“the Overloved One”


The New York premiere of The Son of the Sheik , in late July of 1926, was a smash success: when Rudolph Valentine, the star of the film, made a personal appearance at the theatre, he was mobbed. Screeching females clawed at him, stole his hat, and tore off his coat pockets. One high-spirited flapper tackled the Latin lover by the ankles and, frantic for a souvenir, started unlacing his shoestrings. He had to be rescued by a squadron of police.

There had been indications that Valentino’s reign as the screen idol of women was nearing its end, but the rousing reception given him in New York that summer seemed to belie such notions. Indeed, he appeared to have reached a new peak of popularity, with the prospect of a long career ahead of him; he was only thirty-one. Then, shortly before noon on August 15, he suddenly gasped, clutched at his side, and collapsed. He was rushed to Polyclinic Hospital, where his ailment was diagnosed as appendicitis. Valentino underwent surgery; his condition was pronounced good, and it was said he was on his way to recovery. But on August 21 he suffered a relapse. Pleurisy developed, and at ten minutes past noon on August 23, he died.

Valentino’s body was taken that evening to the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Church, a mortuary at Broadway and Sixty-sixth Street. There, clad in full evening dress, he was laid on a draped catafalque and put on display, surrounded by large candles, in the Gold Room. It was announced that the public woidd be allowed to file past the bier and pay respects to the actor starting the following afternoon.

Next morning, a crowd began to gather outsideCampbell’s hours before the doors opened. By early afternoon the queue stretched for nine blocks, snarling traffic completely at Columbus Circle and its feederstreets, seven blocks south, and extending up Broadway past Seventy-second. At first the crowd was orderly. Women sobbed in their sorrow. Then it was rumored that the funeral home would not open its doors. No one knew where the report originated; in any event, order quickly dissolved.

H. L. Mencken, who had interviewed Valentino during one of the actor’s visits to New York, described the Sheik as “catnip to women.” He added: “But what women!” What women, indeed. The frenzied mob rioted and tried to break into the mortuary, shattering a massive plate-glass window. Three policemen, a photographer, and many of the charging women were cut by flying pieces of glass. Mounted police moved in, pushing back the mob with their horses. Some women fainted; others were bowled over and trampled on. All day the riot continued. Ambulances were summoned and more than one hundred police reinforcements were rushed to the scene. Shortly before midnight, when most of the rioters dispersed, the exhausted police were left victors on a field of battle littered with hats, shoes, and torn clothing. The city had never before seen a wake quite like it.

The next day, mourners began to assemble outside Campbell’s at dawn. They waited patiently enough until nine o’clock, when the doors were opened, and then, with a wild roar, fought—fought not only with the phalanx of police but with one another—in a frantic scramble to get into the Gold Room. Police reserves again were called out, and the crowd was held in check. Then S. George Ullman, Valentino’s manager, announced that because of the disorder and “lack of reverence,” the actor’s body would not be shown to the public. The edict was not accepted without grumbling and threats, and there even was talk of storming the Campbell “Bastille.” But by the next day, August 26, the fans had settled down to watch various celebrities file into the funeral parlor.

Historians often have commented sourly on the disparity between the amount of newspaper space given to Charles W. Eliot, who died on August 22, 1926, and that given to Valentino, who died the following day. The ninety-two-year-old Eliot, president emeritus of Harvard and the country’s leading educator, received obituaries averaging perhaps a column in length. Valentino received pages of mention for days on end. But the women of America, and those of the world at large, knew Rudy; they had never heard of Eliot. Valentino, though he appeared to be just another handsome Italian, somehow exuded magnetism on the silent screen. To millions upon millions of women he was Romance as Romance ought to be, not the way it was in their homes.

Agatha Hearn, a New York mother, could not stand the thought that the Sheik was gone forever. Waiting outside Campbell’s funeral parlor was enough catharsis to many mourners, but Mrs. Hearn believed her grief was too great for that: she shot herself. When her body was found, a sheaf of Valentino photographs was clutched in her hand. A Bronx housewife attempted suicide because of “my love for him,” but failed. In London, Peggy Scott, a twenty-six-year-old dancer, made away with herself and left behind a note: “It is heartbreaking to live in the past when the future is hopeless—please look after Rudolph’s pictures.” In Japan, two girls clasped hands and leapt into a fiery volcano. In Rome, where the death was regarded by some as a greater calamity than Caruso’s, Mussolini exhorted women to become mothers, not suicides. What can best be described as “grief riots” were staged by women in manv narts ol the world.