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Rudolph Valentino – The ‘Latin Lover’ who Became America’s First Male Sex Symbol

Katie Vernon

Rudolph Valentino was a Hollywood actor during the 1920s who died at the age of 31. His status as perhaps the first mass market sex symbol and his premature death turned Valentino into a legend.

His funeral generated mass hysteria, with over 100,000 people crowding the streets of New York City. Many women fainted while some reportedly committed suicide.

The truth is, Valentino had only a few years to enjoy the life of fame and fortune. He spent most of his years broke, or with very little money, unsuccessful and struggling to rise as an actor.

Rudolph Valentino

Rudolph Valentino

Born in 1895, in Castellaneta, Italy, Valentino was a very charming, beautiful, and playful boy who frequently failed at school. In the end, he somehow managed to earn a certificate from the agricultural school in Genoa.

Then he tried his luck moving to Paris where he took dance lessons. However, it was hard for him to find a job — or to keep one — and he soon moved back to Italy, broke.

Rudolph Valentino as a boy

Rudolph Valentino as a boy

In 1913, at the age of 18, Valentino moved to the United States. His fortune didn’t change upon his arrival in New York; he soon ran out of money and was forced to spend some time on the streets of the Big Apple.

Unable to find stable employment and aspiring to become an actor, Valentino took on very obscure and often underpaid jobs to survive. His looks and talent for dancing often brought him jobs synonymous with a gigolo, according to many people.

Rudolph Valentino in Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual, 1918.

Rudolph Valentino in Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual, 1918.

Once he even worked as a taxi dancer: customers hired him to dance in taxi-dance halls, something which was very popular in America during the early 20th century.

His ambition to become an actor led him to Los Angeles where he tirelessly enrolled for auditions for screen roles. But his looks and accent were everything that wasn’t American, and as such, Valentino was often cast as a villain. He wasn’t happy with the roles he was picked for, even less with his success, and moved back to New York.

Rudolph Valentino

Rudolph Valentino

There, while staying with some friends in Greenwich Village, he met the French cinematographer Paul Ivano, and his life was suddenly turned around.

In 1920, Rudolph Valentino landed a role in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse which was released in 1921 and became the first film to make $1 million at the box office. To this day, it remains the sixth-highest grossing silent movie ever made.

Rudolph Valentino

Rudolph Valentino

He became known as the “Latin lover,” and women found him irresistible. He was an objectification of sensuality, sex, and even love — not only on screen but also in magazines. And while women adored him, men tended to be at least a little jealous of his status.

Dick Dorgan, a famous American cartoonist and writer in the early 20th century, once jokingly said in Photoplay: “I hate Valentino! All men hate Valentino…The men have formed a secret order to loathe, hate, and despise him for obvious reasons.”

Rudolph Valentino in the Blue Book of the Screen

Rudolph Valentino in the Blue Book of the Screen

Only five years into his life of fame, on August 15, 1926, Valentino collapsed at a hotel in NYC. He was hospitalized and taken for immediate surgery after suffering from inflammation of the appendix and gastric ulcers.

His condition didn’t improve after the surgery. Although he was conscious and chatted with the doctors, they realized that Valentino was dying. He passed away on August 23rd.

Grave of Rudolph Valentino.

Grave of Rudolph Valentino.

When the sad news reached the public, over 100,000 people took to the streets for the funeral service. Everyone crowded for their turn to lay eyes on Valentino’s body, displayed at Saint Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church.

There was a lot of dramatic hysteria, fainting, and smashing the church’s windows to reach inside. Valentino’s fiancé, Pola Negri, collapsed and there were several reports of women committing suicide because of his death.

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Over 100 police officers were deployed to restore order. There was a second funeral service on the West Coast, and Valentino was buried at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.