New Book on Lupe Velez Debunks the Myths of “Hollywood Babylon”

Ask the average person about Lupe Vélez and you’ll probably be met with a blank stare. But query those same folks as to whether or not they’ve heard of the classic film star who “drowned in the toilet,” and they’ll likely perk up with smirking recognition.

We have Kenneth Anger’s book Hollywood Babylon to thank for that.

Of course, there are other (perhaps unwitting) accomplices: The Simpsons, wherein guest John Waters joked about the store where Vélez bought her toilet in the 1997 episode Homer’s Phobia; Frasier, in which Lupe is said to have been “last seen with her head in the toilet” in the 1993 pilot; and Andy Warhol, whose 1966 film LUPE depicts the popular Mexican actress facedown in a toilet, dead.

But the apocryphal story of the tragic demise of Lupe Vélez, who took her own life with a barbiturate overdose in 1944 at the age of 36, originated with Kenneth Anger, an avant-garde filmmaker and “former child movie actor” who penned the frequently spurious expose of Tinseltown’s “darkest and best kept secrets” in 1959.

And now, thanks to a new book on Vélez, we can finally lay to rest the most pernicious of these myths.

Born Kenneth Anglemeyer in Santa Monica, California in 1927, Anger grew up around child stars like Shirley Temple, with whom he shared a dance at the Santa Monica Cotillon. He claimed to have been cast in an uncredited role in William Dieterle and Max Reinhardt’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM in 1935, an allegation which has since been disproved by Warner Bros. casting records. Following an arrest on obscenity charges for making a gay-themed short film, Anger moved to Paris in 1950. It was there, in an effort to raise some quick cash to finance his filmmaking, that he wrote the book that would make him – and Lupe Vélez – infamous.

Hollywood Babylon was first published in France by Jean-Jacques Pauvert and made its way to the United States in 1965, courtesy of Phoenix-based Associated Professional Services, in a pulpy, 95-cent paperback sold mostly at newsstands.  This picture-heavy edition was quickly recalled, owing to issues of copyright infringement and libel concerns. The tell-all was officially re-issued in 1975 by Rolling Stone’s Straight Arrow Press, and hasn’t gone out of print since. This is ironic, considering that much of the all that Anger tells has been debunked and attributed, by the author himself, to research methods that include “mental telepathy.”

There’s a lot to hate about Hollywood Babylon. Say you’d like to see a picture of actor Lewis Stone, Mickey Rooney’s dad in the Andy Hardy movies, lying dead in his driveway after a 1953 heart attack, his right hand clutched to his chest. Anger’s your man. How about a corpse shot of Marilyn Monroe? Or Ramon Navarro in a bodybag? Or Jayne Mansfield under a sheet next to her wrecked car? Look no further. Even Mansfield’s deceased dog makes a posthumous appearance.

Good taste aside, these people (and their pooches) did actually die; there is no false reporting implicit in publishing images of their no-longer-living remains. But what Anger wrote about Lupe Vélez, who got her start in the late silent era and went on to star in RKO’s popular Mexican Spitfire series (1939-1943), is particularly irksome, because it is both untrue and has become accepted fact.

Writing in a sloppily snarky style that would make Perez Hilton wince, Anger condemns Lupe as an amoral “cunt-flashing Hollywood party girl,” paying for sex after her aging star had faded (at 36!) and she had been cast off by the likes of Gary Cooper (her lover, 1929-1931) and Johnny Weissmuller (her husband, 1933-1938). He also insists that the “mortgage was overdue” on her “prison-mansion” in Beverly Hills and that she was “now completely zonked by debt,” a member of the “World-Owes-Me-Everything Elite.”

Anger, who once described his political leanings as being “somewhat to the right of the KKK,” demeans her using the most sophomoric of racial slurs, like “Chile con Lupe,” with frequent insertion of Spanish phrases, mockingly capitalized words, and snide cracks about her Catholicism for comical impact. Because there’s nothing funnier than a troubled woman who kills herself when she’s pregnant.

He also states (correctly) that the father was Harald Ramond, whom he describes as a “gigolo” who was “hung.” Anger suggests that Ramond had no interest in marrying the actress, and had suggested calling “Doctor Killkare (the joke name for Hollywood’s leading abortionist).” He then describes, in purple prose, the scene on the fateful morning after Lupe’s death:

“When Juanita, the chambermaid, had opened the bedroom door at nine, the morning after the suicide, no Lupe was in sight. The bed was empty. The aroma of scented candles, the fragrance of tuberoses almost, but not quite, masked a stench recalling that left by Skid-Row derelicts. Juanita traced the vomit trail from the bed, followed the spotty track over to the orchid-tiled bathroom. There she found her mistress, Senorita Velez, head jammed down in the toilet bowl, drowned.”

And so the story remained, for more than half a century. Until Michelle Vogel decided to do something about it.

In her new book Lupe Vélez: The Life and Career of Hollywood’s Mexican Spitfire, Vogel debunks the falsehoods propagated by Anger, most particularly, the exact location of Lupe’s death.

“The truth?” Vogel writes. “Lupe Velez died in her bed, as she intended. She was 36 years-old, unmarried and about to become a mother. She was successful, beautiful, kind, talented, funny, a little bit crazy (by her own admission), and on December 14, 1944, she was dead by her own hand…Every ounce of the truth was tragic. No salacious embellishment needed.”

Vogel quotes Clinton H. Anderson, chief of the Beverly Hills Police Department, who was first on the scene at 732 North Rodeo Drive that morning: “We found her dead in bed in her home,” Anderson wrote in his own memoir, Beverly Hills is My Beat, published in 1960. “I believe Lupe thought her act would bring her faithless lover back, but she miscalculated the amount of sleeping pills.”

As Vogel suggests, if Anderson agreed to whitewash the facts at the time to protect Lupe’s reputation, no such promise would prevent him from revealing the truth 16 years later, particularly when he had a book to sell. In addition, Vogel dispels the notion that Lupe could have gotten up and gone into the bathroom with 75 doses of Seconal in her system.

“For the amount of pills that Lupe took, and taking into account her petite frame, any mobility…would have been virtually impossible. If she did vomit…she would have vomited in her bed,” she writes. “And there’s no documentation that states her bed was soiled.”

Vogel goes on quote E.J. Fleming, author of a book on actress Carole Landis, who also died of a Seconal overdose: “Seconal is extremely fast-acting, even in small doses…An overdose will produce a quick and profound impairment followed by unconsciousness, coma and death.” Landis was almost six inches taller and approximately twenty pounds heavier than Lupe, and collapsed and died after taking 30-50 pills  – far fewer than Lupe.

For good measure, Vogel also disputes other aspects of Anger’s reporting.

Regarding Lupe’s finances, the actress was paid $1,500 per week by RKO for the Mexican Spitfire films (approximately $24,000 in today’s dollars) for four years, and that work continued until the year before her death – hardly the income of someone who couldn’t make her mortgage. Lupe also made other films at RKO during that period, and a movie in Mexico after the final Spitfire installment. This was an actress who was at the top of her earning potential.

In addition, the father of Lupe’s unborn child, Harald Ramond, was not a “gigolo” but rather a former med student who had studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and fled his native Austria during the War. At the time of her death, Ramond was working at Warner Bros. dubbing French dialogue at a rate of $600 per week (approximately $7,300 in today’s dollars) – not the type of wages that would inspire one to pursue a career in prostitution.

The author also sets the record straight on Ramond’s intentions toward Lupe.

“Lupe and Ramond had known each other for more than a year and were steadily together for at least six months prior to her death,” Vogel reports. Following her passing, Ramond described Lupe as “the first real love in my life” to a San Antonio newspaper, adding, “I…wanted to marry her. We just couldn’t agree on a date.”

Whether Ramond was speaking the truth or revising history is unknown, but these are not the words of someone who, as Anger suggests, had taken the news of his impending fatherhood “with a get-lost look” and a “so-what shrug.” Clearly there was serious miscommunication between the couple, and Lupe’s generally unbalanced psychological state (film historian Kevin Brownlow suggests she was bi-polar in the foreword to Vogel’s book) combined with possible hormonal imbalance during pregnancy, clearly led her to act with tragic impulsivity.

Ironically, in the final scene of her last American film, MEXICAN SPITFIRE’S BLESSED EVENT (1943), the doctor announces that Lupe’s character, Carmelita Lindsay, and her husband Dennis (Walter Reed) are expecting a baby. The last time we see her, Lupe smiles broadly and embraces her husband, and the two walk off into the sunset.

If only life had imitated art.

For more information on the Mexican Spitfire films, read my review here

Sources:

• Anger, Kenneth Hollywood Babylon. Dell Publishing. December, 1981.

• Vogel, Michelle Lupe Vélez: The Life and Career of Hollywood’s Mexican Spitfire. McFarland and Company, Inc. 2012

Mexican Spitfire: The Complete 8-Movie Collection. DVD. The Warner Archive Collection

This post is my proud contribution to the What A Character Blogathon, sponsored by Paula, Kellee and Aurora

About willmckinley

Will McKinley is a New York City-based writer, producer and classic film and TV obsessive. He’s been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by host Robert Osborne), Sirius Satellite Radio and the official TCM podcast. Will has written for PBS and his byline has appeared more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News.
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27 Responses to New Book on Lupe Velez Debunks the Myths of “Hollywood Babylon”

  1. kelleepratt says:

    What a heart-breaking story of such a talented, beautiful woman who otherwise lived a success story before her demise. This Anger fella- what a piece of work! Seems appropriate he should change his name to such a fitting hateful emotion that he spews. I remember seeing him interviewed briefly and he came across as such a slimeball when he discussed the relationship between Cary Grant and Randolph Scott. The suicidal impulse that some women go through of extreme hormonal imbalance, in certain cases during and after pregnancies, is tragically true. My daughter’s popular and otherwise very sunny HS counselor suffered from it via post-partum depression and took her life earlier this year by purposefully placing her vehicle on the rail road tracks near my daughter’s Dad’s house. Very sad to lose this talented Mexican spitfire much too soon. Great write-up, as always, Mr. McKinley!!

  2. Aurora says:

    WHAT A POST, Will! Wonderful albeit on the tragic story of one whose name should be remembered. Thanks so much for writing on Lupe, someone I admit I knew nothing about even, luckily for me, the disgusting lies by Anger whose name fits the kind of life he lived as one can only assume given he made a living with such tripe.

    Aurora

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks Aurora. That book is generally gross, but I still recommend you read it. It’s fascinating, if you are prepared to take EVERYTHING with a grain of salt. It’s also jam packed with pictures (not just dead body pics) I’d hate to think we’re giving more residuals to Anger, so maybe I can lend you my copy some time.

      • Aurora says:

        I actually saw it for really cheap as an ebook and considered downloading onto iPad. I tell you, though, I have a problem with gossip in general b/c I’d rather read stuff that’s close to truth. If you recommend I may download then.

  3. Great writing, Will. And a tragic Hollywood story I was not as familiar with.

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks Kris. The danger in promoting the rebuttal is you promote the original lie. But I hope this book will set the record straight for a few people who didn’t know the truth.

  4. Le says:

    Oh, Will, unfortunately many people know Lupe more for her death. It’s nice to know that the new book gives a more precise account of her death conditions and contributes to destroy the horrible myth that was built. I hope more people become aware of this new book!
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Greetings!

  5. Like you say, there’s much to dislike about Anger and his fantasizing. Velez was a talented and funny actress and her death is horribly sad. It’s should not be a subject for salacious lies.Thanks for posting this.

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks. I think the thing that bothered me most, even more than inventing a salacious story about her death, was Anger’s systematic effort to destroy her character, to make the reader feel comfortable disliking her, or laughing at her tragic story. That’s the worst, most disingenuous form of populism – make up lies about the powerful so that the masses can revel in their downfall. Truly despicable stuff.

  6. tonyarice says:

    Will, thank you for helping to set the record straight about Lupe. Vogel was just as angered and I’m glad she sought to get the truth. Such nerve of Anger! Her loss was tragic and sad and her memory deserves to be cherished. I can’t even imagine what her family endured as these lies spread. Lupe was so cute and boy is she a load of fun to watch. Great post, Will, and definitely full of heart!!

  7. kevynknox says:

    What a great write-up on a great and tragic star of yesteryear. Lupe has always been a favourite of mine and it is good to see the story finally set straight. Now I must get this book.

  8. Paula says:

    I had never heard the lie about her death, so I am correctly informed from the beginning…I lead a sheltered existence I guess. Plus, I can’t stand Frasier. I won’t lie, I’ve only seen her in HOLLYWOOD PARTY (1934) but I can’t help but think how sad it is that she died so young.

  9. Hey Will, first off–fantastic Lupe article. It’s rare that a post will get me digging for more information, but that’s what you inspired me to do in the aftermath of this one. What initially made me curious was what you said about Lupe’s finances. Indeed $1,500 per week is nice pay for the early 40’s, but at the same time the first thing I thought was “Bob Hope tax bracket.” Sure enough 1944-45 were the roughest years for the super-rich with the top bracket paying a 94% income tax rate!

    When we talked on Twitter earlier I’d mentioned seeing in the period newspapers A) tons of photos of Lupe’s death bed and zero mention of any toilets, and B) that she left an estate of $250,000, backing up what you said about her finances (I initially supposed). At your invitation I went back to the old paper stacks tonight (well, NewspaperArchive.com actually) and dug around for more info about Lupe’s estate. I’m no estate lawyer, so I’m not positive how this works, but in the end I’m not so sure how either cash-poor or cash-rich she was when she died.

    Lupe split her $250,000 estate three ways: A third to her mother; a third to her brother’s children; and a third to her secretary, Beulah Kinder. Her sister, Mrs. Josefina Anderson disputed the will and put in a claim for $25k for herself. A July 12, 1945 AP report adds some color and ugly details reporting that Anderson claimed Lupe made a secret pact with her to pose as the mother of Lupe’s child for a year after it was born. Anderson said Lupe was to pay her $20k for purchase of a home and an additional $5k/year to care for the child. The same report says Anderson filed a creditor’s claim for $20,900 “declaring that she saved the estate double that amount by preventing her sister’s burial in a $12,000 bronze casket together with a $16,000 ring and a $15,000 ermine cape.”

    April 5, 1945 the AP reports that Anderson settled out of court for $3870 (against claim of $45,900–I guess she went for EVERYTHING mentioned above, the $25k from the secret pact plus the $20,900 she claimed to save in expenses).

    As to why I’m left unsure how much cash Lupe had on hand (altering our earlier Twitter conversation a little), it appears that most of that $250,000 estate was recovered through auction. Admission was by invitation only and cost a $20 deposit per bidder to keep the morbidly curious away.

    A June 24,1945 INS news agency report states that auction receipts topped $100,000 with items sold including furs, jewelry, household furnishing, etc. Some items were pulled back because bids were low, but many sold for double estimates. United Press reported June 21 that the hammer fell on Lupe’s $60,000 home as well, but didn’t name the specific price or state whether it was included in the aforementioned $100k in sold goods. A July 22 U.P. report said that all that remained to be sold of the $250,000 estate were two valuable oil paintings.

    So assuming her possessions were auctioned off for a total of $100,000 I’m left to wonder if Lupe left $100k, $250k, or even $350k (250+100) in the end. Unlike my initial suspicions I’m not sure if Lupe Velez had a good amount of ready cash or just the jewels and other fabulous trinkets that it bought over the years. Does the Vogel book speak clearly on this?

    Sorry for the lengthy comment … but you asked for it!

  10. Great post. It’s too bad that the Hollywood Babylon book skewed the facts (and so egregiously!) in order to sensationalize the demise of Lupe Velez. Although I have ill feelings about this book now that you’ve shed a bright light on it, I do like the cover photo!

    I love the photo of her standing next to the guy holding the ‘Alibi Club’ sign. She looks so young and beautiful. Do you know who the man is in that photo?

    Thanks for the write-up on Ms. Velez and for dispelling the myth about her death.

  11. Kari says:

    Oh i think we all know where Mr. Anger can stick it. My morbid fascination led me to HB, but my knowledge of old hollywood led me to immediately call bullshit. Sad that our judgmental culture led her to suicide, but glad it’s finally been corrected by Vogel. Has there been a “the true hollywood babylon” of some sort to debunk Anger? Maybe that should be a blogathon topic, ha.

  12. It’s so nice to see the record set straight on Lupe, who always seemed to me to be a sweet, funny soul under the flash.

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  15. Lee Harris says:

    Kenneth Anger was in Lupe’s house the morning after her body was discovered. He lived one block away. His connection to this case and many others is direct.

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  17. Thanks for nice piece, written with truth and kindness. Is that the same Anger who had the Rolling Stones believing he was a Satanist for an album or two? The guy is a classic blowhard parasite.

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