Rafael Sabatini was born in Jesi, Italy, to an English mother and Italian father. His parents were opera singers who became teachers.
At a young age, Rafael was exposed to many languages, living with his grandfather in England, attending school in Portugal and, as a teenager, in Switzerland. By the time he was seventeen, when he returned to England to live permanently, he was the master of five languages. He quickly added a sixth language — English — to his linguistic collection. He consciously chose to write in his adopted language, because, he said, "all the best stories are written in English."
After a brief stint in the business world, Sabatini went to work as a writer. He wrote short stories in the 1890s, and his first novel came out in 1902. In 1905 he married Ruth Goad Dixon, the daughter of a Liverpool merchant. It took Sabatini roughly a quarter of a century of hard work before he attained success with Scaramouche in 1921. The novel, a historical romantic set during the French Revolution, became an international best-seller. It was followed by the equally successful Captain Blood in 1922. All of his earlier books were rushed into reprints, the most popular of which was The Sea Hawk from 1915. Sabatini was a prolific writer; he produced a new book approximately every year, and maintained a great deal of popularity with the reading public through the decades that followed.
His only son, Rafael-Angelo (nicknamed Binkie), was killed in a car crash on April 1, 1927. In 1931, he and his wife Ruth divorced. Later that year he moved from London to Hay-on-Wye. In 1935 he married the sculptor Christine Goad, his former sister-in-law. They suffered further tragedy when Christine's son, Lancelot, was killed in a flying accident. On the day he received his RAF wings, he flew his aeroplane over their house, but the plane went out of control and crashed in flames before their eyes.
By the 1940s, illness forced the writer to slow his prolific method of composition. However, he did write several additional works even during that time. He died on February 13, 1950 in Switzerland. He is buried at Adelboden, Switzerland. On his headstone his wife had written, "He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad", the first line of Scaramouche.
He is best known for his worldwide bestsellers:
- The Sea Hawk (1915), a tale of the Spanish Armada and the pirates of the Barbary Coast;
- Scaramouche (1921), a tale of the French Revolution in which a fugitive hides out in a commedia dell'arte troupe and later becomes a fencing master (Sabatini wrote a sequel ten years later);
- Captain Blood (1922), in which the title character is admiral of a fleet of pirate ships (Sabatini also wrote two sequels comprising short stories); and
- Bellarion the Fortunate (1926), about a cunning young man who finds himself immersed in the politics of fifteenth-century Italy.
Several of his novels were adapted into films during the silent era, and the first three of these books were made into notable films in the sound era, in 1940, 1952, and 1935 respectively. His second novel was made into a famous "lost" film, Bardelys the Magnificent, directed in 1926 by King Vidor with John Gilbert in the lead, and long viewable only in a fragment excerpted in Vidor's silent comedy Show People. A few intact reels have recently been discovered in Europe. The fully restored version premiered on TCM on January 11, 2010.
Two silent adaptations of Sabatini novels which do survive intact are Rex Ingram's Scaramouche (1923) starring Ramón Novarro, and The Sea Hawk (1924) directed by Frank Lloyd and starring Milton Sills. This is actually a more faithful adaptation than the 1940 remake with Errol Flynn. A 1924 silent version of Captain Blood, starring J. Warren Kerrigan, is partly lost, surviving only in an incomplete copy in the Library of Congress. The Black Swan was filmed in 1942 starring Tyrone Power and Maureen O'Hara.
In all, Sabatini produced thirty-one novels, eight short story collections, six non-fiction books, numerous uncollected short stories, and a play.