Hollywood has had plenty of dysfunctional relationships. But according to Emily Leider’s biography Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino, none was as disastrous as Natacha Rambova and Rudolph Valentino’s. They met in 1921, on the set of Uncharted Seas, a now-lost silent film. She was a 24-year-old costume designer and he a 26-year-old philandering leading man. Valentino shook her hand with a grip “a little too firm for comfort”, remembered Rambova. “I thought him plain dumb.” But he won her round. They were both extravagant, dramatic and completely obsessed with animals. When they moved into a one-bedroom bungalow on Sunset Boulevard they brought two Great Danes, a large snake, a green monkey and a lion cub with them.
For a while, it was domestic bliss, says Hadley Hall Meares in Vanity Fair. But there was a snag: Valentino already had a wife, the actress Jean Acker. They had divorced when he met Rambova, but California law insisted divorcees wait a year to remarry. Always impulsive, Valentino threw caution to the wind and married Rambova after just two months. He was charged with bigamy and thrown in prison. When a journalist visited him she found Valentino grasping his cell bars, wailing: “I’ll rot here before I deny our sacred marriage. She is my wife, my wife.”
After they were reunited, things began unravelling, says Martin Chilton in The Daily Telegraph. Rambova was ambitious but Valentino wanted children. “If he wants a housewife,” she said, “he’ll have to look again.” It ground them down. In August 1925 Rambova left LA for New York, filing for divorce in December – Valentino died eight months later, from complications following surgery for appendicitis and perforated ulcers, at the age of 31.
His funeral was a farce. More than 100,000 people attended and there were more than 100 injuries – two of his female fans were so distraught they attempted suicide. As for Rambova, she wasn’t able to attend – locking herself inside a hotel room for three days to mourn instead. In his will he left her one single dollar. His estate was worth $1m.