I Wish to Touch the Firmament for
Being Transformed in a Distant Star
But Shiny and Beautiful,
So Everybody Will Remember Me
For What I Was Once. . .
Maria Africa Vidal of Santos Silas,
Maria Africa Vidal of Santos Siles and Gracia,
Maria Antonia Vidal of Santos Silas and Gracia,
Africa Maria Gracia Vidal,
Maria Gracia Van Dahi of Santos Siles MacFeeters,
Maria Van Dahi of Santo Sillas and Gracia,
Maria América Gracia Vidal of Sto. Silas,
Maria Teresa Vidal of Santo Silas and Gracia,
Maria Teresa of Santo Silas Salomons,
Maria Africa Antonia Gracia Vidal of Santo Silas and
Maria Theresa Gracia of Santo Silas.
ALSO KNOWN AS:
DATE OF BIRTH (LOCATION)
DATE OF DEATH (LOCATION)
She was born inBarahona, (Dominican Republic) on June 6th, 1912, daughter of Isidoro Gracia García, of Spanish descent, and Regla Teresa Maria Vidal, who was from Baní (Dominican Republic).
She was named Maria Africa in honor to her father’s native land, La Isla de La Palma, Spain (although it belongs to Spain, it is on the African continent).
Her father was an exporter of guayacan wood (lignum vitae) and textiles and also possessed the title of Honorary Vice Consul ofSpain.
She was the second daughter of 10 children those being: Isidoro, Aquilino, Joaquín, David, Ada, Consuelo, Luz, Luis, Jaime and Teresita.
Since she was a little girl she showed she wanted to be an actress. She learned English by herself (without a teacher), listening to songs and reading magazines from the U.S.A. And by reading newspapers, magazines and books she became an intellectual, even though she only went as far as the 8th grade.
As far as her childhood was concerned, Maria liked to talk about the responsibility she had of baby-sitting her little sister Lucita, which did impede her a few times from playing on her brothers baseball team. One day she discovered that if she would blow, softly, at the eyes of Lucita, she would quickly go to sleep, freeing her up to play baseball with her brothers under the warm tropical sun ofBarahona.
Her friends fromBarahona used to say about Ms. Gracia: "She was born with that calling."
They, also, said that when Maria was a child, instead of playing with dolls she made her own stage by placing a big white sheet from one wall to another and lightly illuminating the room with an oil lamp. At school, she explained her classes and lessons as if she were on stage, moving her hands and making faces. A lot of people remembered her as a happy child with a lot of imagination.
She got married twice. The first time was in her native town with the Irish banker William McFeeters, on November 28, 1932. He was the agent inBarahona of the First National City Bank of New York. They were married for seven years until she traveled to New York. Her first job in New York was posing for a magazine cover for the sum of US $50.
McClelland Barclay, a famous New Yorker artist, knew her through the media. Since then he understood she would be the best prototype of the cosmopolitan woman whose racial characteristics are not specific from any particular region of the world. In this way, he did not have to superimpose different racial types for making his art work.
When Barclay exposed his painting, everybody wanted to know who was the model and great offers for modeling were received for that sculptural lady who was not so young as she looked. According to the original birth certificate, when she arrived to New York on July 3rd, 1939, she was 27 and not 19 as in the references of some movie books have claimed.
This success was not enough for her. One day Maria received a phone call from one of her friends who told her that George Schaeffer, an important RKO executive, was in town and would be having lunch at the "Restaurant 21."
Maria went to the restaurant early, very well dressed and in the company of her agent Louis Schurr. She was flirting to everybody with her very best smile, so that Schaeffer could not help but watch the foreign beauty and soon sent a business card to her table. Later, the executive asked her if she would like to have some screen tests, and she said: "Movies! What harm can they do to me?"
An employee of Joe Pasternark, executive of Universal Pictures and rival of RKO, use his shrewdness for watching her tryouts. He had the expertise of noticing Maria skills and he proposed to Louis Schurr a reasonable offer. He wanted to hire the services of his client with the salary of US $150 a week, the payment of the trip to Hollywood and other benefits. RKO was slow in making a decision and her agent recommended her to accept the offer from Universal Pictures.
Maria Gracia chose the name of Maria Montez in honor to the dancerLola Montez whom Maria’s father admired a lot.
Maria Montez reinvented herself. Carefully recultivating the Dominican accent she’d lost after moving to the U.S.A. and decking herself out in jewels, exotic costumes, and a loyal retinue, Montez became the exotic, tempestuous Latin leading lady.
The first movie in which she appeared briefly is LUCKY DEVILS, in 1941.
BOSS OF BULLION CITY is the title of the next movie in which she appeared. The good-luck seems to be on her side in this opportunity in which she is the co-star with Johnny Mack Brown.
After being the co-star of the second of her 26 movies, she had to accept a small part in a B movie, THE INVISIBLE WOMAN, only saying one phrase.
To compensate this bad moment in the beginning of her career, she had the idea of creating her own fan club, MONTEZ FOR STARDOM CLUB, compound with collectors of actresses photos in sensuous poses and short of clothes. Nowadays they would be considered as very innocent. Maria sent to herself a big part of the letters that she received, after their fans would have been associated.
The good-luck was, again, on her side in her next movie, THAT NIGHT IN RIO, she looks splendid for the first time in Technicolor. Universal ceded Maria to its rival, 20th Century Fox, in order to appear in a film withCarmen Miranda, Alice Faye and Don Ameche. "Life" magazine was very eloquent in emphasizing Montez’s performance, whom they gave as much importance as Carmen Miranda and Alice Faye.
In this movie, Maria danced to a contagious rumba, showing her beautiful red hair, proving that she looked wonderful in colors by the first time.
Universal executives wasted her work in this film. They suggested the wrong idea by dying her hair of blonde, very common between the actresses, but it did not match with her exotic appearance. They also ignored her demands of not acting in B movies.
On RAIDERS OF THE DESERT she appeared for the first time wearing transparent veils to give the illusion of the magic of the Orient on the screen.
On MOONLIGHT IN HAWAII, the fans had to accept her in the sixth billing as Ilani, the native "blonde" of the main island.
Universal was not helping Montez, even though the public, most of it compound by soldiers who were fighting in the War World II, began to include her between their pin-up girls, such asRita Hayworth and Lana Turner. In this way the soldiers were decorating their lockers to give them the feeling of being at home.
Another proof of her increasing popularity was the invitation to the "Harvard Student Union" for their big Halloween party, in October of 1941. In that party she danced with more than 900 students at the same time.
A few days later, the press reported, with big headlines, of what was happening in the War, Maria surprised the public with the unexpected statement of that she is the fiancée of the Lieutenant Commandant Claude Strickland, missing in action. "I know he’s alive somewhere." She said, with tears in her eyes. This was one of the jokes she used to play to get the attention of the media and free publicity, as when she said Universal Pictures hired her, because the company did not have glamorous actresses. In that time Universal had big stars asMarlene Dietrich and Loretta Young.
A 24-hour-a-day star, Montez was famous for her spectacular entrances at nightclubs and social functions. Once, when her arrival at the Universal commissary failed to attract notice, she turned her heels and left the room, returning moments later with a huge entourage and accompanying loud noises.
In 1942, she appeared in the first "escapist" movie, SOUTH OF TAHITI. Maria played the role of the girl who lives in an enchanted island of an Asian continent. Universal made this movie with the purpose of competing with Paramount Pictures, whose movies, with the legendaryDorothy Lamour, in the desert, in the jungle or in a tropical island filled the theaters with a public who wanted to escape the worries of World War II.
In spite of the success of the movie mentioned above, Maria was inserted again in a B movie, BOMBAY CLIPPER, a silly film about spies which did not help her career.
A little later, Maria appeared in the production: THE MISTERY OF MARIE ROGET, based on a novel by Edgar Allan Poe.
The writers association "The Manuscripters" gave to Maria Montez an award for her poetry TWILIGHT, which was also published in the literary Latin-American magazine "Baho Rueo", in 1942. Some of her poems were published in the Sunday Mirror on May 3rd, 1943.
On October 1st, 1942, Maria found the love for the second time at Dearbone train station. She fell in love at first sight of the handsome gentleman, who was six feet tall, white, with blue eyes and blond hair. He had certain aspect that made him different from most North-Americans. He was the French actorJean-Pierre Aumont, who was hired by the Metro Goldwin Mayer, for acting in THE CROSS OF LARRAINE.
"Since the first time I saw her I wished deeply to make her a formal marriage proposal to Maria, but I could not find the courage of doing it, because my duties as a French officer were calling me and, very soon, I will have to say good-bye. Until a day I heard myself asking her: Will you marry me?" According toAumont in his autobiography "Sun and Shadow". Maria was his second wife after the French actress Blanche Montel.
Maria’s answer was: "Yes, I will marry you even though you would have to go to the War at the next day! But give me a few minutes for consulting my astrologer about the day you have chosen." Carroll Lighter Norwell, Hollywood’s famous astrologer, gave her a favorable answer and they arranged the wedding for the day that Jean Pierre chose: July 13th, 1943.
Maria gave to Jean Pierre a bracelet with the following dedication: "I love Jean Pierre because he gives me white roses, if he would give me a delicate gift of Cartier it would not make me so happy."
The wedding was on Maria’s house. The maid of honor was Janine Crespin, with the company of the best man Charles Boyer, the painter Frederick Sprague was the organist who played the nuptial march and as guests of honor were her astrologer, her gardener and two masseurs. In the ceremony Maria and Jean Pierre kissed each other 112 times. Unfortunately, for Maria,Aumont had to go to War a few days later.
At last! Universal knew where to put her and they wisely included her in the production of ARABIAN NIGHTS. Set in Orient, this film in Technicolor (the first one in color for Universal), gave to Montez the chance of wearing oriental clothes. Her oriental eyes and her exotic face were splendidly shown by the turbans while the veils showed her great silhouette.
The beautiful effect turned in by Maria with such clothes, caused a big influence in Occidental fashions, specially with the turbans. After 3 years of constant work, she started to enjoy the benefits of the victory.
This was the first movie in which she was the co-star withJon Hall and Sabu.
This movie was the one that inspired her most famous quote: "When I look at myself, I am so beautiful I scream with joy!"
It was also the first movie of a popular series of escapist films which were made by Universal between 1942 and 1945. WHITE SAVAGE, the second one of these series, was the movie that gave her the name of "The Queen of Technicolor".
In order to continue with the Orient subject, Universal produced later ALI BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES. This movie was the most commercial one of that year.
Maria appeared in COBRA WOMAN on 1944, a rare story set in a village where a cruel priestess lived. This proved to be a real challenge for Montez, because she has the dual role of the twin sisters: Nadja, the evil queen of a tribe of snake lovers, and Tollea, the simple and good girl.
The critics agreed in saying that Montez appealed to her power of conviction for playing this dual role, using also her delightful narcissism, for compensating her lack of dramatic resources.
Siödmak, COBRA WOMAN’s director, after working with Maria, said: "Montez is one of the few actresses whose behavior is influenced by her work as an actress, if she is a queen, she will demand you to bow before her, even on the breaks, but if she is a slave, you could treat her very bad and she will not complain."
Maria reached the stardom she craved, in spite of being a newcomer (in that time, the foreigners who came in Hollywood were known as that), of having started her career at the age of 28 and she did not have time for cinematography classes, which did not allow her to develop her dramatic potential.
The "Tempestuous Montez" always had a big retinue of reporters who followed her everywhere, because she offered material for a whole page. When there was not anything new between the movie stars, Los Angeles editors shouted to their reporters: "Go to Beverly Hills, and see what Montez is doing!" According to the reporter Pete Martin of the Saturday Evening Post.
She had a reconnaissance inDominican Republic her country, it was the medals of the Order of Juan Pablo Duarte in the Grade of Officer and the Order of Trujillo in the same grade, given by the dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, on November 1943, when they were making the movie GYPSY WILDCAT. This reconnaissance was the only one given to a woman in the history of Dominican Republic.
GIPSY WILDCAT gave to the Universal millionaires, huge sums of money. The studio wanted to go on with these kinds of movies, but Montez was afraid of being stereotyped and did not want to allow the movie producers to make her an actress that only could make stereotyped roles, always accompanied with the same actor and stocked in the same kind of movies (she appeared in more than 4 movies withJon Hall).
Anne Gwynne, a friend and also one of Universal’s actresses, said at the end of her career: "If I would have followed the example of Maria Montez, I am sure the Studio would have given me better opportunities."
Also in 1944, Maria Montez was one of the guests of the First Lady of U.S.A., Eleanor Roosevelt, for the birthday of her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, at the Statlor Hotel in Washington, D. C.
Before finishing 1944, there was the premiere of BOWERY TO BROADWAY, a movie in black and white that breaks the monotony with the series of her escapist movies initiated in 1942.
In that year also, Maria was a Good Will Ambassador between the U.S.A. and the Latin American countries.
In 1945, she only appears in the movie SUDAN, the last one of her escapist movie, which filled a whole era in the North American history of the films of the 40’s.
Also in 1945, there are changes in Montez life, the first one was, bringing from her native town ofBarahona, her brothers Jaime, Ada, Luz, Consuelo, Teresita and Lucita who tried to enter the world of the movies. The second one was the arrival of her husband, Jean-Pierre Aumont who came back from World War II in 1945.
According to Lucita, Maria recommended her the following: "The first thing a young lady should do for being an actress is to believe she is the most beautiful and important of all the women who live on Earth. In other words, behave as if you were a queen. Do not be afraid in front of any of the directors, not even how exigent and ill-tempered they could look to you. Remember, my dear Lucita, it is the public and not them, who has the last word."
Her brothers did not have much success in Hollywood, but Consuelo appeared with the name of Julia Andre in PIRATES OF MONTEREY and she got married to the Universal publicist, Kenneth Carter.
Luz Montez got married to the journalist of the "Paris Match", Jean Roy, whose real name was Ives L. Leleu.
Her brother Jaime Gracia, with the name of Jaime Montez played in the movies TIME OF CUCKOO, MONTSERRAT, LIVE WIRE, HEAVEN CAN WAIT, BULL FIGHT, ANA LUCASTA and BAD MAN. A few years later he joined the U.S. Army and obtained the grade of sergeant and participated in the war of Korea.
Teresita was hired as exclusive model of the French magazine VOGUE in the 50’s.
Maria refused to appear in the movie FRONTIER GAL, because she was fed up of the escapist movies and she received a sanction of Universal with a fatal suspension of her contract although it was only temporary.
The movie FRONTIER GAL (1945) would be then starred by the actressYvonne De Carlo, who substituted for Maria in SALOME WHERE SHE DANCED, this one was killed by the critics, but it made De Carlo very famous.
Yvonne De Carlo and Maureen O’Hara were transformed in the new stars for Universal’s escapist films. But none of them could surpass the marvelous scenic presence of Maria, her delightful narcissism, and they were not as unique as the most convincing of the queens of escapist film who will remain forever as The Queen of Technicolor, because none of her successors will receive such an ostentatious title. (According to Jerry Vermille, in Screen Facts, #13, Vol. 3 (Page 19), 1966, USA.)
The movie TANGIER was made by the Universal with the purpose of pleasing Maria. In spite of that, once more her beauty stood out, this film in black and white was known as the biggest mistake of her whole career, because it showed a lot of her limitations.
On February 14th, 1946, at 8:14 a.m., Maria gave birth to a pretty baby girl of 8 pounds and 3 ounces, who received the name of Maria Christina. Nowadays she is known as the actress Tina Aumont (or Tina Marquand).
In those days, Jean-Pierre Aumont, her husband said about her: "Maria Montez has a double personality, the one she made for Hollywood, and the mother and wife. . . that woman full of simplicity, culture and romance of an overflowing humanity."
While they were making THE EXILE, in 1946, Maria, too late for complaining, learned that they only mentioned the name of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the promotion and that she only appeared in 20 minutes on screen. Universal signed a contract with Montez for 8 movies in the position of star or co-star, Maria and her lawyers decided to sue Universal Pictures and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and she and her lawyers won US $250,000.
Later she appeared again in Technicolor in the movie PIRATES OF MONTEREY.
After this movie, Maria took the decision of abandoning, forever, Universal Pictures. The movie producers did not move a finger when letting go one of their most commercial actresses, but they either hid their resentments caused by Maria’s lawsuit were bigger than their interests of keeping her.
Maria Montez, now free of any contract, signed with the movie producer Seymour Nebenzal in order to make the movie THE SIREN OF ATLANTIS with United Artists.
At the end of War World II, Maria Montez moved to Paris with her husband Jean-Pierre Aumont. Jean Pierre wanted to come back to Paris in order to get rid of the limitations his accent was causing him, he said: "At the beginning, my accent was my best friend, but later it became a big pain, because the North-American movie producers only wanted me for acting as the hero of their movies, meanwhile, deep inside of me, it was growing the desire of playing dramatic roles."
To Maria the circumstances were very different. In 1946, when she went to Europe, she was still the best commercial actress for Universal Pictures and, although her contract was expiring, the Studio offered her a new one, for another 7 years, and with better conditions.
The welcome, France did in this occasion to the French actor and his beautiful Dominican wife (the first star of the North-American movies who visited France after War World II), was very pleasant to the couple.
The French people showed a big sympathy to the gorgeous star. Paulette Gallard had her hair done in the same beauty parlor of Maria and she does not forget her laugh, her voice with that accent, constantly saying spicy words which everybody liked.
From September 20th to October 5th, 1946, Maria Montez and Jean-Pierre Aumont were invited to the First Film Festival in Cannes.
The first movie Jean Pierre and Maria made in France was HANS LE MARINE (Wicked City). François Villiers, brother of Jean Pierre, was the director of the film. Also played in this occasion Lillie Palmer and Jean Roy, the husband of Luz (Lucita) Montez.
The next movie of Maria was PORTRAIT D’UN ASSASIN (‘Portrait of an Assassin’), made in France by Bernard Roland. Important European actors such as Erich Von Stroheim, Arletty and Pierre Braseur appeared in the main roles. According to the critics Maria looked more charming and convincing than ever before. Proving her histrionics skills started to get better.
While Maria was working in this movie, Jean Pierre wrote a successful play, THE EMPERATOR OF CHINA, in which he was the star along with Lillie Palmer and Phyllis Risk. The play was adapted for Broadway by Philip Barry with the tittle of MY NAME IS AQUILON.
Later Maria traveled to Italy for playing the leading lady role in the movie IL LADRO DI VENEZIA (‘The Thief of Venice’). Her performance was accepted by the critics and they said it was the best work of her whole career.
During the making of this movie, Maria had a strong fight with Jean Pierre which surprised the media because they have never produced comments or gossips about their relationship. The couple was considered to have one of the strongest marriages among movie stars.
On March 22nd, 1949. Jean Pierre said to the media the following: "Love dreams do not last for ever." But they could solve their problems and some weeks later the French actor said: "I’m writing a theater play for Maria. Before the possibility of the dissolving of our marriage, our love became more intense."
In their 8th anniversary, Maria gave him an Alfa Romeo car and he bought her original earrings of platinum and diamonds designed by a famous Bulgarian jeweler. Years later these earrings were given by Jean Pierre to Diana Ross in the movie MAHOGANY (1973).
The second Italian movie from Montez was AMORE E SANGUE (City of Violence).
When she came back to Paris, Maria started to rehearse for her debut in theater with the play L’ILE HEREUSE (The Happy Island), the one Jean Pierre wrote for her.
The premier of the play was on January 1951, in the Edouard VII theater of Paris, Maria played the role of a Latin American actress called Carlotta Goya that when she comes to Hollywood, she is the victim of intrigues and offenses of the important people of the movies. L’ILE HEREUSE had such a success in Paris that it was placed in other European cities.
The French actor and the Dominican actress traveled together to Italy for being the stars of the movie LA VENDETTA DEL CORSARO (The Pirates Revenge).
In this opportunity Jean Pierre could see the affection the Italians had for his wife: "The Italians asked for her autograph in the streets and she blew them kisses. When we were in the Santa Maria Trastevere Restaurant, some kids got close to her and one of them put on his knees and told her: Give us another movie, please, I am begging you!"
On May 1951, her agent Louis Schurr made her a proposal for coming back to Hollywood which she accepted gladly, but unfortunately she could not do it.
Maria Africa Gracia Vidal, died on September 7th, 1951, while she was taking a bath, in her house in Sureness, Paris. Her sisters Ada and Teresita found her drowned in the bath tub.
According to the doctors, her accident could be provoked by 2 different situations:
1) She had a heart attack due to a shock produced with the contact with the hot water (45 Celsius degrees).
2) The hot water made her faint and she drowned. There was not an autopsy, so the real reason of her death is still unknown.
Her funeral was in the Saint Pierre of Chaillot Roman Catholic Church, on September 11th, 1951. Her body was wearing a blue satin dress with white accessories, designed by Jacques Hein, as it would be appropriated to the one called in life, The Queen Technicolor.
In Dominican Republic, the news of her death caused a lot of sadness. In her town, Barahona, it was declared a communal grief of 24 hours on the September 8th, 1951. Ten days later they changed the name of the street Prolongación de la Uruguay with the one of Maria Montez.
President Joaquín Balaguer officially opened the Barahona International Airport on Saturday, 27 April, 1996: The Maria Montez International Airport.
In Santo Domingo, the capital of the country, hundreds of people went to Santomé theater for watching a posthumous homage to the Queen of Technicolor on September 19, 1951.
Before showing ARABIAN NIGHTS and ALI BABA AND THE 40 THIEVES, the public got on their feet in order to stay one minute in silence. Later, some people distributed several photographs of the actress around the halls.
On May 1998, they put in Santo Domingo a bronze star dedicated to Maria Montez at the Bulevar de la Juventud y de las Estrellas (Youth and Stars Boulevard) on Winston Churchill Ave.
In her will, Maria distributed her legacy (US $200,000) to her mother, some of her brothers, her daughter and her husband.
But her best legacy she gave to the Dominicans was to reach the stardom at the age of 28, in spite of not being from a small North American town as Ava, not having the experience of the Music Hall or Broadway, she was from a province of the Dominican Republic where she lived the first 20 years of her life.
Eight years later, she arrived to Hollywood, where she was competing wisely for the fame and got it, in spite of the obstacles she had to deal with. Her filmography consists of 2 French, 3 Italians and 21 North-American movies composing the total of 26 movies which put the name of the Dominican Republic in the encyclopedias and stories of the 7th Art.
Nowadays movies like ARABIAN NIGHTS are classics of its genre.
The movies IL LADRO DE VENEZIA and PORTRAIT D’UN ASSASIN have the best performances of her artistic life.
Maria wrote 3 books, numerous poems, between them TWILIGHT, which won an award of the association The Manuscripters. She also wrote the songs DOLIENTE and MIDNIGHT MEMORIES.
FOREVER IS A LONG TIME, HOLLYWOOD WOLVES I HAVE TAMED and REUNION IN LILITH are the titles of the books written by the actress. But REUNION IN LILITH was never published.
Memories of her legendary beauty are the paintings of: McClelland Barclay, Ernst Van Leyden and Frederick Sprague. Also, the Dominican painters Angel Haché and Adolfo Piantini were inspired by the actress.
Maria Africa Gracia was as simple as spectacular were the movies in which she appeared.
A good daughter, sister, wife and mother, Montez was, at that level, so far away of Hollywood that she could never inspire a writer of sensationalist scandals.
I hope some day in Dominican Republic, it will be a museum dedicated to the actress where we could dream today and tomorrow with that gorgeous and exotic lady that was so close to us.
The information in this page is from the book "MARIA MONTEZ: Su Vida", byMargarita Vicens de Morales. In Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, you can get this book at:
LIBRERIA LA TRINITARIA
Arzobispo Nouel 160, Corner José Reyes, Zona Colonial
Phones (809) 682-1032 / 686-6110
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