All photos: Alan Mercer Lighting: Eric Venturo
I have called Mamie Van Doren my friend for almost six years now. I must confess I never thought I would be able to say this. As a young man growing up she was nothing more than a myth to me. A Hollywood Goddess I could only see in gorgeous photos or once in a while on the late show. When her book came out in 1987 I read it from cover to cover and still wondered what this lady was all about. Why did I think I should know her? Why did I think we COULD be friends? I settled for an autographed photo she sent me in the mail!
Fast forward to Los Angeles, March 2005, when I am about to have my first photo session with a Hollywood Icon! My nerves were up! Mamie, with her hair in curlers, and her husband Thomas Dixon arrive at the studio on time! We get all the wardrobe inside and a very few minutes later Mamie emerges from the dressing room looking every bit the glamorous beauty she is. We shot a lot of looks that day and afterwards we got to know each other a bit. When I started showing Mamie the photos from our session she was amazed. Our friendship was born and all seemed right in the world.
We have done countless photo sessions since this time and I have well over a hundred finished photos in my library. We have talked on the phone until we both know everything about the other one. When I was starting this blog she was my logical first entry. I'm so proud to have her back again. She is remarkable in so many ways. How I wish all of you could know the person I know. She lives in Newport Beach with Thomas and her son Perry, along with her dogs and cockatoos. I will never know anyone else remotely like her and "I know" I will never have another relationship with "someone I take photos of" like this. For those of you who may not be familiar with her past here is the rundown.
Mamie Van Doren was born Joan Lucille Olander in Rowena, South Dakota. She is three-quarters Swedish, the remainder is mixed English and German. Her mother named her after Joan Crawford. In May 1942, they moved to Los Angeles.
In early 1946, Mamie began working as an usher at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. She also sang with Ted Fio Rito's band and entered beauty contests. Van Doren was married for a brief time at seventeen. She and first husband, Jack Newman, eloped to Santa Barbara. The marriage dissolved quickly, upon her discovery of his abusive nature. In the summer of 1949, at age 18, she won the titles "Miss Eight Ball" and "Miss Palm Springs".
Mamie was discovered by famed producer Howard Hughes on the night she was crowned Miss Palm Springs. The pair dated for several years. Hughes launched her career by placing her in several RKO films. In 1951, she posed for famous pin-up girl artist Alberto Vargas, the painter of the glamorous "Vargas Girls." His painting of Van Doren was on the July cover of Esquire.
On January 20, 1953, Van Doren signed a contract with Universal Studios. The studio had big plans for her, hoping she would bring the same kind of success that 20th Century Fox had with Marilyn Monroe, the reigning sex symbol of the era. Van Doren, whose signing day coincided with the inauguration of President Eisenhower, was given the first name Mamie for Ike's wife, Mamie Eisenhower.
Van Doren starred in several bad girl movies that later became cult films. She also appeared in some of the first movies to feature Rock & Roll music and became identified with this rebellious style, and made some rock records. In the film 'Untamed Youth' in 1957, she was the first woman to sing rock and roll in a Hollywood musical (Eddie Cochran did the music for the film).
Many of Van Doren's film roles showcased her ample curves, and her on screen wardrobe usually consisted of tight sweaters, low-cut blouses, form-fitting dresses, and daring (for the era) swimsuits. While she and other blonde bombshell contemporaries as Sheree North, Jayne Mansfield, and Diana Dors did not attain the same level of superstar status as Marilyn Monroe, Van Doren did become a very famous star and notable Hollywood sex symbol. Marilyn, Mamie and Jayne Mansfield were known as the "Three M's.
In 1964, Van Doren was a guest at the Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood when The Beatles were at the club visiting with Jayne Mansfield, and an inebriated George Harrison accidentally threw his drink on her when trying to throw it on some bothersome journalists.
During the Vietnam War, she did tours for U.S. troops in Vietnam for three months in 1968, and again in 1970. In addition to USO shows, she visited hospitals, including the wards of amputees and burn victims that many other celebrities avoided.
Van Doren's autobiography, Playing the Field (1987), brought much new attention to the veteran sex symbol and proved to be her biggest media splash in over 25 years. Since the book's publication she has often been interviewed and profiled and has occasionally returned to acting. In 2006, Mamie posed for photographs for Vanity Fair with Pamela Anderson, as part of its annual Hollywood issue.
Mamie and Thomas, maintain her web site. There, she sells autographed photos. Her contemporary topless and nude photos, and outspoken political views, have helped create a larger fan base than at any time in her career. MamieVan Doren has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7057 Hollywood Boulevard.
AM: Mamie, you are the first conversation on my blog which I started almost two years ago. I'm so excited to have you back again. You are my Angel.
MVD: You're so sweet. You're my Angel. You make me look so pretty. We started shooting six years ago. Ever since then I hardly ever shoot with anyone else, it's only Alan Mercer.
AM: Our shoots have opened you up for more opportunities don't you think?
MVD: Oh yes, of course. I'm just so happy that we met. Karma must have brought us together. Your career has really taken off.
AM: It has! We all had to know each other in a past life!
MVD: I think so. I'm really into that.
AM: When we first started shooting the social networks hadn't started yet. Now I know a lot of the people that follow my blog are there because of you.
MVD: You're really kind.
AM: You really enjoy the social networks as well don't you?
MVD: I'm on them everyday. I'm constantly posting and commenting. You are the one who put me on Facebook! I said, "No I'm not going on Facebook or Twitter." I like to say more than one or two lines so Twitter isn't as much fun for me, but I am a Facebook fan. I've gotten so many friends and fans from it. I'm realizing that people do still know who I am. They are so kind. I have some wonderful Facebook friends.
AM: You know people ask me about you all the time. Everywhere I go for my whole life now you are with me, no matter where you really are.
MVD: That is so sweet. My life is more private. I don't go to Hollywood too often. I live down here in Newport Beach. I only go to certain parties that I like. Hollywood will always be Hollywood but it doesn't have the flamboyance that it used to have. It just isn't like it used to be with dressing up in gowns and furs, which is OK. I'm not into some of the movies now. I just don't like a lot of them.
AM: Mamie, everyone wants to know when is your CD coming out?
MVD: I wish I had an answer, but as of now I don't have one. I should know something by next month.
AM: I know you were one of the first celebrities involved with the AIDS movement back in the early 80's when fear kept most people away. Can you tell me a little more about that?
MVD: I was approached by my publicist, Alan Eichler, and playwright, Tom Eyen, to make an appearance at a benefit performance of Eyen's "Women Behind Bars." I went along with Patti Page and a few others and we raised a few thousand dollars. This was early, early on in the AIDS epidemic when the disease was poorly understood, and way before the drug cocktails in use today.
AM: What made you want to get involved?
MVD: My friends were dying left and right, and I felt like I had no choice but to help, because few celebrities would have their names attached to HIV/AIDS. I continued making appearances at clubs to raise money throughout the eighties. Much of this is lost in the sands of time, since hardly anyone is left alive that was there at the time.
AM: You have four miniture pinschers, your greyhound rescue Suave, and three cockatoos. Have you always been an animal lover? What do your animals give you?
MVD: My animals give me a sense of peace, even when they're loud and boisterous. And they give me a lot of love. I started being an animal lover growing up on my grandparent's South Dakota farm. I had no siblings, so the animals--kittens, horses, chickens, dogs--were all my friends. I will not eat chicken to this day because of my closeness to those animals when I was a child.
AM: Many people would like you to write another book. Do you have another book inside you?
MVD: I have more than one in me. The question is, can the world stand another book by Mamie? "Playing the Field" caused a God-awful stir in its day because I wrote candidly about my love affairs and--most especially frightening for the men who read and reviewed it--PENIS SIZE.
AM: Would they tell you that?
MVD: Men who interviewed me during the book tour were so put off and uncomfortable discussing the subject that it was laughable. For years, everyone knew what my bust size was. All the magazines trumpeted about my 38-24-35 and every other glamour girl's measurements, but when I started talking about how Burt Reynolds or Steve Cochran were HUNG, well, bar the doors, Nelly, there's a she-devil in town.
But a book. Yes, I would like to write at least one more, and I'd like to do a picture book of my contemporary photos--yours especially. But time is the great leveler. Writing a book is a time-intensive project. I write a regular column for Hustler magazine, and that commitment of time is occasionally a strain. I've got it on the back burner.
AM: Mamie, one of the things that your fans know and love about you is your honesty and your strong opinions. You never pussyfoot around any political topic, even subjects most people wouldn't talk so openly about. Have you always been this way or have you gotten stronger over the years?
MVD: I've always been painfully honest and it has gotten me into plenty of trouble over the years. My political views have gotten stronger over the years--mostly because of the half-witted politicians that we insist on electing in recent decades. I am talking specifically about King George The Stupid and his papa and Reagan and--don't get me started. I really can't abide some of the corrupt and crooked assholes that hold office these days. That said, I do like Obama. I think he's doing the best job he can, considering the Democrats have no backbone and all the Republicans want him to fail.
AM: How have your views of spirituality changed?
MVD: I was brought up a Lutheran, which, in later years, I have found to be terribly rigid. I like to call myself a Buddhist, though I fudge a little bit because I believe in God. But the Buddhist sense of connection to the larger universe and its foundation of loving kindness and compassion is very satisfying to me spiritually. I mediate almost daily and try to remain in the present.
AM: Everywhere I go people ask me about you. They always want to know how you spend your time. What do you do in an average day? What do you want to say to this?
MVD: I try to get nine hours of sleep. As people on Facebook know, I go to bed late, so I wake up mid-morning. I go to Pilates class a couple times a week and I spend a lot of time with my dogs. I live in walking distance to the beach and I like to go there.
AM: Do you go to the beach often?
MVD: Now that summer is over and the tourists are gone, I have my little village back to myself and I can bicycle and feel safe. I like to spend time with my son. We are very close, and he and Thomas are my best friends.
AM: What is the latest change you have made about yourself?
MVD: I'm a newly converted vegetarian and I'm still getting used to having to eat so many meals a day. I still eat a little fish once in a while and I drink a lot of water.
AM: What do you think about the 3D movies now?
MVD: Oh I think it's fabulous. I'm really into that. Of course 3D came out with 'House Of Wax' in the early 50's. I was the first one in the theater for that. It never really caught on but if they can get it where we don't have to put those glasses on, can you imagine? You sit there and you are part of the whole scene. It's mind boggling.
AM: I want to bring up the topic of short films. They are really doing good these days. I think a lot has to do with attention spans now. Would you be interested in filming a short?
MVD: Oh I would love to. I know Joan Collins did one called 'Fetish' with film maker Charles Casillo.
AM: I just talked to Charles yesterday. He is going to be on this blog soon.
MVD: Oh really! He's written me a couple of times. He wants to meet with me and see if I would be interested in working with him.
AM: The good thing is it only takes a few days.
MVD: If it's well written I'd be up for it. He'd be my leading man I guess. He's so handsome I'd love to work opposite him. That would be really sexy. I'd like to do an updated 'Sunset Boulevard' with Rock n' Roll. I've always sort of been that way anyway.
AM: Do you think the public would be surprised about how you really are?
MVD: Of course! (laughing) Really I have a lot of privacy going on in my life! I moved down here from Hollywood just to get away from it all. If people don't want to be photographed walking down the streets they shouldn't live in Hollywood. They like it otherwise they wouldn't be there. I moved down here in the 60's. It was a lot different then than now. You can't even buy property now, it's so expensive.
AM: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me for the blog.
MVD: Are you kidding!?! It's my pleasure. I love you. Alan, I really enjoyed working with you on this group of photographs. I especially love your new look of black and white, which is so arty and classy. I can't wait to work on the next one with you.
To learn more about Mamie visit her web site http://www.mamievandoren.com/