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The Secret Life of Virginia Mayo

Jan 24, 2005  •  Post A Comment

“Socrates called beauty a short-lived tyranny; Plato, a privilege of nature; Theophrastus, a silent cheat; Theocritus, a delightful prejudice; Carneades, a solitary kingdom; Aristotle, that it was better than all the letters of recommendation in the world; Homer, that it was a glorious gift of nature; and Ovid, that it was favor bestowed by the gods.”

So wrote the Renaissance English poet Francis Quarles about that quality in some women that draws the most praise and brings out in others the greatest jealousy. It is that quality long idealized in popular culture, fashion and the social order that is used as a measure by which to judge people at a glance.

Those thoughts flooded my mind recently as I thought about my first memories of my friend Virginia Mayo, the great star of the Golden Age of Hollywood who passed away last week at the age of 84. Long before I met her, I was among the millions of fans who loved her on the silver screen in such classic films as “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “White Heat” and in lighter fare such as “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “The Girl From Jones Beach.”

In the parlance of my crowd growing up, she was a shiksa goddess. To me, with her peaches-and-cream complexion, voluptuous figure, sparkling green eyes and long, long legs, Virginia Mayo was the impossible dream and the unattainable ideal. She represented the beautiful blond girl who went out with football players and hung around with the popular crowd. She had radiant skin, a small nose and knew how to dress, whatever the occasion. She was cute, perky, pure and innocent yet still both classy and sexy. She was this beautiful woman who starred in musicals, comedies, Westerns, swashbucklers, dramas and my dreams.

But Virginia was one goddess I actually got to meet. I even had the honor of moderating a weeklong Virginia Mayo film festival on a luxury liner floating through the Caribbean during Christmas 1997. We would show one of her films each day, like “Horatio Hornblower,” “The Flame and the Arrow” or “She’s Working Her Way Through College,” in which a very young Ronald Reagan was completely blown away by her beauty. Then Virginia would tell stories about the stars and production, recalling every detail of each scene down to the color of every costume.

The funny thing is that Virginia never thought of herself as beautiful, even though she understood that her looks were part of the currency of her stardom. She told me that she was actually an awkward, skinny kid when she was growing up in St. Louis, where from her earliest days she dreamed of being in show business. She blossomed into a great beauty about age 17 and used it to her advantage. She knew from the start she wanted to be much more than a pretty face.

She came to fame in an era when women took a back seat to men in business, especially show business. It always made her angry. She got her first big break when the legendary producer Samuel Goldwyn spotted her in the chorus at Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe nightclub in New York. He brought her to Hollywood to become one of the “Goldwyn Girls,” who danced, sang and mostly decorated the screen in numerous comedies and musicals.

The issue of the value of great beauty continues today. For instance, Halle Berry, whose beauty has been widely heralded, told People magazine that “being thought of as a beautiful woman has spared me nothing in life. No heartache, no trouble. Love has been difficult. Beauty is essentially meaningless and it is always transitory.”

Virginia certainly never relied on her looks. She was a child of the Great Depression who always believed she owed her employer a good day’s work. That didn’t stop Sam Goldwyn from showing why he had a well-deserved reputation as a screamer. After signing her to a five-year contract, he would call Virginia in almost every day and yell at her about her voice, her acting, even her looks. He told her she was a “natural beauty” but that her face was too full for the camera. He told her that her face needed to be “contoured.” Today that might mean surgery. Then it meant she was required to go on a near starvation diet and have a special face massage every day, along with lessons in speech, voice and dance. And then Mr. Goldwyn would still call her every night to make sure she was keeping up the regimen and to make sure she brushed her hair at least 100 strokes.

Virginia later said she went along only long enough to earn her big break as a real actress. “I hated being a Goldwyn Girl,” she recalled in her 2002 autobiography, “Virginia Mayo: The Best Years of My Life,” as told to LC Van Savage. “It had a terrible connotation, because all you had to do or be to qualify was to be beautiful (and classy, according to Goldwyn). In other words, beautiful and dumb. Ugh! I had a lot more to offer the world, that I can tell you.”

In several obits last week, the writers noted that her great beauty often blinded audiences and critics alike to her skill on the screen. She was “never completely able to overcome typecasting,” wrote The New York Times in its obit, “that relied more on her good looks than her acting ability.”

That would have made Virginia nod and laugh. She recalled in her later years that when she was asked to play the part of a royal or upper-class lady, she always felt it was playacting. “No one ever knew I was truly worried about being able to carry it off,” she wrote in her autobiography, “and it was always challenging to me, but I just charged forward and did the job, and I guess it was OK, because people bought the tickets and watched my performance, and I don’t recall ever getting any mail saying, ‘You? As Lady So and So? Give it up, Virginia Mayo.'”

Thank goodness she did not give it up. Now with home video, we can continue to enjoy her more than 50 films and dozens of TV appearances. As you watch them I think you will agree that she was beautiful and blond but never dumb; she was every man’s dream woman but never cheap. And she was a real-life goddess who was also a very great lady.