On this day, María de Guadalupe Villalobos-Vélez was born in San Luis de Potosí, Mexico, on July 18, 1908.
LIKE FATHER-LIKE DAUGHTER
Although Vélez was born into an established, wealthy, highly educated family, her father was the black sheep—wild and reckless. From an early age, Lupe took after him. she stated,
“I had to play with boys… girls found me too rough.”-Lupe Velez
As the revolution overtook Mexico, Vélez’s father joined the fight and, according to her, often took his daughter on dangerous outings. She recalled,
“When your American kids go to kindergarten, I am riding with my father in the Mexican Army. I see the horse of my brother shot beneath him. I see many men try to kill my father. I see my father kill other peoples… It is my first school, the revolution. I do not cry. I do not have goose pimples on my flesh. I do not have fears of the bullets.”-Lupe Velez
HARD-WORKING ENTERNAINER IN THE FAMILY
From a very early age, Vélez had a strong and creative personality. According to her biographer, she could easily be hilarious and charismatic one moment and depressive and vicious the next.
She would dance and do skits for her family and their servants, and soon she was putting on impromptu shows for neighbors on the street. Velez would often use pillows as her male co-stars.
When asked about her childhood, Velez commented,
“My poor family. They never know what to do with me.”-Lupe Velez
When speaking about her sisters, she recalled:
“They are different like hell. They are so good. They like to go to school. They like to wear socks. They like to be ladies. They make me nervous, being always so good like a lady. They have no fun.”-Lupe Velez
As she entered young-adulthood, Vélez’ behavior that was seen as taboo behavior in patriarchal Mexican society convinced her family to send her to a convent school in San Antonio, Texas. There she continued to make trouble, spending hours writing “I must be good” over and over as punishment.
THE MEXICAN WAR, SUPPORTING HER FAMILY, & STRUGGLING WITH HER MENTAL HEALTH
Her family was in a state of upheaval—her father had been presumed dead in the war and all their money was gone. While most of her family members were too proud to get jobs, a teenage Vélez did just that, supporting the family by working as a saleswoman in a department store.
She then finagled an audition with a local theater.
Soon Vélez was performing to titillated crowds in sold-out venues. She was on cloud nine but still had moments of darkness. In 1925, it was reported that she attempted suicide after coming in second place in a talent show.
It didn’t take long for Hollywood to take notice of Vélez. Theatrical impresario Richard Bennett soon lured her to Hollywood. Vélez was soon in Los Angeles, under contract to comedy producer Hal Roach.
Acting in shorts and B-comedies, Vélez earned her chops, but her big break came when she was her most authentic self.
While testing for the role of the “wild mountain girl,” megastar Douglas Fairbanks’s romantic partner in the movie The Gaucho, Fairbanks asked her to take off her shoes, since her character would be barefoot. Vélez refused. Vélez got the part, in the end, and her and Fairbanks would go on to have a tumultuous affair.
The Gaucho was released in 1927, and Vélez’s performance thrilled moviegoers, critics, and studio brass alike.
Lupe was adored by most of her co-workers and friends. “She was a complete individualist, and eccentric to the nth degree,” one friend recalled. She was known to be generous to a fault, and always wore a simple ring fashioned out of a bent nail that had been made for her by the father of a family she had helped. She owned a large menagerie of rescue animals: horses, monkeys, canaries, and turtles, and brought her dogs, Chips and Chops, with her everywhere. She was one of the few stars whose telephone numbers were publicly listed and would often personally field calls from those in distress. On set—when Vélez wasn’t embroiled in a feud—she was a consummate professional. Between takes she would hang out with the crew, entertaining them with her famous impressions of stars like Shirley Temple and Greta Garbo. “She had a gift for making people feel free,” one crew member recalled.
Despite the success of the her “Mexican Spitfire” series, Vélez’s mental state seems to have begun to deteriorate. “She’s never been able to find the way of being happy and contented on a middle register of emotions,” her secretary Beulah Kinder observed. “People think I like to fight,” Vélez told her best friend, Estelle Taylor. She continued,
“I have to fight for everything. I’m so tired of it all. Ever since I was a baby I’ve been fighting.”-Lupe Velez
STEREOTYPICAL ROLES AND RACISM IN HOLLYWOOD
Vélez worked steadily in “ethnic” sexpot roles, her star on the rise. She also became a celebrity on the Hollywood social scene.
Vélez’s career was never what it could have been. In racist, sexist Hollywood, she was forever typecast—she was “senorita cyclone,” the “hot tamale,” and “whoopee Lupe.” In the press, she was pitted against Hollywood’s only other female Mexican star—the “high-class” and elegant Dolores Del Rio.
Despite her origins, Vélez was painted as “common” and was considered to exhibit “traces we notice solely in lower class people.” One racist critic went so far as to say that, “Lupe Vélez has no more dignity than a donkey.”
Her scripts were often written in broken English as well, prompting her to once demand: “Who is this so- and- so who writes this stuff? What do you think I am? You write this in English!”
But despite her personal embarrassment, in interviews she often made a joke out of her allegedly poor language skills. “Everybody says, ‘Why don’t you learn better English, Lupe deeah?’ So I answer, ‘I was married to a guy who can only say, ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane. How can I learn English from heem?
Ironically, Vélez’s greatest success came in 1939 with the low-budget comedy The Girl from Mexico. In it, Vélez plays the highly stereotypical Carmelita, a manic Mexican nightclub entertainer who marries a successful American man. The movie spawned seven sequels, in what came to be known as “The Mexican Spitfire” series.
HER FAREWELL TO HER LOVER AND THE WORLD
By 1944, Vélez was dating a handsome Austrian gigolo named Harald Ramond. As the story goes, she soon found out she was pregnant with his child. A devout Catholic, who would drop to her knees to pray whenever she was in distress, Vélez wanted Ramond to marry her, but he refused. For Lupe Vélez, this betrayal would be the end of the road.
On the morning of December 14, 1944, Beulah Kinder walked into Vélez’s master bedroom at 732 North Rodeo Drive, in the mansion called “Casa Felicitas.” Kinder found Vélez lying in her bed in blue silk pajamas, her hair spread across her silk pillow.
“I thought she was asleep, she looked so peaceful,” Kinder remembered. “Lupe looked so small in her oversized bed,” the first policeman on the scene recalled, that at first sight he “thought she was a doll.”
Four months pregnant, Vélez had taken an overdose of sleeping pills.
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