“the Overloved One”


The mourners making the four-day journey to Hollywood occupied a chartered compartment car directly behind a special car where the body was stowed. Alberto Guglielmi (or Valentino), S. George Ullman, Pola Negri, Frank E. Campbell, and W. H. Hull, manager of Campbell’s, were all there. Harry C. Klemfuss did not make the trip.

Miss Negri issued a statement thanking her many movie fans “who have offered me their sympathy in this dark hour of my sorrow.” After the train left, hundreds of grim-faced mourners lingered for an hour in the concourse of the station before they realized they had missed the coffin.

A few days later word filtered back to newspapermen about the devoted activities of Miss Negri aboard the death train. The lady in black was so indefatigable in making appearances on the rear platform at various stops that, it was said, when the train halted at 4 A.M. at Albuquerque to take on water, she automatically stumbled to her feet and reeled to the back platform. There she began to weep into her handkerchief, much to the bewilderment of her audience, two drunken Indians wrapped in blankets.

When the body reached Hollywood, another funeral service was held and the actor at last was interred in a crypt, fifteen long days after his death. The story was given scant space in New York newspapers. New Yorkers by then were sated with news about the Sheik.

Today it is clear that of the five sets of publicity seekers who hoped to profit by dramatizing Valentino’s death, only two achieved any lasting success. The decision of the movie studio to “pep up” and prolong the mourning period—it was stretched from the usual one week to two—seems to have been a sound one as far as box-office returns were concerned. The Son of the Sheik smashed records in all sections of the country, and when the film opened in London a line formed fifteen hours before performance time. It could be argued that Valentino himself benefited by his death. He had died in debt, but the success of his last picture wiped out the deficit and gave a $600,000 credit balance to his estate.

Thanks to Klemfuss, Campbell’s funeral parlor also prospered. Campbell’s was just another struggling business in 1926; today it is one of the best-known undertaking firms in New York.

The other three participants in the campaign did not fare so well. Alberto, Rudy’s brother, never met success as an actor. Ullman drifted into obscurity. Pola Negri held on briefly as a star but, with the advent of the talkies, was quickly eclipsed. (She did make a belated comeback in Walt Disney’s The Moon-Spinners in 1964, playing a somewhat less tempestuous role than was her wont in silent days.)

Miss Negri continued to make headlines for a while during the twenties, however. In an interview in New York, she had told reporters that the best way she could honor the memory of her fiancé was to buy the well-known oil painting of Valentino in the costume of an Argentine gaucho—“even if it costs me a million dollars,” she vowed. Newspapermen had speculated on how high the price might go with Miss Negri bidding against a host of Valentino admirers. The answer came in December, 1926, when the auction of the actor’s private possessions was held. The gaucho picture was sold for $1,550. Pola neither appeared nor submitted a bid. A few days later, just before Christmas, Miss Negri was heard from again. In that season of good will to men, she sued the Valentino estate for $15,000, alleging she had lent the Sheik that sum of money and had not been repaid.

It was left to Natacha Rambova, née Winifred Hudnut, Valentino’s second wife, to sound a hopeful note after the tumult had subsided. Arriving from Europe some weeks after the burial of the Sheik, Rambova told reporters she had established contact with Rudy through a medium of the spirit world. “I have many valuable friends up here and am happy,” Rudy told her. “Caruso likes me. So does Wally Reid and Sarah Bernhardt, both of whom are doing well in the movies up here. Sarah has been particularly kind to me. These spirits do the same thing as they did on earth, but, of course, in a different way: they act with more soul now.”

Valentino, said Rambova, at first resented being given small parts in movies made in heaven. But he had resigned himself to serving a period of apprenticeship—just as Wally and Sarah had done—and would work his way up to becoming a star again. Rambova quoted Rudy as saying: “On earth, the clever artiste could portray any part given him by a director. Not so, here in heaven. All is sincerity.”