Rudolph Valentino - A Barbary Coast Tale

Rudolph Valentino arrives in San Francisco in May 1922

Rudolph Valentino's time in San Francisco has not been thoroughly documented.  I have an interest in Valentino and in my local history, obviously.  So here I am trying to tie up a few threads and recount a tale by one of Valentino's good friends, cinematographer Paul Ivano.

Valentino first came to San Francisco after leaving the touring company of The Masked Model in Utah.   The Masked Model played at The Cort Theater, but, Valentino (or Mons. Rudolph as he was billed) was not named in the cast in the reviews in from San Francisco newspapers, unlike the earlier cities on the tour. Why Valentino decided to leave the show and travel to San Francisco without a job or good prospects is not known.  Was he fired?  Was he tired of the grind of the show?  We may never know the precise answer.

The Cort Theater, San Francisco circa 1915

 We know he arrived in San Francisco in May of 1917.  He registered as an alien with regard to the draft On June 1, 1917.  He lived in our fair city for a few months before entraining to Hollywood, fame and fortune. 

Valentino was outgoing, personable and made friends easily.  He also was forced to ply his trade teaching or dancing at various clubs in the city like Tait's near Union Square (convenient to his apartment at 776 Bush Street) and also Tait's at the Beach.  He was befriended by Mrs. Douglas Crane who ran the Cliff House and was soon also employed there.  Valentino rubbed elbows with the upper class at the big hotels such as the Palace Hotel, the St. Francis and the Julia Morgan restored of Fairmont on top of Nob Hill.  His best connection was with Lillian Spreckels, wife of the 'Sugar King" Jack Sprecekls.

Tait's at the Beach circa 1910

It was through Jack Spreckels Valentino met with the founder of the Bank of Italy, A.P. Giannini who offered advice to Valentino to keep dancing, save his money and buy land of his own to farm, if that was his desire.  Valentino did not take this advice, but, he remained friends with Giannini for the rest of his life.  The Spreckels further introduced Valentino to the manager of Sargent and Company. Valentino applied for a job and trained to become a bond salesman.  Valentino later claimed he was an abject failure in this venture.  In letters to his Mother, he showed was able to not only send money to her, but also he could afford to buy a car.  He proudly sent photos of himself posing behind the wheel.  Like so many who had to help support their family back home, Valentino held more than one job, he worked his salesman job by day, and he danced in the cafes by night. 

Hobart Building, home of Sargent and Company.

With the sale of Liberty Bonds the moral priority to fund the war, it robbed whatever success Valentino may have had selling standard bonds.  He danced and met up with Norman Kerry who enticed him to try his luck by traveling to Los Angeles and aim for work in films.  Film work was not entirely new to Valentino, having appeared in a few bits while still in New York in 1916.  He pulled up stakes and made his way south to new adventures and stardom.  Stardom brings us to the next part of the story, Valentino meeting Paul Ivano who would remain his friend for the rest of his life. 

Paul Ivano first met Valentino in 1919 in Palm Springs.  Valentino was the guest of his friend Helen Troubetsky during an impromptu trip to the desert.  Upon reflection, they both thought it would not be seemly for Valentino to share her rooms given she was married.  She knew Ivano and approached him to see if he could put Valentino up for the weekend.  He did and a fierce friendship was formed. Ivano loved the desert and made it a point over the weekend to help Valentino foster the same passion for the hot open spaces, in this he succeeded.

Paul Ivano circa 1920

Ivano and Valentino were soon working together on The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Valentino starring and Ivano as a technical consultant to Rex Ingram.  The pair moved in together to save some money.  With Valentino money was ever in short supply.  Ivano recalled they would spend weekends quietly, Rudy would work on his Fiat and they would also go to the pier in Santa Monica to swim and exercise with the oversized medicine ball.  Valentino loved to show off his physical strength with his pals George O'Brien and Reginald Denny. Ivano related he demurred from this physical activity and preferred being a spectator.  He indicated that Valentino was not only competitive, he was a bit of a show off.

The pair were soon working and playing on Camille. Play meant Ivano was involved in a flirtation with the star Alla Nazimova while Valentino hotly pursued designer Natacha Rambova. The affair with Nazimova did not last for Ivano, Valentino and Natacha did.  Valentino moved in to Natacha's snug bungalow and when money continued to be tight, Ivano moved in as well.  He famously related the tale of the little trio selling photos of Valentino to fans for 25 cents (equivalent to $4 in 2018).  This money bought them groceries in lean times. 

Candid photo of Agnes Ayres and Valentino during
filming of The Sheik.

Ivano also moved with Valentino to Famous Players-Lasky and worked on his first film The Sheik.  After The Sheik, Valentino immediately went into production filming Moran of the Lady Letty. Filming took place in San Francisco in October 1921, the merry band from the studio included Paul Ivano as still photographer and uncredited assistant second unit cameraman. Ivano also took many candid photos during the production which survive. 

Walter Long, Dorothy Dalton and Valentino in between scenes during filming Moran of the Lady Letty.
Valentino and Ivano stayed at the Fairmont Hotel (a few blocks north of Valentino's old apartment on Bush Street) on Nob Hill, for two reasons.  The first being the Roscoe Arbuckle/Virginia Rappe scandal over the previous Labor Day weekend made the St. Francis Hotel undesirable territory.  The second was that Mr. and Mrs. Richard Hudnut were staying in their Nob Hill apartment at 1046 California Street.  The added lure for Valentino was Natacha Rambova who was staying at 1046 California Street, too.

Late in life Ivano left a manuscript of sorts, his unpublished memories of his friendship with Valentino.  It is clear in reading them today, this is a transcript of a recorded interview.  The story below originates from this unpublished document.

Purcell's So Different Café can be seen between The Hippodrome
and The Bear on Pacific Street along the Barbary Coast. This image is circa 1910.
(SF Traditional Jazz Foundation)

After Natacha left San Francisco, Rudy was afraid to be seen again with Aileen Pringle*, even if I was present, and tried to be on his best behavior. This lasted about a week, and all of a sudden one night after twelve o’clock - we had just gone to bed. or had been in bed about an hour, he came into my room and said: "It's a shame to be in San Francisco and miss all the fun on account of what Natacha will say and think. On the Barbary Coast I know a little place where I used to dance a few years ago called Purcell’s, run by Lew Purcell." ** It was sort of a night club which had nothing but colored entertainers who sang obscene songs (songs with a double meaning with great variety of verses).

We were in evening clothes and as soon as we entered the joint two very good looking girls, looking like Josephine Baker and Florence Mills, came and sat at our table. Funnily enough, one of them spoke Russian. She had been in Petrograd a few years before. I saw Rudy getting very interested in one of the girls to my great horror and after dancing a couple of times with her they vanished. Later on he admitted to me that even though she had a very nice body they just sat around and talked. I never found out. Even if I did need a change of luck I continued my Russian conversation in the main dance hall.

Another view of Purcell's circa 1920's

The real Florence Mills circa 1923.
(Image source Wikipedia)
Like so many tales of Valentino, a good many of Ivano's recollections should be taken with a grain of salt.  He did place himself to be the man on the spot nearly all the time anything exciting happened. Ivano had the benefit of outliving practically anyone who actually knew Valentino.  Nearly all their mutual friends had long since passed away and almost none left any memoirs.  This story does have the ring of truth since it is well established that Valentino did enjoy social life and he did love social dancing (though not always earning his living by dancing). 

Ivano throughout his recollections never failed to allude to Valentino's earthier side.  Valentino was a prodigious flirt, so this does not surprise me that he was a flirt on the dance floor with one of the working girls.  Particularly believable if the girl in question bore any real resemblance to Florence Mills who was quite a looker!  Valentino certainly had a bawdy side, he adored the "Last of the Red Hot Mamas" Sophie Tucker among other vaudeville performers. Without a corroborating witnesss, we will have to take Ivano at face value here.  It is a delightful insight into Valentino, a young man, excited for life and wanting to not miss a thing.  Perhaps it is true that Valentino knew he was not long for this life.  He embraced it and packed an awful lot in his short 31 years.

Ivano later in life during a filmed interview
conducted by Kevin Brownlow.

Valentino returned to San Francisco in 1922 a few times and again in 1926 to promote his last film The Son of the Sheik.  Those are other stories for another time.

Ivano had a long career behind the camera and worked with luminaries including Josef von Sternberg, Frank Borzage, King Vidor and Erich von Stroheim.  He worked steadily in the silent era, the transition to sound films and on into television.  Ivano died in 1984 and left no survivors to my knowledge. It is unclear whether or not his wife predeceased him.

*What was the relationship or involvement with Aileen Pringle that Ivano cryptically alludes to here? she worked with Valentino in Stolen Moments in 1920.  Pringle was a native of San Francisco and could well have been visiting the city at this time.  I will go out on a limb and suggest they met socially and this could have resulted in problems with Natacha if it made the papers. 
**Ivano used an unpleasant racial slur in his interview/manuscript.  I substituted Purcell's proper name.


Gary Meyer said…
The first year I ran the Balboa in San Francisco we celebrated the theater's birthday on the actual opening day, February 27 when the headlines in the day's papers proclaimed “Valentino In Car Crash!” Driving back from San Francisco to Los Angeles, his driver ran off the road, putting the star in a Santa Barbara hospital.

We were recreating that night as if it were in 1926 and played it in present tense. I had a reproduction of the Examiner front page with the accident news as the major headline. I showed it to the audience before our vaudeville show and claimed we were in touch with Valentino's associates. "He is resting in the hospital and if we get more news tonight we will let you know."

Before showing SON OF THE SHEIK I was able to tell the audience that Rudolph would be released the next day to go home. He died suddenly later that year in New York at just 31 years old, suffering from a ruptured ulcer.

My copy of that February 27th newspaper is too large to scan but here is a smaller NY Times version.

A few years later we showed his MORAN OF THE LADY LETTY filmed in SF with authors Donna Hill and Emily Leider talking about Valentino.
Gloria said…
Apparently, though, he never went to a hospital as the paper reports he went back to LA via bus 2 hours later! Previously, ee had another speeding incident while filming The Eagle, showing up in court in costume!

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