Maria Montez was a Dominican actress who became an instant star in Hollywood’s sword and sandal films. But the fates wouldn’t always be in favor of the sultry actress known as “The Cobra Woman” and “The Caribbean Cyclone.” As we’ll see, the adventures of her “enchantress” roles on-screen weren’t too dissimilar from the drama that Maria Montez faced in her real life.
Maria Montez Facts
1. She Was An Unlikely Star
Maria Montez wasn’t the likeliest Hollywood star. She was born in the Dominican Republic in 1912 as one of ten children. Her father was a Spanish diplomat and her mother was the daughter of political refugees. There weren’t any omens in the tea leaves or prophecies in the constellations just yet about the dramatic life that she would lead.
2. She Was Green With Boredom
When she was in her teens, Montez’s father received a diplomatic appointment in Ireland and the whole family moved. Though Montez was accustomed to island life, she was a little more acclimated to, you know, tropical island life. Needless to say, there weren’t many sandy beaches, but Montez managed to find other ways of staying warm.
3. She Married Young
Montez must have liked a man in uniform—she picked up a few in her time. At the age of 17, Montez married the wealthy and dashing Irishman, William G. McFeeters. Sadly, McFeeters was an officer in the British Army and would often leave Montez all alone in their Irish castle. He’d soon learn that abandoning Maria Montez was a disastrous mistake.
4. She Was Jet-Set
Whenever McFeeters would leave Montez alone—which happened pretty often from the sounds of it—Montez would make tracks of her own. Refusing to stay cooped up in gloomy old Ireland, Montez used to fly off to European locales such as Paris and London in search of excitement. And boy oh boy, did Montez ever find it.
5. She Bit The Big Apple
On one of her many solo trips, Maria Montez found herself in New York—and immediately fell for the Big Apple’s charms. She decided to move to New York to pursue a career in modeling. Of course, a dingy studio apartment wouldn’t do for a girl like Maria, so Montez rented a place from a Bavarian duke and duchess. There was just one problem…
6. She Ditched Him At The Docks
Montez lived like royalty in New York City. She was young, exotic, talented and…unavailable. But not for long. Montez arranged for her husband to meet her at the docks. Once he arrived, she marched up to McFeeters and brutally informed him that their marriage was over. She called the whole thing off not a moment too soon. A new man was about to enter Montez’s life.
7. She Was An Instant Success
The stars above New York City were aligning for Montez. A talent scout spotted the exotic beauty and immediately had her star in her first-ever film, Boss of Bullion City in 1940. Not satisfied with just grabbing filmgoers’ attention, Montez later claimed that she had turned the heads of more than just talent scouts while she was in the Big Apple…
8. She Got Attention
Maria Montez really did have a thing for men in uniform. The actress met the Royal Air Force officer Claude Strickland while living in New York City. She must have cast quite the spell on the fighter ace because soon enough, Montez and Strickland decided to get engaged. Since Montez was the new It-Girl, newspapers flurried to cover the proposal. However, that’s when things started to get…strange.
9. She Cast Spells
You see, it turned out that Strickland was missing in action and therefore unable to confirm his engagement to Maria Montez. If you’re confused, you’re not alone. Strickland’s disappearance raised eyebrows–and eventually, Montez had to fess up. Later in her career, Montez finally revealed the truth: her “engagement” to the missing RAF pilot, Claude Strickland, had just been part of a publicity stunt. It was all part of her plan to take over Tinseltown.
10. She Was Shameless
After starring in Boss of Bullion City, Montez had a number of supporting and starring roles in smaller productions. After a string of low-budget flicks, Montez knew that if she really wanted to be a star, she would have to do it herself. She developed a knack for, shall we say, self-promotion (see the fictional fiancé above).
The Los Angeles Times even commented that Montez “acted like a movie star” long before she actually was one. She took the expression “fake it till you make it” to the extreme.
11. Her Big Break Came In The Night
Maria Montez had been faking superstardom for years before she got her big break, which finally came in 1942. That year, Montez won a starring role Universal Studio’s big-budget production, Arabian Nights. Montez starred alongside frequent collaborators Jon Hall and Sabu in the three-strip Technicolor masterpiece. Overnight, Montez went from pretender to royalty.
12. She Was Royalty
Technicolor gave movie-goers the experience of their lives. The highly saturated image quality created the dreamlike aura of major pictures such as The Wizard of Oz. Harnessing the power of the new tech (along with her incredible beauty, natch), Montez became known as the “Queen of the Technicolor.” And soon, a new suitor entered her court.
13. She Had A French Connection
Maria Montez may have faked her engagement to Claude Strickland but her next love affair was no magic trick. While on a publicity tour in Chicago, Montez fell head over heels for an actor named Jean-Pierre Aumont. Like Montez, Aumont already had a divorce under his belt, but it looked like these kids wanted to give marriage another shot. In 1943, Montez married her French beau.
14. She Cast A Love Spell
Montez and Aumont were very happily married…at first. Aumont said of his falling in love with Montez, “to say that between us it was love at first sight would be an understatement.” D’aww. However, while Aumont had flattering things to say about his beautiful new wife, his words for her ex-husband were less than kind.
15. Her Husbands Feuded
Aumont understood his strange and mysterious wife better than most. He certainly understood her better than her ex-husband did. In an interview, Aumont described Montez’s ex-husband, McFeeters, as, “an Irishman who was naive enough to think he could lock her up in some frosty castle.” But then again, a “frosty castle” doesn’t sound so bad when you compare it to the Montez-Aumont house of horrors.
16. She Littered With Diamonds
Maria Montez was a bit strange, so it stands to reason that she had a strange marital home. Aumont described his wife’s Hollywood mansion as such; “it was a strange house. You didn’t answer the phone or read the mail; the doors were always open. Diamonds were left around like ashtrays.” And that was just the beginning of the oddities.
17. She Collected Oddities
Montez’s home was every bit as eclectic as she was. In a sense, she was a purveyor of sorts. Aumont recalled of his marital home, “An astrologer, a physical culture expert, a priest, a Chinese cook, and two Hungarian masseurs were part of the furnishings. During her massage sessions, Montez granted audiences.”
18. She Was A Hurricane
Over the years, Montez garnered fame for her exotic beauty and supernatural film roles. You might say she was a force of nature…literally. One of her nicknames was “The Caribbean Cyclone.”
19. She Was Lonely
Montez’s habit of marrying—or pretending to marry—men in uniform came with consequences. Turns out, McFeeters wasn’t the only one ditching her at home. Just a few days after Montez and Aumont got married, everything changed. Aumont left her to serve on the French side in WWII. With her husband in mortal danger, Montez coped by throwing herself into her work.
20. She Let Fame Get To Her Head
Fame has a way of changing people and it definitely changed Montez. But while most people get mean when they get famous, it was just the opposite for the Caribbean Cyclone. The actress recalled in an interview, “I have changed a lot during the last year. Now I am a star, I am nice.” If she had known what lay ahead, she may not have let fame make her nice.
21. She Was Prego
Maria Montez became pregnant on the set of Tangier in 1943. Universal Studios had to rush production to accommodate their rapidly expanding star. Despite pumping the pedals, though, they wouldn’t release the film until 1946, three whole years after filming had wrapped. If you think this delay ticked Montez off, you’d be right…
22. She Spelled It With An “S”
Montez always wanted to see her name take top-billing in bright lights on the marquee of theaters everywhere. And she wanted her name spelled correctly. The actress entered a brutal feud with Universal Studios over the spelling of her stage name. She wanted Montez spelled with an “s” while the studio insisted that she spell it with a “z”. I’ll let you guess who won that fight…and every other fight thereafter.
23. She Didn’t Like Happily Ever Afters
The spell that Montez had cast over her Hollywood counterparts and international audiences was beginning to fade by the mid-to-late 1940s. With her exotic charms, she had trapped herself in “fairy tale princess” roles and had no serious acting credits to her name. Frustrated, Montez began fighting with Universal Studios for better, more serious roles. Unfortunately, her efforts went horrendously.
24. She Changed Characters
Despite Universal continually casting Montez as the exotic seductress, she took her work seriously. Robert Siodmak, the man who directed Montez in 1944’s Cobra Woman, said that Montez was unlike other actresses because she truly embodied her roles. If she played a queen, she’d “demand you to bow before her” but if she played a slave, “you could treat her very bad and she will not complain.” Still, I wouldn’t cross her.
25. She Was Irreplaceable…Kind Of
Universal Studios offered Maria Montez the lead role in 1945’s Frontier Gal alongside her frequent collaborator, Jon Hall. But by this time, Montez felt that she had outgrown her adventure story characters. In a twist that stunned studio executives, she refused the role. Universal suspended Montez and the part went to Yvonne De Carlo. She who would ultimately replace Montez as Universal’s go-to enchantress.
26. She Was Technically Out
Montez mustered up enough magic to work with Universal Studios one last time, after her suspension, of course. She took the lead role in 1947’s Pirates of Monterrey. It would be her last film with Universal Studios and the last time that the “Queen of the Technicolor” would appear in technicolor. After losing her throne, Montez had a bone to pick with Universal.
27. Her Magic Faded
Maria Montez landed a minor role in 1948’s The Exile. Universal Studios released the film and refused to give Montez the top billing she demanded. So, Montez lashed out and sued Universal for a six-figure sum. The suit was a huge scandal, leading Universal to settle their differences out of court. However, it was just the beginning of Montez’s courtroom dramas.
28. She Was An Outcast
Montez had worked hard—and stirred a few cauldrons—to get to the tippy-top of the Hollywood pecking order. So, she must have been at least a little crestfallen to leave Tinseltown behind. In 1949, Montez and her husband Aumont moved to France—just outside of Paris. But the two Hollywood outcasts were determined to continue making films, so they came up with a clever plan.
29. She Ran Out Of Love
Montez and Aumont started up their own production company, and soon enough, they were making more than movies together. The couple had had a daughter together in 1946, Tina Aumont. The younger Aumont would go on to have a successful career in Italian cinema. Funny enough, Tina Aumont was born on Valentine’s Day in 1946, but by then, there wasn’t much love left between her famous parents.
30. She Struck Out On Her Own
In 1949, before their big move to France, Aumont made an announcement that would put a chill even on his Caribbean wife. Despite their outward appearance of a happy Hollywood couple—whatever that looks like—there was turmoil beneath the surface. Aumont declared that he would be seeking a divorce from his wife. Maybe the move to France was just what the love doctor ordered because the two would remain married until the bitter end.
31. She Heard The Sirens
Montez and Aumont got to work as soon as they landed in France—maybe to distract them from their marital issues. Montez bought the film rights to Pierre Benoit’s Atlantida and starred alongside her husband in the screen adaptation, Siren of Atlantis. From leopards to lawsuits, there were “sirens” from the very beginning of this doomed project.
32. She Was A Coat Person
Filming on the set of Siren of Atlantis required the use of some…wild actors. Montez and Aumont had to film scenes alongside co-stars such as camels and, gulp, leopards. This was long before CGI technology so the leopards had to be real—and really dangerous. Apparently, Montez and Aumont had to live with a leopard for a few days so that the wildcat could become accustomed to them. Thank goodness the animal was under the influence of tranquilizers.
33. She Was In Denial
Both Montez and Aumont put their necks on the line—or in the mouth of a leopard—for Siren of Atlantis. And, if you asked them, they would have told you that it was a resounding success. Montez said, “It is a picture of which I am very proud,” while Aumont wrote in his autobiography that the film, “for some mysterious reason, didn’t fare too badly.” Um, I’m not sure that they saw the same movie as everyone else…
34. Her Films Flopped
Film producer Seymour Nebenzal invested almost two million into Siren of Atlantis and expected that the film would gross at least $3.5 million at the box office. Unfortunately, not every gamble can be a winning one. Despite having Montez’s name on the marquee, critics called Siren of Atlantis “a calamity from a financial standpoint.” The film was a huge flop. But Montez still wanted her payday.
35. She Wanted Her Checks Buttered
Maria Montez filed suit against the producer Seymour Nebenzal, claiming that he owed her tens of thousands of dollars over Siren of Atlantis. Montez had to jump on her magic carpet and fly all the way to the US to give evidence. Turns out, she was right and the court sided with her, saying that Nebenzal had to pay up as soon as he had the money.
Because Siren of Atlantis was a box office flop, Montez never collected the money Nebenzal owed her. And time was running out…
36. She Staged Another Flop
Trying to move on from the disaster that was Siren of Atlantis, Montez starred in plays written by her husband, Aumont. The plays flopped so the couple returned to the screen. The not so powerful power couple teamed up together again in the 1951 film, Revenge of the Pirates. On set, Montez and Aumont celebrated their eighth anniversary. Sadly, it would be their last.
37. She Was A Mystery
Part of Montez’s mystery came from the fact that no one knew her exact birthday…or birth year for that matter. Unofficially, Montez gave her birth year as 1918. Of course, the actress was actually born in 1912—but if you can pass for six years younger, all the power to you. Montez’s gravestone in France has the erroneous year of her birth etched into stone.
38. Her Work Lives On
Montez’s life career far too short. Thankfully, for swashbuckling, sword-swinging, sorcery-supporting, sandal-strapping film fans everywhere, Montez’s work outlived the actress herself…literally. The Thief of Venice premiered in the US more than a year after the actress’ tragic passing. And fans are still finding ways to celebrate her life…
39. She Inspired Others
Montez has become something of a camp classic icon. While she may not have clinched many—or any—acting awards in her career, she stole the hearts of millions. Millions who would steal her signature looks. The famous drag queen and frequent Andy Warhol collaborator, Mario Montez, styled his look and character after the Caribbean Cyclone.
40. She Was The Crowning Jewel
Throughout her epic—if short—career, Montez starred in some of Hollywood’s most iconic adventure films. Needless to say, she gave us more than a few memorable lines that any true cinephile would recognize instantaneously. 1944’s cult classic, Cobra Woman, was a formative and seminal film that saw Montez utter the famous line, “Geev me that cobra jewl.”
41. She Was Her Own Biggest Fan
Just like millions of her fans all over the world, Montez was also very fond of her films…and her exotic beauty. After watching her performance in Arabian Nights, the actress said, “When I look at myself, I am so beautiful I scream with joy!” I mean, can you really blame her? She was, after all, Queen of the Technicolor.
42. She Was Surrounded By Pirates
Montez would go on to star in a number of swashbuckling adventure films. Of course, the actress might have had some practical experience with life on the high seas. As a young girl, Montez attended the Sacred Heart Convent on the tiny island of Tenerife, which was a favorite raiding locale for Barbary pirates in the 17th century. Fortunately, she escaped the island before any black-sail ships came ashore.
43. She Was A Shock Jock
Long before the likes of Paris Hilton and Miley Cyrus did and said outlandish things to grab everyone’s attention, Montez was writing the script on headline-grabbing. In an interview, Montez said, “I used to say and do things to shock people. That was how I became famous.” But pretty soon, the headlines were grabbing Montez instead of the other way around.
44. Her Name Was Epic
Montez had a complicated name. Her actual name at birth wasn’t Maria Montez. Let’s just say that her real name was a bit of a mouthful. María Antonia García Vidal de Santo Silas. Some sources give her name as María África Antonia García Vidal de Santo Silas. Try to say that five times fast. I much prefer her second moniker anyway.
45. She Was A Stargazer
At the height of her career, the name “Maria Montez” became synonymous with tropical beauty and enticing mystery. But this wasn’t only because of her on-screen performances. In real life, Montez was a strong and passionate believer in astrology. SO when she received an ominous prediction from a famous Hollywood mystic, she took it seriously. Looking back, so would everyone else.
46. She Had A Date With Destiny
Montez believed in the supernatural forces of astrology—and they believed in her. When she visited the famed Hollywood astrologer Blanca Holmes, she heard an eerie prediction. Consulting her astrological charts, Holmes told Montez that her life would be short and that her demise would come suddenly. Spoiler: Holmes was right.
47. Her Fate Was Around the Corner…
Montez and Aumont filmed Revenge of the Pirates in Italy. You can think of it as their final honeymoon. When they returned to their home in France, Montez began complaining about mysterious pains in her chest. The prediction made by the astrologer, Madam Blanca Holmes, was about to come painfully and tragically true…
48. She Was Bathed In Destiny
While taking a hot bath, something terrible happened to Maria Montez. Perhaps it was the toll that her adventurous life had taken on her…or perhaps it was just fate. Soaking in the steam, the Queen of the Technicolor suffered a heart attack and tragically slipped beneath the water. In what could have been a scene in one her illustrious films, the exotic seductress drowned in the tub.
49. Her Discovery Was Tragic
The discovery of Montez’s lifeless body was just as tragic as the circumstances of her passing. Montez’s sisters found her with only her forehead bobbing above the water. They immediately called the medics who attempted to save her with artificial respiration. Sadly, their efforts were in vain. And someone now had to break the news to Aumont…
50. Her Husband Moved On
Aumont was on the set of another film when he learned what tragedy had befallen his enchanting wife. Despite the tumultuousness of their final years, Aumont clearly still loved Montez. The actor collapsed on set…and then sought comfort elsewhere. Aumont would go on to charm Grace Kelly before marrying fellow actress, Marisa Pavan, in 1956.