Allow me to introduce you to the world’s first worldwide sex symbol, Rudoph Valentino.
He was the silent movie hero who made women all over the world pant and swoon.
Today is Valentino Day which commemorates his death on August 23, 1926. That should give you an idea of the influence this man’s life and death had on the world.
If you don’t know of this dark-haired Italian with the piercing gaze, ask your grandmother or great-grandmother.
Paved the Way for Today’s Alpha Hero
It’s not such a reach to say he was the model for all of the alpha male heroes that appeared on the cover of those early romance novels. You know, the heaving bosoms and thrusting loin covers that made romance authors cringe.
Actually, looking at the most popular romance covers today, the shirtless, muscled chest (far more spectacular than Valentino’s) still rules the cover wars.
I didn’t know Rudolph Valentino had a day commemorating his death until I was looking at one of those “Today in History” websites. The fact that he does have a day dedicated to his memory is testament of his influence on popular culture in his era.
The Brooding Hero Sex Symbol
The silent film era hero was born in Italy as Rudolfo Alfonzo Raffaelo Piero Filibert Guglielmi De Valentina D’Antonguolla. That’s a mouthful.
He starred in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Sheik, Blood and Sand, The Eagle, and Son of the Sheik. Women cinema-goers fell in love with Valentino’s portrayal of the alpha male hero. In today’s world, we would consider him a misogynist at best.
The Sheik, a 1919 novel by E. M. Hull (Edith Maude Henderson Hull), was a huge worldwide bestseller so women were ready for a visual representation of the man. Cast as the Sheik of the international bestseller, Valentino breathed life into the the brooding alpha hero.
If you’ve ever read the book, then you know that the sheik rapes the heroine repeatedly. She broods on how much she hates him and eventually manages to escape. She is recaptured by him. As they ride back to camp, she comes to the sudden realization that she is in love with him!
Gag me with a spoon! Although the language from that era is restrained and the rapes happen “off screen,” the idea is abhorrent to me. The book is not my idea of a romance, but it’s certainly a picture of gender roles and attitudes about sexuality of that era.
Valentino’s portrayal firmly entrenched the desert romance or sheik romance, as a popular trope in romance fiction that is still mined today. Fortunately, most contemporary books using this trope in various guises eliminate the rape part of the scenario.
Who Was Edith Hull?
Ms. Hull wrote several more novels with desert settings. They were some of the most popular commercial fiction of that era. I’ve heard several popular romance authors of today cite The Sheik as the most romantic book they ever read. The book is still being reprinted and sold. You can find it on Amazon if you’re interested.
Mrs. Hull began writing when her husband, a civil engineer and later a prize-winning pig farmer, was serving in World War I. The Sheik was actually her first book and was published in England in 1919. It quickly became an international bestseller. Publishers Weekly listed it as a top ten best seller in America for 1921 and 1922.
Gasp! How Many Books Sold?
The book sold over 1.2 million copies worldwide. Just think about that. This was an era without television, internet, social media, etc. Those sales came mostly from word of mouth–woman reader to woman reader.
Sales increased even more when Paramount released the movie version in 1921. That sent Rudolph Valentino into immortality–the Latin Lover, the greatest “lover” of the silent screen as he was proclaimed.
By 1923, the novel had published well over 100 editions. Sales surpassed all other best-sellers combined! Her novel wasn’t the first desert romance. Robert Smythe Hichens and Kathlyn Rhodes had broken ground with the desert romance genre, but Hull’s book proved to be the most popular and influenced romance writers who hadn’t even been born yet.
Ms. Hull continued to write into the 1930s, and her 1925 novel The Sons of the Sheik was also a tremendous success.
Ditto for the film version Son of the Sheik, which again starred Valentino.
Later in life, Ms. Hull said her only regret was that she had sold the film rights for her novels for too little money. (Sounds like a familiar complaint.)
Back to Valentino aka Mr. Sexy
Valentino had applied for American citizenship shortly before his death. On August 15, 1926, he collapsed at a Park Avenue hotel in Manhattan and was hospitalized.
Doctors determined he had appendicitis and gastric ulcers and operated immediately. After that, perforated ulcers mimicking appendicitis were referred to as Valentino’s Syndrome. Then he developed peritonitis.
His condition continued to deteriorate until he developed pleurisy. His doctors knew he wasn’t going to make it. Back then, it was common practice not to tell the patient or family or anyone that news. It’s said on the day he died, he briefly became conscious and talked with the doctors about his future. Then he lapsed into a coma and died a few hours later at the age of 31.
Women Committed Suicide!!!
Upon notice of his death, mass hysteria ensued, greater than happens today upon the untimely passing of an iconic celebrity.
A crowd of over 100,000 people lined the streets of Manhattan to pay their respects at his funeral. Suicides of despondent fans were reported. The next day a riot broke out that required most of the NYPD to control it, and police had to line the streets for the remaining days of the viewing.
After a funeral mass in Manhattan on August 30, his body was transported by train to California where another funeral was held in Beverly Hills. Want to know more about Valentino and his effect on popular culture? Read this.
Today’s Alpha Hero
In our time, the most popular alpha hero is a man who can walk on the wild side yet be a polite gentleman to women.
To the woman he loves, he’s tender and protective. If the woman he loves is threatened, then look out. All bets are off. That’s the kind of alpha hero I love to read about and write about.
John Galloway, the hero in my romantic thriller Dead Heat is that kind of alpha male–a Navy SEAL who will do whatever it takes to protect those he loves.
As you swoon over the latest hero in a romance novel, just think–he wouldn’t be there if Edith Hull hadn’t written The Sheik, and Rudolph Valentino hadn’t breathed life into the character with his performance and made the world of women readers and cinema-goers sit up and take notice.
Joan’s Next Book
You’ll find my her next book in the Love, Christmas 2: Movies You Love Holiday Collection.
Sprinkle a little Christmas magic into your life with 26 ALL-NEW, never before released romances. This collection is available for pre-order now. It’s going to be HUGE so order your copy today!
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Joan Reeves—Keeping Romance Alive…One Sexy Book at a Time—is a NY Times and USA Today bestselling author of Contemporary Romance. From Romantic Comedy to Romantic Thriller, all of her books have the same premise: “It’s never too late to live happily ever after.” Joan lives her happily-ever-after with her hero, her husband, in the Lone Star State. They divide their time between a book-cluttered home in Houston and a quiet house in the Texas Hill Country where they sit on the porch, stare at the big night sky, and listen to the coyotes howl. Sign up for Joan’s Mailing List and be the first to know about new books and giveaways.