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
• 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