Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Uncovering the Story of Affairs Valentino

I wrote the below article many years ago. It is a brief account of my Affairs Valentino discovery process and in re-reading it today I felt renewed dedication to defend the work of S. George Ullman's son, Robert Warren Ullman on this book. Despite all the barbaric opposition to Affairs Valentino, the book shines through... it was born from a foundation of integrity and in no small measure due to Bob Ullman. It is with the utmost respect for Bob that I share this account. I intended to post this as jpeg images, but I know some of you are reading this blog in Italian using the translator feature and I did not want to deprive you of the ability to do so. Thank you for reading. 

"Uncovering the Story of Affairs Valentino" by Evelyn Zumaya reads as follows:


On the morning of July 10, 2005, I boarded a flight in Oakland, California and flew to John Wayne International Airport in Irvine, California. A few minutes after the plane touched down, I hailed a cab on MacArthur Boulevard for the next leg of my journey; a ten minute ride to a gracious home in a secluded neighborhood a few miles south of Irvine. I arrived at my destination that picture perfect Southern California morning to find the familiar entry patio vibrant with potted orchids. I was aware of my host’s appreciation for this sensitive bloom and brought along a bouquet of freshly-cut Thai orchids. With my orchids and briefcase in hand, I rapped on the front door, took a deep breath and braced myself in anticipation of the interview before me. For contrary to my radiant surroundings on the patio, I knew that the scenario on the other side of the front door was anything but sunny.
I’d stood there many times but on that occasion it was with a lump in my throat and a leaden heart as I knew that this would be my final visit with Rudolph Valentino’s godson, Robert Warren Ullman. “Bob” was gravely ill. A few days earlier I received his e-mail requesting I travel to Irvine to visit him one more time. He concluded his brief message with a warning, “Better make it sooner than later”.
From 1923 to 1926, Bob’s father, George Ullman was silent film icon Rudolph Valentino’s closest friend, mentor and trusted business manager. And it was during the course of researching my book on Valentino titled, Affairs Valentino, I interviewed Bob and his younger sister Bunny. Locating George Ullman’s surviving relatives became an early objective in my research as I hoped he left archival materials relating to his affiliation with Valentino. With Ullman occupying a close vantage point of Valentino’s personal and professional life, I became determined to pursue this avenue of investigation.

**

In the rare book library at the University of Southern California, I pored through the archives of Valentino biographer Irving Schulman. On one of his LATimes article photocopies, he scrawled the words, “A Mystery Indeed.” This article reported the story of George Ullman’s assertion that Valentino’s safe was raided after the star's death and a critical portion of his will removed. This turned out to be a mystery I would solve after finding the Ullman siblings and the Ullman archive.
In locating George Ullman’s estate, I subscribed to an internet “people search”, purchased a listing of every Ullman in the continental United States and mailed a letter of inquiry to each listing. Within a few weeks I received an e-mail from George Ullman’s grandson. He directed me to Ullman’s only surviving children — Bunny, then seventy-six years old and her older brother Bob, who at eighty was terminally ill with cancer. George’s grandson also informed me his father, George’s oldest son Dan, died some years earlier.
I forwarded a letter of introduction to Bob and Bunny Ullman and within a few days I received a telephone call from Bob. During this first conversation, he informed me he would be happy to discuss his father’s story with me as they had never been contacted regarding his association with Rudolph Valentino. I made plans to travel to Irvine to interview him in person and placed a telephone call to his sister Bunny. Unlike Bob, Bunny lived nearby and I was able to meet with her within a few days. During my first of many interviews with Bunny, she shared with me a significant cache of unknown documents and artifacts relating to her father and Valentino.
The most important item in this treasure trove was her father’s unpublished memoir. Prior to his death in 1975, George Ullman wrote this frank memoir revealing his behind-the-scenes life with Rudolph Valentino. Until Bunny handed me this lost piece of Hollywood history, her father’s memoir remained unread and nearly forgotten in the Ullman home for thirty years. Upon first glance, I noticed some of the document’s pages were written in Ullman’s handwriting while others were transcribed by a typist. Bunny explained how she and her brothers encouraged their father to write the memoir during the last months of his life and ferried his handwritten pages to a typist for transcription.
At that point in my research, I had read nearly every book on Valentino and as I read Ullman’s account I was dumbfounded. Riveted by Ullman’s many personal anecdotes, I realized he was drastically altering the current version of Valentino’s life story. It was also apparent to me that although Ullman and Valentino appeared to have stridently different personalities, the lives of these two loyal friends were inexorably intertwined from their very first meeting.
As I read further, I learned of many critical events in Valentino’s life that had never been mentioned in any Valentino publication, book or article, to date. I knew it would be critical I fact-check Ullman’s memoir to substantiate many of his claims. Consequently, I embarked upon a campaign to locate any more unknown, unpublished documents and archives which might provide a deeper understanding of Valentino’s personal life and his relationship with Ullman.
I then made my first trip to Irvine to interview Bob Ullman and was thrilled when he shared his private collection of family photographs and documents as well as many details of his father’s tenure as the executor of Valentino’s estate. This was a subject of great interest to Bob as his father told him little about his thirty year involvement in the contentious settlement of Valentino’s estate. Bob made it clear to me that his father’s legal travails as Valentino’s executor profoundly affected the Ullman household. I knew this was typically a subject which received scant coverage in books on Valentino and decided that investigating this “after-life” of Valentino might reveal a great deal more about his business affairs and his partnership with Ullman.
Bob informed me that as a result of his father’s tenure as Valentino’s executor, a $100,000.00 judgment had been levied against him; by today’s monetary exchange nearly one million dollars. I learned this judgment was handed down after Valentino’s only brother, Alberto Valentino, charged Ullman with fraud and mismanagement of the Valentino estate. And although Ullman was exonerated on all charges, the judgment was issued by the court ordering Ullman to reimburse the Valentino estate for cash advances he made as executor to Valentino’s three apparent heirs without the court’s approval.

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It was apparent to me during this first interview with Bob that he lamented the dearth of information regarding this painful aspect of his father’s life and regretted his being much maligned for his role as Valentino’s business manager and executor of his estate. According to Bob many members of Valentino’s inner circle, including his brother, resented George’s authority over Valentino during the star’s life and many years after. Because of this resentment, he felt his father was accused of many unfounded allegations which were never substantiated by any factual documentation. He said this frustration was shared by the entire Ullman family and had been further compounded when George Ullman refused all opportunities to publicly defend himself against the uncorroborated and denigrating reports.
As I concluded my interview, Bob told me he spent his professional career as a mortgage banker. I had no idea at that moment just how valuable his accounting expertise and inherent stickling for details was about to become to my work. Before I left that day, Bob insisted I locate the probate court records of Valentino’s estate settlement before writing a word about this sore subject. Without such authoritative reference, he added, I would just be perpetuating more surmise and speculation. As he had never accessed the documents, he was eager to discover what they might reveal and encouraged me to delve deep for all available supporting primary source material which would reveal the facts of his father’s performance as Valentino’s executor.
Despite this tall order, I knew Bob was correct. Until I analyzed the court records relating to the settlement of the Valentino estate, I could not authoritatively report the story. I was confidant I could easily locate these records as they would all be on file and available for public review in The Los Angeles County Hall of Records (LACHR). Within the next few days, I found myself sleuthing through the dusty stacks of the LACHR in search of Rudolph Valentino’s public records. In light of the thirty years of legal exchange relating to the settlement of his estate, I expected the case file to be substantial in size. Unfortunately, my initial searches were fruitless and I returned to Irvine to share my disappointing news with Bob. He continued to assert that, by law, these records should be housed in this precise location and remained adamant I not write about his father’s tenure as Valentino’s executor until I found legal documentation of his performance.
More than a little discouraged, I pursued my search for Valentino’s missing case file while searching for other available sources of public information to fact check George Ullman’s memoir and substantiate his claims. With the assistance of a genealogical search service, I retained a researcher in Italy who successfully located critical Valentino family documents. At the headquarters of the National Archive of Alien Registration, or NARA, citizenship records revealed a wealth of vital supportive data including martial status, ports and dates of entry, occupations, addresses and rare passport photographs.
I logged onto the websites of the historical newspaper archives of both The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, PROQUEST, and referenced many previously never-before-accessed press coverage of the day. This was then, in 2003, a relatively new research tool which allowed me to access the historical archives of many major newspapers on the internet merely by merely obtaining a library card to the libraries archiving the PROQUEST database. For a modest fee, a researcher at the Los Angeles County Library located and copied many documents for me including an unknown file of hand-written index cards referencing further never-before-accessed articles relating to Valentino and George Ullman.
By referencing and cross-referencing old telephone directories on file in public libraries and poring through police archives, census records and local historical museums, I located further supportive documentation. After several interviews with Valentino memorabilia collectors and experts on the subject of silent films and Rudolph Valentino, a story began to unfold. While following each lead, I found myself in unlikely, often dangerous locations including a mortuary situated in a gang-ridden neighborhood in Los Angeles, a dreary funeral home in Manhattan and the cloistered den of a reclusive Valentino collector.
Despite far too many setbacks, my primary goal was always to locate Valentino’s case file of public records. I made this my objective not only for the benefit of my work but also for Bob Ullman. With his life slipping away, his time remaining to learn the truth about his father was growing shorter by the day. I returned again and again to the Los Angeles County Hall of Records but continued to come up empty-handed as I was only able to recover a few documents relating solely to the collection processes on the court judgment held against George Ullman.
Clearly stymied, I explained my predicament to the LACHR staff and reminded them that they had been charged by the public to safe-guard these documents in this location. They offered several possible explanations why Valentino’s case file could not be found on the premises. Perhaps, they alleged, the file suffered water damage during a fire in the building years earlier. They explained how all documents compromised in the blaze were freeze-dried and then housed at a separate location. After a time-consuming and thorough search through these freeze-dried records, this proved not to be the case. The LACHR staff then informed me that perhaps Valentino’s file might be archived at the facility’s auxiliary location; this also proved not to be the case.
At this juncture my research assumed the added dimension of investigative reporting when I realized I had uncovered a crime; Valentino’s case file of public records had not simply been misplaced but had in fact been stolen. I had inadvertently stumbled onto compelling evidence of the theft of these documents while also exposing a shadowy world of the Valentino family's fiercely-guarded secrets and their practice of controlling Valentino collectors with a currency of their privately owned memorabilia.
Knowing how the illegal removal of any records from the LACHR constituted a felony in Los Angeles County, I proceeded to pursue my work in secrecy until I was able to document my suspicions. Whenever I did make this information public, I would be revealing evidence of an unshakable, decades-old Valentino family vendetta and their organized conspiracy which had successfully kept critical information about Rudolph Valentino and the truth about George Ullman cloaked from public access for eighty years.
After searching various depositories, I was at last rewarded in my quest for documentation when I located a case file of some one thousand pages of copies of Valentino’s missing probate court documents in a separate, unlikely location; an appeals court law library in San Francisco. This file included Valentino’s personal and professional financial statements, official court transcripts of testimony delivered during the lengthy settlement of his estate and extracts from his private household ledgers with entries detailing payments to his personal staff and loyal bootleggers.
The file also included copies of Valentino’s studio and business contracts, detailed records of his personal production company’s transactions, a precise listing of his debts at the time of his death including such specific items as his oil, grocery and ice bills and pages of a court-ordered audit of all of George Ullman’s executor's books. The information contained within these documents allowed me to validate the data in George Ullman’s memoir and learn a vast amount of new information concerning Valentino’s personal and business affairs and his business affiliation with Ullman. To the best of my knowledge, none of this information had ever been published or referenced in any publication about Valentino.
Perhaps, the most surprising document that turned up in this recovered case file was a previously “missing” second page of Valentino’s will. As I read this mysterious single sheet of paper, the commonly-held version of Valentino’s Last Will and Testament was overturned. Furthermore, the contents of the document presented an explanation for why Valentino’s court records were stolen from LACHR. The mere existence of this file of copied documents found in San Francisco in addition to the references contained within, proved definitively that Bob Ullman was right on target — Valentino’s original court records were indeed once housed in their rightful location in the LACHR.
During the entire time I conducted my investigation, the staff at LACHR conducted their own internal search for Valentino’s records. Upon the conclusion of their appraisal of the situation, Bob and Bunny Ullman received a notarized letter from the Los Angeles County Clerk acknowledging that Valentino’s probate records were unavailable for public review at their Los Angeles facility due to the entire case file being “missing”. It was then Bob, Bunny and I sat down with the recovered case file of copied documents to read the facts of their father’s story.
As I worked my way through the hundreds of pages of old court records, I recognized the name of another key player in this story, Frank Mennillo. Although it was often stated in Valentino publications that Frank Mennillo was his life-long friend, Mennillo received only meager, and as I was about to learn, inaccurate mention. According to the information in the recovered court records, Mennillo played a major role in the settlement of Valentino’s estate and with this in mind I pursued yet another angle of the story.
After reviewing the minimal information I could find on Mennillo, I set out to locate the Mennillo estate. I did so by the same means I utilized to locate the Ullman estate; a national mailing. I soon received a response from Frank Mennillo’s grandson who informed me that no one had ever interviewed their family regarding his grandfather’s affiliation with Rudolph Valentino. He put me in touch with Frank Mennillo’s daughter-in-law and I then began a series of informative interviews with the Mennillo family. They eagerly shared family photographs and archives with me and I learned how Frank Mennillo was Valentino's godfather, or benefactor, when he arrived in the U.S., and assisted him throughout his life with his personal and financial problems.
During my interviews with the Mennillo family, I gleaned more information supporting the claims George Ullman made in his memoir and learned more about Valentino’s affiliation with not only Frank Mennillo but George Ullman as well. Most significantly, my interviews with both the Ullman and Mennillo families presented me with the first account of Valentino’s death from the only two people who stood at his deathbed in 1926; George Ullman and Frank Mennillo. Remarkably, even decades after these events, the information I received from the Ullman and Mennillo families was collaborated by the information contained within the court records.
With these significant revelations, the Ullman 1975 memoir and Valentino's probate court records in hand, I began writing an epic tale of unforgivable betrayals, high-stakes courtroom dramas, ruthless power plays and a rash of individuals conspiring to prevent a dark family secret from being revealed.

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I credit Bob Ullman’s determination for encouraging me to stay the course long enough to achieve my goal of recovering Valentino’s court records and thereby document this story. With unfaltering objectivity and devotion, Bob checked and rechecked the details of his father’s performance as Valentino’s executor, scrutinized the various insurance policies and dividends paid to the Valentino estate and conducted his own line-by-line audit of his father’s recovered books and ledgers.
During this arduous process Bob’s failing health inspired me to complete my work as quickly as possible. Despite the pressure of my grim deadline, I kept Bob’s desire to complete his contribution to Affairs Valentino before he died, foremost in my mind.
My subsequent interviews with him were briefer and the external manifestations of his advancing illness grew more apparent. When I presented his wife with my bouquet of Thai orchids on July 10, 2005, she whispered to me that my stay should not exceed ten minutes. In spite of Bob’s fragile condition and failed eyesight, he stood for one brief moment to greet me.
When I took my seat, I spotted a hospice brochure titled, "Final Journey” on a nearby coffee table and felt compelled to flip the pamphlet over. Perhaps in doing so I could dismiss the image of the sunset on the cover and the subject of death. Perhaps Bob and I would then be free to spend the next few hours in animated conversation. We could recall a time during the golden age of Hollywood when he lived with his family in a fabulous home in Beverly Hills and when as a robust toddler he sat upon his god-father, Rudolph Valentino’s lap. Perhaps I would hear more stories like the tale of how a drunken Erich Von Stroheim tumbled into the Ullman’s fish pond. I might have been regaled with Bob’s childhood tales of how he rode on Douglas Fairbanks' horse on a movie set or how Theda Bara’s husband Charles Brabin tried to scare the Ullman children into never smoking by blowing cigarette smoke through a white handkerchief.
Instead of sweet reminiscence, this would be only a fleeting ten minute visit before his wife gave me the nod. Bob stood once again with effort and gave me a quick hug as sincere as it was feeble. Realizing the weight of that awful moment, we tried to make light of our good-bye forever and I headed for the door. Bunny kept me abreast of Bob’s condition and three weeks after my visit I received her telephone call informing me that her brother had passed away.
My interviews with both the Ullman and Mennillo families became the foundation for Affairs Valentino. All documents, archives, twists in the plot line and quizzical additions to this life story of Rudolph Valentino, were subsequently found as the direct result of the stories of George Ullman and Frank Mennillo’s affiliations with Rudolph Valentino.

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