“the Overloved One”

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Foremost among the press agents were those of VaIentino’s studio in Hollywood, whose owners had been stunned when they learned of the death of their star. What would happen to The Son of the Sheik? Would they get their investment back? It was decided in conference that public interest in the dead actor must be kept at fever pitch for at least a week, time enough to rush prints out to theatres in this country and abroad. Press agents in Hollywood were instructed to round up testimonials to Valentino’s acting genius in his last picture. Tom Mix, Conway Tearle, John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks, William Boyd, and other stars obliged. The publicity artists in New York were instructed to turn out brief biographies of the actor, to pass out thousands of stills from the movie, and to co-operate with newspapers and anyone else seeking, for whatever reasons, to publicize Rudolph Valentino.

The boss of the studio’s press agents bore the unlikely name of Oscar Doob. He was aware that in the last few weeks of his life Valentino had suffered some loss of popularity and reputation. Though he was the idol of women, most men had regarded the star with indifference, while others had contemptuously termed him a lounge lizard, a pretty boy, and a gigolo. Newspapers, too, had begun to jeer at the long sideburns of the “reformed dishwasher.” The Chicago Tribune had deplored the effeminization of the American male, blaming much of it on the influence of the “Powder Puff Hero” and his Sheik movies.

It was Doob who had engineered the favorable reception of Valentino when he had made his personal appearance at the New York premiere. Now that the star was dead, the first move in Doob’s campaign to keep the actor’s name alive was to announce the Sheik’s last words. Rudy had said, Doob solemnly declared, “Let the tent be struck!” This was regarded as a dignified deathbed message, with a fine literary ring to it. It had the added attraction of reminding the public of the Arabian tent in which Ttic Son of the Sheik wooed Vilma Banky, the Hot Paprika from Hungary. (There was also a popular song of the day, “The Sheik of Araby,” with some piquant lines about creeping into a lady’s tent.)

Before the phrase hit print, however, a bright publicity man remembered that these were almost the identical words spoken in 1870 by Robert E. Lee on his deathbed. Valentino’s parting message was hastily revised. He had been misheard by an intern whose familiarity with the English language was slight. What Valentino had really said was: “I want the sunlight to greet me— DON’T PULL DOWN THE SHADES !”

It was feared that these last words were a little too lengthy for a deathbed statement—in addition to being an elaboration of the more succinct dying utterance of Goethe ∗—but, to the relief of Doob, they caught the fancy of the public and were relayed all over the world.

“Mehr Licht,” he said. Incidentally, according to one of the doctors who attended Valentine, the star did not speak a word in English after 6:30 A.M. on August 23, the day he died.

Doob now passed the ball to the press agent for the Campbell undertaking establishment. He was a man named Klemfuss—Harry C. Klemfuss, an old hand at the game. Klemfuss’ first move was to hire thirty persons at a dollar a head to stand in line outside the mortuary. The standees made no effort to file inside; their job was to attract the mob. When the mob came and, to Klemfuss’ satisfaction, staged a splendid disturbance, the Campbell name was in all the headlines.

Klemfuss also stationed an honor guard of blackshirted “Fascisti” at the Valentino bier and then encouraged a liberal organization to protest their presence there. The resulting controversy made front-page newspaper stories. When Klemfuss banned the blackshirts from the premises, Campbell’s name again was on page one. The publicity man was most obliging to reporters. Before the funeral, he had arranged for pictures to be taken of the cortege as if it were travelling down Broadway to the church. The newspapers hit the streets with the photographs before the procession actually got under way.

The third publicity seeker was S. George Ullman. Having served as Valentino’s manager, he was now available for hire as the spiritual and financial guide of any other big-time star. In addition, Ullman was promoting three Valentino books about to be published. One, supposedly written by Ullman, was titled Valentino As I Knew Him . Another was a book ghostwritten for Valentino on How to Keep Fit . Still another was a volume of poetry purportedly written by the actor. Valentino previously had taken credit for a published diary and a book of poems. Four books were quite an achievement for a man who, according to some detractors, could neither read nor write English.

Rudy’s poetry—he was regarded as a sort of Shelley in buskins—always sold well to his women fans. One of the most quotable of the poems in his posthumous volume was called “On Babies,” written under the spiritual influence of Walt Whitman: