Ladies in black overshadow Valentino grave

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ALMOST EVERY day a woman clad in black wanders into the Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery and places two white daisies beside Rudolph Valentino's crypt. 'Hello, Rudy, I'm here,' says Estrellita de Rejil. Then she catches the bus home.

Sixty-six years after his death, Valentino, the Italian dish-washer turned movie sex symbol, still exercises a magnetic appeal among followers. For Ms de Rejil claims to be the daughter of the 'Lady in Black', one of Hollywood's more puzzling myths.

It started in 1930, when a woman so dressed appeared at a ceremony marking the anniversary of the star's death. Her face was hidden by a veil, and she refused to answer questions. The next year she was there again, but this time there was a second lady in black. Within a few years, more than a dozen black-clad women were vying for a place beside the crypt.

The identity of the original lady in black is hotly contested by Valentino cognoscenti. Doubtless it will be discussed when they gather at his tomb on Monday for the annual ceremony - an event regularly attracting several black-garbed woman, transvestites and Valentino look-alikes.

It has not always been a particularly dignified affair. Squabbles have broken out between rival ladies in black over who is sincerely mourning and who has baser reasons - such as getting their picture in the newspapers.

At least one anniversary has been marred by a fight, in which roses were stomped under foot. Perhaps the most tense gathering was in 1988 when an aspiring actress marched in, escorted by a photographer, and began relating her 'intimate experience' with Valentino's ghost. Ms de Rejil, restrained two years earlier after laying into a rival, confined herself to grumbling loudly about fakes.

However, her claim to be the first lady in black's daughter is a matter of debate. One version suggests that first veiled visitor was a dollars 5-a-day extra hired as a promotional stunt.