Rudolph Valentino had the world at his feet when the star of the silver screen met an untimely death. But did a mysterious ring and it’s supposed curse send him sooner to his grave?
Laura Macfehin looks at the legend of the so-called ‘ring of destiny’ and the troubled lives of the people caught in its curse!
By the time Rudolph Valentino came to Hollywood he had already left two lives behind. In 1913 he arrived at Ellis Island as a teenager alone, leaving behind a doting mother in Italy, a certificate in agricultural studies he had no interest in using and the memory of a disapproving father.
In New York he waited tables and eventually became a taxi dancer (also called tango pirates) at Maxim’s. His good looks made him a favourite amongst the older ladies that were his clientele, and he started a relationship with the Chilean heiress Blanca de Saulles.
This tumultuous friendship saw Valentino testify in court at their divorce proceedings as to Mr de Saulles infidelity, after which de Saulles had Valentino arrested on trumped up vice charges. When Blanca then shot her ex husband after he refused her court appointed custody rights, Valentino, fearing he would be called to testify again, left the East coast in a hurry.
In sunny Hollywood Valentino began his third life– quickly gaining work in the burgeoning movie business. He secured his first leading role in The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse in 1921, which was a huge success. It was The Sheik, however, filmed that same year that cemented his sex symbol status as a ‘Latin Lover’.
Men and women alike found his presence on-screen mesmerising, and the studios capitalised on this with films like Blood and Sand and The Cobra. He was at the height of his popularity when, on a break from shooting in San Francisco he spotted a ring in the window of an antique store.
It was a large signet ring with a tiger’s eye set in gold. The shop owner was reluctant to sell it Valentino, telling him it was jinxed, and describing it somewhat ostentatiously as ‘the ring of destiny’. Valentino bought it on the spot.
He used it as part of his costume in his next film, The Young Rajah, which was a flop at the box office, and thinking of what the shop keeper had told him he put the ring away. He got it out again though some years later to wear in The Son of the Sheik.
Shortly after filming had finished on the film Valentino collapsed in New York, where he was operated on for perforated gastric ulcers. The doctors gave him a good prognosis but shockingly just a week later he died of peritonitis. He was 31.
His death caused a wave of hysterical grief across the United States, and at the centre of this maelstrom was his then girlfriend, actress Pola Negri.
Although Valentino had been seeing at least one other woman at the time, Negri insisted that she was the fiancee, and rode in be-veiled state in the funeral wagon that took Valentino’s body by rail back to California, stopping at every small town along the way so that mourning fans could pay their respects.
As well as taking centre stage, Negri also took the jinxed ring as something of Valentino’s estate to remember him by.
After nine months she had recovered herself enough to marry a Georgian “prince” Serge Mdivani. She suffered a miscarriage, something she mourned the rest of her life, and the marriage quickly faltered too.
In 1932, Negri was performing with a young crooner named Russ Colombo. Negri was struck by his resemblance to her former lover, and gave Colombo the tiger eye ring as a token of her affection.
She was not the only one to make the comparison– the baritone was known as ‘Radio’s Valentino’ not just because of his physical likeness to the silent movie star but also because the romantic image his crooning love songs gave him.
He and Negri parted ways, but the ring went with Colombo as his star rose.
In 1934 he was at the height of his popularity with hits such as “You Call it Madness (But I Call It Love)” and “Too Beautiful For Words”. The latter he had written for the beautiful blonde star he was in love with– Carole Lombard.
She returned his love, and on September 2nd 1934 had a dinner date with him planned. In the day time he visited his good friend, photographer Lansing Brown. He was wearing the ring.
Lansing Brown had a collection of antique firearms, and he was fooling with a duelling pistol while the friends sat in the library. Unexpectedly the gun went off in his hands and a fragment of shot ricocheted off a table and hit Colombo above the left eye. He died in hospital at age 26.
Colombo’s siblings, fearing what the shock would do to their mother, who was at the time hospitalised with heart failure, maintained the fiction of Colombo being alive for the next ten years, Lombard herself helping by sending letters to the older lady she penned herself under Colombo’s name.
Little did anyone know Lombard herself would die a tragic death just eight years later when a plane crash would leave Clark Gable her grieving widower in 1942.
In the mean time, the ring went to Colombo’s good friend, fellow entertainer Joe casino. Wary of the ring’s reputation as a bringer of bad luck, Casino kept the ring locked up in a glass case in his house. After a while though he let friends convince him the curse was just superstition, and he took the ring out of its case and began to wear it. A week later, the car Casino was driving was hit by a truck and he was killed instantly.
Del Casino, Joe’s brother, then inherited the ring. He scoffed at the curse being nothing but coincidence and bad luck, and made a show of wearing it with no ill effect. He lent it to a Valentino impersonator, who also suffered no bad consequences, leading one newspaper columnist to print that there was no curse on the ring.
Shortly after this a burglar named Joe Willis was accidentally shot by police fleeing Del Casino’s home– the ring was found in his pocket.
In 1938, producer Edward Small was working on a biopic of Rudolph Valentino. For the main part he had in mind a young english man named Jack Dunn. Dunn had been a world medallist in ice skating, until he quit his skating career in the hope of following his former girlfriend Sonja Henie onto a career on screen.
In 1938 Dunn had already starred in one film, Everybody’s Girl, and had been cast in the lead of another, The Duke of Westpoint, when he was asked to screen test for the role of Rudolph Valentino.
The producer borrowed actual items from Valentino’s wardrobe to dress Dunn up in, and he borrowed the ring from Casino to complete the look. Dressed as The Sheik, Dunn made a very convincing Valentino, and everyone agreed the test went very well.
Work done Dunn went with some friends on a hunting trip in Texas. He was a novice hunter, and it is not thought he even did any shooting, and yet a week later he had died from the rare blood disease tularemia, possibly from handling a dead rabbit. He was 21.
After this, Del Casino decided to err on the side of caution, and had the ring locked up in a bank vault in downtown Los Angeles, where it remains to this day. So far, no-one else has experienced any weird effects from the tiger eye ‘ring of destiny’.
The bank has perhaps suffered more than its fair share of robberies, strikes and other disruptions though. After a heist that went spectacularly wrong the leader of the gang responsible supposedly said they never would have hit that particular bank if they had known what was in its vaults.
The curse sleeps?
Does the curse persist? Did it ever exist? The portrait above by Federico Beltrán Masses, which features Valentino with a guitar and Negri wearing the ring, was sold last September in London for NZ$285,444. Masses, who knew the couple and painted many Hollywood stars likely incorporated the ring in his composition because he knew it added to the allure of their story– which is after all the flip side to any cursed object.