Read The Valentino Affair Online
Authors: Colin Evans
The move to Deal Beach coincided with a heat wave that suffocated the northeast for days and left hundreds dead in New York City alone. Even after the worst of the heat had subsided, it was still blisteringly hot, and, one day while out playing golf, Blanca collapsed. A doctor diagnosed a mild attack of sunstroke. When Jack came to visit, he cruelly rationed his sympathies. Put some ice bags on your head, he snapped: “You’re all right, the trouble is you’re hipped on yourself.”
Her health—never robust during this period—now declined sharply. Two weeks later, she suffered a postnatal hemorrhage and was rushed to the Sloane Hospital for Women in Manhattan, where she had an unspecified operation.
Her return to Deal Beach did little to aid her convalescence. Jack was changeable as the weather, one day phoning and promising to visit, the next either canceling or not bothering to show at all. On those rare occasions when Jack did make an appearance, his regular drinking buddy, Marshall Ward, usually accompanied him. Blanca despised the foppish thirty-four-year-old stockbroker, convinced that he was influencing a husband who needed precious little encouragement to neglect his marital responsibilities. According to Blanca, whenever the two men arrived at Deal Beach, they were usually so exhausted by the exertions of the week that they spent most of their time “sleeping and resting up.”
The pressure on Blanca was building from all sides. A string of vitriolic letters from her mother made it plain as a pikestaff that the señora thoroughly despised her son-in-law and found herself at a loss to understand how Blanca had failed to spot him for the grasping fortune hunter that he was. Considering just how complimentary Señora Errázuriz-Vergara had been when first introduced to Jack—his charm flooring her as it did everyone—this chunk of hindsight-driven condemnation stuck in Blanca’s craw. But she resolved to keep her problems under wraps as much as possible and to do everything possible to help her husband secure that elusive post of minister to Chile.
Jack blamed the delay on a lack of finances, convinced that his lobbying campaign needed a fresh injection of capital—or so he told Blanca. He came up with a possible solution: Because he was temporarily strapped for cash, why didn’t she offload a portion of her South American property portfolio to free up some money? Blanca, desperate to return to Chile at any price, agreed without a pause. The transactions netted twenty-five thousand dollars. From this sum, Blanca drew two checks, both payable to Jack, the first for fifteen thousand dollars, the second for five thousand dollars. Jack vowed to put the money to work.
But all remained quiet on the Washington front . . . partly due to a new development: The ever-mercurial Jack de Saulles was dividing his political loyalties. Out of the blue, on September 25, he offered his services to the campaign of John Purroy Mitchel, who was standing as the Fusion candidate in the upcoming New York City mayoral race. This development sent mixed messages to Washington. On the one hand, Mitchel was promising to rid New York politics of the graft and corruption that had blighted the city for generations—ideals close to President Wilson’s heart—but such a stance threatened to sound the death knell for the Democratic candidate, Edward E. McCall. Privately, Wilson wanted to smash the Tammany political machine of course, which had become a national embarrassment to the Democrat party, but publicly he had to throw his support behind McCall. De Saulles wasn’t making the president’s task any easier.
For someone with Jack’s eye on a diplomatic future, it was a curious move. But for a ruthless opportunist, it was par for the course. Jack had sensed which way the political wind was blowing, and he was hoisting his sail into Mitchel’s reforming gale. After all, de Saulles existing business interests and therefore his financial prospects lay in New York. In October, he served on a committee to discuss how best to ensure that intimidation didn’t come into play at the polls—no mean task given Tammany’s fondness for cracking heads on election day—and he put himself about as a jack-of-all-trades.
It paid off. On November 4, Mitchel swept into office with a landslide victory. This elevation left vacant Mitchel’s old job as collector of the Port of New York, and one of Jack’s closest friends, Dudley Field Malone, filled the position.
On November 24, Jack—never far away from the centers of power—was present at Malone’s swearing-in ceremony.
Just two weeks earlier, Jack had taken an apartment at 18 East 60th Street. For the first time since arriving in America, Blanca could not only live with her husband—a perversely novel prospect—but she could expect him home every evening. Except of course it didn’t work out that way. He was always out hustling some business deal or other, and she rarely saw him before midnight. Most nights she fretted at home alone. For Blanca—raised in a milieu of elaborate parties, intimate soirees, and nonstop banter—such social isolation was purgatory. Theater visits with Jack were also out of the question—“it would bore me to death”
—and he treated her dinner parties with equal contempt. Invariably he would promise to attend only to phone Blanca at the last minute, claiming that something had come up and he couldn’t make it, leaving the embarrassed hostess to fabricate some story to explain her husband’s absence.
But he was never too busy for sports. At Yale, besides becoming a gridiron superstar, Jack also had shone on the baseball diamond, and on December 13 he drummed up plenty of press interest to witness the opening of what became known as the “Indoor-Outdoor Baseball Season.”
It was a bizarre attempt by the gentlemen’s clubs of New York to play baseball year-round, even in snow, if necessary. Jack captained a team from the Union Club, New York’s oldest private social club, dating from 1835. The deeply conservative institution had a membership list plucked from the loftiest reaches of the Social Register. Former members included President Ulysses Grant and Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman. In Jack’s time, he had rubbed shoulders with the likes of John Jacob Astor IV, the multimillionaire who had perished in the
disaster the previous year.
To launch the season properly, Jack called in a few favors from old friends, most notably railroad magnate William Vanderbilt, who suggested that they use one of his vacant lots on Fifth Avenue for the opening game. Jack observed dryly that the league’s temporary home venue was “worth more than the Polo Grounds and Shibe Park
Looking resplendent in white flannel trousers and matching sweater, Jack played third base and led his side against the Twelfth Regiment officers, who bizarrely turned out in khaki uniforms and long puttees that unwound as they ran the bases or chased ground balls. The Union Club team won 25–6.
Watching from one of the bird’s-eye maple bleachers, Blanca might have marveled at Jack’s athletic prowess, but her heart felt heavy. Her fleeting moments of despair had plunged into full-scale depression—and other problems were developing. The red ink on her bank account was mounting in alarming fashion as she continued to write more checks for an ungrateful husband who insisted on remaining out till all hours. She spent long tormented nights in the apartment on 60th Street with just Jack Jr. for company. As 1913 drew to a close and Blanca steeled herself for what promised to be a thoroughly miserable Christmas, she must have wondered how her situation could possibly get any worse.
No such gloom lingered aboard the SS
a seventeen-thousand-tonner out of Genoa, as it steamed slowly into New York harbor on the morning of December 22. Here, the mood was one of overwhelming optimism. Not even a biting easterly wind could dent the spirits of the hundreds of mainly Italian immigrants draped over the rails. Among those gazing in wonderment at the soaring Manhattan skyline stood a stylishly dressed young man, just eighteen years old, five feet nine inches tall, with brilliantined brown hair swept back flat against his head in the modern style. His olive skin and exquisitely chiseled features gave him a brooding sensuality, but it was his deep-set almond-shaped eyes that others—especially women—noticed. They were utterly hypnotic. In a few short years, the smoldering intensity of that stare would make him one of the most famous men alive, the world’s great Latin lover, idolized and fantasized across the globe, the hero of a million erotic dreams. For now, though, he was just another nervous immigrant with all the hopes and fears that international relocation brings. His name was Rodolfo Guglielmi.
The Man from Italy
IS FULL NAME WAS
and he was born on May 6, 1895, in the ancient town of Castellaneta in southern Italy. His father, Giovanni, was a single-minded veterinarian who had devoted his life to eradicating malaria in animals, while his mother, Gabriella—a sweet-natured woman, refined and blessed with a gift for languages that Rodolfo would inherit—had been born in France. In a poor town mostly populated by peasants, the Guglielmis were considered to be solidly middle class. By prevailing standards, theirs was not a large family with just three children. Rodolfo, the second son, had a younger sister. (Another older sister had died in infancy.) He was a scrawny kid who right from an early age struggled to fill out his growing frame. At school his runty appearance made him an easy target for the bullies and he performed poorly in sports of any type. And he was similarly handicapped in the classroom, where his crippling myopia turned the blackboard into a hazy blur. These twin afflictions made his life at school a time of utter misery. But no matter how mean the other kids and teachers might be, there was one ally on whom he could always depend.
Gabriella had been almost forty years old when she bore Rodolfo into the world, and from the day of his birth she spoiled him endlessly. Nothing was too good, and no expectation was too great for her favorite son. It was Gabriella who filled the boy’s head with stories of a lineage that hinted at aristocratic blood, fueling the imaginative and fertile tendency for autobiographical embellishment that would remain with him throughout life. She worshiped Rodolfo and he worshiped her.
It was an entirely different story with his father. Giovanni Guglielmi was an old-school patriarch, a brutal disciplinarian, quick with a strap or stick, determined to beat some manliness into his feeble son. When Rodolfo was nine years old, the family moved to the coastal city of Taranto. One year later the lad’s domestic torture came to an end when his father died, ironically from the very disease he had slaved so hard to eradicate. But if the physical chains were broken, the emotional terror was still intact, and for the rest of his life Rodolfo would fight to measure up to the standards set by the father whom he feared and loved in equal measure. It was an uphill struggle. The disappointments kept on coming: At age fifteen he applied to join the military. It had been his ambition for years, spurred on by the thought that nothing would have made his father more proud. He sailed through the written exam only to be thwarted by his physical shortcomings—his chest was an inch too small—and poor vision. Rodolfo was crushed.
More to please his mother than anything else, he enrolled in an agricultural college, though he lacked any ambition in this area. And it showed. After obtaining his graduation certificate, he made no attempt to find a job in landscaping or farming and instead began hanging out with a rough crowd, frequenting dance halls and chasing girls. The latter two diversions went hand in hand as Rodolfo discovered that his slender body shape was ideally suited to the latest flamboyant dances, and with his lissome grace on the dance floor and brooding manner, he became an instant magnet for women of all ages and from all walks of life. Few were the kind that Rodolfo would have wanted to take home to meet Gabriella, who became adept at turning a blind eye to her son’s misdeeds.
Other family members weren’t so tolerant. His straitlaced uncles and aunts, appalled and humiliated by a lifestyle that consisted of sleeping all day and partying all night, urged Gabriella to renounce the black sheep who was bringing so much shame on the family name. Even Gabriella began to despair of her favorite son, a despair that turned to outright alarm when, at age seventeen, Rodolfo suddenly announced that he was up and moving to Paris. Wearily, she gave him her blessing.