Maria Guadalupe Velez de Villalobos
"The Mexican Spitfire"
actress, dancer, singer
daughter, sister, mother
July 18, 1908 - December 14, 1944
A lot of people think they know about Lupe Velez. A lot of what they think they know is just not true.
Lupe Velez was a successful Hollywood actress in the 1920's, 30's, and 40's. Millions of people loved her movies, but many didn't approve of her personal life. A few people hated her. They told the most horrible stories about her they could think of. Those stories were probably a big part of the reason her career and her life ended so early.
Not even her death was enough. Some hated her so much, they made sure people would still be repeating lies about her decades after she was dead. They hollowed out the core of her life story so they could turn her death into a sick joke.
"She only made a few films," the lies say. The truth is she made about 40 movies.
"Her movies were flops and she never made it big," they say. The truth is her movies were popular and profitable. Everyone knew who Lupe Velez was, in both the US and in Mexico.
"All Lupe wanted was to be remembered," the lies say - "it was her one wish," they say. Her real story shows she wanted much more than that in her life.
But all these lies are only the setup for the sick joke. The most vicious part is about what happened the night she died. After you swallow all the little lies that chip away at a person's humanity, the biggest, ugliest part of the story is easier to swallow. I hate to admit, I laughed the first time I heard it. I laughed, but it bothered me. Something just didn't seem right about the story. So I started looking for the truth. It was hard to find. Maybe no one even knows the truth anymore. Maybe what we each decide to believe about Lupe Velez tells us more about ourselves than it does about her.
Lupe was named after the Virgin of Guadalupe. She was born in a small town called San Luis Potosi. At the time, Mexico was suffering under dictators and revolutions. Her father was a colonel in the army. Her mother was a former opera star in Mexico City, and that's where Lupe spent most of her younger years.
Lupe grew up rebellious. She was on her way to being a great beauty by age 13 when she was sent to a convent school in San Antonio, Texas. She was not there long enough to change her much. When she returned to Mexico City at age 15, she still dreamed of becoming a movie star. She worked at a department store and saved up her money to pay for dancing lessons.
Acting and dancing in cheap stage shows and short films kept Lupe on the path to her dreams. Then one day she thought her big break had arrived. An American visiting Mexico City invited her to act in a play in Hollywood, but when she got there, they turned her down because she looked too young. She couldn't even get back home. She had been robbed right after getting off the train and had no money left.
After everything she survived in Mexico City, Hollywood couldn't keep her down. She got work in nightclub stage shows first, and then small parts in minor movies. It wasn't long before she met the great action star of the silent films, Douglas Fairbanks. She impressed him so much she got a major part in his next film, The Gaucho. That turned out to be her real big break. Her energy and talent for comedy were impossible to deny. After only a few more silent films, she easily made the transition into movies with sound.
Audiences loved to watch Lupe Velez. She was funny, athletic, and always full of life. She had a beautiful singing voice. She could dance up a storm. She was sexy at a time when most Hollywood stars were not allowed to be. Most women were expected to be more "proper" back then.
By the end of the 1930's she had been in more than 30 movies. Most of them were comedies, but she also showed her ability to play dramatic roles. Her dancing and singing got her more work on the stage, too, including Broadway shows. In 1939 came the first two movies in the series she got her best-known nickname from: The "Mexican Spitfire" series. The series had a total of 8 movies. She also worked on other projects in between them.
All this time, Lupe stirred up the public's attention with her personal life almost as much as in the theaters. Gossip columns loved her many antics. She seemed to love giving them things to say about her.
Lupe had high-profile affairs with many of the leading men she worked with, right from the beginning with Douglas Fairbanks. She didn't limit herself to actors, either. Her love life was always a scandal.
Even when it wasn't about men, Lupe liked to be unpredictable. She liked to get in front of photographers and strike ridiculous poses. She mocked the glamour of fashion models even though she was a popular pinup and cover girl herself. She was a big fan of boxing matches and screamed louder than anyone else at the fights.
All this yearning for excitement didn't stop Lupe from looking for deeper connections in her life. In 1932 she filed legal papers in Mexico City and adopted her sister's daughter, Joan DelVelle, who was age 4. A couple of years later she got married to Johnny Weissmuller (famous for playing Tarzan). The marriage was not happy. It ended after five painful years.
The endless scandals kept Lupe in the news, but they didn't help her reputation any. Ugly rumors and lies got passed around (as if she wasn't already doing enough to shock and entertain people). One of the most vicious ones said Lupe and her mother were both prostitutes back in Mexico. Personally, I think a lot of these rumors probably got started by some of the men who just couldn't handle her.
In public she tried to laugh it all off, but somewhere inside it must have been eating away at her, until it cut her career short.
A dream fails
In the early 1940's, Lupe began to lose her long battle against depression. She had made her childhood dream come true. She escaped from the hard life in Mexico City and became a Hollywood star. It just didn't bring her the happiness she thought it would.
Her movies were popular, but she was tired of all the B movie comedies. She wanted bigger roles, which Hollywood was not interested in giving to someone who still had a strong accent. In 1943 she tried to revive her career by going back to Mexico, and starred in a dramatic film called Nana. When it came out it got great reviews, some of the best she ever received. Even this was not enough.
If someone could have helped her overcome her depression, this might have been the beginning of a whole new dimension for her work. Instead, it was the end.
A star falls
Lupe returned to Hollywood and tried one last time to find happiness through marriage. Her romance with a little-known actor named Harald Raymond failed to turn into true love at the end. Even when he found out she was carrying his child, he wouldn't marry her.
The adoption of her sister's daughter back in 1932 had already created a big scandal in image-conscious Hollywood. In those days, there was no way she could still have any kind of a movie career after bearing a child out of wedlock. Her career was over the moment Harald refused to marry her, and Lupe knew it.
For someone with her money, it would have been simple to find a doctor to perform a quiet, illegal, but basically safe abortion. Lupe couldn't do it. Her Catholic beliefs had never stopped her from pursuing her passions before, but she decided she couldn't live with the sin of an abortion.
In December of 1944, Lupe Velez ended her own life with a massive overdose of sleeping pills.
A seed is planted
They say a lie is always more convincing when it's mixed with some truth. I think that must be why so many people buy into the most famous story about Lupe Velez.
It's true that when Lupe decided to commit suicide she planned out the details with all her talent for drama. She wanted the way she died to be memorable, since she wouldn't get any more chances to be remembered for her films.
She had her bedroom redone all in white. She got her hair and nails done. She had the room filled with flowers, and her bed surrounded by lighted candles. After taking the pills, she arranged herself on the bed so it would look like she was sleeping peacefully. She was wearing blue satin pajamas.
According to the news report in the Los Angeles Examiner, she was found exactly as she planned.
An urban legend is born
There's another story about the death of Lupe Velez. From what I've been able to find out, this story didn't get published until the late 1950's, but now it's the story you are most likely to see or hear about her. At first it might look like only the ending is different, but now I realize the beginning of it is different too.
A typical version of the story goes like this:
Lupe wanted to be remembered; that was her one wish. Since she was not being remembered by her films, she decided to be remembered by her suicide. She had everything planned; the pretty silk night gown, and make-up, the position. She knew that picture would make front cover news the next day. Unfortunatly, her over-dose of pills didn't settle well with her last meal, so they found her with her head in the toilet. Amazingly enough, she got what she wanted, she is remembered, just not the way she thought she would be.
(This is from http://us.imdb.com/Bio?Velez,+Lupe, but it's almost the exact same words used to tell the story in the first episode of Frasier.)
Well it's pretty obvious how the ending is different. Most of us would think there's a big difference between being found lying peacefully on your bed, and being found dead with your head in a toilet.
The beginning is different in a more subtle way. It doesn't mention anything about her being pregnant. Why is that? I think maybe it's because that would ruin the joke. It's already a sick joke, but bringing up the fact she was pregnant would make it too tasteless.
So where did this story come from? It seems to start with a book from 1959 called Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger. Mr. Anger wanted to show the sleazy undersides of the Hollywood stars. Maybe he made up this story about Lupe Velez. Maybe he picked it up from someone who still had grudges against her after all those years. He sure didn't get it from the official coroner's report. I found an image of that online, and it didn't have anything even close to this story.
A memory is changed
The urban legend of Lupe Velez has worked its way into the minds of a lot of people. Andy Warhol made a movie about it. It became the basis for a segment in the first episode of the hit TV sitcom Frasier. It has spread to many different sites on the Web.
Maybe that's because there is a rationalization built into the story when people tell it as a joke. "Lupe wanted to be remembered," it says - "that was her one wish." We let ourselves believe we are paying some kind of tribute to her highest ambition in life.
I used to accept that, but now I've thought about it and I can't anymore. No one wants to be remembered forever as an example of humiliation and stupidity. I think it's especially bad because there's such a good chance this story was just one more of the vicious rumors people spread about her. That might even make it a part of what drove her to suicide in the first place.
So I've decided to have a different memory of Lupe Velez. She made movies and starred in stage shows all through the Great Depression and into the hardest years of World War II. She helped make millions of people just a little bit happier. Maybe she didn't turn their lives around, but with her help, they got to sit in a theater and laugh and forget their troubles for a little while. That's what I'm going to remember about her.
That's how I think Lupe would want to be remembered.