Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguolla wasn't destined to have his name in lights. First off, his name was way too long. Secondly, his family had other plans. Born to a bourgeois Italian family in 1895, he was shipped off to the Royal Naval Academy when he came of age. Luckily for flapper-kind, his poor eyesight disqualified him from service—so he placated his mother by earning a degree from the Royal Academy of Agriculture. But America's heartthrob-in-waiting wasn't too keen on his agrarian calling. In 1913, the 18-year-old packed a suitcase full of Brilliantine and boarded a ship to Ellis Island.
He lived on the streets and in Central Park until he picked up work as a taxi dancer at Maxim’s Restaurant-Caberet, becoming a “tango pirate” and spending time on the dance floor with wealthy women who were willing to pay for the company of exotic young men. Known as the “Latin Lover,” Rudolph Valentino would, by summer’s end, single-handedly change the way generations of men and women thought about sex and seduction.
How does one become a "tango pirate"? We haven't the faintest. But it clearly worked out for Valentino. A few scandal-filled months later—he headed West. It didn't take long for him to break into the motion picture biz once he got there:
"Rudolph tangoed for free every Thursday at the Hollywood Hotel tea dance, and found busboy work in the elegant Alexandria Hotel where he befriended his handsome 17-year-old co-worker, future star Ramon Novarro, with whom it was often rumoured he had an affair."
Stardom comes easily to tango pirates. After a few months of shimmying and busboying, he landed a bit part in Alimony—a 1917 American silent drama film starring Lois Wilson. Other roles soon followed. By 1921, the sultry Italian émigré had changed his name to Rudolph Valentino and graduated to headliner status. His killer dance moves and dark good looks transfixed the nation in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which became one of the highest-grossing films of the silent era.
Rudolph Valentino invented the Edward Cullen stare. So it's hardly surprising that he generated Pattinson-esque levels of female mass hysteria. Douglas Fairbanks certainly had his charms, but white-bread America was wholly unprepared for Valentino's “Roman face" and “patent leather hair." Valentino didn't shy away from playing to type: His turn as the impassioned Ahmed Ben Hassan in the 1921 film The Sheik cemented his status as the “Latin Lover" of the Jazz Age. The ladies didn't know what hit 'em. Neither did the men: "The tango was danced throughout the nation as men tried to capture Valentino's rhythm, and copied his black hair slicked down with 'Brilliantine.'"
The Sheik commands his new captive to obey him
On August 23, 1926, Valentino died from an infection caused by a burst appendix. He was 31 years old. His sudden death sent the bobbed masses into an apocalyptic frenzy of grief and everyone lost their collective minds. Tens of thousands of people (read: rabid female fans) lined up to pay tribute at his open coffin in New York City. When the church reached capacity, 100,000 additional mourners lined up outside. When his distraught fans realized they couldn't get in, they started smashing the church windows. The August 25, 1926 edition of the New York Times reported on the ensuing chaos:
"More than 30,000 persons tried to get a two-second glimpse of the body of Rudolph Valentino, lying in state at Campbell's Funeral Church, on Broadway at Sixty-sixth Street, yesterday afternoon and last night. As a result, the police were wholly unable to control the situation for several hours."
Just to be clear, "the situation" involved more than a few hysterical women. New York City's Finest had to contend with suicidal flappers and Mussolini's Black Shirt honor guards:
"Flappers tore at their own clothes, clutched at their chests and collapsed in the heat. The New York Police Department tried to bring the order to the mob, and there were reports of despondent fans committing suicide. Inside the funeral home, four Black Shirt honor guards, supposedly sent by Benito Mussolini, stood nearby in stark tribute to the fallen star...The Polish actress Pola Negri, who had been having an affair with Valentino, fainted over his coffin."
Wondering how fascist Black Shirt honor guards fit into the picture? So did everyone else. Valentino wasn't exactly on friendly terms with the Italian dictator. When he had become an American citizen the year before, Mussolini had instituted a nationwide boycott of his films. The presence of the so-called honor guard escalated an already unmanageable situation into a dangerous one. Outraged members of the Anti-Fascist alliance showed up en masse, announcing that they "would not be responsible for what might happen if the Fascisti guard at Valentino's bier was not removed at once." The situation was further complicated by the fact that Mussolini's representatives in Rome said they had nothing to do with it.
In summary: An Italian film star died and everyone in NYC started rioting and breaking windows. Valentino would have been horrified, but we're fairly certain the Joker would have had a great time. Why? Because the "Latin Lover's" funeral justified his entire philosophy:
"Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos."
Oh and just in case you were wondering, the Mussolini honor guard turned out to be an ill-advised publicity stunt.