Mamie van Doren, Bad-Girl Blonde Of '50s Cult Cinema, Then And Now
Mamie Van Doren posing for a phot shoot and on the poster of 'Born Reckless.' Sources: eBay; wrongsideoftheart.com
Peruse Mamie Van Doren's filmography -- Untamed Youth (1957), High School Confidential (1958), Born Reckless (1958), Girls Town (1959), Vice Raid (1960), Sex Kittens Go To College (1960) -- and you get a feel for this iconic blonde's Hollywood story. Casablanca and Gone With The Wind, it ain't. If she was eye-candy and her movies tended toward exploitation, that doesn't mean Van Doren wasn't culturally significant. Quite the contrary. As an artifact of its time, a film like High School Confidential will tell you more about American society, with all its taboos and fears, in the 1950s than the romantic comedies of Doris Day and Audrey Hepburn, or even most of the movies made by Van Doren's pneumatic blonde rivals Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield.
Now in her ninth decade, Van Doren remains a symbol of a previous era of Hollywood, but more than that, a time when filmmakers were luring audiences to theaters with scandalous subject matter that seems unremarkable today. Van Doren made movies about rock 'n roll and juvenile delinquency; the '50s have been called the decade that gave us the American teenager, and Van Doren's movies traded on the potential dark side of this emerging class of independent youth. Van Doren made a women's-prison movie, she made a movie about the Beat Generation, she made a movie in which she played the Biblical Eve, wearing story-appropriate wardrobe (in other words, not much). She was a serial bad girl at a time when America feared bad girls almost as much as the red menace.
The Gal From Rowena, South Dakota
Few Hollywood starlets hail from South Dakota, but then again, few starlets invent themselves in the same fashion as Mamie Van Doren -- who was born Joan Lucille Olander but given the name "Mamie" to piggyback on the popularity of the then-new First Lady, Mamie Eisenhower. The unabashed blonde lived life her way and didn’t care whose feathers she ruffled along the way. Along with Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, Mamie Van Doren set the standard for raucous blondes that set the ‘50s on fire. In an era ruled by men, Van Doren blazed her own trail, with a flamethrower.
Her movie choices exemplified her life from Untamed Youth to Born Reckless. She dated everyone from Jack Dempsey to Frank Sinatra and almost everyone in between. However, she never did something she didn’t want to and always did someone she desired. Here’s to one of the first sex symbols to ever sashay through Hollywood.
'High School Confidential' Is An Important Movie, In Its Way
Van Doren's most famous, or notorious, film is High School Confidential. In it, Russ Tamblyn plays an undercover cop who infiltrates a high school, and Van Doren plays a woman who lives with him under the odd pretense that she is his aunt. Though the film takes a sensationalist look at youth culture, Van Doren's mature physique prevents her from playing a high school student -- so seductive aunt it is. An assessment by The Dissolve explains:
[Van Doren] oozes trashy sexuality: At one point, she cradles and nibbles on an apple with a sensuality that would make God blush. She’s a seething sexpot who settles on [Russ Tamblyn's character] Tony as a convenient outlet for her erotic energies, a femme fatale perpetually lounging about the house in lingerie and a come-hither stare. Van Doren rightly has a reputation as a poor substitution for Jayne Mansfield, who in turn was considered the poor man’s Marilyn Monroe, but Van Doren is electric here, a real star rather than an acceptable simulacrum for the real thing.
In addition to Van Doren, High School Confidential shows us high schoolers descending into reefer madness, with its symptoms of jive talk and Beat poetry, toward the assured outcome of heroin addiction. The students include a young Michael Landon and Drew Barrymore's dad, the drug kingpin is Jackie "Uncle Fester" Coogan, and Jerry Lee Lewis plays himself. How can you not want to watch this movie right now?
A Bombshell From the Beginning
Van Doren got her first taste of Hollywood heavyweights when Howard Hughes came prowling her way. The notorious deviant reportedly asked Mamie three quintessentially Howard-esque questions to the then 15-year-old. First was, “How old are you?” then “Do you live with your parents?” before ending with “Are you a virgin?” The precocious Van Doren responded, “You’ll never know, Mr. Hughes.”
Living in the fast lane, Van Doren was engaged to Jack Dempsey at the age of 18 but broke it off when she got her shot acting. As she said, “ I mean, Jack was a lot of fun. He was an old fighter, but my God, he had a young heart. He knew everyone. And everyone loved Jack Dempsey. He treated me pretty well. But he was uneducated. And it just didn’t last very long.”
A Who’s Who Of Romantic Partners
In a time ruled by conservative values, Van Doren flaunted them with giggly aplomb. In one famous story, she began a bed rocking tryst with Steve Cochran on the set of a movie while married to her second husband, Ray Anthony. Apparently, Anthony visited the set unannounced and got more than an eye-full of her intimate time with Cochran.
She even went on a date with Henry Kissinger but took the advice of fellow sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe who said to avoid politicians because “When they screw you, they really screw you.” Van Doren also bedded famous astronaut Buzz Aldrin, infamously saying, “Buzz and I spent some memorable and erotic times together…After all, a man who could make it to the moon, could make it with me.”
No Stopping Mamie
On the other hand, she passed on Prince Axel of Denmark but simpered for Clark Gable on the set of Teacher’s Pet -- in the movie, she played a nightclub singer who loses Gable to the more socially acceptable Doris Day. Van Doren confessed to nearly fainting during her kissing scene with the legendary King of Hollywood. Reportedly, Gable ranked as a better kisser than Burt Reynolds who called himself, “The Male Mamie Van Doren.” Last but not least on her long line of partners were baseball teammates, Bo Belinsky and Lee Meyers.
Van Doren summed up her wild dating life best, “I was being me. And that got me in trouble with the movie industry. We’re talking about the ‘50s, kid. You didn’t do the things I did then. And then along came a girl named Madonna. She made a whole career out of it.”
Mamie, Monroe, And Mansfield
Known as “The Three M’s,” these three starlets became the female focal points of the ‘50s. They often went against each other for the same roles and were constantly compared to one another. Monroe and Mamie got along well; Van Doren even used the same drama coach for a while.
However, her memories of Monroe were mostly melancholy. “My memories of Marilyn are sad ones. When she wasn’t around people, she was sad. She was sad most of the time. She couldn’t do too much back then without everyone knowing. But as she entered her late 30s, things weren’t as easy for her. She also had a problem with men. She couldn’t seem to hang on to them. A very strange thing. She just couldn’t hang on to a man.”
Jayne Mansfield, however, didn’t take to Mamie as well. Allegedly, on the set of The Las Vegas Hillbillys Mansfield refused to share a scene with Van Doren and called her “the drive-in’s answer to Marilyn Monroe.”
Monroe’s death made Mamie look at life differently. “I got away from all the bad stuff that was going on. This was around the ‘60s when I left. There were a lot of drugs. Marilyn died. Jayne died. A lot of my contemporaries were gone. I just thought it was time to leave Hollywood. It just wasn’t agreeing with me.” Today, she lives in Newport Beach and works on her memoir while enjoying mom life.
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