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Natacha Rambova
(January 19, 1897 - June 5, 1966) U.S.A.

Natacha Rambova

Actress, writer, scholar

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Natacha's real name was Winifred Shaughnessy and her place of birth was Salt Lake City, Utah. Her Irish Catholic father, a colonel on the Union side of the Civil War, afterward had become a businessman with mining interests who turned into a carousing problem drinker and gambler.

Natacha's mother came of Mormon stock (she was a descendant of a Mormon patriarch, Heber C. Kimball). Her mother taught herself to be an interior designer and moved to San Francisco to set up shop. As her mother changed cities and husbands, young Winifred changed surnames: from Shaughnessy to de Wolfe, and eventually to Hudnut.

Primarily famous as the wife of screen idol Rudolph Valentino, Natacha Rambova was also a talented dancer and an innovative set designer, bringing the Art Deco style to Hollywood for the first time. At the age of 17 she became a protégé and lover of Russian ballet Svengali Theodore Kosloff, a brilliant but manipulative dancer who shot her in the leg when she finally escaped from his dance company.

She was engaged as an art director by Alla Nazimova, the exotic, histrionic bisexual actress. Rumours abounded that Rambova herself was sexually involved with Nazimova, but none have ever been proven, and Rambova professed to dislike the lesbian subculture.

Rambova's set designs and costumes were enormously innovative, influenced by Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Legendary French artist Erte professed himself a fan of her work. Her dramatic set and costume designs for Nazimova's Salome (1923) were based on Aubrey Beardsley's famous illustrations for Oscar Wilde's play.

She met Rudolph Valentino when he was working with Nazimova on Camille. At the time he was relatively unknown, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (made the same year) being the hit that propelled him into the stratosphere. Soon, the shy Valentino began wooing the exotic former ballerina, and they eloped in May 22nd 1922.

This event was to produce a scandal, as it was revealed that Valentino was not legally divorced from his former wife Jean Acker. After being charged and fined for bigamy, the couple quietly re-married the following year.

Valentino's association with Rambova was to prove both his greatest pleasure and his greatest pain. She immediately took over the management of his career, rejecting his usual stereotypical roles as a grunting Italian Stallion in favour of highbrow pictures such as the disastrous Monsieur Beaucaire (1924), a powdered-wig drama which did nothing to allay rumours that theirs was a 'lavender marriage' - a union of convenience between two homosexuals.

Despite Natacha's admirable aim to free her husband from the constraints of the studio and eventually begin a production company of their own, his career was in tatters.

The strain of Valentino's lack of independence from his headstrong wife led to the end of their marriage in 1926. Little more than six months later, he was dead of a ruptured stomach ulcer brought on by stress. Natacha left America for Spain after her marriage to Alvaro de Urzaiz in the 1930s, and lived through the Spanish Civil War.

She died in Pasadena, California, at 66 of schleroderma, a painful stomach condition which, to the modern eye, was clearly brought on by the anorexia nervosa from which she suffered all her life.

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