Chaos at the Funeral Church: The Death of Rudolph Valentino

Rudolph ValentinoHollywood actor Rudolph Valentino died of a perforated ulcer on August 23rd, 1926, at the age of thirty-one. “By the morning of August 24th, hundreds of fans began to line up outside on Broadway, where a carnival-like atmosphere very quickly spread among the throngs waiting for the doors to open at 6:00 P.M. so they could have their last glimpse of the Great Lover (Gary Laderman, Rest in Peace: a Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth Century America).”

The hysteria surrounding Valentino’s funeral demonstrated a deep desire in the American people at the time to have a continued relationship with the dead. Americans at the time were quite engaged in the reality of death because of the funeral home’s rise to prominence and the social presence of and community interaction with the funeral director, as well as many news articles about the economics of the funeral business.

Americans were obsessed with death and attached to the dead. Rudolph Valentino was arguably the first Hollywood screen legend, largely a silent film actor, having starred in such films as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and Blood and Sand (1922). He was one of the most famous and popular entertainment figures in the world; millions adored him and sought access to his private life as well, thus he was an early target for tabloids. When he died, people wanted access to his death.

Frank E. Campbell’s Funeral Church, one of the best known establishments in New York City, handled the funeral. Grieving fans had little in common with each other but participation in a rather new American phenomenon: celebrity worship. Many aspects of the observation of Valentino’s death were spectacular: there were riots at the public viewing at which hundreds were injured, Fascist Black Shirts served as the honor guard at Campbell’s, altered photographs of Valentino while ill and after his death were published in tabloids, the embalmed body journeyed by train to Hollywood, where it was finally entombed in a Hollywood mausoleum. These were events which helped create the Valentino legend.

Screenwriter and novelist Irving Shulman wrote a biography entitled Valentino in 1967. The first section of the book is about Valentino’s funeral; he specifically begins with the energetic work of funeral director Campbell on Valentino’s dead body. This perpetuation of the morbid fascination is probably owing in part to the heightened, ironic awareness of funeral homes in the post-Mitford (The American Way of Death) 1960s.

Laderman goes on to paraphrase Shulman’s account of the activities at Campbell’s on August 24th, 1926, the activities of journalists, and, further afield, of studio executives looking to profit from two unreleased Valentino films. The crowd at the funeral home had the spirit of a mob; some wouldn’t go home; the people were obsessed. This popular attachment to the embalmed body as long as it was accessible was a powerful phenomenon which demonstrated the grip the dead had at that historical moment on the American imagination.

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