After surviving tragedy and heart break, "Doña Bárbara" (Madame Barbara) becomes a cold-hearted, rich land owner and cattle trader that dabbles in witchcraft. She wears the pants, and also carries a whip and a gun. The cigar smoking diva is not afraid to crush her enemies under her boot. Is she capable of ever falling in love? After portraying this character, Mexican actress Maria Felix was forever nicknamed "La Doña", becoming a diva of legend that inspired many artists for years to come. This post is about the artwork La Doña inspired, and her legacy in the worlds of fashion, music and literature.
April the eight was Maria's birthday. She was born in Sonora, during the tempestuous time of the Mexican revolution in 1914. As a young student, she was named queen of her school's carnival. That gesture made her reflect on the merits of beauty "beauty is something somebody else has to bestow upon you". Many awards and recognition would follow. Maria was an adventuress, humanitarian and actress. She was better known for her roles in the Mexican Golden Age of Film, during the 1940's to the 1950's. With an eyebrow perpetually raised she portrayed the roles of strong willed women in movies with titles as fiery as her personality: "Juana Gallo" (Rooster Joanne), Doña Diabla (Lady Devil) and "La Mujer sin Alma" (The Woman without a Soul). Maria had a second wave of films and television appearances, well into the 1970's.
Maria also worked in Spain, France, Italy and Mexico with directors like Luis Buñuel, Jean Renoir, Yves Ciampi, Carmine Gallone and Luis Saslavsky. Some sources cite her her inability to speak English as a reason for not crossing over to American audiences. Maria, however, remembered her visits to New York with affection. School girls would stop her to ask for her autograph. "You look like someone important" the young students answered, when Maria questioned their reasons. Once, at the Metropolitan Opera a complete stranger approached her. "What you are wearing is stunning. But only a woman like you can wear it", the stranger said. Maria actually knew enough English to get by. She also spoke French, and Italian, along with her native Spanish. She never worked in the US out of conviction. The reason for her dissatisfaction with the Hollywood film industry were the stereotypical roles often offered to her. "Do you really think I could pass as a Cherokee Indian? In my country I can play the role of an Indian. In foreign lands I play the role of a queen" "I was not born to carry a basket" La Doña would say.
Muse of Music and Literature
Maria's love affairs and marriages caused as much controversy and scandal as the roles she played. She married four times. When she married fellow actor Jorge Negrete, the most famous actor in Mexico at the time, she caused a media frenzy. Tragically, he died of hepatitis, while Maria was in Europe filming a movie. She lost her famous husband just 14 months after their wedding. She also caused a commotion when she married composer Agustin Lara. Lara was not a handsome man, his face was forever scarred by a night club browl, yet Maria was madly in love with him. He dedicated several love songs to her, among them were:"Humo en los Ojos" (Smoke in Your Eyes), the hypnotic "Palabras de Mujer" (A Woman's Words), the lively "El Chotiz de Madrid", and the most famous one, "Maria Bonita", a waltz that became Maria's theme song of sorts. The melody was played for Maria with violins every time she entered Maxim's, her favorite restaurant in Paris.
Maria had many literary friends in France, among them were Paul Sartre and Colette. In Mexico authors like Octavio Paz (winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize for Literature), Carlos Fuentes, Carlos Monsivais, Elena Poniatowska and the poet Pita Amor also wrote about her. Henry Burdin's book "La Mexicaine" was based in Maria's life.
Couture, canvas and alligator scales
Mexican muralist Diego Rivera created the above painting for Maria. "Muy Malo" was not the original name given to the painting by The Maestro, but it does reflect the feelings of Maria for the portrait - "It is very bad". It is rumored that Maria had a handy man retouch the artwork with ordinary house paint in order to cover up her figure. The sketch below, also by Rivera was a study for the movie "Rio Escondido". Maria also patronized Diego's famous wife Frida Kahlo. In am interview Maria admitted purchasing Kahlo's paintings in order to support the artist and her growing medical bills, but she never cared much for Frida's paintings.
Maria Felix was voted one of the best dressed women of her time by Italian and French couture associations. She kept Isabel Barrera, a petite cosmetologist nicknamed "La Topolina" on staff full time. Isabel's job was to glue each individual eyelash on La Doña, long before fake eyelashes were available. "Fake eyelashes were my idea" Maria writes in her biography. Maria lived in Paris at the end of her film career. She was a skilled equestrian that owned a stable of 100 racing horses inherited to her by Alex Berger, a Swiss Banker and Maria's fourth husband. Even during her later years, she would cause a commotion with her beauty and outlandish outfits at the races.
These are some of Maria's dresses, designed by Dior, Balenciaga and Hermes, photographed at Christie's in New York City.
Here is a white Dior dress that shows how slim Maria was. An admirer once gave her a highly decorated clergy robe. Instead of displaying it, Maria wore it as a skirt. "My waist is smaller than a priest's neck" she said. She also collected antique Chinese costumes, furs and vintage textiles. The painting on the background is "La Maja del Tarot", created by surrealist painter Leonora Carrington. It portrays Maria as a Tarot card, possibly the Priestess or the Empress.
Here is another painting by Carrington, a triptych titled "Sueño de Sirenas" (Mermaid Dream). In the painting the artist depicts Maria as three mermaids. The artist would say that the mermaids were ebony, mother of pearl and fire - all had symbolic meaning. In a way, the portrait had captured La Doña's complex personality, and it was one of her favorite paintings.
Mexican painter Chávez Marión created for Maria "My Zodiac Sign" as well as "Simbolo de Pesos". French-Argentinian painter Leonor Fini created for her the paintings titled "Detras de la Puerta" (Behind de Door), and "Reina de Fuego" (Fire Queen). Stanislao Leprin created a couple of paintings for her, among them "Mujer Pajaro" (Bird Woman). Bridget Tichenor collaborated with one of Maria's lovers, Franco-Russian artist Antoine Tzapoff to create "Domadora de Chimeras" (Chimera Tamer) and "Caja de Cristal" (Crystal Box), pictured below.
La Doña also loved jewelry. She favored designs that depicted snakes and other reptiles. One of her most impressive pieces was designed by Cartier Paris, in the shape of an articulated snake. The piece of platinum and white gold was encrusted with178.21 carats of brilliant diamonds. Legend states that she walked into Cartier carrying a baby crocodile inside a jar, as a sample for her next commission. She asked the stunned jewelers to replicate her pet (in the same scale) using gold and jewels. "I advice you do it quickly. He is growing fast" she instructed. Here is the necklace created for La Doña.
This piece was also perfectly articulated. The twin crocodiles could be worn separately, as pins, or together, as a necklace. One of the crocodiles was covered with 1,023 yellow diamonds, the other was decorated with 1,060 green emeralds. Since La Dona's death, these pieces have traveled the world as part of "The Art of Cartier" collection. In 2006 Cartier debuted a collection called "La Dona de Cartier" in honor of Maria Felix. No other actress has received such tribute from the house of Cartier. Here is a portrait of Maria, wearing the legendary necklace.
Maria was said to have refused Nefertiti's crown, promised by Egypt's King Farouk, for a night of love. Maria refused the king by saying "I would rather sleep with your servant out of my own free will. At least I find him attractive". Here is a necklace with a portrait by Antoine Tzapoff. Below is also a portrait of Maria titled "Amazona". It was framed in hand tooled silver, and was adorned with butterflies. The painting with Maria's simian friend is also by Tzapoff.
Maria absolutely adored Jacob Petit porcelain, she had an extensive collection and during her life she was almost giddy every time she talked about it. In this portrait, also by Maestro Tzapoff, she is seen with two of her beloved Jacob Petit porcelain urns.
Love makes you trade pearls, for a rebozo.
Maria died on 2002. She was buried at "El Panteon Frances" in Mexico City, with the remains of her parents and son Enrique, also an actor. When I was very young I was fortunate to see her son Enrique in the dark comedy "Dracula" based in Bram Stoker's work and on Ed Gorey's illustrations, and "Man of La Mancha". Even then I could tell that Mr. Felix had inherited some of his mother's elegance and talent. At 8 years old I also recognized something different about him, and I identified with that difference. Enrique Alvarez Felix died of a heart attack in 1996, leaving Maria heart broken and without a direct heir to her fortune. These mother and son photos were taken for Life magazine.
Maria died on her birthday, she was 88 years old. Sheila Whitaker wrote and obituary for the British paper The Guardian. She called Maria "the incarnation of the strong, sexual woman, who would, nevertheless, be tamed by machismo before the end of the movie." Whitaker referenced "The Taming of The Shrew" and the film Enamorada, that loosely followed the plot of Shakespeare's play. "As with Shakespeare, in the end, the heroine is tamed and nationhood re-enforced" writes Whitaker, not fully understanding the complexity of Maria Felix and the roles she played. The tamer of chimeras had also tamed Mexican audiences, and maybe the taming was mutual. French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote it best, in his book "The Little Prince". "If you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world..."
Here is a spoiler alert, for those that haven not seen the film, Enamorada. At the end of the movie Beatriz Peñafiel (Maria Felix), the rich Hacendado's daughter, is getting married to a foreigner she doesn't love. Rebels evacuate the town's plaza, to go fight for La Revolucion, commanded by the dashing General Jose Juan Reyes (masterfully played by Pedro Armendáriz). Earlier El General gives up the love of Beatriz by symbolically releasing her fiance, who was carrying her wedding dress in a suitcase. "Some times, it is wise to not fight" he says. Upon hearing the cannon fire from the approaching Federales Beatriz has an epiphany. Her string of pearls snaps, a wedding gift from her fiance. She runs out of the ceremony, wrapping herself in her maid's humble rebozo. Outside, her eyes meet those of Jose Juan. The black and white photography and close ups of their faces are stunning. Among explosions and gunfire Beatriz catches up with El General, while a revolutionary march plays on. They walk side side by side, he is on a horse, she is on foot. She is by no means a defeated woman. After looking at each other, they both stare into the horizon, proud and hopeful. She had left a life of riches and luxury for the love of a man, and the love of an ideal. She had done it out of her own choosing. "Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction" Saint-Exupery also wrote. Would this revolution benefit men and women alike? Some times we have to take chances, love being the riskiest chance of them all. At least that was my take when I saw the film, many years ago.
Maria's extravagant, flamboyant style still intrigues people, even after her death. Actress Eva Longoria has expressed a desire to portray Maria on film. Frankly, I think her type of beauty is very different than Maria's. A better choice to play Maria would be someone like Brazilian actress Morena Baccarin. This is a photo of Polish model Daria Werbowy styled to look like Maria Felix, as the seminal character "Doña Barbara".
Maria had expressed a wish to have her beloved "La Casa de las Tortugas" (The House of Turtles) in Cuernavaca become a museum, where all her treasures would be housed for the enjoyment of her fans. Another request was for her makeup girl, La Topolina: "Barrera, make sure that when I'm dead, you put my eyelashes on, as you always have". Sadly, Isabel was not allowed to see La Doña's body the day of her death.
Antoine Tzapoff and Maria Felix,
at La Casa de Las Tortugas,
© De Gyves & Allen Productions
at La Casa de Las Tortugas,
© De Gyves & Allen Productions
Scandal continued to follow La Doña, even after her death. 28 year old Luis Martinez de Anda, Maria's personal assistant inherited her belongings and half of her money. Antoine Tzapoff inherited Maria's silver Rolls Royce and Diego Rivera's paintings. Son Enrique's former assistant, Juan Tellez was also a beneficiary. Benjamin Felix, Maria's brother had Mexican authorities exhumate his sister's body on August of the same year, under suspicion of foul play. Upon laboratory analysis, it was reported that Maria Felix had died of natural causes. Several lots of her belongings were auctioned at Christie's in 2007, spreading Maria's treasures to the four corners of the world. Maria's other wish remains unfulfilled.
American writer Luisa May Alcott once said "It takes very little fire to make a great deal of smoke nowadays, and notoriety is not real glory." Today the media bombards us constantly and without pity. Selfish starlets and politicians noisily splash about in the pool of fame just famous for being famous. Even the mediocre can have fifteen minutes of screen time. So, who cares if Maria never worked in the US? What if we don't have a museum in Cuernavaca? Maria Felix is alive. She continues to live in the hearts of those she tamed. She was one of the biggest unknown stars the silver screen has ever seen. She speaks to us from beyond the grave, and her lesson is clear. Becoming a muse takes real courage, as well as conviction. It is even more difficult to become art itself - it takes originality, and imagination. Art, unlike fame, is eternal.
Feliz Cumpleaños, Doña!
Feliz Cumpleaños, Doña!
Here you can see a montage of the movie "Dona Barbara"
Maria's Jewels (and additional images) via Lady Like
Daria Werbowy's images appeared in a recent spread of V magazine. Photos courtesy of Couture.com
The image from the film "Enamorada" comes from The Evening Class, a film blog of fellow San Franciscan Michael Guillen. He has a great atricle"Hecho Por Mexico" about the films of Gabriel Figueroa.
Here is an article about Maria's husband Agustin Lara. Read about his career, his most famous compositions and his love life. It also mentions the performers he influenced, among them Placido Domingo.
Visit Antoine Tzapoff, Maria's last sentimental partner. Some of the images in this article are the copyright of Mr. Tazpoff. Please visit his website and admire more of his paintings, some of them are for sale.