1929 – Why Natacha Rambova’s Marriage to the Greatest of Screen Idols came to a Tragic End

PASSING the Vesuvio, an obscure little Italian restaurant in the basement of a brownstone front directly behind the Capitol Theatre in New York, I was stopped by gusts of memory. It was here I often lunched and dined with Rudie Valentino, who with characteristic sentiment remained loyal to the place long after fame offered him its caviar. Memory-drawn, I turned and went down the few steps to the arched entrance beneath the stairs that led to the floor above. The one window of the place gazed at me lifelessly, shrouded in curtains a little soiled. Faint eddies of dust whirled on the stone pavement in the corner by the door as if they also were seeking entrance. A few folded papers, soggy and stained and dead, lay there. Across the arched opening under the stairs an iron lattice grating had been drawn so that the vestibule to the inner door was dark and hollow like a tomb. The grating was padlocked. It, too, was gone. In the still dreariness I recalled our last evening there. I had come alone to dine on the good but cheap table d’hote. There were several diners in the place, mostly Italians and their girls. I took a small table by the
kitchen door where I could exchange words with the plump signora who emerged steaming from time to time to look over her guests. I had come to know her through Rudy. He always exchanged banter and Italian compliments with her. The waiter was in the act of placing my plate of minestrone when a hush fell on the room like a stroke of paralysis. The plate of soup remained suspended beneath my nose as though the waiter had turned to bronze, and the spoons Mr. and Mrs. Valentino in the days, when they were the most picturesque, the most famous and the happiest couple in Hollywood and forks of the other diners were similarly transfixed
in mid-air. The whole room was stricken by the opening of the outer door. “Buona sera,” called the husky voice of the signora, coming out of the kitchen to greet the arrivals. “Buona sera, signora, come sta?” boomed the reply, and then the same voice, “Hello, Herb, come have dinner with us.” Rudy had entered, working his usual spell, and with him Natacha, his wife, and Natacha’s white-haired aunt, to whom Rudie was so devoted that in his last will he named her affectionately his beneficiary.  I moved to their table and tried to feel at ease among the surrounding waxworks. Rudie never appeared conscious of stares. He enjoyed attention and accepted it with lusty naturalness where other stars are rendered coyly artificial. The other people in the restaurant recognized the Valentinos, of course, but their eyes — the only mobile parts left them — turned queryingly on me. I spilled my soup with hands that behaved as if in husking mittens. Apparently my identity had to be explained Rudie hadn’t one faint gleam of business sense,” says Natacha Rambova. “He was a big, sweet, trusting child who wanted to be loved above all things. And that desire to be liked by everyone left him open to imposition.” It was Natacha’s fight against sycophants that won her Hollywood’s bitter hatred and to spare me the inconvenience of developing apoplexy. “If they don’t stop staring,” I said, my complexion ripening to mauve, “I shall arise and announce I’m the late John Bunny staging a come-back.” Rudie released a hearty guffaw and the diners thawed. The dinner went merrily with Natacha’s wit; Rudie had a huge appetite for humor as well as for food. That was our last dinner … A vivid memory. Turning from the bleak little ristorante, barred and sealed, its own mausoleum, I vowed to find Natacha at once and lunch and laugh once more. NATACHA RAMBOVA. The name in letters of stone appear above a shop next Fifth Avenue in Fifty-second Street. Rich fabrics and pieces of antique jewelry are in the window, beyond which your curious gaze is lost in folds of gauzy green. I opened the door. In the center of a spacious salon, modernistically spare, with furnishings of silver and burgundy, stood that dominant, regal girl, dressed in black velvet, her small head turbaned in flame with braids of brown hair coiled close to her ears — the girl who in her own words has been called “everything from Messalina to a dope-fiend.” I expected to find her restrained. A volume of tragedy has been written since that night we parted over the gay Italian meal. Unmercifully flayed after her separation from Rudie, she went for seclusion to her mother in France. She re-emerged briefly at the time of Rudie’s death, then disappeared again. I knew there had been shabby years. People reported seeing her now and then on the Avenue. She was always alone, dressed severely plainly, but her head was held high by that indomitable will of hers. She tried many things ; vaudeville, dancing classes, writing, decorating. Finally a small shop, then success and a larger one. All the friends of her opulent hour passed her by long ago; her clientele has been built solely on her art as designer and is strictly Park Avenue, without a stage or screen celebrity. Even her worst enemy has admitted the genius of Natacha, that unquenchable flame of ambition that sweeps out from her ruthlessly. It is an Rudolph Valentino in “The Eagle,” one of his last pictures. He was, at the time this picture was made, separated from Natacha Rambova to combat Hollywood and its intrigues implacable instinct, a fighting’ spirit of Amazonian fierceness. Yet, for all her electric vitality, I think Natacha’s spirit is a little weary. Very young, she has
witnessed with shrewd eyes the mockery of the world’s spectacle, and from the highest throne of idolatry this age has known, she has experienced its sharp irony. I recalled the days I spent in her apartment collaborating with Rudie on his life story. Because of some legal technicality pertaining to his divorce from Jean Acker, he. and Natacha were forced to maintain separate apartments for several months after their marriage in Mexico, but of course Rudie spent most of the time in Natacha’s. I sat down on the divan. To break it, I referred to the hours spent on his life story. “Now we ought to do your life,” I said. “But I guess all your real names have been told.” “Yes, and I’ve been called a lot of names that weren’t mine,” laughed Natacha. “No, I’m here to tell you right now that I don’t give a hang for publicity. God knows there has been too much for me already. I’ve been called everything from Messalina to a dope-fiend.””Did you feel it much?””I was tortured. I was tortured to agony,” she said. Her eyes met mine in an eloquence of silence. In that minute the interval of years passed by. I felt certain I knew her as I hadn’t before. She turned the poignancy of the revelation with a quick laugh. I always loved the laughter of Natacha. It is clear and gay. And it can shield a multitude of sorrows with its courage. “They even said I have no sense of humor!” Her laugh mounted. “That’s equivalent to saying I am dead. Without it, I would have been, long ago.”Those who said it couldn’t have known that her real name is O’Shaughnessy. No more did those who thought to defeat her. In the Hollywood days, the studio rang with her battles for Rudie, his stories, his salary, his costumes. “Oh, I was a fool,” she exclaimed with a rueful smile. “But I was young and optimistic and full of fight. I didn’t realize the uselessness. I was butting my head against a wall. They don’t care about your
ideas or about you. They want to crowd as many pictures into as little time as possible, to collect on you as swiftly as they can. What happens to the star is of no concern.” “I can’t think of any position more difficult than that of an idol’s wife,” I said. “It was hellish,” she affirmed. “Rudie hadn’t one faint gleam of business sense. He knew he hadn’t and relied on me. He was a big, sweet, trusting child who
wanted to be loved above all things and that desire to be liked by everyone left him
open to imposition. He would agree to anything to be agreeable. When he realized he had made a mistake, I rushed into them shouting, ‘No!’ And you know how pop-
ular that word is in Hollywood. “This of course gave them a fine weapon against me. Everyone knew Rudie was sweet. Even after they had parted, Natacha Rambova never departed from the mind or heart of Valentino. She had given him sympathetic companionship, sincere friendship, and disinterested devotion. And he could not forget and agreeable at all times, therefore if anyone suffered it was because of Mrs. Valentino. A girl would be presented for a part. Perhaps she was five feet eight
and the part called for a kitten. I would say I couldn’t see her as the type. The girl was dismissed: ‘Mrs. Valentino didn’t like you.’ “It was fiendish. Yet I felt I was necessary. Rudie felt I was, you know that. But he had pride, a legitimate man’s-pride, and they worked on that. They commenced bringing him clippings which said ‘Mrs. Valentino wears the pants,’ ‘too bad Rudie can’t be his own boss,’ and so forth and so forth. These rankled. Eventually, if I so much as observed it was a nice day, Rudie, about to agree, would catch himself and say, ‘No, it is not!’ Of course I realized how he felt. He didn’t want to be putty even in his wife’s hands. We would laugh about the clippings; nevertheless, they made a wedge. “OUDIE was frightfully sensitive. He couldn’t stand the least criticism. And being an actor — a much finer actor than most people realized — he was pliant. If I shaped some of his convictions, I at least had his interest at heart. Others at the studio — the clipping-bearers, for instance — did not. They imposed on him in every way conceivable. They borrowed money, they took his time, they sold his stuff, and one of his closest ‘friends,’ I discovered, was speculating in the market with his money. A trusting soul, if there ever was one, it was dreadful to open Rudie’s eyes to people who appeared so nice to him, who he thought liked him.”I would kill off one crop of sycophants and — so help me! — the next morning there would be another. I never saw anything to equal it. They sprang up over night like toadstools. Only a person who has experienced Hollywood would believe me. They not only wanted to get in his good graces, each wanted to monopolize him utterly. And when they couldn’t they said I did!”Oh, I tell you it was sweet for me.” She laughed a little ruefully. “I can’t understand now how I ever could have been so foolish as to let it wear me down. It did. You lose erspective.
It’s inevitable that you lose it. They force you out of your mind. Perhaps if you could go through it first and then go back . . . but you have to go through it to know. You simply cannot keep your perspective. “Another thing, I didn’t want to go to parties. I’m not a particularly sociable mortal. I didn’t care for society and didn’t go before, and I couldn’t see any reason for going after we were in a certain position. That of course did not endear me with people who wanted the Valentinos for show pieces at their affairs. I didn’t care if I was unpopular, but it hurt Rudie to be. Deeply ingrained in him was the desire for popularity, to be liked. “I remember the first day he came on to the set, I disliked him. At that time I was very serious, running about in low-heeled shoes and taking squints at my sets and costumes. Rudie was forever telling jokes and forgetting the point of them, and I thought him plain dumb,” Natacha laughed. “Then it came over me suddenly one day that he was trying to please, to ingratiate himself with his absurd jokes. Of course I capitulated. ‘Oh, the poor child,’ I thought. ‘He just wants to be liked — he’s lonely. . . .’ And, well, you know what that sentiment leads to. . . .”RUDIE was lonely. I never knew a  lonelier man. He craved affection so. I remember the first time he spoke Natacha’s name to me. We had had dinner in his one-room-and-kitchenette apartment in the Formosa. He had engaged a woman to come in and serve for the occasion, and it was wistfully festive. I had done the first stories about him, he was deeply grateful. Hollywood, for him, was a forlorn place until his success was firmly decided/ They looked upon him as a dubious Italian with sleek hair who had been a tango dancer in a cabaret, who was pathetically poor and altogether of no consequence in film society. Even after introducing the Profilometer. This apparatus is designed to measure a player’s profile, so that the light angles can be computed by the cameraman. Clarence Bull, the Metro-Goldwyn portrait expert, is demonstrating it to Gwen Lee. New York recognized him as an artist in “The Four Horsemen,” Hollywood sat back in its provincial smugness and had to be shown. Rudie showed me some of his first
notices proudly. While I was waxing sincerely fervent over his prospects, he tentatively ventured the name of Natacha Rambova. Had I heard of her? I hadn’t. She was doing some really remarkable sets, he said. He thought her a fine artist. Perhaps my magazine might be interested in some of her drawings to publish. His suggestion was so timorous I gave no importance to it. On another evening, some time later, as we sat until the revealing hours of morning over coffee in a down-town cafe, he told me: “She is a wonderful girl, very much alone like myself. I go to her house evenings and we talk about things that interest us, things that don’t seem to interest many people here; books, new plays, the modern art movement, and
of course our work. Our tastes are very similiar. It is just a friendship, which I need very much. I don’t know where it will lead. I hope it will keep on growing.” Then after their marriage: “There was nothing mad or hysterical about our love. It commenced slowly in friendship, as I told you, and just blossomed naturally. She gives me companionship, sincere and sympathetic companionship — the thing I have always longed for, the thing a man needs above all else to complete him-self.” Their separation was one of the many great tragedies that may be laid at the gates of Hollywood, most worldly of places on earth today. For the idol it is a garden of many blandishments, the sireny of which, continually re-
peated, leads to dizziness if not destruction. I do not believe Natacha ever departed from the mind of Rudie, nor actually from his heart. He was proud, he had been wounded and was confused, yet over his last will when he was ill his
thoughts must have hovered over their associations, for he named, with deep
affection, her aunt who was a symbol of them. “It was Hollywood that separated
you,” I said to Natacha.She only nodded you think it possible for two people to succeed with marriage there?” I asked, “not just ostensibly I mean, but actually? … or even with great friendship?” “The only possibility, I think,” she said, “would be if they kept entirely out of it all and recognized it for what it’s worth. But ah! — that’s it. You are young, appearances are deceptive; you don’t realize you are losing perspective and being absorbed until you are swallowed up. “Hollywood is a hot-bed of malice. It seethes and boils in envy. Never a good word is spoken of anyone unless for publicity or to gain some personal end. Sweet words of flattery have vinegar on their breath. Eyes of malevolence watch you and even as you turn you feel the tearing tongues of backbiters. People go places out of fear. Fear is on parade : fear of being forgotten if
you are not in the procession, fear of being talked about if you stay away and fear of the ravening critical eyes when you are present. “It’s a terrible place. Thank God I’m out of it all!” She spoke with mirthful detachment even of Hollywood, with an amused mockery that embraced herself.  “It’s like the war,” I said. “You can
laugh at it all when it’s over.””Exactly,” she said. “And particularly at your own ridiculous self, taking it so seriously.””And you will never return?””Well, hardly! I haven’t heard from anyone there and never expect to hear. …”The telephone rang an interruption.”Who is it?” she asked the assistant.”Some studio. … I don’t get the
name. …”Natacha was aghast. . . . “Can you beat that ! Speak of the devil and. . . .
You brought this on!”She went to the ‘phone. “Believe me or not,” said she, re-
turning. “They called to ask me where the ‘Beaucaire’ costumes are that I designed six years ago. Beat that! How in the world should I know where their costumes are?””You’ll have to go back, Natacha,” I said solemnly. “You’ll have to go back and find those costumes for them or they’ll add thief to your string of names.”But Natacha was reduced to muttering astonishment and didn’t heed me. “Now what on earth possessed them to call me . . . How did they know where I was . . . My heavens!”LAST year Natacha designed the sets and costumes for the American opera at the Champs Elysees theater in Paris. They received the marked attention of artists and critics. It was suggested that she should return to the cinema as an art director. “You were ahead of your time before,” they said.”Yes, I’m always ahead of my time and getting kicked out for it,” mused Natacha. “Never again! “No sir, I’m content sitting right here,” she said, glancing around her shop. “I am a business woman and I shall continue one until. …” A transient shadow passed over her eyes, a trifle weary, and I knew the vaulting spirit of Natacha had touched futility — “until I can go off to live in an adobe shack with some books, at the end of nowhere. …”She looked at me now, the amused expression she had maintained through the conversation faded out. “I am glad Rudie died when he did, while the world still adored him. The death of his popularity would have been a thousand deaths to him. Of course he might have gone on, but I’m afraid . . . Today we have realism in pictures and on the stage. Rudie belonged to the age of romance. He
brought it with him, it went with him. I think it was a climax he would have
wished. “I’m sure of it,” I said. He died still in that fabulous dream of romance such as few men on earth have had, so the tragedy of awakening was averted. And I believe the last words he would have spoken were those that wrung our hearts in “The Four Horsemen,” the words of Julio dying in a trench in France — “Je suis content.”

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