Lambda Lore

Lavender marriages

Aren’t there times when  you’d give anything to be a fly on the wall? I’d loved to have been in the Salt Lake Mormon Tabernacle in 1928 and no, not to hear the choir. But rather to see a gay spiritualist medium conjure up the spirits of the dead kinfolk of Rudolph Valentino’s mother-in-law, Winifred Kimball Shaunessy, De Wolfe, Hudnut. In June 1928 Winifred Hudnut and her sister Teresa Kimball Werner, granddaughters of Mormon Apostle Heber C. Kimball, a counselor to Brigham Young, held a seance in the Mormon Tabernacle to conjure up the spirits of dead Kimball relatives.

Winifred’s only daughter was Winifred Kimball Shaunessy, who changed her name to Natacha Rambova in order to become an exotic Russian dancer. Her mother Winifred Kimball was briefly married to Edgar de Wolfe. His sister, and Natacha’s aunt  was Elsie de Wolfe a famous interior designer. She was also the lesbian lover of Elisabeth “Bessie” Marbury, who was her agent and longtime companion for four decades. Shaunessy lived with this lesbian couple until returning to New York to join a Russian ballet company.


In 1926, Elsie de Wolfe made tongues wag by marrying British diplomat Sir Charles Mendl, largely for social reasons. These arrangements were then called “Lavender Marriages.” Mendl was a gay man and she was quite an open lesbian. Elsie had the tendency to entertain guests by doing hand springs for them. As “Lady Mendl” you may recognize references to her in “Anything Goes” a song by Gay composer Cole Porter. “When you hear that Lady Mendl standing up now turns a handspring landing up on her toes, Anything goes.”

Before this time, Natacha had moved to Hollywood to work in films where she met Alla Nazimova, a famous silent film star. Nazimova had open relationships with Hollywood  actresses and women directors at her mansion called the Garden of Allah on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard. The Garden of Allah was believed to be the scene of outlandish homosexual parties. Nazimova is often credited with having originated the phrase “sewing circle” as a discreet code for lesbian or bisexual actresses.

Through Nazimova, Rambova  met and married Rudolph Valentino in a “Lavender Marriage. Valentino, who was gay, or bisexual, needed a female “beard” as a cover for the Hollywood studios. Valentino, at the time, was the top matinee idol due to his “Latin lover” persona. His performance in the film The Sheik was so erotic at the time that a brand of condoms was named for the character.

In 1925, Rambova and Valentino separated, and a divorce ensued. By 1926, Rambova’s mother, Winifred Kimball Shaunessy de Wolfe, had divorced two husbands and was now married to Richard Hudnut who made millions in the cosmetic and perfume business. Valentino died unexpectedly of peritonitis in August 1926, leaving Rambova inconsolable even though they were divorced. She purportedly locked herself in her bedroom for three days in grief. Her mother Winnie Hudnut insisted that the distraught Natacha join the family on the Hudnut yacht for a cruise around the Mediterranean Sea.

Natacha brought with her George Wehner, a “Spiritualist Medium” who also happened to be a gay man. Wehner was employed by both Winky and her daughter Natacha to be the medium for seances as that Natacha was a believer in spiritualism. He was also said to bean amusing traveling companion for both women. But then aren’t most gay men? Wehner traveled with the Hudnuts on their  dime enjoying a two year vacation. He held seances all along the way up and down the coasts of Southern Europe so that Natacha could be comforted by visits from the spirit of Valentino.

Winifred decided in June 1928 to visit her Mormon relatives in Salt Lake City, taking her sister, Teresa Werner, and George Wehner with her. While in Utah they visited their cousin, Edward P. Kimball, who was then the organist in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. There Edward gave them a private recital in the tabernacle and while Kimball played the world famous organ, Winifred and her sister Teresa had George Wehner hold a seance. I am not sure what music was being played by Edward but I sure hope it was a fugue.

Gay George was immediately in contact with the “who’s who” of Mormondom, including Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and countless Kimball relatives. Among those said to have left the Kimball sisters messages were “Grandpa Heber C. Kimball,” “Uncle William Kimball,” the Danite “Aunt Margaret Judd Clauson,” who was the mother of Mormon Apostle Rudger Clawson, and even  and their mother Phoebe Judd Kimball.

As these apparitions  began to fade away, Wehner said he saw an even more remarkable vision. He wrote, “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 safety… as a beacon light of faith and love.”

After the homosexual clairvoyant conjured up the spirits of dead Mormons and Nephites, Wehner, however, failed to predict Richard Hudnut’s death in October of 1928. Hudnut left his fortune to his wife Winifred and his adopted daughter Natacha. However, Winifred put the financially irresponsible Rambova on an allowance, which then enabled her to pursue her “spiritual, artistic, and intellectual interest without financial worry” for the rest of her life. Wehner wrote an autobiography  called A Curious Life was eventually published in 1930.

Despite George Wehner’s inability to predict Hudnut’s death, Rambova’s admiration for his psychic powers went unabated for the next two years. In 1930, Wehner returned to New York City with Rambova where he began to host séances on a regular basis in a Greenwich Village apartment. Rambova stayed in New York and operated her own clothing store in Manhattan.

A description of these psychic sessions were related by one of Wehner’s devotees. “Regularly throughout the fall and winter evenings, the group assembled around a refectory table in the darkened apartment while light from the fireplace danced across a gold sari stretched along one wall. Their meetings inspired many intellectual discussions on the subject of life after death, and at one seance they felt they had brought healing to an ailing friend by invoking the spirit of Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy.”

Natacha Rambova in the 1932 left New York and  married a Spanish aristocrat but had to flee Spain during the Spanish War. She eventually she moved to Egypt where she became a dubious Egyptologist as she believed she could see past life in Egypt through clairvoyancy. It was during this time that she developed a fascination with the country of Egypt that remained with her for the rest of her life. Rambova spent her later years studying Egyptology and she earned two Mellon Grants to travel there and study Egyptian symbols and belief systems. She served as the editor of the first three volumes of Egyptian Religious Texts and Representations. Late in her career she gave her collection of Egyptian artifacts to the University of Utah. Some of these artifacts turned out to be fakes. Natacha died in June 1966 denying in most accounts that she was ever a lesbian or bisexual despite her close association with the homosexual communities of 1920’s Hollywood.

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