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.

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