Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Natacha Rambova

Whilst doing research for my post on Alla Nazimova, I stumbled across some beautiful pictures of Natacha Rambova, I had only vaguely heard of her, I decided to investigate further and found that she had a fascinating story.  I was also blown away by her style, this woman clearly had elegance, style and artistic talent dripping from her fingertips which makes her a perfect model for this era in history, and she certainly knew how to work a turban...

Rambova was born Winifred Shaughnessy in Salt Lake City on January 19th 1897.  Her father Michael Shaughnessy, was an Irish Catholic who fought for the Union during the American Civil War. Her mother Winifred Kimball, was nicknamed "Muzzie" and was a granddaughter of Mormon Patriarch Heber C. Kimball. Her father was a businessman who partook in mining interests, but eventually his alcohol and gambling problems became too much for her mother. Her mother became an interior designer and moved to San Francisco. She was married four times (Michael was her second husband), eventually settling on millionaire perfume mogul Richard Hudnut. Rambova was adopted by her stepfather, making her legal name Winifred Hudnut. Before her marriage to Hudnut, Rambova's mother married Edgar De Wolfe, brother of Elsie De Wolfe, a prominent interior decorator. With this marriage her mother became socially successful and wealthy. Rambova was rebellious, and mocked her stepfather for being passive. She was sent home from a boarding school for "conduct unbecoming of a lady". She was sent to a strict British boarding school, where she learned ballet, French, drawing, and studied mythology.

 Rambova performing with Kosloff, Photo courtesy of

Rambova was gifted at ballet, and trained with Rosita Mauri at the Paris Opéra during the summers. She traveled to London frequently to watch other performers including Pavlova, Nijinsky, and Theodore Kosloff. Right before World War I broke out, Rambova returned to San Francisco where she clashed with her mother once again and insisted she would pursue ballet as a career. Her family had trained her in ballet as a social grace and were appalled at the thought of it becoming a career. Aunt Teresa intervened, offering to move with Rambova to New York where she could study under Kosloff. Rambova, now 17, changed her name to Natacha Rambova at this time. At 5'8" she was too tall to be a classical ballerina, but Kosloff continually gave her leading parts. She performed with him in his Imperial Russian Ballet Company.

Around this time Rambova fell for the 32 year old Kosloff (who had a wife and an invalid daughter in Europe) and the pair began a tumultuous love affair. Muzzie was outraged when she found out, and brought charges of statutory rape and kidnapping against Kosloff hoping to have him deported. Rambova fled New York and hid in Canada, and later England, to hide from her mother. While in England she posed as a governess to Kosloff's wife and child. Muzzie, wanting to bring her daughter home, relented by dropping the charges. She allowed Rambova to keep performing with the company and promised to underwrite the costumes.

Rambova returned and began touring with the Kosloff company. In addition to dancing she began costume designing as well. After the tour ended Kosloff had been hired by Cecil B. DeMille to perform as well as contribute designs. Rambova joined him and was dismayed to find herself as part of Kosloff's "arty harem". Kosloff had taken several lovers amongst the dancers, who would perform with his company, teach at his studio, and assist him uncredited in his film work. Rambova took to researching historical accuracy for her designs, which Kosloff would then use without giving her credit, stealing her sketches and claiming them as his own.

Kosloff met fellow Russian Alla Nazimova and convinced her to use his services for her an upcoming planned project based on Aphrodite. Kosloff sent Rambova to show sketches to Nazimova, claiming they were his own when they were actually Rambova's. Nazimova was impressed and when she asked for revisions to some costumes, Rambova took out a pencil and began to make the revisions, showing that she had done the work. Nazimova offered Rambova a position on her production staff as an art director and costume designer. The work would pay up to $5,000 a picture.

Rambova's work had been used in four DeMille films, including, Why Change Your Wife? Which featured Gloria Swanson and Thomas Meighan, before her signing with Nazimova. Metro feared censors' reactions, and thus the Aphrodite picture was never made. Her first film for Nazimova was Billions in 1920. She met Rudolph Valentino on the set of Uncharted Seas in 1921. They began working together on Camille soon after. Hans Poelzig and Emil-Jaques Ruhlmann were her inspiration for various sets on the film. Rambova was determined to bring the art deco look to America, as it was transforming film making in Europe. The film flopped, with many contemporary critics finding it too odd. The failure of "Camille" eventually led Metro to terminate Nazimova's contract.

Rambova took on teaching design and selling some of her jewellery. She wound up earning more than Valentino, who had notoriously bad contract deals.  She next designed for a film Nazimova wrote titled, A Doll's House. By 1922 Rambova had left Metro to join Nazimova on her artistic productions. Valentino negotiated a slightly better contract and was now earning more than Rambova. Rambova's designs for Salome were based on drawings by Aubrey Beardsley for Oscar Wilde's version. In addition to costume design, Rambova contributed to the film's scenario under the alias "Peter M. Winters". The film cost $350,000 to make and flopped at the box office. It was one of Nazimova's last releases. It was also the last film Nazimova and Rambova would work on together.

Rambova met Valentino on the set of Uncharted Seas in 1921. They began working together on the set of Camille shortly after. The pair did not hit it off instantly, as by Rambova's own account she thought he was dumb as he was constantly goofing off and telling jokes...then forgetting the point to them. However she soon realized he was just lonely and trying to be liked, and she took pity on him.  They began to take picnics together and attended a costume ball together. They formed a relationship based on a love of reading, art, antiques, and the finer things in life.

The pair moved in together less than a year later but had to separate (or at least pretend to) as the divorce proceedings for Valentino's marriage to Jean Acker began. Once the divorce was final, the pair married on May 13, 1922 in Mexicali, Mexico. However, the law at the time required a year to pass before remarriage and Valentino was jailed as a bigamist. Valentino's studio at the time, Famous Players-Lasky, refused to post bail.  June Mathis, George Melford, and Thomas Meighan eventually were able to raise enough to post bail. Rambova had been sent to New York by the studio before Valentino's jailing, and was informed at a stop in Chicago. Throughout the bigamy scandal she refused to speak to the press. The pair had to wait a year to remarry (less risking Valentino being jailed again), forced to live in separate apartments with roommates. They legally remarried on March 14, 1923.

September 2, 1922. SS Olympic Sails. Mr. Richard Hudnut, Mrs. Rudolph Valentino, Mrs. Richard Hudnut with Valentino. The movie actor went on the Olympic, sailing September 2, to see his bride and her parents off for a European trip.

Though they shared similar passions, Valentino and Rambova held very different views when it came to home and personal life. 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. Valentino deeply wanted children, Rambova did not.

Rambova did not get along with Valentino's friends and family, with the exception of Paul Ivano. Rambova complained during their trip to Italy, and she never got along with either of his siblings.  She eventually sparred with Douglas Gerrad, June Mathis, and George Ullman; costing Valentino his friendship with Mathis. The marriage began to be strained as the press scrutinized Rambova and blamed her for Valentino's failures. Actress Myrna Loy claimed that Rambova was unfairly criticized, that Valentino was like a little boy wanting to please people by saying yes to everything, while Rambova took the blame by going after these people and saying no. After signing with United Artists (which stipulated Rambova could not be present on Valentino's sets or take part in his films).

Rambova turned cold and ignored her husband's 30th birthday, mocking him for staying home all day while she went to work (he was waiting for his contract to finalize), sparring with him in public, embarrassing him in front of Hollywood elite on the night of his 'Rudolph Valentino Medal' ceremony, and eventually cheating on him with her cameraman on What Price Beauty Rambova left four weeks after Valentino began shooting The Eagle and announced the separation soon after, catching Valentino off guard.The pair took to sparring back and forth in the press. When Valentino suddenly took ill, Rambova was in Europe. At Valentino's request, Ullman sent a telegram to Rambova. Rambova believed a reconciliation had taken place and the two sent telegrams right until the final moments of Valentino's life.

After her divorce from Valentino began, Rambova produced and starred in another picture, Do Clothes Make the Woman? She had brought forty trunks back from Europe for the picture and would act opposite Clive Brook. Eventually it was retitled to When Love Grows Cold much to Rambova's horror. Rambova was reportedly so upset that the distributor promoted the film with her name as "Mrs. Valentino" that she never acted in film again. Most of the film is lost except small fragments from a promotional trailer. After Valentino's death, Rambova appeared on stage via vaudeville and Broadway. She wrote an unproduced play, All that Glitters, supposedly detailing her life with Valentino, although by the end of the play there is a happy ending and the couple reconcile.

Rambova opened an elite couture shop on Fifth Avenue in 1927. She urged women to express themselves through fashion. She would later close the shop after meeting her second husband in 1934. With her husband in Mallorca, Rambova began a business of buying up old villas and modernizing them for tourists; a venture she financed with her inheritance from her stepfather who had died in 1928.

After divorcing her second husband, Rambova remained in France, where she remained until the Nazi invasion, at which point she returned to New York. Rambova's interest in the metaphysical grew during the 1940s, with her supporting the Bollingen Foundation, which she believed help her see a past life in Egypt. She published various articles on healing and astrology during this time. Eventually she helped decipher ancient scarabs and tomb inscriptions which led her to edit a series of publications titled, "Egyptian Texts and Religious Representations". She also conducted classes in her apartment about myths, symbolism, and comparative religion.

She never spoke of Valentino publicly, turning away reporters on the 25th anniversary of his death and threatening to sue if an upcoming picture about him had a caricature of her in it.

She favoured designers such as Paul Poiret, Leon Bakst, 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. 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.

Rambova loathed the world of high society, and even though her mother had married well she refused to live off her stepfather's money, insisting on making her own living. Valentino was said to be shocked when he first viewed her parents' lavish home, as Rambova had never spoken of their wealth. During Valentino's strike from Famous Players, she still intended to make money herself, and never mentioned her parents as a source of income.

Both Rambova and Valentino were Spiritualists. She had been interested in ancient religions since her teen years. She believed in reincarnation and psychic powers. Later in life she became an Egyptologist, an author on astrology, and a follower of Madame Blavatsky and George Gurdjieff. During her marriage to Valentino they both visited psychics, partook in séances, and automatic writing. Through these practices Valentino was eventually moved to write a book of poetry, Daydreams, with many poems about Rambova.When Valentino died Rambova wrote a book about the time she had spent with him, and also her claims to be in contact with him in the afterlife via psychics.

Rambova met Alvaro de Urzaiz on a trip to Europe in 1934. Urzaiz was a British educated, Spanish aristocrat. After closing her shop, Rambova moved with her husband to the island of Mallorca. When the Spanish Civil War erupted, Urzaiz was on the pro-fascists 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.

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 collection of Egyptian antiquities were donated to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. She willed a huge collection of Nepali and Lamaistic art to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Rambova's ashes were scattered in Arizona.

There is a biography for her; 'Madame Valentino, The Many Lives of Natacha Rambova' by Michael Morris Available here.

Text source from Wikipedia

To view more posts in my series of 'Forgotten Twentieth Century Figures' go here.


  1. I had never heard of her before! Interesting and fascinating life

  2. I knew only a tiny bit about her, my husband will enjoy this very much.. he knows so much more about Valentino etc. I truly enjoyed every bit of this, the photos are wonderful. Brava, Dash !

  3. These posts are always so interesting, but it is especially cool when the person was born in your hometown!

  4. Wow! I didn't know this about her at all - though I had seen a few photographs of her with Valentino. His former home in NY has been turned into a catering hall and I have been to two events there. There are photos of Valentino on display there. Thanks for such an interesting share.

  5. Great story - I'd not heard of her before. Thank you!

  6. What can one say except,"Wow!"

  7. I learn the most interesting things via this blog. What an utterly fascinating character. Gorgeous selection of photos too!

  8. Wow - what lives these people led - I am worn out just reading about it all! Great post as usual.

  9. Thank you so much for a fascinating article. I had heard of Rambova, but knew her only as Valentino's rather mysterious wife. I had no idea she was such a beauty!

  10. A beautiful and comprehensive page on Rambova. Congratulations. One thing, I would appreciate your giving credit to my blog for the photo of Rambova and Kosloff, thanks, http://artsmeme.com.

  11. Thank you Debra, it's always good to know the original source of the photograph.

  12. I own an original print of the 15th photo featured here. The profile photo wearing the white mink coat.

  13. Get daily ideas and guides for earning $1,000s per day FROM HOME totally FREE.


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