The last post on famous deaths in New York (#126) focused on famous women celebrities of Hollywood who lived for a while and died here, so this one will have a look at some of the men. And quite a bunch they are! Though never much concerned about celebrities, I can’t deny that they exert a certain fascination when you look at the later stage of their careers, discover their vulnerabilities, and see them through to the end.
We knew him above all as the brilliant but demanding and supremely virile King of Siam in the long-running Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I, in which he gave 4,625 performances over the course of 30 years, fusing so completely with the character that we couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role. And his dynamic presence proved that one could be both completely bald and sexy, a notion that gave hope to multitudes of aging males the world over. But who was he and where did he come from?
He was born Yuliy Borisovich Briner, allegedly on Sakhalin Island off the coast of Siberia to a Mongolian mining engineer and his Romanian gypsy bride. Yes, it sounds like the plot of a nineteenth-century operetta and has since been debunked, for he loved to shroud his origins in mystery. He was born in Vladivostok to a Swiss-Russian mining engineer and a Russian Jewish mother, the daughter of a doctor, though his paternal grandmother was partly of Mongol ancestry. Early in his career he sang gypsy songs, but there is no hard evidence that he had gypsy blood.
Yul Brynner gave his birth date at various times as 1915, 1917, 1920, or 1922, so we won’t pursue that further. His father left his mother for another woman, so Yul spent his childhood with his mother in Manchuria and then in Paris, where he dropped out of an exclusive lycée to become a circus acrobat, then a singer and guitarist and actor. Coming to the U.S. in 1940 with minimal English, he landed an acting role with a touring company and appeared on Broadway. His screen test for Universal Pictures in 1947 brought a rejection for looking “too Oriental.” Then, in 1951, his exotic features with intense eyes and high cheekbones helped him get the role of the King in The King and I, for which he shaved his head, and the rest is history.
|With Gertrude Lawrence in The King and I (1951).|
I won’t dwell on his superstar career in film, usually bald but occasionally in a wig (the wigs didn’t work; we wanted him bald), or his four marriages, or his long affair with (among others) Marlene Dietrich, 19 years his senior, interesting as all that may be. Or his renouncing his U.S. citizenship in 1965 to avoid bankruptcy because of tax and penalty debts. More to the point of this post, he had begun smoking heavily at age 12. He quit smoking in 1971, but appeared with a cigarette in publicity photos after that, and was found to have inoperable lung cancer in 1983. The radiation therapy that followed hurt his throat and his ability to speak and sing, but after a few months he was able to resume touring as the King.
In January 1985 the tour reached New York for a farewell Broadway run, as he knew that he was dying. In an interview on Good Morning America he discussed the dangers of smoking and said he would like to make an anti-smoking commercial. He died of lung cancer in a New York hospital on October 10, 1985. A few days later he appeared on all the major U.S. TV networks in a public service announcement sponsored by the American Cancer Society and declared, “Now that I’m gone, I tell you: Don’t smoke. Whatever you do, just don’t smoke. If I could take back that smoking, we wouldn’t be talking about any cancer. I’m convinced of that.” No question, he went out with style. He was cremated and his ashes were buried in France.
Born in Omaha in 1920, Montgomery Clift came to New York with his family in the 1930s and first appeared on Broadway at age 15. His mother managed his acting career even after he became an adult, and supervised his dating of girls as well. He studied at the Actors Studio and continued his stage career in New York for 10 years, rejecting many Hollywood offers before finally yielding. In Hollywood he appeared in many films while rejecting many others, and by the 1950s was one of the most sought-after leading men in film, rivaled only by Marlon Brando. It didn’t hurt that he was remarkably good-looking, not in an exotic way like Brynner, but in a classical Wasp sort of way in the somewhat androgynous vein of Robert Taylor and Tyrone Power. But he had much more than looks, getting deep into his roles and projecting inner strength, anguish, and sensitivity.
I saw Clift playing opposite Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949), which was based on a play based in turn on Henry James’s novel Washington Square (1880), whose psychological subtleties were well captured on both stage and screen. I have always considered it one of the most flawless films of all time, and am now surprised to learn that Clift, a brooding Method actor, had differences with most of the cast and criticized de Havilland’s performance, which I thought brilliant and convincing. By now he had a large female following, so de Havilland got a host of angry letters for rejecting the Clift character in the final scene – a rejection that is totally justified and constitutes her bitter revenge for his having deserted her years before.
Another triumph for Clift was A Place in the Sun (1951), where he played opposite Elizabeth Taylor in a story based on Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel An American Tragedy, whose final pages, showing the male protagonist in prison awaiting execution, are, as I can testify, riveting. To prepare himself for those closing scenes, Clift spent a night in a real state prison. The movie was a great success, and Clift and Taylor were hailed as the most beautiful couple in Hollywood. They became, in fact, close friends.
Clift was unpopular among the film industry elite for refusing to publicize his private life, attend premieres and parties, or give interviews. And for good reason: he was gay. Feeling guilty about his sexuality, he made every effort to conceal it, and the studios saw to it that his friendships with women celebrities like Taylor were well publicized. When in New York he made discreet forays to the gay meccas of Ogunquit, Maine, and Fire Island, but concealed his sexuality even from close friends. So it was in America in those days.
His life changed drastically in 1956 when, leaving a dinner party at the Beverly Hills home of his friend Elizabeth Taylor and her second husband, he drove down a twisting mountain road and smashed his car into a telephone pole. Hearing of the accident from another departing guest, Taylor rushed to the scene, found the car a total wreck and its doors jammed, crawled in through the rear window, hauled herself over the bloody seat, found him lying motionless beneath the steering wheel, pulled him up onto the seat, cradled his head in her lap, and extracted two teeth from his tongue to keep him from choking and so may well have saved his life. When an ambulance and photographers finally arrived, she shielded him from the photographers and forbade them to photograph his bloodied face. Clift was then rushed to a hospital for an immediate operation. He had suffered a broken jaw and nose, and several facial wounds that required plastic surgery. He had the best plastic surgery then available, but his looks were altered, especially the left side of his face, which was partially paralyzed. Still, audiences flocked to see his films, so as to compare “pre-crash” and “post-crash” Monty.
Clift never recovered physically or emotionally from the accident. Already relying on alcohol and pills for relief from an earlier ailment, he became obsessed with drugs, had long talks about them with his pharmacist, became alcoholic, staged tantrums in restaurants and on film sets, and often stayed secluded in his bedroom with the blinds drawn for days. He still made films, but when he costarred in The Misfits with Marilyn Monroe in 1961, she described him as “the only person I know who is in even worse shape than I am.” Few were the directors now willing to cast him in a film. Playing a mentally impaired victim of Nazi sterilization in a brief scene in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), he struggled to remember his lines, until the director told him to improvise, which he did successfully.
|In Judgment at Nuremberg.|
After that he came back to New York, where he had bought a four-story townhouse at 217 East 61st Street in 1960. Living with him was his personal secretary and companion, Lorenzo James. At 1 a.m. on July 23, 1966, James went up to say goodnight to Clift, who was still awake and sitting up in his bed. Clift said he didn’t need anything, would stay up a while longer to read or watch TV. When James asked if Clift wanted him to watch The Misfits on television with him, Clift replied emphatically, “Absolutely not!” James then went to his own bedroom and went to bed.
Rising at 6:30 a.m., James went to awaken Clift, but found his bedroom door closed and locked. He knocked, got no answer. Alarmed and unable to force the door open, he ran down to the back garden, climbed up a ladder to the second floor, and entered Clift’s bedroom through a window. He found Clift in his bed, undressed, lying on his back, eyeglasses on, fists clenched, dead. James phoned the police at once. An autopsy at the city morgue attributed Clift’s death to a heart attack brought on by coronary artery disease, but found no evidence of homicide or suicide. Drug addiction may have led to his death, but there were other health problems as well, including an underactive thyroid that might have made him seem drugged or drunk when sober. Clift was buried in the Quaker Cemetery in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.
Born Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolia in Italy in 1895, he can hardly be blamed for shortening his name to Rudolph Valentino. His mother was French, his father Italian, a veterinarian who died when he was 11. Reportedly a spoiled and troublesome child, he did poorly in school, managed to get a degree from an agricultural school in Genoa, and in 1913, unable to get employment in Italy, came to the U.S. In New York he found odd jobs such as busboy in restaurants and gardener, then even as a taxi dancer. In 1917, when a woman friend, an heiress with whom he may or may not have had a relationship, fatally shot her ex-husband, he feared being called as a witness and abruptly left town with a traveling musical that took him to the West Coast.
Valentino finally ended up in Los Angeles, where he taught dancing, developing a doting older female clientele who let him borrow their luxury cars. Then he began applying for screen roles, got bit parts as “heavies,” became dissatisfied with these roles, and returned to New York, where he thought of settling permanently. But then, nudged by an influential screenwriter, Metro Picture’s New York office hired him for a lead role in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), a silent film epic that became a spectacular box-office success, and history was made. In the film Valentino plays a young Argentine who with a partner dances a spectacular tango, then later joins the French army, fights heroically against the Germans, and dies in battle. Overnight Valentino, ex-busboy and taxi dancer, became a star, the quintessential Latin lover, mysterious and forbidden, virile yet sensitive, who provoked in women sighs, flutters, quivers, and tingles. “Women are not in love with me but with the picture of me on the screen,” he later observed. “I am merely the canvas upon which the women paint their dreams.” He became all the rage, and so did gaucho pants and the tango.
Valentino’s next success was The Sheik (also 1921), which grossed over a million dollars in ticket sales, confirmed Valentino’s image as a male sex symbol, and made him an international superstar. More films followed, not all of them commercial successes, and there were squabbles with his studios and financial ups and downs. An unconsummated first marriage with a lesbian ended in divorce, and a second marriage brought a charge of bigamy, since he hadn’t been divorced from his first wife for a full year; in time a legal marriage followed, to likewise end bitterly in divorce.
Was Valentino gay? In his lifetime the question never came up, though male filmgoers found him unmanly and preferred Douglas Fairbanks; women, however, found him triumphantly seductive, compared to whom the average husband or sweetheart seemed tame. When his masculinity was challenged in print, Valentino would challenge the accuser to a boxing match, since dueling was illegal; one such match actually took place, and Valentino won. Boxing heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, who had trained Valentino in boxing, said the actor was decidedly virile, a lucky guy to whom women were drawn like flies to a honeypot. The consensus today is that he was definitely heterosexual.
On August 15, 1926, while in New York to attend the premiere of his latest film, Valentino collapsed in the Hotel Ambassador. Rushed to a hospital, he was diagnosed with appendicitis and gastric ulcers; surgery followed, but he developed peritonitis, inflammation of the inner wall of the abdomen. His doctors gave an optimistic report to the media, but on August 21 he developed severe pleuritis in his left lung. Though the doctors now knew he couldn’t recover, they let their patient think otherwise. Early on August 23 he chatted briefly with them about his future, then lapsed in a coma and died a few hours later, at age 31.
The news was a thunderbolt to the public. Some 10,000 people lined the streets outside the Campbell Funeral Home at Broadway and 66th Street, waiting to view the coffin. Suicides of fans were reported, and windows were smashed as mourners tried to enter the funeral home, followed on August 24 by an all-day riot. All available police reserves were called out to restore order.
Inside the funeral home, the drama was even more intense. Polish-born film star Pola Negri, who claimed that she and Valentino were gong to be wed, collapsed in hysterics at the coffin. Four Fascist Blackshirts, an honor guard supposedly sent by Mussolini, turned out to be actors hired by the funeral home, and rumors circulated that the body on display was a decoy, which the funeral home vigorously denied.
On August 30 a funeral mass was held at Saint Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church on West 49th Street, following which the body was sent by rail to California, where a second funeral was held in Beverly Hills. He is buried in a crypt in a mausoleum of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery (no, I didn’t make that name up, honest). His time of glory had been only five years, but he was the first international male film superstar and is remembered as such today.
But that’s not the end of the Valentino story, for Hollywood legends don’t die easily. For many years a heavily veiled Lady in Black was seen coming to his grave on the anniversary of his death to silently leave a single red rose. It has been said that this was a publicity stunt devised by a Hollywood press agent. But in 1947 a woman named Ditra Flame (pronounced flay-may) plausibly claimed the honor, saying Valentino had visited her in a hospital when she was deathly ill at age 14, bringing her a red rose and assuring her that she would outlive him by many years. Other Ladies in Black, sometimes throngs of them, have also appeared at the grave, and a fan of Valentino’s continues the tradition to this day, while others leave quantities of roses there as well.
Valentino’s legacy? Most notably, in 1930 the Sheik condoms appeared, another tradition that persists to this day; any pharmacy and many a deli has them.
This is New York
Coming soon: Two more remarkable women, both of them Villagers, and both of whom I knew: Ree Dragonette and Anaïs Nin.
© 2014 Clifford Browder