There is something deeply poetic, almost romantic, in the belief that an item can be cursed. Whether it is the Hope Diamond, Tut’s Treasure, or James Dean’s car, such curses invoke a very personal and intimate kind of tragedy. Tragedy that, despite our enlightened beliefs, just may be contagious. Consider the ring of Rudolph Valentino and its fatal chain of custody.
Valentino was a mega-star, one of Hollywood’s first sex symbols during the golden age of silent film. Known for his mesmerizing performances, exotic sex appeal, and ultimately, his untimely death. It is hard to understate his cultural impact. To give some perspective, when he died in 1926, at 31, there were about a dozen suicides reported of grief-stricken fans and over a hundred thousand people flooded the streets of Manhattan, causing a riot at his memorial service.
In 1922, while taking a break from filming in San Francisco, he saw a silver signet ring, with a large tiger’s eye set in it, sitting in the window of an antique shop. He became immediately infatuated with the ring and inquired with the shop owner about purchasing it. The shop owner was reluctant to sell the ring, claiming it carried a powerful curse, describing it as the Ring of Destiny. Valentino would not be detoured and purchased the ring despite its disturbing disclaimer. The curse did not wait long to manifest itself.
Valentino was at the height of his career, filming The Young Rajah, in which he wore the ring as part of his costume. By August of 1922, as the movie was released, a slew of severe personal, legal, and professional problems had beset the actor and his health began to fail. Critics and fans alike panned the new movie, and it was a failure at the box office. Mired in his declining affairs and fearing the curse, he decided to stop wearing the ring. Soon after, his prospects improved, and his career was restored.
Sadly, his good fortune was only temporary. Just a few years later he began wearing the ring again as a part of his costume during his final movie, Son of the Sheik. Shortly after filming, while on a promotional tour for the film, he collapsed and was hospitalized with perforated gastric ulcers and died a week later. So rare was the condition that caused his death, the doctors named it after him, Valentino’s Syndrome.
If the story ended here, it would be easy to dismiss it as a coincidence or bad luck, but that is not the case. Valentino’s lover at the time, the actress Pola Negri, took possession of the Ring of Destiny and the curse was renewed. Her health began to decline, as did her professional and personal relationships. Fearing Valentino’s fate, she quit wearing the ring and later passed it on to a friend, a famous crooner named Russ Columbo.
Columbo bore a striking resemblance to Valentino and was even known at the time as the “Valentino of the Radio” for his rich baritone and romantic songs. It was 1934 and Columbo was at the peak of his popularity, dating starlet Carole Lombard. The two had a dinner date with mutual friend, Lansing Brown, where somehow, under suspicious circumstances, an antique firearm went off, shooting Columbo in the head and killing him. He was wearing the ring at the time. Lombard suffered her own tragic fate a few years later, when her plane crashed into a mountain.
The ring then passed to Columbo’s close friend, Joe Casino. Casino was aware of the curse and refused to wear the ring. Eventually, his friends teased him for his superstition and eventually convinced him to put it on. A week later his car was hit by a large truck and he was killed instantly. The ring then passed to his brother Del.
Del did not believe in the curse, did not hesitate to wear the ring, and suffered no cosmic judgement in doing so. He was so brazen in his belief that he lent the ring to a Valentino impersonator who also escaped the wrath of the curse. A newspaper columnist published an article on the story, which possibly was the inspiration for a thief named Joe Willis to later rob Del’s home. During the ensuing police chase, Willis was shot and killed by the police. The ring was in his pocket.
The next victim of the curse was Jack Dunn, a professional skater turned actor. Dunn was auditioning for the role of Valentino in an upcoming biopic by producer Edward Small. As part of the screen test, Small dressed Dunn up in actual pieces of Valentino’s stage wardrobe, including the signet ring, borrowed from Del Casino. The audition went exceptionally well, Dunn was a dead ringer for the star. Unfortunately, he would never take the role, as he died less than a week later from an obscure blood disease, tularemia.
Del, now a believer, locked the ring away in a bank vault in Los Angeles for safe keeping. Some years later, the bank was robbed, and the ring taken. It was returned, however, only after another brutal police encounter that left several of the would-be thieves dead. Not long after the heist, a fire broke out in the bank, severely damaging it. The current location of Valentino’s ring is unknown.