Rambunctious Rambova: Don’t Call Her “Mrs. Valentino”

Ye Gods! If there was ever a Renaissance woman on this earth it was Natacha Rambova (Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy, 1897-1966.) I’d come across the name of course in connection with Valentino and Nazimova, but little dreamed of the scale or depth of her accomplishments, or the strange and interesting life she lived.

To begin with, as we see from her name, she wasn’t actually Russian. She was the daughter of one Michael Shaughnessy, an Irish-Catholic Civil War vet who came to Salt Lake City and made money in mining. Shaughnessy married Winifred Kimball, a granddaughter of one of the original twelve Mormon Apostles and thus a scion of one of Utah’s leading families. But Shaughnessy was a rough character, given to drinking and gambling; Winifred left him in 1900, bringing their daughter with her to San Francisco.

The older Winifred (known as “Muzzie”) was to marry two more society husbands. The first, Edgar de Wolfe appears not to have made much of a mark on the world. No job is ever mentioned in connection with the name; he is almost invariably referred to as “the brother of Elsie de Wolfe“. Elsie was an influential society interior decorator in New York and the lesbian lover of Broadway producer Elisabeth Marbury, with whom she cohabited in the Washington Irving House near Gramercy Park. Muzzie too became an interior decorator on the west coast, known as “Mrs. Edgar de Wolfe”. The younger Winifred (known as “Wink” in her youth) was also to be artistically influenced by her flamboyant step-aunt, remaining under Elsie’s wing even after Muzzie had divorced Edgar and remarried a perfume magnate named Richard Hudnut.

Packed off to an English boarding school, Wink chanced to see Pavlova in Swan Lake and decided she wanted to be a ballerina. She left school and ran off to New York where she studied with Theodore Kosloff, joining his Imperial Russian Ballet Company and becoming Kosloff’s live-in lover, though still a teenager. At this time, she also changed her name to the Russian one she was thereafter known by: Natacha Rambova. Thus she shares with the great Olga Petrova the distinction of being a non-Russian “Russian”, although she came to it through a very different path.

In 1917, largely at the insistence of his niece Agnes de Mille, Cecil B. Demille hired Kosloff for his picture The Woman God Forgot, as an actor and as a costume designer. Rambova went along with him, and worked with him on the designs for the picture, ostensibly as an assistant but reportedly doing the bulk of the design work. She worked in that capacity on three more de Mille pictures: Why Change Your Wife (1920), Something to Think About (1920). and Forbidden Fruit (1921).

Next she went to do designs for Nazimova on the comedy Billions (1921).

This relationship led to Rambova working with Valentino on Camille (in which he co-starred with Nazimova). Rambova and Valentino became lovers. Rambova then left Kosloff, who proceeded to shoot her in the leg. The wound was not fatal. She married Valentino in 1923 once he was able to divorce his wife (Jean Acker).

There were three more films with Nazimova: Aphrodite (1921–which was shut down after Camille proved a flop); A Doll’s House (1923); and Salome (1923), the set and costume designs for which Rambova based heavily on Aubrey Beardsley’s. This proved to be Nazimova’s last film. Hollywood legend has always had it that Nazimova and Rambova were lovers, although some historians refute the notion.

Valentino in one of her costumes for “The Young Rajah”

She worked on five more Valentino pictures as costume designer: Beyond the Rocks (1922), The Young Rajah (1922), The Hooded Falcon (1924, which she co-wrote and didn’t get filmed), Monseiur Beaucaire (1924), and A Sainted Devil (1924). You’ll notice that none of those movies were hits — not a Sheik or Blood and Sand among them. Some critics and the public blamed Rambova for having a deleterious, Svengali-like influence over the actor, not unlike the kind of animus the public had toward Yoko Ono in the early 1970s. Rambova’s last Valentino film was Cobra (1925), although she didn’t design that one; she danced (she had also danced in his earlier The Sheik). Rambova and Valentino split up in 1925. A year later he was dead.

For a brief period, Rambova’s shadow grew even larger in Hollywood. In 1925 she co-wrote and produced a film called What Price Beauty? starring Nita Naldi. The following year, she starred herself in a movie for the first and last time: Clothes Make the Woman a.k.a. When Love Grows Cold. The movie was panned, and Rambova disliked the way the movie’s producers exploited her widowhood by billing her as “Mrs. Valentino” so she left Hollywood, never to work there again.

She did not rest for long. She wrote a book about Valentino, the last chapter of which she claimed was dictated to her by the deceased actor himself through the processes of Spiritualism (in which both she and her ex-husband were fervent believers). She wrote a play All That Glitters, also about her relationship with Valentino, which ends with a fictional reconciliation. She appeared on the vaudeville stage, making appearances at the Palace. And she acted in two Broadway plays, Set a Thief and Creoles. She did all of these things in 1926 and 1927.

In 1928, she opened a fancy shop on Fifth Avenue offering high end clothing of her design. The shop remained open until 1931, when the Depression drove her to France. The following year she married Spanish aristocrat Álvaro de Urzáiz and moved to Mallorca, where she worked restoring and beautifying houses. When her husband joined the Fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War, she had a literal heart attack, left him and moved to Nice, where she remained until the Nazi invasion of France, whereupon she went back to New York.

During the war she published numerous articles on astrology, Theosophy, yoga and other esoteric topics. These interests drew her into serious research in Egyptology. She had always had an affinity for the culture from an aesthetic perspective. A 1936 trip there had been a kind of spiritual reawakening. While her initial exploration had religious motivations, she soon became so immersed that she became a genuine, important scholar in the field, earning important grants for her work;  authoring several books, articles and manuscripts on the topic; making expeditions to the country; and amassing collections of artifacts that she later donated to museums. By the 1960s, health problems impeded further progress in this work. The fascinating Natacha Rambova passed away in 1966.