Mario Montez (1935–2013)

Mario Montez (René Rivera) in conversation with Marc Siegel at the “LIVE FILM! JACK SMITH! Five Flaming Days in a Rented World!” conference, Arsenal Institut für Film und Videokunst, Berlin, October 30, 2009. Photo: David Velasco.

Sunday, May 17, 2009 6:24 PM

Dear Mr. Siegel,

Thank you for your interest in Mario Montez and your generous offer. As you may or may not know “Mario doesn’t fly! ”. The only way to get to Berlin would be by boat and train.... [Ronald] and Harvey [Tavel] were both great influences in my career and we all remained good friends even after my retirement.... I feel in this time of my life it would be helpful to keep the Underground Film Experience alive in the hearts and minds of future film students and hopefully my memories of that time will be helpful. Thank you again, Mario Montez

So reads the very first email I ever received from Mario Montez, who passed away at the age of seventy-eight on September 26, 2013. I remember clearly my quivering uncertainty about initially contacting him, despite the trust and encouragement I received from the dear, indispensable Agosto Machado, a wonderful performer and Montez’s longtime friend. Agosto, the entrusted Keeper of the Secret of Montez’s Florida whereabouts for almost thirty years, was somehow convinced by the kind words of mutual friends that I was to be the chosen one who should be granted access to the reclusive Superstar. Montez, of course, was the drag performer who debuted as “The Spanish Lady” in Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1962–63) and then went on to reign over the New York underground film and theater scene in the 1960s and early ’70s. He delivered striking performances in over twenty films, including Normal Love (1963–65), Ron Rice’s Chumlum (1963), José Rodriguez Soltero’s Lupe (1966) and—perhaps most famously—many of Andy Warhol’s early films, including Harlot (1964), Screen Test #2 (1965), and Hedy (1966), before becoming a central figure in the Theatre of the Ridiculous.

I wanted to contact Montez because I was working with actress Susanne Sachsse and Stefanie Schulte Strathaus, co-director of Berlin’s Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art, on the festival “LIVE FILM! JACK SMITH! Five Flaming Days in a Rented World.” Ronald Tavel had tragically died on his return trip to Bangkok from the festival’s initial planning session and we thought of no greater honor to Tavel and Smith than an appearance by Montez at our fall festival. But I had never truly dreamed such a thing would be possible. Although I saw Montez and Machado in Mary Jordan's 2006 documentary Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis, Montez hadn’t resurfaced for public appearances and seemed instead to slip back quietly into hiding. Even my friend Callie Angell, who had found (or found out about) practically everyone who had ever appeared in a scrap of film by Andy Warhol, didn’t have his contact information. Callie respected what she took to be Montez’s Garbo-esque wishes: to be left alone. So there I was, writing an email to Mario Montez as if writing a fan letter to some kind of Silver Screen Beyond.

You can imagine my speechless glee when, five days later, I received the above response. I was ecstatic, running around my apartment like—well, like a giddy queen who had just received an email from Mario Montez. I was determined to convince my collaborators that we had to find the almost €10,000 it would cost us to bring the Superstar by ship. Over the course of a number of emails, phone calls, and meetings, however, it became clear that sea travel from Florida to Germany was not only costly but also inconvenient. After conveying the news to Montez, I was naturally overjoyed when, three days later, I awoke to the following email:

Dear Mr. Siegel, I have had recent conversations with my partner, Agosto, Harvey Tavel, my doctor and some friends. They have assured me that jet travel today is a lot different than it was when I had my bad experience flying before... I slept on it and have decided to fly....

I had actually suspected that “Mario doesn’t fly” because I knew that he didn’t fly with Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company to Berlin back in the early 1970s, when they performed in Europe and—thanks to Stefan Brecht—visited the Berliner Ensemble. But it wasn’t until I finally got to meet and befriend Montez at our festival in October 2009 that we commenced on a series of public and private conversations that exposed so many hitherto unknown details about his life and work. The bad experience with “jet travel,” for instance, occurred in 1944 when he was nine years old and flew with his mother and family members from San Juan, Puerto Rico to Miami in order to begin the long trek north to New York City to join his father who had left a few months earlier to find employment and an apartment. In fact, because Montez had retreated from the public eye back in 1977 and had only given a few interviews during his roughly fifteen years of continuous work in film and theater, there was very little available—and reliable—information about him. The existing accounts in the film and theater literature tend more toward half-truths, projections, and whimsy, than accurate representations of Montez’s real life experiences and perspectives. Montez, his partner Dave, and I all had to laugh about Ron Tavel spinning the tale that the Superstar had moved to Florida, become heterosexual, gotten married, and raised children. And I think it was during one of our first conversations that Montez explained that—contrary to most written accounts—he had never worked for the post office, or “maybe just one year for Christmas when they needed extra help.”

There are many myths about the reserved Montez that emerged in the absence of his own account. For this reason, it is all the more significant that he graciously decided to take up once again his public persona and share with audiences in Berlin, New York, Wroclaw, and Frankfurt over the past four years his memories about the “Underground Film (and Theater) Experience.” That experience happened decades ago in a city far from Orlando, Florida where Montez had settled after leaving New York, and where he had begun another phase in his life—one not about heterosexuality, but not about queer underground performance either. He therefore generously solicited others to work with him on the collective reconstruction of a history that he, most understandably, only partially recalled. Being privileged enough to facilitate and accompany him on this journey back to a formative time in his life and a time of immense inspiration for me and many others—that is something I will never cease to cherish. It gave me the opportunity to experience firsthand the dignity and humanity, the grandeur and down-home glamour, the seductive charm and casual wit so poignantly conveyed by Mario Montez’s star image.

Marc Siegel is an assistant professor of film studies at the Goethe University in Frankurt am Main, Germany and is working on a book about Mario Montez.