her entire life. At one point she could only consume water, rose hips, and crushed caviar. She died June 5, 1966, at the age of 69 in a rest home in Pasadena, California.

From Rambova’s beginnings in the Utah high desert to Valentino’s notoriety by
way of a desert movie to Rambova’s obsession with a North African desert civilization, their lives were indeed desert maelstroms of wildly directed passions.

We remember Valentino and Rambova this year which commemorates the 80th anniversary of his death and the 40th anniversary of hers. Roses were left at Valentino’s Hollywood Forever Cemetery gravesite in Los Angeles for many years by the Woman in Black, alternatively described in biographies as his first wife or the daughter of a woman whose hospital bed he once visited. In contrast to that well-visited resting place, Rambova’s remains were cremated, and her ashes were scattered at her request in a northern Arizona forest. Utahns might leave roses by the Rambova Collection on June 5 and August 23 in remembrance.

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