Bárbara Mujica is the bestselling author of four novels, including Frida, which was translated into 17 languages. She is also an award-winning short story writer and essayist whose work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Miami Herald, among others. A professor emerita of Spanish at Georgetown University, she grew up in Los Angeles and now lives in Bethesda, Maryland. Visit Bárbara at www.barbaramujica.com.
The Gloss Book Club: What can you tell our members about your novel Miss Del Río?
Bárbara Mujica: Miss del Río tells the story, in fictionalized form, of Mexico’s first international female movie star. Dolores del Río—known as Lola to her friends—was “discovered” at a party in Mexico by the American director Edwin Carewe. He brought her to Hollywood just when the studios were looking for a female Latin Lover—a feminine version of the Italian heartthrob Rudolph Valentino. Due to her talent, beauty, and remarkable work ethic, she became a star practically overnight. Her limited English was no problem because in those days, films were silent. When, in 1927, talkies were introduced, many actors—even native speakers of English—were terrified that audiences might find their voices unappealing, in which case, their careers would be over. However, Lola made the transition beautifully. She worked hard to master English and then used her accent to an advantage by always playing foreigners—Frenchwomen, Brazilians, even Russians. She made one film after the other: Evangeline, The Bad One, Bird of Paradise, Flying down to Rio, I Live for Love. Her exotic beauty thrilled fans. In 1932 a committee of “experts”—designers, artists, medical authorities—even named her the most beautiful woman in the world!
However, in the period preceding World War II, many Americans became xenophobic. Foreign actors were often deemed “box office poison” and couldn’t get jobs. Lola was also labeled “box office poison,” but instead of giving up, she returned to Mexico and became one of the most important figures of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema. In 1946, María Candelaria, a film in which she starred, won first prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It was the first Mexican film to be screened at the Festival and the first Latin American film to win.
In Hollywood, Dolores del Río sometimes faced misogyny and racism, yet managed to maintain her dignity, elegance, and style throughout her career.
TGBC: You’ve previously written novels about other prominent women, including Saint Teresa of Avila and Frida Kahlo; what inspired you to write this novel portraying the life of Dolores Del Río?
BM: I grew up in Los Angeles and have been in love with Mexican cinema for as long as I can remember. I loved the music and the melodrama. By then, Dolores del Río was no longer a big star, but she was a Hollywood legend, and everyone knew her name. My interest in her really blossomed when I wrote the novel Frida. Dolores del Río was a close friend of both Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and she came up repeatedly in my research. She was a minor character in Frida and was a wonderful foil to the protagonist. Frida loved to be outrageous. She loved to scandalize people by using vulgar language or making inappropriate comments. Lola was just the opposite. She had a clear sense of decorum and always projected an image of elegance and sophistication. However, what really drew me to her was her incredible resilience.
Lola married Jaime del Río, a sophisticated man from a wealthy, landholding family, when she was sixteen. Jaime accompanied her to Hollywood in hopes of becoming a scriptwriter. However, while Lola became an overnight success, Jaime failed utterly. Gradually, the situation became untenable. Carewe monopolized Lola, escorting her to parties and openings, and making sure they were photographed together. He became possessive and domineering, attempting to control not only Lola’s career but her every move. When Lola began to suspect Jaime of homosexual tendencies, their marriage came to an end. Jaime, tired of being “Mr. Dolores del Río,” moved to New York and then Germany. However, Lola truly loved Jaime, and the separation was devastating for her. Nevertheless, she picked herself and continued her career. She broke off with Carewe and married Cedrick Gibbons, an Oscar-winning set designer, known for his art deco interiors. However, just as Gibbons’ star was rising, Lola’s was beginning to fade. The two grew apart, and Lola began a torrid affair with Orson Welles.
During the period preceding World War II, many Americans became xenophobic. Foreign actors were often deemed “box office poison” and couldn’t get jobs. Both Lola and her cousin Ramón Novarro, also a Hollywood star, were investigated for Unamerican activities. Both were exonerated, but while Ramón became depressed and sank into alcoholism, Lola displayed resilience by returning to Mexico to relaunch her career. In truth, she had always been dissatisfied with the vapidity of Hollywood. Her American films were pure entertainment, and she often played silly, sexy protagonists. However, in Europe and Mexico, the movie industry was producing socially relevant films that dealt with problems such as poverty, prejudice, and abuse of women and children. Lola yearned to be part of this new movement.
Once she returned to Mexico Frida Kahlo introduced her to the up and coming director Emilio Fernández, who was making a new kind of film that focused on Mexican reality. Working with Fernández, Lola became one of the most important figures of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema. In 1946, María Candelaria, a film in which she starred, won first prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It was the first Mexican film to be screened at the Festival and the first Latin American film to win.
TGBC: Why did you choose to have the story narrated by Dolores’s fictional hairdresser and longtime friend, rather than by Dolores herself?
BM: There were several reasons for this decision. Biofiction is a particularly tricky genre. When attempting to depict the experiences of another person, the author must inevitably come to terms with her own inability to see the world through her protagonist’s eyes. We see our subject from our own historical reality and our own cultural biases, no matter how hard we try to immerse ourselves into our protagonist’s world view. I simply did not feel comfortable telling Dolores del Río’s story as though I were her. For one thing, Lola had her own voice; all those who have seen her films have heard it. For another, she has not been dead so long—she died in 1983—and some people still remember her. I needed a subjective narrator to tell Lola’s story, someone who was close to her, but could still see her, as I did, from without. Lola is a positive character, but, like everyone else, she has her faults. She is obsessed with her career, which makes her self-centered. She was unfaithful to her first two husbands, and because she doesn’t have to care for a family and children, she is often insensitive to the needs of those who do. I needed a narrator who both cherished Lola and was aware of her shortcomings. I asked myself what it would be like to know a famous movie star who was always flying off to an opening or a party. What would it be like, as an ordinary person, to be friends with someone whose photo was always in the magazines, someone who was always preening, had to be impeccably dressed, and took “beauty naps” to preserve her looks? Finally, I hit on the idea of Mara, Lola’s longtime (fictional) friend and hair stylist, as a narrator. For one thing, Mara has known Lola since both were little girls, long before Lola was a star, so Lola really can’t put on airs with her. For another, women often have a close relationship with their hairdressers and tell them everything. My own mother was a hairdresser, so I’m familiar with the world of beauty shops. But there’s also another reason for Mara: From my perspective, a movie star’s life isn’t really so interesting. A constant schedule of screenings, photos shoot, parties and receptions can make for tedious reading. How many readers would identify with a character like that? Furthermore, a wealthy, childless woman like Lola was sheltered from many of the realities that ordinary folk had to face during the thirties and forties—the depression (financial hardship, unemployment), the polio epidemic (the fear of childhood paralysis), World War II (the fear of a loved one being drafted or killed). Mara has to face all these challenges. Mara is the character who keeps the reader anchored to reality.
TGBC: What kind of research did you do for this novel and how long do you spend researching before beginning to write?
BM: I had already done a lot of reading about Frida Kahlo and the Mexican Revolution for my novel Frida, and Lola was part of Frida’s entourage. In addition, I regularly taught a course in Latin American culture and another on Frida Kahlo and the art of the Mexican revolution at Georgetown University. To prepare for Miss del Río, I read the three-volume biography of Dolores del Río, by David Ramón; studies by Linda Hall and Joanne Hershfield; and numerous smaller studies, newspaper articles and reviews. Of particular interest were André Soares’s biography of Ramón Novarro and two biographies of Marlene Dietrich: Marlene, by Charlotte Chandler, and Marlene Dietrich: The Life, by María Rivas. I also read several books on movie production in the twenties and thirties. All of this material provided insight into Dolores del Río’s world. I spent about a year and a half researching before I began writing the novel—although during that time I also completely a collection of short stories, Imagining Iraq, and an edited edition of women’s war writing, Collateral Damage.
TGBC: When researching for Miss Del Río, what was the most surprising thing you learned?
BM: One of the most interesting things that I learned was that despite her wealth and success, Lola never lost sight of the Mexican masses. Toward the end of her career, she started numerous daycare centers for the children of women working in the film and theater industries, mostly in menial positions—as janitors, cooks, carpenters, or seamstresses. This was not something she undertook casually. She read the books of Maria Montessori and Jean Piaget on child development and started a new kind of daycare center where children would be nurtured and educated, not just “looked after.” Nothing like it existed in Mexico.
TGBC: What did you edit out of this book?
BM: Ramón Novarro, Lola’s gay cousin, was brutally murdered by two male prostitutes. There was ample newspaper coverage of the incident at the time, and I read many articles on the subject. Furthermore, Soares covers it in detail in his biography. I had written a rather graphic description of the murder, and beta readers told me it was one of the most powerful scenes in the book. However, my editor thought it was too violent, that the depiction of such cruelty directed at a gay man was off-putting, especially since the scene came near the end of the novel and might leave the reader with negative feelings. In the end, I took it out.
TGBC: What appeals to you about writing historical fiction?
BM: I was trained as a scholar and taught at Georgetown University for many years. Although I taught courses on Latin American culture and art, my specialization was in early modern (16th- and 17th– century) literature and culture. Much of my research was on early modern women’s writing. My two latest scholarly books, Teresa de Ávila, Lettered Woman and Women Religious and Epistolary Exchange (which just won the GEMELA Prize for best scholarly book on early modern women of 2021—I mention it because I just found out and am extremely excited) required spending hours and hours in libraries and convent archives reading letters that haven’t been touched for hundreds of years. Sometimes the research I do for a scholarly project can be applied to a novel. For example, my work with the letters of Teresa de Ávila served for both the academic study Teresa de Ávila, Lettered Woman and the novel, Sister Teresa.
What I love about historical fiction is the same as what I love about historical research: delving into the past, reading primary resources, discovering our predecessors as people. However, researching and writing fiction is more fun than reading and researching history because fiction requires you to find out about the day-to-day lives of people. In order to write fiction, you need to know what people wore, what they ate, how they spent their leisure time. When you write a research paper, you don’t need to know what kind of underwear your subject wore, but when you write a novel, you absolutely do. Before I wrote the first chapters of Miss del Rio, I visited the fashion museum in Chicago to find out what kind of bustle Lola’s mother would have used. When I wrote I Am Venus, about the 17th-century painter Velázquez, I spent hours researching farthingales in order to dress the female characters.
TGBC: What is the most challenging element about writing historical fiction?
BM: It is challenging to balance the historical with the fictional. For me, it is absolutely essential to respect historical accuracy. Although some authors are happy to alter history in order to make their stories more interesting or palatable, I do not. For example, Five Black Ships, by Napoleón Baccino Ponce de León, is an absolutely fabulous novel about Magellan’s voyage to the East Indies through the passage now known as the Straits of Magellan and the Pacific Ocean. However, in the novel, Magellan makes it back to Europe, while in reality, he died in what is now the Philippines. This kind of toying with history makes me uncomfortable. Nevertheless, there are exceptions. One of my favorite novels is Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World, about the rivalry between Von Humboldt and Gauss, two scientific giants of the German Enlightenment. According to a review in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, the book is full of historical errors, but Kehlmann’s purpose is clearly to poke fun at Germans’ collective self-image as a superior culture. The novel is humorous and the protagonists are caricatures. Kehlmann has explained this in interviews. So, while I try to avoid anachronisms and historical errors, I recognize that sometimes they serve the author’s purpose.
TGBC: Is there anything you would like to see more or less of in this genre?
I would like to see more accuracy—except, of course, in spoofs such as Kehlmann’s.
TGBC: How did you get into writing and what inspired you to write your first book?
BM: I started writing at a young age. In high school I won a journalism prize that enabled me to work on a real newspaper for a while, and at U.C.L.A. I wrote for The Daily Bruin, the college newspaper. My first real job was as an editor in the foreign language section of the school department of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, a New York publisher. I wrote Spanish-language textbooks, all of which included my own short stories. Later, I started sending stories to literary journals. I published two collections of short stories and a novel with a small (not a vanity) press before I had a bestseller with Frida. I was inspired to write my first novel, The Deaths of Don Bernardo, by family stories I had heard over the years.
TGBC: When you start writing a new book, what is your goal? What do you aim to invoke in your readers?
BM: My goal is always to tell a story. I want my readers to wonder what will happen next, what the characters will do, what will become of them. Lots of women are natural storytellers. Family histories are often passed down by women. I think all of the women in my family are storytellers—my mother, me, my daughters, my granddaughters. For me, the story is the thing, which is why, according to my husband, it takes me an hour to tell anyone about my trip to the grocery store or how the neighbor backed her car into the mailbox.
TGBC: What are you currently working on or what’s next for you?
BM: Right now I’m editing a collection of essays on European theater for an academic press. I do have a new novel in mind, and I’ve done quite a bit of reading on the subject, but I’m a bit superstitious, so I’d rather not disclose the topic for the moment.