Stuart Holmes, who appeared with Rudolph Valentino in 1921’s “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” dismissed Rudy’s much-touted magnetism by saying, “All he thought about was Italian food. He’d turn those big slumberous eyes on some woman, and she’d just about swoon with delight, but he couldn’t have cared less.”
Was Valentino a pink powder puff, as hostile male moviegoers called him? Or was he the dangerous sensual lover of “The Sheik?” Emily W. Leider makes a dedicated attempt to solve the sexual mystery. Her candid chronicle, with its wide-eyed, fan-magazine phrases (“Really?”; “I beg to differ”; “From here on out …”) serves up a storm of melodramatic events that sustain interest. What she can’t do is elevate her subject to a real-life hero. Each page widens the gap between the cinematic stud who fueled mass feminine hysteria after his death at 31, and the dull, superficial personality he was in real life.
Handicapped by an underdeveloped chest, weak vision, a lazy left eye and cauliflowered left ear, the actor had enough smoldering camera presence to graduate from heavies to romantic leads. Leider offers other intriguing details, such as studio insistence that his dark skin be bleached white and that he keep out of the sun to avoid looking too black for pictures. Conjecture about Valentino’s sexuality grew more threatening when his bisexual first wife Jean barred him from her bedroom on their wedding night.
Leider is admirably knowledgeable about Valentino’s career, astutely analyzing such films as “Blood and Sand,” “The Sainted Devil,” major flop “Monsieur Beaucaire” and his comeback, “Son of the Sheik.”
His relationships, some warm (Gloria Swanson), some cold and competitive (Douglas Fairbanks) are covered, as well as a final, frantic love affair with Pola Negri. Much of the time, Rudy comes off as an amiable narcissist, attracted to those who physically resemble him. Leider balances this with a few flattering anecdotes, including one showing him as considerate of his co-stars.
Valentino’s business woes — unending debt, struggle for artistic control — are engrossing, but the book’s relentless are-they-or-aren’t-they sexual probing of its protagonists has an old-fashioned ring in today’s liberated environment. Ultimately, the emotion we’re left with is frustration that such a legend is nothing more than a self-pitying Hollywood cliche who whines, “I do not think one woman in my life has ever loved me deeply, sincerely. The great lover — loved by all but his loves.”