Silent film lover and superstar Rudolph Valentino commanded the screen with his intense magnetism and sensuality. His untimely, tragic death in 1926 at the age of 31 gave him instant immortality, with thousands descending on the funeral home, church, procession, and funeral of their beloved star.
Upon his death, many clamored for ways to memorialize this worldwide icon. Chicago residents announced the first proposed memorial for Valentino within days of his death on Aug. 23, 1926. Judge Francis Borrelli, Assistant State Attorney Michael Romano and lawyers Ellidoe Libonati, Stephen Malato and Michael Rominia filed articles of incorporation for a Rudolph Valentino Memorial Association with the intent of constructing a memorial for the star in the Windy City.
Mary Mallory’s “Living With Grace” is now on sale.
After Valentino’s funeral in Los Angeles, movie mogul Joseph Schenck announced to newspapers and trades the formation of a Hollywood Rudolph Valentino Memorial Association to memorialize the star, either by endowing a children’s medical ward or by erecting a statue in Hollywood “personifying youth and romance.” Valentino manager and friend S. George Ullman took over the idea, eventually forming 40 Valentino memorial associations throughout the world. Members contributed towards the creation and erection of a Valentino statue in Hollywood.
Besides raising funds, Ullman contacted Los Angeles city leaders about constructing the proposed work in Valentino’s memory. The Hollywood Daily Citizen said that the City Parks Commission first dismissed the idea, claiming “it would look like publicity,” further glamorizing motion pictures and their stars. After New York and Chicago stepped forward as possible locations for the statue, commissioners begrudgingly approved the work, requiring that the finished artwork honor the concept of the actor without resembling him.
After the Arts Board approved the statue, the Parks Commission decided to locate the work at Hollywood’s DeLongre Park. Constructed in 1924 at a cost of $66,000, the park was named for artist Paul DeLongpre, whose celebrated home and gardens near Hollywood Boulevard and Cahuenga Avenue served as Hollywood’s first tourist attraction. The park stood blocks from the original Famous Players-Lasky studio at Selma Avenue and Vine Street, where Valentino had gained success.
Following a few days of rain and overcast skies, May 5, 1930, the statue’s unveiling, saw golden sunlight stream down. About 300 people attended the somber affair, organized by Fred W. Beetson, vice president of the Association of Motion Picture Producers, with Italian vice consul Albert Mellini Ponce de Leon and Ullman participating. Beetson announced to the crowd, “This is the first memorial in the history of motion pictures to be erected in honor of a cinema artist.” Parks Commissioner George H. Barnes accepted the statue on behalf of the city.
At precisely noon, actress Dolores Del Rio pulled a cord removing the velvet covering, revealing the gold-plated bronze statue called “Aspiration,” designed by local artist and teacher Roger Noble Burnham, whose statue for USC called “Spirit of Troy” had been revealed months before. Del Rio spoke in English, French, and Spanish for newsreel cameras, stating, “I will always cherish the honor of having been chosen to represent my fellow players in unveiling the memorial to Rudolph Valentino. The memory of this great artist still lives with us. We of the motion picture profession look upon him as the guiding light of our ideals.” Burnham described his work as “a torch lighting the world with the fire of romance.”
An Art Deco homage to glamour, the 6-foot-tall statue featured a bare-chested man gazing at the skies, standing atop a sphere. Engraved on the monument were these words:
10 days later, Herman E. Bennett of 6617 DeLongpre Aveue protested that he and other property owners responsible for the park were not consulted about the erection of the statue, learning about it only from the story in the newspaper. Per the May 16, 1930, Los Angeles Times, Bennett declared, “There is room for only one statue in DeLongpre Park, that is for Mr. Delongpre, an artist and gentleman, for whom the park and avenue were named.” The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce found no objections to the statue, and the Arts Commission and Parks Board both noted they had approved the work after hearing no complaints at the time.
On October 23, 1933, widow Zunilda Mancinci filed a suit in Superior Court against Ullman, stating that she had donated $6,900 for the creation of the monument and learned it had cost only $1,500 to erect, demanding the return of $5,400. She won the court’s determination, and Ullman appealed to the District Court of Appeals, which upheld the decision. No stories reveal if he ever paid the judgment.
Over the years, vandals have defaced the statue. It was discovered broken from its base and lying on the park lawn on February 2, 1952. Taken away by the city for repairs, it finally was returned to the park 20 years later.
“Aspiration” remains standing in the center of the 1.4-acre DeLongpre Park, the first statue erected in honor of an actor in Hollywood.
This reminds me that Myrna Loy also posed for a statue called “Aspiration” (1922), when she was a high school student. (The central figure in a larger group; it’s often called “Inspiration,” but my memory is that her autobiography calls it “Aspiration.”) It was repeatedly vandalized, which shocks me. It finally vanished, but was (to some extent) re-created in 2010. In my opinion, the new statue looks quite different from the old one, but it’s nice that the community wanted the statue back.