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Mrs. Whistle Bait—Virginia Mayo

Virginia Mayo is a versatile actress, a gifted dancer, a designer of women’s clothes, an interior decorator, and a student of contemporary religions. She is also foolhardy and courageous: she married me.

I saw her for the first time when I was working in the picture, “Jack London.” I was playing a member of the crew on a sealing vessel set, and at the time we were supposed to be skinning seals. We were an unlovely lot to look at, up to our elbows in grease and gore. Suddenly I knew that all movement about me had ceased. Glancing up I saw an incredibly lovely girl come tripping across the littered deck. I learned later that she was there to be interviewed by a director, but she seemed as oblivious to the grime and sordidness of the scene as though she were strolling through a garden. The contrast was startling. And I was aware, instantly, that she was a girl I had to know. For the rest of that day, I wasn’t much good on the set. 

Thinking about it since, I’ve wondered why she ever consented to go out with me that first time.

I wasn’t a star. “Jack London” was only my second picture and though I learned later it was also her second, a girl as lovely as she was didn’t need an established career to make her attractive to the top echelons in Hollywood. But the fact that I did manage to see her later on became the most important single event of my life.

I was doing a good deal of rodeo work in those days (I still haven’t given it up) and Virginia and her mother used to travel the circuit with me. I recall the glances of outright envy I received from my cowpuncher friends, and while I’m pretty sure that no one wished me the ultimate in hard luck—a broken neck—several wouldn’t have minded if I’d been roughed up a bit, say enough to take me out of circulation for a while.

And what a real-life actress that Virginia turned out to be! She pretended, most convincingly, that she thought bronco-riding and calf-roping the most exhilarating of sports. Actually she didn’t like them at all. The heat-soaked air, the dust, the savage bawling of horses gone temporarily insane, was not for her. But because I liked it she seemed to share my enthusiasm.

I’d get up with the chickens on mornings when we were to start out for a rodeo, load my horses into a trailer, throw my gear into the trunk compartment of the car, and head for Virginia‘s house. She was always waiting, eager as a pup on a leash, rarin’ to go. Or so I thought. Then with her mother comfortably settled between us, we’d pick up Monty Montana and his nice wife and head for the wars.

During the rodeo, the Montana rooms or bungalow, or whatever quarters they were lucky enough to get, was a meeting-place for all of us. Virginia would sit, wide-eyed, listening to some bow-legged cowpoke brag about the mean ones he’d topped. the time he’d got in front of a stampede with nothing between him and certain death but Old Blue or Baldy or some other favorite nag he happened to be riding. And she’d slip in her breathless “Oh, my!” at just the right place.

It wasn’t until after we were married that I found out Virginia loathed rodeos. Maybe I can express her lack of admiration for them more clearly when I state that she has never gone to one since the day she let me slip the ring on her finger in church. She likes horses, but in an abstract sort of way. She thinks they’re nice in the corral or in a pasture. They blend well with the scenery. They’re decorative. They lend atmosphere to a semi-ranch place such as ours. But she thinks anyone who deliberately climbs onto a horse’s back and goes tearing about the country under the impression that he is having fun has lost some of his marbles. Her idea of perfect transportation is a low-slung, English-made car that can go from a standing start to a mile a minute in the space of a long breath.

There is a belief abroad in the land that no two people engaged in the same kind of work should marry. Inevitably, so the seers say, there will be a clash of temperament, professional jealousy will lift its ugly head and presently the cynics will smile sourly and say, “Ah, these actors! Tch, tch!”

For an actor and actress who love each other to stay married is rather a simple matter, it seems to me. All that is needed is a sense of humility on the parts of both husband and wife, a realization that no matter how excellent each is in his work, just around the corner, there’s some kid who is soon going to be twice as good. And if one of them happens to be inordinately comely, that is that. It was a gift, straight from the hand of God.

Fortunately I married a girl who is utterly devoid of vanity. If she is beautiful, she believes that it is merely a fortunate heritage and one over which she had no control. And she is much too thoughtful to be unaware of her own limitations. For instance, Virginia hasn’t the faintest idea that she is, at this stage of her career, a dramatic actress. She has had sound training since she was eight years old, and she continues to study. But she labors under no illusions. She is pretty sure, on the other hand, that she does all right in musicals. She feels right at home in something like “Back to Broadway,” but she’s plenty all right, too, in her role in “Iron Mistress.”

She has one fault that even I, as her husband, am objective enough to see. She is absolutely, brutally honest. You may be surprised that I would consider this a fault, but my feeling about the matter is that you don’t have to sound off like a Marine Corps sergeant simply because your opinion was asked. There is, you know, such a thing as tact. If you must belt somebody in the nose, it’s possible to pull your punch just a little. But not my Virginia. With her a fact is a fact and that’s it. Don’t misunderstand me; she doesn’t go on the prowl looking for a chance to say what she thinks. But brother! If anyone wants to know what her opinion is, he isn’t left long in the dark. And she wouldn’t butter up to a saint in heaven.

Religion has always prodded at Virginia’s mind because she can’t keep from asking questions. She has an insatiable curiosity about things she doesn’t completely understand. I happen to be a Catholic and, I like to think, reasonably well informed in my faith. But Virginia can ask questions about it that set me right back on my heels.

Remembering her inquisitivness, I called up Bishop Fulton Sheen, the last time we were in New York, and asked him if he would see my wife and give her some answers she was looking for.

Although, in a period of several days, Bishop Sheen gave Virginia seven hours of his most valuable time. I don’t know what he told her but I do know that no “salesmanship” or pressure of any kind was used. The Bishop doesn’t work that way. He says that people who come to him for information are already touched by divine grace or they wouldn’t be there. What he accomplished with Virginia, I don’t know, because she never told me. She still goes to her own church, the Presbyterian, and she spends much time reading the books the Bishop gave her.

I spoke about Virginia’s interest in interior decoration. The undeveloped possibilities of a house are a perpetual challenge to her. When I am not at home she gets in her car and goes cruising about, hunting “For Sale” signs. When she finds one she goes in and looks the place over, having herself a ball conjuring up mental images of what she would do with the place. Our own house is a perfect example of the results she can get.

I had bought it, almost unseen, simply because I knew there were excellent stables in the back for my horses. When Virginia saw it for the first time, she stood in the middle of the living room floor, her eyes darting this way and that. At last she said: “This wall will have to come out to make the room big enough to be of much use. The kitchen should be where that other room is, only it’ll have to be enlarged. I think some windows can be set in that wall to give this room more light. This place can be made very livable.”

Before I knew it I was up to my ears in work. I began digging foundation trenches. Then I was laying bricks, an art I’d learned in New York in order to keep eating regularly. I installed plumbing. I remodeled interiors. And all the time that wife of mine was offering suggestions in her soft, gentle voice that added up to a lot more back-breaking labor for me. Today our house, evolved from something you wouldn’t look at twice, is a home I’m rather proud of. No show joint, mind you, but a comfortable place—for living. And the credit all goes to Virginia.

So here we are, married over five years, interested in the present, excited about—the future. We dream about having children and we look forward to doing another picture together. But whether we do or not, I’ll go contentedly along with my career, and Virginia will keep on making more and better films and eliciting wolf-calls from the male youth of these United States.

I don’t object to that. I think it’s fine. After all, it’s what any guy should expect who marries himself a good looking babe.




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