Next up on the essays shelf:
A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of His Choicest Writing, by H.L. Mencken
H.L. Mencken, as can be expected, didn’t have much good to say about this new-fangled business of movie-making. He thought it pandered to the mob, it was filled with the worst kinds of vanity, it bored him tremendously, and etc. and etc. His works of literary criticism are so piercing and insightful (not to mention his beautiful essays on the composers he loved), that it’s hard to not wish he had done some movie criticism once he got over his crankiness (which, I suppose, would be never). His eye was so clear, his tastes so well-formed. You couldn’t pull the wool over his eyes. It would be interesting to see what he would do confronted with, say, Psycho or La Dolce Vita. However. His words on actors are pretty brutal, and movies barely get referenced at all as even counting in the cultural landscape Mencken observes. (The same is true for jazz, which he appears to find ridiculous. Not to mention modern art, cubism, etc. One needs only to read his essays on Beethoven to see what he felt about pioneers and geniuses, those who burst ahead of the pack by miles, and so he didn’t despise “the new”, but he did resist being swayed by novelty. He did not care about being chic or up-to-date.)
That is why this column about super-nova movie star Rudolph Valentino is so surprising, so … moving. The circumstances behind it are interesting as well, so let me break it down.
Rudolph Valentino was an international sex symbol, one of the first (at least of the male variety). His performances reduced women to quivering puddles of liquid. He died young, and he died suddenly.The worldwide grief that erupted was incandescent. Everyone mourned when James Dean died, yes. But James Dean did not get a funeral like this.
The serious-minded literati types probably thought the entire world had gone berserk. But the thing is, and it’s an important thing, Rudolph Valentino, with his soft sensuous looks and his freedom in being objectified, was way ahead of the curve, at least for male stars. He was fawned over in a way usually reserved for women, and because of that he was seen as less-than-masculine. Men should be stronger, men should not be susceptible like that, men should not submit to being sexually objectified – because if they do then the whole order of the universe will crumble. Rudolph Valentino was one of those deeply destabilizing figures. I can think of another one. It’s not just that Valentino was more beautiful than other people, although that was certainly part of it. It was that he used his beauty in a way that was seen as feminine, which then turned him into a target for all kinds of nasty press. He was blamed for the “feminization of the American male”, which would be a shock to the current MRA bozos who blame 1970s feminism for the same thing.
Now there is a lot to be said about this kind of nonsense, which still goes on today. There is homophobia in it for sure. But I think the true roots of this kind of thing is misogyny of a particularly virulent strain. (Any time anyone says, “You throw like a girl” to a little boy, the virus is passed on. It is poison because it shames little boys for not being manly enough, but it is also poison because it casually accepts that women are Lesser, Secondary, Not as Good as Boys. Double-whammy of Stupid.) Men hate the soft-ness in themselves, and therefore put women down for exhibiting the kinds of qualities that they crush down in themselves. This is all on an unconscious level (for the most part), and is backed up by centuries of organizational sexism on a pandemic level. If a culture finds women gross, or somehow embarrassing, then of course men who do not line up with the cultural norm for their sex will find themselves not just criticized but run out of town on a rail. I don’t mean to dismiss homophobia, and a cultural terror of same-sex attraction which comes out in truly ugly ways. But men who USE themselves in a stereotypically feminine way – like Valentino, like Elvis – who are comfortable being objectified, who present themselves to their female fans without embarrassment, admitting that they are objects of sexual desire … These people are tapping into the Dionysian chaos underlying sex, and they are up-ending the natural order which is:
1. Men should be in charge.
2. Women have no business CHOOSING what/who they find attractive.
The terror of women CHOOSING is still with us today. You can see it when women decide they love fantasy-fodder such as Twilight or Justin Bieber or pick-your-poison: the what-whats of the critical establishment go AFTER these women (or, more accurately, girls). Because God forbid women look around at the options available and DON’T choose the creepy guy who wants to give her back rubs. God forbid women say, “You know what? I like THAT, not THAT.” (And if you think women don’t get hostile reactions to simple acts of choosing, then you need to read the experiences of women at Comic Cons.) Women making choices like this (even if it’s for an object of fantasy like Valentino or Elvis) brings up envy, rage in the men watching, and so, if they have a platform where they can write, go after the fantasies of women in a way that they would never go after similar male fantasies. They tear down the sex symbol as hard as they can, glorying in the smashing, not because they hate the sex symbol but because they hate that women have chosen someone so freely. It’s always about the women, ALWAYS.
Albert Goldman’s vicious biography of Elvis, which focuses on Elvis’ “burlesque” movements and how gross they were, is a perfect example. What I feel, in Goldman’s book, is a hatred of women, not Elvis. Although Goldman hates a lot of things having to do with Elvis: he hates the South, he hates religion, he sneers at uncircumcised men … you know, Goldman is just a ray of sunshine. But it’s the femininity of Elvis that Goldman finds particularly disgusting – the softness in Elvis that women sensed, from the get-go. Goldman can’t STAND that. Again, it’s not Elvis, though, that Goldman really hates: it’s a hatred of the sexuality of women, a hatred of a man like Elvis who understood women’s sexuality – didn’t judge it – and went out to meet it and encourage it. Elvis fans, primarily female, were so held in contempt that nobody thought to ask them, “What do you see in this guy?” It would have been fascinating to hear some of the answers. Instead: their sexuality was judged, mocked, moralized about, sneered at. Thank goodness those girls didn’t pay any attention. But still. Was it treated like the world was going to end when American males chose Rita Hayworth as their pin-up girl? Was it treated like the whole universe was cracking apart when men decided that Raquel Welch was hot? No. It wasn’t. Because male sexuality is seen as the default, and female sexuality is seen as deviant, by its very nature, and it is so voracious that it must be controlled, women must be told what they want, and why they want it. So when women, en masse, looked at slick FOREIGNER (very important) Rudolph Valentino and shouted, “WE. WANT. THAT.” without prior approval from MEN, well, well, the men couldn’t have THAT, could they? Who did women think they were, choosing a movie star, and making ordinary men feel bad about themselves? This shit still goes on today. Look for it. It’s everywhere.
I shouldn’t have to say this but I will anyway: Not ALL men operate like this. But on a cultural uber-level, they do. Women are generalized about enough that I figure men can take a little bit of it too. Especially if there’s some truth in it.
During Valentino’s short life, he got a ton of fawning press, of course, but he also was criticized. He was somewhat isolated from a lot of that criticism, because of his status and also because, you know, there was no Internet, no chat rooms. How could he know what some prudish op-ed columnist in St. Louis or Little Rock was saying about him? But then … in 1926 … came an anonymous sneer in a Chicago paper, which is all going to sound ridiculous, and it is, to some degree, but it was what prompted Rudolph Valentino to reach out to H.L. Mencken, an act I find FASCINATING. Basically, in men’s washrooms, there were dispensers of talcum powder that was a pinkish color. PINK talcum powder? gasped the anonymous sneer-er. The whole world is coming to an end once men accept pink talcum powder as normal, and we blame Rudolph Valentino for that. Valentino, on his way to New York via train, happened to arrive in Chicago just at the time this sneer was published and he was asked about it by the throng of reporters surrounding him. Valentino was ambushed, and infuriated, filled with a yearning to strike back. He challenged said sneer-er to a duel.
How on earth would Mencken, the sage of Baltimore, chewing on his cigars and listening to Beethoven in a rhapsodic stupor, ever come into this degrading tempest in a teapot??
Well. A friend of Valentino’s had, earlier on, given Valentino some of Mencken’s columns with the highest recommendation. It was basically a, “This chap can write, check him out, Rudy” kind of thing. So when the press of the American nation turned on him, he flailed about in helpless rage for a while, and then, needing help and advice, reached out to Mencken, asking if he could have an appointment with him. Mencken agreed. He had never seen a Valentino movie, although of course he had heard of the guy. The two met up in a hotel room on a hot stuffy day. Valentino explained the situation. Mencken heard him out, and gave him some advice to basically ignore what third-rate men like that reporter say – and go about your business. Don’t let them get to you. They spent the afternoon together, drinking and eating and talking. Valentino left. He would be dead 10 days later. Insane, right? The man was 31 years old. One can only imagine Mencken’s shocked reaction: to have such a brief and strange encounter with the biggest star in the world at that time, to have an intimate conversation, and then … to have that troubled soul … die directly following … Well, it was startling, that’s all.
And Mencken wrote the following piece as an elegy, one of the most beautiful things ever written about Valentino. If you’ve been following along in these Mencken excerpts, then you know the man could be brutal, obnoxious, and unfair, and there is some of that here. He does not respect actors, and he does not respect the audiences that flock to the movies. However. He had a good enough eye to see through the surface of things. Often this led him astray, often this made him mis-judge things, but MORE often than that, it helped him perceive the truth. Who knows what he would have written if Valentino had survived. But since Valentino died, Mencken was somewhat haunted by the memory of the man he had met 10 days before, his troubles, and also his sincere desire to be helped. Reaching out to Mencken for advice was an extraordinarily vulnerable act. And Mencken very easily could have excoriated Valentino for that. He could have made fun of him mercilessly for being so upset about talcum powder, the vanity of such a man, the ridiculous nature of him! Mencken had written cruel eulogies before. He could just as easily have written up a vicious portrait of a vain man who thought he was the center of the universe. But he didn’t. He thought hard about Valentino, he thought hard about what he was sensing beneath the surface, and then he shared it with us.
Beautifully enough, a short film called Good Night, Valentino was made about this encounter. Written by John Rothman (love him), who also played Mencken in the film, it can be viewed in its entirety on IMDB. It’s only 15 minutes long. Check it out!
I especially love the shot of Valentino from below, walking down the hallway after his meeting with Mencken.
No surprise, by the way, that Elvis was a fan of Rudolph Valentino, and jumped at the chance to pay homage to the guy in the ridiculous and entertaining Harum Scarum.
Elvis knew a Kindred Spirit when he saw one.
The whole essay is fascinating, both a portrait of Valentino, an examination of the shoddy business of celebrity “journalism” and how it operates from resentment, a thoughtful essay about the nature of fame, and then also, a baffled human feeling (“I just met the guy, and now he’s dead … how can that be?”)
I love Mencken when he’s cranky, don’t get me wrong. But this Mencken on display here in “Valentino” may be my favorite Mencken of all.
A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of His Choicest Writing, “Valentino,” by H.L. Mencken
Unluckily, all this took place in the United States, where the word honor, save when it is applied to the structural integrity of women, has only a comic significance. When one hears of the honor of politicians, of bankers, of lawyers, of the United States itself, everyone naturally laughs. So New York laughed at Valentino. More, it ascribed his high dudgeon to mere publicity-seeking: he seemed a vulgar movie ham seeking space. The poor fellow, thus doubly beset, rose to dudgeons higher still. His Italian mind was simply unequal to the situation. So he sought counsel from the neutral, aloof, and seasoned. Unluckily, I could only name the disease, and confess frankly that there was no remedy – none, that is, known to any therapeutics within my ken. He should have passed over the gibe of the Chicago journalist, I suggested, with a lofty snort – perhaps, better still, with a counter gibe. He should have kept away from the reporters in New York. But now, alas, the mischief was done. He was both insulted and ridiculous, but there was nothing to do about it. I advised him to let the dreadful farce roll along to exhaustion. He protested that it was infamous. Infamous? Nothing, I argued, is infamous that is not true. A man still has his inner integrity. Can he still look into the shaving-glass of a morning? Then he is still on his two legs in this world, and ready even for the Devil. We sweated a great deal, discussing these lofty matters. We seemed to get nowhere.
Suddenly it dawned on me – I was too dull or it was too hot for me to see it sooner – that what we were talking about was really not what we were talking about at all. I began to observe Valentino more closely. A curiously naive and boyish young fellow, certainly not much beyond thirty, and with a disarming air of inexperience. To my eye, at least, not handsome, but nevertheless rather attractive. There was some obvious fineness in him; even his clothes were not precisely those of his horrible trade. He began talking of his home, his people, his early youth. His words were simple and yet somehow very eloquent. I could still see the mime before me, but now and then, briefly and darkly, there was a flash of something else. That something else, I concluded, was what is commonly called, for want of a better name, a gentleman. In brief, Valentino’s agony was the agony of a man of relatively civilized feelings thrown into a situation of intolerable vulgarity, destructive alike to his peace and to his dignity – nay, into a whole series of such situations.
It was not that trifling Chicago episode that was riding him; it was the whole grotesque futility of his life. Had he achieved, out of nothing, a vast and dizzy success? Then that success was hollow as well as vast – a colossal and preposterous nothing. Was he acclaimed by yelling multitudes? Then every time the multitudes yelled he felt himself blushing inside. The old story of Diego Valdez once more, but with a new poignancy in it. Valdez, at all events, was High Admiral of Spain. But Valentino, with his touch of fineness in him – he had his commonness, too, but there was that touch of fineness – Valentino was only the hero of the rabble. Imbeciles surrounded him in a dense herd. He was pursued by women – but what women! (Consider the sordid comedy of his two marriages – the brummagem, star-spangled passion that invaded his very death-bed!) The thing, at the start, must have only bewildered him. But in those last days, unless I am a worse psychologist than even the professors of psychology, it was revolting him. Worse, it was making him afraid.
I incline to think that the inscrutable gods, in taking him off so soon and at a moment of fiery revolt, were very kind to him. Living, he would have tried inevitably to change his fame – if such it is to be called – into something closer to his heart’s desire. That is to say, he would have gone the way of many another actor – the way of increasing pretension, of solemn artiness, of hollow hocus-pocus, deceptive only to himself. I believe he would have failed, for there was little sign of the genuine artist in him. He was essentially a highly respectable young man, which is the sort that never metamorphoses into an artist. But suppose he had succeeded? Then his tragedy, I believe, would have only become the more acrid and intolerable. For he would have discovered, after vast heavings and yearnings, that what he had come to was indistinguishable from what he had left. Was the fame of Beethoven any more caressing and splendid than the fame of Valentino? To you and me, of course, the question seems to answer itself. But what of Beethoven? He was heard upon the subject, viva voce, while he lived, and his answer survives, in all the freshness of its profane eloquence, in his music. Beethoven, too, knew what it meant to be applauded. Walking with Goethe, he heard something that was not unlike the murmur that reached Valentino through his hospital window. Beethoven walked away briskly. Valentino turned his face to the wall.