Oct 6, 2023

Book Review--Strictly Dynamite: The Sensational Life of Lupe Vélez, by Eve Golden

Strictly Dynamite: The Sensational Life of Lupe Vélez 
Eve Golden 
University Press of Kentucky, 2023 

As a biographer, Eve Golden has a knack for clearing the fog around her subjects. In previous books about Jayne Mansfield, Jean Harlow, and John Gilbert, she dug for the truth behind the scandals that overshadowed these stars while also revealing the real person beyond the marquee. She does that once again for Lupe Vélez, a multi-talented, vivacious star who desperately needed a reputation adjustment. 

The Mexico-born Vélez was one of those people who was born to be seen. Her ability to delight audiences extended from the stage to the screen, though she never had the great films to match her talent. I’ve long appreciated Golden’s thorough research and respect for her subjects. She is dedicated to finding the truth while retaining a sense of fairness and decency. The humanity of her subject always appears to be top-of-mind. Here it is easy to see how Vélez got the reputation that she did, but that this flirtatious, outrageous, and temperamental woman was a lot more professional and grounded than rumor would have it. 

Vélez was a spitfire, and it is understandable why the seemingly effortless comedy of her Mexican Spitfire series brought her her greatest fame, but she was far from being only a fiery Latin stereotype. She was a strong dramatic actress, which she demonstrated in the early talkie Resurrection (1931), but studios and audiences didn’t wish to see her this way. As a result, Vélez often had more offers for work than she could accept, but rarely had the opportunity to show the full extent of her talents. 

While Vélez lived a vibrant life full of adventure, friends, lovers, and ultimately lasting prosperity, there’s always the feeling of what she really wants being out of reach. She can’t be alone or sit still and while that can be chalked up to personality in some respects, there’s also the impression that some of the restlessness comes from the constant struggle to reach her full potential professionally and personally. She knows her worth and she can’t degrade herself by settling. 

The book tells this story with a clear eye, aware of Vélez' flaws, but also revealing her strong work ethic, a common touch with almost entire lack of star attitude, and great intelligence in financial matters. It has an easy flow, with a few asides to fill out the big picture as far as the people in Vélez’ life and the times she lived in, but good overall pacing and focus. I love how Golden uses light humor and wry comments to give the narrative the feeling of a good conversation. She finds a solid balance between respect of the subject and a sort of lightness of tone that makes the story as entertaining as it is informative. 

And yes, she explains in full detail why Vélez couldn't have drowned in her toilet. This book rescues her reputation from the dismal gossip around the circumstances of her death, though ultimately it offers a story much richer than the rumors that have overwhelmed her legacy.

Many thanks to University Press of Kentucky for providing a copy of the book for review.

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