I did a portrait of him at the time which was very different from the ones he was doing of himself, which were all about heroic suffering.
I think I learnt two things from John; on the technical side I learnt about the use of colours. I’m a keen amateur painter myself, and John was kind enough to give me lessons. He didn’t need any pain-killers, he was so absorbed in these portraits He did about 60 in three weeks. As with the Cheshire Cat’s smile, everything of Valentino has faded except the name – and, in a supreme indignity, even that has now had to yield to an Italian dress designer.. I was already friends with John Bellany.
We’d met years earlier when he came to Addenbrooke’s for a liver transplant. I didn’t operate on him myself, but I remember that almost as soon as he came round, he was embarking on a series of extraordinary self-portraits. The most celebrated, Rex Ingram’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, an overlong and overwrought melodrama, deserves to be seen only for its leading man. He was no longer a star, he was a cult, a myth, an archetype, and his name lived on posthumously, like a racehorse that has thrown its jockey.His films are seldom screened today, even in an archivist context, partly because all of them are silent but mostly because he never worked with a director worthy of his personality and, yes, his talent. His funeral was as starry and spectacular as a Hollywood premiere, with thousands of flamboyantly grieving women lining the streets and vague, never-to-be-confirmed rumours of mass suicides.
He was once alliteratively anathematised thus by an editorial in the Chicago Tribune: “When will we be rid of all these effeminate youths, pomaded, powdered, bejewelled and bedizened in the image of Rudy – that painted pansy?”
Valentino’s death in 1926 (from a perforated ulcer) was, as they say, the first day of the second half of his life. “He’s a real Valentino,” people would say of some dapper ladies’ man, exactly as they might have said “a real Don Juan”. This, in spite of the fact that his performances were far from universally appreciated (his public was exclusively feminine) and his androgynous mannerisms attracted media comment of a kind that nowadays would have everyone hauled into court. So languorously potent was his eroticism, that name began to be employed in a generic sense.