Read The Valentino Affair Online
Authors: Colin Evans
Jack cabled a compromise: What about the eighteenth? Blanca wired back her agreement, but then had second thoughts. That date still gave her only one week to make all the arrangements; she needed more time. After more hemming and hawing, Blanca finally booked passage on the SS
which sailed from Southampton on July 29.
She left a continent teetering on the brink of disaster. The political dynamic was changing almost hourly. In a bewilderingly fast chain of events following the assassinations in Sarajevo, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia, tied by treaty to Serbia, mobilized its forces. Four days later, Germany, straining at the leash for a chance to flex its military muscle and allied by treaty to Austria-Hungary, declared war on Russia and France. On August 4, when German troops overran neutral Belgium, treaty obligations forced the final European heavyweight, Britain, into the fray. The Great War was under way.
One day after Britain’s declaration of war, the
docked in New York. Even if the “lamps were going out all over Europe,”
life in Manhattan remained blissfully unaffected.
Jack met Blanca at the port, throwing his arms around her with delight and fussing wildly over Jack Jr., who had grown considerably in the three intervening months and was now an accomplished walker. As they drove to the apartment on East 78th Street, Jack casually mentioned that he had used her two blank checks to complete the purchase at a cost of twelve thousand dollars. Blanca thought the apartment very smart indeed and was still cooing with pleasure when Jack dashed her rapture with the announcement that she wouldn’t be staying there. He needed the apartment for business, he explained, and wanted Blanca to take the rented bungalow in Huntington. Blanca needed every ounce of her iron self-control to fight back her disappointment. She said nothing and retreated to Huntington.
At about this time a strange incident occurred. It involved Rodolfo’s confidante Mae Murray, who also happened to be on very cozy terms with de Saulles—so close that many assumed she was yet another of Jack’s secret lovers. The notoriously unreliable Mae—her memoirs were penned with an eye on sales and self-promotion rather than accuracy—later wrote of attending an extravagant party at Jack’s new apartment. When she arrived Jack proudly placed her at the head of the table, a spot normally reserved for the host’s wife. When Mae queried this, Jack laughed. “Mrs. de Saulles is not here. She was not invited. She’s out on Long Island where she belongs.”
Mae glossed over the awkwardness and concentrated instead on the guest list—“every celebrity on Broadway sat around that table”
—and the sumptuous food; pheasant in wild rice served on a silver tray was washed down with vintage burgundy and champagne.
With each toast Jack’s leering admiration for Mae grew more pronounced. Eventually he staggered up and asked her to dance. While they were grinding against each other on the dance floor, Mae’s beau at the time (and later husband), Jay O’Brien, burst in, uninvited, and a shouting match ensued, one that ended with O’Brien flattening Jack and then yanking the tablecloth, spilling the flowers, wine, and food everywhere. When Jack regained his feet, several waiters had to restrain the enraged host. According to Mae, Jack broke free, threw her across his shoulder, and bundled her out of the apartment and into a car. A madcap ride through Central Park ensued, and later, when he had sobered up, he apologized and dropped her off where she was living. At this point, Mae’s already unlikely tale becomes truly surreal. When she entered her apartment, who should be waiting there but none other than Blanca de Saulles.
Apparently, Blanca had heard the gossip about Jack’s craving for Mae and had decided to investigate. How this squares with Blanca’s stated indifference to Jack’s affairs was never explained. When Blanca accused Mae of trying to steal her husband, Mae protested her innocence. Nothing, she cried, could be further from the truth. At that point Blanca allegedly began to sob, and Mae threw a comforting arm about her. What you need is a diversion, Mae said, something to take your mind off your problems. Have you thought of attending any of the afternoon tea dances? When Blanca shook her head, Mae promised to accompany her. And, said Mae, you simply must meet this absolutely divine young man from Italy; his name’s Rodolfo.
When Blanca Met the Signor
HE INTERVENING MONTHS HAD BEEN A DIZZY BLUR
FOR THE YOUNG
immigrant. It was all happening so fast. He had been spotted by a professional dancer named Bonnie Glass, who was on the lookout for someone to replace her partner, supersuave Clifton Webb, who had recently departed for Broadway. Bonnie ran an experienced eye over Rodolfo, liked what she saw, and offered him a job. Although it meant a cut in pay—Bonnie was offering just fifty dollars a week—Rodolfo realized this was a smart career move, and in short order, Bonnie and “Signor Rodolfo” were wowing audiences all over Manhattan. They headlined swish eateries such as Delmonico’s, the Boulevard Cafe, even Rector’s, where Rodolfo had once bused tables, before graduating to a string of Broadway vaudevilles. Then they took their exotic routines to Bonnie’s own club, the Montmartre, in the basement of the old Boulevard Cafe. When that nightspot folded, Bonnie opened up another, the Chez Fysher, at 121 West 45th Street, which quickly became a favored hangout for the Manhattan party crowd, including Mae Murray.
Making good on her promise, Mae took Blanca along to the Chez Fysher. This was a time of enormous upheaval in the societal status of women; the skirts were getting shorter, so was the bobbed hair, and as the attitudes loosened up, the sight of two attractive women entering a nightclub unaccompanied hardly registered on the social seismograph. The dance craze in New York was then at its peak, with star performers like Bonnie drawing big crowds and earning phenomenal salaries. But Blanca, like most of the female socialites sipping champagne at the tables, scarcely noticed the leading lady; she couldn’t take her eyes off Bonnie’s gorgeous dance partner.
Clad in an elegant tuxedo and collar, Rodolfo Guglielmi exuded an animalistic male dominance as he swept Bonnie around the floor. The long, lingering dips of the tango gave him plenty of time to survey the audience, and he found his gaze being repeatedly drawn to the ravishing brunette alongside Mae Murray. She embodied everything that he adored in a woman: obvious refinement, mysterious eyes, dark hair, and an alabaster, almost translucent complexion that gave her the Madonna-like beauty so reminiscent of his mother. In between performances, Mae called Rodolfo over and introduced him to Blanca. One tip Rodolfo had picked up from his taxi-dancing buddies was the importance of a good first impression. Courtliness was the secret. His deep bow and brushing of lips against Blanca’s extended hand were designed to impress and did. The couple hit it off immediately.
When Rodolfo invited Blanca to dance, his delight reached another dimension. She wasn’t just beautiful, she danced superbly as well. By night’s end Rodolfo was smitten. “I adored her,” he said later. But he feared that he could never bridge the social divide between them. “She seemed so far above me that I never dreamed she would look at a mere tango dancer.”
He was right to be skeptical. Although Blanca was obviously attracted to him—he was, after all, devastatingly handsome and much closer to her age-wise than her husband—she was still a married woman and acutely aware of the social gulf that divided a Chilean aristocrat from some immigrant, even one as seductive as Rodolfo. For this reason, despite the sparks that flared between them, she resolved to keep this glorious stranger at arm’s length while she went back to the business of making her marriage work.
Before her banishment to Huntington, which she hated, Blanca was given a guided tour of the real estate operation that Jack had established with his cousin, Maurice Heckscher. They had taken a plush suite of offices at 734 Fifth Avenue. Blanca nodded appreciatively. It might not have been a ministerial legation in Montevideo, but it was impressive all the same, even if recent global events meant that Jack was already eyeing business opportunities elsewhere.
Someone always makes money out of human conflict, and Jack reasoned that the European war had the potential to yield a rich financial harvest. It was merely a question of finding a niche and finding it fast. The announcement of a British Expeditionary Force to be deployed in France provided the opening he sought. Despite the increasing mechanization of the military in the early twentieth century, when it came to transportation, the armed forces of Europe still relied overwhelmingly on horses. Already the British government had raided factories and coal mines as well as farms for animals that could be press-ganged into service. Once that supply ran dry, Jack figured, official eyes would be forced to look elsewhere, and there was only one viable option: the rolling plains of North America. The vast prairies could provide a practically limitless source of weather-toughened horses and mules with the potential to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in profit for the contractor.
But securing the contract to supply these horses wouldn’t come easy. Jack needed a transatlantic associate, someone with political clout able to open doors and negotiate the labyrinthine corridors of power in Whitehall. William Angus Drogo Montagu, 9th Duke of Manchester, was just such a man. Montagu was an old-school peer of the realm, with a fabulous ability to squander money. In a few short years, he managed to exhaust a vast family fortune that had taken three centuries to accumulate. He was the quintessential aristocratic wastrel, fat and feckless, dissolute beyond belief, and an enthusiastic adulterer.
Montagu had fetched up in New York after having been hounded from his home country by an army of creditors, and in 1900 he followed the time-honored British aristocratic tradition of marrying a wealthy American to prop up his flagging bank balance. His bride was Helena Zimmerman, daughter of a railroad president and a major stockholder in Standard Oil. Monogamy, however, wasn’t to the duke’s taste. He had an eye for the ladies, and they had an eye for his title. His sexual indiscretions, frequent and flagrant, made him a regular fixture in the gossip columns.
Jack, too, fell under his spell, especially when the “Happy-Go-Lucky Duke”
secured a mutually lucrative contract to transport horses to Britain. Outside of working hours, the two men became bosom buddies, much to the delight of New York’s sensationalist yellow press. Blanca warned Jack against this newfound friendship, but he was incorrigible, utterly deaf to her entreaties. In the duke he had found an “inseparable companion,”
and the two men practically lived in each other’s pockets. One day while Blanca and Jack were dining at the Long Island home of his uncle, August Heckscher, a messenger arrived with news that the duke needed to see Jack urgently to discuss business matters. To Blanca’s annoyance, Jack made his excuses and left. Later that day the Heckschers tried to raise Blanca’s spirits with a yacht ride across Long Island Sound. At one point they hoved alongside the duke’s schooner—hired but not paid for—moored in the bay. There, frolicking on the quarterdeck, were Jack and the duke, practically submerged beneath a swarm of Broadway beauties. Blanca’s humiliation was total. When she later confronted Jack about this incident, he just brushed her off like an annoying fly. And then he left for Canada, to buy more horses. After this, Blanca saw him no more that summer.