by Paul R. Spitzzeri
One of the themes explored at our upcoming Ticket to the Twenties festival on October 1 & 2 is popular culture and its obsessions with celebrity deaths. In the 1920s, there were probably few examples more notable than that of the passing of film heartthrob Rudolph Valentino in New York on 23 August 1926 in New York.
The actor, who catapulted to fame as a dashing, exotic sex symbol in films like The Sheik, Four Horsemen of the Apoocalypse, Blood and Sand, and The Son of the Sheik, the latter having its New York premiere just several weeks before Valentino’s sudden death of pleuritis, a lung condition. He was just 31 years old.
The reaction to the beloved star’s passing was enormous and emotional. At his 30 August funeral in New York, an estimated 100,000 people lined the streets. It was reported that mobs straining to glimpse the coffin got violent and rioted, that women fainted and tore at their clothes, and there were rumors of despondent fans committing suicide. Actress Pola Negri, who claimed to be Valentino’s fiancee (which was disputed), cried hysterically over his casket in a very public demonstration.
A second funeral was planned for 7 September in Hollywood and Valentino’s remains were transported by train across the country, where due publicity followed. To avoid problems like those that occurred in New York, it was decided to stop the train on the outskirts of Los Angeles, transfer the casket to a hearse, and take the remains to an undertaker until the funeral was held. Valentino, who had made no arrangements for the disposition of his body, was buried in the mausoleum at what is now Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
In the Homestead’s collection is a photograph taken by Los Angeles-based Fred Masters and used as a press photo by the Newspaper Enterprise Association (now Corbis), showing Valentino’s body being loaded onto the hearse at a small station along the Southern Pacific Railroad line in El Sereno, a neighborhood in the northeast section of Los Angeles.
The crowd of onlookers appears to have been in the several hundreds, while many thousands were reported to have been waiting at the railroad depot in downtown. Although Valentino set many a female’s heart a-flutter in his films, the image shows that there were quite a few curious gents checking out the scene. There were even some children, though a couple of barefoot youngsters in overalls at the bottom center are more interested in being photographed than in what they really couldn’t see anyway!
Camera and film crews are to the right recording the event and a bit of the railroad track is towards the upper right. Valley Boulevard, which then had the unwieldy name of Pasa-Hambra Boulevard (can you figure out why?), runs through the sparsely populated area. There is an arrow-shaped sign partially visible at the left that appears to read “MOUNTAIN HIGHWAY” and has the names of Pasadena, South Pasadena, and Alhambra on it.
Masters’ photo captures the allure and (morbid) curiosity found in popular culture with celebrities, though twenty years before there were no film stars to obsess over–so that was a fairly recent innovation, if it can be called that. The fascination with celebrity deaths obviously is much the same today.
For a Smithsonian magazine article on Valentino, including his death and funerals, click here.
Finally, come to Ticket to the Twenties on Saturday the 1st and hear Karie Bible give a presentation about celebrity deaths during the 1920s.