When Rudolph Valentino died, tens of thousands of people trampled one another in a desperate bid to view his body. They were as smitten with him in death as they had been in life – perhaps even more so due to the tragic nature of his passing. On his deathbed he cried out for one person; not his wife, Natacha Rambova, but an unknown “Jenny”. While his wife protested that Jenny was the name of Valentino’s spiritual guide, many were sceptical. It is this mystery which is the inspiration for the fictional Last Dance with Valentino.
In 1916, Jennifer Doyle arrives in America and falls irrevocably in love with Mr Rodolfo Guglielmi. In 1926, Lola Nightingale sits alone in her hotel room as Rudolph Valentino lies gravely ill behind impenetrable hospital doors. The decade that separates these two scenes is filled with dreams and loss, yet doesn’t alter the fact that both Jennifer and Lola, and Rodolfo and Rudolph, are one and the same.
“I shall do what I always do in times of confusion, disorder, disarray, complete and utter madness…” writes Jenny, “I shall scribble it down on paper.” The resulting “scribbles” are a record of the lives of Jennifer and her contemporaries as they weather a barrage of trials and tribulations – many of them apparently self-inflicted. Her life in America begins as a nanny (or rather general dogsbody) at “The Box”, home to the wealthy De Saulles couple, their son Jack, a menagerie of servants and hordes of temporary guests.
Almost by chance Jenny finds herself in conversation with Rodolfo (Rudy) Guglielmi, Mrs de Saulles’s dancing instructor (and, in the opinions of various observers, “not-quite gentleman” and even “repulsive little gigolo”) – a conversation that is to be the first of many. Unfortunately for them, however, the lady of the house has already earmarked Rudy for her own purposes – the main one being to testify against her husband so that she will be able to divorce him and keep custody of little Jack. Divorce him she does, yet with shocking consequences that are to haunt Jennifer for the rest of her life: “There’s barely a day goes by I don’t think of her, of the part I played or didn’t play, of what I saw and said, and didn’t see and should have said…”
Jennifer’s idle father has launched his own campaign of adoration at Mrs de Saulles, only to be rebuffed – suffering a personal failure that seems to affect him far beyond the many professional failures already trailing in his wake. As Jenny remains bound to the De Saulles household, Marcus Doyle turns to drink to fill the void.