Thursday, June 18, 2020

Finding the Sarcophagus of Rudolph Valentino

Below I share one more article I wrote some years ago about a "find" I made while researching Affairs Valentino and its bizarre story:

The interview had all the elements of a scene right out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie: a Peter Lorre look-alike mortician, tastefully blacked-out mortuary windows and air sickeningly sweet with a mother lode of fresh blooms awaiting the morning’s funeral. In search of details about Rudolph Valentino’s death, I had traveled a long, long way for this interview. Despite the macabre setting and the fact that the gracious mortician was far too welcoming for my comfort, I forged on. Perhaps my uneasiness was due to the chilling realization he was employed by a vast corporation proudly billing themselves as the, “world’s largest death-care provider.”

At some point during the interview, I was asked if I’d ever heard of Valentino’s second coffin. The mortician explained how it had long been rumored within the funeral business that an outer casket encased Valentino’s coffin on the train ride from New York to Los Angeles. I said I knew nothing about an outer casket and asked why such a case would have been used. He went on explaining how in order to transport a corpse across state lines, coffins were required by Federal law to be encased in a sarcophagus or shipping case. Valentino’s coffin was encased in just such a shipping case which was custom-made for the journey and believed to still be in existence. Although the mortician claimed he had no idea where the case was located, he promised to make a few phone calls to see what he could find out.

That was the end of our discussion of the shipping case that day and I proceeded to photograph the Valentino file on record in Campbell's archive which included the lengthy invoice for services rendered and a massive scrapbook of newspapers clippings.

For a short while after that interview I had no clue my presence at Campbell's that day piqued interest in the location of Valentino’s shipping case. The imaginations of several morticians were sparked and this inspired a covert operation to capitalize on the missing shipping case.

About one month after the interview, I opened an e-mail from “the world’s largest death-care provider” to see photographs of a metal coffin loading onto the screen. While the images were downloading, I received a call from the mortician with news that this was indeed Valentino’s shipping case. Furthermore he’d found the owner and was trying to secure permission for me see the hidden treasure.

I told him I thought the piece should be authenticated by an expert and once again asked him for the owner’s contact information. With this he said he would get back to me and hung up. I would have to be content with nothing more than the thrilling photographs for a while longer.

Yet almost immediately, the intrigue surrounding the location of the case and the identity of the owner became so intense I began to wonder if I would ever see it. The mortician called me several times to update me on the status of my request to see the case. He also asked me what I thought the cash value of such a piece could be. Smelling the rat, I told him I didn’t have the slightest idea of its monetary value or interest in anything but its history.

I prepared to move as soon as I was given a go ahead and assumed I would make a quick trip to wherever, snap a few pictures and have my story. Instead, I soon landed squarely in the middle of heady negotiations for the sale of the shipping case and risked my neck for a just a few moments with Rudy’s mythical sarcophagus.

Access to the actual case complicated as the mortician made his power play to position himself as the only contact with the owner and thereby cash in on in any possible deal the shipping case’s owner might make. Granting new meaning to the word cagey, he brainstormed an elaborate but thinly constructed system of communication to guarantee his role.

He asked me not to call him at work, to only call him through a second contact he put me in touch with, to use only this cell number and that e-mail, etc. and I was never given the owner’s name. As he began his methodical and territorial watch over the artifact, the welcoming host who greeted me in his mortuary office a few months earlier morphed into agent OO undertaker.

He informed me the owner was interested in selling the shipping case and added that he had run into a snag because a few of his mortician cronies heard about the case’s impending sale and were scheming for their cut of the sale.

Mortician was thoroughly dismayed at this turn of events and lamented to me about it over the phone. He was so distressed and paranoid at the deteriorating status of his gambit I could almost hear the sweat beading on his forehead.

Ignoring the cloak and dagger, I called the cell phone of mortician's mystery contact number two and after some doing, I was at long last given an address where I could view the case. I scheduled some immediate travel arrangements and boarded a plane for Los Angeles. Within a few hours I had landed, rented a car at the airport and was following my usually unreliable MapQuest directions to the designated address.

The address was that of a mortuary situated deep in some heavy inner city skid row real estate. It was the kind of neighborhood no prudent soul would dare cross without a police escort. Nevertheless, it was easy to imagine a time when the establishment could have been surrounded by a more Mayberry-like backdrop. But on the morning of my appointment the streets were alive and humming with prostitutes pacing for work, homeless campers organizing their life's possessions on the sidewalk, and wild-eyed, ranting desperados preaching to whom ever would listen.

Having arrived a few minutes early, I made a quick dash into a nearby McDonalds for a sorely needed cup of coffee. This was no predictable Micky Dee safe zone that sunny morning. After noticing several of the tables were burned char black in an apparently substantial blaze and that the disheveled, armed guard posted in front of the counter was swaying and half conscious, I made what I hoped would be a subtle retreat to my rental car.

I failed miserably only to be followed through the parking lot by a squirrley-eyed teenager. At this point I made the executive decision to spend the remaining few minutes before my private viewing of Rudolph Valentino’s long lost shipping case sipping my coffee in the safety of the rental car driving around the block.

Meanwhile inside the mortuary, the bronze and copper casket was being dragged out of its warehouse storage for the first time in seventy seven years. Like a great vessel run aground, the case was so cumbersome it took three mortuary workers to heft the unwieldy bark onto a mortuary gurney. They had their orders to have the neglected relic on display in one of their private chapels by nine o’clock sharp. Just before the hour they wheeled the shipping case into the small sanctuary, lifted off the heavy cover and propped it against the wall.

It was up to the floor mortician that morning to oversee the arrangements in each of the mortuary chapels and it was during his inspection of the shipping case installation that he noticed an inscription on the casket’s tarnished lid. After retrieving a can of brass polish from his office he began to wipe away the years of neglect. The inscription read, “Rudolfo Gugliemi, Rudolph Valentino, Born May 6, 1895 Died August 23, 1926.” The mortician found the inscription curious because his name also happened to be Rudolph.

Mortician Rudy had just finished his brass polishing when I arrived. He escorted me into the side chapel off the lobby where the gurney had been positioned in front of several rows of church pews. After months of anticipation, I paused to appreciate the point blank impact of the moment. The e-mailed photographs did this masterpiece no justice.

The case was in extraordinary condition, masterfully constructed and appeared to have been completely hand made. The delicate beads of solder were so expertly placed I was sure some jeweler in 1926 must have labored an eternity in its execution. In his best professional whisper, mortician Rudy left the chapel telling me to take my time. He didn’t seem sure why I was there and probably wondered why I would come so far to sit in a church pew paying my respects to an empty casket.

I was there to document the objet d'art and as soon as he departed I got down to work. The case was mine to investigate and inspect from all angles so I set up my tripod and took a quick twenty or thirty photographs. I brushed my hand along its dusty interior and examined the detailed tooling of the handles. Scratch marks from the transport of Valentino’s interior coffin were still evident. The mortician had polished the cover of the case to a brilliant shine and I noticed Guglielmi had been misspelled.

Staring into the long metal box it was hard not to visualize its cargo of long ago. It was in this case Rudy’s lifeless body jostled along the rails on his last ride home to California. I felt no subtle twinge at that thought and at the evidence before me of the brutal honesty of Valentino’s death. And after weeks of negotiating access to view the shipping case, I was suddenly gripped by the desire to pack up my briefcase and camera and get as far away as I could from the grisly find.

I stopped by Mortician Rudy’s office on my way out to shake his hand and thank him for his time. Before I left I decided to have a stab at it and asked him directly if he could give me the owner’s name. Apparently he had not been briefed on the subterfuge preventing me from knowing the identity of the case’s owner. For with no hesitation he jotted down the man’s name and phone number. I thanked him again, dashed back to the rental car, and headed off to the airport and home.

When I placed the call to the case’s owner, he granted me a stilted interview but was slightly confused as to how I got his number and assumed I was an interested buyer. I finally had the story and photographs but it would be a bit longer before I could make any graceful exit from the thorny subject of the shipping case. I realized my error in telling the mortician at Campbell's that I  had spoken with the shipping case's owner when he became immediately paranoid I would compromise his deal. I assured him I would not reveal the owner's name to anyone out of a courtesy for him for arranging my viewing of the case.

Within a few days I made another trip to Los Angeles for another interview with Valentino memorabilia collector, Bill Self. Like the naive child of the Valentino world I was at that time, I told him excitedly about my find and how I had seen the case. I showed him the photographs, did not tell him I knew who the owner was and left to fly home to San Francisco.

Like any other artifact pertaining to Rudolph Valentino, from the moment the case was uncovered its cash value was increasing with each passing day. The day after my visit with Bill Self, the mortician called me to say he had spoken with Self and learned he was also interested in buying the case. Bill Self wasted no time calling Campbell's to be directed to the mortician. 

Bill Self then sent me an e-mail informing me he had just spoken with the mortician at Campbell's and added he had already been to see the shipping case that day, had contacted the owner and was about to refuse the mortician's offer to buy it for 15,000$. I called Self and asked him how he learned the identity of the owner. He told me that he recognized the case from a photograph of Valentino's coffin being off loaded and knew the mortuary was one belonging to the Cunningham family. Incredibly, they were still in business and still had possession of the shipping case. Bill Self had his hands on that case within five minutes of my leaving his home that day.

Of course the mortician suspected I betrayed him by telling Self the owner's name which I had not, but his hopes for the ready chunk of cash had fallen through. Although Bill Self told me the price of the shipping case was too steep for him, in hindsight I believe at that point Self already had taken ownership of it and had that case in his collection.

When I downloaded the photographs I took of the shipping case, my fifteen year old daughter brought one thing to my attention. To my practical eye she pointed out what appeared to be a circular orb floating over the casket. She declared the perfect orb drifting in the space above Valentino’s shipping case definitive evidence of ghostly presence. I did not wholeheartedly believe her claim, but ghost or no ghost, as far as I was concerned leaning in to touch the inside of Valentino’s open sarcophagus was a disturbing end to an utterly disquieting tale. I asked Self a few times if he knew what ever happened to the shipping case but he never gave me an answer.

According to Campbell's records, the case originally cost nine hundred dollars. This would be about $9000 today. Two other charges were added to the original cost of the shipping case; a mechanic was paid fifteen dollars to solder the base to a brace in the train car and an engraver was paid 25$ to misspell Rudy’s name on the cover.

The unexpected appearance of this artifact confirms there are still treasures to be found and new stories to be told about Rudolph Valentino which reveal a trail not quite cold. I lament I told Self about the shipping case because as is the case with almost every other Rudolph Valentino artifact, this museum piece has vanished into a secret archive of some private collector, never to be seen by Valentino's public again.

I learned at one point from Bill Self that another Valentino collector owned a crypt space near Valentino's. I often wonder if Self acted as middle man and sold this to that collector so they could be buried in the shipping case and next to their idol. Who knows?

I never heard from the mortician at Campbell's again and I think he waited a bit too long to close a deal on the shipping case. He and I underestimated Bill Self's ability to find the owner and arrive with the cash in hand.