Monday, April 13, 2020

The Sphinx

I spent a great deal of time with collector William “Bill” Self in 2003. In looking back.. it was pretty much what I did in 2003... interview... I flew down to Burbank, rented a car and drove to Bel Air to see Bill...I lived in San Francisco then and could fly down and back in a day. It was not such an arduous journey and he was eager to meet with me. We enjoyed our Valentino visits because neither of us had any clue what direction the conversations would take. 

Of course Tracy Ryan Terhune wants to say I am lying about this but I am not. Michael Morris introduced me to Bill Self and Bill and I had a great deal to talk about back then. He was ever gracious in welcoming me to his fabulous home and always a perfect gentleman.

Michael Morris and I called Bill, “The Sphinx”. This because Bill had a way of evading answers and issues with his quick silence. He did not lie about something but if he did not want to answer he sat silently or just changed the subject. I soon learned to listen to his refusals to answer and his silences.

Consequently, when Bill did answer it was to the point and truthful, almost blunt. About half way through 2003, I would say our conversations resembled the Mad magazine cartoon, “Spy v. Spy”. He knew I was looking for a case of stolen court records, he knew I suspected he had them and he knew I knew too much about the entire issue. Our interviews became a sort of cat and mouse for information.

So when I pressed him for information about the letters between Rudolph Valentino and his brother Alberto, I expected some evasion, a change in topic. Nope. Bill looked at me and said, “I've read them all. And they are all angry letters about money.”

Those words have been frozen in my memory ever since that moment. And after Bill said that he did change the subject. It went like that. But what about those “angry letters about money”?

So in light of what Bill Self told me on my last visit, I remained perplexed on one issue. Was Bill even capable of telling a lie? I have written about my last visit with Bill Self and spoken about it in a podcast episode. That day I knew something was off the moment I walked through his front door. He was a bit tense and anxious which was extremely unusual for the dapper and undaunted Bill Self.

He did not whisk me into his den to mix me a drink, he ushered me into a side parlor area and sat me down on a formal, rather baroque and uncomfortable light blue sofa. He wasted no time and told me he could not meet with me any more because the Valentino family spokeswoman Jeanine Villalobos told him he had to have an exclusive relationship with her and he was not to speak with me again. He was obviously about to obey. I could see he was not happy about this and responded with my silence...while thinking, he could have told me this before the flight down here and the rental car...

He then turned to me, as we sat on that blue sofa, in that half-lit anti room and said, “I didn't have anything to do with the theft of those cartons from Ullman's garage.”

Well. Well. Well. Imagine that moment for me.

I answered without skipping a beat, “You mean the wicker baskets?”

He answered, “Yes, those.”

Please note that Bill and I had never spoken about this previously at all. 

Of course he had to tell me that face to face and not put it in writing. He had to tell me because I think he knew Ullman's Valentino archive, which he had in his collection, would be dispersed after he died and he also knew damn well those papers and documents were stolen from Ullman. These were not the Valentino memorabilia items Ullman gave to Bill Self on his birthday every June. No, these were documents Bill kept secret.. because they were straight up stolen in a break and enter of Ullman's home. And he had just admitted to knowing that!

So... Self admitted the wicker baskets/cartons were stolen. And in even mentioning this to me, he admitted complicity in the very least. He did not say, “I did not steal Ullman's cartons of documents”, but wanted to tell me he had “nothing to do with the theft”. In my opinion this was an unsolicited confession no matter how you look at it. He might not have stolen the archive but he had it and he knew those documents were stolen. So fill in the blanks.

So I know some of Ullman's stolen papers have been waved about recently as trophies in the competition.. or as someone referred to it to me today, “the vulgar war”... and those trophies, according to Self...once belonged to Ullman and were the contents of those wicker baskets which were stolen from his garage. 

Ullman's children told me about the theft and said their father enjoyed spending time with his wicker baskets of memories/paper trail of his years as Rudolph Valentino's manager. Both Bob and Bunny Ullman told me their father would take a glass of bourbon and go out to the garage alone and go through the baskets for hours on end. They were his legal possessions. And I think now we all recognize these documents which would have logically been in Ullman's possession as Valentino's manager. It frosts me it really does to see those being touted as legitimate memorabilia when they belonged legally to Ullman. Self admitted that. 

So for those collectors doing the braying..I share this as a bit of history about all those documents that have surfaced since Bill Self died so they know some truth about their sordid history. I think they all know about it and carry on pretending as if we are all idiots. Of course "they" the collectors are not about to post a mile long caption how this or that document was one of the papers in the wicker baskets that were stolen from George Ullman's garage. But they know that is the case... 100%. They might wave the receipt for their purchase to lend it some credibility...but they sure do not tell the whole history. And might I suggest these same collectors not be throwing stones at Mr. Ullman, the fine gentleman he was, and accusing him of having things he should not have had, etc. Kind of the height of hypocrisy to do such a thing I think. 

Bill Self got that off his chest quickly before he said good bye forever to me on the orders of Jeanine Villalobos. But I had to pay for a Southwestern flight to Burbank and back plus a rental car... because for some reason Bill Self did not want that all in writing. Well... it is in writing now.

Thanks for reading!
Truthfully and seriously,