Virginia Mayo's Baked Alaska
The Vivacious, Effervescent Every-Gal Was More Than Just A Film Star, She Was A Larger Than Life Character That Had An Instant Connection With Audiences And Interviewers Alike
Publicity photo of Virginia Mayo from the 1950s.
By David Fantle & Tom Johnson
Modern Times Magazine
Nov. 3, 2015 — The afternoon built slowly, inexorably to a punchline that was as campy as it was unexpected.
At a chic restaurant called Boccaccio in the Los Angeles suburb of Westlake Village, 1940s screen star Virginia Mayo had just received her flaming Baked Alaska from a waiter (a bit of a flamer himself) who, as if auditioning for a part, served it up with pomp and circumstance that would have suited a three-star cafe straight out of the Michelin Red Guide. In retrospect, it was a dessert as overpriced and overproduced as any Busby Berkeley production number from Hollywood’s gilded age — and we were paying for it.
That’s when Mayo, not to be topped by the third course of any haute meal, said it. After a masterful pause as the flambéed confection was placed before her, and as diners at other tables paused to take in the theatrics; with appropriate parrot-like vocal inflection, she aped the iconic line delivered by her co-star James Cagney in the classic 1949 film White Heat, just before he blew himself to smithereens in the exploding oil refinery finale.
“Made it ma, top of the world,” Mayo said.
We cracked up. The whole restaurant cracked up. And the waiter minced back to the kitchen with a surefire anecdote he doubtlessly unloaded at cocktail parties for years. Nonplussed, Mayo just sat back, waited silently for the blaze to abate, then ate her fill.
When we picked up Mayo at the modest Thousand Oaks home she shared with her daughter, son-in-law and three grandsons who Mayo said were being home-schooled, the actress had fallen completely off the grid. In fact, that week, during other interviews, we often mentioned that we were going to visit Mayo. Invariably we were met with startled looks (“She’s still alive?”) that melted into softer, nostalgic expressions.
“She was a real looker in her day,” Gene Kelly told us as if we hadn’t seen her curvaceous, leggy turns in such films as The Best Years of Our Lives, and The Princess and the Pirate.
To say that the afternoon built to a punch line is true, but that priceless capper was preceded by several bumbles (on our part) that left us — if not Mayo — laughing. At her home, Mayo, who had really dressed up for the lunch (like she was anticipating a night at Ciro’s), showed us a painting she had done of her husband.
Dave, in utter seriousness, said he hadn’t realized she had been married to the comic character actor with the donkey-bray voice, Andy Devine.
Mayo said curtly that the painting was of Michael O’Shea who was the titular star of her debut 1943 film, Jack London.
It’s a toss-up over which was more egregious, Dave’s embarrassing myopia or the fact that Mayo wasn’t exactly Mary Cassatt in the painting department.
Born Virginia Clara Jones in 1920 in St. Louis, Mo., Mayo said it was not her mother, but an aunt who nurtured her early ambition to become a performer when at age six she enrolled in her aunt’s School of Dramatic Expression.
“My aunt was very famous in St. Louis,” Mayo recalled. “In fact, Thomas Eagleton, you know, the guy that ran for vice president with George McGovern, took elocution lessons from her. In addition to diction, we learned movement and how to be comfortable performing before an audience.”
Ironically, Mayo said her aunt was a real taskmaster who never offered her much encouragement.
“She didn’t think I had any talent,” Mayo said. “I was kind of ugly and awkward. She tried to help me as much as she could but she had other pupils who she felt could sing, dance and act better than me.”
With a steely determination that seemed that seemed to compensate for any artistic shortcomings, Mayo landed a prestigious role in the St. Louis Municipal Opera Company, where she performed in the popular musicals of the day. MGM singer Kathryn Grayson — a contemporary of Mayo’s — was also a native of St. Louis and, as a young girl, would climb over the fence of the St. Louis Municipal Opera to watch performances.
At age 17, Mayo left St. Louis, changed her name and toured the United States in the musical comedy act, Pansy the Horse. After four years with the act, Mayo moved to New York City and joined legendary nightclub impresario Billy Rose’s new revue at his famed Diamond Horseshoe. It was while appearing at the Horseshoe that Mayo caught the eye of two Hollywood studio moguls, David O. Selznick and Samuel Goldwyn.
After making a screen test, Selznick took a pass proclaiming that Mayo was in need of more “dramatic experience.” However, Goldwyn, who also tested Mayo, detected something in the erstwhile performer that apparently eluded Selznick, and signed her to a long-term contract.
Goldwyn, more than anyone else, said Mayo, was responsible for making her a star. In fact, he took almost an obsessive interest in his new charge, inviting her into his office almost daily to review the previous day’s film footage and to critique her performance. He also invited her to his home, which was a launching pad for some famous Hollywood parties.
“Mr. Goldwyn was very much a gentleman and only interested in high-class movies,” she said. “He never put junk on the screen and I admire him for that. I remember while shooting The Princess and the Pirate, he was always coming on the set and glaring at me when the cameras were rolling. During one scene, I was supposed to act frightened because of this pirate attack. Mr. Goldwyn said to Bob Hope, ‘Look at her, she’s so nervous.’ And Bob replied, ‘Leave her alone Sam, she’s supposed to act nervous. She’s great.’”
The crowning achievement for Goldwyn was his 1946 “prestige picture,” the post-war drama, The Best Years of Our Lives, directed by William Wyler and starring Fredric March, Myrna Loy, real-life double-amputee Harold Russell, Dana Andrews and Mayo. The film swept the Oscars, winning nine, including Best Picture. As “Marie Derry,” Mayo played the slatternly wife of Andrews in a convincingly unsympathetic manner. Mayo told us she had no inkling of the classic status the film would almost instantly attain.
Another memorable role was that of “Verna Jarrett,” James Cagney’s tough gun moll wife in the last great Warner Brothers gangster film, White Heat. Mayo credited Cagney with adding “little touches” such as the cluster headaches that made the film more than just another B-grade, run-of-the-mill Mobster movie.
When the studio system died out by the late 1950s, so did Mayo’s screen career, although she continued to appear on stage in musicals and comedies and on television in episodes of Remington Steele, Murder She Wrote and The Love Boat.
When we squired Mayo to lunch in 1997 (eight years before she died), her appetite for work (if not combustible desserts) was a thing of the past. That year she had appeared in a minor role in what would be her last film; a tiny, independent production called The Man Next Door. In the movie, a young woman tries to escape from a psychopathic killer.
Fifty years before, White Heat took a similar tack, only she was the quarry and Cagney was the unbalanced murderer.
It’s funny sometimes how life can come around full circle.
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
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