Discovered by Howard Hughes at 18 and poised to become Universal Studios’ answer to Marilyn Monroe, Mamie Van Doren made a name for herself in the ’50s playing big screen bad girls. Now 90 and as daring as ever, Van Doren opens up about sexism, censorship, and that time she almost hooked up with Marlene Dietrich.
“Mamie Van Doren is a Hollywood icon. Tough as diamonds, she is the very last of the platinum blond studio starlets—appearing in 41 films between 1951 and 2002—and she is, at this very moment, casting her spell on me.
“Do you like one-night stands?” Van Doren asks sweetly over the telephone from her home in Newport Beach, CA. She says exactly what she means and isn’t waiting for a permission slip. After decades of rebelling against ageism and gender norms, today she still poses as a nude model, and her desire to destigmatize female sexuality is ever-present. Within minutes, she’s uncovered my peculiar fetish for pencil mustaches and begins to dish. “Clark Gable had that mustache, you probably would’ve liked it,” she says, giggling, then goes on to describe how his signature facial hair tickled her in the kissing scenes for their 1958 film Teacher’s Pet. “We had to shoot 10 takes [because of it]. I had such a crush on him.”
A complex and provocative woman, Van Doren is the star of numerous midcentury films centering around counterculture and rebellion, including Untamed Youth (1957), High School Confidential (1958), and The Beat Generation (1959). Her performances made her the subject of juvenile delinquent fantasies for decades to come and gave her a reputation as the ultimate bad girl.
Often captured bewitching audiences beneath a shock of icy blond hair, the points on her bullet bra sharp as daggers, there was nothing safe about Van Doren, and the censors knew it. A decade before the sexual revolution, she had the nerve to prioritize her own pleasure, saying and doing what she wanted, and she’s still that way today.
The press crowned Mamie Van Doren, Marilyn Monroe, and Jayne Mansfield the “Three M’s” in the 1950s. Hollywood’s “It” girls, they were considered the cream of the honey-haired crop. But while her peers would go on to die tragically in
their youths, further glorifying and commodifying them, Van Doren would not, outliving the combined ages of both Monroe and Mansfield decades ago. Her survival has spared her legacy the tacky adorations sold at tourist traps next to Van Doren’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But it also keeps her from the same degree of deserved recognition.
“I guess I’m known for fucking. That’s become my favorite word.”
Photo: Thomas Dixon
Photo: Still from Untamed Youth, 1957
“Can you imagine? I’ve been here almost a hundred years?!” she exclaims, laughing. “Imagine all the crap I’ve been through!” In fact, when I catch up with her she’s just celebrated her 90th birthday and is busy working on the follow-up to her 1987 memoir, Playing the Field. “How you treat your age depends on your attitude, so try to fucking forget about how old you are,” she muses before adding, “life doesn’t even start until 40.”
Born Joan Lucille Olander, she grew up on a farm in South Dakota during the Great Depression. Her family had no electricity or running water and scarlet fever, polio, and tuberculosis were rampant in her community. “Only the strong survived,” Van Doren recalls. “Every day, I saw a hearse taking someone away. The whole family [next door] was wiped out from scarlet fever.”
As a child, she was weaned on golden-era greats like Mae West and Jean Harlow, who helped her develop a taste for the sultry more than the sweet. And when her family moved to L.A. when she was 11, her interest in Hollywood grew. Taking her cue from her favorite femme fatale Carole Lombard, she paled her blonde to platinum and set out to see her name in lights.orn Joan Lucille Olander, she grew up on a farm in South Dakota during the Great Depression. Her family had no electricity or running water and scarlet fever, polio, and tuberculosis were rampant in her community. “Only the strong survived,” Van Doren recalls. “Every day, I saw a hearse taking someone away. The whole family [next door] was wiped out from scarlet fever.”
Her ambitions almost ended before they began, however, when she eloped at 17 and found herself in a violent marriage. One evening, her husband attempted to throw her off their second-story balcony in a drunken rage. She fought for her life, escaped that man, and recommitted herself to creating a career. “I really wasn’t interested in getting married,” she says of her outlook after that. “A woman had to cook and be a prostitute for [her husband]. They had to do everything for him, and all he had to do was go to work in the morning. I don’t think so, that’s not my scene. I did what I wanted to do. I always have.”
Van Doren marched on, landing a gig modeling for famed pinup artist Alberto Vargas and winning the Miss Palm Springs pageant when she was 18, which brought her to the attention of producer Howard Hughes. Through Hughes, she eventually made it into the pictures. But even in the small roles the studios assigned her at the beginning of her career, she always seemed to draw focus. “Oh God, the [studio executives] were afraid of me,” she recalls. “They wouldn’t put me on certain shows because they didn’t want women copying me and being independent.”
And as her screen time grew, her voluptuous figure and provocative moves soon provoked the ire of the censorship board trying to make films of the day adhere to the “Hays Code.” According to the Hays guidelines, “no picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it.” This meant no “unnecessary passion,” interracial relationships, homosexuality, and of course, none of Van Doren’s signature pelvic thrusts. “I couldn’t do a forward bump when I was doing my dancing,” she recalls. “It wasn’t acceptable. Elvis was acceptable but women were not. Well, I just said, ‘Fuck that noise,’ and I went for it.”
Photo: Photoplay magazine, 1958
Rock ‘n’ roll was just making its way into the mainstream as Van Doren’s career was taking off. But fearing the havoc her hips would create, censors insisted she stay seated while singing during certain televised performances. “I was constantly a target,” she says of that time. “I was banned from TV because I was too sexy. I was giggling and wiggling, and they didn’t want women to do that. So, I was bad, and Marilyn was good.”
The Catholic church would come for her, too. The “Legion of Decency” was a rating system created by the Church to censor films they deemed indecent and immoral. And Van Doren’s film Untamed Youth was the only American film condemned by the Church in 1957. “They wouldn’t give me The Legion of Decency because, I guess, my breasts were too large, or I wore a cute sweater,” she quips. “That’s why he hated me, because I was a woman.” The “he” she’s referring to is Cardinal Francis Spellman, the enraged archbishop who personally condemned Van Doren and did his best to destroy her career. (Though it’s interesting to note that credible allegations of child molestation against Spellman eventually surfaced in 2019.) “He thought he’d stop me, and he did for a while. You have no idea, I was fighting the studio, fighting the Hays office,” she says with both pain and pride in her voice. “I was really having a problem. But I managed to pull it off. I’m glad I could help others in the future. Mae West opened the door for me. I opened the door for Madonna.”
In the 1960s, Van Doren began transitioning from film to live performances. In one memorable brush with fate, she was unable to perform a gig down South, so Jayne Mansfield was offered the job instead. It was on her way to this show that Mansfield was killed in a fatal car crash. Profoundly affected by the tragedy, Van Doren decided to give back by making her first of two trips to Vietnam to entertain the troops. “Nobody knows what war is up close until you witness it,” she says. “For three months, I flew around in a helicopter wondering if any second I’d be shot out of the sky.” Then one night after a performance in the Mekong Delta, it looked like her fears might come to fruition. “All of a sudden I saw a red light…they were shooting rockets off, and the rockets were really coming after us. We nearly didn’t make it.”
Another very close call would be in Saigon. After dinner one evening, she surprised a group of children attaching grenades to her jeep. Shortly after visiting multiple army hospitals, she would find herself admitted to one, spending three months bedridden with dysentery. “I nearly died in Vietnam,” she recalls. “I came so close to death.” In recognition of her service, Van Doren was made an honorary Colonel in 2015. “I sign certain things Colonel Van Doren,” she says, humbly.
But even the horrors of war couldn’t prepare Van Doren for the date she went on with Burt Reynolds not long after returning home. In a misguided attempt to seduce her, he invited her to his set to watch him perform his own stunts. “That, to me, wasn’t very impressive. I had just gotten back from Vietnam. That’s the genuine thing,” she says. “He jumps through a window and gets lots of applause and I’m thinking, ‘I’m bored to death.’”
But then he said something that made her decide to give him a chance: “You know,” he told her, “I’ve been considered the male Mamie Van Doren.”
She decided to indulge her curiosity. “Well, I found out when I got to his apartment, he was no male Mamie Van Doren,” she recalls. “One of those lady cigarettes would have covered it nicely.”
Reynolds, however, was far from Van Doren’s only celebrity lover. She and music mogul Quincy Jones actually met as teenagers and quickly became sweethearts in the 1940s when racial segregation was overt, not implied. “We started to go out, making out, and going to all the Black places,” she recalls. “We weren’t allowed to go to any white places, they wouldn’t serve him. They wouldn’t serve me, either. It was really bad. We’d have to hide.” This was at a time when studios contractually controlled everything about an actress—from dictating their diets and monitoring their weight to managing their sex lives, pregnancies, and marriages. The studio executives were clear, dating a Black man would mean the end of her career. “I didn’t care,” she says, “he was perfect for me.”
Other celebs the press has romantically linked to Van Doren include Clark Gable, Johnny Carson, Elvis Presley, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, and Warren Beatty. But for Van Doren, there will always be one star she will think of as the one who got away. It was a rainy day in 1956. Van Doren was in a powder blue suit and fox fur stole on her way to a fitting at Columbia Studios. When she arrived, a German accent caught her attention. “Oh my God, I’m thinking to myself, it’s Marlene Dietrich,” Van Doren tells me. “I felt so, I’m just, I’m just shaking.” Dietrich perched herself above Van Doren, her rain hat dapperly covering one eye. “Well, that was enough to do me in,” she tells me. “I knew she kissed women in her movies and that really turned me on.” Dietrich was oozing confidence. “I never had anyone flirt with me like that, and it was Marlene Dietrich on top of it! She acted like she was interested!” Van Doren explains she had just given birth—to Perry, the son she had with her second husband, bandleader Ray Anthony—and wasn’t sure what to do. “Today, it would’ve been a different story. Now that I’m older, I would realize being with Marlene Dietrich would be very sensuous, and she must be very, very, good at what she does,” she tells me with the only hint of regret she reveals in our entire two-and-a-half-hour conversation.
Van Doren would go on to finally find the love of her life in her fifth husband, actor and dentist Thomas Dixon, whom she has been married to for the last 42 years. “I’m very sexy, even now. My sexual desires run really good about once a week,” she says of keeping that romance alive. “The feeling is even better than it was when I was younger because I enjoy it more.” Dixon is 17 years her junior and Van Doren thinks that is part of what makes them work. “It pays to be with somebody younger so when you get older you have somebody to help you. Generally, it’s the other way around, the men expect the women to take care of them.”
When it comes to passions, however, Van Doren isn’t single minded. She’s also deeply invested in politics. During the last administration she reveled in using her Twitter account to troll Trump and she campaigned hard for Kamala Harris, whom she believes will be our next president. “We will have a woman, a Black woman, president. Isn’t that something?” she exclaims. “I never thought I’d live to see that. I hope I live that long to see it. I mean, I really do.”
Photo: Born Reckless poster, 1958
It’s clear after meeting her that the real secret to Mamie Van Doren’s eternal glamour is her unwillingness to self-destruct. Many forces tried to stop her, but she just continues fighting for the right to be herself. And at 90, she remains unjaded, unfiltered, and deeply inspiring. She would, unlike so many others before her, survive the double-edged sword of Hollywood starlet stardom, only to emerge stronger than ever. “You can do anything you want to do,” she reassures me before we say goodbye. “If you want to do it bad enough.”
Words by Kelly Kathleen
This article originally appeared in BUST’s Summer 2021 print edition. Subscribe today!