You may not have heard of Lupe Vélez, but trust us when we say that her story is unforgettable. A feisty gal-about-town, insatiable flirt, and talented performer, Vélez was the life of the party. But Vélez’s fun-loving ways ended with her still-controversial, tragically early death. From Hollywood fame to personal tragedy, Lupe Vélez epitomized drama.
Lupe Vélez Facts
1. A Star is Born
Maria Guadalupe Villalobos Vélez was born on July 18, 1908 in San Luis Potosi City, Mexico. She was one of five children born to Jacobo Villabos Rayes and Josefina Vélez.
2. Mean Streets
Vélez’s father was a colonel in the armed forces. As a result, Vélez and her family lived comfortably and were considered a prestigious family–but her father’s military background also plunged Vélez into darkness. When the Mexican Revolution broke out, Vélez’s father took her out on his missions even though she was just a child. She recalled that she saw “the horse of my brother shot beneath him…many mens try to kill my father. I see my father kill other peoples.”
3. Crime of Passion
Vélez became known as quite the flirt. One of her lovers was none other than acclaimed actor Gary Cooper. Their three-and-a-half-year-long love affair was, however, volatile to say the least and sometimes downright violent. Vélez allegedly attacked Cooper with a knife on more than one occasion. After one of these terrifying episodes, Cooper received such a serious gash that he needed stitches.
4. If You’re Not First, You’re Last
When Vélez came in second place at a talent show, she took her loss very badly. It was reported that she was so distraught that she attempted to commit suicide.
Vélez’s love life has gone down in Hollywood legend, even eclipsing her lucrative acting career. She’s linked to Charlie Chaplin, Tom Mix, and Clark Gable–and those aren’t even her serious boyfriends.
6. “Give ‘im the Old One-Two!”
Vélez was well known to attend boxing matches at the Hollywood Legion Stadium every Friday night. In a style that was typical of Vélez, she wore bold-colored clothing and often stood up on her ringside seat to yell at the fighters. Once, she even used an umbrella to attack a referee who made a call that she didn’t agree with.
7. Sour Grapes
Vélez was quick to resent her competition in Hollywood, disliking Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn. Out of spite, Vélez loved to give insulting impersonations of these actresses, which only drove more of a wedge between them and herself. When Marlene Dietrich shot a movie with Vélez’s boyfriend Gary Cooper, Vélez took things even further. She made sure to sit in Cooper’s lap to make sure that Dietrich couldn’t seduce him.
8. My First Steps
During the early 1920s, Vélez started performing on stage in Mexico. At first, she used her father’s surname as her stage name. However, when her father found out about his daughter’s career choice, his response was utterly chilling. He was furious. From then on, Vélez performed under her mother’s maiden name.
9. Don’t Always Believe What You Read
Vélez acquired a reputation in Hollywood as being a loud and wild woman, though this was partly acquired due to her cultural difference from most Hollywood stars. Several reports from the time (which we take with a grain of salt for obvious reasons) stated that Vélez would go dancing at parties and flash people around her to show that she wasn’t wearing underwear. Of course, Vélez was quick to point out that her “wild” reputation was exaggerated by the press.
10. Feeding the Beast
By contrast, Vélez was also happy to contact gossip tabloids and give them firsthand stories about her love life, which was stormy. Whether she was always telling the truth or exaggerating for the attention will never be known.
11. Cool It, Bro
In a notorious story, Vélez went out on the town without wearing undergarments. When her then-husband Johnny Weismuller found out, he responded with a horrifically violent gesture. He threw his dinner plate at her private parts, showing her how furious he was about her behavior.
12. Taking a Swing
Vélez’s final appearance on Broadway ended badly. Not only was Cole Porter’s You Never Know received negatively by audiences and critics alike, but the play was also overshadowed by wild backstage antics. One of Vélez’s co-stars, Libby Holman, feuded with Vélez, with Holman allegedly resenting all the attention that Vélez got.
One night, a confrontation between the feuding actresses resulted in Holman punching Vélez backstage. She even gave her a black eye.
13. Boy, this is Awkward
During Vélez’s career, she acquired a lot of monikers that are pretty cringeworthy today. They include “Mexican Hurricane” (for her ethnicity and her fiery nature) “Whoopee Lupe,” “The Mexican Madcap,” and “The Hot Tamale.” The press also insisted on quoting her phonetically, emphasizing the way her accent sounded.
14. Papa Can You Hear Me?
While some reports say that Vélez acted because she was irrepressible and fun-loving, others believe that the truth is much darker. One scholar claims that Vélez only got onstage to support her family after they were struck by tragedy. Her father, the military man, disappeared during the Mexican Revolution, leaving his family desperate and vulnerable.
15. Marriage Made in Hell
In 1933, Vélez married Johnny Weissmuller (best known for the famous Tarzan yell). Weissmuller and Vélez’s marriage became infamous for their messy, public arguments. Their marriage was so stormy that Vélez filed for divorce three times (the first two times were withdrawn by Vélez when she reconciled with Weissmuller). Their divorce was eventually finalized in 1939.
16. Leave the Pets out of it
A scandalous anecdote claims that a dark deed caused the breakup between Vélez and Weissmuller. Apparently, Weissmuller came home to find that his beloved dog was dead. Weissmuller believed that his own wife poisoned the pup because she was wildly jealous of all the attention Weismuller gave it. Furious with Vélez, Weismuller broke her parrot’s neck.
17. I Love Lucy- Err, I mean, Lupe!
The highlight of Vélez’s film career was arguably her starring role in what has since been called the Mexican Spitfire series. From 1939 until 1943, eight films were made which featured Vélez and actor Leon Errol portraying a mixed-race couple. The films’ comedic nature and their satire of Latin-American people leads some critics to view the films as influences on Modern Family.
The Mexican Spitfire series made history for being the first time that a Hollywood film series starred a non-white actress.
19. Over in a Flash
Vélez’s final relationship was with Harald Ramond, a young actor from Austria. They were engaged in November 1944, two months after Vélez discovered that she was pregnant with Ramond’s child. However, the couple was doomed to a heartbreaking end. Apparently, Ramond left Vélez and ended their engagement in early December of that same year. As we’ll see, their breakup had devastating consequences.
20. Keep ‘Em Guessing
One of Vélez’s breakthrough roles was in the Hollywood comedy The Gaucho. Though she was relatively new to the movie biz, Vélez quickly gained a reputation for being unpredictable. Apparently, the people on the studio would say that when she puckered up, it was “impossible” to tell if Vélez was going to kiss you, bite you, or just spit on you.
21. Death of the Artist
In the early hours of December 14, 1944, Hollywood was changed forever. After an evening of dining with her friends, Vélez consumed 70 Seconal pills and washed them down with brandy. Her body was discovered by her secretary that morning. Vélez was 36 years old at the time of her death.
22. Once Upon a Time…
In 1959, Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon started a cruel rumor about Vélez’s tragic death which, to this day, threatens to overshadow every other aspect of her life. According to Anger, Vélez planned a suicide to preserve her reputation as a tragic, beautiful film star. Unfortunately, the pills clashed with her last supper. When the half-delirious Vélez went into the bathroom to vomit, she stumbled at the worst moment and fell head-first into the toilet, drowning in complete indignity.
23. Ruining a Woman’s Legacy
Although the urban legend of Vélez’s death clashes with the truth of what actually happened, and despite people debunking the toilet story as having been impossible, the story has endured to this day. Several TV shows and films referenced this urban legend including the pilot episode of Frasier.
24. Three’s Company
In 1943, Vélez began an affair with Arturo de Cordova, one of her co-stars. Later that same year, Vélez gave an interview where she claimed that she and de Cordova were engaged. But one person begged to differ: de Cordova’s wife! She refused to grant her husband a divorce, leading Vélez to end the engagement in 1944.
25. Died as She Lived – Drawing Crowds
Reportedly, Vélez ‘s funeral was so well attended that more than four thousand people filed past her casket. Vélez is interred at Pateon Civil de Dolores Cemetery in Mexico City.
26. It’s Almost a Metaphor
Another famous name who was linked romantically to Vélez was western film star Quinn “Big Boy” Williams. The engagement reportedly ended during a visit to the home of their friend, the action hero Errol Flynn. Vélez broke up with Williams with an absolutely brutal gesture. She took a framed photo of Williams and used it to hit the real-life counterpart.
27. Life Emulating Art
Vélez’s tragic end was re-enacted by Andy Warhol in his 1965 film Lupe. Vélez was portrayed by Edie Sedgwick in the film, who went on to have a tragic end of her own.
28. I’m Sensing a Pattern
It seems like Lupe just couldn’t resist a married man. She and Johnny Weismuller fell madly in love when they met, despite the fact that the Tarzan hunk he was already wed to another. When his divorce was finalized in 1933, he and Vélez got married mere months after.
29. Make That Paper
In her prime, Lupe Vélez made $2000 each week. In modern figures, that’s about $30,000 for a single week of work!
30. “Mucha Gracias, Mama!”
Depending on who you ask, Vélez’s mother was either a refined opera singer or a suggestive burlesque performer. Either way, Josefina Vélez was a veteran of the world of entertainment. She used her connections to get her daughter’s foot in the door.
31. A Fortune Left Behind
Vélez’s estate (worth $125,000 in 1944 currency) was left almost entirely to her secretary, Beulah Kinder. The rest was left in trust for Vélez’s mother.
32. Bad Girl
Vélez was educated at a convent and, er, struggled to act prim and proper. She was often punished with lines and forced to write “I must be good” again and again and again. Vélez was also astonished at how ladylike other women were. When discussing her sisters, she said “they like to be ladies…they have no fun.” Love her or hate her, Vélez definitely had some fun.
33. This Won’t Age Well
During Vélez’s lifetime, Hollywood was especially insensitive concerning racial casting. If they didn’t cast white actors to portray ethnic characters, they’d cast people who weren’t racially appropriate but looked “ethnic” enough that the producers would shrug their shoulders and say, “close enough.” As a result, Vélez spent her career playing not just Latin-American characters, but also characters of other backgrounds, including a Chinese character in Where East is East.
34. Don’t Cross Me!
Vélez was known, even early in her career, as having a hot-headed disposition and a “feisty attitude.” This resulted in a lot of controversy and a number of abrupt dismissals from work. Naturally, Vélez’s volatile behavior garnered a lot of media attention.
35. Too Late!
In 1926, young Vélez got the kind of invitation that aspiring actors dreamed of. Acclaimed stage director Richard Bennett was preparing a play, and he had to find an actress to play a cantina singer. Elated, Vélez dropped everything and hurried to Los Angeles. However, by the time she arrived, her dreams turned into a waking nightmare. The young actress found out that she’d already been replaced.
36. Silver Lining
Despite this setback, Vélez’s move to Los Angeles proved beneficial. Harry Rapf, a producer with the film studio known as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), offered Vélez a small role in Sailors, Beware! This was a short film starring the classic comic duo Laurel & Hardy. When the film achieved success, Vélez’s knew that her career in Hollywood was confirmed.
37. Too Intense for Us
Hollywood has long flirted with the idea of making a feature film about Vélez. The first attempt was in 1949, just five years after she died. However, the nature of Vélez’s death proved too controversial for Hollywood’s production code. The film was never produced. It’s been almost a century. Make it happen, Hollywood!
38. Paging Kenneth Anger
Then as now, the press loved to pit Hollywood actresses against each other. In Vélez’s day, they claimed that the famed “Mexican Spitfire” was heartlessly dropped by her studio, United Artists, when they decided to concentrate on another Mexican actress named Dolores Del Rio. In actuality, both actresses left United Artists around the same time.
39. The First of Many
Vélez’s big break into Hollywood came with the 1927 silent film The Gaucho, starring Douglas Fairbanks. Not only was the film a commercial success, but Vélez impressed critics with her onscreen charisma and presence. And that’s not even the most incredible part: Vélez managed to make a huge impression despite being a relative unknown at the time.
40. Cruel End
One of Vélez’s friends who dined with her on the last night of her life was actress Estelle Taylor. Taylor claimed that Vélez was utterly distraught about her pregnancy. She considered getting an abortion, but did not go through with it due to her Catholic faith.
41. This Sounds like a Soap Opera
There’s another tragic twist in the story of Vélez’s death. Robert Slatzer claimed that shortly before Vélez’s body was found, he spoke to both Vélez and Gary Cooper. According to Slatzer, both actors confirmed that Cooper could very well have been the father of Vélez’s unborn child. Some have speculated that Cooper’s rejection of Vélez and their possible child could have been the catalyst to Vélez’s suicide.
42. Parting Shot
In 1931, Gary Cooper couldn’t take it anymore. For almost four years, he’d been in a serious relationship with Lupe Vélez and he was ready to get out. By that point, he’d lost 45 pounds. The star was being urged by his mother and even the heads at Paramount Pictures to leave Vélez and take time off to recover himself. Allegedly, when Vélez heard that Cooper wanted to leave her, she met him at the train station and shot at him with a pistol.