The Ship Cafe
The first time Alla Nazimova met Rudolph Valentino it did not go well. It was a chance meeting in October 1919 at the Ship Café, a fully articulated replica of a Spanish galleon built on a pier at Venice Beach. Nazimova was 40 and at the pinnacle of her fame – a household name nationwide and beyond. Valentino was 24 and unknown, just beginning his Hollywood career and working as a demonstration dancer in nightclubs between bit parts in films.
Neither of them could have imagined that in just half a century Nazimova would be forgotten and Valentino would be Hollywood’s first male sex symbol and a bona fide member of filmdom’s immortals.
Alla and her party were celebrating the wrap for her latest film, “Stronger than Death.” At the Metro table were studio 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 working at the Ship Café that night. He was 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 Godowsky knew him in New York. She excused herself after his performance and went over 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 because he’d been at the center of an infamous scandal in New York not long ago. He was the third party in a high-society love triangle that had blown up when his socialite lover murdered her wealthy husband.
When Dagmar escorted Valentino to the table, an icy silence descended upon the party. Madame’s spine had stiffened. 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 bowed to the group, turned on his heel and walked away.
Soon afterward, purely by coincidence, Jean Acker ran into Rudy at a party in Beverly Hills. She’d been embarrassed by Alla’s rudeness and was solicitous to him. He responded in kind. One thing led to another, and on November 5 – just a few days after they’d met – Jean and Rudy were married. Afterward Metro’s Max Karger and his wife Anna gave them a party at the Hollywood Hotel. Nazimova 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 caused a scene by banging tearfully on her door, begging to be let in. After a few months they agreed to divorce, and proceedings were set in motion.
Another surprising development followed. Nazimova’s friend June Mathis, a powerhouse producer at Metro, cast Valentino in a featured 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 her upcoming production of “Camille,” Nazimova cast Valentino as her love interest. At a pre-production meeting he met another of Alla’s protégées, her artistic director, Natacha Rambova.
Her real name was Winifred Shaughnessy. Nazimova’s friend, the interior designer Elsie de Wolfe, was her step-aunt. Natacha’s mother had recently remarried for the third time. Her new husband was Richard Hudnut, a wealthy cosmetics manufacturer.
She had renamed herself Natacha Rambova when she studied ballet with a famous Russian dance master. He also taught her set and costume design. She found she had a natural talent for art direction. In fact, Nazimova had hired Natacha on the spot when she saw some of her designs.
By the time filming started on March 10, 1921, a romance had developed between Natacha and Rudolph Valentino. He made spaghetti for her and their friends every night. He admired her strength and sophistication. She saw him as a work in progress, someone she could groom. It was as if two halves of a whole had found each other.
As rumors had predicted Valentino’s performance in “Four Horsemen” set the world on fire. Fans could not get enough of him. Neither could the Hollywood press. When reporters 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 no one told Jean, who spoke with them at length.
“We started life together, with little else but love,” she said, fancifully. “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 Los Angeles Times she was too ill to work, and had accrued $2,500 in debt. Later that month, the divorce trial was postponed to the fall.
The release of “The Sheik” in November fueled Valentino’s ascent. He played a European-educated Arabian sheik who pursues a beautiful young British woman across the desert. The role established him as the screen’s greatest lover and anointed him the movies’ first male sex symbol.
In real life Valentino still had his divorce to contend with. He had recently signed with Paramount, the most prestigious studio at that time as well as the most scandal-averse. Some of its most-popular contract players had been beset recently with rape and murder charges and drug-related deaths. The still-unsolved murder of the studio’s top director had exposed his secret past. Valentino feared his divorce would add his name to the scandal list.
When the proceedings finally began on November 21, his newfound fans and dozens of reporters jammed into the courtroom. Jean’s testimony cast him in an unfavorable light. Penniless, he’d been living off her, she said. Even so, he was vain and dismissive. 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. It was an interlocutory decree, which would become final a in one year to the day, on March 4, 1923. At that point, he must give Jean a one-time alimony payment of $12,000.
Now Valentino had a new worry. He and Natacha had been living together, and despite the fact that they maintained separate digs, he was concerned that the gossip columns might find out they were living in sin – and in violation of the interlocutory divorce decree.
Their 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 decree by crossing the Mexican border and marrying in Tijuana. They were advised that California’s divorce laws did not apply to marriages outside the United States.
Alla Nazimova was in the wedding party when Rudy and Natacha married in Mexicali. They’d all driven down together. She was with her young lover, Paul Ivano. Rudy even brought his two big dogs along. They’d stayed overnight with Natacha’s friends in Palm Springs before the wedding and returned to there after the ceremony and stayed on a few days.
Bad news was waiting for them in Los Angeles. “Question Valentino Marriage: Possible Bigamy Angle Disclosed by Wedding to Perfumer’s Heiress.” The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office launched a full-scale investigation the next day.
Investigators called Jean Acker in for an interview. 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
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.”
Crowds gathered outside the courthouse on the day of the trial. Inside, the courtroom was packed every day with reporters and fans, mostly women hoping to get a glimpse of Valentino.
The issue at hand 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. Her presence at the wedding was announced in the Times in an article titled, “Valentino Case Names Nazimova.”
Alla was in a bind. If she testified truthfully, she would have to admit Rudy and Natasha cohabitated in Palm Springs, and Valentino could go to jail. But if she lied and it was found out, a perjury charge could mean deportation – or worse. With no good options, she decided to leave town until the trial was over.
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 that the evidence presented had 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 an Idol
Two years later, 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 the studio, he agreed to make two more films, “Monsieur Beaucaire” 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 was expected to remain in the hospital for several days.
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, a dire development in the days before antibiotics. Pleurisy developed the next day as the infection entered his lungs. After having been turned away several times, United Artists chief Joe Schenck and his wife, the film star 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.
Rudolph Valentino was 31 years old.