Natacha Rambova

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Natacha Rambova
Natacha Rambova.jpg
Natacha Rambova
Born Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy
(1897-01-19)January 19, 1897
Salt Lake City, Utah
Died June 5, 1966(1966-06-05) (aged 69)
Pasadena, California
Other names Natasha Rambova
Occupation Costume and set designer, artistic director, screenwriter, producer, actress, fashion designer
Spouse(s) Rudolph Valentino
(m.1923–1926; his death)
Alvaro de Urzaiz
(m.1934–1939; divorced)

Natacha Rambova (January 19, 1897 – June 5, 1966) was an American film costume and set designer, best known for her marriage to Rudolph Valentino. Although they shared many interests such as art, poetry and spiritualism, his colleagues felt that she exercised too much control over his work and blamed her for several expensive flops. In later life, she continued her spiritualist activities, as well as studying Egyptology.

Early years and ballet[edit]

Rambova was born Winifred Shaughnessy in Salt Lake City. Her father, Michael Shaughnessy, was an Irish Catholic who fought for the Union during the American Civil War and then worked in the mining industry. Her mother, Winifred Kimball, was a granddaughter of Mormon leader Heber C. Kimball.[1]

Winifred (senior) was four times married, settling eventually on millionaire perfume mogul Richard Hudnut, and becoming a well-connected interior designer in San Francisco. Rambova was adopted by her stepfather, making her legal name Winifred Hudnut. A rebellious teenager, Rambova was sent to a strict British boarding-school, where she proved especially gifted at ballet.[2] Her family had encouraged her to study ballet purely as a social grace, and were appalled when she chose it as her career. But an aunt intervened and took her to New York, where she studied under the Russian ballet dancer and choreographer Theodore Kosloff in his Imperial Russian Ballet Company,[3] and adopted the name Natacha Rambova. Although too tall to be a classical ballerina, she was given leading parts by Kosloff, who soon became her lover. Rambova’s mother was outraged at this affair with a much-older married man, and tried to have Kosloff deported. But when Rambova fled abroad, her mother relented and agreed to her continuing to perform with the company.

Design in film[edit]

When Kosloff was hired by Cecil B. DeMille as a performer and costume designer for Hollywood films, Rambova carried out much of the creative work as well as the historical research. Kosloff would then steal her sketches and claim credit for them as his own. Both professionally and personally, her partnership with Kosloff was tempestuous. He was a controlling and abusive man with many other lovers, who once shot her in the leg when she tried to leave him.

When Kosloff started work for fellow-Russian film producer Alla Nazimova at Metro Pictures Corporation (later MGM), he sent Rambova to present some designs. Nazimova requested some alterations, and was most impressed when Rambova was able to make these changes immediately in her own hand. So she offered Rambova a position on her production staff as an art director and costume designer, enabling her to leave Kosloff at last.

Living and working with Valentino[edit]

Rambova's first film for Nazimova was Billions (1920), followed by Uncharted Seas (1921), on which she first met Rudolph Valentino, and the two of them worked together on Camille. Although Valentino was still married to American film actress Jean Acker, he and Rambova moved in together within a year, having formed a relationship based more on friendship and shared interests than on emotional or professional rapport. They then had to pretend to separate until Valentino’s divorce was final, and they married on May 13, 1922 in Mexicali, Mexico. But the law required a year to pass before remarriage, and Valentino was jailed for bigamy, having to be bailed out by friends. However, their honeymoon at her adopted father’s romantic mountain hideaway at Johnsburg, NY, was an experience they would both treasure.[4] They legally remarried on March 14, 1923.

Both Rambova and Valentino were Spiritualists, and they visited psychics and took part in séances and automatic writing. Valentino wrote a book of poetry Daydreams with many poems about Rambova.[5] She too wrote a book about the time she spent with him, claiming to be in contact with him in the afterlife via psychics.[6]

When it came to home life, Valentino and Rambova turned out to hold very different views. Valentino cherished old world ideals of a woman being a housewife and mother, while Rambova was a feminist who wanted to continue to work and had no plans of being a housewife. Valentino was known as an excellent cook, while actress Patsy Ruth Miller suspected Rambova didn't know "how to make burnt fudge," although the truth was she did occasionally bake and was an excellent seamstress.[7] Valentino deeply wanted children, Rambova did not.[8]

Declining relationship[edit]

In professional life, their collaborations also showed-up their differences more than their similarities, and she did not contribute to any of his successful films. In The Young Rajah[9] she designed authentic Indian costumes that tended to compromise his Latin lover image, and the film was a major flop.[10] She also supported his one-man strike against Famous Players-Lasky, which left him temporarily banned from movie work. In the interval, they performed a promotional dance-tour for Mineralava Beauty Products, to keep his name in the spotlight, though when they reached her hometown of Salt Lake City, and she was billed as "The Little Pigtailed Shaughnessy Girl", Rambova was deeply insulted.[11]

Her later work with Valentino was characterised by elaborate and costly preparations for films that either flopped or never appeared. These included Monsieur Beaucaire, The Sainted Devil and The Hooded Falcon. By this time, critics were beginning to blame Rambova’s excessive control for these failures, and she was eventually banned from his filmsets. In 1925, they went through an acrimonious divorce.

There was an ironic footnote to the marriage. Rambova produced and starred in her own picture, Do Clothes Make the Woman? with Clive Brook, when the distributor took the opportunity to bill her as 'Mrs Valentino' and changed the title to When Love Grows Cold. She was mortally offended and never worked in film again.

Later career[edit]

From 1927 Rambova ran an elite couture shop on Fifth Avenue, until she met her second husband Alvaro de Urzaiz, a British-educated Spanish aristocrat on a trip to Europe in 1934, and they went to live on the island of Mallorca. In the Spanish Civil War, Urzaiz was on the pro-fascist nationalist side, becoming a naval commander. Rambova fled to Nice, where she suffered a heart attack at age 40. Soon after, she and Urzaiz divorced.

Rambova remained in France until the Nazi invasion, when she returned to New York. Her interest in the metaphysical grew during the 1940s, and she supported the Bollingen Foundation, through which she believed she could see a past life in Egypt. She published articles on healing and astrology, and helped decipher ancient scarabs and tomb inscriptions, which led her to edit a series titled Egyptian Texts and Religious Representations. She also conducted classes in her apartment about myths, symbolism and comparative religion.

In the mid-1960s she was struck with scleroderma, and became malnourished and delusional as a result. A cousin brought her to Pasadena, California where she died of a heart attack on June 5, 1966 at the age of 69. Her ashes were scattered in Arizona.

Influence and style[edit]

Rambova favored designers such as Paul Poiret, Léon Bakst and the long dead Aubrey Beardsley. She specialized in "exotic" and "foreign" effects in both costume and stage design. For costumes she favored bright colors, baubles, bangles, shimmering draped fabrics, sparkles, and feathers.[3] She also used the effect of sparkle on half nude bodies slathered in paint. When Rambova began work in film costume design she took to researching historical accuracy for her designs.

During her marriage to Valentino, Rambova was seen as a fashion icon. During a trip to Paris her shopping trips caused a sensation with the press reporting on her outfits.[12]

In popular culture[edit]

Rambova was portrayed by Yvette Mimieux in Melville Shavelson's television movie The Legend of Valentino (1975) and by Michelle Phillips in Ken Russell's feature film Valentino (1977), and by Ksenia Jarova in the American silent film Silent Life (2012).

Filmography[edit]

Year Title Role Notes
1917 The Woman God Forgot § Costume designer
1920 Why Change Your Wife? § Costume designer
1920 Something to Think About § Art director, costume designer
1920 Billions Art director, costume designer
1921 Forbidden Fruit § Costume designer
1921 Camille § Art director, costume designer
Uncredited
1921 Aphrodite Art director, costume designer (never made)
1922 Beyond the Rocks § Valentino's costumes
1922 The Young Rajah Costume designer
Uncredited
1923 A Doll's House Art director, costume designer
1923 Salomé § Art director, costume designer, writer
Credited as Peter M. Winters
1924 The Hooded Falcon Costume designer, set decorator, writer (never made)
1924 Monsieur Beaucaire § Costume designer, writer
1924 A Sainted Devil Art director, costume designer, writer
1925 What Price Beauty? Producer, writer
1925 When Love Grows Cold Margaret Benson Only film as an actress

§ Indicates surviving films

Bibliography[edit]

  • Rambova, Natacha Rudy: An Intimate Portrait by His Wife (1926)
  • Rambova, Natacha Rudolph Valentino Recollections by Natacha Rambova (1927)
  • Rambova, Natacha Rudolph Valentino: A Wife's Memories of an Icon ISBN 978-0-9816440-4-2.
  • Volumes 1–4, Egyptian Religious Texts and Representations Bollingen Series XL (1954–1964)
  • Morris, Michael, Madame Valentino. Abbeville Press, 1991. ISBN 978-1-55859-136-3
  • Zumaya, Evelyn, Affairs Valentino. The Rudolph Valentino Society and Publishing LLC, 2011. ISBN 978-0-9827709-5-5

References[edit]

  1. ^ Leider, Emily. "Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino" page 128
  2. ^ Leider, Emily. Dark Lover, ibid., p. 130
  3. ^ a b Leider, Emily. "Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino" page 131
  4. ^ Elisabeth Hudnut Clarkson."River Rails and Ski Trails" page 84
  5. ^ Leider, Emily. "Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino" page 241-242
  6. ^ Leider, Emily. "Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino" page 407-408
  7. ^ Leider, Emily. "Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino" page 198
  8. ^ Morris, Michael. "Madam Valentino: The Many Lives of Natacha Rambova" page 177
  9. ^ Leider, Emily. "Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino" page 215
  10. ^ Leider, Emily. "Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino" page 217
  11. ^ Leider, Emily. "Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino" page 249
  12. ^ Leider, Emily. "Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino" page 269

External links[edit]