Maria Montez, the Hollywood movie star often referred to as 'Dominican Dynamite,' wrote to her sister in the Dominican Republic, 'The first thing a young lady must do in order to be an actress is to believe she is the most beautiful and important of all women living on earth. In other words, behave as if you were a queen. Do not be afraid in front of any directors, not even how exacting and ill-tempered they are to you. Remember, my dear Lucita, it is the public, and not them, that has the last word.'
The very wondrous and exotic Maria Montez was born Maria Africa Antonia Garcia Vidal de Santo Silas, June 6, 1912, in Barahona, Dominican Republic, the second daughter of 10 children. Her father was an exporter of Guayacan wood and textiles and a diplomat holding the title of honorary vice consul to Spain.
Everyone felt that Maria de Santo Silas had 'the calling' of an actress. Even as a child, she would create little stage shows for her family and friends with a white sheet for a curtain, lit by an oil lamp. She learned English all by herself while reading U.S. magazines and listening to U.S. music. Maria told everyone, 'Someday, I will be a Hollywood star.'
On Nov. 28, 1932, de Santo Silas married William McFeeters, an Irish agent for the First National Bank of New York who was working in the Dominican Republic. The newlyweds settled down in Barahona and lived in a cute little yellow house with red trim. Seven years later, however, the couple moved to New York City where Maria, superbly thrilled, got a taste of the big-town life, divorced McFeeters and obtained a modeling job posing for a magazine that paid her $50. The photo of Maria was noticed by a well-known New York artist, McClelland Barclay, who wanted to paint her portrait. After the artwork was revealed to the public, everyone wanted to know who the unusual beauty was, and Maria became highly sought after for modeling work. When Maria learned that an RKO affiliate, Louis Scheurer, was to be dining at the famous 21, she dolled herself up in her finest wardrobe and, in the company of her agent, went to the restaurant where she shamelessly flirted with everyone until Scheurer finally asked if she would like to take some screen tests. Maria replied nonchalantly, 'Movies, what harm can they do to me?'
de Santo Silas, then 27, landed a film contract with RKO Studios, and her contract was soon sold to Universal Studios, where she renamed herself Maria Montez, in honor of a dancer, Lola Montez, whom her father much admired. Her first appearance on film allowed her to utter just one line in The Invisible Woman ( 1940 ) . After a few minor parts, she became co-star to Johnny Mack Brown in Boss of Bullion City ( 1941 ) . Studio executives knew they had to do something with the five-foot-seven beautiful woman. For a short while, they made Montez a blonde, but soon realized she needed to retain her dark, mysterious image. Ironically, Montez, who had purposely lost her accent in the United States, had to regain it so she could play the exotic beauties who would become her trademark, which included gorgeous Arabian princesses, gypsies and dangerous jungle queens. Her male co-stars usually were Sabu, Turhan Bey or Jon Hall, who one critic described as being 'built better than Maria.' Looking sensational, she danced a captivating rumba when loaned to 20th Century Fox Studios for That Night In Rio ( 1941 ) , a wonderful, colorful musical starring Alice Faye, Cesar Romero, Don Ameche and the 'Brazilian Bombshell,' Carmen Miranda. When Montez saw herself in the film Arabian Nights ( 1942 ) , she exclaimed to the press, 'When I look at myself, I am so beautiful I scream with joy!' Released during the 1942 Christmas season, it was the first Technicolor film produced by Universal Studios, and the magical movie became a huge hit with the public.
Montez was quoted in a magazine, 'There is only one Maria Montez. I want to give everyone in the country the Montez touch!' She cultivated her image in the grandest tradition of a movie star and created her own fan club—the MMMS, 'Make Maria Montez a Star' club—while sending herself hundreds of adoring fan letters addressed to her studio, creating a flurry of interest in the woman who, after her appearance in White Savage ( 1943 ) , became known as the 'Queen of Technicolor.' Universal Studios costume designer Vera West used her vast talent to adorn the exalted star in yards of tropical print fabric and sparkling gems in her films, and Montez dripped herself in lavish jewels and opulent fashions wherever she went. Magnificent and dramatic entrances to nightclubs, parties and events were her specialty, and she had the magnetic ability to make sure she was always followed by a slew of reporters who were constantly enchanted with her tales. When there was little news about other stars, newspaper editors often told their reporters to ' [ g ] et up to Beverly Hills and see what Montez is up to!' There, Montez lived her movie-star life in an elegant white Spanish mansion surrounded by palm trees and lush tropical foliage. She couldn't sing, she could dance well enough and her acting was often debated, but she was very smart, likeable, gorgeous and often half-naked, and Maria Montez became a Hollywood star with an enormous, adoring public.
Montez wrote poetry, and in 1942 a writer's association, The Manuscripters, honored her with an award for a collection of her poems titled Twilight. She wrote two songs, 'Doliente' and 'Midnight Memories,' and three books: Forever Is a Long Time, Hollywood Wolves I Have Tamed and Reunion In Lilith, although the last one was never published. President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Montez the goodwill ambassador to Latin America, a position in which she served and to where she traveled extensively from 1943-1944. On July 13, 1943, she married French actor Jean-Pierre Aumont, with whom she reportedly fell in love with at first sight in a train station the year before while he was appearing in The Cross of Lorraine ( 1943 ) for MGM Studios in the United States. One month after the wedding, the six-foot-tall, blue-eyed, blonde Aumont went to war. They later produced a daughter, Tina Aumont, born Feb. 14, 1946, who became an actress appearing in 27 French and Italian films.
In 1945, Montez brought several of her siblings to the United States, where they entered the world of movies with moderate success. Her brother, Jaime Gracia, used the name of Jaime Montez, and appeared in seven films before joining the Army and serving as a sergeant in the Korean War. Consuela, billed as Julia Andre, made one movie and married Kenneth Carter, the publicist for Universal Studios. Later, Luz married Jean Roy, a journalist and combat photographer for Paris Match Magazine, and Teresita became an exclusive model for the French Vogue Magazine.
Some of Maria Montez's other alluring and florid movies include South of Tahiti ( 1941 ) , Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves ( 1944 ) , Follow The Boys ( 1944 ) , Cobra Woman ( 1944 ) , Sudan ( 1945 ) , Tangier ( 1946 ) , Pirates of Monterey ( 1947 ) and her final U.S. movie, Siren of Atlantis ( 1948 ) .
Montez and her husband moved to France, where they felt they could expand their acting potential, and they both made several successful French, German and Italian films. In 1951, Montez accepted a lucrative proposal to come back to Hollywood, but on Sept. 7, 1951, the luminous 34-year-old Montez was found by her sisters Ada and Teresita drowned in a bathtub in her Paris mansion, presumably after suffering a heart attack brought on by an unusually hot bath.
If you take a plane to Barahona today, you will land at the Aeropuerto Internacional Maria Montez—the Maria Montez International Airport. In Barahona you may encounter this sign, 'En este solar nacio la eximia Maria Montez:' 'In this area was born the very distinguished Maria Montez.'
Sources: The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz; Leonard Maltins Movie Encyclopedia; Bill Takacs Internet Maria Montez biography; Denny Jackson Internet Maria Montez biography; and Maria Montez Web sites
Steve Starr is the author of Picture Perfect-Art Deco Photo Frames 1926-1946, published by Rizzoli International Publications. A photographer, writer, designer and artist, he is the owner of Steve Starr Studios.
Steve Starr's column and photos, STARRLIGHT, appear in various publications including IMAGE Chicago Magazine, Entertainment Magazine Online-EMOL.org/reporters/Starr, the Windy City Times, Via Times, Nightspots, Splendor Magazine and the Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine. Visit www.SteveStarrStudios.com, where you can enter The Starrlight Room to view a portion of his beautiful Art Deco frame collection filled with photos of Hollywood's most elegant stars. His new book, STARRLIGHT-Glamorous Latin Movie Stars of Early Hollywood, will be published in 2008.
Photo of Steve Starr, Sept. 2, 2006, by Patrick Hipskind