To understand why Mamie Van Doren is who she is and how she has held on to what she was, we first must examine the breasts. Lordy, those breasts. Fashioned by God and fondled by Elvis. Born during the New Deal and bloomed during Nagasaki. Coaxed Howard Hughes out of reclusion. Got action in the back seats of cars America hasn’t made in half a century. Even brought down the house in Vietnam. Bigger than Marilyn’s, more buoyant than Jayne Mansfield’s — and they’re still here.
Boy, are they still here — even though it’s been decades since Mamie Van Doren was on Hollywood’s A-list of pinup girls and B-list of movie starlets. They were showcased in a string of drive-in quickies and sexploitation films throughout the ’50s, including “Sex Kittens Go to College” (subtitled “You Never Saw a Student Body Like This!”) and “Untamed Youth” (“Youth Turned Rock ‘n’ Roll Wild and the Punishment Farm that Makes Them Wilder!”) They were just about the only facet of Van Doren’s career that stayed afloat during the ’60s. They’ve outlasted — she’s outlasted — not only her fellow ’50s bombshells but the leading men who pursued them: Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, even Rock Hudson (who, she claims, left a Clinton-esque stain on her dress).
So yes, thankfully, the breasts are still among us. And they’re still 34 F — the F “as in fun,” Van Doren says. There are reasons why they are especially fun. There is an anatomical quirk, for one thing. Most breasts, in case you haven’t noticed, start a good 6 inches directly below the clavicle. Not Van Doren’s. Hers are extra wide and begin swelling all the way from underneath her arms, the ultimate effect being that her “entire front is all breasts.”
Then there is the bra. No generic Maidenform for breasts like these, no sirree. Van Doren has her bras specially made in England, the same exact brand endorsed by the queen mother; indeed, they bear the imprint of the royal family’s emblem. But most of the time, Van Doren eschews bras, preferring instead to “let them all hang out.” And why not? When you do arm lifts every day, a weight clasped in each hand, it “helps them considerably to stay lifted,” as she says. Though, when pressed, even she concedes amazement that her breasts remain exactly as everyone remembers them.
You can buy Van Doren’s breasts. Go to her Web site and, if you can pry your gaze from that first voluminous cheesecake shot (the one above the words “The First Authentic Sex Kitten In Cyberspace” — a phrase with the trademark symbol after it), click on the “Autographs” icon and scroll to the bottom. There you’ll see Doren dutifully making a “nipple print” for a loyal fan, which costs just $59.95 plus postage and handling.
There is more to the site, of course, pictures and stories and video clips you would not want your grandmother to see, let alone star in, which makes the fact that Van Doren is old enough to be your grandmother quite … something. How many 67-year-old women do you want to see canoodling a magnum while writhing on a couch (designed to look — not surprisingly — like a breast), as Van Doren does in her new clip, “Girl, Gun and Black Stockings”? How many women, let alone a senior citizen, could pull off — and quite well, thank you very much — a two-minute movie titled “A Girl and Her Banana,” in which Van Doren clutches the “biggest banana I could find in my kitchen,” and then, well, you just have to see it to believe it.
It is hard work maintaining the site, but Van Doren does it herself every day. She, in fact, designed everything about it — from the neon, retro, tube-style font, to the pictures at home with her Moluccan cockatoos, to the multifarious tales of her life and times behind the cameras and between the sheets. The site has garnered Van Doren a new generation of fans, kids born some 20 years after her biggest hits — “High School Confidential” and “Untamed Youth” — were released to the panting delight of baby boomers everywhere.
This new legion of fans might be inclined to follow Van Doren’s link to B-Movie.com where they can nominate her for the B-Movie Hall of Fame awards (to be announced the last week in August). Or, if not, they will certainly go to see her in the forthcoming Destination Films flick titled “Slackers,” starring Jason Schwartzman of “Rushmore,” in which Van Doren does a cameo of “a really tired old whore” who tries to seduce Schwartzman by “flicking my tongue in my cheek like I’m giving a blow job,” and who then enjoys him “holding a sponge over my pussy” while reclining in a bathtub.
“The last thing Jason says to me is, ‘You old bitch!’ or something like that,” Van Doren tells me on the phone from her home in Newport Beach, Calif., where she enjoys roaming around nude and playing with her birds. She laughs, a sound at once bawdy and girlish. “He kisses my nipples and rubs my coochie … the filming was ecstasy. He got such a woody! And my part,” Van Doren confides, “is a scene stealer.”
Still don’t believe that the boys who got off on the Sarah Michelle Gellar/Selma Blair make-out fest at the MTV movie awards might actually prefer a near-septuagenarian? Then click on Van Doren’s “Fan Talk” section, where she posts numerous adoring missives.
“Hello there Mamie,” reads one. “I am a 25 yr. old male, and I have never in my life seen a more beautiful woman in my life. You are the epitome of beauty! 69 or 23 you prove that there is such a thing as a true life goddess.”
She was born this way — isn’t that the case for all true-life goddesses? No cellulite, thanks to her hearty Swedish stock. Utterly untouched by the surgeon’s knife, save for a single facelift a decade ago. Tremendous all-around elasticity, she happily divulges. Her star promise was even evident in her given name, Joan Olander — a nod to the 1930s siren, Joan Crawford. In fact, the future Mommie Dearest would say, years later, that out of the “three Ms” — Marilyn, Mansfield and Mamie — Ms. Van Doren was her favorite.
So it was meant to be. At the age of 6, while the other children of rural Rowena, S.D., were content milking cows and cleaning outhouses, little Joan Olander tried to dance like Ginger Rogers, dreamt of platinum blond hair bleach and practiced posing, one foot coyly before the other, for the cameras. Jo, as she was called, was not yet 10 years old when her father accepted a job at a defense plant in California. World War II was raging, and she and her mother headed west shortly thereafter on a military train, where she slept in the aisle with strangers’ children and ate only every other day.
But they arrived, and it wasn’t long before her mother saw the article in the paper about the big Hollywood party being thrown on Sunset Strip. So she told little Jo to grab her autograph book; they’d head on down to see what they could see. What they saw was Mae West, who called Jo “baby” and signed her book, “Best of luck to Joanie, a very pretty girl.” Little Jo was nearly knocked out by the experience of meeting “this most glittering creature,” and she fell asleep on the curb outside of the storied Mocambo nightclub. Her father had to carry her back to the car. That night, Jo slept with Mae West’s inscription under her pillow.
She looked like Jean Harlow, people said. Almost too much like Marilyn. But she had It — that all-important intangible, and that was good enough for them. She didn’t need formal education — she was going to be a movie star, after all — and so she dropped out of Los Angeles High School. She won local beauty contests, taking titles once held by another blond named Norma Jean, and then she met Howard Hughes. Mamie will not discuss their relationship, except to say that he was 40 and she was 16, and how, really, was a girl that age supposed to deal with Howard Hughes, especially when he asked, during their very first meeting, if she was a virgin.
She will talk about the others, though — the ones she had after she got contracts at Universal and MGM; the ones who met her after Eisenhower was inaugurated for his first presidential term and suggested she take the first name of Ike’s wife; the ones who understood what the actresses of the day had to go through to get off the casting couch and onto a movie set. The sexual mores of that era meant — and still mean — nothing to Van Doren. She would not sleep with a man just to get a job; neither would she turn him down if he happened to turn her on. She even carried condoms with her everywhere she went; the men would stare incredulously when she pulled them out of her bag.
“I have had more of a sex life than a love life,” Van Doren admits, sounding damn proud. “Love was secondary to me.”
She did not love Tom Jones, for example. Hell, she didn’t even like having sex with him. She went to see one of his concerts — it was during his “What’s New Pussycat?” phase, if she recalls correctly — and afterward they ended up in his room. He told her he’d seen her pictorial in Playboy, and he told her, nervously, that he couldn’t believe he was going to sleep with her. This, from the guy she thought followed his dick every time he strutted across a stage.
“He must have socks stuffed down there,” Van Doren insists, “because his penis is very, very small.”
Burt Reynolds was even worse, Van Doren says. Not that there was no there there, but what was there didn’t last very long. One champagne-skewed night, as they were just a minute into “the pony ride,” as she puts it, Reynolds gasped the name “Judy” and then promptly began to snore.
Warren Beatty didn’t have Tom Jones’ problem either. In fact, Van Doren says, even she — a proponent of the size-does-matter theory — grew timorous when he unzipped his pants. “He’s got a big salami in there,” Van Doren recalls, serious. “I mean, goddamn. I looked at him and knew it was something you would fondle, but you just didn’t want it in you. It was too large for me — though it’s probably large and soft by now.”
Then who was good? Certainly not Jack Webb, star of the cult classic ’50s and ’60s TV show “Dragnet.” One night, Universal Studios set them up on a date. Webb fed her dinner and a rather potent Mickey. The next thing Van Doren knew, she was tied spread-eagle on a bed and “Sergeant Joe Friday was humping me with a wild look in his eyes.”
Football great Joe Namath was just OK. She dated him in ’65 and ’66 and claims he was well built but, frankly, not that interested in her. “Not a good lover,” Mamie asserts, “but a good lay.”
Steve McQueen was memorable, but he was too into the drug scene. Elvis would’ve been great. He made her “nipples stand out hard,” and they were really about to get down to business in the front seat of his car — but then she remembered she was married. (“What a fool I was,” she says now.) Perennial cowboy Jack Palance was a great fuck, straight up.
And God, if only she’d taken the hint from Marlene Dietrich that day back in 1957, when they were doing a TV pilot together. Dietrich was wearing the “sexiest fucking shoes” Van Doren had ever seen; the woman was just a “bag of sex.” She looked Van Doren over once, twice and Van Doren just about told Dietrich to take a picture, it would last longer. But she didn’t make a move. If Dietrich, rest her soul, were here today, Van Doren insists it would be a wholly different story.
Van Doren likes to say that she left Hollywood as it was leaving her. After Marilyn’s untimely death in 1962 and Jayne Mansfield’s in ’67, no one wanted to give the third member of the blond trinity a job. Those two tragedies cast a pall on the bombshell mystique, a sense that something darker would inevitably emerge when the cameras clicked off. It wasn’t fair, maybe, but Hollywood no longer believed in one of its own creations. Van Doren just wasn’t fun anymore.
It was all just as well, really, since she had stopped believing in Hollywood even before the deaths of her vixen counterparts. She took the craft of acting seriously, as Marilyn had; they even employed the same revered Russian coach (while Mansfield, on the other hand, preferred to let her attributes do all the work). But her efforts didn’t seem to matter.
“I studied really hard,” Van Doren says now, wistfully. “But Hollywood never appreciated my talent. I was just another blond lucky to have a good body. They never looked past that. They never allowed me to be my own woman. So you know what? I said, ‘Fuck you, Hollywood.’ I just didn’t care anymore.” She realized — suddenly, frightfully — that she “no longer appreciated living.” With that in mind, she booked a flight to Vietnam.
She stayed there for three months — right in the war zone, she says, so close to the trenches she fled bomb and rocket attacks. She saw helicopters shot down and teenage boys dying on dirty cots. The burn units were the worst, she remembers, kids entirely bandaged, slits cut just for their eyes, the acrid smell of charred flesh, the heavy awareness that they would all die. She can still smell it, she says, the blood and the rot. But she took pains to make herself up every day and visit them.
“I wanted to be like an angel to those boys,” she says, “so they’d always remember me.”
Vietnam was hot, and all the generals automatically hated actresses because of Jane Fonda’s antics. Her accommodations, too, were awful; she defecated in paper cups and “fertilized the ground.” She performed for no fewer than 45 minutes every night, even though she was losing water and nearly died from dehydration. But she didn’t care; she kept singing and dancing in those ridiculous dresses designed to make you look nude. There was just nothing left for her to do.
She ended up, one night, in a medevac unit on her way to a field hospital in Saigon, where President Nixon sent her a letter by messenger calling her “his favorite.” (Today, of course, she is a Democrat.) She came home soon after, but it was those performances far from Hollywood that truly resonated, she thinks, with both her audience and herself. She admits it sounds corny, maybe even trite, but nothing can be quite the same after spending 90 days waking in terror at the sound of her own breathing, wondering if she would ever see her only son again. Vietnam made her feel, for the first time in a long time, like she accomplished something.
And sure, she knows she was — is — lucky to have the face, the legs, the ass and, yes, the breasts. But they have, through the years, become secondary to her. They’re simply not the currency they used to be, no matter how unchanged they may appear to be. “My best asset,” Mamie says, “is my brain. Without my brain, I don’t think the rest of me would be too hot.”
God, just imagine if she had two of them.