Note: This is the second part of our interview with Mamie Van Doren. For Part I, click here:
By Lars Trodson
Nostalgia is a powerful but tricky business. It’s defined, and probably experienced, through a sense of yearning for something that you had, or probably wished you had, and maybe something that was lost. Nostalgia makes us look back through the prism of our own memory, and if we are nostalgic for a time in which we did not live then we must experience it through those avenues available to us: movies, photographs, music, and books.
Nostalgia also comes with some baggage, because it is almost as though we think the times in which we currently live don’t match up with what has come before. If we look back with yearning, it means we are searching for the allure of youth, and the attraction of the power of emotion we felt when we were young.
Many, many stars, as they get older, make their trade in nostalgia. They sing oldies, autograph photos of themselves in their prime, discuss the movies they made and the games they played long ago.
Mamie Van Doren, on the other hand, obliterates any need for nostalgia about her earlier career. The arc of her story has to take us through certain eras because she lived through them, of course, and the accumulation of those experiences got her where she is today, yes. In Mamie’s case it’s useful to look back. But then we have to remember that she is very much present in the here and now, living her life very much to the fullest in 2007, and that seems to be much more important. Name another star who came of age in the 1940s and ‘50s who is doing that today. Paul Newman. Lauren Bacall? Yes. But then the list grows short.
Mamie’s career today isn’t an oldies act; it’s defined by her current self. She contemporaneous with the times -- she clearly knows about the younger people who have arrived on the scene, and she’s very pointed in her attitudes about the American political atmosphere. Is she leading a cultural revolution that defies and rejects ageism? That’s probably putting too much weight on it. What she is doing is living her life, and others can take notice if they want.
So when she talks about Jack Dempsey, whom she dated in the early 1950s in New York, it becomes more than just a bold-faced named anecdote, it’s another way of learning about who she is, and another way of understanding her core beliefs about age and attitude toward life. Age is a…what? Is it anything at all?
So when she was in New York in the early 50s, she says: “I was dating Jack Dempsey at the time, who was 50, and age never mattered to me. It wasn’t important. If I liked a young guy, I’d go with him. Jack Dempsey (acted like he) was 18, like he was my age, we had a lot of fun together.” She makes a point of saying that she didn’t really date actors, although there were some -- Burt Reynolds among them -- because she wasn’t really attracted to actors who portrayed athletes. She would rather go out with a real athlete (she was once married to a baseball player). This is the approach of someone seeking out what is real, and not being attracted to what is the tinsel, the illusion.
Dempsey, of course, was one of, if not the most, famous athlete of his day -- the real thing -- and in the 50s there might not have been anyone more famous in New York. Mamie didn’t care that the studio didn’t really want them to be seen together because of their age difference.
“He took me to the most famous places, he had the Jack Dempsey Restaurant, everybody knew him,” she says now. “He was handsome and had this great wardrobe. He lived high. Any girl would have loved to date him.” When she went back to Hollywood, they would go out together to Chasen’s, and there was publicity about that.
But now the young girl from South Dakota, with a new name, and under the tutelage of Jimmy McHugh and drama school, started to get parts in the movies. Her good looks and powerful sexuality have transcended time, as we now know, but her voluptuous physique and playful attitude dovetailed perfectly with the emerging sense of freedom Hollywood was exploring at the time. She was getting noticed and she was beginning to make her way.
The parts started coming in such movies as “Hawaiian Nights”, “Yankee Pasha” and “Francis Joins the WACs” -- an entry in the Francis the Talking Mule series. And she was photographed on the town, looking gorgeous -- and smiling -- at Ciro’s and all the other haunts where movie stars were known to go.
“Everybody smoked and drank. The actresses of that day, your Joan Bennetts and Joan Crawfords, they drank and lived high, and they lived really hard lives. I never went that route. I never smoked, maybe a little pot as a teenager, but never any hard liquor,” she says now. And there was a practical reason for that, beyond just her health: “I must say I really enjoyed my sex life a lot, and when I drank I felt it slowed everything down and I did not enjoy it. I thought if I didn’t want to go to bed with somebody that maybe if I drank I couldn’t feel it” -- at which point she laughs -- “but I always felt my sexual desires were much stronger than booze and drugs.”
She hit the A-list with 1958’s “Teacher’s Pet” with Doris Day, Clark Gable and Gig Young. It’s a smart, snappy little black and white comedy, and Mamie plays a nightclub singer named Peggy DeFore who is dating Gable’s older, wiser and somewhat disgruntled newspaper editor.
The scene where we first glimpse Mamie is at The Bongo Club, where she’s performing, and she’s snuggled up to Gable. Gable is the old pro, of course, but Mamie’s got him wrapped around her finger.
The first words we hear from Mamie are: “These days a girl has to know all about deductibles, capital gains taxes. She could wind up working for the government. What do you think?”
Gable just snarls.
“Never mind,” purrs Mamie, as Miss DeFore. “You’ve been thinking enough for today.”
Moments later, Gig Young and Doris Day walk in -- you see, Gable has a crush on Day but she’s dating Gig Young -- causing Gable even more heartburn.
“Who’s the character?” Mamie asks of Young. “He’s dreamy. He must be from Hollywood.”
Gable waits a perfect beat, and then growls out: “He’s a psychiatrist.”
“No kidding. Whaddya know,” Mamie’s character says. “It just goes to show. You can’t tell by looks.”
She should know. Naturally smart, she knew instinctively that the world judges you on how you look, but she also knew that looks alone would not guarantee her survival, in Hollywood or anywhere else.
“I took my work very seriously, I studied,” she says. “But because of the attributes that I was gifted with, I think that really got in the way of looking at me as a performer and an actress. I had a hard time because they really think you can’t be a beautiful woman and get an Academy Award. I think you have to be kind of homely and ugly … or make yourself ugly and really bad.”
History bears this out. While any number of stunningly beautiful actresses have won the Oscar, very, very few have won one when floating through a picture looking like a dream. Whether it is Grace Kelly, or Elizabeth Taylor or Sally Field or Charlize Theron, actresses are almost certainly more likely to be praised when they deglamorize themselves. It is not a trend that has eased with time.
There is a memory that apparently still rankles Mamie. “It’s like when Marilyn did "Bus Stop" (1956), she didn’t even get nominated for an award. I mean, she was lovely in that and never even got nominated. That’s just so bad.”
Mamie cites actress Kim Basinger for having opened up that door a little bit. “I was so surprised when she got the award for ‘L.A. Confidential.’” That movie -- a look at the underbelly of Hollywood in the 1950s -- was also something she lived through.
“That movie reminded me of everything, Lana Turner and Johnny Stompanato, who I used to date,” she says now.
Next came the string of movies that Mamie is perhaps best known for now, although at the time they were very much B-pictures, some made with legendary producer Albert Zugsmith (“High School Confidential!”, 1958) was one of many. All the titles were strikingly similar in their way, and Mamie, in a tight sweater and a bullet bra, was the main attraction.
Her next phase was as a globetrotting actress. “I not only worked in Hollywood, but Germany and Yugoslavia and Madrid, Paris and South America, Buenos Aires. I’ve done movies all over the world, and I always worked opposite the stars of those countries,” she says. She wrote a couple of books, did nightclub acts, married the band leader Ray Anthony and had a son, Perry.
The 1960s passed, and Mamie’s particular brand of ‘oomph’ faded. A more naturalistic look, with Jane Fonda and Faye Dunaway leading the pack, came into vogue. Mamie married twice, to a ball player and then, briefly, to a businessman, and in the depths of a severe depression she went to a place, Vietnam, that was as dark as she felt.
She had been what she called a “middle of the road Republican.” She was a supporter of Richard Nixon -- she appreciates that he was a self-made man -- and the war in Vietnam. But her experiences there colored her positions, and gave her a continuing appreciation for American troops. She still embraces the troops of today warmly on her website.
“I was completely behind the Vietnam cause, and people put me down terribly for that,” she remembers. “But when I went to Vietnam I said ‘What are we doing? What in the hell are we doing?’ My God.” Mamie did not join a USO show, those shows were presented in more protected areas, and she went right to the front lines. The pictures of her during this time, in Vietnam (one accompanies the first installment of this interview), are remarkable. She’s stunningly beautiful, but the setting is the antithesis of glamour. The troops stationed where she performed must have been unimaginably grateful to see her.
But it was ugly, and it changed her.
“One time when I was performing outside there was a helicopter overhead, and a body in a body bag. They were pulling body bags from the helicopter, and I absolutely could not finish the song. I said to myself, ‘What for? Why is this going on?’ These were kids who did not want to go.”
Of the more than 55,000 men and women killed there, she asks now: “Look at the presidents we possibly lost.”
Her experience then has informed her assessment of the war in Iraq, and the current occupant of the White House, neither of which she views favorably.
“Now we have 3,000, 4,000 dead and over a million Iraqis that have died. How does this president sleep at night, will you tell me?” she asks. “We’re really going to have to get this country back to us.”
But this is a flash of intolerance, borne out of a humanistic nature that values life, and so it doesn’t last long.
And this brings us to the present day.
Mamie’s last widely released film was in 2002, called “Slackers”, but she now concentrates on her work through the web, where her racy films can be downloaded. She is selling other items, some with a decidedly personal bent, and she’s endorsing a new limited line of wines called “Mamietage.”
“This is what I’m really excited about,” she says. “I’m not a connoisseur of wines, but I know a good one when I taste it.” The wines are produced and bottled by Armida Winery in Sonoma County, CA, and she’s officially launching them at a Santa Rosa country club on Oct. 23. The wine labels will feature three images of Mamie, and, pointedly, two of the images will be of Mamie today, while the third will be from an earlier era.
The decision to use more of images of Mamie as she looks today seems important. It signals a small but determined gesture on her part that says: who I am today is just as vibrant and sexy and potent as the movie star you may remember from your youth. She is saying, I’m older, you’re older, so what? Get over it. Age can, and should, have its own allure.
And while she’s always had a global audience, movies are decidedly less intimate than the conversation she’s now having with her fans through her website. Early on she knew the power of the computer, even when the people of her own generation have unfortunately been intimidated by it.
“They have a computer in their house and have no idea how to even turn it on. I started on the Internet when I was writing my book “Playing the Field” and that was in 1985, and I was on an old Mac and I had to keep changing the files because you could lose everything and it was really difficult, but I’m really ahead of the thing, and I still am,” she says. “I just love it.”
Through her site, fans, everyday people, are reaching out. And her reaction to them is in keeping with her faith, and her perspective.
“I know that I get a lot of comments from people on my website from women who have a fear of age, of growing older, and they don’t look as good as they want to look, and they look at me and they feel as though maybe there is hope,” she says. “They say ‘Mamie don’t leave me.’ People are just crying out. I can’t believe some of the messages I get. They’re opening their whole heart and soul to me.”
She says that she always looks at her website before she goes to sleep. “I think they are waiting for me to get online to see if they are accepted as one of my friends.”
Mamie Van Doren sounds happy now. She talks of her husband of almost 30 years, Thomas Dixon, and her son Perry, from her marriage to Ray Anthony. She talks about how grateful she is for the robustness of her sex life -- she says her orgasms are stronger than ever -- which is all in keeping with her lovely philosophy about the ongoing possibilities of life.
“My husband says to me, what happened? I’m getting older and you’re getting younger,” she laughs, noting that Dixon is 15 years younger than she is. Her life now intersects with our modern lineup of stars and starlets, such as Anna Nicole Smith -- who Mamie says “did not have a bad bone in her body” -- and Pamela Anderson, with whom she shot a layout for Vanity Fair.
She talks of the angels that have helped protect her since youth. “Oh, I have had an angel,” she says. “And still do.”
When asked, finally, if she looks back at the fullness of her life, the sheer scope of it, and if she wonders whether she was the one who actually lived it, or if it seems like someone else’s dream, she laughs out loud.
“Oh, no, it was me!” she says, her voice strong and clear, ageless, and full of affirmation. “No one else could do it.”
And so, hearing this, we can say with assurance, just as Travolta did in the movie: That’s Mamie Van Doren.
Please visit www.mamievandoren.com and www.mamiewine.com for all you need to know.