A 2000 story for my “Sidecar” column for New Times LA, an alternative weekly published from 1996 to 2002.
Back in Black
Lifting the Veil on the Hollywood legend of Rudolph Valentino’s post-mortem admirer, The Lady in Black.
BY AL RIDENOUR
Ask around and it’s not hard to find someone ready with some lore about the Lady in Black, a mysterious figure supposedly visiting the grave Rudolph Valentino’s on the anniversary of his death. Some will say she’s a heavily veiled woman mourning an unrequited love; others will say she’s a thinly veiled publicity stunt perpetuated by an obliging press.
It’s a mystery all right. But not a shadows-slipping-between-the-crypts, doesn’t show-up-on-film mystery. It’s more of a bewildering maelstrom of gossip, personal fantasy, and fannish bickering that roars to life around August 23, the anniversary of the actor’s death. The eye of this hurricane is the memorial gathering at Hollywood Forever Cemetery drawing pilgrims with strong feelings on the subject from all over the country
One key to that mystery is math; Valentino was 31 when he died of a perforated stomach ulcer in 1926. Anyone around his age at the time would today be teetering around 100. Common sense and film buffs agree, that the Lady in Black is a composite figure created by several generations of devotees, confusingly overlapped, and often contentious to the point of veil-shredding catfights.
Things have calmed down somewhat as the second generation Lady in Black, actress Estrellita del Regil, slips into placid senescence, and the third generation Lady in Black, Vicki J. Callahan presents an inclusive persona that “symbolizes the fans worldwide.” Claiming to love Valentino “as I have loved no one else,” Callahan, a 46-year-old stenographer living with two unmarried brothers in a Mormon household in Eagle Rock is not accepted by all fans. Though her infatuation with the star goes back to a junior high drama class taught by an actor who once portrayed Valentino in a film, her title as “third generation Lady in Black” is based upon a local newscaster’s arbitrary identification of her as such in 1995 — much too recent a claim impress memorial veterans. This year, Callahan was out of the fray, dropping off her roses a bit early and flying to New York to help friends promote their anniversary production of Valentino the Musical.
As always, the service begins at 12:10 p.m., the hour of “Rudy’s” death. The mausoleum is dressed for the occasion with a majestic painting of the Sheik and vast bouquets of 300 roses. Rows of folding chairs, flanked by intimidating marble apostles quickly fill with fans, many old and infirm along with a few dapper youngsters in flapper era clothing. At the appointed hour, Tyler Cassity, president of Hollywood Forever, welcomes special guests Betty Lasky, white-glove matriarchal daughter of Paramount founder Jesse Lasky, and Estrellita del Regil. Our second generation Lady in Black is neither veiled, not hovering mysteriously in the shadows but seated in her wheelchair prominently across from the lectern. On this rare outing from her Montrose nursing home, she appears frail and only tenuously oriented to the mortal realm.
The service begins with a video montage of dreamy slow-mo film clips, publicity stills, and candids of the heartthrob. During the film, del Regil closes her eyes in a catnap that could pass for romantic ecstasy. End credit applause rouses her, but she’s occasionally lulled back by the lineup loquacious film historians and fans.
After the service, she is wheeled over to mound of flowers at crypt #1205 where she deposits a rose with some assistance. Receiving adoring visitors with mute handclasps, she beams indiscriminately, and responds to most questions with erratic nods or a few words parroted back.
With no Lady in Black to speak for herself, the fans obligingly fill in the history.
“If anyone should be the Lady in Black it’s me,” chuckles Jim Craig, a 44-year old mortgage banker from Chicago. “I have the veil.” Craig just looks like any other shorts-clad Midwesterner tourist except that he’s wearing a bit of his massive collection, including a “We mourn our loss” button handed out to 1926 mourners, a belt buckle embossed with Valentino’s image, and ring reproduced from one worn by the star onscreen.
But whose veil does Craig own?
Ditra Helena Mefford, a vaudeville dancer and concert violinist, better known as Ditra Flamé but also going by the name Princess Orvella Wilson. Though her array of aliases would do little to inspire confidence in others, (and though there are other contenders) Craig and many other fans are convinced that Flamé is the most deserving of the title “Lady in Black.” They point to letters and photographs in Craig’s collection that illustrate the modesty and longevity of her efforts. “I even have pictures of her at the service back in 1929,” Craig says. “She was not seeking publicity.” (Flame’s motivation was allegedly gratitude for Valentino merely bringing her flowers while she was hospitalized as a girl.) “It wasn’t until all the other women in black started showing up, that she decided to come forward,” Craig says. “She showed up for one last time dressed completely in white, gave a nice speech, and then said she was going off to be a missionary to the Indians.”
And del Regil’s claim?
“Estrellita, she’s… part of the tradition,” Craig hesitates. “It’s nice to have her here — she’s toned down some.”
McKelvy, one of the longtime speakers at the memorial joins in the discussion. He has a lengthy history with del Regil, one that’s involved refereeing fights between her and other women whose flowers she would jealously snatch from Valentino’s vases. “She’s scratched her name on his slab too,” he says.
“One year,” Craig recalls. “She taped flowers to the crypt with black electrical tape, “She put it all over everything because she said black was his favorite color.”
“Remember her spray-painting the plaque gold?” McKelvy reminisces. “And once she started chipping away at the marble because she wanted to move the gates in front of Valentino’s crypt.”
“The first year I came,” Craig says, “she cut out little paper hearts and wrote on them, ‘My heart belongs to Daddy,’ and taped butterscotch candies all the way up and down the mausoleum.”
“Valentino was almost her dad,” McKelvy chuckles.
All agree that del Regil’s idea of a romance between her mother and the star is strictly the product of a super-charged imagination. After her mother’s death in 1973, the former stage actress and film extra began insisting that the mysterious black-clad figure had been her mother mourning the marriage that nearly occurred. Del Regil picked up those duties in the early ’80s, and in 1989, she even had Mom’s remains dug out of Forest Lawn Glendale and replanted just around the lake from Valentino’s.
“You know what’s funny,” McKelvy muses, “Everyone was getting so tired of Estrellita, and then when we wheeled her back in ’98, everybody was just happy to see her.”
And Vicki Callahan?
“She doesn’t pretend to be the original or related to the original or anything,” Craig says. “She’s just here to keep the legend alive.”
Tracy Terhune, a buff thirtyish collector who’s brought in a number of personal effects for display, is less diplomatic. “She’s very self-serving,” he fumes. “I have literally seen her with my own eyes put roses in those vases, and once her brother takes her picture — she pulls them out and walks away! And that’s the honest-to-God truth!”
A woman sporting a Valentino T-shirt and fuzzy blonde ponytail is eager to get in on the dirt-dishing. “Oh, I know who you’re talking about! I saw her do that. She’s only after publicity.” Stella Grace, a 54-year-old casino cashier all the way from Rhode Island is a longtime friend of Craig’s. The two collect as a team despite their residence in different states. “Jim and I speak on the phone every single solitary day,” she says. “We love each other. Whichever one of us goes first he gets the other’s collection.”
That’s not all the collectors will share. One day they will co-habit a niche in a newly constructed repository for cremation urns just around the corner from the Love God himself. Terhune says he has one too, “I’m as close as you can get.” Terhune may be close, but Craig was the first, as he pointed out during his speech earlier, remarking on the beauty of the repository and encouraging everyone in the assembly to find a niche for themselves and “join me.”
When Valentino’s death was reported in 1926, the press reported several suicides likewise eager to join the star in death. The train that bore his body from New York to Los Angeles was stopped all along the way by women throwing their bodies on the tracks. Pola Negri, the histrionic panther-walking vamp with whom the star was last involved, made the biggest show of all, flinging herself on Valentino’s coffin while clad in $13,000 widow’s weeds. This first Lady in Black became the object of intense and immediate public disdain. Of the thousands who mourned Valentino, few wanted to believe Negri’s grief was any greater than their own.
Over the next couple decades the Ladies who followed veiled themselves in mystery and wisely kept their distance from jealous fans.