"Fame" and "infamy" are practically the same thing in Hollywood. As such, "notoriety" has a very different meaning when viewed in a Tinsel Town context. Thousands upon thousands of hopefuls migrate to Hollywood every year in the hopes of becoming a movie star, in the hopes of obtaining celebrity status, or in the hopes of attaining eternal glory. Yet, to live forever, you have to die, and in most cases you have to die either tragically young or just plain horribly. It has often been argued whether or not names like Dean, Phoenix, or Monroe would contain the same power and mystique they do today if the bearers would have lived to healthy, ripe old ages. I'd like to think so. After all, the Brandos, Stewarts, and Crawfords certainly did. Yet, the golden era stars have a more powerful hold over pop culture than their silent forbears. So few people are familiar with the early pioneers, minus the obvious gems: Chaplin, Garbo, Gish... That is, unless their names are touched with debaucherous rumor. As such, one wonders, would we still recall Fatty Arbuckle if it weren't for that tragic and unfortunate scandal? Would Mary Miles Minter mean anything to anyone if not for her implication in the death of William Desmond Taylor? And, the biggest question for this month: would anyone remember Lupe Velez if she hadn't taken her own young life far too soon? Do you even know of whom I'm speaking, brave new world? If not, let me tell you: Lupe was AWESOME. That is capitalized. All caps. On purpose. Yes, Lupe is another Hollywood tragedy. Yes, she is another butterfly crushed on the wheel of fate. Yes, her death took her fame and made her infamous. But her life makes her splendid and fascinating still. Behold the brazen vixen:
Any talk of marriage-- and she had many suitors with her gorgeous features and natural charisma-- was overruled and put out of mind as she began her career. As she herself said, "When anyone have say to Lupe 'You cannot do!' it is like when they wave a red flag before the eyes of a bull to get the bull started!'" This is how she forced her way into a solo performance when the manager of the local theater tried to offer her a chorus girl's spot. Her reception was wild, perhaps because she took the stage with no stockings. She sang, she strummed the ukulele, but mostly she moved-- and fast! Her shimmying about got the men in the audience in an uproar, and she became an overnight sensation. Soon enough, she was being lauded as one of the favorite entertainers in Mexico! She was learning the ropes of performance fast. She was also learning how to handle catty females, who seemed to sabotage her at every turn-- jealous of her beauty and threatened by her popularity. She was once so angered by the constant badgering she suffered that she punched her fist through a window and performed onstage with a bloody hand! Lupe got back at the "mean girls" my impersonating them onstage and making a mockery of their affectations and exaggerated talents. This only endeared the public to her more. Along with her great beauty, Lupe had a raging sense of humor. Her lack of pretense and utter sincerity allowed her to form a bond with her audience, which tore the fourth wall away. Her attitude, which continued later in her career, was always, "I may be up here on stage, but you know I am really down there with you." She did not inherit any vanity after her success and went through life as she always had: grocery shopping, eating at cheap cafes, and putting on no airs. She was an approachable femme fatale: a rare find. Even after her film success, she could be found cracking up with crew members or spectators between takes.
When Lupe saw a chance to advance her career by going rogue in Hollywood, she took it. After being hand-picked by Richard Bennett to audition for the stage play "The Dove," she earned a free ride to the land of eternal sunshine. Unfortunately, Mexico was not ready to let her go. She and her chihuahua were halted at customs when she was discovered to be both underage at seventeen and lacking her mother's signature on her pass. Lupe went home, corrected the mistakes, and tried again. After this second attempt, she arrived in L.A, using what little English she knew ("Hell!" being one of the words) only to find that her opportunity with Bennett was lost. She was determined to stay and make something of herself nonetheless, and she obtained bit parts in Hal Roach comedies opposite luminaries like Laurel & Hardy and Charley Chase. Then came the big lift! She was offered the chance of a lifetime when Douglas Fairbanks asked her to audition as his hot-blooded, comedic love interest in The Gaucho. Ironically, when Lupe arrived, Doug found her to be too "innocent." That was a laugh. He quickly altered his opinion when she refused to take off her shoes for the audition. Then, as instructed, she punched Eve Southern in a scene, but a bit too hard-- she gave her a black eye. Doug cast her, and the nineteen-year-old Lupe tangoed her way to glory. From this moment on, her career in Hollywood grew and grew. Her personality on film was alive and infectious-- she practically jumped off the screen. Not only did she gives actors like the ever electric Fairbanks a run for his money with her scene-stealing, but she also won the respect of her peers. Lon Chaney paid her the highest of compliments while working with her on Where East is East, even after her surprising talent nearly mopped the floor with the entire cast. In addition, each director and crew member she came across was inspired and touched by the way she approached her work with both great focus and professionalism. When she made a mistake, she would literally kick herself in the rump-- she was so hard on herself that no one else had to be. When the talkie revolution came, she easily transferred to sound, despite her accent, which was a true testament to her star power.
Of course, Lupe's "exotic" looks and origin always played into both her onscreen and off screen life. Though admittedly she knew very little English when she arrived in the United States, by the time the talkies had emerged, she had already learned to speak it elegantly. Nonetheless, in all of her film work and in every interview, the Spanish-speaking lady's language barrier was always exaggerated for comic effect. Her Mexican heritage was both her schtick and a stigma. Because Lupe was hot-tempered in reality and a very fun-loving, high-living kind of gal, her antics were always blamed or laughed off as a symptom of her Mexican-ness. Instead of this serving as a celebration of her ethnicity, it often felt like a slap in the face. As Michelle Vogel pointed out in her biography of Lupe, the actress's only real rival in Hollywood was the equally Mexican-born Dolores del Rio. As such, the gossip mills set tongues wagging with talks of a vengeful rivalry between the two ladies-- and ladies they were. They had no issues with each other and were never really in competition for roles, because they were such different people. However, Dolores carried herself with more grace and diplomacy than Lupe, who was essentially the Mexican Lucille Ball. Consequently, Lupe had much more trouble crossing over into the world of the truly-- "sniff, sniff"-- elite. Thus, her heritage was used to tie her to cliched acting roles and, quite often, to make fun of her in her private life. Lupe would play it up in the press to maintain her persona, but the pretense came to hurt her deeply.
And her private life was a blazin'! Aside from her childhood sweetheart, whom she left for the stage, and the millionaire who tried to marry her in Mexico, whom she refused, Lupe didn't seem to have too much time for love. Men, yes. Love, no. That is, until she met her exact opposite: Gary Cooper. Tall, quiet, bashful, and ever-patient, Coop was easily taken in by Lupe when they began work on Wolf Song. Much as he had been attracted to Clara Bow, Coop seemed to be entranced by all of the fiery qualities in Lupe that he did not possess. She, in turn, was enamored of his calmness in the face of her constant storms. The tales of their lovers brawls are legendary, and usually involve Coop sitting silently as Lupe howled at him like a banshee. He would later proudly show off the war wounds that she had left him-- literally. I'm talking scars, people. Obviously, with their polar temperaments, the union couldn't last. They grew increasingly jealous and suspicious of each other, though Lupe always protested to be a one-man woman. (Sadly, monogmony was not one of Coop's major qualities). The straw that broke the camel's back was said to be Coop's mother, Alice, who never approved of Lupe, nor had she approved of Clara. Coop thus settled down with the more acceptable socialite Veronica "Rocky" Balfe, and Lupe lived with an eternal broken heart. Friends believe she never fully recovered, and she would openly admit to those closest to her that Coop was the love of her life: the one that got away, the only man she ever loved...
She thought she had found a better partner when she wed Johnny Weissmuller. He was Tarzan, for Pete's sake! Certainly he could handle a little heat in the so-called kitchen. Well, he could... For a time. But Johnny also quickly realized that the great passion and love that drew him to Lupe could not withstand their obvious differences. After her divorce from Johnny, Lupe would enjoy a brief engagement to Guinn "Big Boy" Williams, but that too eventually went kaput. Through it all, Lupe's career had enjoyed its ups and downs. For a time, her career seemed to be taking quite the nosedive, and she was often shoved into silly B-films in supporting roles. The public seemed to be losing interest, and her studio was losing faith in her. She did a handful of projects abroad, but she was quickly back in the limelight with the success of The Girl From Mexico. This launched the series with which she is most often associated: The Mexican Spitfire. Again, the films lampooned her accent and caricatured "Lupe" persona, but her timing and often improvised sense of comedy made the films (eight in all) huge hits. The plots centered around misunderstandings, mistaken identities, and the always hilarious strains of marital discord. Partnered with funny man Leon Errol, the two fools volleyed off each other while the cast of supporting players merely rotated around them and held on for dear life! It seemed that Lupe had managed to salvage her career, and it was only getting better. Little did the public know that the funniest woman on the silver screen was privately hurting.
It has been speculated by many that Lupe suffered from the mental strains of bi-polar disorder. This would explain the mood-swings, the failures of her romantic relationships, and possibly her death. As much as we may try to probe into someone's psychology to try to understand why she took her own life, a spectator can never fully grasp the complexities and pains that drive a person to take such drastic measures. What we know in retrospect is that Lupe was four months pregnant when she committed suicide with the aid of 75 Seconal pills. The reason, which she herself stipulated in one of her suicide notes, (she addressed one to her lover and the other to her faithful housekeeper), was that the father of her child refused to marry her. Alone, this reason doesn't seem like reason enough, not with the publicly known Lupe being so brimming with life. However, if you add onto this her possible mental disorder, years of misfortune in love, and her actually very real religious life, we may be getting closer to the truth. She thought to bear a child out of wedlock was an unforgiveable sin. There too is well-founded speculation that the child she took with her to the other side was not that of her current amour--Harald Ramond aka Harald Maresch-- but that of long lost love and sometimes lover Gary Cooper.
When Lupe's plan to have her sister Josefina raise her child temporarily until she could "adopt" it fell through-- due to Josefina's noncommittal attitude-- it is quite possible that in a weak moment, Lupe felt hopeless, alone, and betrayed. Some think she merely meant to make a statement, using an attempted suicide as a stunt to garner sympathy from Harald and force a proposal, but the amount of Seconal in her body-- even more than killed Carole Landis later in 1948-- doesn't suggest that this was an accidental overdose. Lupe, as always, went full throttle. In addition, Harald had in fact proposed to her, but was unable to commit to a quick marriage, due to what one assumes was his marital status to another woman. He too wanted to prove that he could earn enough to support her. It is believed that when he suggested that he and Lupe have a "fake marriage" until they could make it official, she misunderstood his reasoning. But, perhaps she just tired of the charade, and the hiding, and the white-washed BS. Lupe had always played it straight with the public, never hiding behind edited words or false idol appearances. With the loss of another Prince Charming, life had become too desperate. Thus, on the night of Dec. 13, 1944, Lupe succumbed to her own insecurities and despite what certain slanderous, false historians say, she died in her bed-- not with her head in the toilet. She was but 36-years-old. She once said, "I've never met a man with whom I didn't have to fight to exist." She had finally pulled the gloves off. Fittingly, the night after her death, the Hollywood Legion Stadium-- where she had attended so many boxing matches, revving both the fighters and the crowd up-- paid her tribute by placing a spotlight on the seat that she would normally have occupied. The bell was lightly tapped in her honor as well.
It is always those who laugh loudest that seem to be the most in pain. Comedy and tragedy, which seem so far apart, are closer than one assumes. Thus, Lupe Velez, the always hamming firecracker from Mexico, was covering up an ocean of secrets with her brave, bold facade. She certainly would not wish to be remembered the way she currently is-- as yet another Hollywood tragedy, mocked in such publications as Hollywood Babylon. The real Lupe was something different. The real Lupe, who triumphed again and again over her own madness, was good friends with and the comic envy of Carole Lombard. The real Lupe had a love and passion for life that drew men and fans to her like moths to a flame. The real Lupe was incredibly generous, providing for her family, doling out her fortune, and using her limited Hollywood power to help anyone in need. Lupe was an eternal dreamer, a woman of great humor, who-- despite her extensive jewelry collection, which single-handedly saved her from the crash of '29-- had no vanity. She was just as comfortable laughing it up with the guys-- Errol Flynn was known to wander over to her house for a late night game of cards when he, like she, was unable to sleep-- as she was endearing women to her, most of whom-- like Estelle Taylor and Mary Pickford-- always offered her a protective, maternal gaze. Lupe was such an unpretentious woman of the earth, that her escape to Heaven seems almost absurd. But there was more, much more, to this dynamo than met the eye. Now, her secrets are buried with her, as is a flame in Hollywood history that should have burned on much, much longer.