"You know what they call me?" A coquette’s giggle flutters out the mouth of María Elena Holly—Buddy Holly’s widow to you and me—as she sits at the dining table in her tastefully appointed Turtle Creek townhouse in Dallas. "The Spanish Yoko Ono." For the better part of this day, and a whole day before that, she has recounted the story of her personal life and her career as the guardian of the name, likeness, and public image of Buddy, the rock and roller from Lubbock who died young and tragically more than forty years ago.That role has defined the 68-year-old María Elena—a blessing and a curse, she will tell you. The upside is obvious, from the creature comforts that surround her to the perks her own celebrity brings, such as being on a first-name basis with Paul McCartney, the former Beatle who bought the rights to Buddy’s publishing catalog. The downside is being compared with Yoko Ono, the widow of another Beatle, John Lennon. Guarding the legacy of a celebrity while keeping the flame lit is no cakewalk, María Elena says. You’re sought out because you’re the closest link to the object of fans’ affection, but you can never be that person.
María Elena tried to leave all that behind. After Buddy died, in 1959, she disappeared from the public eye, and four years later she married Joe Diaz, a government official from Puerto Rico, her birthplace. They raised three children together and eventually settled in the Dallas area, all the while keeping a low profile about her connection to Buddy. "I didn’t want to share with anybody in the beginning," she says. "I blamed the music for his death. I couldn’t even listen to his songs. But Joe convinced me that I was being greedy by keeping Buddy from his fans. He told me, ’María Elena, you need to tell your story.’ That’s how I got back with Buddy, through the help of a man who didn’t even know what rock and roll was." So she gave her blessing to the 1978 film The Buddy Holly Story, starring Gary Busey. The legend was jump-started, but things were still not quite right. Buddy’s family attended the movie’s premiere in Lubbock, but María Elena chose to attend the opening in Dallas.
It was a portent of things to come. Over the next 22 years, María Elena would devote her time to protecting her late husband’s work and waging a campaign against exploitative record companies. She has become famous for her no-nonsense approach, but her businesslike manner has also had another effect, intended or not. María Elena has alienated fans, angered promoters, and most important, rubbed most of the folks back in Buddy’s hometown the wrong way, making her public enemy number one. Some people there accuse her of being interested solely in making a buck off his name. Others blame her for the fact that the city can no longer put on the Buddy Holly Music Festival each year. Yet María Elena’s relationship with Lubbock was troubled from the start, and she makes it clear that there’s no love lost on her part either. "I know what they say in Lubbock," she says, her voice assuming a dark tone, her eyes flashing and narrowing into slits. "That . . . greedy . . . bitch!"
She pours a round of Veuve Clicquot champagne, and the doe-eyed radiance and natural beauty that captivated a lanky guy from the Panhandle years ago crystallize in front of my face. María Elena Santiago wed Charles Hardin Holley (the e was mistakenly left out of his last name early in his career) on the heels of a whirlwind romance that lasted all of two weeks. It is a story she has told thousands of times but one she doesn’t mind telling again. It is part of the gig. She remembers working during the summer of 1958 as a temporary receptionist at Peer-Southern Music, a song publishing company in New York City, where her aunt and guardian, Provi García, ran the Latin division. This tall guy with glasses walks in for an appointment and—"Boom!"—he asks her out. "Is he crazy? He doesn’t even know me," she remembers thinking to herself. The 25-year-old María Elena had never even been on a date. Her aunt had already warned her not to socialize with music people: It was company policy. "Musicians are all crazy, and I don’t want you to get involved with that," she had told her niece.
María Elena had her own dreams of being on Broadway. "I was studying to be a dancer, a singer, and trying to finish college. I had so much going on," she says. But nothing had prepared her for this handsome 21-year-old gentleman from Texas who took her out to P. J. Clarke’s in a limousine on their first date, stopping first at a radio station to record some jingles. Buddy would ask her to marry him that night. A week later she met his parents, whom Buddy flew to New York. Not long after that, she flew to Lubbock, and she and Buddy were married by Buddy’s pastor from the Tabernacle Baptist Church in the Holley home.
She paints a vivid image of the six months they lived together in an apartment at Eighth Street and Fifth Avenue in New York’s Greenwich Village. He loved listening to jazz at the Village Vanguard and poetry at the local coffeehouses. He wanted to write movie scores. He saw himself as an actor like Anthony Perkins and wanted to take acting lessons— "If he can do that, I can too," he reasoned. He wanted to record with Ray Charles and loved gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. He wanted to produce young artists and already had one protégé, Lou Giordano. Ritchie Valens had asked Buddy to record him. On a night out at Cafe Madrid with María Elena and his friend Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers, he was so taken with the flamenco guitar that