A Séance in the Mormon Tabernacle: Art and Spiritualism of Natacha Rambova

First published: July 2009

“In the frenzy of despair that gripped the globe, several suicides were reportedly committed in reaction to [his] death…”

This passage was written, not about Michael Jackson in the summer of 2009, but about Rudolph Valentino, whose death in August 1926 set off an international whirl of mourning. The Latin Lover had seemed to rally after an operation to repair a perforated ulcer but died a few days afterward. Women threw themselves off of rooftops. Fans wept in the shrines they built in their homes.

In New York, 10,000 mourners arrived outside of Campbell’s Funeral Church on Manhattan’s upper-west side before dawn to view the body on the day of his funeral. By the afternoon, that number tripled. The mourning mass broke through a line of 50 policemen and crashed through the plate glass windows. Outside, cars were overturned, and store windows smashed. A dozen mounted police officers pulled out clubs and trampled fallen bodies onto the street as Valentino’s corpse lay undisturbed inside. He had collapsed after his wife, the woman who had created his image and guided his meteoric career left him and filed for divorce.

Mrs. Valentino was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, the great-granddaughter of Heber C. Kimball. Born Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy, she changed her name to Natacha Rambova and became an artist in a dizzying range of endeavors. Here is a snapshot of her accomplishments:

Wink, as she was nicknamed, studies ballet in London as a teenager and determines after watching Anna Pavlova, that ballet will be her career.

When World War I begins, Wink studies with Theodore Kosloff in New York and changes her name to Natacha Rambova to tour with his company. She falls in love with Kosloff at age 17.

Performing in Hollywood, she meets Cecil B. DeMille and designs costumes for his film, The Woman God Forgot.

After Kosloff loses everything in the Russian Revolution, she and Kosloff settle in Los Angeles. She teaches dance to young Agnes DeMille and designs costumes for more of Cecil B. DeMille‘s films. Natacha escapes from the oppressive Kosloff who shoots her in the leg as she flees out a window.

For avant garde filmmaker, Alla Nazimova, she designs costumes and sets for Camille, featuring struggling Italian actor, Rudolph Valentino.  

Rambova is art director for Salome, considered America’s first art film.

Valentino and Rambova marry after much drama (including a scandalous bigamy trial). She takes over his career, negotiates contracts, selects his roles, costumes them, instructs how he is to be filmed, photographed, and interviewed. He becomes an international star.

Valentino signs a film contract with United Artists at $10,000 a week plus 42% of the profit from his films but with the strict proviso that Rambova be forbidden from the set.  He agrees and she, feeling betrayed, leaves him and sues for divorce.

Rambova turns to spiritualism. After Valentino’s death, she conducts daily séances and receives many messages from Rudy which she turns into a book. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writes to her to note he can’t keep enough copies in his Psychic Bookshop.

She becomes a stage actress.

She opens a fashion design shop in New York.

Rambova and spiritualist George Wehner, conduct séances for society figures throughout America. They go to Salt Lake City:

“There they held a séance in the Mormon Tabernacle while a cousin, Edward P. Kimball, gave them a private recital on the world-famous organ. The powerful strains of music echoing throughout the chamber enabled Wehner to receive messages from the Mormon religion’s founder, Joseph Smith, and from Brigham Young, the Mormon pioneer patriarch, as well as such relatives as Heber C. Kimball…. Afterwards, when these spirits faded away, Wehner claimed to see a most remarkable vision: ‘I saw the whole interior of the Tabernacle shimmering in a glorious blaze of golden light, in the midst of which appeared in the air above the organ, the figure of a young man in blue robes holding a long trumpet of gold. From my clairvoyant description of this radiant being my friends recognized the spirit as that of the Angel Moroni…who led his people across the plains and deserts to ultimate safey…as a beacon light of faith and love.’”[i]

Rambova vacations in Spain, meets, and marries Count Alvaro de Ursaiz in 1932 and settles in Mallorca.  She befriends General Franco. As Spain collapses into war, Mallorca is bombed and overtaken. Franco arranges for Rambova to stow away on a coal freighter bound for France. Her husband remains in Spain.

She becomes interested in all religions, including ancient rites, and gets a grant from Paul and Mary Mellon to study universal symbols in sacred art, myth and history for the Bollingen Foundation.

She corresponds with Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell.

In 1950 she travels to Egypt and is allowed access to the shrines of King Tut-Ankh-Amon discovered by Howard Carter in 1922-23. She and her mother purchase objects of antiquity, particularly from Egypt. The first volume of her Egyptian series is published in 1954.

Rambova and her mother donate furnishings and Egyptian artifacts to the University of Utah, forming the core of what will become the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. To the director, I. Owen Horsfall, she writes, “It has always been one of my fast vanishing dreams to someday start a small museum of religious symbolism—complete with archive, research library, and exhibition room where lectures could be given.”[ii]

Rambova’s health begins to fail. Scleroderma, a hardening of tissues and organs. She continues to write, until her fingers bleed. Unable to eat, she weighs 65 pounds but continues her work on spirituality and universal symbols.

She collapses and is flown to relatives in California. She dies in 1966 in Los Angeles.  Her scholarship and artworks are left to the Brooklyn Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

Quite a life.

I thought of her story recently when a friend who owns a small auction house in New York called me to say that some drawings by a Mormon Artist named Natacha Rambova had been consigned to him. They were designs for Cecile B. DeMille. He asked if I had heard of her.

I picked up her biography, Madame Valentino: The Many Lives of Natacha Rambova, by Michael Morris, a fascinating read. Here, I thought, is the American Zelig. She seemed to be everywhere and had dabbled in a bit of everything. The Mormon connection interested me because I am Mormon. I don’t suppose that she would have described herself that way. Yet, her probing spiritualism is familiar enough. I can list several world-class artists who began life as Mormons and, even though they moved away from the Church, they continued to search for spiritual things which they placed in their art. Belief informs their work in undeniable ways. It reads to me as “Mormon Art” because it is informed by Mormonism and it also influences our culture. That is certainly true for Rambova.

[i] Madame Valentino: The Many Lives of Natacha Rambova, by Michael Morris, pp. 195-6

[ii] Ibid, p. 249