Public sobbing, onion-produced tears, and peach-colored extras made the illness and death of Rudolph Valentino a startling and hideous orgy of sentimentalism. Lines of the curious eleven blocks long waited in the rain to see his body; women screamed and fought for a glimpse of him. Was this demonstration a revelation of “the American mind” or was it a phenomenon of publicity produced by the press?
While Valentino was dying the newspapers made him into a colossus by the simple device of featuring everything about him; his breathing, his temperature, his ex-wives, and his bracelet. They could probably create a similar interest in any tolerably famous person whom they sought to exploit. They have done it at various times with Dempsey, Helen Wills, Harry Thaw, Gerald Chapman, and Calvin Coolidge. Only last month the papers of Los Angeles performed a similar feat with Aimee Semple McPherson. The mob likes familiarity. But having once worked up public interest to a hysterical pitch the yellowest of the New York papers felt a moral (financial) obligation to keep it up. New editions must be produced, new developments must be discovered to sell the extras. That was evidently the policy of the New York Evening Graphic.
On August 18, when Valentino was critically ill but apparently in no immediate danger, the Graphic flashed a two and one-half inch headline: “Rudy Dead”. Then in small letters on the side: Cry Startles Film World as Sheik Rallies. Valentino was steadily improving when the edition went to press and probably the editors knew it. But people bought the paper by thousands and rumors based on the head-line flooded the hospital with thirty-two telephone calls a minute. Mobs collected outside the hospital. Two days later when public excitement lagged the Graphic sprang its second fake. The whole Valentino scare was a publicity stunt, the public was informed. The headline read: Pan Rudy’s Fight as Publicity. The story declared that Valentino’s recent film, “The Son of the Sheik,” needed publicity, so his illness which was a trivial one had been exaggerated for the sake of advertising. The Graphic even declared that Valentino had hired a large hospital room on the first floor for $300 a week as a publicity bureau; the indignant denials of the hospital authorities were ignored.
After Valentino’s death the Graphic published an edition which devoted eight complete pages to the star, crowding out nearly all news of international importance except the diary of “Peaches” Browning, which blazoned the legend across the top of a page: I’m Sitting on Top of the World; Peaches Writes of Her Love-Life. The same reporter who had produced the fake advertising story now followed a new tack. Across the top of Page 1 screamed: Foul Play Hint in Death of Rudy. Within, the reader was greeted by a streamer: “Jealous Woman May Have Poisoned Sheik in Revenge. The story began:
Persistent reports along Broadway the past week, hinting darkly that the death yesterday of Rudolph Valentino might be attributed to causes not disclosed in official bulletins by his physicians, may result today in a complete investigation of the film actor’s last visit here.
Soon after Valentino had been rushed from an all-night revel at the cabarets to an operating table in the Polyclinic Hospital these three stories began circulation:
1. Rudolph Valentino had been poisoned by a jealous woman.
2. The sheik had been injured in a fight with a man who had resented Rudy’s attentions to a woman.
3. Valentino had been shot in a quarrel during a gay party.
Told of the nasty reports that had followed Valentino’s sudden appearance at Polyclinic a week ago Sunday, Assistant District Attorney Ferdinand H. Pecora declared last night that when the matter is brought to him officially he will begin an investigation to refute or prove the stories.
At the same time Dr. William B. Rawles, assistant house physician at Polyclinic, denied that Valentino’s condition has shown signs of poisoning or foul play. Nevertheless, in Broadway’s night clubs and cabarets this morning credence was given this general belief by the bright light habitues:
“Poor Rudy—the kid was knocked off. Yuh can’t tell me he died from those things the doctors said—the whole thing looks fishy to me.”
Not content with the blazoning of this baseless rumor the Graphic flung across an inside page another headline: Spirit Declares Sheik Poisoned. The editors could not locate any responsible human being to act as vehicle for their story, so they appealed to heaven. They chose an Italian spiritualist medium. The story read:
Psychic confirmation of the report that Rudolph Valentino was poisoned at the party which he attended before being taken to the Polyclinic Hospital for operation was obtained last night from the medium Nicola Peccharara during a seance at 800 West End Avenue.
The seance was under the auspices of the Unbiased Commission for the Investigation of Psychic Phenomena, sponsored by Ghost Stories Magazine, which is offering $10,000 in prizes for actual materializations from the spirit world. . . .
“What was the cause of his death?” the spirit was asked.
“When was it given to him?”
The reply was muffled and confused.
“What was the medicine?”
There was a ghastly shriek and a long drawn out cry. The voice then continued:
“But that was not the primary cause. Valentino was poisoned at the party he attended before taken to the hospital for his operation. The doctors there did their best, but they could not work against the poison which he had taken before. Valentino’s spirit is in the room now.”
It seems that the seance was a very successful one; in fact the spirits rattled tambourines, moved tables, and said just what the Graphic wanted them to say. Strangely enough, however, there is no announcement that Mr. Peccharara won the $10,000 offered by Ghost Stories Magazine. Ghost Stories Magazine and the New York Evening Graphic are both Macfadden publications.
In the long run such journalism must be its own reward. A censorship which could destroy Bernarr Macfadden would be more likely to destroy many a brave pioneer of social idealism. We must trust to a growing intelligence in the reading public to demand more accurate, honest news.