I wish my story were just beginning. Right here, Christmas 1927, in this luxurious compartment on the Golden State Limited as the train pulls into Los Angeles. I am looking rather spiffy for the occasion, as if nothing in my sordid past had ever occurred.
If things were just beginning now, I could be innocence personified. There would be nothing but accolades in store. Even Mr. Quirk over at Photoplay would be blithe about it: “Friends,” he might scribble feverishly, “all Hollywood is waiting for her to step off that gleaming train! Palm trees caress the sapphire skies all over Los Angeles today and that crystalline Pacific, bluer than ever, waits out there at the edge of destiny, as if ready to burst into breathtaking view just for her, for our little Rosemary!”
It beats how my story actually began – back in Manhattan, blindly sailing my way into nothing but trouble. I posed as a sophisticate back then, as a “very gay sort of gal,” without having a clue what I was getting into. If Nazimova wanted to sleep with me, well then I was going to sleep with her, end of story. It had little to do with lust and nothing to do with love or romance. It was all about opportunity. She was so fucking famous.
(Alla Nazimova, from the silent film Camille, Metro 1921)
I was eighteen on that first trip out here. I was Nazimova’s indiscreet girl of the moment. This was near the end of the Great War, the summer of 1918. In those days, my life was perpetually outpacing me – okay, so she’s a Sapphist, I thought, so what? I’ll go to Hollywood. I was always making those hurried choices without stopping to think. A thing I continued to excel at right up until last summer, when Rudy suddenly died and the lure of destiny, mine or anyone else’s, came to a screeching halt.
It’s regrettable, what I’ve learned about human nature since that first journey in 1918. I think that’s why I’ve grown so ashamed of being myself. All the things I’ve ingested since then have become a part of me – and by ‘ingested’ I’m not referring to the gallons of rot gut gin I’ve drunk, or the opium I’ve smoked, or even those expensive European cigarettes I became so addicted to when I was with Rudy and Natacha in Paris, or all that champagne we drank in 1924.
(Rudolph Valentino & Natacha Rambova)
No, by ingested, I mean all the rancid little apples of humility I’ve had to chew and swallow with a smile out here in Hollywood, until I thought my spleen would explode. The indecencies I witnessed without protesting, the appalling bad manners I often had, and the indignities I was always pretending I hadn’t seen.
If all the rottenness of life could be condensed into a single pill and swallowed with a glass of milk it would be so much easier. I could have skipped the last nine years of this nightmare and gone straight from naïveté to wisdom, knowing all I needed to know, ready to make better choices without wasting all the years. I could be fresh as a virgin bride today and yet be so much better equipped for survival than the kind of virgin I was, so briefly, at the start of the war.
I’m getting married tomorrow, hence my reference to being a bride. It’s why I’ve returned to Hollywood in such grand style even though I’m flat broke.
I’m marrying Mitch Sinclair, one of the moneymen at United Artists. The same man who’s covered my expensive stay in a sanitarium in New England this last wretched year since Valentino’s funeral – where I made such a mess of myself.
I’m not marrying Mitch for love, though, and he doesn’t love me. Not in the way men traditionally love women, that is. He loves me more as a human being reaches out to embrace a kindred spirit. To be blunt, we’re getting married because the studios don’t want any bachelors over forty on their executive payrolls. It smells too much like pansies and it makes the Catholics nervous. And anything that makes the Catholics nervous these days makes the Hays Office jump.
Mitch’s telegram to me read:
TROUBLE IN PARADISE (STOP) THINGS GETTING QUEER HERE ARE YOU DONE GOING CRAZY (STOP) COME BACK TO HOLLYWOOD AND MARRY ME (STOP) REGARDS (STOP) ME
I never was one who could resist such heady romance. When I got the all-clear from Dr. Dohlmer to hang up my basket weaving and plunge into what he considered the “stabilizing environs of matrimony” even if those environs were back in Hollywood, I left the sanitarium posthaste and now I’m heading straight to the fiduciary arms of Mitchell Sinclair. The ever gallant, exceedingly well groomed, confirmed bachelor of forty-five who’s every inch the queer he’s suspected of being.
Mitch and I go back at least a thousand years. He worked at Metro in 1918, back when those immigrant boys from New York who run the place were so desperate to appear cultured. And the great Alla Nazimova may have been an over-sexed girl devourer, but she was nothing if not cultured. Plus she was Jewish, like they were. Metro swallowed the idea of Nazimova whole, nearly giving her carte-blanche at the studio while knowing full well what they were getting into – meaning her non-stop lesbian shenanigans, on-screen and off. The off-screen part was where Mitch met me, Rosemary McKisco, the future Mrs. Sinclair, back before Prohibition was even being considered.
He came to one of those swanky romps Nazimova was always throwing at the 8080 Club, her Garden of Alla over on Sunset Boulevard where I was still living. Technically, I wasn’t sleeping with Alla at that point. I was sleeping with her maid, Molly; a girl more my age who was a lot less demanding in bed than Her Highness could be. Molly and I had met in Nazimova’s dressing room back in New York and were then in and out of bed together for years.
At one particular soiree, though, I met Mitch. As a moneyman for any studio, not just Metro, Mitchell Sinclair would have stood out. For one thing, he’d never stepped one exquisitely shod foot in the cesspool that is Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He’s Ivy League all the way. His family’s money dates back to Plymouth Rock, I think. They bought it outright when they got off the boat. They own a substantial portion of Dr. Dohlmer’s clinic in New England, too, which is why I received the white glove treatment the entire time I was sequestered there as Mitch’s “guest.”
(Jesse Lasky et al)
Mitch is comfortable with his wealth. He doesn’t need to flaunt it. Unlike those Jewish immigrants from the Lower East Side, privilege has always been part and parcel of Mitch’s life. The way he carries himself, at least in public, is never less than impeccable. Of course behind closed doors, Mitch can get downright depraved, but he manages it without showing so much as a blemish the following morning. And speaking of getting depraved behind closed doors, it was Mitch who was the primary sponsor for Valentino’s membership in the Los Angeles Athletic Club. It was a brilliant move on Mitch’s part. It helped secure Rudolph Valentino’s toehold on the slipperiest of all ladders, social success in Hollywood.
(Valentino at play)
That’s one of the reasons I’m so devoted to Mitch. He fell under Valentino’s spell as much as the rest of us did only Mitch had too much breeding to openly show it. I know he looked out for Rudy. He tried to protect him when the other studio men wanted Rudy eviscerated. I’ve never had the stomach to come out and ask Mitch if he’d actually slept with Valentino or not. I suspect, of course, that he did. And I know Mitch knows the truth about me. Perhaps this will give me something to talk about some idyllic evening after we’re married: “So out with it, Mitch: did you screw him, too?”
This time last year, after Mitch had had the decency to have me committed to Dohlmer’s loony bin in New England, I didn’t think I’d ever want to see Hollywood again. Regardless of my bond with Mitch, with Rudy dead, what would be the purpose in my returning to California? George Ullman was overseeing the settling of Valentino’s estate, but with the enormous debts Rudy left behind, there was no payroll left for me to be on. Not that I would ever consider working for someone as ordinary as George Ullman. Not that I considered myself “working” for Valentino, either. I had been Natacha’s employee. I looked after Rudy because I wanted to. By the end, I wanted that more than anything else – to be with Rudy. And I don’t imagine Natacha will ever forgive me for staying on with him after she left. But alas, we all make choices; don’t we? It’s the essence of living life. It’s what gives us each our own unique story. If there’s one thing I learned during my stay at Dohlmer’s clinic, it’s that I’m not going to beat myself up anymore over who my heart has chosen to love and who my heart has chosen to leave.
It was Natacha who made the choice to leave the Great Valentino, although I don’t blame her for doing it. In the end, Rudy was fucking her over pretty good. But I didn’t love Natacha anymore. I wasn’t sure I ever had. She was more my ticket to break free of Nazimova and still have some kind of employment in Hollywood. I had accomplished that little trick in spades. I had a great job with the Valentinos; I looked after them personally. It was a position coveted by millions all over the world. Whatever choice Natacha needed to make was up to her, not me.
Yet when I’m honest with myself, somewhere deep at the heart of my conflicting allegiances with the battling Valentinos, I’d known Natacha was being treated like dirt by both Rudy and United Artists. I’d known it wasn’t fair. But her domineering personality had grown so grating and relentless, day in and day out, it had numbed my conscience. By the end, I was just as rotten as everyone else. I was secretly thrilled watching Natacha being publicly and privately ground down, and in deluding myself into thinking that, with Natacha gone, Rudolph Valentino would once again be available.
I wasn’t too far wrong, really. Rudy was playing a wide-open field at the end. A lot of us were in and out of his bed. What I wouldn’t allow myself to acknowledge, though, was how much Rudy had truly loved Natacha and the depth of his despair after she was gone. The hole it left in him could never have been filled by any of us, I see that now. It was too gaping, until Valentino himself plunged, soul first, into the ulcerated abyss.
(Valentino, August 1926)
Copyright 2011 Marilyn Jaye Lewis