By the mid-1920’s, few people cared to understand Natacha Rambova beyond her reputation as the controlling wife of Rudolph Valentino. Natacha, with a strong but intuitive artistic temperament and progressive feminist views quite unpopular for 1920’s society, refused to be told what to do, whether by her famous husband or by the studio heads who dared to intervene with her creative vision.
Winifred Shaughnessy was born to a wealthy family in 1897. Born with an imaginative mind and visions for self-reinvention, She changed her name to Natacha Rambova at age 17 when she began studying ballet with Theodore Kosloff. Kosloff soon discovered that his new principal dancer possessed a remarkable creative aesthetic, and allowed her to design the costumes and sets for his ballet troupe. Eventually, Kosloff introduced Natacha to Cecil B. Demille, leading to her first Hollywood gig, which was designing sets for Demille films like The Woman God Forgot and Why Change Your Wife. Her set designs were highly unique and stylish, incorporating the stark geometric patterns of early Art Deco with European and Asian luxury. Incredibly modernistic, her aesthetic was whimsical luxury.
Soon Rambova met another feminist Hollywood icon, Alla Nazimova, the eccentric actress and producer who, like Rambova, played by her own rules and set high standards for artistic expression in film. Rambova designed the sets for Nazimova’s most critically-acclaimed and successful films, Camille (1921) and Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1923). By now, Rambova’s style was recognizable, as it was incredibly unique for the time.
It was Nazimova who introduced Natacha to Rudolph Valentino. The two were married in 1922, and many friends claim that the relationship, at least from Natacha’s perspective, was based more on friendship and an interest in professional collaboration. The two made seven films together, with Natacha working on both set and costume design, and by now Natacha had developed the relationship of the “pushy wife,” fighting with the studio for better a contract with more creative control for her screen idol husband. She and Valentino pursued a lawsuit against the studio at which they worked and won, resulting in a new creative control over all Valentino productions.
By now, as Valentino’s wife, Natacha was becoming not only incredibly famous, but very disliked in the media, thanks to what was portrayed as a controlling personality. By now also, her husband’s reputation was that of a man whose entire image belonged to the careful control of his wife. Many felt she was emasculating him by taking such strong control of his career choices. Rambova fought back, insisting that she was the victim of intense sexism within the film industry. The media’s distaste for her was also the result of her introducing more feminine imagery into Valentino’s wardrobe choices, as she was greatly inspired by historical French design. Movie fans simply didn’t appreciate the highbrow artistic turn his career was taking, as they wanted the hyper-masculine movie star they had seen in his early career.
Valentino was at this time devoted to his wife despite what the media was projecting. He actually enjoyed the world of high art that she introduced him to, and the two went on many travels to Europe and Asia for aesthetic inspiration and artifacts for set design. However, there were deeper underlying issues in their relationship which would lead to its destruction; for instance, Rudolph wanted children, while Natacha had no interest in devoting time to anything but her career. Deep down he had hoped she would take on a more domestic role, but she was completely against the idea.
The couple eventually divorced, and then Rudolph famously died in 1926. She eventually remarried, and reinvented herself yet again, studying intently the world of astrology and mysticism. At age 50, Natacha moved to Egypt to study ancient religious symbolism. She died of scleroderma in 1966.
Despite the fact that most of Hollywood was distasted by this bold, determined woman, she never once submitted to the powerful studio heads of her day. Natacha was deeply committed to her artistic vision as though she would rather die than have it be compromised. And, she refused to be treated as less valuable to the studio system because of her gender. It’s time to reexamine her story and rediscover the woman who was accused of destroying the great Valentino, so that we may appreciate her for the great artist she was with or without her famous husband.