Montenegro first worked professionally as a model for the famous painter Ignacio Zuloaga y Zabaleta. During her childhood, she learned classical and Spanish dance. She was credited with revolutionizing the presentation of Spanish dances. Montenegro turned from dancing to dramatic acting and starred in numerous productions. She attained theatrical fame in Hollywood, France, and Germany by the time she was thirteen years old. At the age of sixteen, she starred in the French film La Femme et le pantin (1928), directed by Jacques de Baroncelli.
Montenegro came to Hollywood in June 1930 with a contract at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. She was seventeen years old and could not speak English; however, in three months time Montenegro became fluent enough to play the leading female part of Tamea Larrieau, Leslie Howard's love interest in the film, Never the Twain Shall Meet (1931). Never the Twain Shall Meet is the English language version of a story written by Peter B. Kyne and was directed by W.S. Van Dyke.
Prior to this performance, Montenegro was cast in Spanish versions of MGM movies, among them Call of the Flesh and Way for a Sailor (both 1930). The former featured Ramon Novarro while the latter starred José Crespo.
Montenegro's next screen project was Strangers May Kiss (1931) starring Norma Shearer, with Montenegro as the ingenue role, "Spanish Dancer." By mid-1931, Montenegro had left MGM and signed with Fox Film Corporation. She was to play in both Spanish and English language motion pictures.
In August 1931, Montenegro was aboard the Southern Pacific Argonaut (passenger train) when the train derailed near Yuma, Arizona, Two trainmen were killed in the crash. Luckily for Montenegro she was riding in the second section along with actors Warner Baxter and Edmund Lowe. Forty others among the film company also riding in that section were spared injury when the second section missed hitting the first. The steam engine, two cars of the baggage car section, and a day coach overturned after the train struck a roadbed which had been softened by rain. The Argonaut was en route to a location shoot for The Cisco Kid (1931), in Tucson. Montenegro's character, "Carmencita," was the primary female role and source of strife between the Lowe and Baxter characters.
In 1931, Fox Films selected three of its own stars in opposition to the thirteen actresses chosen as WAMPAS Baby Stars, sponsored by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers. The three were Montenegro, Helen Mack, and Linda Watkins. Eleven Fox publicity men resigned in protest of the WAMPAS Baby Stars decision to eschew naming any Fox starlets among its list of actresses most likely to achieve success. In addition Fox promised to name budding stars, or "Fox debutante stars", annually.
Montenegro was sometimes featured in stage shows which coincided with the screening of film premieres. One such instance was the premiere of A Passport To Hell, starring Elissa Landi. The movie debuted at the Loew's Kings Theater in August 1932. Montenegro provided the vaudeville entertainment beforehand. On another occasion, she teamed with Teddy Joyce in the stage show for the opening of The Kennel Murder Case (1933). The film screened at the Warner Brothers Hollywood Theater. Together with Will Rogers, Montenegro performed an Adagio for Strings number prior to the premiere of Handy Andy (1934).
Montenegro's movie career in America continued until 1940. That year she performed the leading female part in Eternal Melodies (Melodie eterne). The story focused on the unrequited first love of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, played by Gino Cervi. Playing Aloisa Weber, Montenegro jilts the composer in this Italian language production.
Montenegro applied for US citizenship in Chicago, Illinois, on March 16, 1932. She married a Brazilian actor, Raul Roulien, in Paris, France, on September 19, 1935. The couple toured South America and produced a motion picture called Jangada (1936). The film dealt with the customs of primitive peoples in South America. Another of Roulien's films, El grito de la juventud, which debuted in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on 24 September 1939, was much better known. A short time later Montenegro and Roulien were divorced.
In 1944, Montenegro married the Spanish diplomat Ricardo Giménez Arnau, a senior member of the far right Falangist Party and Ambassador to the Holy See.
Following a rare interview with Montenegro shortly before her death, Spanish author José Rey Ximena claims in his book, El Vuolo de Ibis [The Flight of the Ibis] that British actor Leslie Howard, with whom Montenegro had an affair after the pair starred together in Never the Twain Shall Meet (1931), used Montenegro to get close to Spanish dictator Francisco Franco after being given the special mission by Winston Churchill to meet and urge Franco not to enter WWII on the side of the Axis powers. Montenegro claimed that she used her husband's influence to secure a meeting between the British actor and the dictator while Howard was in Spain on a lecture tour to promote film in May, 1943, shortly before Howard lost his life when the civilian plane of which he was a passenger on a return flight to England was shot down by German Luftwaffe crashing into the Bay of Biscay. "Thanks to him, at least in theory, Spain was persuaded to stay out of the war," Rey Ximena went on to claim of Howard.
Montenegro collected dolls and stuffed animals as a hobby. She acquired the reputation of a social leader in the Spanish Hollywood film colony. Montenegro leased a large house and was hostess at many gatherings.
After filming several movies in Spain, the last of which was Lola Montes (1944), Montenegro retired from the cinema, refusing interviews and declining personal appearances, including requests to honor her.
Having been a widow since 1972, Montenegro died in Madrid on April 22, 2007, at the age of 95 leaving her body to science.Strangers May Kiss (1931)
Love in Every Port (1931)
Never the Twain Shall Meet (1931)
The Cisco Kid (1931)
Forbidden Melody (1933)
Parisian Life (1936)
Cristobal's Gold (1940)
Eternal Melodies (1940)
Lola Montes (1944)