The Collector’s Life: The Mexican Spitfire – Lupe Velez and Hollywood’s Ultimate Indignity


Lupe in East Is West (1930)
Lupe in East Is West (1930)

 

Amidst the sunshine and palm trees of Beverly Hills are deep shadows, some of which have lingered for a very long time. Where North Rodeo Drive intersects with Sunset Boulevard is the garish confection known as the Beverly Hills Hotel. Opened in 1912, it has hosted just about every Hollywood celebrity since the silent film era; the only reason more scandals and tragedies associated with the Pink Palace aren’t better known is the cone of silence maintained by management, an institutionalised gossip vacuum which has snapped a lid tighter than Tupperware down on its influential and highly-valued guests.

Guided tours of the immediate area point out the public park just across the road where pop star George Michael indiscreetly answered a very different call of nature in 1998 into the arms of a waiting policeman; the house of Linden Drive where, in 1947, gangster Bugsy Siegel was gunned down in the lounge room of his girlfriend’s home; the cosy suburban cottage where another hard man, mob enforcer Johnny Stompanato (who, coincidentally, worked for Mickey Cohen, the man who took over Siegel’s operations) was stabbed to death by fourteen-year-old Cheryl Crane, daughter of actress Lana Turner in 1958.

And within walking distance from all of these is a location on North Rodeo, now much changed, where, on a chilly evening a few weeks before Christmas 1944, a beautiful and talented thirty-six-year-old actress decided she’d had enough. Dressed in blue silk pajamas, she retired to bed with a nightcap of 80 Seconals and a glass of brandy, and was ushered into that strange, dark and enduring kind of immortality that only Hollywood can generate.

I came to know Lupe Velez not through her movies, many of which I’ve since had the privilege to discover, but from a collection of vintage publicity photos. I’ve been collecting such items since the mid-1970s but it’s not been until on-line auction sites like eBay opened up the market that the truly choice stuff has become readily available, especially to someone as far removed as Australia.

Lupe in an MGM publicity shot circa 1931
Lupe in an MGM publicity shot circa 1931

On visits to Los Angeles, my first stop would generally be my favourite showbiz bookstore, Larry Edmunds (founded by Larry himself in 1938; in true Hollywood underbelly fashion, he exited life with his head in a gas oven just three years later. The store, however, continued under his name). On Hollywood Boulevard, a few blocks from the corner of Vine, it holds somewhere around 500,000 photos, 6,000 movie posters and 20,000 movie and theatre books.

It’s in a part of Hollywood that’s ground zero for any serious movie fan, with a heritage that stretches back to the very earliest days of orange groves and nitrate stock. Within a few minutes’ walk is the restored 1923 Egyptian Theatre, now operated by the American Cinematheque as one of its LA revival houses (the other being the Aero in Santa Monica); the Musso & Frank Grill, opened in 1919, where such writers as Raymond Chandler and F. Scott Fitzgerald were regulars and where I dined on one visit with cult 70s director, Monte Hellman; Boardner’s, a classic 1940 cocktail bar that has changed little since Robert Mitchum and Ed Wood (possibly wearing a fetching angora sweater and pearls; no jaunty scarf) would knock back shots (it’s so unashamedly dowdy and original, it was used in LA Confidential without very little set dressing needed); and Micelli’s, dating back to 1949 with the best spaghetti and meatballs around.

Larry Edmunds was always good for movie stills, even if they were modern restrikes. Later, on eBay, I would uncover a couple of reputable sellers of wonderful vintage photos at ridiculously good prices (see my earlier blog –  https://davidlatta.org/2013/09/19/the-collectors-life-lester-glassner-and-the-nobility-of-the-continuum/ ).

Hence, like Pete Seeger, we turn, turn, return to Lupe Velez. As I mentioned, I didn’t know a lot about her when I bought these photos but they were so beautiful and the prices so very right I couldn’t resist.

With E. Alyn Warren in East Is West (1930)
With E. Alyn Warren in East Is West (1930)

What I did know was from recent rescreenings of her Mexican Spitfire series on late-night television. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

María Guadalupe Villalobos Vélez was born in San Luis Potosi, in north-central Mexico, in 1908. She was dancer who came to the United States to further a show business career. She was young, beautiful and extremely exotic, qualities that worked in her favour when she was asked to do a screen test for MGM.

Although that didn’t pan out, she was hired by Hal Roach for a Laurel & Hardy comedy, Sailor Beware (1927). With a vivacious and comedically combative nature, Lupe’s star rose quickly and by the time silent film was being supplanted by sound, she was a leading lady. In the pre-Code years, she became even more popular. This was despite Hollywood producers not displaying an overly evolved vision of her possibilities; her Latin heritage and accent had her playing largely ethnic roles although on occasion they veered towards the ridiculous (Russian, American Indian, even Asian; in East Is West (1930), she played Chinese as did that other well-known ethnic actor, Edward G. Robertson).

While she handled drama well, and she could sing and dance with the best of them, she really shone in comedy, gleefully overplaying her Mexican heritage into something of a caricature. Fiery and argumentative with a motor mouth capable of paralysingly-funny malapropisms (“You’ve been trifling with my afflictions,” she angrily informs one unsuitable suitor), the peak of her comedy was undoubtedly the Mexican Spitfire series produced by RKO in the 1940s.

East Is West (1930)
East Is West (1930)

From the early efforts, The Girl From Mexico (1939) and its sequel, The Mexican Spitfire (1940), the series encompassed eight movies and, although largely featuring the same plots, are great fun. It’s interesting to compare Lupe with Sofia Vergara of television’s Modern Family and trace the lineage of kooky, Spanglish-challenged south-of-the-border media portrayals through the decades, from Lupe via Carmen Miranda and Charro to the present day. Some things, it seems, never change.

It’s difficult to know just how close Lupe’s on-screen character was to her own but some clues lie in her often stormy relationships. She was romantically linked with many men including silent movie star John Gilbert. She married Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympic gold medal swimming champion and on-screen Tarzan (who, legend has it, a Hollywood executive discovered by the swimming pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel) in 1933. Lupe and Johnny were a volatile combination. They divorced in 1939.

However, Lupe’s great love was Gary Cooper, who she met on the set of the 1929 silent movie, The Wolf Song. Again, it was a relationship that proved rocky, prone to violent arguments and physical confrontations; when Cooper had an affair with Marlene Dietrich on the set of Morocco (1930), Lupe famously threatened murder and most probably would have if the mood had seriously taken her.

Despite her best intentions, it seemed Lupe’s temper as much as her temperament drove any chance of love and happiness from her. She made another bad choice with married Austrian actor, Harald Maresch. In 1944, she found herself pregnant and alone and in December took the fatal overdose that also claimed the life of her unborn child.

With tiger cubs, promoting Kongo (1932)
With tiger cubs, promoting Kongo (1932)

It’s barely worth mentioning Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon and his treatment of this sad episode but it’s there if anyone cares to look.

Whether she meant to end it all, had had enough and wanted the pain to stop or if it was a cry for help that went unanswered, we’ll never know. There are some who suggest that, today, Lupe would be diagnosed bipolar.

What is possible is that Lupe Velez, in modern times largely forgotten (aside from Kenneth Anger’s sordid Grand Guignol spin on her passing), is well on the way to being rediscovered. Australian author Michelle Vogel’s Lupe Velez: The Life and Films of Hollywood’s “Mexican Spitfire” was published in 2012. The film rights have been optioned and a biopic is planned, produced by and starring Ana de la Reguera (Cowboys and Aliens).

In the meantime, enjoy these wonderful old photos of Lupe and seek out her films. I’m sure you’ll agree she was remarkable and certainly didn’t deserve what happened to her – during her life and after.

Words © David Latta

Photographs from the author’s own collection

Nancy Wake – Bravery, Bullets and Bouillabaisse


Years ago, I worked as a wine steward in the dining room of a Milsons Point club, virtually within the shadow of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. With big windows that looked out across Lavender Bay to the Harbour, it was a popular place with locals and visitors alike. Brett Whiteley lived in one of the old houses just across the road and some of his most famous paintings took in these same views.

Amongst my regular customers was a lovely old couple I knew as the Forwards; John Forward and his wife Nancy. She looked like a grandmother from Central Casting, he a little like Jimmy Edwards. They loved good food, lots of wine and stimulating conversation; they were often the last to leave and Nancy’s booming laugh bounced off the walls like cannon fire. I served John and Nancy regularly and we became fast friends.

One day, they asked me to organise the bar for a function at a house on the Upper North Shore. When I arrived, the place was packed. Most of the guests were French and, intriguingly, they were treating Nancy like she was one step down from God. I soon found out why. The occasion was to celebrate the release of Nancy’s autobiography and my vivacious, larger-than-life club regular turned out to be Nancy Wake, war-time heroine, member of the French Resistance and scourge of the Nazis.

Russell Braddon had written a biography about her in the mid-1950s but she was virtually unknown in Australia despite being one of the most highly-decorated women of World War II. The French had awarded her three Croix de guerre as well as making her a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, the British the George Medal and the United States the Medal of Freedom.

Nancy was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1912 but settled in Sydney with her family at an early age. By her early 20s, she was living in Paris and working as a journalist for the Hearst press. She travelled widely through Europe and saw first-hand the spread of Nazi ideology; she was horrified by the treatment of Jewish residents in Berlin and Vienna.

In 1939, she married French businessman Henri Fiocca and settled in Marseille, where she lived the privileged life of a socialite. With the fall of Paris in 1940, France was split into two zones – the Occupied Zone and the so-called Free Zone in the south governed by a collaborationist regime based in Vichy.

She made friends with many of the Allied POWs who were interned at the harbour-front Fort Saint-Jean and, before long, was acting as a courier and assisting in the organisation of escape routes. She came to the attention of MI9, a department of British military intelligence devoted to assisting prisoners of war. During this time, she helped more than 1,000 Allied personnel escape France.

By late 1942, the entire country was controlled by the Nazis, who were actively seeking a mysterious dark-haired operative of the French Resistance, nicknamed the White Mouse for an almost superhuman ability to escape detection.

By early 1943, however, such extensive resources were being put into capturing the White Mouse that Henri persuaded Nancy it was time to leave France. Although she was arrested on her way to Spain, she managed to escape and made it to London.

What she didn’t know until after the war was that Henri had been arrested by the Gestapo but refused to give away her secrets. He was executed later that year.

Nancy initially attempted to join the Free French Movement under General Charles de Gaulle but instead was recruited by the super-secret Special Operations Executive (SOE) which had been formed by Winston Churchill to finance, equip and train Resistance forces in Europe.

She was a member of F Section under famed spymaster Colonel Maurice Buckmaster. Trained in such necessary skills as unarmed combat, silent killing and how to make explosives from common kitchen ingredients, she was parachuted back into France in February 1944. It was her exploits during this period that grew more legendary with each retelling. The truth, she maintained, was more than enough. “I’ve read articles where I led 8,000 men into battle, just like bloody Joan of Arc,” she told me with a hearty laugh.

She was trained to kill and kill she did, with no hesitation or remorse. In one instance, she threw a grenade into a dining room full of Gestapo officers. She organised the supply and equipping of Resistance forces and was often at the forefront of battles with German troops. While she was dedicated and resourceful, she also exercised a fierce sense of humour that earned her enormous respect among the men she led. That she was a women and a foreigner made that regard even more remarkable.

When the Germans were routed from France, and her own war was at an end, she returned to Marseille and discovered the heart-breaking truth about her beloved Henri. As a small measure of comfort, she was reunited with Picon, the wire-haired terrier she’d adopted when she first arrived in Paris.

Nancy eventually returned to Australia and married John Forward, a retired RAF bomber pilot and settled in Sydney. By the time I met her, her fame had receded into an obscure historical cul-de-sac; she was simply Nancy, the hearty, earthy woman who loved a big glass of wine, making jokes at her own expense, and cooking up huge batches of rich saffron-tinged bouillabaisse for her friends.

I knew her for a few more years before she and John moved to Port Macquarie and we lost touch. After John’s death in 1997, she relocated to London where she lived at the Star and Garter Home for ex-servicemen and women. Her death, at the age of 98, on 7 August 2011, closed the final chapter on a remarkable life.

Her story was told by Russell Braddon in 1956, by Nancy herself in 1985, and by Peter FitzSimons in 2001. A television mini-series, based on Braddon’s book, and starring Noni Hazlehurst as Nancy, appeared in 1987. Upcoming is a planned biopic to be directed by Bruce Beresford.

The things you enjoy today are often the result of the influence of others. When I heard of Nancy’s death, I made up a Pernod just the way she first showed me, a generous shot in a tall glass with a full measure of ice and water. As I sipped, I reflected on the stories she told in her self-deprecating but forthright way. And I thought, I bet she’s sought out Hitler in some corner of the afterlife and is devoting a fair proportion of eternity telling him just what she thinks of him.

They don’t make dames like that anymore.

Words  © David Latta