Motion picture history has been unkind to the ex-wife of silent screen lover Rudolph Valentino. Rambova is primarily remembered for the way she dominated Valentino's life during their marriage, not so much for her brilliance as a costume and set designer. And make no mistake about her talent; if anyone truly brought art deco to the heights of stylized beauty, it was Rambova when she created the sets for Alla Nazimova's Camille.
Rambova was born Winifred Shaughnessy and raised in luxury. After two failed marriages, her mother wed cosmetics tycoon Richard Hudnut, who legally adopted the girl. But by then Winifred Hudnut was already known as Natacha Rambova, a name given to her by dancer and actor Theodore Kosloff. In her late teens Rambova was part of his dance troupe, the briefly lived Imperial Russian Ballet. She also began designing costumes for Kosloff, who took all the credit. Her work can be seen in Cecil B. DeMille's 1917 picture, The Woman God Forgot, and in Kosloff's outfits for Why Change Your Wife and Something to Think About. She also made costumes and designed sets for a dream sequence in Nazimova's Billions. But by 1920, Rambova had had enough of Kosloff, and when he sent her to Nazimova with a stack of drawings, she revealed herself as the creator. Nazimova used Rambova on her films for the next several years. It was during Camille that she met Valentino.
The romance between Valentino and Rambova culminated in marriage on May 13, 1922, long before his divorce from Jean Acker was finalized. Valentino was briefly jailed for bigamy, causing a huge scandal (not to mention lots of publicity for his studio, Paramount). The couple married legally nearly a year later on March 14, 1923. They became famous for their extravagance, both in private life and in their film productions. Along with her duties as costume and set designer for films such as The Young Rajah and Monsieur Beaucaire, Rambova handled her husband's business affairs and produced one non-Valentino film, 1925's What Price Beauty?, in which Myrna Loy had a small role. According to Michael Morris' biography on Rambova, Valentino's business manager George Ullman had to grudgingly admit that his client "was truly, and in the highest sense, elevated by his association with Natacha." But Paramount hated dealing with her, partly because she encouraged Valentino to pursue art over commerce, and partly because in the 1920s it was unacceptable for a woman to flaunt her power as forcefully as did Rambova. Valentino broke his contract with the studio and later, when he signed with United Artists, the studio inserted a clause in his contract that barred Rambova from so much as showing up on the set of Valentino's films. The couple's marriage faltered shortly thereafter, and they were divorced early in 1926. Valentino died in August of that year.
After the failure of her marriage to Valentino, Rambova left her Hollywood career behind in favor of other pursuits, which included the creation of a line of clothes and cosmetics. A marriage to a Spanish aristocrat in 1932 did not endure. She later achieved some renown as an Egyptologist and as an expert on metaphysics, and was an avid collector of Egyptian and Oriental art. She suffered ill health in her last years, exacerbated by advanced scleroderma, which made it impossible for her to swallow. With her death in 1966, her art collection was bequeathed to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.