Monday, November 8, 2021

The Case of the Missing Icon

I wrote the following piece a long time ago, maybe about 2005. I share it because I think the question I posed is still valid sixteen years later. Maybe it explains some people's resistance to "more truth" about Valentino. Who knows? Here follows a small piece I wrote which I titled, "The Case of the Missing Icon". Excuse some dated references.  

"I was vaguely aware of the Howdy Doody Show. As children my little sister and I did watch a few episodes on a neighbor’s television set. This was our only access to the show because our parents were nervous that television might have a negative influence upon their young offspring. Their refusal to allow a TV in the house ensured that the only media streaming into our developing brains emanated from our trusty radio. On Sunday nights we were permitted to sit before the oversized radio cabinet and listen to The Jack Benny Show. To listen was to imagine and in the process we forever bonded with Jack Benny and every member of his show’s cast of characters. Our minds happily filled in any blanks resulting from the solely auditory experience and we created our own individualized interpretation of each hilarious scene.

For the past few years, silent film icon Rudolph Valentino has been the subject of my intensive research. At some point during this research, I came to the conclusion that Valentino’s current mythical status is due in great measure to precisely the same mental process that I experienced as a child listening to the Jack Benny Show. For when Valentino became box-office gold in the 1920’s, there were few media venues available to his fans. The media then consisted of a relatively primitive radio technology, a few nationally distributed newspapers and movie fan magazines. Fan magazines were the primary source of information about Hollywood celebrities but these publication’s articles were highly-fictionalized and censored by movie studios and savvy business managers. Valentino’s business manager, George Ullman worked diligently in this regard to prevent the details of the movie star’s most personal affairs from ever going public. Consequently the many blank areas in Valentino’s life story were wide open to wild interpretation and speculation and his legacy was formed by his fan’s active imaginations.

I am continually amazed to be contacted through my website by people from around the world who share a deep admiration for Valentino while knowing very little about him. And often those who are knowledgeable express a highly individualized version of his life as a result of their own personal temperament and agenda. Since Valentino’s death eighty one years ago this August 23, he has been reinvented countless times by a remarkably diverse demographic of fans. I am able to say with certain authority that this phenomenon is not past history. Today there are Valentino chat rooms that have been founded solely upon the disparate versions of his life.

In recalling the scant media exposure of my childhood, I began to wonder if this penchant for personalizing Valentino might be due to the initial dearth of credible information about his life. Over the years, his fan’s excessive romanticizing and imagining has culminated in his being revered as nothing short of mythical. The logical assumption follows that if we have too much access to information about a celebrity, we risk losing interest in them entirely. Indeed, the live coverage today streams endlessly into our breaking news brains leaving us little to imagine, few mysteries to ponder and nary a single blank to fill in. We are duly informed, we are shown, we hear the contrived analysis and then we see and hear it again one thousand times. How could we possibly romanticize or mythologize Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton or Britney Spears when we know every last thing about them?

Before Valentino’s manager George Ullman died in 1975, he wrote a memoir in which he divulged details of Valentino’s behind-the-scenes life story. I discovered Ullman’s memoir during my research and this revelatory document became the focal point of my work. I sincerely hope that the publication of this new information will not serve to demystify Valentino and diminish his appeal as a true icon. For in knowing too much about our celebrities we jeopardize the very process that makes them icons. Familiarity breeds contempt and the more we know, the less we seem to care. Conversely, the less we know, the sweeter the fantasy.