Monday, May 27, 2013

The Sheik by Edith Maude Hull

Being a big classic movie fan, I was curious to read this “shocking” 1920 bestseller that became a cultural phenomenon forever entwined with the life and legend of movie star Rudolph Valentino after he brought the title character to life on the silver screen. Because of this novel the word “sheik” made its way into the dictionary as slang for a masterful, dominating, forceful man women find themselves irresistibly drawn to. It led to stream of parodies and copycat movies, books, and plays, and even a brand of condoms. In movie theaters women swooned over Valentino as The Sheik and men laughed out loud and walked out. So here is a review of the book that began it all.

Beautiful Lady Diana Mayo is a fearless young heiress who lives sports and travel. She’s “the coldest little fish in the world” who doesn't even know what love means. Even though all the boys seem to fall for the blue-eyed reddish-blonde beauty, she just can’t understand it. She’s a complete stranger to affection and the expression of it. “When God made me He omitted to give me a heart,” she says. Perhaps it’s because of her upbringing? After her mother died of complications in childbirth, her father shot himself, leaving baby Diana in the custody of her nineteen year old brother, Sir Aubrey Mayo, who just doesn't know what to do with a girl, so raises her as a tomboy instead, to be a companion to him in his travels and hunting and fishing and camping trips around the world. Proud Diana is determined never bend her will to another’s, she sees marriage as a revolting idea, an end to independence, and thus not for her. She’s only interested in men as pals, or chums, to fish, hunt, and ride with, their lovemaking holds no appeal to her at all.

When the novel opens, Diana is poised to leave Biskra and embark on a scandalous month long tour of the desert, alone, without a chaperon, only a caravan full of Arab males and camels.  Her own brother calls her “a damned obstinate little devil” when she refuses to change her mind. But Diana obstinately refuses.

As Diana is riding across the desert, a white-robed Arab on a swift steed sweeps her out of the saddle and carries her away to his tent. “Lie still, you little fool!” he snarls to the outraged heiress as he easily overpowers her. For the first time in her life, Diana knows what it is like to be afraid.

In his tent, the cruelest and handsomest man she has ever seen looks at her in a way that seems to burn her clothes away and then introduces himself as Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan. The imperious beauty demands to know why he has brought her here. “Are you not woman enough to know?” he retorts before he proceeds to rape her. This is not graphically depicted, like an old movie fading to black, Diana awakes from her ordeal in the Sheik’s luxurious bed, in a tent that commingles oriental splendor with elegant French décor, castigating herself for her tears and cowardice, for begging to be spared, instead of stoically and silently enduring the assault. The tomboy has at last become a woman, “born with tears and agony last night.”

For months, Diana remains a captive in the Sheik’s tent, being attended by his French valet, an Arab maid, and being permitted daily rides on the fine horses her abductor breeds, awakening to the true inferiority of her sex and at the same time realizing that it is futile to resist this cultured barbarian who refuses to let her go until she begins to bore him. He reminds her of a tiger she shot in India the previous winter, “a graceful, cruel, merciless beast” she both feared and admired.

One day she decides to attempt an escape during one of her daily, chaperoned rides. She gallops madly across the desert, ignoring all the portents of death along the way, like the whitened bones of camels and vultures circling overhead, until she spies riders in the distance. She’s hoping for a friendly caravan that will take pity on her and guide her back to polite society, but, as luck would have it, it’s the Sheik.  When she resists him, he shoots the horse, his own prized mount, Silver Star, out from under her and sweeps her onto the saddle in front of him. As they ride back to his tent by moonlight, Diana experiences an epiphany. Leaning bqack against the Sheik’s powerful, strong chest, she realizes that she loves him. Yes, she really and truly loves him and life would be meaningless and not worth living without him.  She’s “deliriously, insanely happy!” For the first time in her life she knows what love is, and the intensity and immensity of it truly frightens her.  Now there’s only one thing she wants, and without it her life will never be complete—she wants him to love her, really love her, not just want her body for lustful purposes.

Now Diana has something new to fear—that the Sheik will get bored with her and send her away from his splendid, barbaric presence, so she forces herself to go on feigning indifference, pretending to hate him. But something’s got to give. When Diana is captured by a rival sheik during one of her daily rides Ahmed Ben Hassan discovers he loves his pretty English plaything and risks his life to save her.


His brush with death makes him realize that he can’t keep Diana in the desert with him, and the right, the noble, honorable thing to do is to send her back to civilization. Because he loves her so much, he is willing to make this sacrifice. Now her worst fear really has come true! So naturally Diana tries to shoot herself. But she doesn't succeed, instead they get married and live happily ever after in the desert. The End…until the sequel that is, Sons of the Sheik, which I haven’t read and I’m not sure I want to.

I recommend reading this only as a curio of the past, to see what constituted a shocking, scandalous bestseller in 1920. The modern reader must keep in mind the era and common beliefs of the time and audience it was written for, otherwise they may find its racist and sexist attitudes offensive. The perceived British superiority over other races is very much in evidence, as is the belief that all women should be tamed and domesticated and devoted to serving the men in their lives. Famed grand dame of romance Barbara Cartland said when recollecting the phenomena of The Sheik which she first read and saw on the screen when she was nineteen or twenty. “We all saw ourselves in the role of Diana Mayo," Cartland recalled, "we all longed to be abducted into the desert and to be forced by sheer violence into obedience by an all-conquering male.” However, it's good to know that some women have taken an opposite view and strenuously objected to its depiction of such a strong-willed, independent woman being tamed and subdued by a man who repeatedly rapes her and then falling head over heels in love with him.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Original Million Dollar Mermaid The Annette Kellerman Story by Emily Gibson and Barbara Firth

In the early 20th century a young Australian woman named Annette Kellerman became one of the world’s biggest stars in vaudeville and the movies. Years later in 1952 her life story would inspire a splashy Technicolor movie starring then swimming star Esther Williams as “The Million Dollar Mermaid.”

The story begins with a little girl with her skinny legs in iron braces, suffering from rickets. She took up swimming to strength her legs and soon the braces were off and she was beating the boys and breaking records. She loved every moment of it.

After her family fell on hard times, she and her father traveled to England where she began giving exhibition dives in a one piece, modernized bathing suit of her own design. Remember, this was back when women still went into the water wearing full skirts, bloomers, bathing caps, and even lace-up shoes. Her attempts to swim the English Channel made news around the world. And she was soon appearing nightly in a huge glass tank starring in her own water ballets in such elite theaters as The Hippodrome and The Palladium. And giving lectures about her healthy lifestyle—no alcohol, cigarettes, or red meat—and beauty and exercise tips to eager women.

Then Hollywood beckoned. In 1916 Annette became the first major Hollywood star to appear nude in a film, the sadly lost “Daughter of the Gods,” a big budget fairy tale romance about mermaids and mortals and eternal love. It was a million dollar hit, thus earning Annette the sobriquet “Million Dollar Mermaid.” During the production of “Neptune’s Daughter,” another mythical ocean romance, Annette suffered a spinal cord injury when the glass tank she was swimming in cracked. Doctors said she would never walk again, but she defied them, and not only walked, but swam, and even danced again, and went on to make more movies.

But the public is fickle and fame of this kind seldom lasts long after the novelty wears off and the curious are satisfied  There’s only so much you can do with swimming. And Annette was soon back to taking whatever work she could get during the dying days of vaudeville, where the enormous cost of staging a water ballet in a glass tank proved increasingly prohibitive. During World War II she was very active working for the Red Cross to raise money and entertain the troops, but she poured so much of her own money into this lavish water shows that it’s really no wonder she ended up broke. She also opened her own health food store but that failed to prosper and in 1952. miffed that she would not be allowed to portray herself on screen, she returned to Hollywood to act as adviser on the movie of her life.

As Orson Welles once famously said, “if you want a happy ending it depends on where you end your story.” While the movie’s version of Annette’s life ends happily in the arms of the man she loves, the real Annette Kellerman died practically penniless in 1975 at the age of 89 in Queensland, she even had to sell an old fur coat to try to make ends meet. But she did in fact enjoy lifelong personal happiness. In 1912 she married her manager, Jimmie Sullivan, and had the happy marriage every woman dreams of, which only ended with his death in 1972, after which Annette’s own splendid health began to deteriorate.

If you've ever seen the Esther William’s movie “Million Dollar Mermaid,” and wondered how much truth was in this supposedly true story about the world’s first swimming superstar, this book is a great way to find out.

You can see several of Annette's theatrical and film costumes, including this mermaid tail, at

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Light In the Piazza by Elizabeth Spencer

This novella inspired one of my favorite classic movies, which is Finally! available on dvd.

Margaret Johnson and her daughter Clara appear to be just the typical American tourists visiting Italy in the 1950s. But appearances are often deceiving. Though temperamentally sweet and physically beautiful, Clara is in fact the mental equivalent of a child of ten. Certainly the handsome young Italian man, Fabrizzio Naccarelli they meet can’t tell that anything is amiss.

Smitten with Clara, he contrives to meet her on the daily mother-daughter sightseeing excursions. He and Clara have an instant rapport that transcends the awkward language barrier.

Of course Mrs. Johnson is worried. In the past she has often had to take young men aside and gently explain the problem with Clara. But with Fabrizzio she keeps putting it off. After all, this is only a vacation, they will be returning to America soon, so why not, just once, let her enjoy the dream of romance, even if it is just a fairy tale that, though it will not end happily ever after, will end, and soon.

But the more time passes, and the more she observes the interaction and attraction between Clara and Fabrizzio, Mrs. Johnson begins to see things differently. Fabrizzio likes, loves, and accepts Clara for who she is, he doesn’t see any problem, and in his simple Italian world Clara’s beauty and innocence are much admired. Clara could make a happy life here with Fabrizzio and his family and her mother becomes determined to give her the chance.

If you’ve seen the movie, I think you’ll enjoy the story that inspired it, and if you haven’t seen it but decide to read the book first make sure you treat yourself to a viewing as soon as you can afterwards, it’s a real treat.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Madam Valentino The Many Lives of Natacha Rambova by Michael Morris

The second wife of Rudolph Valentino, the great Latin lover of the silent screen, has always been a controversial figure. Some see their stormy marriage as Pygmalion and Galatea in reverse—she created him, but whatever the truth is about that, Natacha Rambova created herself first.

Born a millionaire’s daughter in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1897 Winifred Shaughnessy (later Hudnut when her mother’s third husband, cosmetics magnate Richard Hudnut legally adopted her) led an eccentric and colorful life right from the start. When her parents divorced and her mother remarried Edgar de Wolfe, the brother of the flamboyant lesbian interior decorator, she went to live with her aunt in Paris. She grew up fascinated by myths and legends and fell in love with costumes and dancing, and later a ballet dancer, Theodore Kosloff, when she joined his dancing school. At seventeen he took her virginity. When he went to Hollywood, to work for Cecil B. DeMille and took Natacha Rambova, as she now styled herself, along, and tried to take credit for her costume designs, Natacha decided to leave. He shot her in the leg as she was walking towards the taxi, thus ending her dancing career. Luckily the outré Russian star, Alla Nazimova, was there to pick up the pieces. When she brought Oscar Wilde’s Salome to the silver screen it was protégée Natacha Rambova, who designed the Aubrey Beardsley inspired costumes and sets.

Even amidst all the Hollywood beauties, Natacha, tall and slender, with her hair worn in braids, and her body draped in exotic robes or elegant Parisian silks and jewels, drew every eye. It was inevitable that Hollywood’s newest star would look her way. Natacha met Rudolph Valentino in 1920 when Madame Nazimova chose him to play Armand in her modern art deco interpretation of Camille. Valentino’s career was just taking off after his smoldering tango in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. As the couple embarked on a whirlwind romance, Natacha began to shape the Valentino image, combining her eccentric flair for costume design with public relations and artistic photos. They would later marry prematurely, in Mexico before Valentino’s divorce from his first wife was legal, and there would be a bigamy scandal providing fodder for the newspapers, but the couple married again, legally, as soon as they were able.

Many saw her influence on Valentino as meddling, interfering, and detrimental, and this is still debated to this day. She was often vilified in the press. Much was made of the platinum slave bracelet she gave him, which he wore faithfully until his death. Some felt her tastes were just too highbrow for popular audiences and the public did not respond as well to the Latin lover, who’s fame was cemented with his portrayal of “The Sheik,” when he was costumed as an eighteenth century fob in pink brocade and powered wigs in the period extravaganzas that Natacha preferred; modern films bored her to tears. Other believed that by handing over his business affairs to his wife, and making her the villain in negotiations, Valentino revealed himself to be a naïve and childlike man. Whatever the truth of the matter, when Valentino signed a new contract in 1924 part of the deal was that Natacha have nothing to do with his films and was barred from the sets.

The marriage crumbled and they eventually divorced. After Valentino’s death in 1926, which hit Natacha hard, she went on to wear many hats—actress, eyewitness to the Spanish Civil War, a spiritualist who conducted séances, automatic writing, and taught the teachings of Madame Blavatsky, fashion designer, and an Egyptologist specializing in the study of comparative religions and symbolism.

Her second husband, Alvaro de Urzaiz, bore a strong resemblance to Valentino. They were living in Mallorca, buying and renovating houses for tourists, when the Spanish Civil War broke out. Even when the bombs fell and foreigners evacuated, Natacha stayed, snapping some photos that poignantly record the devastation. In 1936 she fled to her mother’s chateau in France with her white Pekingese dog in her arms.

Her health buckled under the strain and though she was not yet forty she suffered a heart attack. The end of the war coincided with the end of her marriage. Alvaro wanted children, which Natacha did not, and had fallen in love with another woman.

Natacha chopped off her long braids and renounced her exotic garb for suits of simple tweed and dedicated herself to the study of the world’s religions and symbolism.  She also made a serious study of the zodiac and wrote many articles on a variety of occult and mystical subjects.  She taught classes in her apartment on symbolism, mythology, and comparative religion. On her fiftieth birthday she moved to Egypt to begin a study of ancient religious symbolism. “magic is in the very soil of Egypt,” she said. For several years she was engaged on a project to record tomb inscriptions. She returned to the USA in time for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Valentino’s death and to threaten to sue if she was portrayed in a planned movie about his life.

At the age of fifty-six she was diagnosed with an incurable disease called scleroderma, a degenerative disease that attacks the esophagus, causing it to grow fibrous and hard and make swallowing and digesting progressively difficult. Despite her decline, Natacha retained a positive attitude; she was at peace with herself. She died in 1966, some sources make a point of saying she suffered paranoid delusions and had to undergo hospitalization and shock treatment, however these were some of the sad effects of the malnutrition and weight loss caused by the scleroderma.

Whatever one’s personal opinion about her marriage and influence upon Rudolph Valentino, Natacha Rambova was undoubtedly an intelligent and remarkable woman and a talented designer. Below are some photographs of her costume designs.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Dark Lover The Life And Death Of Rudolph Valentino by Emily W. Leider

"Dark Lover" is a wonderful biography of legendary silent screen star Rudolph Valentino, still best remembered today for his role as "The Sheik," his untimely death in 1926 at age 31, and the mysterious "Lady in Black" who still visits his tomb. He was the first and most famous of the movies' "Latin Lovers;" previously all the romantic leading men had been clean-cut American types like Wallace Reid and Italians and other ethnic or Latin types cast as villains, that is until Valentino danced the tango in "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse."  Then, as the old saying goes, a star was born. Valentino made the women in the audience swoon and their male escorts' blood boil.

Valentino had a fascinating life even before he sought fame and fortune in 1920s Hollywood--he was rumored to be a gigolo and was a popular "Taxi Dancer," a man rich society women paid to dance with them, and was famous for his graceful and sensual tango. His whole life was fraught with controversy, including persistent rumors of homosexuality. To this day the truth about his sexuality and marriages and relationships with strong and eccentric women of questionable sexuality (Jean Acker, Natacha Rambova, Pola Negri--all reputed or known lesbians) remain the subject of much heated debate. Rumors even surround his sudden and unexpected death, including the suspicion of murder. And the public displays of grief that followed his demise, including riots outside the funeral parlor where crowds actually broke the plate glass windows in a rush to get in to view his corpse as their idol lay in state, and suicides by grieving female fans, are still the stuff of legends.

This is how a biography should be written. I love this author's style, this biography is not written to be sensational like many celebrity biographies, or to make shocking, scandalous, or unverifiable statements and revelations, which is sadly often the case with books about deceased celebrities no longer able to defend themselves. If something is unknown about the subject, Ms. Leider comes right out and says so, if there is speculation or differing viewpoints about an issue, she makes that clear and gives the evidence both for and against. As a classic movie fan, I hope she will write more biographies like this one.

See Valentino in his most famous film "The Sheik" and its sequel "Son of The Sheik"