However, Valentino’s “pretty boy” image was considered to be effeminate and because of this, it resulted in a lot of speculation and conjecture about Valentino’s perceived homosexuality. These stories surrounded the star throughout his career. Valentino had been married twice, to Jean Acker and Natacha Rambova but the press speculated as to whether these were, in fact, “lavender marriages” to hide Valentino’s homosexuality. Questions about his sexuality are said to have deeply hurt Valentino and he actively confronted journalists who published stories propagating these rumours.
In what turned out to be his last movie, The Son of the Sheik, Valentino received a favourable review from the New York Times which also added that the “desert rough stuff and bully fights” contained in the movie left “no doubt about his masculinity.” An indication of Valentino’s popularity and allure among his female fans was demonstrated following the premiere of the Son of the Sheik in New York. Despite temperatures close to 100 degrees, thousands of his fans swarmed around the movie theatre hoping to catch a glimpse of the star. When he was leaving, Valentino was mobbed and in the frenzy had his clothes ripped off by women overcome by desire!
Just two weeks later and at the height of his fame, Valentino took ill and collapsed in his suite at the Ambassador Hotel in New York before being rushed to hospital. After an initial diagnosis of appendicitis, it was later discovered that Valentino was suffering from perforated ulcers mimicking appendicitis, a condition which became known as “Valentino’s Syndrome” which was named after the famous star. As Valentino’s condition worsened, thousands of his fans formed a vigil outside of the hospital and anxiously awaited news. Unfortunately, Valentino’s condition continued to deteriorate and he died on August 23, 1926, aged just 31.
News of Valentino’s death was greeted with a kind of mass hysteria, where a number of heartbroken women were so devastated that they committed suicide. It was said that two women attempted to take their lives outside of the hospital where Valentino died, while a woman in London drank poison while holding a picture of Valentino. A young man who was reported to have committed suicide was found lying on a bed which was covered with photos of Valentino.
The day after Valentino died, an estimated 100,000 people gathered outside of the Frank Campbell Funeral Home in New York where the star’s body was reposing. It was reported that the crowds stretched for eleven blocks. In the chaotic scenes that followed, some people tried to force their way into the funeral home, smashing windows and sparking a day-long riot. More than 100 mounted officers and NYPD Police Reserve had to be called in to restore law and order.
Inside the funeral home, actress Pola Negri, who claimed to be Valentino’s fiancée and that the two were due to be married, was visibly devastated. Reportedly Negri threw herself across Valentino’s open coffin in despair and fainted. Supposedly this action sparked off more chaos among the already hysterical crowd outside, who broke through a huge plate glass window. Afterwards, Negri was said to shriek continuously in front of the press, while making declarations about her love for the late star: “My love for Valentino was the greatest love of my life. I loved him not as one artist loves another, but as a woman loves a man.”