Valentino’s forgotten admirer
By Allan R. Ellenberger
With news of the impending burial of singer Michael Jackson (September 3) in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn-Glendale, fans will be deprived of making the pilgrimage to his grave – if this is indeed his final resting place. Forest Lawn is infamous for their so-called privacy issues, and with the burial of the King of Pop within their granite walls, security will be tightened. Sadly though, security is sometimes taken to extremes. At times, overzealous cemetery personnel often harass people who have every right to be there.
How differently the entombment of silent film star, Rudolph Valentino was handled at Hollywood Cemetery almost 83 years ago. Valentino, whose death and burial was as controversial in 1926 as Jackson’s is today, was interred in the Cathedral Mausoleum – not as imposing or opulent as the gothic Great Mausoleum, but just as stately and on a smaller scale.
For two years after Valentino’s death, it’s estimated that more than 100,000 people from around the world visited his borrowed crypt. This early pilgrimage by fans was documented in the 1938 book, Valentino the Unforgotten by Roger C. Peterson. In it, Peterson, who was custodian of the Cathedral Mausoleum, documents the almost daily invasion of visitors to the actors’ tomb.
Roger C. Peterson, right, and an unidentified assistant place a floral tribute at Rudolph Valentino’s crypt, circa 1938 (photo courtesy of Tracy Ryan Terhune)
Peterson began working at the mausoleum the year following Valentino’s death. At that time, the only celebrities interred in the vast granite edifice besides Valentino were director and still-unsolved murder victim, William Desmond Taylor and the “Too Beautiful” actress, Barbara La Marr.
Over the eleven years that Peterson worked at the mausoleum, he met and talked to literally hundreds of Valentino admirers. In the book Peterson shares some of those stories — some peculiar and others very poignant. One story in particular was about a simple middle-aged woman, a devoted fan, but whose purpose at the mausoleum was more than just about Valentino. In a few paragraphs, Peterson describes his experience with this woman:
“Of all the people who are loyal to Valentino’s memory, there is one who stands out. She is an Italian woman and comes to the mausoleum three or four times a week. Although she had never seen Valentino in real life she had formed such an attachment for him in pictures, that when he died, she and her husband sold their home in San Diego and moved to Los Angeles. They now have a home within walking distance of the cemetery.
“A few years after they came here she had a baby which died at birth. She named it after Valentino. The baby’s crypt is near that of Valentino, and many people mistake it for his. She brings fresh flowers from her garden. These she divides equally between her baby and Rudy. She also takes care of the flowers brought in by other visitors and fixes these with loving care. Then, with her Bible in hand, she sits for hours reading and saying her prayers. Often I have heard her crying, and it is quite pitiful to hear her weep for her loved ones. Many times after I have closed the mausoleum, she will walk by the windows nearest her crypts and continue to say her prayers.
“She claims Valentino has come to her at night and talked with her. In her broken English she says, ‘Mr. Pete, the spirit of Rudy come to my house. He knocks on walls, sometime on door. I feel him close to me. He say he help me to be happy and he is glad I come to bring flowers to him.’
“She has met Valentino’s brother and sister. On Rudy’s birthday and anniversary of his death, she always arranges the flowers so that it is very pretty when they arrive. They have become good friends and she tells me that Alberto has been to her home for a visit.”
The corridor where the crypt of Rudolph Valentino is located (see arrow) and the crypt of Angelina Coppola and her son Rodolfo Valentino, top row left. Angelina would sit here and pray and read her Bible. (photo by Alan Light)
When I first read this account many years ago, I searched the walls around Valentino’s crypt looking for the remains of this child, but to no avail. I wondered if perhaps Peterson’s imagination had at some point taken over his storytelling, but decided to do more digging.
Based on Peterson’s story, the infant Rudolph was located near Valentino’s crypt and was sometimes confused for his. So I narrowed my search to the same wall where Valentino rests looking for an Italian surname. On the very top row and a few columns to the left of Valentino are the crypts of a couple named Coppola – Matthew and Angelina.
The Coppola’s story is typical of many immigrants who came to this country at the turn of the last century. Both Matthew and Angelina were born in Italy – Matthew’s family arriving here in 1894 when he was 13 years old. They settled in Paterson, New Jersey where Matthew met fellow immigrant, Angelina Rosa Federico. The two were married and started a family – Thomas, Lewis, Dante and Virgilio – all sons. Matthew was a carpenter by trade and in 1919 he moved his family to California to find work – first in San Jose and soon after moving to 2371 Brant Street in San Diego.
True to Peterson’s account, the Coppola’s moved again sometime in late 1926 to Los Angeles – specifically to 1316 Tamarind Avenue (demolished) in Hollywood – only two and a half blocks from Hollywood Cemetery. (The Coppola’s next door neighbor was future singer/actor and Valentino look-a-like, Russ Columbo)
Early in 1928, at the age of 45, Angelina found that she was pregnant, but sadly the baby boy died at birth on September 28. The state records list the child only as Baby Coppola but Angelina named him Rodolfo Valentino Coppola in honor of the actor.
Roger Peterson first met the Coppola’s when their child was interred in the top row crypt on October 15, 1928. Peterson, whom Angelina called ‘Mr. Pete,’ became friends with the Coppola’s during her frequent visits to the mausoleum. In his diary, dated November 24, 1928, Peterson wrote of Angelina’s personal encounter with Valentino:
“Mrs. Coppola was happier today than I have ever seen her. I asked her why and she told me a strange story of Valentino coming to her last night and talking to her. She said his spirit came to her house and knocked on the door. When she let him in, he told her that her baby was happy and not to grieve so much.”
However, it was difficult for the Coppola’s to entirely release their grief for they felt their child’s death was due to the doctor’s negligence. In 1930 they sued Dr. Rodolfo E. Monaco for $75,000 for asserted malpractice. During the trial, Angelina was on the stand being questioned about a statement she made to the effect that “she had been warned by a voice.”
At this point in her testimony, a woman jumped from her seat in the gallery and rushed to the front of the courtroom. Later identified as Shelly Roane Vier, a Long Beach psychic, she claimed she was sent to protect Angelina Coppola. She told the court that the spirit of Rudolph Valentino had directed her to Hollywood Cemetery the previous Christmas, where she met Angelina, and that his spirit had sent her to the courtroom that day. She was in a trance, she said, and for the moment, the spirit of a departed Indian chief, Gray Eagle, possessed her as she spoke in a strange tongue.
It was several minutes before order was restored and Vier was led from the courtroom by a companion. When court reconvened, the judge granted a motion of the plaintiff’s counsel declaring a mistrial. A second trial held two years later was suddenly ended by the judge who held that there was no evidence to show negligence on the part of Monaco.
The crypt of Angelina Coppola and most likely her son, Rodolfo Valentino Coppola (d. 1928)
We assume that Angelina continued her frequent visits to the mausoleum for many years afterward, but who can say for sure. Baby Rodolfo’s grave is no longer marked with his name, but it’s likely that he was interred with his mother in the same crypt (1172) when she died on March 23, 1956 at age 72. Perhaps his marker, the one that confused so many fans, was also placed inside.
Peterson remained the custodian of the Cathedral Mausoleum until 1940 when he left to become a home contractor. The cemetery did not replace Peterson and there would never be another custodian to walk the corridors of the mausoleum, directing visitors to Valentino’s crypt.
The grave of Roger C. Peteron, one-time custodian of the Cathedral Mausoleum at Hollywood Cemetery (photo courtesy of Tracy Ryan Terhune)
Roger Peterson died on July 31, 1972 and was laid to rest at Grandview Cemetery in Glendale. One wonders why he wasn’t interred at Hollywood Cemetery where he had worked for so many years.
Valentino the Unforgotten, the book that Roger C. Peterson wrote based on his diaries of the never-ending procession of visitors to Valentino’s crypt, was published in 1938. However, after only one shipment was sent to stores, a fire destroyed the warehouse where the remaining copies were held. The book was never republished so copies of the original are rare. In 2007, Tracy Ryan Terhune brought the book back into print, adding new information on Peterson. The book can be purchased on Amazon.
If you attend the 82nd Annual Rudolph Valentino Memorial on Sunday, August 23, 2009, before visiting the crypt of Valentino, pause for a moment below the resting place of Angelina and Matthew Coppola and their son Rodolfo, and remember a mother’s devotion and love for her child.
Thank you to Tracy Terhune for the use of his photos and permission to quote from Valentino the Unforgotten.