Maria Felix: The Fantasy of the World
By James Tipton
November 2006 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 23, Number 3

     “Many feminine images have ignited the fantasy of the Mexicans. But the myth of María Felix is different—such a woman —with the audacity to defy the ideas machos have constructed of what a woman should be...she disperses the clouds, or illuminates them with the lightning flash of her gaze.”
—Octavio Paz, Mexico’s Nobel Prize-winning poet

     María Félix reigned as queen of Mexican cinema during its Golden Age. For more than thirty years she was the Goddess, not only in Mexico but over all of Latin America. María de los Angeles Félix Güereña was born April 8, 1914, during the Mexican Revolution, on a ranch in Alamos, Sonora. When she was ten the family moved to Guadalajara, where a few years later, while at the university, she experienced the taste of things to come when she was chosen Queen of the Carnival. After her university years, she moved to Mexico City, and there, working for a plastic surgeon, her beauty was again recognized as she put it to use to attract clients.
    While the young María was strolling down Palma Street in the capital, she was seen by rising film director Fernando Palacios. He introduced himself and persuaded her to become the female lead in El Peñón de las Animas...The Rock of the Spirits (1942). Furthermore, she was to play opposite the most popular actor of the day, Jorge Negrete, whom years later she married. This film was based loosely on the ever-popular themes in Romeo and Juliet. Immediately María Félix became a star.
    It was in her third film, Doña Bárbara (1943), though, that María really established her image: a strong, voluptuous, intelligent, articulate, and confident woman, easily the equal of any man. Doña Bárbara, brutally raped as a young girl, seeks revenge by accumulating property and running a ranch alone, wearing men’s clothing and also practicing witchcraft.
    To the end of her acting career María frequently accepted roles built around this image. In 1943 she made Mujer Sin Alma (A Woman Without Soul), about a woman of strength in Mexico City who seeks personal power and who gets it by lying. As the Doña Bárbara image developed, her adoring public began calling her “La Doña.” As Paco Ignacio Taibo writes in his 1985 biography, La Doña: “This was the appearance of a personality who had nothing to do with the rest of Mexican cinema. She had a lofty bearing that stood in complete contrast to the traditionally submissive Mexican actress.”
    Enamorada was the first film she made with director Emilio Fernandez. It is a fine romantic comedy. A young general, during the Revolution, captures the old conservative town of Cholula near Mexico City and then proceeds to humiliate all those of noble blood who live in Cholula, including the wealthy father of a beautiful young woman. The general, played by Pedro Armendáriz, of course falls hopelessly in love with the aristocratic beauty as she devises ways in turn to humiliate him.
    Enamorada won for María Félix her first Ariel Award, the Mexican Oscar. She won a second Ariel for Rio Escondido (1948), which was also directed by Emilio Fernandez. Carlos López Moctezuma playing the villain in that film also won for Best Actor. In this film about social justice, a young teacher, played by María, arrives in Ciudad Juarez, where she has been secretly sent by the President of Mexico to investigate corruption in the bureaucracy. She teaches the long-suffering people how to oppose the evil mayor. She won her third Ariel Award for Doña Diabla (1951) directed by Tito Davison.
    While a young Marilyn Monroe (to whom María Félix was sometimes inaccurately compared) was posing nude for the first, shall we say seminal, issue of Playboy in December 1953, María Félix was still reluctant to display on screen the body that so much of the world wanted to see. By the mid-50s her attitude softened, and now she began to accept roles with major erotic content.
    She appeared only once on screen with Mexico’s other goddess of the Golden Age of Mexican film, Dolores del Río, in La Cucaracha (1958). When the Mexican government, in 1993, issued six different stamps to honor the best actors and actresses the country had produced, there were stamps portraying both María Félix and Dolores del Río (as well as four men: Mario Moreno Cantinflas, Pedro Armendáriz, Pedro Infante, and Maria’s third husband...and first leading man...Jorge Negrete).
    Her last film, once again set during the Mexican Revolution, was La Generala...The Lady General (1971). In addition to the three Ariel Awards for Best Actress, she received in 1985 the Mexico City Prize, and in 1996 she became the first Latin American woman to receive the French National Order of Arts and Letters.
    But what have I forgotten here? Ah, yes...her love life.
    María Félix was married four times. Her first marriage in 1931, when she was only seventeen and eager to escape from her oppressive father, was to Enrique Alvarez, a cosmetics salesman and the father of her only child, her beloved Enrique Alvarez Félix, born in 1934. That marriage ended in divorce, in 1938, apparently because the attentions María received from other men made Enrique jealous.
    History has it that they spent the first night of their marriage in the Hotel Nido in Chapala (now the Municipal Building). Although there is a plaque at the entrance attesting to this, the local historian for Chapala, Armando Hermosillo, debates this, and since the registry has disappeared into the past who knows for certain. Sr. Hermosillo did show me a photo of Maria Felix on the pier in Chapala dated 1938 when she was here to visit her son who was staying for a time with his father, from whom she was separated.
    I suspect Sr. Hermosillo is correct, because she herself writes in her biography that: “We spent our honeymoon in a hotel in Atotonilco el Alto...that was a chamber of torture to took two weeks for Enrique to take my virginity.”
    Her second marriage was to Agustín Lara, the most popular Latin American composer of the day. As a little girl María had told her sister: “One day I am going to marry that man who sings so pretty.” Lara was not a handsome man, and his face had been permanently scarred by a violent woman, but women were crazy about him. María herself said, “Being handsome is not just an attractive look. A handsome man is a male with words of love in his mouth.”
    In addition to songs that we are familiar with, like “Grenada,” Augustín Lara wrote several songs just for María, including “El Chotiz Madrid,” “Humo en los Ojos,” and the most famous one, “María Bonita.” Later in life, when she was living in Paris, each time she entered Maxim’s Restaurant the violinist would play “Maria Bonita.”
    When her first husband kidnapped their son after the divorce, Agustín helped María rescue him. But Agustín soon became jealous of the attentions and invitations she received from other men, a jealously that was perhaps complicated by his addiction to cocaine. He came very close to shooting her. Nevertheless, following their divorce in 1947 and throughout their lives they claimed they loved each other.
    Her third marriage was to the very popular actor Jorge Negrete, in 1952, her co-star in her first film, and that marriage lasted until his untimely death from hepatitis only fourteen months later.
    In 1956 she married Alex Berger, a wealthy Swiss businessman, and she remained with him until his death in 1974. He built the palatial Polanco house for her and he bought her eighty-seven race horses that became her new obsession. Her horses won The French Derby, The Irish Cup, and The Steeplechase of Paris.
    Depressed after Alex’s death in 1974, María remained very private for several years, but at a dinner party in 1981 she met the artist Antoine Tzapoff who was 20 years younger. They remained together to the end of her life. Antoine promised he would paint her younger and younger every day, a promise that he kept. Some of his exotic paintings feature her with American Indians, a favorite theme, and in one she sits astride a rhinoceros, looking quite capable of taming that horned beast as well.
    She told the press that Antoine fit many of her criteria for being a sexy man: “That’s one who makes me feel like making love when he is dressed.” Other artists immortalized her as well, including Diego Rivera, one of her many lovers who begged her to marry him. Men also loved to photograph her. Here at Lakeside at the Hotel Real de Chapala there is a lounge featuring a large collection of photographs of her.
    Almost always men adored her. King Farouk of Egypt allegedly offered her Nefertiti’s crown for one night of love. She once said: “I cannot complain about men. I have had tons of them and they have treated me fabulously well.”
    As she grew older, María continued to love high fashion. In 1984 The National Fashion Chamber in Italy and The French Haute Couture named her as one of the world’s best-dressed women. To add to the happiness of her later years, her autobiography Todas Mis Guerras...All My Wars (1993) was a huge success, though the death of her son Enrique in 1996 plunged her again into depression. Eventually she wrote a book to honor him.
In those final years, when asked by a reporter how old she was, she replied in typical fashion: “Mire, Señorita, yo he estado muy ocupada viviendo mi vida y no he tenido tiempo de contarla”... “Look, young lady, I have been very busy living my life and haven’t had time to count it.” She left the world in style. Born April 8, 1914, María Félix chose that very day to leave the world, April 8, 2002.
    (This article first ran in Judy King's fine on-line magazine Living at Lake Chapala, Thanks, Judy!)