The Circus of Death

Crowds lined up to view Valentino's body

The recent and very sudden death of the pop icon Michael Jackson gave me pause to reflect on interesting parallels between two events 80 years apart: the uncanny similarity to the "Circus of Death" that accompanied the untimely passing of silent screen idol Rudolph Valentino.

Valentino was touring across country in the summer of 1926 to promote his new film, The Son of the Sheik. He fell ill on August 15th and on August 23, 1926, 12:10 pm; Rudolph Valentino died suddenly after a brief illness. A fuller account of Valentino's final journey can be read here.

Jackson was on the verge of a comeback tour, much as The Son of the Sheik was a comeback film for Valentino.

Technology in 1926 was nothing like the instantaneous news outlets such as the internet of the 21st century. The progression of Valentino's illness and death were reported on the street outside the hospital in numerous editions daily with up to the minute updates. Screaming headlines and shouting newsboys!
Today, the news is posted second by second on Twitter or Facebook and fed to CNN and other cable news sources. The headlines still scream in a variety of neon colored text and accompanied by cell phone photos and video from the i-reporters. The coverage and saturation is unceasing.

Both Valentino and Michael Jackson were icons in their respective fields. Valentino’s image was that of a “love god” an object of fantasy to women. His personal life was something mysterious as the on-screen image shrouded the real man. Valentino was misunderstood in his time at the height of his fame. The fans could not separate the image on screen from the person. Like Jackson, his personal image also suffered from scurrilous personal attacks in the news.
Jackson as "The King of Pop" also lived a life that was shrouded in mystery and speculation. He was also much misunderstood. Now that Jackson has passed, like Valentino, his friends have come forward to defend him, to reveal some personal anecdotes that shed light on the man behind the mask.

Valentino loved children and had a great desire to have a brood of children to raise and romp and play with. Valentino did not live to have this desire granted. Valentino doted on his nephew, the children of his business manager and the children of friends and co-workers. Jackson similarly loved children and worked tirelessly for charities on the behalf of the underprivileged. He was raising three children at the time of his passing.

Valentino died with his estate in a shambles. He overspent on antiques, pets and a lifestyle sometimes beyond his means. He was generous to friends and was a spendthrift not investing in tomorrow. Money flowed through his hands like water or grains of sand. Valentino’s estate sold many of his earthly possessions at a very public auction, many items he paid great sums for sold for a pittance. The crowds hoping for a souvenir of the great lover crowded the preview and the auction.

Jackson certainly had much more business acumen than Valentino. That said, his estate is also apparently in a shambles, deeply in debt to the (reported) tune of half a billion dollars. Jackson reportedly has some very valuable assets. The contents of his Neverland Ranch were to be sold at auction earlier in 2009. That auction was stopped, but one would suspect that now with Jackson’s demise, the items will again be offered to the highest bidder to pay down the estate debt.

Valentino’s family and his business manager, S. George Ullman, fought a lengthy battle over Valentino’s estate from late 1926 until it was finally settled in 1948, twenty-two years later. One hardly thinks that there would have been anything left for either side to squabble over. It was a no win situation.

Jackson’s family is already making legal plays to take care of business of the estate prior to the entry of a will and before the body has been buried. Given the shape of the estate and the future of Jackson’s children, this may prove to be a twenty year battle, as well. Only time will tell.

At the time of Valentino’s passing in New York, his body was transferred to Campbell’s Funeral Parlor for embalming and it was decided with the massive crowds there would be a public viewing. Reportedly 100,000 people lines the streets of Manhattan to get a chance to pay their final respects or to satisfy curiosity. The crowds turned ugly and there was some disturbance and rioting. Valentino would have been horrified. A harrowing chronicle of Valentino’s passing and the circus of death aftermath can be found in Irving Shulman’s 1967 book, Valentino.

Valentino’s body was shipped across country for burial in Hollywood. This was a journey Valentino’s brother Alberto found to be very moving as he witnessed so many personal and sincere examples of grief for the loss of his brother. Valentino was interred in Hollywood, in a borrowed crypt awaiting a proper shrine to be built. The elaborate memorial tomb was never constructed and Valentino lies next to his great benefactor, June Mathis in a humble crypt.

Jackson, likewise is about to have a very public viewing. His body is to be transported to his famed Neverland Ranch in Santa Barbara where friends and fans will be allowed to pay their respects. In New York the Apollo Theater is having a memorial in his honor. There is no word on what kind of memorial will be constructed to honor Jackson and his legacy. Will Neverland Ranch become a Graceland West and shrine? It is too soon to tell.

Valentino was not the first shockingly unexpected celebrity death nor will Jackson be the last. The only thing that has not changed is that when a celebrity dies unexpectedly, it is a circus of death and the public eats it up.


Tracy said…
Very astute article and sadly, it's true.
Unknown said…
Exactly what Tracy said.
Raquel Stecher said…
This is such an amazing post! Thank you so much for it. It's so interesting to compare Rudolph Valentino's life and death and how it was handled back in the 20s, to Michael Jackson now. Splendid idea!
Joan said…
Donna, excellent post and quite an apt comparison. The more things change the more they stay the same, eh?
rudyfan1926 said…
Thank you for your comments, it certainly has been a strange week or so for the multiple celebrity deaths.

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