Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Survivor: Mamie Van Doren’s Good Life

Note: This is the first of our two-part interview with screen icon, author and performer Mamie Van Doren.

By Lars Trodson

In Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction”, during the famous Jack Rabbit Slim’s scene, Uma Thurman asks John Travolta to get the attention of one of the waitresses so they can order some food. She points to one of the staff, who are all made up to look like 1950s movie icons, and identifies the waitress as Marilyn Monroe.

“That’s not Marilyn Monroe,” says Travolta’s Vincent Vega. “That’s Mamie Van Doren.”

Correct. You can’t, and shouldn’t, get the two mixed up.

Marilyn, of course, had a career shrouded, almost imbued, with tragedy. Her stunning face almost always had a thin veil of sadness floating around it. Not so of Mamie Van Doren. In all her vintage photographs she is smiling, laughing, exuberant. Today, her smile continues to arrive naturally, and that comes not just from having lived a full life -- and not one, of course, without adversity; she has been open about dealing with her own depression -- and a long life, but a good life. It’s also not just a question of enjoying good luck, it’s a statement of basking in the glow of what you can do for yourself.

It would be easy to ask Mamie Van Doren, as she still poses nude, and talks frankly and unapologetically about sexuality and the positive role it plays in life, to act her age. But her persona and outlook puts us in the position of asking another, infinitely more interesting question: just what does it mean to act one’s age?

“My parents never thought of age, they didn’t even bring the word up, they never even paid any attention to it. So I never even became aware of age until people started to talk about it, and I think they bring it up because of fear,” she says. “If they bring up your age it’s because they’re worried about getting older or if they are going to make it as far as I have.”

It’s apparent that Mamie, as she dances into the last half of her 70s, is acting her age as precisely as she feels she is meant to act it. Good for her.

This is a life that has come far from the farm fields of South Dakota, where she was born, and a life that has intersected with Clark Gable and Joan Crawford and Robert Mitchum and Marilyn and Jayne Mansfield and Richard Nixon and Anna Nicole Smith. It is not so much glamour that is at the heart of this story, but rather one of attitude, and self awareness, and of treating the world just as you wish to be treated. It’s a story of self-invention, to some degree, but Mamie Van Doren’s story is also an astonishing one of hope and possibility.

“I won’t even kill an ant,” she said during a long telephone interview recently. “You’ll never know what you’ll come back as.” And that is as good a hook as any to hang this story of a person who is always looking forward to the next good thing.

She was determined, even at a young age, to survive. She saw her contemporaries Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe die tragically young. She sees the young stars today -- like Lindsay Lohan -- and she laments that careers now seem to be over before they even get started. “When they get into their 20s it’s about over and then you’ve got somebody else coming up, and its very hard,” she says. She was, in the 1950s, bundled in with Marilyn and Mansfield as one of the “3 Ms”, one of those unfortunate publicity stunts that seems determined to
rob people of their individuality, and which also was the precursor to today’s ubiquitous Bennifers and Brangelinas and TomKats. But it is Mamie alone that remains out of that earlier group, and in fact she is one of the few vibrant personalities from the 1950s who is still carving out a unique niche in the 21st century.

She was sophisticated and intelligent enough to navigate her way through Hollywood, certainly beautiful and talented enough to belong there, and then to make international movies with international stars and then, when the time came, to embrace the Internet, where her personality now shines through. She traveled to Vietnam in the early 1970s, which was perhaps the war’s, and her own, darkest hours, and she went right to the front lines where few other performers ever ventured. Those journeys too had an impact that resonates to this day.

But first we have to go back. We’ll get to all the movie stars and movie sets and nightclubs in a little bit. But traveling back to where Mamie Van Doren came from is important because it seems as though the most enduring stars we have, the ones we connect with the most, are not the one’s manufactured on the studio lot or in the recording studio but rather the ones whose early lives had an earthiness to them, the experience of the everyday. Our icons are the ones who started out as day laborers, or cooks or soldiers, and who were always looking out the window of their office or kitchen and dreamed of something wholly different for themselves.

And so we travel back to the South Dakota of the Depression.

Her mother Lucille was a homemaker and her father Warner Carl “worked very hard, he was a laborer, a mechanic, a construction worker.” But for the first years of her life she lived with her grandparents, where there was always good food from the farm, but no citrus -- “a lemon was like gold,” she remembers -- and there was no indoor plumbing. “It was very interesting to grow up in that kind of environment at that time. We found Indian arrowheads all over the place.” It was not all about the daily grind of hard work. There were glimpses of a larger world, and the kind of celebrity that was distinctly unique to that time.

“We had Bonnie and Clyde blowing up farmhouses all around us, and Dillinger was robbing banks, and we had the Native Americans there, too,” she says. “South Dakota was really an exciting time in the 1930s.” Her grandfather listened to Hitler speeches on the radio -- he was of German descent -- and Joe Louis fights, and everyone around her worked hard. It is a lesson she remembers.

“Up at 4:30 in the morning and at the plow -- we didn’t have a John Deere tractor -- they walked behind the horses. And I would have to walk a mile through the 40 acres to bring them their lunch -- and one farm would help the other or else they couldn’t survive,” she says, using a word that pops up with some frequency in her speech. Her heroes were Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, two troupers who survived deep into old age in their own way.

Mamie was born, in 1931 as Joan Lucille Olander, and she remembers “from that minute on” she knew she was special and gifted in some way. “I had attention without having to do anything.” And she knew that there was a life for her beyond the Badlands of South Dakota. “At the time you felt you were going to get married and have children and then you’d become a homemaker. But I didn’t think that was for me. I saw what my grandmother had to go through and that really wasn’t what I wanted.”

It certainly wasn’t what she got.

World War II brought her family to California, and in the summer of 1949, when she was just 18, she started to get noticed by some of the right people.

“When I was staying at a hotel with my mother they were sponsoring a beauty pageant, and thought I was never going to win, there were some beautiful girls. Well, I did win, and I was Miss Palm Springs. When I was Miss Palm Springs I had a lot of publicity and that’s kind of when it started,” she says.

It just so happened that Howard Hughes was in the audience the night she was crowned. Hughes owned RKO Pictures and had been making movies since the end of the silent era, and a representative called Mamie and she was asked to come over to the studio. “I was going to work there in the summer months, and that’s when I felt I was going to be in the movies.”

The same year she also took the crown for the Miss Eight Ball contest -- Monroe had won the same pageant the year before -- “and I got scads of publicity for that and I became very, very popular.”

Joan Lucille Olander was renamed -- an amalgam of Mamie Eisenhower and a movie actor named Mark Van Doren (which was also the last name of the leading academic family of the day) -- and the new moniker seemed to perfectly fit her and the sexy atmosphere of the day.

Hughes put her in a movie called “Jet Pilot” with John Wayne and Janet Leigh, which was directed by Josef von Sternberg (who was Dietrich’s mentor). “(Sternberg) had me climbing up this big ladder, and I only had a couple words but they cut it out.” Although the movie was filmed in 1951 it wasn’t released until 1957 (it turned out to be von Sternberg’s final released film), she was also getting bit parts, including one in “Footlight Varieties” that was directed by none other than D.W. Griffith. But quickly after “Jet Pilot” Hughes put her in another movie called “His Kind of Woman” (also 1951) with Jane Russell and Robert Mitchum.

Mitchum seems to have stirred up some memories. “He was hot,” she says with a laugh, “And I was just a kid and he had me come to his dressing room a lot to talk and he was so cute.” But she also recalls Mitchum as a “wonderful actor. I would just watch and I learned more on those three months working on those scenes. I learned so much. I was thinking then I had to become a good actress.”

It may have seemed a natural career move, going to New York in the early 1950s, which she did. Mamie became a showgirl. But by her own admission she was neither a dancer nor a model. “I couldn’t get arrested,” she remembers. “I met Sammy Fain, who was writing a lot of Broadway shows. I said I’m going home. He gave me the number of Jimmy McHugh” -- the songwriter -- “so I said I’ll call him when I got back to California, and I did and he said ‘Come on up.’ He had a beautiful home and right away he liked me, and I sang all of his songs, he had those great songs. This was 1951, ’52 and January 1953. He was my Svengali -- he wanted to be called my Svengali and he told me that I was going to be a movie star.”

Movie stars in those days were expected to be versatile. Hollywood was still making musicals -- the early 50s turned out to be that genre’s last golden age -- and singing and dancing and diction were essential for survival. McHugh sent Mamie to drama school, and she was told by McHugh “I want you to go day and night, day and night. So I did a lot of theater, and day and night school and a lot of drama. I was doing “The Big Knife”, Clifford Odets wrote it, then I did “Come Back, Little Sheba” that Terry Moore was in (the film version), and Universal called and they were doing a movie over there called "Forbidden" with Tony Curtis and Joanne Dru.”

The script called for a nightclub singer -- the setting was Macao -- “and they needed someone right away. They wanted me to sing ‘You Belong to Me’ and I had to learn the song. I had to go in and do everything perfectly. When I went in I had bitten my nails down, and they had to put nails on and they were doing my hair and fixing my face, and they had this gown sent over from MGM, an old Jean Harlow dress, and a pair of white Joan Crawford ‘fuck me’ shoes, and I was so nervous they had to put eyelashes on me and they couldn’t even put those on I was blinking so much,” she says.

But -- and these are her own words -- “everything is timing.” It turns out the sales force from Universal’s New York office was at the studio that day.

“They saw me and signed me to a contract. A two year contract with options and I was there for five years,” she says, and you can still hear the affirmation of this experience in her voice as she remembers. “I was making $300 a week.”

Marilyn, she points out, was making $500 a week.

And so Miss Van Doren arrived. For good.

Next: Hollywood stardom, older women and younger men, and growing older with grace. Visit

For Part II, click here: