Read The Valentino Affair Online
Authors: Colin Evans
He became a regular at exclusive restaurants and danced till dawn in the trendiest nightclubs, where his slick footwork, tuxedoed chic, and lavish spending drew all manner of admiring glances from the female customers. It was during this period that Guglielmi had his first, if unconfirmed, parts in the movies. Some sources claim that in the spring of 1914, the handsome young Italian showcased his dancing talents as an uncredited extra in
The Battle of the Sexes,
directed by D. W. Griffith and starring Lillian Gish, quickly following this up with another bit part in
My Official Wife,
a melodrama set in Russia. Because both films are now lost, these claims cannot be verified, but what is certain is that, within a few months of his arrival in New York, Rodolfo fell victim to that old familiar bugbear: a lack of cash.
Suddenly all those previously open doors were slammed in his face. Charm and a debonair appearance might be all well and good, but anyone who couldn’t stand his round on the nightclub circuit risked being branded as just another gigolo on the make. His fall from grace was swift and dramatic. And as he struggled frantically for some means of paying the rent, he discovered, like millions before and since, that when hardship comes knocking the sidewalks of New York are often paved with more heartaches than gold. His innate haughtiness prompted him to turn up his nose at what he considered to be menial jobs, until, drawing on his agricultural background, he landed a job as landscape gardener at the Jericho, Long Island, estate of millionaire financier Cornelius Bliss Jr. Rodolfo’s resentment was palpable. He hated getting his hands dirty, and his abhorrence of manual labor set his boss’s teeth on edge. He further antagonized Bliss by taking a fellow worker’s motorcycle without permission and smashing it into a telegraph pole. (Traffic accidents would be a recurring problem for the myopic Rodolfo, whose love of speed far exceeded his ability to see where he was going.) But it took the arrival of Bliss’s wife from Europe to bring matters to a head. She decided that she would prefer to overlook a golf course rather than some Italianate grotto, and Rodolfo was sent packing.
Bliss did write Guglielmi a letter of introduction to the Central Park commissioner in the hope that he might secure a position as a landscape gardener, only for Rodolfo to learn that such positions were restricted to American citizens. He was out of work and broke. Financial belt tightening reduced him to a two-dollars-a-week skylight room in a boardinghouse on Times Square. “A cubby-hole in which brooms and mops were kept,” he recalled. “There was an iron sink. I wiped my hands on newspapers.” He added ruefully: “It was too luxurious for me. I couldn’t afford to keep it.”
This foreshadowed the bleakest time of his life.
He tramped the streets of New York, penniless, often hungry. He took work where he could find it: busing tables in restaurants—at one point working at Rector’s, where, just twelve months beforehand, he had celebrated his arrival in the United States with lobster and champagne—washing cars, sweeping sidewalks, even picking up garbage. An empty belly is a great motivator, though, and he speedily acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of those bars that served free food with a drink. His favorite hangout was the H & H Automat on Fifth Avenue at 45th Street—later joking that the initials stood for the “Hungry and Homeless”
—a diner that served cheap meals. He showered at the nearest fire hydrant, and some nights found him sleeping rough on benches in Central Park. His only consolation during this forlorn period was that his mother couldn’t witness his downfall; it would have broken her heart. To maintain the facade of success, he stole stationery from ritzy hotels and used it for the highly fictionalized accounts of his life in New York City that he sent back to Italy.
Guglielmi had just about reached rock bottom when a chance encounter changed his life. He was washing cars when he and a passerby fell into conversation. At some point the subject of dancing arose, and the stranger suggested that Rodolfo try his luck at Maxim’s, a fancy restaurant on 38th Street that offered European cuisine, live music, and a supply of handsome young men willing to teach unaccompanied ladies the latest dances. Rodolfo’s ears pricked up. American society was gripped by dance fever. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to learn the Maxixe, the Cakewalk, and, above all, the Argentinean tango. The tango, with its grinding embrace and heavy overtones of sexual promise, was tailor-made for someone with Rodolfo’s Latin appeal. Figuring he had nothing to lose, he followed the man’s advice and went along to Maxim’s, spoke to a piano player, auditioned briefly, and got hired on the spot. As part of the arrangement, he had the use of an upper-floor room with a Victrola, where he could give private lessons for the more reticent clientele or those requiring a higher degree of discretion.
Downstairs, in the club proper, he hired out as a “taxi dancer,” squiring elderly dowagers around the floor at ten cents a pop during the
—tea dances—that were currently all the rage. The pay was nothing special, but the tips and the perks were great. He also got to rub shoulders with the likes of Clifton Webb and George Raft, two professional hoofers who would later go on to find fame in Hollywood. From them he learned the tricks of the trade: how to flatter, how to turn clumsy customers into graceful swans, and how to look classy. Scanning his fellow taxi dancers at Maxim’s, Rodolfo noticed that the chief exponents of effortless snootiness was a band of lower caste European nobles who had fallen on hard times and were out to revive their fortunes by trading on their royal lineage. Any hint of aristocratic blood—no matter how tenuous or even imaginary—definitely shifted one up the terpsichorean pecking order; reason enough for the veterinarian’s son from Castellaneta to start calling himself “marchese.” It worked.
In no time at all, Rodolfo was pocketing seventy dollars a week at a time when most workers in America would struggle to earn that in a month. For the young émigré, life in America was good, very good indeed. And he was starting to make some useful show business contacts as well. Chief among these was a petite blonde named Mae Murray, a Ziegfeld showgirl with ambitions to break into movies. Six years older than Rodolfo, Mae—“The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips,”
—became a kind of mother figure to the young man, taking him under her wing, helping to smooth the few rough edges that remained on his social graces. Mae’s influence on Rodolfo would profoundly change his life, and not always for the better.
Across the Atlantic, Blanca was bubbling with excitement. She adored London, with its fashionable shopping arcades, glitzy hotels, and seductive social whirl. This was her natural environment, the world she had been born to, where she felt at home, and she fitted in perfectly. She took rooms at the Cadogan, the posh Knightsbridge hotel where Oscar Wilde was infamously arrested in 1895 on charges of homosexuality.
From there she sampled all that London had to offer. She even undertook an airplane flight—considered frightfully daring for a woman in 1914—but her main diversion was shopping. Each day she toured the emporiums of Bond Street and Jermyn Street, buying lavishly in readiness for the upcoming move to Uruguay. And when she had exhausted the Mayfair salons, she hopped across the Channel to continue her shopping spree on the boulevards of Paris.
But the undoubted highlight of her extended vacation came on the evening of June 4, when she was escorted into Buckingham Palace, where King George V and Queen Mary were holding court. It was a glittering occasion, with practically the entire overseas diplomatic corps in attendance. Blanca had been invited as a guest of the Chilean minister to London, Señor Don Augustin Edwards. As she was presented to the king and queen, Blanca curtsied low and then drew back as proper etiquette required. In a room glittering with glamour, her radiant beauty gave rise to much comment and many admiring glances. It was probably the most memorable night of her life. But her joy was short-lived. When she returned to the hotel, she received a cablegram from Jack. It read: “I have resigned Uruguayan post.”
The news hit Washington like a thunderbolt. Jack explained his shock announcement in a letter to the Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan:
I am deeply sorry that an unexpected turn in my personal affairs prevents me from fulfilling the ambition of a lifetime, to serve my country as one of its diplomatic representatives in Latin America. I the more regret it because I would have felt deeply sensible to the honor of serving under you as my chief in carrying forth your policies toward the development of more friendly relations between the South American republics and ourselves. The only consolation I feel in the circumstances is the thought of the honor that you and the President did me in selecting me for the post at Montevideo.
Such a volte-face was unprecedented. Never before in the history of the US diplomatic service had anyone earned the right to be called the minister to a foreign country without having ever left American soil. Jack’s pathological unpredictability had won out again. In conversations with friends, he disclosed the real reason for his decision: money. At an oddly late juncture, it had dawned on him that diplomatic life was fine and dandy if one had a sizable independent income or inherited wealth. For lesser mortals, it could prove a precarious venture. At the eleventh hour, Jack had crunched the numbers and decided to pull the plug on his diplomatic dream. In doing so, he had crossed the Rubicon; all his dreams of exerting influence in the political sphere dissolved instantly and forever. He had delivered an astonishing personal snub not just to Secretary of State Bryan but to President Wilson as well.
Blanca was astounded. A hasty exchange of cables did little to ease her distress. In the end, Jack attempted to assuage her disappointment by saying that he had rented a house in Huntington, on Long Island, for her return. This move backfired badly. Earlier he had assured her that a new apartment at 22 East 78th Street would be their family home. She wrote back: “Your last cable saying about the cottage in Huntington has absolutely taken my breath away. I can hardly understand. Why rent a house now, Dinky, what else are you going to do with a house? You first buy one, then you rent one. Dinky, you must be house crazy.”
She was sounding a rare note of disapproval. Despite later protestations to the contrary, on paper, at least, Blanca could not stay mad at Jack for long.
Later, in the same letter, she wrote: “Dinky, London is too delightful. You must get named Minister just as soon as you’ve made enough money to live comfortably, or, in other words, luxuriously. It’s nicer to be a Minister here, because there’s the court and all that makes it very interesting and amusing.”
This extraordinary suggestion, tossed off so casually, speaks volumes about Blanca’s naivety. She had failed utterly to grasp the enormity of Jack’s capitulation. After humiliating the White House so profoundly, it would take far more than a fat bank account to breathe life into Jack’s diplomatic career; such treachery would require a revival of Lazarus-like proportions. Blanca closed the letter with an update on the ongoing feud between herself and the señora. “I’ve got another beastly letter from my mother, so that I’ve given up trying to bridge the gulf. She is out of her mind.”
Blanca was in no hurry to return to New York; in London she dined and danced with nobility and high-ranking politicians, and generally conducted herself in a manner befitting a Chilean aristocrat. This was life in the Gilded Age, and few saw any prospect of it ever ending. So it was hardly surprising that, caught up in the giddy whirl of parties, receptions, and endless cocktails, Blanca, like most around her, paid scant heed when, on June 28, a pistol-wielding Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife on the broiling streets of Sarajevo. Just another tiresome incident in the Balkans; nothing to worry about, and certainly nothing to interrupt the social round. But behind the scenes, in the corridors of European power, old alliances were coming under strain.
Meanwhile, a storm of a quite different kind was brewing on the other side of the Atlantic. Blanca had now been dallying in Europe for three months, and Jack’s patience was wearing thin. On July 7 he cabled, demanding that she return immediately. Her response was a mix of bafflement and despair: “Dearest Dink:—You send me such an extraordinary cable. I could not believe it came from you. I got it on the 7th and you tell me to sail on the 11th. Dinky, how could you imagine I would be ready in time?”
She itemized a litany of reasons to explain her delay: Her linen wouldn’t be ready until the end of the month; Mrs. Mooney was still in Ireland; the baby’s special milk needed to be ordered so that it would last through the weeklong voyage; she needed to buy a trunk for her clothes. Oh, she had “a billion million things to do.”