The Fantasy of the World
By James Tipton
November 2006 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 23, Number 3
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
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 me...it 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
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
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.
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, www.mexico-insights.com