* I wrote the following some time around 2004:
Finding the Sarcophagus of Rudolph Valentino
The interview had all the elements of a scene right out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie: a Peter Lorre look-alike mortician turned archivist; 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 on Rudolph Valentino’s death I had traveled a long way for the interview. So in spite of the macabre setting and the fact that the gracious archivist was far too welcoming for my comfort, I forged on. Perhaps my uneasiness was due to the chilling fact 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 archivist explained 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 told me that in order to transport a corpse across state lines, coffins were required by Federal law to be encased in a sarcophagus or shipping case. Urban legend had it that Valentino’s shipping case had been custom made for the journey and was believed to still be in existence. Unfortunately the archivist had no idea where the case was located but said he would make a few phone calls to see what he could find out.
For a little while after that interview I had no clue my piqued interest in Valentino’s shipping case had sparked the imaginations of several morticians and inspired a covert operation to capitalize on the missing shipping case. But within the next few weeks 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 archivist called me several times to update me on the status of the search for 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. He assured me he was close to locating the case and its owner. Believing him I prepared to move as soon as I was given any go ahead. I 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 glimpse of Rudy’s mythical sarcophagus.
About a 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 archivist with news that this was indeed Valentino’s shipping case. Furthermore he’d found the owner and secured 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 as the recovery of the photographs did not immediately result in permission to see the case first hand.
Access to the actual case was complicated as the archivist made his power play to position himself as the only broker 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. I was asked not to call him at work, to only call a second contact he put me in touch with, to use only this cell number and that e-mail, etc. and 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 double agent OO-archivist.
He informed me the owner had decided it was high time to sell the shipping case. But the archivist had run into a snag by telling a few too many of his cronies about his exciting development. With the revelation of the case’s impending sale everyone along his growing chain of contacts soon began scheming for their cut of the sale. The archivist 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 mystery contact two and was at long last given an address where I could view the case. I quickly scheduled travel arrangements and hopped a plane. 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.
Par for the course in this shipping case caper the address was that of a mortuary situated deep in some primo 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 meandering prostitutes, homeless campers, and wild-eyed, ranting desperados.
Having arrived a few minutes early I made a quick dash into a nearby MacDonalds for a sorely needed cup of coffee. No predictable Micky Dee safe zone was to be found that sunny morning. After noticing that several of the tables had been burned black in an apparently substantial blaze and that the disheveled, armed guard posted in front of the counter was swaying, 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.
While I was dodging jay-walking crack addicts, 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 the mortuary’s 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, “Rudolph Guglielmi, 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 parked 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 had done it 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 months 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 awhile longer before I could make any graceful exit from the thorny subject of the shipping case.
Like any other artifact pertaining to Rudolph Valentino, from the moment the case was uncovered its cash value increased with each passing day. I attempted to avoid the line of fire by refusing phone calls and repeatedly saying I had no knowledge or further interest in the case. But the negotiations originated by the archivist continued to complicate as his fellow morticians and serious collectors contemplated forking over a small fortune for the funereal jewel. When last I heard the archivist was hopelessly mired in the deal that had “gone south”. By then I had long since backed out any role in the fracas, thankfully with my story intact.
When I downloaded the photographs 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 reflection over the casket. For the past few years she has been fascinated by and an avid student of spectral photography. After reviewing the mortuary photographs she issued her expert analysis and declared the perfect orb drifting in the space above Valentino’s shipping case definitive evidence of ghostly presence. Not wholeheartedly believing her claim, I kept an open mind but secretly found the whole idea appealing. Ghost or no ghost, as far as I was concerned leaning into Valentino’s open sarcophagus was the disturbing end to an utterly disquieting tale.
I since initiated the shipping case’s authentication by an expert and it has been verified through photographs of Valentino’s body as it was unloaded at the train station in Los Angeles. According to records I uncovered during the case’s verification its original cost was $900. This would be about $9000 today. Two other charges were added to the original cost of the shipping case; a mechanic was paid fifteen dollars to solder the base and an engraver was paid 25$ 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 share the sentiment of the expert who validated the shipping case and agree it should find its way into a Hollywood Forever Cemetery showroom to be viewed by the public. It is more likely that it has already been secreted away with the rest of Rudy’s earthly residue and held in a private collection.