Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

Sadness and Sorrow: Collective Grief

The particular circumstances, the stage-setting as it were, of the various collective movements that we have so far dealt with are clearly important to their development, but occasionally an incident occurs whose very suddenness and unexpectedness gives rise to a mass-response and a rapid heightening of emotional tension. Historically this reaction has often been associated with the death of a notable figure. In these cases grief, rather than fear, becomes the dominant, and readily transmissible, emotion. As with all cases of excited group behaviour the individuals concerned tend to be swept along with the mood of the moment, and to conform to the mass-emotions that are thrown up. At times like these rational thought processes and critical faculties may be temporarily abandoned.


Death of an Icon

In the spring of 1998 the manufacturers of the 'Palmpilot' electronic organiser introduced a new application that could be installed on their product. The 'Dianameter' would count, at the press of a button, the exact number of seconds that had elapsed since Princess of Wales tragic death on August 31st 1997. But this piece of technological kitsch, which was promoted as 'a symbol of grief and mourning', did not appear to be a very popular item. Along with a whole proliferation of 'memorial' publications, commemorative plates and other commercial tat, the makers of the Palmpilot had missed the moment. The great wave of collective grief that had swept the nation immediately after Princess Diana's death was just that, a great swell of emotion that caught many in its tow, but which soon passed over.

The public response, in the days following this sad event, had indeed been extraordinary. In the days leading up to Diana's funeral around a million and a half bouquets were laid in the Royal Parks (some 15 tons of flowers), many were accompanied by such items as teddy-bears and bottles of Champagne. Mourners queued for up to sixteen hours to sign the books of condolence that were opened at Kensington Palace. The funeral itself was a highly charged affair that completely took over the life of the Capital. The pavements along the entire route of her funeral cortège through London were thronged with people, many of who were overcome by the emotion of the event. The hearse was continually forced to halt in order that the flowers thrown by onlookers were removed to enable the driver to continue. There were countless individual gestures, some rather curious - one young man felt moved to have a 14 inch wide portrait of the Princess tattooed on his chest, emblazoned with the 'Queen of Hearts', set in a scroll.

The depth of this spontaneous, collective expression of grief had surprised many, both those who had been caught up in it and those who were less affected. It later transpired that female suicides had increased by a third in the four weeks following Princess Di's death, but for most the mood seemed to pass as rapidly as it had appeared. On the first anniversary of Diana's death a Memorial Walk, retracing the route of her funeral cortège, was cancelled for lack of interest.

Mass emotional reactions easily slide towards the irrational, but that of a collective grief is perhaps one of the more comprehensible of mass-responses. The end of a life, particular that of a young person, is after all, a sad event. It is a reminder of our own mortality, and of losses that we may have suffered in the past. At such times memories are stirred, and fears and regrets are likely to resurface; sharing one's grief offers some comfort. When the death is of a public figure that has been elevated to near-mythical status, and is sudden and unexpected, it is not so surprising that it should give rise to a broadly-felt emotional reaction. This is not to deny the feelings of those for whom the whole shared experience of mass grieving was a genuinely moving one. Whatever else, there was a great sense of this as a uniquely sad public occasion - but it does have parallels. In particular, the social drama of Diana's death has many points of similarity with that of an earlier modern 'iconic' figure (one who was, in a sense, the very first), namely that of Rudolph Valentino.

Valentino, the legendary Latin lover of the silent screen, died suddenly, at the very peak of his career, at the age of just 31. He had become the greatest screen-idol of the time, and was known and loved by millions of fans, mainly women, throughout America and the world. His death was entirely unexpected, and the responses to it were extraordinary, leading, among other things, to the most serious street riots that New York had ever experienced.

By the mid-1920ies, Valentino was far more than a successful movie star. For his multitude of fans all over the world he was the very embodiment of Romance. His style of acting, which now seems positively hammy, led him to become the focus of the romantic aspirations of a whole generation of women who had the scent of new liberties. Off-screen he was a good-looking, gentle man, but somewhat lacking in personal magnetism; on-screen he managed to project a potent sex appeal - and the magnates of the powerful new medium of the cinema pushed his talent in this direction for all it was worth. But as well as becoming the first great Love God he was also the first victim of this new kind of fame. The studios vigorously promoted his image as a great lover, and from the time that he first he made it as a lead in movies his public appearances were regularly attended by hordes of hysterical female fans. Wherever he went he was besieged by mobs of women of all ages desperate to catch a glimpse of the star and, if possible, to grab some souvenir, his hat, a button from his jacket, a piece of clothing, anything. He had attained an almost religious status, he had become an Icon - it was almost inconceivable that he should be subject to ordinary human tribulations.

But in August 1926, whilst he was in New York promoting his latest movie, he was unexpectedly rushed to a hospital after collapsing during a night out. On admittance he was found to be suffering from appendicitis and a gastric ulcer. An operation was performed immediately and it was judged to have been entirely successful. When the news leaked out the hospital was inundated with flowers, and telegrams began to pour in from well-wishers. It was also besieged by hordes of women, many of whom tried to reach Valentino personally. These would-be visitors used every kind of excuse to try to get to see him, often claiming that he was a personal friend. Eventually, an armed guard was posted to protect him. There was also a great deal of interest from the Press, particularly as to the exact nature of Valentino's illness. Later on, the doctors treating him were forced into issuing an angry denial that his admission was any kind of publicity stunt.

After four days in the hospital Valentino's condition had greatly improved, and his doctors expressed their confidence that he would soon completely recover. But all was not well - two days later his condition suddenly deteriorated. He had relapsed as a result of a serious post-op infection, which his medical team had been unable to control (this was a far more common danger in the pre-antibiotic era). Despite all their efforts he lapsed into a coma, and the following day, August 23rd 1926, he died.

The public, who were expecting to hear of the star's recovery, were absolutely stunned by news of his death. The dedicated female fans keeping the vigil outside the Polyclinic Hospital were the first to receive the news. They reacted emotionally, many screaming hysterically and tearing their hair, others fainting. As the news spread this distraught group were joined by other distressed fans who were soon arriving in droves, until the streets outside the hospital were packed with thousands of distraught, hysterical women. There were similar scenes of anguish as the story spread through the country - great numbers of women clearly felt the loss personally, and several cases of suicide were reported. Hollywood itself was shaken by the news and productions came to a standstill (except, it was rumoured, at United Artists where they were soon working flat out to produce extra prints of Valentino's last movie, 'The Son of the Sheik'). But the sort of hysterical, publicity-fuelled adulation that Valentino had generated in his lifetime was about to come to a grotesque climax.

It fell to Valentino's manager, George Ullman, to arrange the obsequies. The actor's body was moved from the hospital to a funeral chapel on Broadway, where it was agreed, 'by public demand', that it should lie in state on the following day. There was a degree of cynicism in this, since even in death the star had a movie to promote. Naturally the news got out, and almost immediately the establishment was besieged by visitors, mostly women, desperate to gain admission, many, again, claiming to have known him personally. The staff had the greatest difficulty in dealing with this jostling, overwrought mob – but this was simply a foretaste of what was to come.

The morticians of Campbell's Funeral Parlour worked all through the night, embalming the body and placing it in a bronze coffin that allowed the head and shoulders to be exposed to view. All this time crowds had continued to gather outside until, by morning, there were some 16,000 waiting to pay their last respects, filling every street for blocks around. The majority were women, but there were a fair proportion of young men with the 'Valentino look', sporting slicked back hair, sideburns and baggy trousers. There were already problems. Dozens of florists were finding it virtually impossible to push their way through to deliver the enormous numbers of flowers that had been sent. The police, quite unprepared for the numbers, desperately tried to impose order on the mob, which was showing every sign of getting out of completely out of control. In the turmoil the press of the crowd broke the chapel's plate-glass window, resulting in many women suffering serious cuts. Several arrests were made in an attempt to assert control over the situation, and mounted police were brought in and repeatedly charged the crowd; but these efforts simply added to the confusion and hysteria. Some women were trampled under the horse’s hooves, and many more were cut by flying glass as further shop windows were broken. The Chapels mortuary was hastily turned into an emergency hospital to treat the injured.

The formal opening of the funeral parlour's doors triggered further chaotic scenes. The crowds swept the police aside and the violent, screaming mob fought among themselves to gain entrance. There were many more injuries around the entrance, and complete confusion within. The doors were quickly closed again, and those that had made it inside were bundled out. In the midst of all this an eight-foot wreath arrived from United Artists, and many of those outside tried to take advantage and force an entry when the doors were briefly opened to let it in. The police and the manager of the funeral parlour reassessed the situation; it was decided to move the body to a room that would allow the public to file right through the building. In the meantime the police called for reinforcements.

By now, the streets which were thoroughly littered with torn clothing and mislaid hats and shoes, were full of agitated women determined to see their idol , and were being joined by others all the time. But the police were equally determined to restore order and redoubled their efforts to form the crowds into lines. Finally, the doors reopened and for a while the scene stayed fairly orderly, with mourners being ushered past the coffin in a fairly fast-moving stream. The police had their work cut out, however, dealing with the continuous attempts to snatch souvenirs, and the many women who, when they reached the coffin, broke down in uncontrollable grief. Meanwhile, in the streets outside, more and more fans were arriving all the time, still predominantly women, and there were further chaotic scenes. More store windows were broken, and more were injured in the crush. There were now something like 80,000 emotionally charged fans surging around, every one of which was absolutely fixated on viewing Valentino's corpse. Pushing and fighting kept breaking out at the entrance to the funeral parlour, and the police once again ordered the doors to be closed.

There was now a concerted effort to organise the crowd into queues. A line, four abreast, was formed, which eventually extended for eleven blocks, and the queue was thinned to a tightly controlled single line for the final two blocks. The doors were reopened in the afternoon, and the mourners were ushered past the coffin at a brisk pace. This procession continued all the rest of the day and late into the evening. The funeral parlour finally closed at midnight, by which time some 50,000 distraught fans had paid their last respects.

There were continuing outbreaks of hysteria when overwrought mourners finally made it to the side of the coffin, but these were firmly dealt with by the police, who were determined to keep the line moving. The Press, of whom there were many present, reported various other odd incidents. At one stage a group of black-shirted members of the Fascisti League of America appeared bearing a wreath that they claimed had been personally presented by Benito Mussolini. They then insisted on mounting a 'guard of honour' around their compatriot's coffin. Reporters also noted the arrival of a certain 'Tiger Lil', the wife of a notorious gangster who had only recently been executed for murder in Baltimore. Lil explained that she had once met Valentino at a party, and wanted to make her farewells, and then obligingly posed for the cameras in front of his earthly remains. It was also observed that many of those who had filed past the star's coffin and left the building were later seen to have rejoined the queue of mourners.

The following morning there were several thousands more waiting to view the body. The funeral parlour was now well boarded against the crush, as were many other stores in the surrounding streets. There was a further drama when a group of militant anti-fascists appeared, challenging the Blackshirt 'guard of honour'. They declared that Valentino was opposed to Fascism, and that in any case the Italian embassy had firmly denied sending a wreath of any kind. After a scuffle both groups were sent on their way. It later transpired that the owners of the funeral parlour had themselves invited the Fascisti to 'lend dignity' to the proceedings.

On the larger stage Valentino's sudden demise still dominated the news. A song had already been brought out to mark the occasion, 'There's a new star in Heaven tonight'. And there were all kinds of rumours going around to the effect that he had been poisoned, or was shot, or stabbed, by an enraged husband or jealous rival, and that this was being hushed up. There were also reports from Britain that Miss Peggy Scott, an actress who had claimed to be a friend of Valentino, had committed suicide.

The funeral itself had to be delayed to enable the star's brother to arrive from Italy. After three days the Campbell funeral parlour closed its doors to the public, and thereafter only a small group continued to hold vigil outside. But the funeral, which was a big, public affair, stirred up emotions once again. The roads lining the route of the cortège were completely packed. The funeral procession included most of Hollywood’s greatest names, and the march had to be halted from time to time as women surged through the police cordon. The service itself was also an emotional occasion, during which Valentino's ex-wife and his most recent lover both collapsed. After the service his body was returned to the Broadway funeral parlour by a devious route to avoid any recurrence of the earlier riots. It remained there while arrangements were made to convey it to Hollywood by rail. Crowds turned out at every stage of the actor's final journey across the U.S., and several hundred women had gathered at the Los Angeles funeral parlour that received the body. A second funeral was held, but it was a quiet, private affair, and 'the greatest lover of them all' was finally laid to rest.

Valentino was the first secular Iconic figure, and the first of the modern martyrs to Fame. For millions of women he had become an object of almost religious devotion, the focus of their romantic aspirations. Almost unknowingly he had tapped into a powerful and unpredictable current. He had found it increasingly difficult to come to terms with his fame, and there is little doubt that his life was shortened by the role that was thrust upon him. There have, of course, been many more casualties of mass-adulation since his time.