the loneliness of the; long-distance stunner
Sunday 19 May 1996
round your youth, glamour and
looks, how do you deal with old
age? John Carlin tracks down
some Hollywood grandes dames
"Now get you to my lady's chamber," says Hamlet, addressing Yorick's skull, "and tell her: let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come. Make her laugh at that!" Shakespeare found in the courtly lady of his day the perfect symbol of humanity's doomed endeavours to deny the terrors of decay and death. If he were writing today, he might find his icon of ideal womanhood in the Hollywood celebrity. Now get you to Sharon Stone's dressing-room and tell her: no beauty treatment can trick death, no skin cream will halt the corruption of the flesh. This is no laughing matter - for any of us, but much less for Americans, whose innocent, optimistic civilisation, unalloyed by the wisdom of the ages, aspires more wholeheartedly than any before it to the ephemeral values of glamour, fame, youth and unblemished beauty.
The stuff on which these dreams are made assails Americans daily from their cinema and television screens, where the illusion is preserved that the Sharon Stones, the Whitney Houstons, the Madonnas never wrinkle, never fade - because when they do, they simply disappear from the screens, to be replaced by fresh, up-dated models; or else linger - immaculate, celluloid- embalmed - in re-runs of their old shows and movies.
But what happens in real life to America's ancient idols? After half a century of TV and nearly 100 years of cinema there is a large and growing constituency of ageing ex-stars scattered across the USA. What do they do? How do they cope? The men have it easy: Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Frank Sinatra retain a glamorous veneer. Never mind the crags on their faces. Never mind the feminist revolution. Society judges that with age they grow "distinguished". But the women are judged by harsher standards; in the ruthless market of public opinion, the flower of youth is still the only currency that matters. And so one imagines them hiding behind high Los Angeles walls, driven mad, like the heroine of Sunset Boulevard, by the remembrance of glories past; or one fancies them peering from behind curtains, tucked away like unwanted memento moris in shadowy corners of Palm Springs and Las Vegas, shunning the light, embarrassing embodiments of that trio of American taboos: old age, obscurity, mortality.
At least, that is what I had always thought...
WHEN I mentioned to a couple of friends that I was going to interview Debbie Reynolds, one said, "Name rings a bell. Who is she?" The other: "I thought she was dead."
Judy DeCarlo would have smacked them in the jaw. A 5ft 2in bantamweight with a masculine haircut, a tattoo on her left forearm and a gun strapped to her right hip, Officer DeCarlo is Debbie Reynolds's personal bodyguard. And she doubles up as chief security officer at the "Debbie Reynolds Hotel/Casino/ Hollywood Movie Museum" in Las Vegas. DeCarlo is a tough cookie but she worships her boss. She is of the same generation and so remembers the glory days, when Debbie Reynolds, aged 20, conquered the hearts of America and the world playing the female lead, sweet as apple pie, in Gene Kelly's Singin' in the Rain. She was the all-American girl next door: wide-eyed, blonde, vivacious, not too overbearingly beautiful.
That was in 1952, after which she became a major star, playing opposite Frank Sinatra in The Tender Trap, Tony Randall in The Mating Game, Glenn Ford in It Started With a Kiss. Scarcely less celebrated was the bust- up with her first husband, Eddie Fisher - a crooner as big at his peak as Sinatra. Fisher had an affair with Elizabeth Taylor, whom he married on 12 May 1959 a matter of hours after the divorce came through. Miss Reynolds was brave, the papers said. And, though two more marriages were to end in spectacular betrayal, she bounced back, her star undimmed, to make more films, right through the Sixties and beyond.
Even today, the messiness of her private life seems shockingly out of harmony with the imagined life of Debbie the icon of wholesomeness. Americans, and especially conservative Americans, dislike such discords: the airbrushed image of Fifties America, epitomised by Debbie Reynolds's films, is cherished by Newt Gingrich's Republicans and the legions of the Christian right. If only we could get back what we had then, they say, if only we could recover the prosperity and morality we had in the Fifties, then we would be great again. The truth is that real life was never so bloodless, and nor is the real Debbie Reynolds. For her, the moment of chilling clarity when she telephoned her first husband and found him in bed with Elizabeth Taylor awakened her from the fairy-tale world she had previously inhabited and taught her with brutal abruptness that real life begins where the sealing kiss of the movies leaves off.
Today, aged 64, she smothers the private life in what remains of the public, performing nightly at the Hotel/Casino/Museum in a 90-minute song- and-dance show which, though accomplished and energetic, essentially trades on the recollection of her past glories. Her audiences are old enough, with few exceptions, to remember the musical clips from her films - projected on the stage backdrop - to which she sings along. The more banal tunes, signalled always by the appearance on stage of three hunky young backing vocalists, are redeemed by the poignant ironies of the words: "Good times and bad times, I've seen them all, but I'm here, I'm here..."
Waiting to see Debbie after the show, I had no idea what to expect. Would she be haughty, prickly, prima donna-ish? "She's very down to earth," said Judy. Her show had verged on the earthy: she used the word "titties" (although she apologised for it); she made an admiring comment, to squeals from the seventy-somethings in the audience, about the "buns" of her three young bucks; and, as the culmination to a string of jokes about her marital failures, she vowed: "No more dates for me. I'm going to let it rot!"
I quoted that line back to her when, after waiting half an hour for the apres-show autograph hunters to thin out, we sat down at a small round table in the hotel's Celebrity Cafe for our interview. "I got a bit carried away," she explained; then broke into an upper-class English accent: "Usually, deah, I prefer to use 'rusteh' - 'I'll let the pahts get rusteh, like an old cah.' " To be yourself, to be free to violate social conventions, is one compensation, she said, that comes with age. Not that she looked old. She was a pixie: round green eyes, unlined chubby face, a body that seemed never to have shed its puppy fat. Did she mean it about "no more dates"? "Oh yes, that's over. No more relationships for me. I don't think I'm good at choosing men. I would pick another wrong one, another opportunist who would rob me during the last years I have left."
The story of the real Debbie Reynolds is a heartbreaker, and, for all the bubbliness of her on-stage patter, she seems both sadder and wiser than the Debbie Reynolds of popular imagining. "I was talking to my mother today," she told me. "She said: 'I'm so sorry you've had to work so hard and you've had so many disappointments.' I said: 'Well, look at all the wonderful things that have happened to our life because of one little contest I won in Burbank, California at age 16. We were dirt poor. Now we've travelled, we've been all over the world, we've visited London several times.' "
She spoke slowly, measuring her words. Yet there was still something naive about her, a sense of that enthusiasm and boundless hope in the pursuit of happiness that distinguishes Americans from Europeans. Close up she looked like Shirley Temple's grandmother, round-faced, child-like, more pretty than handsome. She wore a long red jacket over flower-patterned trousers and sensible flat shoes, making no secret of the fact that she is an inch shorter than Judy DeCarlo, who stood two leaps away, wary as a White House secret service agent. Every couple of minutes she would lean over and reverently deposit a photograph for the boss to autograph. Debbie signed away without a pause in her conversational flow.
"I always seem to be in a bit of a pickle, as the English say, a bit of a spot. And maybe God does that to me to keep me going, to keep me working. I don't think I was meant to retire. I was meant to perform. I give pleasure and I was meant to do that. Maybe there's a destiny for all of us. If things had gone well in my marriages I would be rich, rich, rich. I'd be in a big old house with five servants to bring me champagne. I'd be a fat old thing."
She cheerfully admits, however, that she is old. "My mother says I'm middle-aged. But I say no. Let's face it. She's elderly. I'm not that yet - but I am old. Doesn't mean I'm finished, though. At 64 I'm at the edge of life, any moment it'll be tipped over and I'll be going over the edge. My life will be finished, so I don't waste another spit of life, not a spit of a moment."
She is unexpectedly clear-headed about her mortality. On stage she makes jokes like, "I guess you're here 'cos you figure, 'Go see Debbie before she dies'." Such remarks annoy her friends, she says. "Shirley MacLaine doesn't like it at all that I speak about old age. She thinks it's totally wrong that I tell people how old I am. I always say, 'That's because we're the same age and you don't want anybody to know.' A lot of people in showbusiness that are my gender and my age get upset by my doing it. I don't know why. I think we're lucky to be alive and talented and still performing. It keeps me going.
"I think," she added, and the words sounded almost macabre in the mouth of one whose defining role has been that of a Hollywood starlet, "that death should be discussed. We all have this fear, we're terrified of dying. But I don't. Of course, it helps that I'm religious and that I believe I'm going some place special. But I've never run away from death. My mother's been ill since I was 14 years old, so from then I had to prepare in my mind for her death. She and I bought a burial plot for her, we signed up for her to be cremated."
As for herself, her main concern was that she should know a year ahead when she was going to die. "That way you can have everything in order! Give away your things to your family and friends. Give a big party." Debbie Reynolds had so thoroughly confounded my expectations of a Hollywood star's attitude to mortality that I needed to believe she was an exception to the rule. A party to celebrate impending death was not, surely, an idea likely to go down well with many other older women in showbusiness. "Oh no," she agreed. "Showbusiness women tend to be weird. They believe they're going to go on and on."
WEIRD they may be, but America is full of them: superstars, starlets, beauty queens, models - thousands upon thousands of women who have owed their success in life more to their looks and their youth than to their wisdom or character; and who now face a future whose only certainties are fading looks, failing health and death. What does one do in such circumstances? What should one do, in a society where, despite three decades of feminism, the "beauty myth" continues to oppress one sex more than another and female celebrities more than anyone? Debbie Reynolds, who was blessed with more talent than most, copes by wrapping herself in the museum of her memories. Marilyn Monroe drove herself to death. Shirley MacLaine, according to Reynolds, believes that she will be reincarnated. June Wilkinson takes the more conventional route: she refuses to act her age.
Wilkinson was never respectable in the way that Debbie Reynolds was. Her extravagant good looks as a young girl brought her a celebrity - or, at least, a notoriety - for which today, touching 60, she still has a taste. Nicknamed "the Bosom" by Hugh Hefner, she was the most photographed centrefold in the world during the late Fifties. Born in Bournemouth (England), she began her career aged 15 as a fan dancer at the Windmill Theatre, crossed the Atlantic, appeared in Playboy, dated Elvis Presley and Henry Kissinger, and married an American football star, whom she later divorced. Along the way she appeared in 20 films, including Macumba Love and The Private Lives of Adam and Eve. Now she lives in southern California, where the sun always shines, youth is a religion and history began with the silent movies.
I met her at her home, a two-floor condominium in Los Angeles, and immediately understood why Hefner had called her what he had. Debbie Reynolds built her stardom on the Fifties' myths of virginal sweetness, June Wilkinson on the adolescent Fifties appetite for big breasts. Today, through her fan club, she sells autographed pictures of herself as she is now, and - LA Woman through and through - dreams of making it back to the big time by selling an idea for a TV show. She has no plans to grow old gracefully. "Certainly not! I'm gonna fight it all the way! I will still put on a mini-skirt, though my mother would say something like 'Mutton dressed up as lamb'." The question was begged whether a woman like Wilkinson, whose fame derived so undeniably from her looks, would ever be capable of accepting that the game was up. At a certain point, I suggested, did it not become laughable to continue dressing like a 20-year-old? "I don't know. It's a bit like asking, 'What's pornographic and what isn't?' How do you draw the line? I suppose you know yourself when something doesn't look good. When something goes you cover it up." When would she be ready to cover up? "Not yet. People still appreciate the tits, and the talent, I guess."
Wilkinson was in denial but was smart enough to see the funny side of it. A few miles away, in West Hollywood, I came across a trio whose failure to observe the social decencies that come with age was so complete as to be beyond caricature. The Del Rubio Triplets, who dress like 10-year- olds, trade more on talent than on tits, but the effect is no less bizarre. Millie, Eadie and Elena Del Rubio - spinsters all - are 73. They have found their refuge from time's ravages in an unselfconsciousness that borders, delightfully, on madness. I saw them perform at a charity do for orphans at a draughty municipal auditorium, watched by about 120 people, most of them gay men.
Introduced as "honorary mayors of West Hollywood", they came on stage and one of them said: "Thanks for this honour, this very real honour." She meant it; the first clue that despite the way they were dressed this was no spoof. Sporting identical bouffant hair-dos, they wore silver lame hot pants with dangling pompoms; white bootees; tight, white, bare-armed cotton tops. Each with an acoustic guitar strapped over her shoulders, they sang rock, blues and syrupy Mexican ballads. The voices left something to be desired, but the smiles never left their faces. They were having a great time, and so were the audience. By popular demand they played an encore, then stepped off the stage, looking as if they had walked off the set of Star Trek, to mingle with their fans, sign autographs. Evidence that Americans are learning to love old age? Perhaps; or, more likely, confirmation that to rub shoulders with celebrity, any celebrity, is what Americans hunger for.
Thirty-five years ago, the Del Rubios told me (speaking severally, as triplets should), their performing career began with a three-year world tour. Today, after half a lifetime of travelling, they have settled in Los Angeles, where, curiously, they have become more successful than at any previous point in their lives. Whether this is because of the merits of the show, or because of the curiosity generated by the spectacle of rouged dowagers dressed up as primary school cheerleaders, it does not seem to have occurred to them to ask. "We're gonna live in southern California till we die," they said. "The dream of our life!" They're even hoping for their own TV show. "Where we can do what we like." "What we like." "Our message is enjoy life." "Savour every moment." "Keep your energy and optimism and you'll keep your bloom." "I don't like people who say it's too late." "It's never too late." "Never."
ONE of the more obscure ports of call in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels is the kingdom of Luggnagg. Here Gulliver encounters a breed of people known as "Struldbruggs" - which in Luggnaggian, Swift tells us, means "immortals". "Happiest beyond all comparison are those excellent Struldbruggs," exults Gulliver, "who being born exempt from the universal calamity of human nature, have their minds free and disengaged, without the weight and depression of spirits caused by the continual apprehension of death." In due course Gulliver is disabused. The good news is that the Struldbruggs never die; the bad is that they continue, century after relentless century, to grow old. They lose their hair, they lose their teeth, they lose their memories. The parable concludes with Gulliver's "keen appetite for perpetuity of life" much abated. The thought occurs to him that it would be no bad thing to send a couple of Struldbruggs back home, "to arm our people against the fear of death".
Palm Springs, 100 miles west of Los Angeles, might serve a similar purpose in modern America. A balmy oasis town in the Southern California desert, it's a sort of geriatric holiday camp where Americans with money flock to retire. Those in need of further inoculation against the fear of death can obtain it by spending an evening at the Plaza Theatre.
"Welcome to the Palm Springs Follies!" cries the MC. "I'm so pleased that you're here!" Then he pauses, adjusts his bow-tie, and mutters: "I'm so pleased that you're anywhere..." They laugh, as they laugh when he describes Palm Springs as "God's waiting-room", and laugh again when he draws their attention to an advertisement in the programme promising a cure for impotence. Emboldened by their numbers, they seem - unless this is simply one more form of denial - to be laughing in the face of death.
Then the dancing girls come on - the MC tells us they are aged 60 to 79 - to rekindle the memories of youth. They pose in vast cantilevered butterfly and spider costumes in purple, orange and green. They do the can-can and the splits. The males, veterans of at least one world war, wear boaters, blazers, top hats and tails. But these are only the hors- d'oeuvres.
The stage dims, the drums roll and the MC cries, "Ladies and gentlemen... Miss... Tempest... STORM!" A single spotlight shines on a siren in shimmering blue. With the fingers of her right hand she waves "Hello" to the audience, who, granted a premature vision of eternity, have stopped breathing. She smiles reassuringly, promisingly, encouraging their sweet discomfort. Then, solemnly, she begins: slowly peeling off a glove, teasingly unhooking the shoulder-straps of her blue gown, toying with her white boa... She stops at a black bra, G-string and fish-net stockings, blesses the audience with another "there-there" smile, turns, sways, turns again.
Tempest Storm is 68. The Queen of Burlesque, as she used to be known, has kept her name in lights by refusing to retire from a job she has been doing almost every night since 1950. She is not, perhaps, at the peak of her career, as the Del Rubios are; but its decline since the heady days of the Fifties has been far, far gentler than she must once have feared.
The following day I met Tempest Storm for iced tea on the veranda of a hotel where Greta Garbo once stayed. If Gulliver had been there, he might briefly have reconsidered the notion that there's no such thing as a dignified, beautiful Struldbrugg. Not much taller, in bare heels, than the diminutive Debbie Reynolds, she appeared to stand 6ft, a bouquet of flaming red hair adding as much up top as her 4in stilettos did below. A turquoise mini-skirt showed off skinny supermodel legs, while a white cotton top strained to contain the feature which first caught the eye of the talent scouts in the early Fifties. She also wore a pair of heavy golden earrings, a small silver pendant in the shape of a heart, sunset- red lipstick, mascara, powder, and finger-nails like daggers. "Nobody's perfect," she smiled, "but you strive for it."
Tempest Storm was the real thing, the epitome of the celebrity beauty who flatly refuses to accept that time has diminished her charms. She drinks, breathes and feeds on applause, compliments, turning heads. How would she manage when all that came to an end? "I guess I'd miss it when they stopped looking. So I make sure they do look." Her voice was girlish, her smile confident, untroubled. "When you're a star you have to dress accordingly. I guess I'm obsessed with the way I look. It's a career within itself. I never go out the door without make-up." She sat very still as she spoke, as if to move might disturb her coiffure. "There's no excuse for women to get old and look bad and let themselves go. This is a time for older women - Joan Collins, Sophia Loren. People say Sophia Loren and I look alike. People say it, I don't know..." She glanced up, suddenly anxious for reassurance, before resuming her flow: "But then look at Elizabeth Taylor! How she lets herself go! And lets herself be seen! I just don't understand."
That hint of insecurity had momentarily broken the magic. With a jolt I was reminded that I was talking to a woman my mother's age, a fragile porcelain illusion that at any moment could crack into 1,000 pieces. Then the image changed to Dorian Gray, a beautiful portrait decomposing before my eyes. This was too uncomfortable - better to change tack, re-enter Tempest's dream. So: what was it she did that Elizabeth Taylor didn't? "Ever heard of a diet called Will?" she beamed, gratefully. "Will power?" And the diet was? She trotted off the answer like a child reciting her catechism. "I don't smoke. I don't drink. I eat no desserts, no pasta, no white bread. I bake wonderful cakes but I don't touch them. I eat meat, chicken and fish." Any exercise? "I do aerobics three times a week and I do a lot of walking in shopping malls."
Tempest Storm's chirpy bimboism might have been absurd had she not carried it off with such conviction. "I've always said a woman's greatest weapon is a man's imagination," the career seducer observed. Her great unfulfilled task in life remained to find "Mr Right" - "Isn't that what we're all looking for?" Each of the four times she got married she thought she had found him, and perhaps she did with a man she lived with for 10 years until his death from cancer 10 years ago. Along the way she had affairs with Elvis Presley ("a real sweet Southern gentleman") and, she informed me with deliberate casualness, John Kennedy.
Somehow, she didn't come across as ludicrous, because she carried off the act with such conviction. She believed her fantasy because, as Riff Markowitz, the wise-cracking MC of the Palm Springs Follies, explained, it was not a fantasy. "We get old only in the eyes of young people like you," Markowitz said. "Older people are taught to live to standards set by a younger world. The lesson we teach here is that you must continue to live the passions until you are no more. Passion and humour and lust continue, unless we allow them to atrophy. We can love life if we continue to use all the parts and if we don't let them rust."
DEBBIE Reynolds would disagree. Mamie Van Doren would not. The second genuine superstar I spoke to on my quest is different from the first in almost every respect. Debbie is a good girl, Mamie is bad. Debbie is hyper- active, Mamie is lethargic. Debbie embraces death, Mamie dreads it.
Mamie did have her Judy DeCarlo, though. He was a white-haired gentleman who manned the electronic gates at our appointed meeting place, the Balboa Yacht Club, 40 miles south of Los Angeles in Newport Beach, a famed hideaway of Hollywood stars. I arrived 10 minutes late. The gentleman knew it and he did not look pleased. He was of her generation and, to him, La Van Doren was royalty. The Queen of the B-Movies, as she was known, starred alongside the likes of Clark Gable and Tony Curtis in a career that spanned 40 films. Universal Studios' answer to Marilyn Monroe, she was to the Fifties what Madonna is to the Nineties: too unpredictable to be allowed to appear on the TV networks, too raunchy for the Catholic Church, which once denounced her as a danger to public morals. Her movies had names like The Girl in Black Stockings, Teacher's Pet and Sex Kittens Go to College. She played rebel-without-a-cause blondes, temptresses, strippers, nightclub singers, and broke new ground with a pelvically suggestive dance in Teacher's Pet which earned her the title "the girl who invented rock 'n' roll". As the Bra Museum in Los Angeles records, she patented the Bullet Bra.
Demurely dressed, heavy-lidded, with extraordinarily white teeth, she sat waiting for me in an empty restaurant dripping with heavy white tablecloths. It was a scene out of Raymond Chandler, she the image of the world-weary Hollywood grande dame. Or so she seemed until she opened her mouth. Where Tempest Storm was coy, she was outrageous. When Tempest laughed she put her hand over her mouth; Mamie tossed back her head and cackled so hard you could see her tonsils vibrate. Her laugh was dirty, reeking of lewd sexual knowledge. Bawdily, she recounted the tale of her date with Henry Kissinger at a White House dinner. Richard Nixon was President and Willi Brandt, the German Chancellor, was the guest of honour. "You know what? You know what? As he was talking to Brandt he started feeling me up under the table!" She said that Kissinger suggested after dinner that she dismiss her chauffeur and go home with him. "What a mess! Dirty clothes all over the floor. You could smell his dirty socks. He had denture breath and smelly socks! If he'd smelt better I would have gone to bed with him. So when he said, 'Mamie, you're a very smart woman,' then lifted me up and pinned me against the wall, you know what I did? I started to laugh, and that was that. It was all over. He'd thought I was a dumb blonde, a chance for a quickie. Well, Henry found out I wasn't dumb and he was intimidated. Earlier that night he had invited me out to lunch the next day but in the morning he called and said he couldn't make it."
A more detailed version of the story appears in her autobiography, published nine years ago, called Playing the Field. She gave me a brief synopsis of the book. "There are a lot of famous guys in it - usually they're not so hot in bed." Steve McQueen, with whom she made love on an LSD trip, had been hot, however. Elvis she had enjoyed necking with in a car. Warren Beatty "tried to jump on my bones... but he wasn't real clean. When I kissed him he salivated. It was, like, overflowing."
Blithely profane, sexually frank, politically explicit ("Newt Gingrich: what a filthbag!"), Mamie Van Doren is no more fit today, at 64, to appear on America's sanitised TV talk-shows than she was in the Fifties. The other women I spoke to had been earnest; with Mamie Van Doren I was never quite sure when she was putting me on. How many times had she been married? "Oh, huh, four, I think." And how many affairs? "Oh, let me think... Eight hundred. No, maybe 1,000... From the time I was 15 I had to change the sheets so many times I can't believe it."
Mamie Van Doren celebrated her conquests as evidence of a life richly lived. But she made no bones about the fact that the fun times lay behind her. She coped the way most people her age cope, by sitting down and reminiscing. The rakish manner of her story-telling struck a note of defiance, as if to say, "I know how young people talk today." But for all the bravado she did not try to pretend that her life had been easy since the end of her film career in 1966. How had she coped, I asked (emboldened by her bluntness to ask questions in a like fashion), with being a sex-goddess one moment and a Hollywood has-been the next? She didn't bat an eyelid. "Very hard," she replied. "I'm doing a script right now with my husband based on a woman confronted with the fact that she is getting older. It's my story, really. It's built around two visits I made to Vietnam in 1968 and 1971, the time when I was turning 40. It's a dangerous age. It was when Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield died." "Their deaths stunned me. I felt I might be next. They used to call us 'The Three Ms'. The Sixties were hard for Marilyn and Jayne. Brigitte Bardot came along with nothing on in And God Created Woman. Then came the era of no bras, no lipstick, flower children, drugs, wild times.
"It was a big transition. It blew everybody's brains. Marilyn couldn't cope. I tried to go along with the times. I think that's why I survived. But then the end of the Sixties was the worst time. I was looking for love. I couldn't find it. My two friends were gone. You're a big name and your whole identity's taken away." Death spared Monroe the battles Mamie had to face: learning to live with her declining fame, her solitary, decaying humanity.
Vietnam taught Van Doren perspective. Not long after her return she met the man who would be her fourth and best husband, and ever since she has led a quiet celebrity life, making cameo appearances in the odd TV show, working hard at staying young. She swims 40 laps every other day, lifts weights and eats lots of fish and fresh fruit. "But a lot of it is genetic," she said. "Never touched my body, though I've had one face-lift. But mainly it's what goes on up here." She jabbed a finger to her temple. "Keeping up with the times. The most important thing is to approach life with a sense of humour. Laughing a lot is the best exercise I know - more than sex."
She was brought up an only child in South Dakota during the Depression, by parents of Swedish origin to whom she remained more attached until their deaths, she said, than to any other living soul. Her mother died six months ago of cancer and she nursed her at home to the last. As she told me this, all the toughness, all the woman-of-the-world sassiness, dissolved in tears. The Last of the Blonde Bombshells was, at heart, a Mama's Girl. "We were so close," she sobbed. "She was so beautiful to the end. I was there when she gave out her last breath. I miss her so much. My heart is breaking. I feel so bad sometimes I want to die." A close friend of hers died shortly after her mother, and again she was crushed. Death, she said, has become ever-present in her life. It consumes her; which perhaps explains why, of all of them, she was the only one who viewed her predicament with a wicked sense of irony.
I asked what ambitions she hoped to fulfil over the next 20 years. "If I live another 20 years, I'd like to get my screenplay out because I want people to know what it was really like in the Fifties; I'd like to sail around the world; I'd like to stay healthy, which is boring but important; and I want to fuck Brad Pitt."
Painfully acknowledging mortality but refusing to fade away, staring at the skull and laughing, Mamie Van Doren has confronted the dilemma of all women who trade on their looks but know that in the eyes of the world female beauty is a rapidly depreciating commodity. She knows in her head what her heart would deny, that the flesh loses its allure. And, unwisely perhaps, she does not seek the various consolations or distractions of Debbie Reynolds, June Wilkinson, the Del Rubio Triplets and Tempest Storm. Yet she is the only one who has managed to sustain a lasting relationship.
As the sun set over the yacht club marina, and we prepared to say goodbye, she said that a few years back she'd hit upon a phrase that summed up the contradiction that all women her age eventually had to face. But she couldn't think of the words right then. She would call me when they came to her.
One evening a week later I arrived home to find that she'd left a message on my answering machine. "This is Mamie Van Doren. Here's what I wanted to say: 'I'm too old to be beautiful, and too beautiful to be old.' "
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Revealed: How the world gets rich – from privatising British public services
Rochester aftermath: Sacking of Emily Thornberry will make work of Labour MPs '10 times harder'