Lupe Vélez was Hollywood’s first Latina icon—but if her name isn’t well-known today, maybe that’s because of her dark end. Not only was Vélez one of the most magnetic stars on screen, but she was also one of the most scandalous. When the cameras weren’t rolling, her love life kept the gossip columnists busy. Sadly, her time on Earth was all too short, and what happened to the woman they called the “Mexican Spitfire” is still the source of controversy today.
1. Her Life Changed In An Instant
María Guadalupe Villalobos Vélez was born to a well-off family in Mexico, in 1908—but her idyllic life was soon shattered by the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution. Her family’s fortunes suffered greatly, and they had to pull Vélez out of the boarding school in Texas where she was learning English—yet Vélez quickly bounced back.
2. She Forged Her Own Path
Vélez hadn’t really loved life at the boarding school anyway. She didn’t care for any of the classes she took there, except one: dance class. When her family struck out for greener pastures in Mexico City, she worked in a department store to support them—but when night fell, she wasn’t at home resting. After a long shift serving customers, Vélez would go out at night and perform in revues…but not everyone was happy with her choices.
3. She Was Rebellious
Vélez had been performing as Lupe Villalobos—her father’s name. When he came back from the war and discovered that his daughter was working as a stage performer, his reaction was brutal. He was absolutely furious. Lupe took it in stride, instead choosing her mother’s surname, Vélez. Her rebellious streak was strong—and her family members weren’t the only ones who felt that brunt of it.
4. She Was An Overnight Star
Lupe Vélez might have just been a young upstart in the Mexican revista scene, but she had the ego and the attitude of a much bigger star. Her flair for the dramatic didn’t just end at the stage, and she ended up in bitter feuds with some of Mexico’s most famous performers. If anyone else had tried the same thing, critics would’ve written them off as a spoiled brat. Vélez, though, had the looks and, most importantly, the talent to back it up.
She became a massive star nearly overnight—and then, Hollywood came calling.
5. They Wouldn’t Let Her In
When Vélez was just 17, matinee idol Richard Bennett invited her to Los Angeles to appear in a play. An excited Vélez packed her bags and headed for Hollywood—but she was in for a devastating disappointment. Authorities at the US border actually turned her back because she was underage. The hiccup crushed Vélez, and, as she said, she cried all the way back to Mexico City.
Still, she knew that if one person in Hollywood wanted her, others would too—so she began her fight to get there.
6. She Faced Rejection
After much negotiation between the Mexican and American governments, Lupe Vélez finally made her way to California—only to receive another crushing blow. Producers of the play took one look at her and said no way. She was too young to appear opposite the 53-year-old leading man…but this wasn’t a problem for everyone.
Her youthful looks certainly didn’t stop megastar Douglas Fairbanks, 25 years her senior, from casting her in his film The Gaucho—and it became the film that changed her life forever.
7. She Blew Up
They say lightning doesn’t strike twice, but that didn’t apply to Lupe Vélez. Just as she’d become an instant success in the Mexican revista scene, she became an overnight star in Hollywood too. A string of roles in hit films followed. For the moment, Vélez tried hard to hold onto her innocent ingenue status and not rock the boat too much.
However, underneath it all, her fiery side was still quietly burning. It just needed the right reason to burst into flame—and she found it on the set of the film Wolf Song.
8. She Had A-List Affairs
Just because she was barely an adult didn’t mean that Lupe Vélez wasn’t out there on the party scene, rubbing elbows with A-listers—and having steamy affairs with stars like Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, and Western star Tom Mix, who was a full 28 years older than her. But none of those dalliances stuck…until she met Gary Cooper.
9. Their Film Romance Was Much Rosier Than Real Life
Lupe Vélez met Gary Cooper on the set of the film Wolf Song. In it, Cooper stars as a man who impulsively elopes with Vélez’s character, only to leave her for the call of adventure. Eventually, he returns to her, and they live happily ever after—an ironic twist, considering everything that went on to happen between the pair.
10. She Had A Temper
When Vélez met Cooper, sparks flew, and it soon turned into a blazing fire. They were complete opposites: Cooper was stoic and calm, and Vélez was decidedly not, but it worked…at first. It was Vélez’s first real, long-term relationship—and sadly, it brought out her dark side. Vélez was wildly jealous, and that jealously often veered into violence.
11. She Attacked Him
When things got bad between Cooper and Vélez, they got really bad. On more than one occasion, things escalated to the point where Vélez came at Cooper with a knife. In one incident, she actually went through with it and stabbed him. It was bad enough that he had to get stitches—but that wasn’t the only problem in their relationship.
12. He Couldn’t Stop Himself
Nothing excuses violence, but Vélez did actually have good reason to be jealous. After all, Cooper seemed to have a thing for all of his co-stars, not just her. Just a year after they began dating, he had an on-set affair with Marlene Dietrich—and then followed that up with another, a year later, with Carole Lombard. However, that wasn’t even his most scandalous affair.
13. She Was Jealous Of His BFF
Which of Cooper’s paramours drove Vélez the wildest with jealousy? It wasn’t any old Hollywood starlet. It was actually Cooper’s close friend and occasional roommate, Anderson Lawler. Vélez revealed to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper that Cooper had an affair with Lawler—but that might not have been the most twisted part of it all.
14. They Were In A Throuple
Vélez may have played it cool when talking about Cooper and Lawler’s unconventional friendship to Hopper—but according to one biographer’s research, the truth was so much more salacious. An actor who was friends with Cooper confirmed that he’d once witnessed them all have a ménage à trois. See, Vélez insisted that she be included in their dalliances.
If they forgot to include her, that’s when she’d raise a fuss…and sometimes, it all played out in public.
15. She Made A Humiliating Scene
Once, at a crowded party, Vélez began to suspect that Cooper had snuck off with Lawler. She made a scene that was so disturbing, it’s impossible to forget. According to witnesses, she unzipped his pants in the middle of the party and “sniffed” for evidence of Lawler’s cologne. Yeah, and this was just one example of Vélez’s wild antics during her golden years in Hollywood…
16. They Were Madly In Love
It wasn’t all racy boundary-breaking and knock-down-drag-out fights between Vélez and Cooper, though. Once, an interviewer asked what was the “biggest thrill” that he’d gotten from making films. Cooper gave an ultra-romantic answer, saying only, “Lupe.” However, there were some people who didn’t approve of the pairing—and it wasn’t just the studio heads or the gossip rags.
17. She Had An Enemy In Her Midst
The biggest roadblock in Lupe Vélez and Gary Cooper’s romance wasn’t his affairs or her temper. No, it was actually Cooper’s mother, Alice. She vehemently opposed his relationship with Vélez, and as the years went on, the tension between the two major female presences in his life wore him down mentally and physically. He lost 40 pounds from the stress.
Finally, after his mother and his bosses encouraged him to, he decided to break things off with Vélez. It was just as dramatic as you’d expect. Actually, more.
18. She Didn’t Take It Well
Cooper broke the news to Vélez that he couldn’t continue seeing her. Her reaction was truly disturbing. Cooper’s studio bosses recommended a vacation to decompress, and as he was about to get on the train, he saw a chilling sight down the platform. It was Vélez, and she had a gun. She took a shot at him, but luckily, she missed.
That was where their relationship ended…for at least a little while.
19. She Was A Mean Girl
Vélez’s jealous streak wasn’t just about her romantic pursuits. It also reared its ugly head in her professional life. She initiated bitter feuds with basically any Old Hollywood star you can imagine, from Greta Garbo to Katharine Hepburn to child star Judy Garland (who was a full 20 years younger than her) to her Mexican contemporary, Dolores Del Rio.
Her weapon of choice was unflattering imitations of her rivals, which she’d happily perform for fellow stars at parties, regardless of whether or not they were willing.
20. They Typecast Her
Onscreen and off, people pigeonholed Lupe Vélez as the brash, hot-headed, and lusty Latina. They gave her a slew of questionable nicknames to match. The “Mexican Spitfire” is the classic example, but there was also the “Mexican Hurricane,” the “Hot Tamale,” and “Whoopee Lupe.” What few realize is that Vélez was actually a consummate professional and a perfectionist when it came to acting.
Unfortunately, she was also about to face one of her greatest career challenges yet.
21. She Was A Target
Two different events occurred around the same time in Hollywood—and they hit Vélez with brutal force. As the Great Depression wrought havoc throughout the US, Americans increasingly viewed foreigners like Vélez with trepidation. The other factor was the transition from silent films to talkies. Studio execs worried that Vélez’s heavy accent would be a problem—but at her core, Vélez was a fighter.
She wouldn’t let Hollywood get rid of her that easily.
22. She Was A Hit
Vélez’s first all-sound film was Tiger Rose—and luckily for her, she fit the role like a glove. Where other silent stars struggled with talkies, Vélez shined, and the runaway success of Tiger Rose ensured that a slew of new roles came to her. She also doubled her own paycheck by taking on Spanish-language versions of English films she’d appeared in. Vélez was moving up in the world—and moving on from Cooper.
23. She Rebounded
Despite her reputation as a lusty lady, Vélez was almost always a one-man woman. After Cooper broke her heart, she nearly tied the knot with troubled star John Gilbert, but it was just a rebound. Her real Prince Charming was around the corner—but instead of a royal jacket, his uniform either consisted of a swimsuit or a loincloth.
24. She Met An Olympian
In 1932, Vélez traveled to New York City to make her Broadway debut—but the stage wasn’t the only thing she conquered while she was there. The Olympic swimming medallist and Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller happened to be in the city at the same time. When the pair met, the connection was instant, but they also faced more than a few roadblocks along the way.
25. She Chose With Her Heart
Distance proved to be a factor, but Vélez and Weissmuller dated on and off for the next year…when she wasn’t seeing heartthrob Errol Flynn, that is. In the end, she had a choice to make, and Vélez couldn’t deny the chemistry she had with Weissmuller. The pair tied the knot in Vegas in October of 1933—and their “honeymoon” period was anything but.
26. There Was No Peace Between Them
When the Mexican Spitfire married Tarzan the Ape Man, it seemed like a fairy tale come true—but it was more of a horror story. Whereas much of Hollywood’s marital strife plays out behind closed doors, just as many of Vélez and Weissmuller’s disagreements occurred in public as they did at home. Whether it was a dinner party, awards show, or sporting event, it didn’t matter.
Vélez and Weissmuller would bicker, scream, or even get physical. They were like a grenade with a pin pulled—ready to blow.
27. She Gave Him A Second Chance
Finally, after 10 months with Weissmuller, Vélez couldn’t take it anymore. She filed for divorce. Vélez stated the reason for the split as “cruelty”—but within a week, she took it back. After all, Vélez was never one to give up so easily. Still, as the months wore on, it became harder and harder to deny their overwhelming problems.
28. She Was Extra Dramatic
Most people have stormed out of a room after a fight—but Vélez took it to the next level. One night, after a bust-up with Weissmuller, Vélez was so certain she wanted to hit Weissmuller where it hurt, she got on a train to New York and then topped that off by getting on a Cunard ocean liner headed for Europe.
29. She Kept Trying
They say the third time is the charm—but that was not the case when it came Vélez and Weissmuller’s best efforts to stay together. If anything, it’s true of Vélez’s attempts to leave him. Over the course of five years, she filed for divorce not once or twice, but three times. On that last try, it finally stuck…
30. She Didn’t Want A Man To Control Her
Vélez played into her dramatic persona while giving interviews, especially after her divorce from Weissmuller. Exaggerating her accent and speaking in the third person, she told Photoplay that “Marriage—eet stinks!” and “Lupe does not believe in loving just one man!” But when she filed for divorce, she didn’t just lose a husband…
31. They Ditched Her
Between the public fights and the legal battles, Vélez didn’t have the first few years of the 1930s easy, and she was about to suffer another crushing blow. Thanks to all the histrionics, her studio dropped her. Well, Vélez picked herself up and used her newfound independence to her advantage. She freelanced for a while, and even when her films flopped, critics still generally tended to praise her performances.
Still, old habits die hard…
32. She Went Too Far
Vélez’s penchant for feuds with other female stars popped up again in 1938 when she returned to Broadway—but this time, she went too far. Her rivalry with co-star Libby Holman actually managed to distract from the bad reviews the show was getting. One night, between curtain calls, Vélez lost her temper and punched Holman in the face, giving her a black eye.
After that, the show was done for—and Vélez never appeared on Broadway again.
33. She Wanted A Married Man
There were, as could be expected, plenty of broken engagements and tempestuous romances in the years that followed, and one was more scandalous than any other. In 1943, Vélez fell for Mexican actor Arturo De Córdova, but there was just one problem. He was married. Did Vélez care? Absolutely not. In fact, she even told gossip columnists that they were engaged.
Was this a good idea? I think you can take a guess…
34. She Couldn’t Get What She Wanted
Lupe Vélez was ready to tie the knot with De Córdova and give up her acting career to become a housewife, but in this case, big hopes led to an even bigger heartbreak. De Córdova’s wife refused to give him a divorce, and he and Vélez broke things off. If the story of that relationship was a bit of a roller coaster, well, it was nothing compared to what came next…
35. She Had A Renaissance
Personal issues aside, the turn of the decade meant a period of professional success for Lupe Vélez like she’d never seen before. She starred in a series of eight comedies that became known as the Spitfire films, which acted as a showcase for her talent and personality. The Spitfire series made history for being the first time that a Hollywood film series starred a non-white actress. They were huge successes, and more hits followed.
Finally, she returned to Hollywood to begin preparing for a play—but she got more than a little sidetracked.
36. She Met A New Man
Despite the string of relationships she’d had since Gary Cooper, no one had stirred the same fire in Lupe Vélez that he had—until she met a shadowy figure named Harald Ramond. He was Austrian and told grand stories of fighting Nazis in WWII and getting sent to Dachau, where he made a daring escape and ended up in the US. Who wouldn’t be impressed, right? Well, there was more to his story than met the eye…
37. He Told Tall Tales
Nobody in Hollywood—or elsewhere, for that matter—could verify Ramond’s story. How did he get from Europe to the US in the middle of WWII? There was no documentation of his participation in the war or his journey to the US. Vélez’s friends were skeptical and were sure that he was using her. She ignored all their warnings and charged full speed ahead with the relationship.
38. They Didn’t Work Out
With Ramond, Vélez faced the same old problems that she had in previous romances, and as the months wore on, her friends’ warnings began to ring louder and louder in her ears. Her Hollywood contacts had jump-started his faltering career, but she wasn’t getting what she wanted from him. By September of 1944, they were estranged—but Vélez was in for a surprise.
39. She Was Pregnant With His Child
In November, Vélez went to her doctor, who gave her some unexpected news. She was pregnant. Vélez was equal measures terrified, confused, and heartbroken. She was already three months along, which limited her options. She begged her sister to go to Mexico with her and pretend the child was hers when it eventually came, but then dropped the subject.
Vélez turned to her agent for help—and then things just got messier.
40. He Rejected Her
Vélez’s agent called Ramond to ask him what he intended to do—and Ramond’s response was chilling. He said he’d do a fake marriage for Vélez, but she had to sign a contract attesting that she knew the marriage was fake, and only for the baby to have its father’s name. They announced the engagement, but his callous demands had rubbed her the wrong way—and she was ready to snap.
41. She Made Sure To Ruin Him
No man was going to act like he was doing a favor to Vélez by tying the knot with her. Within weeks, she called a gossip columnist to let them know the engagement was off, and then she twisted the knife further. She made sure to let it be known that she never wanted Ramond to work in film again. What Lupe wants, Lupe gets, and the Hollywood establishment quickly crushed him and his career like a fly.
With that done, she had more pressing matters to attend to.
42. She Couldn’t Decide What To Do
On the day of her latest film premiere, Lupe Vélez was weighing her options—and beginning to panic. Her agent Bo Roos said that she talked about hiding out in Mexico or finding one of those notorious Hollywood doctors who performed “appendectomies,” if you catch my drift. But then, she proposed a disturbing third option.
She told him that suicide could also solve her problem. This left Roos aghast, and he made her promise that she wouldn’t do anything rash. Sadly, she would end up going back on her words.
43. She Broke Down
Vélez went to the premiere of Zaza that night with her two co-stars, and afterward, they all went back to her house to celebrate. Except Vélez wasn’t exactly in the mood. In contrast to her normal, vivacious self, she seemed exhausted and hopeless. She confided in her friends about her situation and how tired she was of fighting for everything.
They were worried but confident that she’d never go through with it—and so, they left her around 3 AM. It was the last time they ever saw her.
44. She Took Her Own Life
The next morning, Vélez’s secretary entered the home and made a devastating discovery. She found Vélez completely lifeless in bed. She contacted the authorities, and a flurry of activity followed. It appeared that she’d chased 75 Seconal sleeping pills with a glass of brandy. At first, they opened an inquest—but they quickly shut it down, considering what they read on the notes that Vélez had left behind.
45. She Wrestled With Shame
One of the notes was for her secretary, and it asked for her forgiveness. The other was a two-part note meant for Harald Ramond—and its contents were heartbreaking. The first read: “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 with shame or killing him.” On the other side, there was an even more devastating message.
46. He Broke Her Heart
Vélez’s second note to Ramond read: “How could you, Harald, fake such a great love for me and our baby when all the time, you didn’t want us? I see no other way out for me, so goodbye, and good luck to you, Love Lupe.” Afterward, Ramond came clean about their proposed fake marriage and the clause about only doing it to “give the baby a name.” Then, one of the women who’d been there during Vélez’s final hours came forward.
47. They Speculated About The Truth
Vélez’s friend Estelle Warren said that because of her religion, Vélez had claimed that she’d rather take her own life than have an abortion. Ultimately, taking all the notes and testimony under consideration, the coroner ruled that she’d completed suicide to avoid the problems she’d face having a child out of wedlock. Despite this finding, people began to spread different stories about what they claimed had really happened that night.
48. They Said She Did It To Mess With Her Ex
Strangely enough, one of the people to retell an account of that night was Vélez’s ex-husband Johnny Weissmuller’s son. In his memoir, he recounted what his father had told him, which was that Vélez had invited Ramond over that night and only took the Seconal to either calm her nerves or make a dramatic attempt to scare him. Sadly, it had clearly failed.
Other accounts weren’t so generous.
49. She’s The Subject Of A Notorious Urban Legend
In the infamous book Hollywood Babylon, author Kenneth Anger told a sensationalized version of the story that sadly became an urban legend. He claimed that Vélez had wanted to stage a dramatic scene where her body would be found in bed, but instead, her stomach had got the best of her. He said she slipped while on the way to throw up and cracked her head on the toilet, eventually drowning.
Anger clearly sensationalized the story to make it more lurid and gruesome—but there was yet another, even more scandalous version that spread.
50. The Baby Might Have Been Someone Else’s
Multiple people who traveled through the same social circles as Vélez made an especially scandalous claim. They believed that Vélez had secretly been meeting with her ex-boyfriend Gary Cooper, even though he was married, and that the baby was his. One of them even claimed that Cooper had confirmed it. In conflicting accounts of the story, either Vélez wanted to cover for Cooper by tying the knot with Ramond, or Cooper’s rejection of her and their child had led to her overdose.
There’s really no way of knowing, but one thing is for sure: Vélez deserved better, and her sad and lonely death at 36 is one of Hollywood’s greatest tragedies.