Federico Beltran Masses (Spanish, 1885-1949) Pola Negri y Rudolph Valentino

Last lover of silent-screen idol Rudolph Valentino, Pola Negri mourned him in characteristically flamboyant – and public – style. Laura Watts describes their afterlife together

On 23 August 1926, news broke that Hollywood heart-throb Rudolph Valentino had died, due to complications from peritonitis. He was 31 years old. Tens of thousands of fans took to the streets of New York, and riots broke out at the funeral home where his body lay, the frenzied masses clawing and trampling each other as they fought for a glimpse of the actor's mortal remains. Two fans committed suicide.

At his memorial service, Valentino's lover – vampish actress Pola Negri – arranged for her name to be spelled out in white blossoms among $2,000-worth of blood-red roses. Her dramatic display of grief – wailing audibly, weeping and fainting over his coffin – made global news. She later rode alongside Valentino's body from New York to California, on a train that stopped at dozens of major stations so his adoring public could pay tribute, sharing her anguish with journalists on demand.

After the actor's death, Negri commissioned the Spanish artist Federico Beltrán Masses to paint Pola Negri y Rudolph Valentino (which is being offered at Bonhams, New Bond Street, on 27 September).

Beltrán Masses had built a successful career as a portraitist, his wide network of patrons and supporters including royalty and high society in Paris and Madrid. He was introduced to Valentino on the French Riviera during the summer of 1924 by a mutual friend, the novelist Vicente Blasco Ibáñez.

Beltrán Masses created an ethereal double portrait, with Negri the femme fatale, gazing wistfully into the distance while her saturnine lover serenades her from a darkened corner. Negri was unhappy with the way she looked in the finished picture and refused to pay the artist. He promptly sued her for $5,000.

Born in Poland, Negri was an acclaimed actress during Hollywood's silent and golden eras, whose off-screen romances made her the regular subject of gossip columns. She married and divorced two noblemen; became the mistress of Charlie Chaplin, then his fiancée (before jilting him); and allegedly charmed Adolf Hitler into revoking an order which, on the incorrect grounds she was part-Jewish, forbade her to work in Germany.

Valentino, who was born in southern Italy but moved to the US at 18, was adored for his fine looks and easy charm. Nicknamed the 'Latin Lover', his private life was as eventful as those of the characters he played. He was connected to a high-profile murder case; arrested during a raid on a brothel; and faced countless accusations about his sexual proclivities, all of which he denied. He and Negri had met at a fancy-dress party and, according to her memoirs, became lovers after their second meeting. They remained so for a year, until his death.

Valentino has lived long in legend. For 30 consecutive years, on the anniversary of his passing, a mysterious 'Lady in Black' left a rose at his grave. (This was later discovered to be a publicity stunt carried out by Ditra Flame, the daughter of a friend of Valentino's – though a veiled woman in black continues the tradition to this day.)

And then there's the myth surrounding the ring, reportedly cursed, that Valentino wore in his final film. Negri kept it after his death, and soon fell seriously ill. Having recovered, she passed on the ring to a Valentino lookalike, who died shortly after. Each of the next four people who owned or wore the ring died suddenly or in mysterious circumstances. Even a Los Angeles bank, where it was housed for a short time, was victim to the curse, suffering a series of break-ins and fires. Then the ring inexplicably disappeared – never to be seen again.

Laura Watts is Editorial Assistant of Bonhams Magazine.

Sale: 19th Century European, Victorian and British Impressionist Art
Wednesday 27 September at 2pm
Enquiries: Charles O'Brien +44 (0) 20 7468 8360

  1. Charles O'Brien
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