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L.A. Then & Now

A silent-movie idol's enduring appeal

August 31, 2008|Larry Harnisch | Times Staff Writer

In the decades since Rudolph Valentino's death in 1926, one of Hollywood's odder, more macabre rituals has unfolded every Aug. 23 at his crypt -- the mysterious appearance of a Lady in Black.

Her face obscured by a black veil, her identity more or less unknown, a Lady in Black (or sometimes several of them) would silently place roses at the tomb of the silver screen's "Great Lover" on the anniversary of his death from natural causes at age 31.

"So many mysterious women in black moved in and out of the mausoleum in Hollywood Cemetery yesterday that it took on the appearance of the salesgirls' entrance to a large department store," The Times reported in 1938.

The Italian actor, one of the silent era's most popular movie stars, was among Hollywood's earliest sex symbols and is best known for his roles in the 1921 films "The Sheik" and "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse."

It is believed that the first Lady in Black (or Woman in Black, as The Times sometimes called her) appeared at the Cathedral Mausoleum at what is now Hollywood Forever Cemetery on the first anniversary of his death in 1927, and anonymous mourners in black continued to show up through the years. By the 1950s, the bizarre tradition had turned into what Valentino's family thought was an offensive publicity stunt.

One of the more enduring Ladies in Black was Ditra Flame (pronounced Flah-may), who said Valentino visited her as a young girl when she was ill. Flame quit visiting after 1954 because there were so many competing Ladies in Black, but she resurfaced occasionally -- notably in 1977, inspired by the death of Elvis Presley.

Another legendary Lady in Black was Estrellita de Rejil, who claimed that her mother was the original Lady in Black. De Rejil died in 2001, leaving the role of the Lady in Black to mourners born decades after the screen legend's death.

Here's a look back at the Ladies in Black over 71 years.

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larry.harnisch@latimes.com

Larry Harnisch reflects on L.A.'s crime and cops from 50 years ago on his blog, The Daily Mirror, on latimes.com.

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