Clutching a white handkerchief to her veiled face, a sobbing woman in black took her regular front-row seat Wednesday at a Hollywood memorial service marking the death 63 years ago of movie idol Rudolph Valentino.
On this occasion, however, Estrellita de Rejil wasn't grieving over the silent film actor known to millions of adoring female fans as The Sheik. The black-clad woman said she was crying tears of joy because her mother, who de Rejil says is the real "Woman in Black," is returning to Hollywood Memorial Park cemetery to forever be near the legendary screen lover.
De Rejil said that her mother, Marquesa de Lara, was the original mysterious black-suited woman who became a legend by placing flowers at Valentino's grave each year. The daughter said that when her mother was 15, an infatuated Valentino wanted to marry her but was refused permission by de Lara's family.
De Lara's pilgrimages to Valentino's crypt ended in 1973 when she was struck and killed by an RTD bus and then buried "by mistake" at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, de Rejil said. After a 15-year effort, de Lara's remains will be moved next week to a newly purchased cemetery plot about 100 yards away from Valentino's, said Rudolph H. Walker, a Hollywood Memorial official.
But some Valentino fans in the crowd of 125 who filled a cemetery mausoleum for the half-hour ceremony cast doubt on de Rejil's claim. They asserted that the actual "Woman in Black" was Ditra Flame, who also mourned at Valentino's grave until her own death in 1984. Flame is buried in San Jacinto.
"The true 'Woman in Black' was Ditra," whispered Bud Testa, a San Fernando Valley advertising man who said he has arranged yearly memorial services for Valentino fans since the end of World War II.
Valentino fan Stella Grace, a Coventry, R.I., waitress who attended Wednesday's ceremony wearing a shirt that proclaimed "Valentino's Alive in My Heart," criticized the furor.
"I won't be back next year," she vowed. "This is a circus, not a memorial service."