Eternal Love: Return of the Sheik 


There were no tears, no halting personal anecdotes delivered by nervous, bereaved family members. It’s likely that nobody present even knew the deceased. At Hollywood Forever Cemetery’s 75th Annual Rudolph Valentino Memorial, the atmosphere was as almost as festive as it was surreal. Since his untimely death at 31, on August 23, 1926, the silent-screen star known as the Sheik, or the Great Lover, has inspired what seems to be eternal devotion. People die, but legends don’t.

In the noonday sun, with the cemetery’s palm trees framing the Hollywood sign in the nearby hills, sprinklers played over the graves of movie greats like Tyrone Power, Douglas Fairbanks and “Too Beautiful” Barbara LaMarr. Photographers and video crews captured people arriving between two gigantic wreaths with scarlet ribbons that read “Valentino” in gold glitter. Everyone was greeted personally by Hollywood Forever’s boyishly charming president, Taylor Cassity. (A whisper spread through the crowd that HBO’s mortuary series Six Feet Under is based on him.) Mourners were handed a single-stemmed red rose as they signed the guest book, and there were practically fights for seats among the crowd of nearly 200.

Mourning attire ranged from ’20s-inspired widow’s weeds and flapper feathers to touristy Hawaiian shirts. One young man wore a blinding white T-shirt proclaiming PRACTICE SAFE SEX; another woman’s T-shirt was emblazoned with a portrait of the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia. A couple of teenage girls with punky hairdos and studded wristbands wondered aloud when the Lady in Black, an integral part of the Valentino legend, would show up.

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Starting about five years after Valentino’s death, a mysterious veil-shrouded Lady in Black would come to the cemetery’s Cathedral Mausoleum and lay down roses before his crypt. Throughout the years, the mantle was passed on to newer candidates, like a crown in a beauty pageant. Most recently, the Lady in Black has been Vicki Callahan, a DWP worker who looks uncannily like Karen Black in The Day of the Locust. Callahan became the “official” Lady in Black when she was recognized as such in a 1995 news broadcast. Resplendent in a strapless bugle-bead-encrusted gown with a train, Callahan arrived clutching a portrait of her high school drama teacher Anthony Dexter, who played Valentino in a 1951 biopic. Meanwhile, Callahan’s African-American counterpart, film extra Diane Whitmore, who for the past five years has been known as “The Black Lady in White,” made her entrance looking almost Madonnaesque. She wore a white T-shirt over a long white lace skirt, with white lace leggings, formal pumps and a bridal-like white veiled headpiece.

The memorial began at 12:10 p.m., the exact moment of Valentino’s death. There were tango dancers, a video tribute and ’20s-style crooning. Historian Marc Wannamaker spoke about the tradition of Valentino memorials, going back to the original one in New York, where women fainted and mobs broke through the windows of the mortuary. The Lady in Black stood in the back, holding a whirring miniature plastic fan to her heaving bosom.

The ceremony closed with a speech by Cassity, who said with a wry smile that if anyone wanted to be really close to Rudy, there were still available niches near crypt No. 1205. There were no takers.

—Pleasant Gehman


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