When Rudolph Valentino died unexpectedly from ulcer complications at age 31 in 1926, thousands joined across the nation in mourning one of Hollywood’s pioneer stars. A major heartthrob on the silent silver screen, the sensuous and delicate demeanor of the first “Latin Lover” foiled the more masculine and domineering adventure flicks of fellow star Douglas Fairbanks, setting the tone for the variety of characters and idols that mainstream America would aspire to in the wake of the film industry’s success. Valentino, an Italian-born New Yorker whose roles in The Sheik and The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse propelled his stardom, had lived large and fabulously, exploiting many talents beyond acting, such as fencing, dancing, and even poetry. The loss of Valentino right before the zeitgeist of Hollywood as we know today only makes his story more tragic, forever keeping us in awe of his youthfulness and what other achievements he might have made.
Originally meant to be interred in a grand mausoleum flanked by statues of his most famous roles, the crypt where Valentino now lies is a modest resting place at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery next to his friend June Mathis, who lent the crypt as a temporary internment before passing away from a heart attack herself just a year later. Fans can visit his crypt today to pay respects and celebrate his short but defining career, often leaving kiss marks and placing flowers around it. No tribute could be more saddening– yet mysterious– as the one devoted fan to Valentino seen through the years since his passing: The Lady in Black.
On the anniversary of his death, a faceless woman in black, shrouded by a veil, began visiting Valentino’s grave with a single red rose to place. The media took notice of the ritual and would eventually wait around at Hollywood Forever every year in anticipation of seeing the Lady. Her true identity was much speculation, from a distraught fanatic or a secret lover, and soon enough a few women came forward claiming to be the Lady in Black.
But the most pressing and credible claim comes from Ditra Flame, whose 30 years of visiting Valentino came to an end with old age and eventually her death in 1996. Flame had spoken countless times of her promise to Valentino from which her pilgrimage began. She was 14 years old when Valentino, a family friend, came to visit her at her hospital bedside when she was gravely ill. Having placed a red rose in her hand, Valentino comforted the young Flame and assured her that she would not die.
‘You are going to live for many more years,” he had told her. “But one thing for sure, if I die before you do, please come and stay by me because I don’t want to be alone.”
Even after her passing, there have been other Ladies who’ve taken up the torch (or red rose) to remember Rudolph Valentino and keep him company. It’s been 92 years since his death, and in the age of social media, publicity stunts are often staged to recreate the famous tribute, while other fans simply show up in black to pay their respects on any given day of the year. One thing is certain from this alluring tribute: that Rudolph Valentino, a star forever in the Heavens of Hollywood’s early days, remains loved and missed– and the Lady in Black only helps cement this loss we feel for such an incredible actor and icon.
Photos via Google Images