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: