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Prisoners of Fame: Falcon Lair, Rudolph Valentino, Doris Duke, and the Cult of Celebrity Death

Exterior of Falcon Lair today | Photo: Cat Vasko
Exterior of Falcon Lair today | Photo: Cat Vasko.

You have to take Cielo Drive to get there -- up winding Benedict Canyon in Beverly Hills, past the estate where the Manson family horrifically killed the beautiful Sharon Tate and four other people. You turn on Bella Drive, and soon you are on a high peak, isolated from the beauty of the city below, which you see but cannot touch.

Atop a lamppost on a whitewashed Spanish style wall, the words "Falcon Lair" are etched in black, in a script straight off the title card of a fantastical silent film. This impenetrable fortress-like wall blocks any view of the estate behind it (the original main house was torn down in 2006). In the 1920s, Rudolph Valentino, the sloe-eyed seductive sheik of early Hollywood, retreated briefly behind the walls of Falcon Lair until his flame was snuffed out by his own self-destruction.

Seventy years later, the fabulously rich heiress Doris Duke -- whose entire life had been spent behind gates and bodyguards and bullet proof glass -- spent her final year in this castle on a hill, in a twilight prison of her own making. Falcon Lair is proof that all that glitters is not gold.

A Fortress Under Siege

By 1925, Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguolla, a.k.a. Rudolph Valentino, a.k.a. Rudy to his friends, was fed up. In four short years, he had skyrocketed from a tangoing Italian immigrant playing small parts in small films to the heights of stardom -- "the great lover," the swoon-worthy superstar of the flapper generation. "Women are not in love with me but with the picture of me on the screen," he sighed. "I am merely the canvas on which women paint their dreams."

Contrary to his one-dimensional public image, Valentino was in fact a highly intelligent and cultured man -- fluent in five languages, an art lover and voracious reader, a boxer and equestrian. Along with his second wife, the brilliant and mercurial heiress Natacha Rambova (real name Winifred Shaughnessy), Valentino hoped to break away from his box-office tested "exotic lover" image and create real "art."

Together, they planned to make a film called "The Hooded Falcon," based on the life of the 11th century Spanish hero Rodrigo Diaz (El Cid). In their typical dramatic fashion, they imported six falcons and eighty-six period costumes before they had even secured funding. Looking for a fresh start, the couple also planned to move from their cozy home in Whitley Heights to a secluded estate in the newly fashionable rural community of Beverly Hills. According to Valentino biographer Emily W. Leider:

The Valentinos named their new home Falcon Lair, in honor of their future hopes and dreams. Their nearest neighbors were Frances Marion, Harold Lloyd, Mary Pickford, and Buster Keaton. But before the ink on the bill of sale had even dried, the marriage began to fall apart.

Studio honchos, sick of "meddling" Natacha, forced her to the sidelines. All hopes of making "The Hooded Falcon" faded, and Natacha began to ghost herself from the marriage. Rudy went on an epic spree, partying late into the night at Hollywood hot spots, while retaining his reputation as a courteous and hardworking co-worker on the set of his last film, "Son of the Sheik." All the while, he stubbornly ignored a growing pain in his side.

Rudolph Valentino with Natacha Rambova at home | Source: Public Domain
Rudolph Valentino with Natacha Rambova at home.

Rudy continued to fix up Falcon Lair, spending "lavishly for the things which interested him - horses, dogs, ancient swords and firearms, antique furniture, historical armor and first editions of rare books." (L.A. Times, 1926) He moved into Falcon Lair without Natacha.

With its menagerie of animals, collection of swords and lack of "the lighter fripperies known as the 'feminine touch'," Falcon Lair was the extravagant man-cave of a romantic man desperate to assert his own identity. "Three or four years ago," he acknowledged, "I would have not dared to do my rooms like this. But lately I am doing things more to suit my own tastes. The location was just what I wanted. The name is one I selected myself. The living room furnishings are red because it is the color I prefer above all others."

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But try as he might, Rudy could not forget Natacha. According to Leider, "Reminders of Natacha lingered in Rudy's lower-level bedroom, whose modern furniture came from the house in Whitley Heights. Rudy's king-sized bed had a dark lacquered headboard and yellow coverings; a built-in perfume lamp at its foot, once Natacha's, suffused the room with fragrance when lit."

Rudy made a half-hearted attempt at suicide, and ate, drank, and smoked excessively. He used more and more bicarbonate of soda to ease the pain in his stomach. He was exhausted of being a sex symbol, of being mobbed everywhere he went, of being derided by men as an effeminate "powder puff."

He began a wild romance with screen vamp Pola Negri, whose histrionics were legendary. In Rudy's mind, every happening seems to point to the early death and pending doom that he believed was his lot:

Eternal Life, Eternal Death

On August 23rd, 1926, Rudolph Valentino died in New York Polyclinic Hospital. He was only 31. The cause of death was peritonitis caused by untreated gastric ulcers and a ruptured appendix. His death immediately became a media sensation -- even a national event.

Mourners thronged the streets outside the funeral home where his embalmed body was kept, and some distraught fans reportedly committed suicide. His first wife, Jean Acker, wrote a hit song about his passing (topped on the charts by singer Rudy Vallee's "There's a New Star in Heaven Tonight"), while his current love Pola Negri caused such a scene at his funeral that her career never recovered after allegations of showboating.

Falcon Lair, much like his tomb at Hollywood Forever, became a "mecca for sightseers." It was said Rudy's beloved dog, Kabar, howled for his owner until he dropped dead of grief.

Times Ad, 1926
Times Ad, 1926.

Due to his extravagant spending, Rudy's estate was in disarray. An auction was held on December 10th and 11th, opening up Falcon Lair to thousands of potential bidders, curious fans, and eager journalists. A writer for The Los Angeles Times waxed poetic about the scene:

Falcon Lair was sold to Jules Howard, a New York diamond broker, for $145,000. Curiously, he never moved in. Rudy's older brother, Alberto, who had come to America to manage his dead brother's interests, occasionally lived with his family in the guest house, eking out a living as the caretaker of Falcon Lair. The main house was rented out to several different tenants, and strange stories started to surface. Neighbors reported seeing "the flashing of eerie lights and ghost-like figures moving about in the dead of night." (L.A. Times, 1930)

In 1930, Western star Harry Carey moved into the main house with his wife and two young sons, after a long shoot in Africa. "Our friends insisted to us the house was haunted and advised against moving in," he explained, "but the stables were too good to pass up- you know I still have my horse- so, we moved in anyway." (L.A. Times, 1930)

The first few nights, the family was kept awake by howling wind, tapping noises and banging windows. "Africa was wild," Carey laughed, "but our first several nights in the house were wilder."

Carey began to thoroughly explore the house -- determined to find the practical reasons for these seemingly otherworldly occurrences. He found multiple culprits: bats in the basement, overgrown trees and shrubs, and broken window panes. Most fantastically, he discovered:

And thus the mystery of Falcon Lair's spooks was solved. "Nevertheless, there is something strange and spooky about the place," Carey told The Los Angeles Times. "In spite of all we found out. When our lease expires we're going back to the wide open spaces of the ranch." (L.A. Times, 1930)

In 1934, art dealer Juan Romero bought Falcon Lair for only $18,000. He supposedly built some sort of outdoor shrine, dedicated to Valentino. Eleven years later, the home was briefly owned by the ethereal actress Ann Harding and her husband, Werner Janssen. In 1946, the house was purchased by the fabulously rich Mrs. Gerald "Gypsy" Buys of San Francisco, said to own a drawer full of jewels for each day of the week. A Valentino fanatic, Gypsy planned to "restore the house as it was in Valentino's lifetime."(L.A. Times, 1946) In 1948, on the 53rd anniversary of Rudy's birth, Gypsy held a séance at the famed hilltop mansion:

At a subsequent séance, a man named Rudolph Florentino dressed as Valentino in order to "persuade the film idol to return to his earthly residence." (L.A. Times, 1949) In 1949, five anonymous women, who simply called themselves "the group," purchased Falcon Lair. They were determined to turn the estate into a massive, moneymaking Valentino shrine. However, their plans fizzled when "even the idea of a wishing well on the grounds for Valentino worshippers fizzled when it was found that pennies killed the goldfish." (L.A. Times, 1949)

Rudolph Florentino dressed in Valentino Sheik costume | Times photo, 1949

Trust No One

 

In 1953, Gloria Swanson invited the steely eyed, 6-foot-1 tobacco heiress Doris Duke to a tea at Falcon Lair. By then, the estate was owned by Robert Balzar, a renowned wine critic. Duke, "the richest girl in the world," the eccentric enigma who never had a "real friend," had been spending a lot of time in Los Angeles recently, having started a new romance with the volatile Mocambo bandleader Joey Castro. She fell in love with Falcon Lair, and soon bought it from Balzar.

Doris set about personalizing the estate -- the music room was lined with velvet and the living room ceiling with ostrich feathers. Napoleon Bonaparte's original war room was installed. There were happy times at Falcon Lair, jam sessions with Duke Ellington, while dancing the night away. But there were grim times as well -- the times that Doris locked herself in her bedroom, and the time Castro broke her jaw.

After she and Castro split, Doris used Falcon Lair basically as a pit stop between her East Coast residences and Shangri-La, her beloved Moroccan-themed Hawaiian estate. As she got older, she would stay at Falcon Lair to recuperate from her numerous elective surgeries. During the 80s, Doris's actions became more erratic. She adopted a 35-year-old woman, Chandi Heffner, only to later disinherit her completely (however, she was awarded over $60 million after Miss Duke's death.) Doris repeatedly changed her will. She began to rely more and more on her butler, Bernard Lafferty, who she had met through the singer Peggy Lee.

Bernard, an orphan from Ireland, was a character straight out of a soap opera -- an alcoholic who specialized in catering to older ladies using old world flair and panache. By the time of her last surgery, to repair her knee, Doris, with no close family of her own, was completely under Bernard's control. She suffered a series of strokes and was soon bedridden at Falcon Lair, in the care of a medical team and staff that seemed less interested in rehabilitating her than in squeezing out of her every last penny they could. According to one nurse, the heavily medicated Doris was often subject to elder abuse:

During the last year of her life, Doris was kept in a twilight state at Flacon Lair by her doctors and Lafferty. There are conflicting reports about what happened in those last months. According to one retainer, the night Doris finally died, Bernard received a large shipment of drugs:

Doris Duke died at Falcon Lair on October 28th, 1993. Bernard Lafferty, the borderline illiterate farm boy-turned-butler, was named the executor of her $1.2 billion estate. The day she died, Bernard bought a $1,878.13 bag from Louis Vuitton on Rodeo Drive -- to carry her ashes to her beloved Shangri-La.

Fight for control over the estate began immediately. Bernard moved into Falcon Lair, spending lavishly on clothes, furniture, trips, and his famous friends like Peggy Lee and Elizabeth Taylor. Although an official investigation found there was no foul play in regards to Doris's death, rumors about Bernard continued to swirl.

Many believed Bernard had forced the incoherent Doris to change her will, and he was eventually pushed out as executor of the estate, but retained a large personal fortune, including Falcon Lair. Bernard took to popping pills, drinking and eating too much at swank Beverly Hills restaurants.

He became a tyrant at Falcon Lair. A particular object of his wrath was Doris's beloved dog, Rodeo, whom she had left $100,000:

In November 1996, Bernard died in his sleep at Falcon Lair, in a bedroom with a "20-foot ceiling, wine-red velvet drapes and a Venetian chandelier." He was only 51 years old. He died all alone.

 

Further Reading:
"Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino," by Emily W. Leider
"Too Rich: The Family Secrets of Doris Duke," by Jason Thomas and Pony Duke

 

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