The Turbulent Life and Tragic Death of “Mexican Spitfire” Lupe Velez

She shot at Gary Cooper. She threatened to slit Norma Shearer’s throat. Meet Lupe Velez

Fade in: a Los Angeles train station in 1931. A handsome, but unusually haggard Gary Cooper, his blue eyes encircled by dark rings, stands on the platform waiting to board the Twentieth Century Limited. As the train approaches, a heavily accented voice rings out. “Gary, you son of a bitch!”

A gunshot pierces the still air. Cooper dodges the bullet and hustles onto the train, which will take him to a boat that will take him to Europe—and far away from his tormentor. As his friends on the platform watch, a beautiful, petite woman—only five feet tall—scurries away, still clutching a gun in her bejeweled hand.

The woman’s name was Lupe Vélez, and although she was a film star, this was not a movie scene from a movie. Nor was it the first time Vélez had resorted to violence during she and Cooper’s three-year love affair. She had stabbed him impulsively with a kitchen knife one night while they were cooking, attempted to break a window to embrace him as he left on another train, and engaged in a tabloid war of words with his queenly mother, who was understandably concerned about her son’s well-being. But Cooper never lost his fondness for the woman known as the “Mexican Hurricane.”

“You couldn’t help but being attracted to Lupe Vélez,” he wrote decades later. “She flashed, stormed, and sparked, and on the set she was apt to throw things if she thought it would do any good. But she objected to being called wild. She’d say, ‘I am not wild! I am just Lupe.’”

In classic Vélez fashion, she would send contradictory signals throughout her brief, 36-year existence. “My life story?” she once replied to an inquisitive reporter. “It is the story of a devil. And who wants to print the story of a devil? I am wild, I cannot help it.”

María de Guadalupe Villalobos-Vélez was born in San Luis de Potosí, Mexico, on July 18, 1908. According to Vélez biographer Floyd Conner, that day a violent rainstorm ripped through her hometown. 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. “I had to play with boys,” she remembered. “Girls found me too rough.”

As the revolution overtook Mexico, Vélez’s father joined the fight and, according to her, often took his daughter on dangerous outings. “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 mens try to kill my father. I see my father kill other peoples,” she recalled. “It is my first school, thees revolution. I do not cry. I do not have goose pimples on my flesh. I do not have fears of the bullets.”

According to Vélez biographer Michelle Vogel, besides being traumatized by the violence she witnessed during the revolution, from a very early age Vélez has a naturally stormy personality. She could 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. “Sometimes they are bad mens,” she recalled, “and I grab a big knife and kills them.”

“My poor family. They never know what to do with me,” Vélez said of her turbulent childhood. 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.”

As she entered young-adulthood, Vélez’s flirtations and individualistic behavior—taboo in genteel, 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 for her latest mischief.

Vélez’s sojourn in the convent did not last long, and she was soon called home. 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. When the director told Vélez she would be a supporting cast member, she scoffed: “I will be a star and sing and dance alone.”

During her very first performance, her trusty ukulele’s strings broke. Instead of panicking, she improvised, wildly shimmying while singing “Charlie, My Boy,” the song she knew best in English. Her wild movements and overwhelming charisma made her a sensation in Mexico. “Do they like me?” she once asked rhetorically. “They go crazy.”

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 (father of movie stars Constance and Joan) 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.

“Then you don’t get the part!” Fairbanks said.

“I don’t take off my shoes for you or no one…I go back to Mexico!” Vélez yelled.

Not only did she get the part, Vélez and a smitten Fairbanks would go on to have a torrid affair.

The Gaucho was released in 1927, and Vélez’s performance thrilled moviegoers, critics, and studio brass alike. One New York Times critic wrote, “She gives blow-for-blow to the men who get in her way.” Word around the studio was “when she puckers up her lips, it’s impossible to tell if she is going to kiss you, bite you, or spit on you!”

Vélez worked steadily in “ethnic” sexpot roles, her star on the rise. She also became a celebrity on the Hollywood social scene, legendary for her wild antics and bitter feuds with other women. She got in a fistfight with the fierce actress Lilyan Tashman in the powder room of the Montmartre Café. At an all-white attire ball hosted by her good friend Carole Lombard, she threatened to slit Norma Shearer’s throat with the knife she always kept in her garter. Shearer’s offense? She had dared to wear red.

But her most famous feud was with the equally volatile actress (and future suspected murderess) Libby Holman, during the run of the trouble-plagued Cole Porter musical, You Never Know. Their hurled insults would often devolve into physical violence, until finally one night Vélez punched Holman in the face at curtain call. Another time, Vélez hissed, “Libby, you bastard. You son of a bitch. I kill you with this,” flashing a large diamond ring she was wearing. Sensing the anguish behind her rage, co-star Clifton Webb pulled her aside. “Lupe, you must not say such things. One day you’ll turn them all against yourself.”

Vélez became a regular at the weekly boxing matches at the Hollywood Legion Stadium. Every Friday night she would saunter in, dripping in rubies and furs, as the crowd stomped and hooted to signal her arrival. Over the years her front-row antics—including the time she attacked a referee with an umbrella—became as much a part of the show as the pugilists in the ring.

She was equally as performative with her lovers. Vélez and Cooper met on the set of the 1929 film Wolf Song. “It seemed so funny,” remembered the writer Adela Rogers St. Johns. “Tiny, tempestuous Lupe and six-foot-three of slow-moving Cooper; her firecracker Mexican accent and her sparkling laughter against the slow drawl and slower smile of the big cowboy.” Cooper’s gentleness often drove Vélez crazy. “I think I will kill my Gary,” she told a fan magazine during their romance. “Because he does not get angry when Lupe is angry with him.” Exhausted, Cooper finally broke things off in 1931.

Vélez’s next sparring partner was a more worthy opponent. Johnny Weissmuller, the most famous of the movie Tarzans, was an Austro-Hungarian Olympic swimming champion whose body, Vélez said, was “like a piece of sculpture.” The two fought and made up constantly, and their public battles at nightclubs and premiers became infamous. “For no reason, I punch him right on the nose. He rears up and says ‘Mama, you hit me,’ and I say: ‘Darling, I am so sorry. Hit me back,’” Lupe said in an interview during their marriage.” It was said that makeup artists on the Tarzan movies were forever covering the bite marks and scratches Lupe inflicted on Weissmuller. Unsurprisingly, this mutually abusive relationship could not last. Vélez filed for divorce in 1938, disparaging Weissmuller as a “furniture-breaking caveman.”

Despite all the turmoil she caused, 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.

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.”

According to biographer Michelle Vogel, Vélez’s English was often fouled up in the interviews to fit a Mexican stereotype. 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.

Despite the success of the 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. “I have to fight for everything. I’m so tired of it all. Ever since I was a baby I’ve been fighting.”

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. Near her bed was a suicide note:

To Harald,

May God forgive you and forgive me, too, but I prefer to take my life away and our baby’s, before I bring him shame or killing him. How could you, Harald, fake such great love for me and our baby when all this time you didn’t want us? I see no other way out for me, so good-bye and good luck to you.

Love, Lupe

In another letter to Kinder, she asked her to take good care of Chips and Chops. The next night, a spotlight shone on Vélez’s empty ringside seat at the Hollywood Legion Stadium. The fight was over.

But this would not be the death that legend would assign to Lupe. In his 1959 tabloid book Hollywood Babylon, writer Kenneth Anger, who claimed his sources as “mental telepathy, mostly,” created an entirely new ending for Lupe. According to Anger, Vélez had a spicy Mexican meal before her planned suicide. She then set the perfect scene, lighting candles, and filling the room with flowers. The next morning her maid “Juanita” had come to check on her mistress:

The bed was empty. The aroma of scented candles, the fragrance of tuberoses almost, but not quite masked a stench recalling that left by Skid-Row derelicts. Juanita traced the vomit trail from the bed, followed the spotty track over to the orchid tiled bathroom. There she found her mistress, Senorita Vélez, head jammed down in the toilet bowl, drowned.

This cruel retelling became an urban legend, believed by many to be fact. Anger should thank his lucky stars his victim wasn’t around to defend herself. It’s a battle you can be sure Vélez would have won.

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