Dear Straight Dope:
In the pages of the infamous Hollywood tell-all Hollywood Babylon is the story of early film star Lupe Vélez. While Vélez was known as a fine performer, she is probably best remembered for how she died. Did she really commit suicide as described in the book - i.e., was she really found the next day face down in the toilet?
Jeremy Bridges, Brookhaven, Mississippi
Fortunately, I don’t have to bear the burden of being the first commentator to question the accuracy of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, a 1959 compendium of Tinseltown scandals recounted in florid prose that suggests tabloid journalism more than sober academia. Anger has been criticized for relying on rumor, hearsay, and innuendo rather than research, and his account of Lupe Vélez’s suicide doesn’t help his case.
Anger’s version of Vélez’s demise: Despondent that her lover, who’d gotten her pregnant, refused to leave his wife and marry her, she carefully arranged her bedchamber, left a suicide note, and took what was meant to be a lethal dose of barbiturates. But her stomach refused to cooperate – she rushed to the toilet and vomited, then passed out and drowned in the water.
Certainly there’s no dispute over the basic fact that Lupe Vélez, a popular Mexican film actress, did in fact commit suicide at age 36, and the precipitating factor was most likely her troubled affair with Harald Maresch, a married Austrian actor eight years her junior. It was a tragic end to a successful performing career.
Maria Guadalupe Vélez de Villalobos was born in the Mexican town of San Luis Potosí, probably in 1908, although there would be some dispute over her age later on. Her father, an army officer, and her mother, an opera singer, were dismayed by their child’s wild and defiant behavior, and at age 13 they enrolled her in a convent school in San Antonio, Texas, in an effort to curb her rebellious ways. This worked as well as one might expect, and by 15 Lupe had returned to Mexico, not noticeably calmer. She worked in a Mexico City department store and took singing and dancing lessons; at 16 she debuted as an ensemble dancer at the Teatro Principal.
Later that year, Vélez decided to cross the border again and try her luck in Hollywood. Her cause there was championed by the legendary writer and director Hal Roach; she got bit parts in several silent films Roach worked on.
Her breakout dramatic role came three years later, opposite Douglas Fairbanks in the silent feature The Gaucho, as a mountain girl saved from a deadly fall by divine intervention and subsequently gifted with healing powers. She transitioned to talkies easily, starring in D.W. Griffiths’ Lady of the Pavements in 1929. More than 20 films followed; Vélez had starring roles in most, opposite such luminaries as Jimmy Durante, Gary Cooper, Lon Chaney, and Edward G. Robinson. While she never achieved superstar status, she was certainly the most highly visible Mexican performer of the times.
Having shown a talent for laughs as well as drama, in 1939 she starred in a B-movie comedy called The Girl From Mexico. Favorable box office spurred a quick sequel called The Mexican Spitfire, and the role of Carmelita Lindsay, the title spitfire, became indelibly associated with Vélez; she would reprise it six more times in films including The Mexican Spitfire at Sea and The Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost. Articles about her from then on would almost invariably refer to her as the "Mexican Spitfire," a development she was reportedly lukewarm about at best.
While her career was going smoothly, the same could not be said of her personal life. She was said to have had torrid affairs with many of her costars, most notably Cooper. She married Tarzan portrayer and Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller in 1933, but the marriage lasted only five years and was reportedly rocky from the start. In 1944, the year of her death, she was seeing Harald Maresch, whom her suicide note would name as the father of her unborn child.
This is where we came in – the part with the downers and the commode. There are several problems with Anger’s story, starting with his failure to source it reliably enough for independent verification. The Los Angeles Examiner doesn’t mention anything about drowning in its coverage of her death, nor does the coroner’s report. True, a cynic raised on Chinatown or the works of James Ellroy might counter that someone might have had such embarrassing details excised from newspaper accounts, or even from official documents. But common sense suggests that if a person with her head in a toilet were to lose consciousness, the weight of her body slumping to the floor would most likely pull her head out of the bowl, not trap it inside.
So while anything is possible, Anger’s version of the death scene doesn’t seem particularly credible, and his clear delight throughout the book in passing along lurid tidbits makes it seem unlikely he’d let skepticism get in the way of a good anecdote. But, like H.L. Mencken’s story of Millard Fillmore and the White House bathtub, the yarn about Vélez and the toilet gained enough traction long ago that it’s credulously reported as fact by many sources today. The unadorned truth, however, is sufficiently dramatic: a beautiful, talented 36-year-old pregnant woman was so overcome with despair that she chose to end her own life.
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