Lupita Tovar, known for years in Hollywood society as Lupita Kohner, a prominent hostess and wife of agent Paul Kohner, turned 103 yesterday. Happy Birthday, Lupita!
The Kohner family has been extremely generous to me over the years. Several years ago, when researching the life of Mae Murray, I contacted Susan Kohner Weitz, Lupita’s daughter, in the hopes that she had some memory of Murray. Susan answered my letter with a phone call. She had heard of Murray, but had no memories of her. “I will put your letter under my pillow and maybe some memories will come to me,” she promised.
When I phoned Lupita’s son, Pancho, and asked if she might remember Mae, he said, “Well, why don’t you call her? She’s a bit hard of hearing, but she’d love to hear from you.”
As it turned out, Lupita had no specific memories of the Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips, but I was happy to have a few minutes to catch up with Lupita, who had just turned 101.
How are you? I asked.
“Carrying on,” she answered.
Continue carrying on, Lupita!
In celebration of her birthday, I thought I would share some quotes from our interview. Our conversation brings back fond memories. When I think of her, “lady” is the word that comes to mind. Lupita Tovar is one classy lady!
She told me a bit about her life in Mexico before she came to Hollywood in the late 1920s. She was the oldest of nine children.
I was born in 1910, not 1911. I was born in southern Mexico. When I came here, when Fox brought me to Hollywood, they gave the date as 1911. I think it was because I was so terribly young looking. I came from school, a teenager, who had never had any makeup or anything like that. The family of my father was very religious — there were priests and nuns in the family. When I came to Hollywood, Fox (Studios) took some stills of me and when I came back to Mexico City , we paid a visit to the aunts. Fox had filmed me in skimpy clothes. They had the photo of me on display, but they had put lace around the photograph to cover me. It was very funny.
What were Lupita’s childhood thoughts about being an actress?
Not at that time. My family was very, very strict. We didn’t go to the movies, but once in a great moon. We would get permission from my father to go with my grandmother. Going to a school of nuns, you don’t think about being an actress. I had no ambitions about being an actress. Then, when I was about 16, I went to another school. The instructor taught dancing, gymnastics, which we didn’t have with the sisters. I loved it. That was my first ambition, being a dancer.
At this point, director and producer Robert J. Flaherty enters the picture.
Mr. Flaherty came to Mexico City and he visited my school. He saw me doing gymnastics and dance classes. They made a test a couple of weeks after he saw me. They tested many from the theatre and society. I got the first prize and a girl from the theatre got the second prize. The first prize was to be brought to Hollywood. They went to see my father. He was completely surprised. He brought the contract home and said, ‘You won. That’s fine, but the contract goes back.’ The next morning, he sent the contract back. ‘Not interested,’ he said. Then a second contract came and Fox came to his office and ask my father what it was he wanted. He said his daughter was a school girl who hadn’t been out of the house, out of the family. Fox told him to send a chaperone. As long as the contract ran, they said, I would have a salary. They talked and talked to him and also a letter came from the Mexican consultant in Los Angeles saying that it was an opportunity for a young girl to come and represent the country. He talked with his friends and colleagues. They told him it was a great opportunity to go to the U.S. and learn English. I would have the advantage of seeing another country and learning another language. I think that convinced him.
Fox gave Lupita a 7-year contact with options. The first option was for six months. Then another six months. It then went from year to year.
I started out making $150 a week. They paid my grandmother $25 a week for being with me. My father had never seen so much money. Of course, I sent all my money home. I just kept very little. We lived very modestly.
Lupita started out in silent films.
Silent films were wonderful because you didn’t have to worry about your dialogue. You could say whatever you felt. We had music on the set all the time. It was absolutely wonderful. My first option was taken. I was hoping it wouldn’t, because Mr. Flaherty had some difficulty with Fox and he was leaving. He had a project to make a film in the South Seas. He came to the house one evening and said he’d like to make a test, but that I shouldn’t say anything to Fox. He said they (Fox) didn’t have anything for me at the moment. At night, he took me to a little studio in Hollywood and made this test. He was so excited about it. He said that I was just what he wanted to play a native girl. The very last day before the option was taken, I got a phone call from Fox asking me to come to the studio. The casting director told me to sign the option. I said I thought they had nothing for me. He said they’d find something. They found out that Flaherty was testing me, and to get even with him, they renewed my option.
Fox continued to make lots of tests and publicity. I learned to make myself up. I started taking dancing lessons from Mr. Cansino (Rita Hayworth’s father). I tried to learn English and do the best I could.
Lupita faced the coming of talkies with fear and trembling.
I had signed another option and then talkies came. It was complete chaos at the studio. I was very concerned because I had sent all my money to Mexico and I knew I could hardly speak English. The casting director, Jimmy Ryan, called me. He was very, very nice. He said, ‘Lupita, I am very afraid that your next option will not be taken because we are bringing in people from the theatre for the talkies. That is a shame because I think you have a bright future.’ He said that Universal Studios had a foreign department and they were dubbing films in all different languages.
I went out to Universal and waited and waited and waited. Finally, someone offered me $100 to go to a party. I said that I was sorry, I didn’t go to parties. I told them I couldn’t wait any longer. I left. I got a call asking me if I could come back to the studio in the afternoon. I went back with Mrs. Cansino because I was scared to go alone. I didn’t like everyone staring at me. I met with a man who asked me if I’d done any films in my country. I told him I’d done only small parts at Fox. He asked me if I knew Paul Kohner.
I said I didn’t. He said he would take me to meet him. We walked in and there was the man who had kept staring at me through the crack of the door. He was the one who had made me nervous. He stood up and with very nice manners said, ‘We’ve met before, Miss Tovar.’ I said, ‘Never!’
Lupita was hired at Universal to dub films in Spanish. She worked for three nights at $15 per night. After some work, Lupita became discouraged.
I realized it was very, very tough to stay here because I couldn’t depend on two or three days of work. I didn’t make enough to pay rent and support my grandmother. I decided to go back to Mexico and return to school.
Lupita said goodbye to Paul Kohner. He panicked.
He said to give him 24 hours before I did anything. He went to Carl Laemmle with an idea. Why didn’t they make Spanish versions of the films they were shooting on the lot? Laemmle was concerned about money. Kohner told him it would cost less than the English versions. There were Spanish-speaking actors working as extras at Universal and the sets were already built.
Within two weeks, Lupita was filming the Spanish version of The Cat Creeps (1930) with Antonio Moreno. She traveled to Mexico for the premiere. Lupita stepped off the train a star.
I looked back on the engine and there was a big cloth on which was written, ‘Here travels Lupita Tovar.’ The publicity was tremendous. I made personal appearances in six theaters. My father thought all of this was disgusting.
‘You don’t go back to Hollywood,’ he said. The man from Universal came and talked to him. He asked my dad whether he could pay the studio what they had invested in me. Or else, they would sue. I went back to Hollywood with my eyes swollen from crying because my father was absolutely furious. I couldn’t go back to Mexico, after having my independence, to be under his rule.
When Lupita returned to Hollywood, she filmed the Spanish version of Dracula (1931).
This was very, very difficult because I always needed my sleep — 10 hours. It was a complete change because I had to sleep in the day time. I was actually frightened by the sets. I would go to work about an hour early and sit there and try to concentrate. It was very dark and scary. We had our dinner at midnight. We left in the morning before the English cast came in.
Lupita’s gowns in Dracula were much more revealing than the ones in the English version.
In those days, there was no censorship. For the Latin countries, they thought censorship wasn’t required and that Latins liked something more sexy. I had no approval of anything.
Lupita returned to Mexico to star in Santa (1931), the country’s first talking film. Her country called her the Sweetheart of Mexico. It was during the making of Santa that Lupita realized she was in love with Paul Kohner.
At that time, Paul had to go to Germany to make films for Universal and couldn’t make a commitment. The night he left for Europe, he gave Lupita a ring. She gave it back.
I didn’t want it because I thought he was going far away and maybe he falls in love with someone else and maybe he never comes back. The next day, he gave the ring to my grandmother and asked her to keep it for me. One day, over the phone, Paul said, ‘Will you marry me?’ So I went to Columbia — I had just started a picture there — and told Harry Cohn that I was leaving for Europe and can not make the film. He was furious. ‘You’ll never work here again,’ he said. I replied, ‘I don’t think I will.’
Paul and Lupita were married by a rabbi at the home of his parents (in the Czech Republic) in October 1932. They remained in Europe until 1935.
Had it not been for Hitler, we would have stayed longer. Things were getting bad in Germany. No one knew how terrible it was. We didn’t know about the camps then. We saw people beaten on the subways by the Nazis. I went the next day to the Mexican ambassador–I knew him. I told him what I had seen. In 1935, we went to visit Paul’s parents. On the border, they came to us for our passports. They took us off the train to an office. They put me in one office and Paul in another. They ripped my coat off. They ripped my hat off. They took off all my clothes and I stood there shivering. They came back and threw my clothes at me. I was asked to sign a paper that I had been treated with courtesy. I said I didn’t want to. I demanded to speak to my ambassador. They said, ‘People can disappear and no one ever hears from them again. We want you to sign the paper that you were was treated nicely.’ I put my name on it. The reason they let us go was that Paul had known the Minister of War in Germany (Paul had met the government official when Carl Laemmle gave a luncheon for the official and his staff at Universal). That’s the only thing that saved us. We decided not to go back. We telephone our maid to pack everything and send it to his parents. We went to Paris and on to the United States. We came to California and had to start all over again.
Lupita made several films because the couple needed the money. She said it was not disappointing to go from big roles in Dracula and Santa to smaller parts.
I considered my career over when I was on top. My husband didn’t want me to work. My working was a question of the money. It didn’t bother me. I tried to do my best. I was Mrs. Paul Kohner. That’s what was important.
Paul Kohner established his agency in 1938 and represented some of Hollywood’s top talent: John Huston, Charles Bronson, and Lana Turner, to name a few. The Kohners had two children, Pancho and Susan, who became an actress. Susan’s role as Sarah Jane in Imitation of Life earned her an Oscar nomination and two Golden Globe awards. Paul Kohner died in 1988.
Lupita found new fame later in life with the re-release of Dracula in the early 1990s. Some consider the Spanish version far superior to the English version. As the years unfold, Lupita is content, still ‘carrying on.’