She was born in Barahona, Dominican Republic to a Spanish consul and his wife who were working there. She traveled extensively after being educated in the Canary Islands and attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to establish herself as a stage actress in Europe. In 1940 she found herself in New York City, a model. Her screen career began in 1941, with Universal casting her in bit parts.
Her beauty soon made her the centerpiece of Universal's Technicolor costume adventures, notably the six in which she was teamed with Jon Hall— Arabian Nights (1942), White Savage (1943), Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944), Cobra Woman (1944), Gypsy Wildcat (1944), and Sudan (1945). She also appeared in the Technicolor western Pirates of Monterey (1947) with Rod Cameron and the sepia-toned swashbuckler The Exile (1948), directed by Max Ophuls and starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
While working in Hollywood, she met and married French actor Jean-Pierre Aumont, who had to leave a few days after their wedding to serve in the Free French Forces fighting against Nazi Germany in the European Theatre of World War II. At the end of World War II, the couple had a daughter, María Christina (also known as Tina Aumont), born in Hollywood in 1946 (and who passed away in 2006). They then moved to a home in Suresnes, Île-de-France in the western suburb of Paris under the French Fourth Republic. There, she appeared in several films and a play written by her husband. She also wrote three books, two of which were published, as well as penning a number of poems.She passed away in Suresnes at the age of 39, after apparently suffering a heart attack and drowning in her bath. She was buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris where her tombstone displays her theatrical year of birth, 1918.
Shortly after her death, a street in her birthplace city of Barahona was named in her honor. In 1996, the city of Barahona opened the Aeropuerto Internacional María Montez (María Montez International Airport) in her honor. The American underground filmmaker Jack Smith idolized her as an icon of camp style. Among his acts of devotion, he wrote an aesthetic manifesto titled "The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of María Montez," referred to her as "The Wonderful One" or "The Marvelous One," and made elaborate homages to her movies in his own films, including the notorious Flaming Creatures.
María Montez and María Montez (playing twin sisters) in Cobra Woman
Snake dance scene from Cobra Woman
María Montez and Carmen Miranda fight over Don Ameche's affections
A tribute to María Montez in photos