Rambova, Natacha (1897–1966)

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Rambova, Natacha (1897–1966)

American dancer, playwright, actress, costume and set designer, spiritualist, couturier, and Egyptologist. Name variations: Natasha Rambova; Natacha Valentino. Born Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy on January 27, 1897, in Salt Lake City, Utah; died on June 5, 1966, in Los Angeles, California; daughter of Michael Shaughnessy (a federal marshal) and his second wife Winifred (Kimball) Shaughnessy, later Winifred de Wolfe, later Winifred Hudnut; attended Leatherhead Court, an exclusive boarding school outside of London, England; married Rudolph Valentino (the actor), on May 13, 1922 (divorced January 1926); married Alvaro de Urzáiz (a Spanish tour guide), on August 6, 1934 (divorced 1939); no children.

Natacha Rambova is remembered primarily as the second wife of screen actor Rudolph Valentino, to whom she was married from 1922 until shortly before his untimely death in August 1926. Along with June Mathis , the screen-writer and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer executive who gave the Valentino his first starring role, Rambova is credited with transforming the actor into Hollywood's first great screen idol. "Their story was Pygmalion and Galatea in reverse," writes Michael Morris in his biography Madam Valentino, "the only time in Hollywood history that a woman fashioned a male star to an image of her imagination and shared that image with millions." Rambova was also the creator of her own exotic persona and reinvented herself many times through the years, whenever interest and opportunity beckoned. Her life beyond Valentino included considerable accomplishments as a costume and set designer, an actress, a fashion designer, a spiritualist, and a scholar of symbolism and ancient Egyptian religions.

Although the name she chose for herself was befitting of a Russian princess, Natacha Rambova was solidly American. Born in 1897 in Salt Lake City, Utah, she was christened Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy but nicknamed "Wink," so as not to be confused with her mother Winifred Kimball , a member of one of Utah's most prominent Mormon families. Rambova's father Michael, a Civil War hero and retired federal marshal, made a fortune in mining but lost much of it gambling. Twenty-seven years Winifred's senior, he had been married previously and had had seven children with his first wife. Michael took little interest in his second marriage or in his tiny daughter, preferring to sit and relive his glory days with his drinking buddies. Winifred made up for his absence by doting on her daughter and giving her every luxury. The Shaughnessys divorced in 1900, at which time Rambova was sent to live with her mother's sister Teresa Werner , while Winifred pursued a career in the emerging field of interior design. After establishing herself as a decorator, Winifred met and married Edgar de Wolfe, brother of the flamboyant Elsie de Wolfe who is considered America's first interior designer. Rambova's father, from whom she inherited her ambition, tenacity, and temper, died in 1910, without seeing his daughter again.

Winifred's marriage into the de Wolfe family gave her a solid foothold in her chosen profession. Winning her sister-in-law Elsie's approval, she took over her West Coast business and made millions decorating upscale hotels and private homes. Winifred sent her young daughter to Leatherhead Court, an exclusive boarding school outside London, where she was educated in the arts and humanities. Rambova felt acutely alone in the foreign surroundings but compensated by becoming a voracious reader. "My interest in mythology and legend began as a child," she later recalled, "as I never read any other kind of book." Her obsession with Greek and Roman mythology, as well as Nordic legends, would surface later in her scenic and costume designs.

At 17, with her schooling behind her, Rambova sought independence. Drawn to the ballet from childhood (her idol was Anna Pavlova ), she set out for New York to study with Russian dancer Theodore Kosloff, although at 5′8″ she was hardly suited for classical dance. She promptly adopted the name Natacha Rambova and began a passionate affair with Kosloff, with whom she toured both as a dancer and as a costume and set designer for his Imperial Russian Ballet. When Kosloff was drafted for the Cecil B. De Mille film The Woman God Forgot (1917), Rambova went along as a designer. Her work was commended in The Moving Picture World for the "accuracy of the exteriors, interiors, costumes, and accessories," although Agnes de Mille , Cecil's niece, contended that the designs were not quite as accurate as the review led readers to believe. "In one scene, Geraldine Farrar wore a headdress decorated with Bird of Paradise feathers," wrote Agnes, "which they later found out never existed in Mexico at that time."

With the Russian Revolution, Kosloff's finances dried up, and his ballet troupe disbanded. He continued to work sporadically for Cecil De Mille, to whom he would also submit Rambova's designs for scenery and costumes, passing them off as his own. Rambova soon tired of the arrangement, and of Kosloff's philandering, and began designing costumes for Alla Nazimova , whom she had met when the actress became a student of Kosloff's. Rambova's final break with Kosloff, however, almost cost her her life. While she was attempting to move out of the house they shared, he burst in the door and began shooting wildly at her with a hunting rifle, seriously wounding her in the leg and ending her dancing career. But Rambova never pressed charges against her former lover and later claimed that a jealous ballerina had caused her to give up dancing.

Since Nazimova had almost complete control over all aspects of her projects, she hired Rambova to work on the scenic and costume elements for a series of her films, including Aphrodite (which was never completed), Camille (1921), A Doll's House (1922), and Salome (1923). The women worked so well together that rumors began to circulate that they were lovers. Rambova first met Rudolph Valentino ("Rudy") when he was chosen to play Armand in Camille. The handsome Italian immigrant had arrived in the United States in 1913 and had worked as a gardener, waiter, and dancer before finding employment in silent pictures. When cast in Camille, he had just completed his first major role in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), which had not yet been released. Although Valentino was immediately attracted to Rambova, he was somewhat thwarted by her intimidating manner. "She had been a ballerina and would never let you forget it," said Patsy Ruth Miller , who played Nichette in the film. "I was a girl from the midwest, and she had a patronizing attitude toward me. I was not aware that Rudy and Natacha were becoming romantically involved. In fact he used to make jokes about her, saying 'There goes Pavlova!' whenever she passed by." Miller also found Rambova's designs for the film heavy-handed. "She leaned rather heavily on the bizarre, both in decor and personal appearance," she said. "Having been a ballerina, she wore her hair parted in the center and pulled back into the typical ballerina knot. She wore flat shoes, walked with her toes pointed out, and went in heavily for floaty draperies and long beady necklaces. I never saw her dance, but I'm sure it was 'interpretive.'"

Rambova and Valentino began appearing together as a couple at a costume ball in December 1920, although Valentino was still married to his first wife, actress Jean Acker , who had locked him out of the bedroom on their wedding night and left him soon after. Valentino moved into Rambova's bungalow, and together they purchased several exotic pets, including a lion cub named Zela. Rambova later recalled that their early years together were their happiest. "We were both poor, still unknown to the world in general, and glorying in our freedom. They were days of laughter, days of dreams, and of ambitious planning for the future." Later, the couple purchased an eight-room house in the Whitley Heights section of Hollywood, which they renovated as their financial situation allowed.

The lovers married in Mexico in May 1922, but their honeymoon was halted when Valentino was arrested on charges of bigamy for having wed Rambova before his divorce from Acker was final. The case generated a firestorm of publicity, making it necessary for Rambova to flee to New York and barricade herself in a hotel. The matter went to court, although the charges were

subsequently dropped. The entire wedding party testified that the first marriage had not been consummated, and Rudy publicly apologized for the miscalculations concerning his divorce. Shortly after the trial, he hit a snag in negotiations with his studio, resulting in his suspension.

In order to infuse their dwindling coffers during the hiatus, the couple embarked on a 17-week, 40-city dance tour, performing a program of mostly Argentine tangos with an additional Spanish-style folk dance they choreographed themselves. "It was a wonderful thing to see these two exotic and graceful creatures dance," said George Ullman, the couple's business manager. "They always appeared to be dancing for and with each other, for the sole joy of being in each other's company." The couple drew enormous crowds—mostly women—wherever they appeared, their popularity fueled by their recent notoriety. They were "officially married" during a stop in Indiana on March 14, 1923. The following summer, they honeymooned in Europe, where they were greeted like superstars.

From the beginning of her relationship with Valentino, Rambova exercised almost complete control over his career, designing his costumes, handling his publicity, negotiating his fees with the studio, even advising him about how he should make on-screen love to his leading ladies. Later, as his popularity grew, Rambova was forced more and more to shield her creation from the studio moguls who sought to take control from her. In protecting her interests and brokering the best deals for the star, Rambova locked heads with many movie executives in Hollywood, including Adolph Zukor. "She was the stronger personality of the two," he said, "or else her power secured domination over his. It was our custom to give stars a good deal of contractual leeway in their material. Natacha began to insert herself into the smallest details and he backed her in everything." Jesse Lasky echoed Zukor, maintaining that Rambova was at constant odds with the studio and would not arbitrate. "She commanded," he said. "When she insisted on his doing perfumed parts like Booth Tarkington's Monsieur Beaucaire, in powdered wigs and silk stockings, we had to take him on her terms to have him at all. She designed his costumes herself, and, to give her due credit, they were magnificent. But we hadn't bargained for a dilettante foil for Rambova costumes."

Although the Valentino craze was without precedent, his appeal was for the most part limited to females. "His posturing, decorative image was focused to seduce the women in the audience, and this made their husbands and boyfriends uncomfortable and envious," writes Morris. "Valentino was a woman's sex object," he adds, "he was a woman's actor, and women were his most loyal fans." Ephraim Katz agrees that Valentino appealed almost exclusively to women: "Male audiences found his acting ludicrous, his manner foppish and his screen character effeminate." Katz blamed Rambova for the downward slide in Valentino's career after 1924, citing her contribution to his increasingly effeminate screen image. His off-camera image was also suspect. Rumors concerning the actor's sexual orientation surfaced early in his career and haunted him until his death. In 1926, an anonymous editorial headlined "Pink Powder Puff" appeared in the Chicago Tribune, accusing the actor of feminizing American males. "When will we be rid of all these effeminate youths," the writer queried, "pomaded, powdered, bejeweled and bedizened, in the image of Rudy—that painted pansy?" Valentino immediately published a letter in a rival Chicago paper, challenging the anonymous editorial writer to a boxing match, but no one came forth. He would later participate in a one-round exhibition bout with Frank O'Neil, a sportswriter for the New York Evening Journal.

Rambova's domination over her husband also extended into their intimate life. Although Valentino longed for a family, Rambova resisted, convinced that motherhood would destroy her career. Although their relationship was seriously undermined by the issue of children, it endured until Valentino signed a three-year contract with United Artists in 1924 which explicitly excluded his wife from participating in his films. It may or may not have been his way of forcing his hand, but whatever the case, Rambova felt betrayed and shut out. She sought to save face by producing her own movie, What Price Beauty?, a comic satire she wrote on the indignities women suffer in their quest to be beautiful. The film starred Nita Naldi , and included an appearance by a young actress named Myrna Loy . The picture, which went three times over budget, was well received in previews but not released until 1928. Lou Mahoney, the Valentinos' handyman and confidant, blamed the studio bosses. "No help came from anyone, no thoughts of trying to get this picture properly released.… Their whole thought was that if the picture was a success, Mrs. Valentino would be a success. She would then start producing under the Rudolph Valentino Production Company."

In August 1925, Rambova separated from Valentino and took up residence in the couple's New York apartment, telling reporters that she was on a "marital holiday." When pressed about the separation, she grew defensive. "He knew what I was when I married him," she told one publication. "Homes and babies are all very nice, but you can't have them and a career as well. I intended, and intend, to have a career and Valentino knew it. If he wants a housewife, he'll have to look again." In New York, Rambova sought support through her marital crisis from her mother Winifred, who was now married to her fourth husband, the cosmetics magnate Richard Hudnut, who had legally adopted Rambova. Winifred had recently become a convert to the teachings of Helena Blavatsky , the founder of the Theosophical Society, and quickly drew her daughter into the controversial philosophy. Mother and daughter went so far as to employ a medium to conduct seances several evenings a week.

During her separation, Rambova also starred in the film When Love Grows Cold, which had a storyline remarkably similar to the unfolding Valentino saga. Upon its release in 1926, it was advertised as "a powerful heart stirring story of a woman's supreme devotion and sacrifice for a man who paid the penalty of 'forgetting' when success came to him." The film's advertisers further capitalized on the Valentino estrangement by billing Rambova as Mrs. Rudolph Valentino, which infuriated her. Swearing she was finished with Hollywood, she turned to the stage, taking the role of a Russian woman in the Broadway production of The Purple Vial, for which she received promising reviews. "Natacha Rambova was surprisingly adequate as the girl outwitting the fiendish general," wrote Variety. She "has demonstrated sparks of an emotional actress that may ride further in either vaudeville or legit."

While Rambova was in New York, Valentino was seen with actresses Vilma Banky and Mae Murray , and had an affair with Pola Negri , although he continued to wear the platinum slave bracelet Rambova had given him in happier times. Morris claims that the actor continued to hold out hope for a reconciliation with Rambova and was devastated when she obtained a Paris divorce in January 1926. The actor died the following August of a perforated ulcer, which Morris attributes to his broken heart. Rambova, who was in France when she was first informed of Valentino's illness, was deeply concerned, having lost much of her anger and resentment in the months since the divorce. She was grief-stricken at the news of his death, and took to her room for three days, even refusing to eat. Having become deeply involved in spiritualism, she did not attend Valentino's funeral, but sought instead to contact his spirit by employing a medium and holding daily seances. Upon her return to New York the following November, she told the press that she had indeed received messages from Valentino, many of which she later disclosed in the book Rudy: An Intimate Portrait of Rudolph Valentino by His Wife Natacha Rambova. For some time, she continued to pursue her psychic interests, joining the Bamberger circle, a group that met every weekend to conduct seances and study theosophy.

In 1927, Rambova embarked on several theatrical, literary, and fashion enterprises. In Boston, she appeared in the mystery thriller The Triple Cross, although her performance did not live up to the expectations elicited by her earlier Broadway appearance. She also began writing a play, "All That Glitters," an indictment of Hollywood and her marriage to Valentino. The finished work contained so many uncomplimentary depictions of powerful celebrities that it was considered too controversial to produce. In the summer of 1927, following her appearance in the comedy-drama Creoles, she gave up acting and opened an exclusive dress-designing studio on West 55th Street in New York City, where she also had an apartment. Her clothing line echoed her own taste for the exotic and stressed individualized design. "All women should not wear knee length skirts, even if that is the prevailing fashion; clothes that are becoming to the tall, languid type, would not do at all for a short girl of the staccato type, who has to have sharp clothes to express her personality."

Although the clothing enterprise was successful, particularly among actresses and celebrities, Rambova abandoned her business to marry Alvaro de Urzáiz, a Spanish tour guide she met on a trip to Greece. After a whirlwind romance, the couple wed in a civil ceremony in France and settled on the island of Mallorca, where they went into business buying and renovating old houses for tourists. At the request of Alvaro's family, the pair married a second time in a religious ceremony on August 6, 1934, which was covered by the worldwide press. "Don Alvaro bears a striking resemblance to Valentino," wrote one reporter, "having the same Latin type of good looks that characterized the popular film star." The couple's peaceful life on the island was shattered by the Spanish Civil War, which both alarmed and fascinated Rambova. When she denounced the Nationalists for their treatment of former leftist sympathizers, however, she became a political liability and was forced to escape Mallorca on a coal freighter headed for France. Alvaro stayed behind to serve the Nationalist forces, thus placing the dual strain of physical and political separation on the marriage.

In 1936, shortly after arriving in France, Rambova suffered a heart attack which marked the onset of health problems that would plague her for the next 30 years. Adding to her physical woes was the emotional breakup of her marriage to Alvaro, who ultimately left her for another woman. Refusing to be defeated, however, Rambova began a new quest for a meaningful life, becoming a student of symbolism and comparative religion. She now embraced the philosophy of George Gurdjieff, whose teachings were steeped in Asian wisdom and practice. Returning to America in October 1939 and settling near her mother in New York, she joined with James H. Smith to co-author a number of articles on mental and physical exercises for Harper's Bazaar and Town and Country. The two would later collaborate on the book Technique for Living. Rambova also pursued a new interest in astrology, defending the discipline in a number of essays for American Astrology magazine.

Through her friend Maud Van Cortlandt Oakes , Rambova became acquainted with Paul and Mary Mellon , who had awarded Oakes a Bollingen Foundation grant to finance her study of the sand painting of New Mexico's Navajos. Mary Mellon had originally formed the foundation to publish the work of Carl Jung, naming it "Bollingen" in tribute to Jung's castlelike refuge on Lake Zurich. In the summer of 1945, Rambova traveled with Oakes to Guatemala to assist her in studying the pre-Columbian background of the indigenous people living there. Although Rambova put her health at risk to make the trip, it fulfilled her longtime dream to connect with lost or vanishing civilizations. Upon her return to New York, she applied for her own grant "to create an archive of comparative universal symbolism." Writes Morris: "She proposed to collect from museums and private collections sketches and photographs of rare books and manuscripts containing archetypal symbolism." To bring her rediscovery of the past to light, Rambova planned to publish a book, tentatively titled "The Myth Pattern of Ancient Symbolism."

Receiving her first grant in 1946, Rambova sailed for Egypt to analyze symbolic material in antique scarabs. On that trip, she met Alexandre Piankoff, a Russian academician who had fled his country's turmoil in 1917 to pursue Egyptological studies. He introduced her to his French translation of the "Book of Caverns" found in the tomb of Ramses VI. Rambova was so fascinated by it that she abandoned her study of scarabs and returned to New York, where she convinced the Bollingen Foundation to finance a two-year expedition to explore Ramses' tomb and the vaults of the nine pyramids at Sakkara, and to record the religious inscriptions found within the structures. The expedition, which began in 1947, was directed by Piankoff, and included photographer L. Fred Husson, artist Mark Hasselriis, and Egyptologist Elizabeth Thomas , who served as an assistant to Piankoff. Rambova was "aristocratic, learned," and "cosmopolitan," said Husson. "The achievements of the ancient Egyptians appeared to be a constant amazement to her, and she was always searching for clues to explain how and why this was so." He also found her a tough taskmaster. "Natacha demanded the best. She worked hard herself and she expected no less from others." By the end of the expedition, the group had recorded the religious testimony of three separate periods of Egyptian history, data which served as the basis of a series of Bollingen publications called "Egyptian Religious Texts and Representations," which were prepared and translated by Piankoff and edited by Rambova.

Rambova returned to New York in 1951 and taught classes in symbolism, mythology, and comparative religion in her apartment. Hasselriis returned around the same time and continued to work with her for the next 14 years, producing drawings of ancient Egyptian inscriptions and art objects for her archives and publications. Rambova attracted many celebrities to her classes, including artist and scholar Mai-mai Sze , costume designer Irene Sharaff , painter Buffie Johnson , writer and photographer Dorothy Norman , Indian art expert Stella Kramrisch , and screen-writer Mercedes de Acosta . Rambova was later displeased to be mentioned in de Acosta's autobiography Here Lies the Heart (1960), which transparently referred to de Acosta's intimate relationships with women. Though many of her women friends were gay, Rambova disavowed any sexual intimacies with women.

Beginning in 1953, health problems dominated Rambova's life. Most debilitating of her illnesses was scleroderma, a degenerative disease in which the esophagus and internal organs become fibrous and hard, restricting swallowing and digestion. Despite lack of sleep and weight loss from not eating, she worked tirelessly on the Bollingen Series. In 1954, the first volume, The Tomb of Ramesses VI, was published, followed a year later by the second volume, The Shrines of Tut-Ankh-Amon. In 1955, Rambova made a last trip to Egypt, stopping in Paris to research in the Louvre for the third volume in the series, Mythological Papyri, published in 1957. During this time, Rambova also began donating some of her Egyptian artifacts to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, to which her mother had been an earlier benefactor. Rambova continued to endow the museum throughout the 1950s, describing in letters to the director how the pieces should be exhibited.

While at work on the Bollingen Series, Rambova was also attempting to complete her volume on symbolism. As her disease progressed, she worked exclusively on her own manuscript while Piankoff took over the Bollingen publications. When she felt ready, she sent a draft of her work to Carl Jung for his opinion. Jung handed it over to one of his pupils who found Rambova's hypothesis flawed and suggested further work. Jung's rejection caused the Bollingen Foundation to delay their decision to publish the material, which devastated Rambova. She continued to rewrite in an effort to perfect it, but by this time she was in a race against death. "My health is bad and I have not much more time or strength left, and what I have I wish to use to finish at least this work," she wrote to a friend in August 1958.

Eventually Rambova left New York and took up residence in the Connecticut country house she had purchased with part of her inheritance. She made a last trip to New York in September 1965, to meet with lawyers concerning her will. On September 29, after apparently going berserk in a hotel elevator, she was admitted to Lenox Hill Hospital, where she was diagnosed with paranoid psychosis arising from malnutrition. Her doctors administered shock treatment, which Hasselriis attempted to have halted, knowing that Rambova would have objected to it on moral grounds. He was informed, however, that because he was not a blood relative, he could do nothing to stop the treatment.

Rambova left the hospital in November, under the care of her cousin Ann Wollen and Ann's mother Katherine Peterson , who took her back to California. There Rambova entered Methodist Hospital in Arcadia, where she remained until January, when she was moved to Las Encinas Hospital in Pasadena. She spent her last months hooked up to feeding tubes, which she described as "purgatory." On June 5, 1966, Natacha Rambova died of a massive heart attack. At her instruction, no embalming took place and no services were held. She was cremated and her ashes were scattered in the northern forest of Arizona, the state in which she experienced the same cosmic mystery she had felt in Egypt.

Rambova left her unfinished manuscript, containing over 1,000 pages of text and numerous photographs and illustrations, to the Brooklyn Museum. Her remaining Egyptian artifacts were given to the Utah Museum of Fine Art, and her Far Eastern collection was donated to the Philadelphia Museum. The remainder of her estate was divided among relatives, friends, and students.

Rambova's place in history is confined for the most part to her relatively short relationship with Valentino, although she deserves broader consideration. It has been suggested that her lack of focus kept her from leaving an indelible mark of her own. "Aunt Winifred always said that Natacha's talents stretched in too many directions," said Ann Wollen; "she strove to be the best in too many fields, and suffered as a consequence."


Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes. American National Biography. Vol. 27. NY: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Morris, Michael. Madam Valentino: The Many Lives of Natacha Rambova. NY: Abbeville, 1991.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts