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Mamie Van Doren, the brilliant and shameless seductress who survived Marilyn and continues to surprise at 92

One of Hollywood’s legendary blonde bombshells found short-lived stardom in the fifties. However, she strove to become a legend in other ways… and she’s still doing it

Mamie Van Doren fotografiada en 1955
Mamie Van Doren photographed in 1955, in an attempt by studios to market her as an alternative to Marilyn Monroe.Silver Screen Collection (Getty Images)
Miquel Echarri

She was the answer to Marilyn Monroe and gave Jayne Mansfield a run for her money with her sassiness and exuberance. An Ava Gardner at home, she is one of the most vivacious heirs of Mae West and Marlene Dietrich. Today, and with good reason, she boasts that she is the most modern and energetic nonagenarian who has ever walked the planet and, to prove it, she has just shown (fleetingly and probably unintentionally) her vagina on social media. It was, perhaps, the only part of her anatomy that this pioneer of nudity as a weapon of mass seduction had not exhibited in public.

That may seem like a minor event (the image, by the way, has already been withdrawn from circulation), but coming from her and considering that she turned 92 on February 6, it represents an act of pride and survival. Mamie Van Doren writes a very substantial blog, with which she criticizes Donald Trump and acts like a fairy godmother of sexual diversity. In addition, she remains very active on social networks. For example, she has just posted the celebratory news of having spent 50 years with Thomas Dixon. The former actor and now retired dentist ended up as her fifth husband in 1979, and this last half century has been, without a doubt, the best of his life.

She has also said that her modest community of just 10,000 followers on Twitter is her “new family” and they have become the most important people to her. Willing to throw red meat to her tribe of unconditional fans, she is working on Secrets of the Goddess, the third volume of her great autobiographical chronicle, a book in which she fleshes out what was already explained in Playing the Field: My Story and Playing the Field: Sex, Love, and Life in Hollywood. This time, she assures readers, she wants to spill the beans “without gloves and without filters,” about how she became Mamie, “what became of Joanie Olander,” her real name, and where “the bodies are buried.”

The first to arrive

The first turning point in Mamie Van Doren’s long life came very early, when the actress from Rowena, South Dakota, was just 18 years old. Of Swedish origin and named Joan Olander in honor of her mother’s idol, Joan Crawford, she grew up on a modest farm on the outskirts of the city. She was a terrible student, less interested in algebra than “in clothes and boys,” and, at the end of her adolescence, had no other life plan than to become a showgirl, travel to New York, and marry a big shot from the world of theater.

The young Joan Olander, who had not yet changed her name to Mamie Van Doren, with her then-fiancé, former world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey.
The young Joan Olander, who had not yet changed her name to Mamie Van Doren, with her then-fiancé, former world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey.Bettmann (Bettmann Archive)

Since New York was very far from the Dakotas, she settled for moving to Los Angeles, where she found work as an usherette at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood and began to associate with illustrious men much older than her. At 16, she debuted on television as an extra and was invited to sing with Ted Fio Rito’s orchestral jazz band, her first access to the effervescent Los Angeles nightlife. At 17, she settled in the Santa Barbara mansion of an admirer, Jack Newman, who insisted on marrying her, but the marriage was abusive and resulted in an early divorce. Back at square one, the young Joan tried again to make her way on her own in the world of show business.

Finally, aged 18 in the summer of 1949, she got her break. With a shapely figure and an open, enthusiastic character, the blonde, small-town teenager who still called herself Joanie won a pair of beauty contests (Miss Eight Ball and Miss Palm Springs) and became a solid contender for stardom. The night she won her second crown, she also caught the attention of 44-year-old Howard Hughes, one of the great Hollywood magnates and a confirmed bachelor at the time.

Relic from a bygone age: poster comparing Mamie Van Doren's and Marilyn Monroe's measurements.
Relic from a bygone age: poster comparing Mamie Van Doren's and Marilyn Monroe's measurements.Bettmann (Bettmann Archive)
Two blonde legends and their husbands: Mamie Van Doren and Ray Anthony with Jayne Mansfield and Mickey Hartigay
Two blonde legends and their husbands: Mamie Van Doren and Ray Anthony with Jayne Mansfield and Mickey HartigayBettmann (Bettmann Archive)
Promo poster for 'Sex Kittens Go To College' (1960).
Promo poster for 'Sex Kittens Go To College' (1960).LMPC (LMPC via Getty Images)

Hughes became her lover and patron, as well as the man who suggested she adopt a “more glamorous” stage name. Today we know that when they first met, Joanie lied to Hughes about her age. She told him that she was only 16, which makes their relationship even more problematic. “We made a couple of professional appointments. He stood me up in the first one and my mother asked me to have a little dignity and not go to the second one. But I went, and he made an effort from the beginning to seduce me and assure me that I would have a great career in the business if I let him guide and advise me. In the end, around the time he became my godfather, he found spots for me in four or five RKO films.” They were not big roles, but enough of a springboard for Van Doren to activate her instincts and ambition and “learn everything I needed to know about Hollywood.”

The three M years

Along with Hughes, the budding achiever made a couple of fundamental discoveries: she wanted to be an actress, no longer a showgirl or a beauty queen, and she was not willing to “settle for just one man.” She wanted to have them all. In that crucial period, between the late 1940s and early 1950s, Mamie played a supporting but somewhat substantial role in His Kind of Woman (1951), with Jane Russell and Robert Mitchum, bought her first car and showed off partners with as much cachet as the retired boxer Jack Dempsey, a “big boy” who, according to the actress, “treated me sweetly, but bored me deeply, with his mental age younger than 15.” When Universal offered her a contract with the only condition that she find a boyfriend who was “younger and with a better image” than Dempsey, Mamie broke off the relationship without hesitation. The boxer, apparently, took it on the chin and with good grace.

We thus enter what Silke Jasso, editor of Rare magazine, describes as the years of splendor and tinsel of Mamie Van Doren. In 1951 she became one of graphic artist Alberto Vargas’s pin-ups — her first foray into the big leagues of eroticism — which would soon become her business. Very soon after, the press began to refer to her as a member of one of the fashionable troikas in Hollywood, that of the three M’s: Marilyn (Monroe), (Jayne) Mansfield and Mamie, heralds of a new strong, femininity that was bold, innocent, and utterly free, which clever producers wanted to sell as the antidote to the conservatism of the Eisenhower era.

Mamie Van Doren in her dressing room in 1960.
Mamie Van Doren in her dressing room in 1960.Herbert Dorfman (Corbis via Getty Images)
Mamie Van Doren poses for a promotional portrait for the 1955 musical, 'The Second Greatest Sex.'
Mamie Van Doren poses for a promotional portrait for the 1955 musical, 'The Second Greatest Sex.'Archive Photos (Getty Images)

As an alternative to the “good girls” and “housewives,” merciless blockbusters like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, and Gentlemen Marry Brunettes began to promote the stereotype of the party-loving bad girl who is immature and impulsive, but has a heart of gold. Although Van Doren would end up being the third contender in this elite struggle, in truth she seemed like a candidate on par with the other two at first. She was able to contribute to the sexual revolution spearheaded by the blondes in the movies of the mid-fifties; the plots of The Winning Way (1953), Running Wild (1955) and Untamed Youth (1957) are good examples. With Monroe she established a relationship of mutual respect and Mansfield became her “frenemy” — a friendly rival — although they exchanged the occasional poisonous barb, consistent with the image of a festive nest of vipers that Hollywood was trying hard to project at the time.

In love with being in love

Of her wild years, Van Doren remembers her sexual promiscuity above all. In the words of Silke Jasso, Mamie, a sober, focused and sensible woman in almost all areas of life, “had one great vice: making love.” And she indulged it for decades with gay abandon.

Aside from her five marriages (all but the last were short-lived and rather unhappy), the actress had relationships with a long list of the entertainment industry royalty, from Frank Sinatra to Elvis Presley, Johnny Carson, Clark Gable, James Dean, and Henry Kissinger. “She even set out, apparently unsuccessfully, to seduce Rock Hudson,” explains Jasso. He was the first of the “acceptable” boyfriends that Universal tried to pair her with to provide the gossip columns with some juicy bait. She also slept, as she herself has confessed, with a “multitude” of anonymous men, who “tend to be the best lovers.”

Mamie Van Doren, aged 33, in Sacramento, California with her 19-year-old husband, Lee Meyros.
Mamie Van Doren, aged 33, in Sacramento, California with her 19-year-old husband, Lee Meyros.Bettmann (Bettmann Archive)

Her relationships with Sinatra perfectly illustrate Van Doren’s mercurial and contradictory character. Although the actress appeared in almost all her promotional photos with a cigarette between her fingers, the truth is that she stopped smoking early in her career and ended up hating tobacco. That led her, she says, to cut off her attempts at romance with compulsive smokers like Sinatra, Carson, or Dean, not so much for health reasons as for “respect and hygiene.”

Furthermore, at the time of her brief romance with Sinatra, Mamie had just divorced her second husband and was pregnant with her only child, Perry. And she was beginning to grow fed up with the dissolute lifestyle of stars like the crooner from Hoboken. According to Van Doren, Hollywood at the time was already becoming a “hippie hell” in which drug-addled stars went for naked walks on Sunset Boulevard. So the actress ended up fleeing that wasteland of extravagance and growing toxicity to settle in Newport Beach and lead a “homely” life there with her son, Perry.

Mamie Van Doren as a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show on June 12, 1988.
Mamie Van Doren as a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show on June 12, 1988.Paul Natkin (Getty Images)

By then, she was already a rich and famous woman. But her long-distance feud with Mansfield and, above all, with the stellar Monroe, had ended in a resounding defeat. While Marilyn ascended to the cinematographic Olympus, Mamie purged the overly erotic patina of her youthful roles and found herself condemned to B-movie productions. Although some of those films had a notable success and today are a cult object, it is undeniable, in Jasso’s opinion, that Van Doren did not completely complete her assault on the cinematic heavens “and ended up resigning herself to a minor star role, light years away from her competitors to whom she was compared at the beginning of her career.”

She allowed herself the luxury, despite everything, of being one of the most visible faces of the arrival of rock’n roll on the big screen. Her role as Gwen Dulaine, the lascivious and misguided rock housewife in High School Confidential (1958), is unforgettable, and was the prelude to a long list of similar appearances in classics of the rock generation such as Generation of Rebels (1959), College Confidential, (1960), The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (1960) and the almost implausible, shameless, and outrageous Sex Kittens Go to College (1960).

A fertile sunset

In more ways than one, the thirty- and forty-something Van Doren who took direction from cheap film geniuses like Jack Arnold was a much better actress than the ambitious twenty-something lover of Howard Hughes and Jack Dempsey. But her moment of glory had passed. The Oscars that she had dreamed of in her early youth never found their way into her Newport Beach showcase and the star on the Walk of Fame that she always believed she deserved would have to wait many years and would end up coming more as a recognition for her long career in the business.

Mamie Van Doren rides the streets of Los Angeles in 1984.
Mamie Van Doren rides the streets of Los Angeles in 1984.Donaldson Collection (Getty Images)
Mamie Van Doren dressed for a party in New York in 1984.
Mamie Van Doren dressed for a party in New York in 1984.Ron Galella (Ron Galella Collection via Getty)

As the decades passed, Van Doren released the occasional album, starred in fewer and fewer films (she shared the screen with Jayne Mansfield in Las Vegas Hillbillys, in 1966, and she was the most exciting science fiction diva in Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, 1968), she posed a couple of times for Playboy, started writing and continued accumulating husbands and lovers with or without polish. In 1979 she found the man of her life and she gradually moved away from cinema. Her last role, in the high school comedy Slackers (2002), was a mere concession to the director, Dewey Nicks, who was able to convince her by declaring himself a fan of her work and exhibiting exhaustive knowledge of her filmography.

Since then, Van Doren has dedicated herself to the most laborious and fascinating of occupations: “being happy.” In old age she has exhibited a sharp intelligence and a delicious sense of humor in texts such as China & Me, chronicle of her four decades of relationship with the strident Moluccan cockatoo that she “adopted” in 1980 and has since become her best life companion, with Thomas, her husband’s permission. She needed, however, to put a final touch on a happy career focused on provocation and scandal. Hence, she has just starred in the latest full nude in the history of show business.

She was one of the first to arrive and is (fortunately for her and for the world, which celebrates her friendliness, her lucidity and her lack of complexes) one of the last to leave. She has even had time to cross the political spectrum in the an unexpected way: in 1972, she sympathized with the Republican Party, she performed on various occasions for the troops fighting in Vietnam (“I felt a very special connection with each of those men and women: I know a lot of them didn’t come home, and it hurts my soul”), she had a brief dalliance with conservative strategist Henry Kissinger and even met one of her husbands while both were campaigning for Richard Nixon’s re-election. Today, she has embraced the most belligerent progressivism, she believes that Nixon was a scoundrel, Ronald Reagan a “stunt” who “kept the mop of dyed hair on his head, but never knew if his ass was in Dallas or Baghdad” and calls Trump, her archenemy, a “criminal psychopath” and an enemy of freedom.

Mamie Van Doren being true to herself at the engagement party of two friends at a nightclub in Los Angeles in 1992.
Mamie Van Doren being true to herself at the engagement party of two friends at a nightclub in Los Angeles in 1992.Ron Galella (Ron Galella Collection via Getty)
Mamie Van Doren at the age of 86 at a MAC cosmetics event in Los Angeles in 2017.
Mamie Van Doren at the age of 86 at a MAC cosmetics event in Los Angeles in 2017. Alberto E. Rodriguez (Getty Images)

Her advice to Joe Biden has been, for a few years now, to make way for a younger Democrat, a progressive woman, if possible, because, once a person reaches 80, a “real” barrier springs up and they have to start to accept that the world belongs to young people. “I’ve already done it,” the Rowena actress concludes. That’s why she has given up her dream of becoming the first blonde governor of California and prefers to spend her days telling us why she left Sinatra and how much she loves her cockatoo.

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