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The Latin Lothario Who Wasn’t (But He Was Jewish)

Ricardo Cortez is an enigma. The little-known golden age movie star was my distant cousin, though I never knew him. With his big eyes, aquiline nose and olive skin, Cortez resembled my late grandfather Alan. Alan never talked much about Ricardo, except to mention now and again that he had a cousin in Hollywood. But a lot of old Jews can say that.

According to the Internet Movie Database, Cortez acted in 101 films between 1917 and 1958. Though born Jewish, he played mainly “Latin lover” types and gangsters during the 1920s and ’30s, a heady era before the Motion Picture Production Code censored sexual, violent and otherwise controversial content. After his career began to decline, he directed a few films before returning to New York, where he died.

I don’t know if Alan and Ricardo ever met. My grandmother Dolores, Alan’s widow, knew of Cortez, but the closest she ever got to him was recording his films on VHS when they ran on Turner Classic Movies. All the aunts and cousins and great-grandparents who raised him are dead. Only a handful of primary sources exist to document Cortez’s life. There are articles and reviews in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, a memoir from his first wife, a star on the 1500 block of Vine Street in Los Angeles, and two obituaries. The lack of information doesn’t surprise me. By all accounts, Cortez was a fabulist who hid his biography even from those he kept close.

“Although I didn’t find it out until almost a year after our marriage, ‘Ric,’ instead of being the gallant Spanish caballero which I believed him, was the son of a kosher butcher, with a shop on First Avenue, New York City,” wrote his first wife, actress Alma Rubens, in her 1930 memoir, “This Bright World Again.” “His real name is Jacob Krantz.”

From Harry Houdini to Bob Dylan, reinvention has always been at the heart of the American Jewish experience. And the capital of reinvention — particularly Jewish reinvention — is Hollywood. At the turn of the 20th century, Jews fled pogroms and destitution in Eastern Europe, hoping to find a fortune or at least a better life in America. But in the crowded slums of New York and Chicago, they faced yet more discrimination and poverty.

Coincidentally, the influx of Eastern European Jewish immigrants occurred right after the invention of film. At the time, film was regarded as an unserious medium, suitable only as a diversion for the lower classes. Breaking into the young industry was relatively easy, though not very prestigious. It was the perfect avenue for entrepreneurially minded immigrants facing discrimination in more “respectable” fields.

“The social structure was primitive and permeable,” wrote Neal Gabler in his 1988 book, “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood.” “One could even have said that California was the social equivalent of the movies themselves, new and unformed. There was no real aristocracy in place and few social impediments obstructing Jews.”

In a way, Hollywood was a sort of Promised Land right here in America. Out in California, away from the squalor and intolerance of the slums, Jews were free to make their American dreams come true. They created an America that was as wealthy and glamorous as the one their fathers dreamed of in the shtetls. This America even won them the coveted admiration of those stern East Coast Protestants, gatekeepers of culture and the Ivy League. Hollywood helped Jews assimilate into white America.

Courting elite admiration or not, Jewish entertainers usually had to obscure their identities for the general public. In Hollywood, the name change was practically a rite of passage, and not just for Jews. Any newcomer whose name was deemed too ethnic, or just not memorable enough, was subject to that infamous ritual. Usually, the preference was for an anglicized moniker, like Kirk Douglas (the nom de screen of Issur Danielovitch), Lauren Bacall (Betty Joan Perske), or Rita Hayworth (Margarita Carmen Cansino). Hollywood allowed outsiders to transform into the platonic Protestant ideal, on screen and in life.

But Ricardo Cortez found his ticket to fame by impersonating the “exotic,” not the austere. And his choice raises questions about Jewish, white and Spanish identity in America. Why did Cortez ditch the burden of his Jewish background to take on the role of a Spaniard? Can one assimilate into white America by impersonating a different minority?

Details of Cortez’s birth vary. According to a 1977 obituary in the Los Angeles Times, he was born Jacob Krantz in New York City on September 19, 1899. His obituary in The New York Times has him born on the same date but in Vienna, as Jack Kranze. He had a younger brother, Stanislaus, born in 1908. According to The New York Times, he worked as a Wall Street runner during the day and took acting lessons at night. He arrived in Hollywood penniless. According to IMDb, his first film appearance (uncredited) was in 1917. This meant that he was, at the oldest, 18 when he left New York. In Los Angeles, he cobbled together a living as a prop man and occasional bit-part actor. But his big Hollywood break eluded him.

It’s possible that he got his Hollywood alias with the help of Joe Frisco, a stuttering vaudeville performer known for his hammy “Jewish Charleston” dance and self-deprecating comedy. No stranger to reinvention himself, Frisco was born Louis Wilson Joseph in Milan, Illinois. Showing off his quick footwork while wearing a derby hat and puffing on a cigar, Frisco exemplified the vaudeville-flavored showmanship of early film. And Frisco had an idea to help Jacob make it in the industry.

Cortez the Killer: The actor in a promotional shot for the 1926 silent film ‘Eagle of the Sea.’ Image by Getty Images

“He was complaining to Frisco, as they sat in a Los Angeles restaurant, about the difficulty he had obtaining parts because of his name, ‘Jacob Kranz,’” wrote Rubens. “Frisco casually turned around, peered into the cigar store adjacent to their table, and counseled: ‘Oh-o! Is t-t-that so? L-o-oo-o-ok at that!’ and he pointed a finger at two cigar boxes reposing within. ‘L-loo-ok at that! A-ab-abso-lu-lutely perfect! Ri-ri-ricar-do Co-co-cortez!’”

Whether the cigar box story is true or not, he finally started getting steady work in 1923, starring in films like “The Call of the Canyon,” “The City That Never Sleeps,” “Argentine Love,” and “The Spaniard.” His dark good looks and ostensibly Spanish background made him a shoo-in for roles as Latin Lotharios and street-smart womanizers. He was acting in roughly half a dozen films each year.

“They were really cornball films,” said my grandmother Dolores. “I only recorded them because he was in them.”

One of Jacob’s biggest obstacles as an actor, it seems, was hiding his sheer joy at being on screen. Even in serious scenes he wore a self-satisfied smirk. “The bullets come and there is a supercilious smile on Juan’s lips,” wrote the Times. “As expressed by Cortez one would almost imagine that he was enjoying the operation.”

Despite such a critically tepid reception, Jacob’s career continued to ascend. In 1926, he starred alongside a then-unknown Greta Garbo in “Torrent,” directed by Monta Bell. Naturally, he played a lusty Spanish nobleman. For the first and only time in her career, Garbo, as the object of his affection, took second billing. After the untimely death of Rudolph Valentino later that year, Jacob was one of several actors Paramount Studios groomed as a possible replacement.

1926 was also the year that Jacob married actress Alma Rubens. According to her memoir, the couple met while she was working on the 1924 film “Cytherea.” Alma fell “hopelessly in love” with Jacob, though she was married to Daniel Carson Goodman, her second husband, and Jacob was engaged to actress Agnes Ayres. Jacob and Agnes broke their engagement, Alma and Daniel divorced, and Jacob and Alma married.

Unfortunately, the marriage was short-lived. Alma had struggled for years with an addiction to morphine, which she tried in vain to hide from both Jacob and the public. And it is apparent that Jacob, fully immersed in his alter ego, struggled to be honest and intimate, even with her.

“Ric was an awful prevaricator,” Alma wrote. “I actually believed his long-winded story that his mother, a famous Spanish prima donna, had died when he was a small child, immediately after his father brought her to America.”

The New York Times featured a short blurb on the couple’s impending divorce on August 21, 1928. In 1931, in the midst of the proceedings, Alma died of pneumonia, after years of ill health and run-ins with the law.

Shortly after the death of his wife, Jacob appeared in the biggest role of his career. With the introduction of sound, Jacob could no longer convincingly play Latin lovers. His New York accent gave him away. Instead, studios billed him as a city slicker leading man. This turned out to be a better fit for Jacob, though he held fast to his chosen name and identity.

In 1931, he played Sam Spade in the pre-code version of “The Maltese Falcon,” alongside Bebe Daniels as Miss Wonderly and Otto Matieson as Joel Cairo. It’s clear Jacob is having the time of his life. He beams in the opening scene, bidding goodbye to a lover who has stopped by the office for a midday tryst (in a risqué pre-code touch, the woman adjusts her stockings). He hides a smile as he accuses Miss Wonderly of stealing money. He even yuks it up at the movie’s end, when Miss Wonderly is sent to prison for murder.

“You angel,” he chuckles. “With a lucky break, you oughta be outta San Quentin in 20 years. I hope they don’t hang ya, honey.”

He seems suffused with both joy and disbelief that he, Jacob Krantz, the son of a kosher butcher, is a real American movie star.

In 1932 he appeared in “Symphony of Six Million,” an anomaly in his career. It is the only movie in which he plays an explicitly Jewish character. He stars as Felix Klauber, a talented surgeon from the Lower East Side who neglects his family and community after he becomes a successful Park Avenue doctor.

“When Felix lost the ghetto, he lost himself, his ideas,” opines Irene Dunne’s character, a nice girl who stays in the old neighborhood to teach blind children. You’d be forgiven for thinking she was talking about Jacob.

Jacob continued to build his career, starring in films like “Wonder Bar,” alongside Al Jolson and Dolores del Rio, and “Postal Inspector,” with Patricia Ellis and Bela Lugosi. He married Christine Coniff Lee in 1934, a union that lasted six years. By the end of the decade, Jacob was getting second billing in films. He tried his hand at directing, a career that was serving his younger brother Stanislaus well.

Stanislaus had moved to Hollywood right after his brother’s career started to take off in the mid-1920s. Following in his brother’s footsteps, Stanislaus changed his name to Stanley Cortez. It’s not clear that the name change was an escape for Stanislaus. He was probably piggybacking on his older brother’s name in that nepotistic town. Stanislaus had a steady and successful career, doing cinematography for “The Night of the Hunter,” “The Magnificent Ambersons,” and “Chinatown.” He died in Hollywood in 1997.

But the films Jacob directed were flops, and he went back to acting. His last role, in 1958, was a small one in the ironically titled Spencer Tracy film “The Last Hurrah.” In 1960, he made an appearance on “Bonanza,” got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and went back to New York to work as a stockbroker. When he died in 1977, he left behind a third wife, Margaret Belle.

When I think about how Jacob Krantz presented himself as Cortez, I am reminded of Al Jolson in blackface, singing “My Mammy” in “The Jazz Singer.” But blackness, for Jolson, was different than Spanishness for Cortez. Jolson never sold himself to the public as a black actor. Though he slightly altered his name (he was born Asa Yoelson), he was Jewish in the public eye. In fact, the plot of “The Jazz Singer” centers around Jolson as the son of a cantor who wants to defy family tradition by going into the entertainment business, and does this by performing in blackface. Blackface, as a costume, helped Jolson stake a Jewish claim to whiteness. Anyone who dresses up in a costume is, by definition, not that thing. When Jolson blacked up, he tacitly asserted that, though Jews were different from white Protestants, they definitely weren’t black.

Jacob, on the other hand, impersonated his chosen identity on-screen and off. Even when he played a Jew on screen, he positioned himself as a Spaniard playing a Jew. Jacob really wanted to be Ricardo Cortez, and he wanted to be him all the time. Was this Jacob’s individual claim to whiteness? Or was it his way of covertly claiming whiteness for Jews? Perhaps he felt that Jewishness was too alien to be accepted by white America, but too familiar to romanticize. Pretending to be Spanish allowed Jacob to play the outsider through a socially acceptable lens.

For years, I’ve felt a kinship with Ricardo Cortez that extends beyond our literal one. As a writer, I also operate in the public eye, albeit in a different way. Like Cortez, I further my career by presenting a neat, palatable identity for public consumption. While I have never actually lied, I am constantly crafting and reworking aspects of my identity and self-presentation. I worry about the authenticity of what I present, and the veracity of the stories I use to define myself. Today, people call the process “branding.” For Jacob Krantz, it was his entire life.

Colette Shade is a writer living in Baltimore.

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