María Guadalupe Villalobos Vélez was born on July 18, 1908 in San Luis Potosí, Mexico to Jacobo Villalobos Reyes and Josefina Vélez. Her mother was an opera singer and her father was a colonel in the armed forces.
When Lupe was 13, she went to San Antonio, Texas to study at Our Lady of the Lake. It was there that she learned English and began taking dance lessons. Lupe would later admit that she enjoyed and was good at dance, but was a poor student otherwise.
When the Mexican Revolution broke out in 1910, Lupe returned to Mexico and worked in a department store to help support her family while her father was away fighting.
Her father returned from the war to discover that his daughter was a stage performer. He did not approve.
She performed in revues and in vaudeville for several Mexican theatre companies before being invited to Los Angeles to appear as a cantina singer in a play directed by Richard Bennett.
When she arrived in Los Angeles, Richard felt that she was too young for the role and gave the part to someone else.
She was offered a screen test for MGM and was hired for the Laurel and Hardy short film Sailor’s Beware!
Her first major film was The Gaucho with Douglas Fairbanks.
She made films with other major stars of the day including Gary Cooper.
Despite her heavy accent, she made the transition from silent film to “talkies” almost seamlessly. In her first talking film, she shared the screen with Rin-Tin-Tin.
Between films she often appeared on Broadway in New York City, New York. In 1938, she made her first film in Mexico.
Back in the United States, she began making the Spitfire films. There were 8 total. The films played on the real-life perception of Lupe that she was wild and bawdy. The media called her The Mexican Spitfire.
She continued acting in the United States and Mexico in film and on stage until her death in 1944.
She spent many Friday nights attending boxing matches where she sat ringside screaming at the boxers. She was wild at parties, as well, often proving that she didn’t wear underwear as she danced around twirling her skirt above her head.
As wild as she was in public, she was equally untamed and violent in private.
While dating actor Gary Cooper, he would often appear in public with scratches and bruises. One time, she attacked him with a knife during a fight. He needed stitches.
The violence didn’t end when the relationship did. By the end of their time together, Gary had lost 45 pounds and was physically exhausted. He was ordered by the movie studio to take a vacation. As he boarded a train, Lupe shot at Gary but missed. He escaped unharmed. Lupe was never arrested or punished for this.
Despite their tumultuous relationship, later, during her marriage to Johnny Weissmuller, Lupe would often seek refuge from their fights at Gary’s home.
Lupe filed for divorce from Johnny 3 times in 5 years. The couple was married in 1933 and their divorce was finalized in August 1939.
Lupe was not only territorial of the men in her life, she was also vicious toward any woman who might be competition for a man or an acting role. At parties and backstage, she would mock those that “threatened her.” Some of her targets included Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn and Shirley Temple.
In 1944, Lupe began dating a little known actor named Harald Ramond. In September, she discovered that she was pregnant. After a heated argument, Harald agreed to marry her, but only so that the child would not be born out of wedlock.
In December, Lupe told the media that she had called off her engagement to Harald and that he was no longer living in her home.
On December 13, Lupe went to dinner with two friends and the trio partied until early the next morning.
Later, when her secretary arrived for work, she found Lupe dead in her bed.
Lupe had consumed more than 50 Seconal pills. Seconal is a sedative used to treat epilepsy and migraine. She left a suicide note addressed to Harald.
One side of the slip of paper 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.—Lupe.
The other side 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.
Shortly after her death, Harald moved to Europe.
A funeral for Lupe was held in Los Angeles on December 22. Another was held in Mexico City on December 27.
There was much speculation and rumor surrounding Lupe’s death. Some attributed her suicide to untreated mental illness. Others questioned why she could behave the way that she did, but still feel that she would rather die than bring a child into the world out of wedlock.
Some friends said that she had, in fact, considered having an abortion. Others said that she had tried to trick Harald into marrying her because she was carrying Gary’s child and he was married.
The most outlandish rumor was printed in the book Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger. He claimed that Lupe had decorated her bedroom with flowers and candles in order to be found in picture-perfect surroundings the next day, but the pills upset her stomach and Lupe made a dash for the bathroom. Kenneth said she slipped in the bathroom, hit her head on the toilet and drowned in the bowl.
Despite the fact that there is no documentation to prove this and the death certificate states that she died due to Seconal overdose, people have told and retold this story since the late 1950s. It has been referenced on television shows such as Frazier and The Simpsons.
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