Men’s Hairstyles: Why I Avoid the Subject in my Mysteries

Rudolph Valentino

Rudolph Valentino

I don’t go into men’s hairstyles much in my mysteries, because the subject is such a turn-off to today’s reader. Why? Because men usually parted their hair or combed it back in a pompadour, or both, and to hold this look, they used liberal amounts of hair oil, Brilliantine, or Vaseline. Yuck! 


Here are some examples: 

Douglas Fairbanks

Douglas Fairbanks

Ramon Novarro

Ramon Novarro

Ramon Novarro

Ramon Novarro

Douglas Fairbanks

Douglas Fairbanks

Jack Pickford

Jack Pickford


The Sheik by E. M. Hull

220px-EdithMaudeHull1To entertain myself on a long train trip this week, I brought a copy of E. M. Hull’s THE SHEIK to read. This is the shockingly steamy and famous romance novel by the British author, Mrs. Edith M. Hull (who probably needed to use initials to disguise the fact that she was a woman), published in 1919 in Britain and in 1921 in the U.S. It was a huge seller, but became even more so when it was made into a movie starring Rudolph Valentino in 1921, catapulting him to international fame. Because the second in my Roaring Twenties series SILENT MURDERS is set in the mid-Twenties in silent-movie Hollywood, I mention Rudy several times. He has a few cameo appearances. In the fourth book, which I am writing now, I mention the book itself. So I thought I’d better read the thing for myself. I wanted to see what constituted “shocking” in the 1920s.

It was hard coming across a copy. The library doesn’t carry such old books, nor do bookstores. I got a very old, used copy of a paperback from, so fragile that the pages kept crumbling as I turned them! 

220px-The_Sheik_with_Agnes_Ayres_and_Rudolph_Valentino,_movie_poster,_1921If you like romance novels, this is one you should read, if for no other reason than it started the craze for desert romances. It uses language we consider offensive today, for example, all dark-skinned people including Arabs are referred to as niggers, while avoiding anything considered offensive then, such as damn or hell. To note that the story seems trite is like saying that Shakespeare used lots of cliches. Hull was the first. Legions of romance writers followed her example and wrote similar stories in a similar vein. Her story involves a rich English noblewoman who is kidnapped and raped by a powerful sheik. She hates him. Then she loves him. He hates her; then he loves her. Happy ending in the desert wilderness. Most amusing is the kicker: he’s not a real Arab!!! (Of course not, no English girl can be in love with a dark-skinned barbarian!) The sheik is really an English lord, raised in the desert by Arabs and tanned by the sun. Made me think of  Tarzan, who similarly turns out to be the son of an English nobleman, raised by apes in the jungle. 

What is fascinating, to me at least, is the language and the way the story unfolds. For young women of this era, independence is not a virtue. Diana can only be happy when the sheik “tames” her, wrings all the spirit out of her, humiliates her, and makes her his slave. Then, she find true happiness. Here’s a paragraph so you can see for yourself:

Son of the SheikShe looked after him, as he went through the curtains, with a long, sobbing sigh. She was paying a heavy price for her happiness, but she would have paid a heavier one willingly. Nothing mattered now that he was not angry any more. She knew what her total submission meant: it was an end to all individualism, a complete self-abnegation, an absolute surrender to his wishes, his moods, and his temper. And she was content that it should be so, her love was prepared to endure whatever he might put upon her. Nothing that he could do could alter that, and nothing should make her own her love. She had hidden it from him, and she would hide it from him–cost what it might. Though he did not love her, he wanted her still; she had read that in his eyes five minutes ago, and she was happy even for that. 

The silent movie, and its sequel, Son of the Sheik, were wildly popular, yet many fathers and husbands forbade their daughters and wives from seeing it. Too sensuous for impressionable women–although the rape is never shown or mentioned.  Stories abound of females fainting in the theater during the movie. You can see why I’ve enjoyed learning about this book and movie, and why I’ve mentioned it in the book I’m writing now. 

Valentino and Rambova Bigamy Scandal

Speaking of Valentino, there is, naturally, a major scandal attached to him as well. He was briefly jailed for bigamy. The press had a field day with the story.

The illegal marriage was between Natacha Rambova, a costume designer whose real name was Winifred Hudnut (I gotta admit, I’d change my name too if it were Winifred Hudnut), and Rudy Valentino, the popular silent screen heart-throb who was born in Italy Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Piero Filiberto Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antoguolla.

When the two met in 1921 on the set of “Uncharted Seas,” it was not love at first sight. According to Rambova, she thought Valentino was a goof-off and not very bright, as he kept trying to tell jokes and forgetting the punch line. Later she realized he was just lonely, and they began dating. A few months later, they moved in together.

Never mind the Roaring Twenties, this was still a big no-no, especially for movie stars in the public eye and especially because Valentino was already married. He got a divorce from first wife Jean Acker and took Rambova to Mexicali, Mexico, in May of 1922 to get married. But California law in those years required a one-year waiting period before remarrying, and the couple had not waited out the year. Perhaps Valentino didn’t know about the law; perhaps he thought he could safely ignore it. He could not.

He was picked up and jailed, briefly, for bigamy. Incredibly, his studio refused to bail him out, so several friends raised the bail money, and he was released. Where was Rambova during his arrest? In New York on studio business. She was on her way home, by train of course, when she heard the news of his arrest. Reporters were all over her when her train stopped in Chicago, but she refused to speak to them at all.

For the remainder of the year, the pair had live in separate apartments, with roommates, no less! They married again, legally this time, in March of 1923.

Read more about this fascinating feminist and the bigamy scandal at this excellent website.

The Superstars of 1921



The year 1921 was a landmark year in silent films. That year saw the making of two silent screen superstars: Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino.

Charlie Chaplin made his first feature film, “The Kid,” in 1921. He was already well known from his many “shorts,” but this longer feature rocketed him to the top.

1921 also saw the release of the first major film for Rudolph Valentino, “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” He had been playing bit parts, usually a dancing part because he was an excellent dancer or a villain’s role because of his dark “foreign” looks. Well, geez Louise, he was Italian, after all!

Both men became instant international stars. Poor Valentino would enjoy his fame for only four more years, before he died at 31. Chaplin lived to the ripe old age of 88.

The Name Game

       Silent film actors often gave themselves a new name, something more memorable, more alliterative, more modern than the one bestowed upon them by their parents. For example, one casting director advised a handsome young extra named Frank Cooper to change to a first name that sounded tougher. She suggested Gary after her rough-and-tumble hometown of Gary, Indiana. “Coop” took her advice. When little Gladys Smith got her first part in a David Belasco play, the famous New York director insisted she change her humdrum name. Together they settled on Mary Pickford. She became one of the country’s most famous film actresses, known all over the world as “Little Mary” or “Our Mary.” Her siblings were all too happy to piggyback on Big Sis’s fame. They change their names as well, from the almost comically boring John Smith to Jack Pickford, and from Charlotte Smith to Lottie Pickford.

       Foreign-born actors needed something less—well, less foreign, so that American audiences could pronounce and remember their names. So Greta Lovisa Gustafsson became Greta Garbo, the famous vamp. Wong Liu Tsong became Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American film star. My favorite? Get a load of this: Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Piero Filiberto Guglielmi who became Rudolph Valentino, the Latin Lover.  Here are a few more silent movie name changes:

 Mary Astor – Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke

Joan Crawford – Lucille Lesueur

Lon Chaney – Leonidas Chaney

Douglas Fairbanks – Douglas Elton Ullman

W. C. Fields – William Claude Dunkinfield

Buster Keaton – Joseph Frank Keaton

Stan Laurel – Arthur Stanley Jefferson