A blog about anything and everything New York, past and present: books and book fairs, voodoo, scams, junk mail. Madonna, Gay Lib, Wall Street, the West Village (where I live), dirty words, dying, fashion, finance, P.T. Barnum and the Donald, the Mystic Rose, upstate vs. downstate, stuffed cheetahs, and much more.
132. Yul Brynner, Montgomery Clift, Rudolph Valentino: Famous New York Deaths
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.