The extraordinary Vampira actress, Maila Nurmi, tells her fascinating, no-holds-barred Hollywood tale. In her final interview, Maila details her incredible life – from modeling for Vargas and Man Ray, performing with Liberace, to dating Orson Welles, Marlon Brando, and her friendship with James Dean. Her creation of Vampira made her famous, but the sacrifices she made to retain the rights also led to years of struggle.
This interview was conducted spur-of-the-moment on December 13, 2007, two days after Maila Nurmi — better known as the first television Horror Movie Host, Vampira — had turned 85. Less than four weeks later, her slightly decomposed body was discovered in her North Hollywood home at 1570 N. Serrano Avenue. Maila was wearing a brown t-shirt, black underwear and socks, lying on a sofa with her feet up on a lawn chair. The apartment was covered in dust and animal hair, shed by the cat lying dead beside her. The cause of death was cardiac arrest and I could not have been more surprised.
A month earlier, no portent of imminent expiration, or even slowing down, were at all discernible. In fact, few people, young or old, ever possessed the outspoken Maila’s infectious, mischievous energy or joie de vivre — astonishing qualities given the reality of her hard life. Or rather, her hard Hollywood life.
I met her while in Los Angeles with Nicca Ray, the youngest daughter of the Rebel Without a Cause director, Nicholas Ray, while doing interviews about the film at the time for our forthcoming biography. The day before, Jack Larson (best known for playing Jimmy Olsen on the television show, Superman) had given us Maila’s number, since she had been close friends with James Dean during the making of the film. Though the conversation spotlights her friendships with Dean and another dubious character named Jack Simmons (who, through Dean, had landed a cameo in Rebel), it encompasses the behind-the-scenes tale of Maila’s unglamorous existence once her stint as Vampira came to an end. The interview also captures an innocent, small-town Hollywood that could never exist today, where anyone could regularly run into say, James Dean, Anthony Perkins, or Marlon Brando (with whom Maila had a years’ long affair) at the local coffee shop; in this case Googie’s, on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights.
Though Maila came to Hollywood to pursue an acting career, she was ill-suited for the task. Not because she lacked talent, but, as the interview reveals, it was her pride, guilelessness and integrity that left her ill-equipped to play the requisite cutthroat, show business game. Her beautiful figure and extraordinary cheekbones led to her first jobs as a pin-up model in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, posing for famed illustrator Alberto Vargas, doing both cheesecake and portrait modeling for celebrity photographer Bernard of Hollywood, and a brief stint sitting for the surrealist artist and photographer, Man Ray.
Maila’s intellect, on the other hand, led to her one-year skyrocket as the iconoclastic character she created, Vampira.
She had fashioned her creation as a sophisticate. Culled from equal parts Norma Desmond, Greta Garbo, Dostoyevsky, Charles Addams’ New Yorker cartoon matriarch (not yet named Morticia), Greenwich Village beatnik, and a shoe fetishist magazine called Bizarre, Vampira was tantamount to dumping an ice bucket on conservative I-Like-Ike America.
First aired on April 30, 1954 and initially entitled, Dig Me Later, Vampira, the program opened weekly with the overtly sexual and wraithlike Maila languidly gliding down a hallway clouded in dry-ice fog. Sporting a floor-length, ripped black gown (that emphasized her 17-inch waist and va-va-voom cleavage), raven hair, phallic talons and boomerang eyebrows, Vampira — upon reaching the camera — would let out a blood-curdling orgasmic scream. Once recovered, she would smile seductively and declare in a soft, suggestive, post-coital purr, “Scre-e-e-eaming relaxes me soooo.”
During her reign on The Vampira Show, taking home $59.60 a week, Maila worked tirelessly to promote it. She performed in character on Red Skelton’s and George Gobel’s variety shows, hammed it up with Liberace in Las Vegas, cruised the streets of Hollywood in a chauffeur-driven 1932 black Packard, and one-upped Edvard Munch displaying her own signature scream in a tongue-in-cheek LIFE magazine spread. Despite all the huffing and puffing, sadly Vampira would prove to be both Maila’s legacy, and her downfall.
When she refused to sell the rights to Vampira to the producers of The Addams Family, she was blacklisted. She later lost a plagiarism suit, in 1989, against Cassandra Peters, who openly imitated Vampira for her own pedestrian Valley Girl version named Elvira.
Maila took Vampira out of mothballs only once after the show was cancelled in 1955. While living on $13-a-week unemployment, she agreed to appear in what she described as “Z-movie director” Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, for the $200 it paid in 1959. In Plan 9, Maila played her formerly urbane character as a mute zombie, refusing to recite Wood’s dialogue, because it was “too inane.” (Her appearance was immortalized by actress Lisa Marie in Tim Burton’s 1994 homage, Ed Wood, for which Maila claimed she refused $100,000, and another $8,000 for a cameo, in order to retain the rights to her own creation). In the years after she left show business, Maila supported herself as a linoleum floor layer, an artist, selling bric-a-brac, jewelry and clothes in her Melrose Avenue store Vampira’s Attic, and then largely as a housecleaner.
Though life hadn’t been especially kind to her, when we met she was far from embittered. Her isolation from the Hollywood of James Dean was a preferred one, since she had always known she was “strange.” At 85, still beautiful, sharp-as-a-tack, possessing a child-like soul — free of inhibitions, dishonest opinions, and delighting in a run-of-the-mill room service meal as if it had sprung from Le Meurice — Maila had happily managed in life to escape the world of adults. This is her last interview.
– Stacey Asip-Kneitschel
S: Let’s start with your background and where you are from.
M: My father was a temperance lecturer. You know how the Finns need temperance. I often traveled with him. Father would speak, and then we would go somewhere to sleep, in different Finnish people’s homes. We were too poor to go to hotels, plus Finns don’t do that. I hated sleeping in strangers’ houses. He was also the editor of the Finnish newspaper in Ashtabula, [Ohio] and was decorated by the government of Finland with the White Rose of Finland for helping Finnish Americans. He was a foremost Finnish-American!
So, I was the daughter of the president and very spoiled, but my mother was a drunk in the gutter, so the other Finns hated me. In the American speaking societies, I was a despicable creature. There was a schism as I was growing up: my father was God and my mother was the Devil, and I was the poor little girl. They would say, “Why doesn’t her mother listen to what her father preaches?” We eventually moved to Astoria, Oregon, where there were also a lot of Finns; little fishing communities, log, grain and so on, that’s where the Finns gather.
S: Are you fluent in Finnish?
M: Sure, I can remember everything, surprisingly. Though reporters have come from Finland to interview me and they laugh – the young people — because my language is 50 years outdated. The language has changed. I mean, it was correct when I knew it. It was proper Finnish, but it ain’t proper no more!
S: How did you end up in Hollywood?
M: Well, I’d been acting since I was five years old. I was just born an actress, I guess. I thought I was the finest actress in the world. Though I had stopped going to the movies when I was 14, because the acting was so bad it offended me. So, I was waiting till I was old enough to leave home and go wherever you had to go. I thought, I have to go to Broadway, but my family wouldn’t allow it, because father was very strict. They were very stoic, very unimpassioned, such cold people, absolutely dreadful. I had to escape that. I said “I’m going to Hollywood.”
My father said because that’s where people drink and smoke, that I couldn’t go. My father wanted to kill me when I said I was leaving. He tried to kill me, and I said, “Well, if you kill me I’m not going!”
But I had a religious fanatic aunt who lived in Los Angeles, so I was allowed to go there under her tutelage. From Astoria, I graduated high school and came down here in 1939. I finally managed to get away.
S: Is that when you started to do pin up modelling?
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Maila modeled for famed photographer Bruno Bernard, known as Bernard of Hollywood whose best known photograph was of Marilyn Monroe standing over a subway grate in her swirling windblown dress for The Seven Year Itch. Nurmi also posed for Alberto Vargas, whose pin-up illustrations of beautiful scantily clad women called, “Varga Girls,” appeared in Esquire in the 1940s and Playboy from 1957-1978].
M: Well, not right away. I was an ugly, ugly duckling, you know. I didn’t model until four years later when I had gained a little confidence. Actually, that abstract photographer found me, what’s his name?
S: Man Ray?
M: Man Ray that’s who found me. That’s who I first did portrait modeling for. He was doing experimental work.
Born Emmanuel Radnitzky to Russian-Jewish parents, Surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray lived in Los Angeles from 1940 to 1951. He referred to his time in California as a “beautiful prison,” noting that there was “more Surrealism rampant in Hollywood than all the Surrealists could invent in a lifetime.”
S: Man Ray had just moved back here from Paris to escape the Nazis. How did he come to photograph you?
M: My girlfriend was well to do and she was going to an expensive glamour school on Wilshire Blvd. — a very expensive school and sometimes I would wait for her and he was doing photographs there. He wasn’t established financially yet, but he had a studio on Vine Street across from the old Hollywood Ranch Market in the Villa Elaine [1245 Vine Street]. He lived there, his studio was there and so he found me and he said he’d like me to model. He paid me five dollars for the day, which was a great deal of money to me. That someone would take my picture, and pay me for taking my ugly picture? I couldn’t believe it! And, then when I saw him painting on a photograph, I said, “You can’t do that, paint on a photograph!”
And, he said, “I’m the artist, I decided on the photograph, I decided on the location, I redesigned it, I found the model, I set up the camera, I chose the film, I set up the lighting, I took the picture. Now I have the picture. It’s time for me to retouch it if I like, to publish it, do what I want with it, to print it up, and this is what I choose to do with it. I’m the artist and I’m the only one who has a say so. I can do whatever I want with it.”
“Oh,” I said, and I thought, I guess he’s right. (Laughs)
But it did seem odd – painting with paint on top of the photograph, of course that’s what I do now too! Sometimes if I can’t paint, I’ll just paint on a photograph. I’ll just out-and-out do it, and make that the collage and cut out things and paste them on other people’s painting. Whatever. You know you are free to do what you like, if you’re going to be experimental about it. That’s where Andy Warhol learned his stuff.
S: And what led to you becoming a Varga Girl?
M: Well first I was working for Bernard of Hollywood who was another pin-up photographer, but I was working for him as a portrait model. I had a little career as a portrait model. I was his portrait girl, since he also photographed regular people who would want their portrait taken, or their children photographed, or wedding pictures, whatever, when they wanted lovely, highly retouched photographs, so that they looked super human. Excellent, excellent studio photography
He was a German refugee who had escaped Hitler, like a lot of the people here in the early ‘40s, German/European refugees. He was like a father figure to me. I worked for him for 12 years in every capacity, you know. Sometimes I was his receptionist, sometimes I was in the dark room, sometimes I was his camera girl in the suite upstairs just taking pictures for money. I worked with him in Palm Springs. He had a studio there and he was affiliated with Vargas.
They were personal friends.
At the time, Vargas was in a decline. He’d had some trouble with Esquire, and he wasn’t really doing anything, so he and Bernard were going to do a show in a new nightclub opening up in New York. They were going to use a line of Vargas girls and I was to do the choreography. In other words, I was to stage the girls in Vargas poses and move them from one pose to another in that graceful choreographic way. So, while I was doing that, that’s how I got to know Vargas, and he asked me to model. He paid me five dollars an hour – I think that was the standard price in those days. A shoot we’d do would be three hours and I’d get $15, and I thought that was thrilling!
S: And this whole time you were living with your aunt?M: No, I lived with her a week or so, then I went to
M: No, I lived with her a week or so, then I went to room with a Finnish minister. (Laughs) Lots of Finnish was spoken there.
S: Do you remember meeting Tina Louise and Julie Newmar? Were they friends of yours?
S: Tina Louise, she played the movie star on Gilligan’s Island — she also did pin-ups for Bernard. Julie Newmar played Catwoman on the Batman television series.
M: I didn’t meet Tina Louise, but I know Julie, I knew most of Bernard’s models, because I also worked as his booking girl. In every capacity I worked for him, so I knew a lot of them. I knew Lily St. Cyr. There’s a great book out on her now. She was a lovely lady. Julie is a very nice person, very spiritual.
S: And then you appeared in a movie called If Winter Comes in 1947. What did you do in the film?
M: Well, nothing actually. My mother had moved out here after my father had left her. After the kids were grown, father ran away and then mother had to sustain herself. So, she was here living with me, working as a maid to this producer… he was a tall British man. So, one day my mother had telephoned me, because she didn’t feel well – she had the hives. She didn’t know what they were and she wanted me to come and talk to her, or something. So, she gave me the address and said use the garden gate in the rear. I found the garden gate and there were people in the patio and it was apparently Mr. I’m-not-sure-what-his-name-was [Most likely famed Third Man producer, Alexander Korda], his wife and somebody else, and I just said “Good afternoon,” and went through. They were lunching, and I went into the maid’s room. Then, suddenly he came in and asked my mother to come into the kitchen. She went into the kitchen and she came back to me and said, “Well he wants to talk to you.”
Because he had said, “There was, a woman came through the garden where did she go?”
My mother said, “I didn’t see anyone, only my daughter.”
And he said, “No, not your daughter.”
And she said, “Well that’s my daughter, that’s all I saw.”
And he said, “She was wearing a pinstriped vest.”
My mother said, “Well, my daughter is wearing a pinstriped vest.”
So ultimately, I was called into the kitchen and he had said, “Did you send her to finishing school?”
Apparently, I had spoken high-born English and he didn’t expect that from a daughter of a maid. My mother had said, “Well, she wants to be in the movies, but she can’t get into the union.”
So he said, “Well I’m doing a movie now, and we’ll put her in the movie. She’ll work one day and then she can join the union. I’ll give her the $100 and she can join the Union and she will repay me from her salary.”
So, that’s how I got into the Screen Actors Guild. It was $100 in those days.
S: Did you do any other screen work?
M: Not at that time. I was nothing more than an extra. They tried to make me do a screen test at the same time. I was supposed to face the camera, so they could see how I photographed, but I was a method actress and I couldn’t think of a way to reasonably look into it, so I didn’t look into the camera. I realize now I could have pretended that there was a doorway back there, beyond the camera and I could have looked at it, but it didn’t occur to me to do that, so I failed my screen test for MGM (laughs).
S: But you clearly had such a distinctive look that people were attracted to, so many people noticed you.
M: French people.
S: French people?
M: French people. French tourists in Los Angeles. There would be a group of French tourists and they would say, “Alors! Alors! Tres étrange et tres belle!” Very strange and very beautiful. I thought, “Why do they always see me as strange?” French people. Nobody else discovered me, only groups of French people. Well they loved strange and beautiful, you know. In America that was not a popular combination.
S: Why strange? It’s not as though you were walking around as Vampira yet.
M: No, I was a very homely girl. I was terribly homely. Terribly homely. Well, first I thought I was homely, so you become homely, if you think you are homely.
S: But you must have gained some confidence once people started to want to photograph you…
M: Oh, I was a popular portrait model, because they liked the way my face took the bulbs. They all thought I had high cheek bones, but I used to see people with high cheek bones everywhere, all over the place. I like the kind of high bones on people with faces like cats and the bones are this way. I have such a long thin face – or had. Now, I don’t know what I’ve got, but I used to have such a long thin face and I didn’t like it, but photographers liked it. They liked something about it. Oh, photographers were mad for me!
In 1953, Maila was invited to choreographer Lester Horton’s fifth Revue Le Bal Caribe, the most coveted Halloween party for Hollywood’s fashionable avant-garde. Horton — a modern dance pioneer who choreographed 19 films and who also created the first racially integrated dance company in America – was a long standing member of Hollywood’s “gay mafia.” Camp, drag, and outlandish attire were de rigueur, and made the annual costume competition fierce, but that year Nurmi took first prize among the 2000 revelers. (Incidentally, Alvin Ailey made his debut as a dancer in Horton’s company at the same 1953 masquerade ball and assumed the role of Artistic Director of Horton’s company the next month at age 22, when Horton died of a heart attack at age 47.)
S: Tell us how you went to the masquerade ball in a costume inspired by a Charles Addams New Yorker cartoon, which led to the creation of Vampira.
M: I went as Morticia Addams, but Morticia didn’t have a name then. She was just the matriarch of the family. I had thought of the character because I decided I wanted $20,000. I was working in a hat check room and there was no money and I wanted to get discovered for television. I thought I’ll take a shortcut by doing subject matter that everybody already likes. Though we didn’t have television at home, I checked out to see what was popular. I read in the newspapers that the most popular thing was a show called The Nelsons [She is referring to: The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet]. It was a family show — a situation comedy about a normal family. I thought, well I could never do that. I am appalled by such people, and even in fun I can’t do that.
S: So this would be 1953.
M: ‘52 and ’53. It was very early television yet. I think they hadn’t even begun syndication, but I wanted to do television, because that’s where the money was and I wanted to do a family situation. But because those people, The Nelsons, are so obnoxious to me, I’ll satirize them. Then — oh wait a minute — Charles Addams has already done that, so why can’t I bring Charles Addams to television? So, that’s what I tried to do. I created his wife as accurately as possible, because I wanted to try to get someone’s attention to bring him to television and I would play the part.
So, first I made the costume. I bought a piece of material for $3.67, at The Home Silk Shop, on the remnants table. I didn’t have a sewing machine, so I cut it and sewed it by hand and made my costume. I wore pale green powder, with long toe nails — as if in the tomb, they had grown long. Made myself flat chested, not that I have a lot, but what little I had, I bound, so that I was very scrawny and pale green and there I was – I went to the Bal Caribe!
“Because those people are so obnoxious to me, I’ll satirize them.”
S: The choreographer Lester Horton hosted it?
M: Lester Horton’s ball, yeah. He put it on once a year and 2000 people would show up. They were definitely readers of The New Yorker, so I knew they would recognize the character. I was trying to get discovered for television and I thought this would be the place to go, so that’s where I went. Lester had a dance school, Lester Horton’s. And all the dancers went to him for classical ballet. [Future fashion designer] Rudi Gernreich was a dance student of his. He was a dancer then and one of the judges.
S: Did you know Rudi Gernreich, before the ball? This would be well before he was a famous fashion designer…
Another WWII refugee living in Los Angeles, Gernreich was briefly a member of Horton’s Dance Company and a Hollywood costume designer who later had a successful career in fashion. He created the no-bra looks of the 1960s and, most famously the topless Monokini, a bathing suit consisting of a tight fitting bottom and two long narrow shoestring straps.
M: I already knew him. After the ball a producer from KABC, named Hunt Stromberg looked for me, for five months, but he didn’t know my name. He went around asking, “Does anybody know who that woman was who won the first prize at Lester Horton’s Bal Caribe?”
Nobody knew, and then somebody thought to ask the judges, so they asked Rudi Gernreich. He told him, “Of course I know Maila Nurmi – she was the first woman in California to wear backless shoes.” (Laughs) You know, being a designer, that’s how he remembered people.
S: What were you were wearing? Were they clogs?
M: No, they were just a pair of Ferragamos. They didn’t have backless heels yet.
Clogs were backless, but they weren’t here. They hadn’t arrived. They were civilized shoes. Suede and black leather at the front, but they didn’t have a back. I had bought them for $4 on a remainders table at The May Company, because nobody wanted them. They were “strange,” like I was.
Salvatore Ferragamo first found success when he lived in Hollywood from 1914 to 1927. He opened a shoe repair store, also making made-to-measure shoes, which became coveted by movie stars of the day and eventually lead to him designing shoes for films. He later returned to his native Italy to design the high fashion shoes he is known for today.
S: You said Rudi Gernreich had studied dance before turning full-time to fashion design?
M: He was a dancer trying to become a dress designer. I knew his clothes. I didn’t know him then, but I loved his clothes. I looked for him for a year and a half — this was before the masquerade ball. Meanwhile he was looking for me for the same year and a half. He had seen me on a bus and I’d had those shoes on, and he said, “Who is that woman and where did she get those shoes?” So, he looked for me for a year and a half and then we found one another at the Café Gala. [Cafe Gala was at 8795 Sunset Boulevard]
It was an opening night of a film and my friend who sang there, Stella Brooks, Sagittarian, was also looking for Rudi Gernreich. We had crushes on him. By the way, Bobby Short was the house chanteuse there. Anyway, on an opening night everybody put on the works. I turned all blue – blue in my hair, my face was powder blue, my hair, my stockings, everything was powder blue and my dress was like that – all puffed up with tissue paper, with the waist, and the hips like that. Stella came up to me at one point and said, “Well, he’s here.”
And I said, “No!”
She said, “Yes!”
And I said, “Where is he?”
And, she said, “I’m not going to tell you, you’re going to have to find him.”
I didn’t have to ask who, because we were both insane for Rudi. Then I saw a little short man and I saw his back. And, I saw from the rear, I saw his emanations. So, I said, “There you are! I’ve been looking for you.”
He said, “And there you are, I’ve been looking for you!”
We arrived at the same moment. He and I became buddies.
S: What did he tell the producer from KABC?
M: Rudi said, “She’s listed in the phone book as Mrs. D. Reisner.”
From 1949- 1955 Nurmi was married to Dean Reisner, who would later go on to write the screenplays for Dirty Harry, Play Misty for Me, High Plains Drifter and Charley Varrick. He was the son of director Charles Reisner, who had directed The Kid and The Gold Rush for Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr. and The Marx Brothers’ The Big Store.
S: You were married by then?
M: Yes, I was married then.
S: And was your husband a screenwriter by then?
M: Well yes, he was a struggling screenwriter. He wrote an odd job here and there, B movie, scraping by. He wasn’t established, but he’d won a couple of awards already. He won an award, when he was about 16, for an art film about the Second World War. I forget what its name is… Battalion something, or other. Then he wrote Bill and Coo. I don’t know if you have ever seen that. He won another award for that when he was 26, or the film won an award and [actor/producer] Ken Murray took it, but Dean wrote and directed it. Bill and Coo – it’s very sweet. They still play it as a classic film, but he wasn’t established and he wasn’t getting work. He had been blacklisted, because he was an alcoholic and he had a hard time getting back in, but ultimately he did and wrote Dirty Harry.
He also wrote a television show about me, about a clown who becomes heartbroken. He had the script going out and CBS bought it and they put Red Skelton in it. Red Skelton was nominated for an Emmy award for it, but it was about my heartbreak, which Dean experienced firsthand, because we lived in one room, under the same roof, when it all came about. (Sighs) Yeah. [Reisner wrote The Big Slide for Playhouse 90 in 1956 about a punch-drunk fighter played by Red Skelton].
S: Dean Reisner is credited with coming up with the name, Vampira.
M: When Hunt Stromberg found me five months after the masquerade, he said, “We’re not going to do the Charles Addams, because we can’t afford the whole family. We’re just a local station so we are just going to use you.”
I said, “What would Mr. Addams think about that?”
He said, “We’re not going to tell him”
I said, “Well, I’m not a thief and I’m not going to steal from someone I admire.”
He said, “Well, take it or leave it. That’s what we’ve got.”
So, I said give me a few days. I thought what can I use? I’ll keep the hair. I’ll keep the fact that she’s a vampire. I’ll keep the dress, but then I saw a magazine called Bizarre…
Bizarre magazine was created by John Alexander Scott Coutts aka “John Willie.” One of the originators of fetish photography, Willie started the magazine after stumbling upon McNaught’s, a shoe store on King Street in London that had a sideline catering to shoe fetishists. Willie joined “The High-Heel Club,” run by a retired ship’s captain who went by the name “Achilles.” There, he met his second wife who shared his interests in bondage & high heels and became his first model. Willie published Bizarre from 1946-1956.
M: I saw the magazine cover, and I thought, “Oh boy, that’s a seller!” And then I melded it. I melded it with that dress. I added the black mesh hose, and the high, high heels and the deep V-neck. I slit the dress and added lots of glam creepy, makeup — having been in a tomb for so long, with the glamorous hair that had gone astray. Plus, I added all the phallic things like a long cigarette holder and long, long fingernails and the big padded bosoms and cinched the waist.
S: And you added those eyebrows!
M: I came back to the studio and they fainted! They adored it and they said, “Well, we have to name her! Make a list of ten names and tell your husband to make a list.” So, we both did. I thought of Vampira, but I thought it was too obvious, so I didn’t write it down, but he wrote it down on his list and that’s the name they chose.
S: And they used you to introduce horror movies?
M: That’s right. I was the first Horror Host. That was not my idea. That was the program director – Hunt Stromberg Jr. – he was the program director. That was his idea, because they had aired the movies, and they weren’t being watched. They were not the most savory of the films. I mean they weren’t the most wanted at that time by whoever was watching television shows.
S: Were they the classics like Dracula and Frankenstein, The Mummy?
M: More like Voodoo Island and things like that. They were tacky and weird. They weren’t the great horror classics. The great classics were tied up somewhere, legally. Sometimes we had to do detective stories and pretend they were horror stories. We had to play what we could rent for a $100, you know.
S: Did you write your own lines?
M: No, no, no. First, they used a piano player who worked at the station, who wanted to write it.
So the first two weeks they used his dialogue and I could barely say it. It was unbearable. It was so moronic. Sooo, moronic. And then I got a fan letter from a man who had worked on Broadway and he said, “I’m new in Los Angeles and I need a job. I’m here with my wife and children and this is a character who needs a script.” So, I suggested one and he sent the whole script. His name was Peter Robinson. He was a genius.
I said, “Hire this guy!” So, we grabbed him. I’d done only two weeks of somebody else and then we had Peter Robinson, always. He was wonderful. Very funny.
Peter would say, “If you have anything you want to want to put in, that’s fine with me. Go ahead and do it.”
I rarely did, but occasionally. One thing I did was the people’s skin coat. During the Second World War, the Germans had made lampshades out of people’s skin and that was a horror that everybody knew about. I thought I’d add that horror to Vampira. She wore a coat made out of the skin of all different types of people: yellow people, brown people, red people, white people and baby’s ass, pink and white, and even green people – some Martians. You put all the patches together and made a people skin coat. Years later, in 1961, when an artist for Disney was doing Cruella De Vil, that was Vampira. But Disney didn’t want to do people’s skin, they thought that was too weird. So they made it puppies. It had to be something that wouldn’t upset people and that’s where the puppies came from.
“I wore pale green powder, with long toe nails – as if in the tomb.”
S: I read that you dated Orson Welles – was that before you were married to Dean, or after?
M: Oh, that was way before I was married.
S: How long did you date Orson Welles?
M: Only about four to five months, when he left Rita [Hayworth], because I don’t ever date married men. They had separated and he was in New York and I was in New York. Later he went back to Rita, so I quit dating him and they made a film, where they had a blonde that was filmed in San Francisco.
S: The Lady from Shanghai.
M: But it didn’t last long, they tried to go back together and it didn’t work, and they were divorcing. I was in San Francisco as a chorus girl and he was there having made that movie, so we resumed. He found me and we resumed.
“I added all the phallic things like a long cigarette holder and long, long fingernails and the big padded bosoms and cinched the waist.”
S: How did you meet first him?
M: I made a point of meeting him, because I admired him. I thought he was the handsomest man in the world and he had a casting office in New York, and all the actors in town showed up at that casting office. I made myself very interesting. I don’t remember how, but I thought I’ve got to make myself very interesting. I sat in a place where every time the door opened the man sitting at the desk there would see me. Hundreds of actors were in the big waiting room outside and they would get their name called and then the door would open. They’d go away and then the door would close. So, I would see this man sitting at the desk there and I managed to pique his curiosity. His name was Nikolai, and finally he sent for me.
He asked the secretary who I was and had me come in.
So, I went in…I said, “Yes?”
And he said, “What kind of part are you looking for?”
I said, “I’m not looking for a part, I’m looking to meet Mr. Welles.”
Orson was in another room by himself and nobody ever went to see him and Nikolai said, “Well I can arrange that – we’ll all have dinner together” (Laughs). So that was the way I met him.
S: What was Orson like?
M: He was very, very proud. He had rented an apartment on the Upper East Side that had belonged to Helen Hayes. It was a beautiful Park Avenue-style apartment. He took me upstairs to where the boudoir was, and whatever else was up there, the study, and going up the indoor staircase there was a bookshelf — shelves, along the wall –and he said, “This is Who’s Who.” One was sticking out and he said, “I’m in this one.” That struck me as very peculiar, because he was so, so famous, why should he make the point? Why should it be important to him? Are you not satisfied you’ve arrived there? Everybody knows you’ve arrived there, and you still have to have that Who’s Who sticking out an inch and point it out? It seemed very odd to me. Then he had lots of little tables around the living room lots of occasional tables, like in a Victorian manor. On every table, he’d have three match books and he’d walk around talking, talking, talking and he’d absent mindedly adjust those three match books. One was from The Stork Club and the others were from I’ve forgotten where, but they were the three places he had been ejected from.
S: Odd. Do you remember talking to him about his films, at all? Or do any other incidents stand out?
M: He told me about the saddest day in his life, and when he was 17 and he went to Ireland and lived there for two years. He said he spent one year sleeping under the wagons in Ireland, because he wanted to hear the conversations of the farmers, or were they fisherman? No… farmers. They would drink and talk all night and somehow get up and farm in the morning. He loved to hear them. He stayed a whole year listening to their conversations, and then the next year he went to Dublin and got involved in the theater. But the first year, he just traveled round the countryside and it was very cold too.
And the saddest day of his life, he said was when he was married to his first wife, she was a concert pianist, I believe, and they were in New York and struggling and starving. He couldn’t get work anywhere. He was trying to get in radio and finally he landed a radio show and it was going to be a series and it was so exciting.
“Tuesday, I’m going in and I’m going to get my first advance check and I’m going to come home. Get ready! Warm up the oven! I’m going to come and we’re going to have steak and potatoes and we’re going to have salad, all the good stuff!”
Well, when he got to the studio he found out that they had canceled it, and he said facing her and telling her that it wasn’t going to be, was the hardest thing he ever did in his life. When he got into the door at the bottom, and she opened the door at the head of the stairs, he dreaded the moment she was going to see he wasn’t carrying anything and he was going to have to explain why.
“Orson Welles took me upstairs to where the boudoir was.”
S: Did you like him?
M: You know… No. I just always ferreted out geniuses. I loved them, I felt at home with them. I never really felt at home with anyone unless they were some kind of a genius. That energy level made me feel comfortable for some reason. I thought, they won’t laugh at me. They’ll understand that I’m weird and that’s all right, that’s my business. But anyway I was never really comfortable with him. I was a fan, purely and simply and he was a Taurus, and I never… Tauruses are too earthy for me. Are you a Taurus?
S: No, I’m Pisces. What sign are you?
M: Sagittarius, but I have a grand trine in the water signs!
[Maila did not mention she had just celebrated her 85th birthday, two days earlier.]
S: When he came back to you after Rita Hayworth, did you ever feel like you were competing with Rita Hayworth?
M: I thought she was hideously ugly and I couldn’t understand why he married such an ugly and stupid woman.
S: She was stupid?
M: Simple minded. She had a great heart, but she was a simpleton.
S: Did you know her at all?
M: No, but my best friend was her houseboy. So, I know a lot about her. I wasn’t really exposed to Rita, very little, but I don’t like people with low foreheads.
S: You know that they used electrolysis to raise her hairline.
M: They had to, because her hair reached her eyebrows, but she still had a low forehead,
because she was an unevolved entity. I’m a snob about people who are newly cavemen, or cavewomen. I find them obnoxious. I mean they are entitled to be born, they are born, God wants them, but I don’t want them.
“I don’t like people with low foreheads.”
S: Did you end things with Orson on a good note?
M: No. No, because he was going to Europe. We reunited in San Francisco and
then I had to come home, because our show was over. Then we reunited again, when he got back to L.A., but he was on his way to Europe. So, we saw each other a few times and then he went off to Europe.
S: Did he drink a lot when you knew him?
M: Not at all. He never drank at all. That was one thing we had in common. We were both teetotalers at the time and we were always both being told that we were stone drunk. I had never had a sip of wine. I wouldn’t touch alcohol and he didn’t drink at all, in the beginning. Later of course, he was drinking. I don’t know that he ever became an alcoholic, but at the time I knew him he didn’t drink at all.
“I always ferreted out geniuses. They’ll understand that I’m weird.”
S: Did you also date Elvis Presley, or were you just friends with him?
M: No I didn’t date him. He was way too young for me. He had just turned 19, and I was 31. I knew him. I met him there in Las Vegas when he was doing his first show.
S: When was this? Not when you were a show girl.
M: I had been a chorus girl in the beginning, but at this time I was in Vegas on the stage with Liberace. I was already Vampira. So, that’s where I met Elvis. I was there when he decided to do “Hound Dog” for the first time, because we were in the Sands Hotel and Freddie Bell and the Bellboys– they were playing “Hound Dog.” So, Elvis’ girlfriend, Terry Nashville, who he had brought from New Jersey, and I were sitting at the bar.
My boss and Elvis’ boss, the Colonel, were having a discussion about something, so we all had to be there. Elvis was sitting with the grownups, and Terry and I were drinking at the bar.
Anyway, I got down on my hands and knees and started to howl along with Freddie Bell. Then so did Terry. So we were crawling around on our hands and knees and then someone sent for coffee. That was a good idea! I had a pot of coffee. A business men’s conference were wondering, who the hell were these youngsters?! Well, I was 31, but still I was emotionally retarded.
Later, we all — Jack Simmons and I, and Elvis and Terry Nashville, and Elvis’s cousin –
we all went out to the [Nellis] Sand Dunes and Elvis said, “Gee, that’s such a great song. I saw what’s her name do it in Seattle, Big Mama Thornton, and she looked so good. I don’t know why I never thought of doing it.” And, he started howling at the moon and then he recorded it.
S: What was Jack Simmons doing there?
M: He came to Las Vegas to see me, and then he found Elvis, and decided to follow him, because there was more money there.
S: How? In what way was Jack going to make money off of Elvis?
M: Oh, Elvis handed $50 bills out to everyone, every few minutes, to all his entourage. Here! He’d shove a $50 bill at them, and that was a TON of money in those days. It was like someone handing you a $500 bill.
S: When you say Jack followed Elvis, how long did he stay on the road with him?
M: I don’t know. He tried to stay forever, until the Colonel made Elvis get rid of him.
S: Was that the kind of guy Jack was, someone who would regularly latch on to somebody famous?
M: Yes, he would do that. He stalked Jimmy [James Dean]. Jimmy couldn’t get rid of him.
S: Did you meet Jack in Los Angeles?
S: Had you already met James Dean at this point, or just Jack?
M: I met them both the same night.
S: Let’s start from the beginning of when you met James Dean and Jack Simmons, where was it?
M: At an Audrey Hepburn screening…something Holiday?
S: Roman Holiday?
M: Roman Holiday.
S: I think date wise it would have to have been another Audrey Hepburn’s movie Sabrina. Roman Holiday came out the year before. Were Jack and Jimmy were together?
M: No, they didn’t know each other yet.
S: So none of you knew each other. Where was the premiere?
M: At the Paramount Theatre. It’s now big the fancy Disney theater, El Capitan.
[Sabrina opened at The Paramount Theatre at 6838 Hollywood Boulevard, now known as El Capitan Entertainment Centre, in August, 1954.]
S: How did you end up getting invited to the premiere?
M: I didn’t get invited. I went as a viewer in the bleachers, because now for the first time, I had the key to the city, so to speak. I had never had any friends. I’m a loner and very unsavory and I never had any friends.
S: You were married to Dean Reisner by then?
M: I was married. He was one of the few people who could tolerate me for a few minutes at a time. But I thought, well okay, suddenly I was the girl of the hour. I was the big deal, because LIFE Magazine had said, wow, and done a feature on me. They didn’t know who I was, because I wouldn’t tell anyone my identity. I wore a black wig in character and there was great conjecture, “Who is under that black wig?” And so everybody wanted to know who it was under that black wig and I had the key to the city in effect.
M: They sent me everywhere for a year. I couldn’t be out of it. So, now that I had entrée into drawing rooms, I thought let me see who is here in this city. Let me go and see and look the people over and pick out if there’s anybody I want to meet, and if so, who? Not easy. I thought the place to find people was at a premiere, so, that’s why I was at the premiere, posing as a fan. I had a little camera around my neck. People didn’t run around with cameras in those days like they do now. Nobody had cameras, except the paparazzi, and there were very few of those. Anyway, I had a camera and I was in the bleachers and I was watching everybody arriving – the important people – to whom I could have access, presumably. At first I didn’t want to meet anybody and I especially hated the one who was with Hal Wallis – Martha Hyer.
S: Hal Wallis, the producer? Why did you hate him?
M: No, I didn’t hate him; I hated her, his girlfriend, Martha Hyer [best known for her Academy Award-nominated role in Vincente Minelli’s Some Came Running]. She wore an orchid lei to the premiere. A dreadful woman…
I didn’t see anybody at all I wanted to meet. It seemed so glam, except one boy who wore a plaid jacket, very large, like a horse blanket that had been made into a jacket. It was way too big for him, obviously gotten in a thrift shop, or something. A very skinny, scrawny, frenetic fellow rushing around everywhere, down below in this big thing that was oversized, way too big for him.
S: Down below in the seats, like in the orchestra section?
M: No just in the lobby – just running around – he was looking for phone numbers, actually, he was a hawk, but all I thought was that I liked the energy in that person. I wanted to know that person.
And then somebody came out of an automobile, out of a limousine in a tuxedo that he didn’t want to wear. He was very angry and he was with Terry Moore for God’s sake, and I said, “That’s who I want to meet, the boy who was with Terry Moore.”
S: The Peyton Place actress, Terry Moore?
M: She married Howard Hughes and made a lot of money after he died. Terry Moore, she was a fat little pin up girl, a no neck monster.
S: Was James Dean there as a publicity stunt?
M: Apparently. They were with the same agent, who had hired the car and told Jimmy, this is the tuxedo you are going to wear. It turned out this was Jimmy’s first premiere and he didn’t want to go. It frightened him. But the agent said, “No you’re going and the car will come for you, and the date will be in the car.” So the car came and he was in the car and she was there, and so he tried to make some small talk. They were both in the back seat being driven and she didn’t know him from Adam, but they both had the same agent. He told me later he had tried to say something and she just wouldn’t speak, didn’t speak the whole evening. He got madder and madder. Turned out she thought he was way beneath her dignity. She was already secretly Mrs. Howard Hughes.
S: What had Jimmy done by then?
M: Nothing. Oh wait a minute. He had done East of Eden, but it hadn’t been released. It hadn’t yet been seen. It was in the can, but that was all, so he was nobody as far as anyone knew.
S: And Jack Simmons, I assume, was the guy in the plaid jacket?
S: Could anyone just go see the movie at this premiere?
M: Anybody could buy a ticket and go there, yeah. In those days, you could just buy a ticket and go. But Jack was wandering around in the lobby, because he was trying to get, you know, he wanted to go in the men’s room and see what men had under their trousers.
S: Was Jack an aspiring actor?
S: What was he?
M: He was a homosexual predator. A shameless one. They used to call him Helen the Hawk because, [imitating a hawk] “Caw! Caw!” He had fat hands, his hands were like claws. He was repulsive.
S: So did you see Jack and James Dean meet for the first time that night, at that premiere too?
M: No, he didn’t meet James Dean at that premiere.
S: Oh, they didn’t. You just happened to notice them both there.
M: I noticed them both as people who I wanted to meet. So, the fellow who had dropped me off Randy Robertson – when he came to pick me up at the end of the evening he asked me, “Well did you see anyone you wanted to meet?”
And I said, “Yeah, two people. See that guy down there in the plaid jacket?”
And he said, “That’s easy I can arrange that. That’s Helen the Hawk.” (Laughs) So, he introduced me to Jack.
And then I said, “And the one who was there with Terry Moore.”
And he said, “Well, I can’t help you with that.”
S: He didn’t know who he was?
M: He didn’t see him, but the next day, Jack was already on the ball with me. See, I didn’t have transportation. My press agent would drive me when I was working, but in my private time I didn’t have transportation. My husband was working during the day, plus he went to bed early. He couldn’t drive me, so I didn’t have wheels at night. So Jack said, “Well I have wheels.” He had an old hearse.
S: Ok, so Randy introduced you to Jack…
M: Yes, so the next morning, early the next morning Jack came to pick me up like at like 11:00 and took me down to Googie’s, which was at the foot of the hill, and in no time at all, Jimmy roared up on his motorcycle. He was looking for me, me being, Vampira. I wasn’t looking for him. I didn’t know who he was, or where to find him.
Googie’s coffee shop was located next door to celebrated Schwab’s drug store, on the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights Boulevards. It was all the rage among young, up and coming stars in 1950s Hollywood who went to table hop, not necessarily to eat.
S: He knew your television show?
M: Oh, yeah.
S: Nicholas Ray wrote that James Dean had wanted to meet you: “Late one evening he arrived at my house. He was with Vampira, the television personality, and Jack Simmons—at this point a young, unemployed actor, who was to become a close friend of Jim’s and appeared in a television play with him. Jimmy would extend sudden affection to lonely and struggling people; he “adopted” several. Since he had few permanent relationships, his companion of the moment was most likely to be a new adoption, or a new object of curiosity. He said later that he wanted to meet Vampira because he had been studying magic.
“Was she really possessed, as her television program suggested, by satanic forces?”
“She knew nothing!” he exclaimed sadly.”
[Essay excerpt from “Rebel—The Life Story of a Film,” published a year after James Dean’s death, in Daily Variety on October 31, 1956. Ray wrote the essay with the help of Gavin Lambert, then a critic for the British film journal, Sight & Sound. Ray and Lambert had an on again/off again sexual relationship for many years, which Lambert put to an end over Ray’s extreme alcoholism.]
M: Oh, that information he got from Hedda Hopper.
“We discussed the thin-cheeked actress who calls herself Vampira on television (and cashed in, after Jimmy died, on the publicity she got from knowing him and claimed she could talk to him ‘through the veil’). He said: ‘I had studied The Golden Bough and the Marquis de Sade, and I was interested in finding out if this girl was obsessed by a satanic force. She knew absolutely nothing. I found her void of any true interest except her Vampira make-up.” – Excerpt from Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper’s memoir, The Whole Truth and Nothing But (1962)
S: Do you know if James Dean actually said that?
M: Well, he did say that, because Luella Parsons and Hedda Hopper were vying with one another and each had their own stars who would get back to them. Well, I didn’t have that with either of them, but Luella Parsons called me up once and asked me, “Well you’re dating both Marlon Brando and James Dean, now how do they compare to one another?” Or something like that. That was the nature of the question. She wanted to know their similarities, or differences, what were they like, or how would I measure one against the other.
And I said, “Well Marlon’s been here longer, so he smells good. He has a really nice perfume, but Jimmy hasn’t been here long enough yet.” And that was my answer and she printed it. Jimmy read that and it broke his heart, apparently. It saddened him and he had to get even, so when Hedda called him he did something nasty to me.
When someone told me what Hedda had said, what she had quoted from Jimmy, I said, “He didn’t say that. He wouldn’t say that.”
They said, “Yes, I read it.”
So next time I saw Jimmy, I said, “Did you talk to Hedda?”
And he said, “Yeah.”
I said, “Why?”
He said, “Well you talked to Luella.”
“Luella Parsons called me up once and asked me, ‘Well you’re dating both Marlon Brando and James Dean, now how do they compare to one another?”
S: So it was just some petty disagreement.
M: Yeah, and also he had come to the studio, seen me tape the show, and they used him on it. They gave him a jacket to wear and he had to sit there and play someone in the blood school, or something, because there were no seats anywhere else. So he did sit in on the pseudo classroom that I was teaching.
S: He actually appeared on the program?
M: Yeah. They said, “Hey kid put on this jacket.” They didn’t know who he was. They thought he was just a friend of Vampira, you know. Jimmy thought I was going to be a real spook. He wanted to see that. He wanted to see some real horror stuff. He was waiting for it and it never came. Instead he saw stupidity.
So Jimmy saw that and he said, “God, we have to look out for Maila. She’s too talented not to know.” When I’m not in Vampira character, I’m some other person, but when I’m Vampira, he didn’t like it.
S: I’m confused. He had never seen the show, didn’t know it was schtick and expected something really scary? Who did he say that to?
M: He said it to Jack. He was polite enough not to say it to me. Not to hurt my feelings. Oh, inane. That’s what he said, “She’s inane.” But that was part of Vampira’s charm!
S: Was Jimmy one of those people who just didn’t get it, or think that way? It sounded like he otherwise had a pretty good sense of humor.
M: Oh, a very good sense of humor. I don’t know why he reacted that way. I think because he was programmed, prepared to see something else, a good old fashioned piece of horror, maybe. He didn’t see what he was waiting for and he just saw something ditzy going on, I guess, and thought, “What’s this?”
S: Do any of the shows exist anywhere?
M: Yeah. There were fifty-six of them down on one reel. There are nine shows on each reel and they’ve got several reels. So, they’ve got fifty-four shows.
S: Are they out on video?
M: They’re not out. They were in the archives at UCLA. Of course the studio dumped them and gave them to UCLA. Then the archivist there stole it and they’ve been selling on the black market back and forth and disappearing and appearing and disappearing. I only saw it once.
S: You saw yourself as Vampira, only once?
M: That’s right. One time I was on the show and I was reading live off the teleprompter, because I never got my script until the last minute. I hadn’t seen my script that day and there was a teleprompter centered behind me. I had good teleprompting. Suddenly I’m sitting on the couch and in the corner is a monitor. I had never seen a monitor. I had never seen the character except for in the mirror in my house.
S: Was that because it was broadcast live?
M: Everything was live.
S: Wow, so you never saw it?
M: You couldn’t see it, because it was live, but I saw it on the monitor that one time. I saw it not as the actress, not as the viewer, but as the creator who created this physical illusion. I was looking at how my vision was bigger than I realized.
“That looks good, that looks good,” and I’m looking and I’m thinking, “Ohhh my God, so that’s how it looks!”
S: Getting back to what you said before, had you actually dated Marlon Brando too?
M: I was dating Marlon. I wasn’t dating Jimmy. We were never dating. I was dating Marlon, but secretly, because I was married.
S: How long did you date Marlon Brando?
M: 30 years.
S: You kept in touch with Marlon Brando all those years?
M: Mostly all of those years.
S: Were you in touch with him in 1990 when his son Christian Brando shot his daughter Cheyenne’s boyfriend and went to jail? [Rebel Without a Cause writer] Stewart Stern had been close friends with him, but told me he lost touch completely with Marlon after that thing went down with his son, that Marlon simply never responded. He just disappeared.
M: Who never responded? Marlon?
S: Yes. It was his impression that Marlon never recovered afterward.
M: Ahhhh…. Sometimes I think he was lost at sea. I didn’t send messages then. I did flush him a note down the toilet once thinking that it might eventually get to him. He never got it. Ahhhh. I think he’s a bright man, Stewart Stern, what I know about him. Interesting, and really sound of mind and spirit, more than most people you meet in this business. We’re all a little distracted one way or another, usually. He seemed to have it all together and Jimmy certainly worshipped him.
“I was dating Marlon, but secretly, because I was married.”
S: Were you going to say something before I mentioned this about Marlon Brando?
M: Yes. The day that [Italian actress] Pier Angeli married Vic Damone, Jack and I were sitting in Googie’s. It was widely advertised that they were going to be married. It was a big romance, at a big Catholic church in West L.A.
Just prior to Angeli’s wedding, she had been dating James Dean. They had met on The Warner Brothers’ lot while Angeli was making The Silver Chalice and Dean was filming East of Eden. Angeli suddenly broke the relationship off, and a few months later, on November 24, 1954, married singer, Vic Damone.
Anyway, we’re sitting there, Jack and I, and all of a sudden the motorcycle roared up and there’s Jimmy in these dirty white sailor pants covered with motorcycle grease. He’d been wearing them for a week, those white pants, and he roared up and he came in and he said, “I’ve just been to a wedding.”
And I said, “I know. Well you didn’t miss anything, because she was having an affair with Marlon all the while.”
I had never mentioned him before. I had read about Jimmy and Pier in the newspapers, and we all knew that they had a broken romance, and she had stood him up. Jimmy had been dating Pier Angeli regularly, and then one night after work he went to the door (and her mother would always answer the door), but this one night he went and rang the doorbell and the mother came to the door and said, “She doesn’t ever want to see you again, go away.” Nothing else. Just “get away.” And then he had to read in the newspaper that she was marrying Vic Damone.
So there he is at Googie’s, and he says, “I’ve just been to a wedding.”
I said, “Yeah I know. You didn’t miss anything because she was having an affair with Marlon.”
S: So you mean, you knew that while she was supposedly with Vic Damone, the whole time, she was also sleeping with Marlon?
M: No, while she was supposed to have been with Jimmy.
S: The whole time?
M: Yes. She just married Vic Damone on the spur of the moment. She was Jimmy’s girlfriend… His silly girlfriend.
S: So, while she was with Jimmy she was seeing Marlon.
M: Sleeping with Marlon.
Jimmy said, “No.”
I said, “Yes.”
When I was leaving Marlon’s house, she was coming in and his house was full of her clothes and full of her stuffed toys. So, it turns out she was a slut. She had had an affair with Vic Damone years earlier in Europe. She was playing like she was a schoolgirl. She brought a life-sized teddy bear to lunch with her – what was that place where everybody had lunch in Beverly Hills – the fancy, fancy place – The Brown Derby, but anyway she just had lunch with her big teddy bear. She was playing little girl, playing a little virgin, teenage girl, but she was quite hard. She also had had a long affair with Kirk Douglas, long before. Turned out she was whoring, actually essentially whoring. I don’t know how she went down so fast, or why, but then she committed suicide very early and very young.
Actress Pier Angeli died in her Beverly Hills home of a barbiturate overdose, at age 39, on September 10, 1971. In a letter to a friend just before her death, Pier allegedly wrote (referring to James Dean’s fatal car crash), “My love died at the wheel of a Porsche. It’s now been 17 years that I’ve been lonely, desperately lonely. I want to find peace and be free and finally be with my father and Jimmy again.”
S: I’d like to continue with when you first met Jimmy. So, Jack Simmons picked you up the next day at 11 to take you where?
M: To Googie’s.
S: Ok, so you get to Googie’s and in walked Jimmy?
M: No, no, not immediately. He came up on his motorcycle, eventually. We were sitting at a booth right next to the plate glass window, and he parked his motorcycle right outside that window, in the No Parking spot. It said No Parking, that’s why he had to park there. He roared up, and the motorcycle shook the windows like an earthquake. I then saw who it was. It was the boy from the premiere.
S: And this was the exact next day?
M: Yes, 12 hours later. I was sitting with Jack, my back to the door, and opposite me was [actor] Jonathan Haze from Little Shop of Horrors. Jimmy came walking past, he had a girl with him. When he got close enough, I could see who it was, so I jumped up unwittingly. I just jumped up from the booth, and hit both my crazy bones under the table, and I was shocked. You know when you hit your crazy bones, and I said, “Jee-sus Christ!” I don’t even use the name like that in vain, but I just sputtered out, “Jesus Christ!”
Jack and Jonathan, they both thought I had had a stroke or something. They said, “Maila, Maila, what’s the matter with you?”
And I said, “That’s James Dean!” Suddenly, it dawned on me when I saw him that it was the guy whose pictures I’d seen with Pier Angeli in the magazines. Then I realized the boy from the premiere was the one who was dating Pier Angeli, and that’s him, and there he is and he’s in this room. He’s in this room! That energy was there and I was just shocked!
Jack and Jonathan asked, “Maila Maila? What’s the matter with you?” And, finally I sat down and they said, “What are you so excited about?”
And I said, “That’s the one I wanted to meet.”
And Jonathan said, “You don’t want to meet him.”
I said, “Yes, I do.”
And Jonathan said (loudly), “No you DON’T want to meet him. Maila! You can meet anybody you want. You DON’T want to meet him.”
I said, “Why not?”
He said, “I just finished making a movie with him, believe me, you don’t want to meet him.”
S: Jonathan had also been in East of Eden?
Actor Jonathan Haze played “Piscora’s son,” uncredited in Director Elia Kazan’s film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1955).
M: Yep. He was in East of Eden. So, then I told Jonathan to go and get him. I said, “Can you bring him over and introduce me to him?”
S: Did he say anything else about why you didn’t want to meet him? I know James Dean already had a reputation and had irritated the hell out of Kazan and his co-stars. The other actors complained that he would never do a scene the same way twice, or never recite the lines as written and he demanded an inordinate amount of Kazan’s attention.
M: Jonathan said it was beyond definition, it defied description. It was that bad. “Belie-e-e-eve me, you don’t want to meet him.”
So I said, okay, but then Jonathan left and Jimmy had gone to the counter. I know that, because I asked Jack, “Where is he?”
He answered, “Sitting at the counter with a girl.” I didn’t turn around and look. I wasn’t going to be brash.
S: Did you know who the girl was?
M: No, I had no idea.
S: Did you get the impression that it was a date, or romantic?
M: Yes I thought it was a girlfriend, it was a date. So, Jonathan had left. I kept waiting for him to come back and bring Jimmy, but he never came back. I said to Jack, “Where’s Jonathan?”
He said, “He’s sitting at a booth with some other people.”
I said, “Near Jimmy?”
So, after about an hour, Jack and I got ready to leave and since Jonathan didn’t come back, I wasn’t going to go and introduce myself.
S: You weren’t in your makeup or costume, were you?
M: No, I was just in my regular togs. So, I gave Jack the money for the bill and he went to the cash register and paid it. I was standing, waiting near the cigarette machine and Jimmy jumped up and left his girl and came over to the cigarette machine. He pretended he was buying cigarettes, but he wasn’t buying cigarettes and he started to fumble around and then Jack came back. Jack was always the social aggressor, and he introduced himself to Jimmy, and then he introduced me to Jimmy, and Jimmy to me.
Jimmy said, “Hi,”
And I said, “Where is she?”
And he said, “She’s sitting at the counter.
I said, “No, not her.”
And he said, “Not her, well who?”
And I said, “”Your mother.”
“Shhhh!” He said, “Is it that obvious?”
I said, “Yeah, it’s pretty obvious.”
S: When Jack introduced you to Jimmy did he introduce you as the actress who played Vampira on TV?
M: No, he just said my name.
S: And Jack had also just introduced himself for the first time too?
M: Right, he didn’t know who he was. He didn’t know him at all. He couldn’t have cared less.
S: Who? Jimmy couldn’t have cared less?
M: No, Jack couldn’t have cared less. Jimmy wasn’t his cup of tea. Jimmy didn’t look anything like [Former Mr. Universe and Hercules actor] Steve Reeves.
S: What were your first impressions of Jack from the time he picked you up in his hearse, to that moment? Did you initially like him?
M: He was a very professional. He was very agreeable. He was good at his work.
S: What do you mean, “professional in his work,” that he was good a hustler?
M: Jack used to act like Danny Kaye. If you’ve ever seen a Danny Kaye movie, he was a very gifted comic and was delightful company – shallow son of a bitch – but entertainment. He was very entertaining.
S: Okay, so when you said to Jimmy, “Where’s your mother?” What had you noticed in him that made you ask that question?
M: Jimmy was a little boy looking for his mother, lost in a carnival.
S: But can you describe what you saw in him, at that moment?
James Dean’s mother Mildred died of uterine cancer in 1938, when he was nine years old. Shortly afterward, Dean’s father, Winston, sent him to live with his aunt and uncle, Ortense and Marcus Winslow, who raised him on their farm in Fairmount, Indiana.
M: I saw an essence. I saw a little boy looking for his mother, terrified that he can’t stand the world without his mommy – like a four-year-old child looking for mama. It was so clear. I channel you know, I see these things sometimes very clearly, and I just saw that very clearly. I can’t say that he raised one eyebrow, or that he cocked his head. I just saw the essence of him. That’s what I saw. Instead of a man standing there at the cigarette machine, I saw a little boy looking for his mother; desperate to find his mother. So, I asked, “Well, where is she?”
Finally he recovered himself and it just blew him away.
Once he recovered himself and he said, “Shhh,” again. “She cut out on me. She cut out.”
I said, “What?”
He said, “She cut out.”
I said, “She cut out?”
He said, “She cut out on me.”
So that was that. Anyway, after a while I said, “You’re being rude to your girl, you’ve been here about 45 minutes at the machine.”
He said, “That’s not my girl”
I said, “That’s not your girl?”
He said, “No.”
I said, “Well, who is it?”
He said, “That’s a clitoris.”
So, after that we called her clitoressa.
S: Do you know who she was, afterward?
M: Oh yeah. Connie.
S: Was she an actress?
M: Waitress – she wanted to be an actress. Nice little Polish girl. Too much estrogen. Ordinary. She wasn’t ugly. She wasn’t pretty. She wasn’t sexy looking, or anything. All the geniuses seemed to be in love with her. [Actor Lewis] Michael Arquette had been her high school sweetheart. He is the father of all the acting Arquettes. He was 18 at the time, or 19, but he’d been her high school sweetheart for years and he is a genius. He was a genius. He’s dead now. Also Jimmy. She had been Jimmy’s girlfriend for five months. Jimmy of course, was a genius, there’s no question there, either, but this girl was a dolt. Very quiet. Nobody home, but she was extremely calm. Calm. At one point, finally, I interviewed those guys, because I wanted to know why somebody with that intensity and that vision would want to be – choose to be – with of all people, a total dolt.
“James Dean said, “That’s a clitoris.” So after that we called her Clitoressa.”
S: Who did you interview, Jimmy and Michael Arquette?
M: Yep, the geniuses who had dated this dolt. They had both been with this same girl.
S: Do you know of any other geniuses who dated her?
M: Just those two that I knew about. I asked them each, one by one. When I asked Jimmy, I said, “You dated Connie for five months.”
He said, “About I guess, yeah.”
I said, “Why?”
He said, “You’re with a girl and then you want to work on your car. And you open the motor and you work on the car. Three hours later you come to and she’s still sitting there just where you put her.” That was his answer. (Laughs)
S: What did Michael Arquette say?
M: Same thing.
S: Just that she was there and didn’t give him a hard time?
M: Right, someone who is there and who isn’t there. Someone who is there, you’re not alone, and though they don’t give back to you in any way, they’re no distraction of any kind. Just quiet. It’s like a security blanket, something warm that keeps you all right
S: Had Michael Arquette lost his mother by any chance, too?
M: Oh, he never had a mother, since maybe he was two or three.
S: So both of them had lost their mothers when they were really young, maybe that had something to do with it?
M: There you go, I never thought of that.
S: Ok, so after you met Jimmy at this cigarette machine, what happened next?
M: He said, “You have to come to my house.”
S: And where did he live at the time?
M: He lived on that street that goes up from Sunset Strip, in a room above a garage, on the Queen’s Road, I think. Actually, a bachelor-like one room with a little bathroom and a wall bed.
For six months, beginning in January, 1955, Dean lived at 1541 Sunset Plaza Drive in a studio over a garage. He moved there after Jack Warner discovered Dean was still living in his former dressing room, several months after East of Eden, had wrapped. Warner allegedly told security, to “Get that little bastard” off the lot. After Warner’s outburst, Dean named the 550 Porsche Spyder that would soon kill him, “The Little Bastard.”
S: Was it studio apartment?
M: Mm hm, a studio.
S: So, after meeting by the cigarette machine you, Jimmy and Jack all went back to his apartment, right then?
M: Yes, because he had a story that he wanted me to read.
S: Did Connie go with you? Was it the four of you?
M: No Connie was gone. I don’t know where she went. I don’t know how he dismissed her. Poor Connie. We went there and he gave me this story to read about a little boy and his mother.
S: That he had written?
M: No, no, an established story he had read somewhere. I don’t remember the name of it, but it was a story about a little boy, a 12-year-old boy and his mother. He and his mother were alone in the world. There was no other family, nothing else. His mother had to go away to work, and he would spend a lot of time playing in the garage and so one day when she came home from work, and the boy was hanging in the garage. He was dead. He had hanged himself. Jimmy thought I’d love this story. He was sure I would love this story.
S: So revealing. But you don’t remember who wrote it, was it a known writer?
M: Yes, somebody known and it’s a classic, but I don’t know who wrote it. He wanted to produce it, make it into a musical with Japanese or Asian music of some kind.
S: A theater musical? Not a film, a play?
M: Maybe he meant a film, I’m not sure. I don’t remember. I’m not sure if he meant a film or a play.
S: Why did he want you to read it?
M: Because, without being told, I saw the closeness that he had with his mother, and he knew I would relate to this boy, who hanged himself in the garage, and his mother having such closeness. I don’t know why else.
S: Did you talk to him at all about not having a mother present, losing your mother to alcoholism when you were young – did you have any identification with him on that level?
M: I don’t think I ever told him about my childhood. I’m not sure that I did. I don’t think I did.
S: Would he have been somebody who would be interested in your background, or was it kind of a one way street, all about him?
M: I’m not sure. That’s an interesting question.
S: It seems like he had few close friends, is that true? That you and Jack were among his few intimate friends…
M: Oh that’s because it’s a publicized period in his life, maybe that’s why. I mean he had friends. When he was in New York before he came, he had those two buddies that he always hung out with. Bill Bast was his friend. He worshipped Bill Bast. He’s a black man and a writer.
S: William Bast? The guy who wrote the books about him?
M: Nooooo, I meant Billy Gunn. [Bill Gunn was a director, playwright, screenwriter, novelist and actor, who had appeared with Dean in the Broadway production of The Immoralist, in 1954] No Bill Bast was his school friend here, I know Bill Bast. No Billy Gunn was the one he admired. A black writer. In New York. Billy Gunn – he was quite young when he died, I don’t know what he died of. Bill had his friend who was always alone, that was [actor] Martin Landau, but Marty didn’t understand Jimmy and Jimmy didn’t understand Marty, but they were always together, because of their mutual friend, Bill Gunn.
M: Of course, now Marty pretends that he was a close friend of Jimmy’s, but he never understood, or cared about Jimmy. They often lived in the same digs, because they were out of money, and you know how that gets you. You have to last in one room.
I saw Martin Landau at one of the premieres for [Director Tim Burton’s 1994 film] Ed Wood. There were two premieres. One, at night, somewhere in Hollywood and we were told not to come there. All of us, brain damaged entities, were told not to come there. Then the next day in the middle of the day, they had a small premiere in Silver Lake at The Vista Theatre, a mini-premiere to placate us, with a few press there.
S: Who were the other people, the “brain damaged” ones?
M: The Ed Wood people, who were in Planet 9 from Outer Space. All those people. They were all given $5,000, or $8,000, and a little schtick in the movie. But, I was the one that had more than myself. I had my intellectual property at stake. I didn’t want the cameo, I wanted them to remove that one codicil that gave them the rights to Vampira. They didn’t pay me. They were sending me contract after contract. I didn’t sign and they took it.
S: I’m wondering if you felt that you could appeal to Martin Landau [who won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for playing Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood] having been a mutual friend of James Dean’s
M: No. It was the first time I’d seen him in forty years. Anyway, we went to that afternoon thing and so they set up a little strip in front of the theater and poured fresh sidewalk and had what’s his name put his hands in the cement. Martin Landau put his hands in the cement.
So, we’re standing in line waiting for him to be called forward and I said, “Hi. Do you think of Jimmy much?”
He said, “It’s been a long time.” So, apparently he didn’t.
I went to New York right after Jimmy had died, and Martin Landau had asked me to come and see him at Jerry’s Bar. I was living there for a nine-week period, in a big building that a lot of hungry actors lived in, where there was a community kitchen on every floor and you just rented one room, but you could cook stuff in the community kitchen, and so on, and there were shared bathrooms. It was right across from Essex House on 57th Street halfway between the park and Carnegie Hall. Huge building. Marlon always lived there when he was young and starving. So, I was in there and suddenly there was a knock at my door. Nobody knew I was in there and it was some kid I had known here in Hollywood who was a singer-songwriter musician who said, Martin Landau wants to meet you at Jerry’s Bar.
S: Where was Jerry’s Bar?
M: Sixth Avenue and 57th. So I went down…you had to walk the length of the bar to the one big room in the back where the tables for serving people are. Nobody was there either. All of the booths were empty. So I sat near the back wall in the booth. I sat there and thought, “No, I want a booth for two. Since there’s only one of me and I’m going to meet what’s his name. There’ll be two of us. So, I’m going to sit over there.”
So I went and sat in another one with my back toward the door. It was kind of elevated, with one semi-booth, and then Martin Landau came in, and he said, “Who told you to sit here?”
I said, “Why?”
And he said, “Who told you to?”
I said, “Nobody told me to I just decided to.”
He said, “You’re sitting in Jimmy’s seat.” So then people started to come in and they all came up to him, Hey, man Hey, man… He was getting sadder and sadder. This was one a month after Jimmy died. The people would come up to him, consoling him every night. They were still consoling him. He was taking it all so bravely. This was the first time I had met him and I was trying to get acquainted.
He told me they didn’t have a tombstone for Jimmy’s grave, that there was no money for a tombstone. They had started an organization, but the secretary had run away with all of the money. So, Martin Landau says, “Yeah. They haven’t got a tombstone. They have no marker for his grave.”
And I said, “I know. Why don’t we give you some plaster of Paris, and you can kill two birds with one stone.” Boy was he mad at that. Livid. He didn’t like me.
© 2017 Stacey Asip-Kneitschel – All rights reserved