I welcome my friend and fellow South African writer Anthony Ehlers, who guests today to talk about 1920s icon Rudolf Valentino.

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The Tango Pirate

Rudolph Valentino, that sensual dark-eyed lover of silent films, remains a romantic icon more than a hundred years after his death.  His legend continues to smoulder in every sheikh novel we devour, and the fire of his Latin Lover looks fulminate the pages of historical sagas.

Born in Italy in 1895, Rudolph Valentino was a restless student and a romantic dreamer who came to New York to pursue a new life. After living in the streets for a time, he became a tango pirate at the famous Maxim’s – giving dance lessons to bored, rich women. To escape the scandal of a trumped-up vice charge and the image of a gigolo, he fled to Hollywood. After bit parts playing the villain in frivolous fare such as The Married Virgin and The Eyes of Youth, Rudolph got his big break in The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. His erotic Argentine tango stole the show and the first screen sex god was born.

Leading roles as a cruel but misunderstood desert ruler in The Sheikh and a fearless Spanish matador caught up in a love triangle in Blood and Sand made the young heart throb the object of desire for millions of young woman, thrilled by his slick looks and sensitive, expressive acting.  Valentino’s reach went further than the silver screen. His style and fashion sense forever changed the way women looked at men and how men perceived themselves – for example, he was one of the first men to wear his watch on his wrist rather than on a chain on a waist-coat. His lifestyle was extravagant and luxurious, travelling abroad and decorating a magnificent Los Angeles Home called Falcon Lair.

However, the screen idol’s private life was beset with problems – he was not always able to cope with his sudden fame and two unhappy marriages ended in divorce. His later movies, such as Monsieur Beaucaire and The Hooded Falcon, didn’t fare well at the box office. Behind the movie persona, it seemed, lay a sensitive, artistic young man who wanted only to create beauty and elegance and he felt the early Hollywood studio too stifling and controlling. A lawsuit against Famous Players-Lasky saw him take a break from films to take on a dance road show as the spokesperson for a beauty product and judging beauty contests.

Valentino returned to the movies for a sequel to The Sheik, although he was loathe to perpetuate a stereotype. The Son of the Sheikh was a massive success, but it was to be his last film. At age 31, he collapsed in New York and died a few days later from a complicated appendicitis.  Some 100, 000 people lined the streets of New York City to pay their final respects. Windows were smashed as fans tried to get a last look at the dark lover of the silver screen and an all-day riot erupted on August 24, 1926. Movie studios had to shut down and there was more than one grief-struck fan who committed suicide.

Although he was finally laid to rest in a grand crypt in Beverly Hills, his name and his image continue to live on. Rudolph Valentino taught the world sex and seduction, the art of the silent language of the eyes and the sinuous grace of the tango.

Rudolph Valentino gave us everlasting romance.

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For Anthony’s delightful blog post on what Rudolf Valentino and Robert Pattinson have in common, click here.