There are those who say she’s a ghost: a lady dressed all in black, her face concealed by a black veil, who brings flowers to the crypt where lies the body of the great silent film star Rudolph Valentino. This lady–or, at least, a lady–has performed this ritual every August 23 since 1927, the one year anniversary of Valentino’s unmercifully early death.
She’s no ghost, though. The duty has been performed, more or less officially, by three living women in succession since then.
Born Rodolfo Guglielmi in Italy in 1895, Valentino was sent to the United States in 1913 after a troubled childhood and adolescence. He made his way in New York City as an exhibition dancer (a skill that stood him in good stead during his movie career), busboy, and, rumor has it, a gigolo. He moved to Hollywood in 1919, changed his name to Rudolph Valentino, and began to appear in small parts in films, usually cast as the villain–thanks to his dark good looks. He became a major star in 1921’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, playing a French-Argentinian playboy who dies in WWI; this part led to his iconic role in the eponymous The Sheik.
His career did not last long; on August 15, 1926, he collapsed in a New York City hotel and died eight days later of peritonitis following a perforated ulcer.
At the time of his death he was allegedly engaged to the actress Pola Negri, following on two failed marriages. Negri (1897-1987) certainly seems to have been devastated by Valentino’s death; she fainted several times during his funeral. She also claimed, in her later years, to have been the black-clad, veiled lady who first placed flowers at his crypt in 1927.
Romantic though her claim may be, though, Negri was not the first Lady in Black. That honor falls to a girl who took it as a commission from Valentino himself.
In 1947, a woman named Ditra Flame (pronounced fla-MAY, 1912-1984) revealed that she was the original Lady in Black. Her mother was a friend of Valentino’s. When Ditra was a young girl, she was hospitalized for a serious illness, and Valentino came to visit her. At that visit, she said, Valentino asked her to come to his grave to visit him once he was dead, for he did not wish to be alone. Ditra recovered, and when Valentino died some years later, she–by then a teenager–kept her promise to him, first going to the crypt, in black and bearing flowers, on August 23, 1927. She only revealed her status as the original Lady in Black after a former showgirl named Marian Watson–who, like Pola Negri, claimed to have been Valentino’s fiancee–claimed she was the Lady in Black. In later years, Flame stopped wearing black clothes on her anniversary visits to Valentino’s crypt. As the legend grew, vast numbers of women in black would show up each August 23rd, rendering Flame somewhat superfluous.
A disgusted Flame discontinued her annual visits in 1954. In the wake of Elvis Presley’s death in 1977, she took up the tradition again, continuing her visits to Valentino’s crypt from then until her death in 1984. She is identified on her tombstone as the Lady in Black.
A woman named Estrellita del Regil began to visit Valentino’s grave in the early 1970s, and is generally accepted as the second “official” Lady in Black when she continued the role after Flame’s death. Del Regil also claimed that her mother, Anna Maria Carrascosa (1910-1973), had been the original Lady in Black, and that she was continuing a family tradition; this claim is not generally accepted. She continued in the role until 1993, when illness forced her to give it up. Del Regil passed away in 2001.
Since 1995, an actress named Vicki Callahan has been the “official” Lady in Black, and so identifies herself on her website.
And the list goes on. In addition to the no longer active Poe Toaster and Valentino’s Lady in Black, there was long a royal mystery: who was placing two dozen red roses on Anne Boleyn’s grave on the anniversary of her death?
Anne, the second wife of the infamous Henry VIII of England, was convicted on charges of treason, adultery, incest and witchcraft (her true crime being her failure to bear Henry the sons he craved) and executed on May 19th, 1536. Sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, on May 19th of each year, someone began placing two dozen red roses on Anne’s grave beneath the floor of the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London.
The roses have been found, each anniversary, for more than one hundred fifty years now. In the last decade, however, it has been revealed that descendants of the Boleyn family began paying a London florist in the 1850s or thereabout to deliver the roses. Their descendants have continued the tradition, although it’s done nowadays by a different florist!
It’s also said–if Wikipedia is to be believed–that Valentino’s Lady in Black was one source of inspiration for the classic country song “The Long Black Veil,” written by Marijohn Wilkin and Danny Dill in 1959.