SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Museum of Fine Arts boasts a covetable rare Egyptian collection. But perhaps even more interesting than the collection itself is the Utah-born woman behind it, Natacha Rambova.
Rambova was a respected, self-taught Egyptologist and academic who donated over 300 ancient artifacts to the UMFA. But she was also an ambitious costume designer, a glamour icon of the 1920s, a ballerina and the wife of megastar Rudolph Valentino.
“Even her worst enemy has admitted the genius of Natacha,” wrote journalist Herb Howe in 1930, “that unquenchable flame of ambition that sweeps out from her ruthlessly.”
Rambova’s “flame of ambition” shone when, as a teenager, she insisted on training as a ballerina under Russian ballet master Theodore Kosloff. She then braved a nine-year career in the film industry before pursuing her interest in spirituality and Egyptology.
For such an iconic woman, her beginnings are rather surprising — Rambova was born in Salt Lake City in 1897 as Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy, the great-granddaughter of Heber C. Kimball, a former member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Although Rambova only lived in Salt Lake City for the first few years of her life, her scholarship influences Salt Lake City — particularly the UMFA — to this day.
Early career, film industry and Valentino
After Rambova spent her early years at a boarding school in England and her late teenage years in a ballet dance company, art director Alla Nazimova recruited her to work in the film industry as a costume and set designer.
Although Rambova was new to the film industry, art design had long been a part of her life. According to the book “Madam Valentino” by Michael Morris, Rambova kept material for making costumes and paper for sketching under her bed as a child.
Rambova’s first film, “The Woman God Forgot,” came out in 1917. She designed the costumes and Cecil B. DeMille, who would go on to produce some of Hollywood's biggest Golden Age films, produced. In various films throughout the next nine years, Rambova worked as an art director, set designer, writer, producer, design supervisor and actress, according to “Madam Valentino.”
While she worked in the film industry, Rambova met Rudolph Valentino, the “Latin lover” and movie star who would become her husband.
Evelyn Zumaya, author of “Affairs Valentino” and co-author of “Beyond Valentino,” argues that Rambova — a successful costume designer and art director at the time of her marriage to Valentino — made Valentino a star, not the other way around. However, the relationship would ultimately end her film career.
“In Hollywood, she was just run over,” Zumaya said. “Her marriage to Valentino kind of destroyed her career because his handlers and employers wanted her out. … She had a reputation for decimating budgets and being very demanding.”
Following her divorce from Valentino in 1926 and disillusionment with the film industry, Rambova began to explore theosophy and spiritualism, which would eventually lead to her interest in Egyptology, according to an article on egyptology.yale.edu.
Egyptology, spiritualism and UMFA
“I felt as if I had at last returned home,” Rambova said about her first visit to Egypt in 1936, according to “Madam Valentino.” “The first few days I was there I couldn’t stop the tears streaming from my eyes. It was not sadness, but some emotional impact from the past — a returning to a place once loved after too long a time.”
Rambova’s love for Egyptology and spiritualism fueled her scholarship and passion for the remainder of her life. Colleen Darnell, an Egyptologist, professor at the University of Hartford and published scholar on Rambova, said Rambova’s fascination with spiritualism was not uncommon at the time.
“Natacha had an initial interest in spiritualism which was a popular pursuit and study during the early 20th century,” Darnell said in an email to the Deseret News. “But rather than simply a temporary phase or fad in her life, she did develop a more serious interest in ancient philosophies and particularly religious imagery as it relates to Jungian analysis.”
Darnell described Rambova as a self-taught Egyptologist who contributed to Egyptology as an editor of important publications on Egyptian tombs and an author of an essay on the symbolism of mythological papyri.
Eventually, many pieces Rambova collected in her trips to Egypt and around the world made their way to Rambova’s early home: Salt Lake City.
Rambova’s mother, Winifred Hudnut, was the first in the family to donate art to the UMFA, and Rambova followed suit. By the time Rambova died in 1966, she had donated 300 artifacts to the museum ranging from the predynastic period to the Roman period.
“When we reopened the museum (last) August and I gave the tour of this gallery, I said Natacha was probably the museum’s first curator,” said UMFA curator Luke Kelly as he stood in the museum’s Ancient Mediterranean Art exhibit, surrounded by Rambova’s donations.
Kelly noted that Rambova was detailed and precise in her curations, more so than other collectors at the time.
“Everything she did, she did with a whole new passion,” Kelly said. “When she was doing her research on comparative symbolism, other scholars said, ‘Yes, she was self-taught, but the passion and discipline she showed was just as if she was a Ph.D. candidate.'”
Rambova’s ultimate dream was to open a museum of her own. In a letter dated June 27, 1952, to I. Owen Horsfall, then-director of UMFA, Rambova wrote:
“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 lecture could be given.”
Although Rambova didn’t live to see her dream become reality, her contributions to the UMFA maintain her legacy of learning and art. When asked how Rambova’s work influenced the UMFA, Kelly laughed and said, “Well, it influenced me.”
“Here is this museum in Utah that has this wonderful Egyptian collection,” Kelly continued. “It’s hard to find that anywhere else.”