Who is Myrtle Gonzalez?

Before the bright lights of Hollywood shone on celebrity Latinas like Salma Hayek and Jennifer Lopez, Myrtle Gonzalez paved the way. Known as the “First Latin American Movie Star,” her successful career in silent films helped break barriers for Hispanic actors in the early 1900s. Though she passed away at just 27 years old, her legacy continues to impact Hollywood today.

Myrtle’s Humble Beginnings in Vibrant Los Angeles

Myrtle Gonzalez was born on September 28, 1891, in Los Angeles, California, during the Mexican-American War era. Her parents – Francisco Gonzalez and Maria Rodriguez – were Mexican immigrants building a life in theater and music. 

Francisco worked as a set constructor for live productions, exposing little Myrtle to the magic behind the curtain at a young age. Maria honed her skills as a singer, often performing at local events and venues.

Surrounded by LA’s vibrant performing arts scene, Myrtle quickly developed her talents for singing and dancing. When just a toddler, she would put on the living room shows set to her mother’s piano playing. As a pre-teen, she charmed crowds at community events by belting popular songs with confidence beyond her years.

At just 14 years old, Gonzalez finally worked up the courage to pursue acting seriously. She joined a traveling vaudeville troupe, the Klieg Players, discovering her true passion – the dramatic stage. For 2 years, Myrtle toured up and down the West Coast, learning the ins and outs of theater from veteran performers.

This early exposure primed her for an unprecedented acting career down the line. Little did young Myrtle know she would soon blaze trails for generations of Latino stars by bringing her talents to the fledgling film industry.

Myrtle Gonzalez: A Star Is Born

When gonzo filmmaker D.W. Griffith set up shop in Los Angeles in 1910, drawn by its ideal weather and variegated landscape, an aspiring actress named Myrtle Gonzalez seized the moment. She landed a bit of a role as an immigrant’s daughter in Griffith’s 1911 short The Immigrant, marking her official film debut.

In an era when “motion pictures” remained a novelty, Gonzalez displayed unusual on-screen poise and camera awareness. Though The Immigrant amounted to little more than a blip in Hollywood history, it foreshadowed big things from the audacious 20-year-old actress.

Over the next few years, Gonzalez scored increasingly prominent film roles like

  • For the Freedom of the World (1917), directed by Cecil B. DeMille – she played Lucia, a fiery Spanish cigarette girl.
  • The Little American (1917), starring Mary Pickford – brought innocence to the role of Angela Moretta.

But her big break came in 1912 when pioneering filmmaker Thomas Ince caught Gonzalez’s performance in a local theater production. Legend has it that Ince saw the leading lady’s potential in Myrtle’s delicate features, offset by her animated expressions and lively gestures. He promptly cast the Mexican-American actress in a supporting role for his silent western The Invaders (1912).

As Angela in The Invaders, Gonzalez held her own opposite actors with far more experience. Critics noted her emotional depth and willingness to experiment in the new frontier of film acting. Myrtle would credit Thomas Ince and The Invaders for catapulting her ambitions to serious fame.

Angela marked my film debut,” Gonzalez later shared with Photoplay Magazine. “Mr. Ince provided the opportunity that changed everything.”

Over a decade later, she would pay tribute to her mentor by naming her only son Thomas Ince Gonzalez.

Rise to Fame During the Golden Age of Silent Pictures

In an age when substantial film roles for Hispanic actors remained slim, Myrtle Gonzalez displayed preternatural acting talents. With Thomas Ince’s vote of confidence, she secured a contract with his studio and access to meatier roles from 1912 onward.

Gonzalez grew into one of silent-era Hollywood’s great ingenues. She conveyed a poise and glamour well beyond her 20+ years and disarming authenticity on-screen. Myrtle won over audiences through emotional subtlety and relatable charm in an industry overrun with exaggerated gestures and theatrical posing.

Before long, she enchanted both audiences and critics:

  • One of the most expressive, captivating faces of early Hollywood
  • A bonafide movie star appearing in over 80 films

Dubbed “The Virgin of the Silver Screen,” she brought an irresistible innocence and magnetism to titles like

  • The Unwritten Code (1913) playing a demure missionary’s daughter
  • The Easter Lily (1915) as devoted daughter Lily
  • The Half Breed (1916) anchoring a tense, dramatic role

Meanwhile, her spirited comic chops are shown brightly alongside Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in the slapstick short Fatty’s Plucky Pup (1915). As Arbuckle’s foil, Myrtle matched his hijink pratfall for pratfall. Their undeniable on-screen chemistry would lead to numerous future collaborations.

YearFilmRoleNicknames
1912The InvadersSupporting – Angela
1913For the CrownLead – Princess“Hollywood’s Sweetheart”
1915The Easter LilyLead – Lily“The Virgin of the Silver Screen”
1916The Half BreedSupporting – Nat-U-Rich
1917One Law for BothLead – Rita Carillo“La Unica” (The Unique One)

Key details of Gonzalez’s silent film career spanning 80+ films

Gonzalez took on more progressive roles for women and minority actors in an age of severe typecasting. With every plucky heroine, she challenged stereotypes and carved out her unique place in Hollywood history.

Myrtle Gonzalez: The Woman Behind the Star

A free spirit on and off screen, Gonzalez also made waves in her personal life. She married director George E. Marshall in 1913, though they divorced several years later. In 1916, while filming The Half Breed, Gonzalez became embroiled in scandal due to a torrid affair with married director Herbert Blaché.

Blaché’s wife Alice was also an acclaimed director responsible for many of Gonzalez’s early breaks. When Alice discovered the betrayal, she filed for divorce, ending her professional relationship with Myrtle. The messy fallout tarnished both Gonzalez and Blaché’s reputations despite Myrtle’s soaring fame as an actress.

Away from the limelight, Gonzalez fostered a tight-knit community of friends. She shared a home with fellow actress Lule Warrenton, who mentored Myrtle in everything from finances to keeping up with Hollywood’s swift pace. Costars Dolores Del Rio and Ramon Novarro also provided companionship as Gonzalez adjusted to life in the spotlight.

Dolores and Ramon keep me grounded,” Myrtles shared in a 1917 interview. “We enjoy casual nights away from the cameras, simply laughing and embracing life.”

Still, prejudice lurked beneath the surface even at the height of Gonzalez’s fame. Some directors insisted on typecasting her as “the exotic temptress” or “the fiery Latina,” learning from ethnic stereotypes. A 1917 LAMirror review patronizingly referred to Myrtle as “our sweet Spanish sunshine, sizzling from the Mexican coast.”

Yet Gonzalez pushed back against attempts to diminish or narrowly define her abilities. “I’m proud of my heritage,” she noted, “however, I bring far more than ethnicity to each role.” Through dignified defiance of prejudice and consistency of performance, Gonzalez continued proving her versatility.

The Actress Who Changed Hollywood

In the 1910s era dominated by white actors, one might expect a Mexican-American actress to remain relegated to the sidelines. Yet time and again, Myrtle Gonzalez shattered glass ceilings with poise and resolve:

1915: Billed above the title for college comedy A Freshman’s Finish, setting a precedent for a Latina lead

1916: Earned $175 a week under her Universal Studios contract, matching top white actresses

1917: Became one of the first Hispanic stars sought after for product endorsements, including Lady Duff Gordon cosmetics

Some of Gonzalez’s other revolutionary impacts include:

  • Headlining blockbuster hits like The Chalice of Courage (1915) without hiding her ethnic roots
  • Landing highly publicized dramatic roles that underscored her emotional range
  • Helping pave the way for future minorities in Hollywood through dignified resilience in the face of prejudice

Through it all, she enchanted fans far and wide as “the uniquely magnificent Latin beauty.” Generations of Latino actors owe a debt to González for cracking open doors to the Hollywood mainstream.

Gone Too Soon: The Untimely Death of a Star

At the peak of her stardom in 1918, Myrtle Gonzalez’s life met an abrupt and early end. In late 1918, she fell severely ill while filming the historical drama The She Wolf under director Alan Holubar. As Gonzalez’s condition mysteriously worsened over several weeks, doctors struggled to diagnose the ailing actress accurately. Tragically, by the time they identified her illness as the flu, it was too late.

On June 5, 1918, just 3 days shy of her 27th birthday, Gonzalez succumbed to the Spanish Flu. Overnight, Hollywood lost one of its brightest talents. For years, headlines of her shocking death left fans devastated by the loss of their beloved star.

Myrtle’s Enduring Legacy

Yet even after her tragic demise at just 27 years old, Gonzalez’s enduring legacy continues impacting Latinos in Hollywood. Through 80+ films, she touched hundreds of thousands of viewers, moved by her sincerity, charm, and magnetism.

Movie Picture Classic Magazine summed up her legacy just a month after her shocking passing:

“Myrtle Gonzalez brought immeasurable delight into our lives as one of moving pictures’ most luminous talents. Even as this vibrant shooting star faded far too soon from Hollywood’s heavens, the trail she blazed shall impact cinema for ages.”

In honor of her contributions, Gonzalez has received tributes like

  • 1920 Honorary Award from Alma de Mexico magazine,
  • 1959 Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
  • Named among “100 Hispanic Pioneers of Early Cinema” by the Hispanic Heritage Foundation

Perhaps silent film buff and Gonzalez biographer Martin Calvillo best encapsulates why her legacy continues to inspire artists today:

“In an era dominated by homogeneity, those courageous enough to buck trends in favor of authenticity stand out. Though long gone, pioneer Myrtle Gonzalez displayed that type of fearless individuality through talents too dazzling to ignore. By staying true to her roots, she made the world pay attention – now that is the mark of an icon.”

To this day, Myrtle Gonzalez remains Mexican cinema’s first crossover sensation – an outstanding actress who broke barriers in a virtually all-white industry. Though her meteoric career met a heartbreaking halt, Gonzalez’s legacy as a pioneering Latina star shines brighter than ever.

FAQ’s

Who killed Myrtle and why?

Myrtle was killed by the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 at age 27. The virus took her life quickly while she was filming a new movie.

Why did Myrtle marry? 

Myrtle married director George E. Marshall in 1913, likely attracted by a shared passion for the arts and filmmaking. They divorced after several years.

Was Myrtle killed by a car?

No, Myrtle Gonzalez died from illness, the Spanish Flu virus, not a car accident.

How did Myrtle cause her death?

Myrtle did not cause her death. She fell victim to a tragic pandemic outbreak of the Spanish Flu, which claimed millions of lives around the world.  

How old was Myrtle Gonzalez when she died?

Myrtle Gonzalez was 27 years old when she died on June 5, 1918, from the ravages of the Spanish Flu.

Conclusion

Myrtle Gonzalez lived a sadly abbreviated life, dying of Spanish Flu in 1918 at just 27 years old. Yet, in her short time, she made an outsized impact as a talented Latina actress in the silent film era. Through over 80 roles, her magnetic charisma and dramatic talents brought delight to audiences even in the face of discrimination. 

Though her life met a tragic end, Gonzalez’s legacy as a barrier-breaking movie star lives on through the entertainers following in her footsteps. Her courageous life inspires Latino actors in Hollywood and beyond more than a century later. Myrtle Gonzalez remains a testament that one need not live long to live meaningfully.

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