Interview with Author Michelle Vogel, Lupe Velez Biographer

By Michael G. Ankerich

From time to time, Close-ups and Long Shots will feature interviews with some of my favorite authors. The first interview is with Michelle Vogel, a writer whose work I really appreciate and follow.

Michelle Vogel

She selects subjects I would like to write about, those I’m interested in. I thought her books on Olive Borden and Olive Thomas were thorough and well researched.  She is passionate about her work, and it shows in her writing and attention to detail.

Although I had lots of questions I could have asked her about the two Olives, I wanted to ask Michelle about her recent biography of Lupe Velez.  I was most interested in knowing how she selected Velez for a full-length biography.

Michael G. Ankerich: It is a big decision when a writer decides to take on a biography of a single individual.  Why DID you choose Lupe Velez?

Michelle Vogel: First off, thank you for offering to interview me, Michael. We both travel the same author path, writing about likeminded subjects. We’re aware of each other’s work and the research methods needed to get a complete and thoroughly researched book on the market. It’s not easy, as you well know! I’m honored to be your very first interview.

Here goes…

In choosing a subject, you have to be sure that the subject either hasn’t been explored at all, hasn’t been explored fairly, or you have a new spin on an old tale…new information, etc…with Lupe, it was the “died with her head in the toilet” myth that upset me. I was driven to find out if the story was true, or if it had been made up to further accentuate an already tragic end. That said, in exploring her death, it was her life that came to the forefront. She may have only lived thirty-six years, but she made the most of every minute! So, for me, her whole story, not just her death, became this complete package, a massive and very messy jigsaw that I enthusiastically researched for three years – full time!

The gorgeous Lupe!

MGA: Many writers suffer separation anxiety when they complete a book.  I felt a sad tug at my heart when I completed my Mae Murray biography.  Did you feel the same?  How did you deal with it?

MV: Hmmm…can I say, alcohol?!  Seriously, I don’t drink at all, but I’ve had moments where I’ve reflected on writers of times past and I kind of realize why they’ve taken to the bottle. As a crutch or a muse, it doesn’t matter, for some reason, many of the greats were alcoholics. Writing is a very isolating experience. For months, more often – years, you’re immersed in your own little world. Just you, your computer, piles of old newspaper articles and a bunch of dead people that you’re breathing life back into. Sure, the odd interview happens which allows you to share the experience, but as a whole, writing is a lonely profession. When a book is complete, it’s almost like a grieving process after letting it go. You hand all your work over to the publisher, they keep it for nine months or so and then it comes back to you typeset, with photographs inserted. The months between handing it over and getting it back are weird…there most certainly is a separation, a sense of accomplishment, but a hole, too. Not too many people understand that feeling, unless of course, you’re a writer. I’ve finished books and had people immediately say, “So, what/who are you going to write about next?” That’s such an overwhelming question to hear so soon after finishing a project that has taken years to complete. If only it were that easy, huh?

MGA: Exactly. After spending a great deal of time and energy with Lupe in researching and writing her biography, how did you come away feeling about her?

MV: Honestly, she’s become my favorite subject, Michael. She would have been hard to know because she was so exuberant, feisty, and unpredictable, but she would have been fun! There was never a dull moment with her. If she loved you, you were in for one hell of a ride, but if she hated you – look out!

MGA: One of the disturbing myths about Lupe Velez is her death.  You spend a lot of time in Lupe Velez: The Life and Career of Hollywood’s Mexican Spitfire setting the record straight.  Do you have any idea how author Kenneth Anger (in Hollywood Babylon) came up with the rumor that Lupe drowned in a toilet?

MV: Well, according to my Forwardist, Kevin Brownlow, he once asked Kenneth Anger where he came up with his research. His response was, “Mental telepathy, mostly.” That says it all.

MGA: Do you think this is the greatest misconception about Lupe Velez today?  If not, what are other misconceptions we have of her that you were able to address in your book?

MV: Absolutely! Her death has been turned into a joke…toilet humor, literally! As I say in my book, the truth is heartbreaking enough, why bring her premature demise to another level and discredit her for all eternity by making up lies?! I have thoroughly researched her death and the weeks leading up to her death, and afterwards, and proven, without a doubt that Lupe Velez died in her bed. I hope that I can change the mindset of those people who have taken the lies as gospel, and make them see that anything can be written, about anyone, but unless you have the evidence to back it up, it’s just a piece of fiction.

Another misconception is that she was a loose woman…a good time girl. Sure, she loved to party and have a good time, but she was fiercely loyal to her men. Between her long-term relationship with Gary Cooper and her marriage to Johnny Weissmuller, she was committed to both of these men for almost ten years of her life. She may have been many things, but she was certainly devoted – to her men, her family, her friends, even strangers who asked her for a helping hand. She helped everyone and she supported her extended family in Mexico for much of her life.

Lastly, that she only spoke broken English, otherwise known as “Spanglish”. In reality, Lupe spoke English very well, with only a hint of an accent. Her ethnicity was played up for her films, and, for the sake of her “public image” she fell into that characterization, both on and off screen.

MGA: One of the most fascinating parts of the book is the chapter that deals with her final days and the anxiety she was under.  It seems she truly felt she could not continue with living. Without giving away some of the startling revelations, was there one single person you felt was responsible for her death?

MV: Her final days…yeah, they’re gut-wrenching to read, aren’t they? They were exhausting to write. Of course, we know the eventual outcome, but with each turn of the page we hope that something will change and that she’ll live.

Many people let her down but if I were to pinpoint one person, I would say it was her sister, Josephine. She had revealed the secret of her pregnancy and pleaded with her to go away with her so that she could have the baby. Then, after a year, Lupe would “adopt” the child. Voila! Her reputation is in tact and she lives out her life with her child, as it should have been. But, Josephine went back to Texas, promising to return, and she never did. That was Lupe’s one option, her only safety net. When that was taken away, death was guaranteed. The thing is, Lupe was always an “I don’t care” girl. If anyone was to have a baby out of wedlock in 1944 and not give a damn about the repercussions, it was Lupe Velez. That’s what makes her suicide even harder to understand.

Lupe out on the town with husband Johnny Weissmuller.

MGA: I think of Lupe’s turbulent love life, but her only marriage was to Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller. Even though the marriage lasted five years or so, it wasn’t a very happy union, was it? 

It was and it wasn’t. Five years married, considering all they went through, equates to a lifetime, really. They were both very different personalities. He was quiet. She wasn’t. If anyone could push his buttons, she could! Eventually, the relationship soured beyond repair and it got violent. Weissmuller would throw things. However, even he said that he learned the valuable vases from the not so valuable ones. He’d carefully choose which ones to throw! They did love each other, they just couldn’t live under the same roof together. By 1944, Johnny Weissmuller had remarried, but they were still friends and he was absolutely devastated to learn that she’d taken her own life. The press had a field day during their marriage. There was always a story to tell, many of them side-splittingly funny. Many of those stories are in the book.

Lupe Velez with Gary Cooper in Wolf Song.

MGA: Who was the love of Lupe’s life?

MV: Gary Cooper. I can answer that one in seconds. Without a doubt, he was the one that got away. It’s hard to believe, but their relationship was even more tumultuous than her marriage to Johnny Weissmuller. Lupe shot at him in a crowded train station, she stabbed him, she publicly embarrassed him with her carefree ways, and on the flip side, he was totally controlled by his domineering mother, the film studio and…Anderson Lawler. It was a very crowded, mixed-up relationship. Had they married, it would have surely ended in divorce, but the “might have been” ideal of a harmonious marriage with Gary Cooper ate away at Lupe, and, her final days and the decision to end her life and that of her unborn child may well have had a lot to do with him, too.

MGA: You had the great fortune of interviewing Lupe’s second cousin.  Can you tell me about the extent of his input? Given the nasty rumors that have floated around about Lupe’s death and personal life over the years, was he reluctant at first to cooperate with your project?

MV: Oh, Pedro is like family to me. We’ve become very close and still e-mail each other weekly to check in and talk about our families, etc. Lupe brought us together and our relationship is tied with a very secure knot because of our mutual connection with her. Pedro was never reluctant. He trusted me completely and he was thrilled to finally have an outlet to tell the truth. He was so forthcoming and so generous, kindly re-telling family stories that have never been in print, until now, and he’s also gifted me with some beautiful family photos, many of which are reproduced in the book. The book would be nothing without his input. He made my job easy.

MGA: I love the quote by Lupe at the opening of the book: “My life story? It is the story of a devil. And who wants to print the story of a devil? I am wild, I cannot help it.”  Wow! Did she really think of herself as a devil? Was she really as wild as her reputation suggests?

MV: Yeah, I think she did, but not a “devil” in the evil sense of the word. She meant that she was uncontrollable. She broke every rule and pretty much got away with doing it. Not just as an adult, but as a kid, too. Her parents couldn’t control her, the nuns at the convent she attended as a young teenager couldn’t control her. She lived by her own rules and refused to give in to what society felt was “acceptable behavior”. Again, this part of her personality makes her suicide even sadder because she honestly didn’t care what people thought of her. If it made her happy, she did it. Also, I think her wild ways were very much misinterpreted; she was most likely bi-polar. Her mood swings were extreme but she was labeled as a “wild Mexican”. A possible imbalance wasn’t even looked at back then. Certainly, if she was bi-polar, the hormones of pregnancy would have exasperated her condition, too, possibly tipping her over the edge during a dark episode.

MGA: Was there one particular thought you had in mind as you wrote Lupe’s life story.  One theme?  One constant that ran through her life? One idea you wanted to get across?

MV: The fact that this woman has been so horribly misrepresented all these years was the reason I started writing the book in the first place, then, as I got into researching her life further, I felt honored to be able to tell the truth – for her. She was a great actress, a fine comedian and a fine dramatic actress. Very underrated. She did stage work, radio and film, not just in the United States, but Mexico and the U.K., too. Had she lived longer, she would have been a huge television star. I wanted to tell the story of her life, the good and the bad, but most importantly – the truth.

MGA: I am truly astonished at the photographs you were able to use in the book.  Most I had never seen before.  You even had copies of her suicide notes, which, I don’t believe, I had ever seen.  Did some of the photographs come from Lupe’s family?

MV: Thank you, Michael. You know, I had 150 photos chosen, but I had so much information to include, I went 30,000 words over my projected word count (Oops!) and that caused a photo cut down to 75! That was a hard job. As I said, many of the early family photos came from Lupe’s cousin, Pedro.

The others were sourced from all over the place. I tried my best to feature photos that were rare and somewhat candid, because she lived her life so candidly, it just seemed like the right fit.

MGA: Another impressive aspect of your book is the extensive filmography you provide.  Everything from the cast list to the reviews the film received. You also provide many behind-the-scenes glances for many of her films.  What about her films?  Do you have any idea how many are easily available for viewing?

MV: Many of her films are available, Michael. Not all of them commercially (yet!), but from one collector to another, they DO exist. Personally, I have all of her films, save for two of her Mexican productions. That’s a fantastic ratio. Some of them aren’t in the best condition, but they’re certainly watchable.

Obviously, “The Mexican Spitfire” film series is her most widely known body of work and I urge anyone wanting to see Lupe Velez in her prime to seek out these films. All of them are family friendly and kids love the visual gags throughout. Here’s a link to the Warner Archive store where a few of Lupe’s films are available for purchase, including the eight-film “Mexican Spitfire” series for a very reasonable $39.95.

Link – http://www.wbshop.com/search.do?query=lupe+velez

Lupe clowning around with Edmund Lowe and Victor McLaglen in Hot Pepper (1933).

MGA: Do you have a favorite Velez film?  Why?

MV: That’s a tough question, Michael. I love her as a comedian, but I also love her as a dramatic actress, too. The “Mexican Spitfire” series are favorites, for obvious reasons. The chemistry between Lupe and Leon Errol is priceless and much of the dialogue is ad-libbed which serves to give the films a fresh, non-stilted approach to the comedic incidents throughout. I have a soft spot for her final film, the Mexican production, Nana. Her acting is faultless and the final scenes show her character walking the streets, a broken woman, in tears and lost. It’s very difficult to watch these last few moments of her film career play out because it eerily mirrors the feelings she would have had in real life, just prior to her death.

MGA: If you have the chance to interview her, what would be your one important question for her?

MV: Well, that would be to ask if she was ever truly happy and satisfied, and if so, at what time of her life was that feeling? With herself, her career, her romances, her life in general? Was she ever content? I think her answer would have been “no”. Sadly, her true happiness was probably set to come in the form of her role as a mother, and it wasn’t to be.

MGA: After spending time with her, do you think Lupe would be a fun party guest?

MV: Fun? That’s an understatement! Geez, she’d give Charlie Sheen a run for his money! It goes back to that tricky ol’ question asking what dead people you’d invite to a dinner party…well, for sure, Lupe Velez would be at the very top of my list. I really wish I could have known her.

MGA:  I hear that you’re offering a FREE signed bookplate to anyone who purchases your new book? How does that work?

MV: Yeah, that’s right. As a special thank you, anyone who purchases a copy of my latest book, Lupe Velez: The Life and Career of Hollywood’s Mexican Spitfire and sends me an e-mail copy of their proof of purchase, I’ll sign one of my personally printed bookplates and send it out anywhere in the world – FREE!

Here’s a link to my blog with more details about this special offer: http://mvozus.wordpress.com/2012/07/20/free-signed-bookplate-offer-as-a-thank-you-for-ordering-my-latest-book-lupe-velez/

MGA: There are rumblings about a Lupe Velez biopic being in the works, with Mexican actress, Ana de la Reguera to star as Lupe Velez. Are you aware of this project?

MV: Yes, I’m aware of the project, Michael. Ana and I have been in e-mail contact over the last few weeks and we’re hoping to collaborate. Oscar-nominated director, Carlos Carerra, will be writing the script and directing the film. I can’t say anything further than that at this stage, but I will let you know more when I know more. One thing’s for sure, Lupe is finally getting the positive recognition that she deserves!

MGA:  It is about time. Great job, Michelle! I enjoyed chatting with you.

Other Michelle Vogel biographies

Check out some other biographies by Michelle Vogel.

Olive Borden: The Sybil Tinkle Connection

Holidays are great times for reconnecting with old acquaintances. This past weekend, I spent some time with my best friend growing up.  In the early 1980s, we would sit up until all hours of the night researching silent movie stars, wondering who was and who wasn’t still alive. Benjie and I developed a particular interest in Olive Borden, a talented and gorgeous young actress of the silent screen.  I devoted a chapter to her in my latest book, Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels and she is the subject of a well-researched biography by Michelle Vogel.

My favorite Olive Borden portrait

While catching up with Benjie this weekend, he and I went on the Internet to trace down a reference about Sybil Tinkle, a woman from Texas whose identity became linked with Olive in the late 1920s. For years, reference books have reported that Olive Borden was a Texan whose real name was Sybil Tinkle.  I devoted my column in Classic Images in November 1993 to unraveling the confusion and proving that Olive Borden and Sybil Tinkle were two individuals whose pasts were not linked.  I thought it was settled. I had printed the truth and Michelle Vogel set the record straight in her excellent biography. Great book!  Get it for your library.

While researching for Tinkle on the Internet last Thursday afternoon, just after a hefty Thanksgiving feast, the name Sybil Tinkle popped up as Olive Borden’s real name. Not once, but countless times!  My Thanksgiving vittles almost re-emerged in disgust. Will those turkeys ever get it right? It has been on my mind since, that strange story of how Olive Borden and Sybil Tinkle became entwined. Someone didn’t pull the name out of nowhere. It was a calculated move in the late 1920s to purposely connect the two women.

When I returned to my home, I retrieved the old column I wrote for Classic Images.  I am reprinting it here with additional commentery. Be patient; it sets the record straight. It unravels the Olive Borden and Sybil Tinkle connection.

Original story in Classic Images

“Bank teller, Brother of Star, Killed.”

“Death Reveals Identity of a Noted Actress.”

“Auto Accident Fatal to City Bank Teller, Kin of Olive Borden.”

Such headlines were splashed in newspapers throughout Texas in 1928, linking Olive Borden to a secret identity in Texas. The articles identify Olive Borden’s real name as Sybil Tinkle, a Texas girl and the sister of the dead man.

One account reads, “Olive Borden, whose movie tears have stirred the emotions of thousands of screen fans throughout the world, was registering genuine grief in the far-off Hollywood colony Sunday night over the death of her brother in Houston.”

But, wait a minute. Wasn’t the actress in question supposed to have been born in Virginia and raised in Norfolk as an only child by her widowed mother, Sibbie?

It wasn’t unusual for studio publicists to alter the ages of its stars, to change their names, or to invent glamorous beginnings. However, the confusion over Olive Borden and Sybil Tinkle being the same person is one of Hollywood’s most puzzling cases of mistaken identity.

The name Sybil Tinkle has been tagged as Olive Borden’s real name for over 60 years. Writers, such as Katz (The Film Encyclopedia), Halliwell (Halliwell’s Filmgoer’s Companion) and Truitt (Who Was Who on the Screen), have printed the assumption as fact in reference books over the years; and now, the error is part of Hollywood history.

That suits the Tinkle family, still living in Texas, just fine. They’ve spoken of Olive as their relative for years and today are convinced their Sybil was the dark-haired beauty of the silent screen. After all, don’t they have the yellowed newspaper articles to prove it?

By close examination and extensive research, and interviews with Borden and Tinkle family members, however, it is clear that Olive Borden and Sybil Tinkle were NOT the same person.

First, who was Olive Borden? Film fans know her as The Joy Girl of the Silent Screen, named as such from The Joy Girl (1927), a film she made at the height of her fame. She started in small comedy roles in 1923, was a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty, and for a while, worked for Hal Roach and Christie Comedies.

Olive’s star finally ascended when she was cast opposite George O’Brien in Three Bad Men (1926), which turned out to be her finest film role. A Fox contract ensued and, for the rest of the silent era, she skipped merrily across the silent screen. She, the epitome of the wild and careless youth, the perfect flapper, a Jazz Baby.

By the time movies learned to talk, Olive’s career was on the skids. First, film-going audiences tired of the carefree flappers Olive portrayed so well. Her ego and false sense of security tricked her into refusing to take a salary cut–she was dropped from her $1,500 a week contract. Then, her love affair with and engagement to George O’Brien ended.

It was more than the Joy Girl could take. Although she continued to appear in films sporadically throughout the early 1930s, it was clear her star had fallen. For much of the decade, she saw life through the bottom of a bottle. She went through money, booze and men–she married twice; her first marriage to Theodore Spector was annulled once it was learned her husband was already married. A later marriage to John Moeller ended in divorce.

Olive in 1932

In the 1940s, Olive joined the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). Eventually, she dropped out of sight, only to wake up one day in a cheap hotel on Hollywood Boulevard with an empty bottle and a head full of past glories. Her mother rescued her in 1946 and took her to live with her at the Sunshine Mission.

In 1947, a liver ailment, caused by years of drinking, claimed the life of the actress who had charmed millions only 20 years before. She was only 41 years old.

Olive on her deathbed. Olive’s mother, Sibbie, holds her hand.

Poor Olive! With such a tragic turn of events in her short life, being confused with Sybil Tinkle had been the least of her worries.

Sybil Tinkle. Who was she? What is her story? How did her identity become so confused with that of Olive Borden that her own family came to believe they were the same person?

She came from Texas, remembered by those who knew her as a “peculiar” girl who had a burning desire to be a motion picture actress. They say Sybil was the first girl in Timpson to smoke and often painted outdoors, clad only in lingerie.

A teenage Sybil Tinkle while still in Texas

In an interview from his home in Texas, a nephew of Sybil Tinkle said his aunt ran away from home in the early 1920s following a disastrous marriage and found her way to California, where she attempted to break into the movies. Once in Hollywood, she wrote notes and sent portraits but, after a while, the family lost touch with her–forever!  For some reason, unexplained by the nephew, the family believed Sybil Tinkle became Olive Borden.

In 1928, when Sybil’s brother, Joe Alton Tinkle, was killed in an accident, it was reported to the Texas press that the death revealed screen star Olive Borden’s true identity as that of a local girl, Sybil Tinkle. The family told reporters that “Miss Borden was notified of her brother’s death, but will not return to Texas for the funeral.”

Not long after the local publicity, a Houston man, Lee Bailey, wrote a letter to Photoplay informing them of the connection between Olive and Sybil. I could find no mention of the letter in subsequent issues of the magazine.

At sometime during the 1930s, the family heard rumors that Sybil, or Olive, had died in Los Angeles of tuberculosis and was cremated. The nephew said he remembered going with his father (Sybil’s brother) to Los Angeles to look for some records or evidence, but nothing was ever found. It was years later, after doing some research of their own, that the Tinkle family learned of Olive Borden’s death at the Sunshine Mission in 1947. So, that’s what happened to Sybil, the Tinkle family concluded. Such a sad ending for a girl who had so much ambition.

It all sounds rather convincing until you look at the facts. It’s like a puzzle with all the pieces laying so neatly on a table. There’s only one problem, pieces just do not fit.

On file with the Virginia Department of Health is a delayed birth certificate from Olive Mary Borden, born July 14, 1906, in Richmond, to Harry (Henry) and Sibbie Shields Borden. The document shows Olive used her baptismal certificate, dated September 9, 1906, to obtain a birth certificate in 1942. It is known that Harry Borden died in 1907. Also, in 1942, in her own hand, Olive completed an Application for Social Security Account Number listing her place of birth as Richmond, Va., and her parents as Harry and Sibbie Borden.

The 1908 Norfolk city directories show Olive’s mother living in Norfolk. The 1910 Norfolk, Virginia, portion of the U.S. Census shows Olive Borden living with her mother (Sibbie) in Virginia at the home of Olive’s great aunt. That same census lists Sybil Tinkle (born 1902) living in Timpson, Texas, with her father (James), her mother (Carrie), and her six brothers, one of whom was Joe Alton Tinkle.

Olive in the 1910 U.S. Census

Sybil Tinkle in the 1910 U.S. Census

Also, in the 1920 U.S. Census, Olive is listed living with her mother in Virginia and Sybil with her family in Texas. In addition, Olive’s mother is listed in the Norfolk city directories from 1917-1922. For several of those years, her mother is recorded as having been a hotel housekeeper. No mention of Sibbie Borden in the subsequent city directories supports Olive’s early studio publicity that they left Norfolk in the early 1920s, and went to Maryland, before going to Hollywood in 1923 to try films.

In an interview from her home in southern California, former silent film actress Natalie Joyce confirmed she is the first cousin of Olive Borden (their mothers were sisters) and that the family (including her own) was from Virginia. Natalie said that when Olive and her mother came to California, they stayed in their home until they could settle into a place of their own.

Olive and Natalie (fourth and fifth from the left) with other 1925 Wampas Baby Stars

The two were Wampas Baby Stars in 1925, but Olive’s career far surpassed that of her cousin’s. “She was really something there for a while,” Natalie said of Olive. Natalie retired from films at the advent of sound, moved to Hawaii, and became a beautician.

What was Olive’s connection to Sybil Tinkle? “I’ve never heard it,” Natalie said. “I’ve never heard anything but Borden.”

Olive Borden’s death certificate mentions nothing about Tinkle nor a Texas connection. It supports the facts that she was a Borden from Virginia.

The portraits the Tinkle family supplied of Sybil are definitely not the actress Olive Borden.

Sybil Tinkle

So, Olive Borden and Sybil Tinkle were two different people from two totally different walks of life–will writers ever correct their errors? The resolution of one misunderstanding, however, leads to other questions.

How did the Tinkle family link their loved one to Olive Borden? Why was the mix-up reported in the press so widely in 1928 after the death of a Tinkle? Did Sybil write to the family that she was Olive Borden? Or, could she have been Olive’s stand-in or double for a time? Did Sybil, as the Tinkle family has suggested, take over and carry on Olive’s name in the 1930s, after Olive Borden, because of excessive drinking, could no longer function on the screen–how preposterous!

We know what happened to Olive Borden–she rests beside her mother at Forest Lawn in Glendale. But, whatever became of Sybil Tinkle? Hollywood can concoct some bizarre tales, but this mystery only proves one thing: truth IS stranger than fiction.