Monday, March 21, 2016

History of a long friendship

A Sunday morning coffee break on Madison Avenue. 10:30 AM. Photo: JH.
Monday, March 21, 2016. Sunday was the first day of Spring. The weatherman forecast a big snowstorm. By late yesterday afternoon, it was still sunny and the forecast had been downgraded from Big to Light. At 11 p.m., the time of this writing, we're getting a very very light flurry, leaving a lot of wet. It's not cold enough for snow. March came in like a lion (for a minute); and goes out like a lamb).

Saturday, I was re-organizing some of my files, when I came upon some of my journals when I was living in Los Angeles. The first to catch my eye was written at the end of July, 1985. In this particular entry, I had had dinner that night with my friend Luis Estevez. Luis, whom I first met in New York in the early 1960s, was about 20 years my senior, and a Havana-born fashion designer who abandoned a great career in New York and on Seventh Avenue in the late 1960s, for life in Los Angeles.

The dapper designer at home in Montecito, in his dining room in the '90s.
Lillian Bassman photograph of Mary Jane Russell Harper's Bazaar 1960 (with the designer lurking in the background).
His fashion career began in Paris in the late 1940s as an assistant to the couturier Jacques Fath, and then to New York where he was one of the first designers to have his own label, and the youngest to be awarded a Coty.

His great friend John Galliher, who met Luis in those early days in Paris, told me that as he rose in stature and became more and more successful and popular, he shared everything with his friends. The early brilliant career had brought him many social adventures and connections, all of which he lapped up and loved.  An entirely social animal, Luis was a handsome man with a sunny Latin charm that drew him to the ladies and the gents of the community, almost all of whom put him at the top of their guestlists. It could be concluded that this adventure was his greatest career.

Hollywood was as welcoming to this bright and sophisticated talent, as had been New York and Paris. Except it had one thing that surpassed all the others and that was a magnet for him: movie stars. They’re everywhere. Stars, stars, and shiny cars, Luis was thrilled and amazed by meeting and getting to know the great female film stars of the Golden Age of movies, the era of his childhood and adolescence. Although he wasn’t a writer, he had volumes of recollections about the characters who passed through the parade of his social life.

These recollections were the bond between me and Luis.  He was one of the first people I met as a very young man who lived most of their life inside this world of make believe and movies. I didn’t have to pump him to hear what he knew, heard or experienced. A simple question about a famous name often evoked an amusing story of life in that world of make believe. All stories carried the irony feeding cynicism.

It was my habit back then, and ultimately in the history of our long friendship, that every time after we’d get together for dinner or drinks, I’d go home and write it down. Luis also had a natural affinity for drama -- Latin style -- as well as the irony. If often occurred to me that his own stories always had a cinematic quality. They were both large and small, sweet and sly, beneficent and a bit of bitchery.

Over the weekend, I was cleaning out, or rather, attempting to put some order to some of my files, when I came upon this story that Luis told me about the Mexican movie star of the 1940s and '50s named Maria Felix.
Maria Felix in the 1950s.
“Anecdote from the lips of Luis Estevez during a lucid moment.”

As told to David Patrick Columbia on July 30, 1985, Los Angeles.

Luis Estévez: I knew her very well. We had a marvelous relationship. She was beautifully over-the-top dramatic and daringly dangerous and desirable.

And by dramatically dangerous, I mean she was very upfront. We met in 1959 in Acapulco just before Acapulco had its golden era. At that time I was in my late 20s and the hot new star in the fashion world, and I’d built a house (“Le Cumbre”) there that everybody was talking about.  It was at a dinner party at Natasha and Jacques Gelman’s. He was the manager of Cantinflas, the great Mexican star. The Gelmans also had one of the greatest collections of modern art in the world.
Maria Felix in Les héros sont fatigués (Heroes and Sinners), 1954.
Now Maria Felix played to men and to women. She was a sexual goddess and both men and women fell madly in love with her. On this night that we met, I knew who she was of course, but she came right up to me and said: “We’re going to be friends.” She won me immediately.

This was after she divorced Agustin Lara, the great composer who had been madly in love with her and had written one of his most famous songs for her. It was sung over and over – Maria Bonita, the Acapulco Maria Bonita
Agustin Lara and Maria Felix were married from 1945 to 1948.
After that marriage was over – because he was older – she met this very handsome, very popular Mexican star, Jorge Negrete. Jorge was so passionately in love with her, the story goes, that shortly after their wedding he died – he was very young – while making love to her.  (laughter from LE). Good story, true or not, and very dramatic just like Maria.
Maria Felix and Jorge Negrete.
Whatever, one of the most famous stories about Maria Felix had to do with that marriage. Jorge Negrete did indeed die shortly after he and Maria married. But not long before they married he had given her the most extravagant expensive suite of cut emeralds mounted with diamonds from Cartier -- a necklace, a bracelet, earrings and a very big ring before big rings were the thing. After he died, Maria discovered that the jewels hadn’t yet been paid for. The jewelers of course came to Maria Felix for the money but she refused to pay. So naturally they wanted her to return the suite of emeralds and diamonds.

Maria Felix, in her true, strong style of dealing with anything, looked at them and said:

Lo dado es dado. (What is given is given.)

And so it was.
And of course, after that she went off to Paris, changed her whole life at that moment, and met Freddie, a famous lesbian who owned a very popular nightclub called Freddie’s.

Now Maria was a total bisexual. She loved men and she loved women. She loved to be passionate and dramatic. And that’s what made her such a star. So love bloomed like a fierce wind in the tropics, engulfing Maria-Felix in a storm of passion. It was during that storm that she enchanted her new lover with a gift of the big diamond and emerald ring from Cartier.
The lady with her Cartier crocodiles that went everywhere with her.
However, fate again stepped in, and after a year and a half of bliss went kaput and she asked Freddie to give back the diamond and emerald ring.  She said something like “Give them back bitch.” 

But Freddie turned to Maria and said: “Lo dado es dado.”

They ended the relationship with an out-and-out over-the-top fight.

And so it was.

Maria Felix (l.) arriving at the "Adam and Eve" party of Luis and Betty Estévez (c. & r.) in Acapulco, 1960.
It was after that, when Maria came back to Acapulco, that she and I became tremendous friends. She was famous for always being late. That was so she could make an entrance, of course: You plan it, you look better than anybody and you’re more famous than anybody. There’s the drama. I recall one time at a huge luncheon for a hundred or more in a sunken patio garden in Las Brisas when Maria arrived and everybody was already seated at all their tables -- with the mariachis playing and the crowd chatting.

All of a sudden the mariachi stopped. They had seen Maria Felix arriving at the top of the broad, wide steps. They started to play Lara’s famous love song to her: Maria Bonita; Maria del alma Maria de Acapulco.

Suddenly everybody looked up…and there she was, dazzling, shimmering; ready for her closeup.

The hostess got up and ran over to greet her. Everyone was quiet. The hostess began to escort her to her place. Maria Felix stopped her, holding up her hand.

“No,” she said to her hostess. “I want to sit there,” she declared, pointing in my direction, “next to Luis Estévez.”

And so, of course she did. When she got to my side we kissed and she said:

“Como te gusto esta encrada?” (How do you like that entrance?)

The legenday Dolores del Rio and Luis Estévez, Acapulco 1958.
(laughter from Luis)

Now there was one other person in Mexico who was as beautiful and as famous as Maria, and that was Dolores del Rio. Dolores, who was also a friend, was beautiful inside and out. She was a classy, caring lady. I loved both women but they were tremendous rivals. Those in the know went out of their way never to have them at the same time as guests because it could become a problem.

They were really not friendly. They did not, they would not, speak to each other. It could get very tense and uncomfortable for everyone else. They were so completely different, both so beautiful, but they were very jealous of each other.

Maria Felix didn’t help matters. She’d played the drama right to the end. That’s why she was a star. I loved her. She was unstoppable.

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