Virginia Mayo: “I’d Rather Stay Home!”
This was a marriage that couldn’t possibly last, as any counselor could have told them and probably did tell them. There was the difference in their ages. Virginia is not yet thirty; Mike is in his mid-forties. A serious handicap. A religious conflict was expected. Virginia has always been a Presbyterian; Mike is a devout Catholic who says, “Maybe going to church once a week satisfies some people, but I need my religion. I live with it.” Two strikes against them already, some of the gossips were saying. Sounds pretty ominous, doesn’t it?
Add the fact that, at the time of their meeting, Virginia had never even been in love and Mike was still married, though long since separated from his first wife. Their chances for a successful marriage looked slimmer and slimmer.
There would be a career conflict, too. Although Mike insists that any male held together with spit and baling wire could have achieved stardom during the lean war years, he was unquestionably at the top of the heap when he met Virginia. She was merely another import from a Broadway chorus then. But when they were able to marry, five interminable years later, O’Shea had given way to heroes returning from the war and Virginia was forging right to the top of. Warner Brothers’ star list. Obviously no male ego could survive a belt like that; there had to be trouble.
Finally, they were as different temperamentally as two people could be. O’Shea is a big Irishman, possessed of every implausible, inexplicable facet of the classical Irish personality. He has the gift of laughter, but he’s a brooder, too—and a thinker of subtle thoughts, shatteringly forthright in his expression of them. He’s restless, jumping with nervous energy, happiest when he works with his hands—but he also lies awake until five in the morning, reading alarmingly intellectual books.
This mass of contradiction is Virginia Mayo’s man. Virginia, a model of repose and tranquility, has a remarkable facility for enjoying herself most when she’s doing precisely nothing. No one ever sees her edgy or disagreeable. Even when she tackles something new and difficult. Virginia is relaxed, happy, at home in the world.
“People are always asking me what I do between pictures,” she once told a reporter. “And they think it’s peculiar when I tell them that I just sit. I know actors and actresses who work harder at their hobbies than they do at the picture business. I love my husband, my home and our life together, and my hobby is thinking about them.” An uncomplicated, refreshing girl—but hardly a suitable wife for an explosive Irishman like O’Shea. This was a marriage? This was a farce, as any fool could plainly see and it wouldn’t last six months.
But thirteen years after they met, eight years after they married, Virginia and Michael are as happy together as can be. In totting up the odds against the marriage of these two, the cynics overlooked one important point. Far from thinking love is corny, they like it. Their love for each other is an unmistakable and unabashed pleasure.
When the O’Sheas were entertaining at lunch on a recent Saturday, Mike and one of the guests chanced to be discussing cigarettes. Virginia was making silent inroads on her salad, apparently thinking of a dozen other things. That’s a very deceptive appearance, though. Her mind is never very far away when Mike is speaking; she’d just rather listen to him than talk. During a lull she looked up, poker-faced, and said, “I think one of the tobacco companies ought to make a butt-sized cigarette—for people who want to quit smoking.”
It was so unexpected that everyone present was tickled, but Mike most of all; he chortled. Nobody has cornered the market on comedy in that household, and O’Shea’s wife can always provoke him to laughter. “My old lady!” He shakes his tousled head in wonder and grins broadly.
Well, what about all the obstacles? A marriage doesn’t survive them just because a man, his wife, or both occasionally entertain an amusing thought. You can’t beat a sense of humor for adding spice to life, but you also can’t bank on one to compensate for everything else.
That appreciable difference in age should “I just knew I wanted to marry Michael the first time I met him,’ Virginia explains. “It was very sudden—I didn’t expect it to happen that way. Because marriage means forever to me, I had always imagined it would take me a long time to make up my mind. But then,” she adds after a pensive look into her past, “I never fell in love till I met Mike.”
As for himself, he gel clobbered just as quickly, with just as much finality. “First time I laid eyes on my old lady, I asked her to marry me No kidding. It was over at the Goldwyn Studio, where I was making a picture called Jack London. I’d been working with nothing but dirty, bearded guys like myself, and when I saw Virginia standing there on the set, it was like the sweet breath of spring. So I walked over and said, ‘You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in this crummy joint. Let’s get married.’ She said I talked like an idiot, and I told her I was an idiot but I wanted to marry her, anyhow. And I did—but not until five years later. I wanted to be sure she knew what she was getting, give her a chance to back out if she wanted.”
Those are the words of a great cover-up guy. They didn’t wait half a decade because there were any doubts in Virginia’s moved earth and stone to secure a divorce from his first wife. They had been separated a number of years, an arrangement she found satisfactory. Their youthful marriage had been a civil ceremony, so there were not even religious bars to a divorce. Only perversity—but Virginia and Mike aren’t the sort to talk about things like that. It’s easier more pleasant, if Mike says in his elaborately casual way, “Wanted to give Virginia a chance to back out—”
They have that in common. Virginia is so pleasantly undemonstrative that one Hollywood writer admits, “I’ve worked with her off and on for ten years, and I still don’t know whether she likes me or not.” And so with the O’Shea, voluble as he is. If people don’t take the trouble to look below the surface, he isn’t about to reveal the inner man for their idle inspection. When the aforesaid former wife elected, some years after the marriage of Virginia and Mike, to claim an imposing amount of back alimony on the grounds that Virginia’s salary was community property, it became a test case in court. Everything Virginia has she gladly gives to Mike, but she thought the claim unfair and fought it. Unfortunately, she lost—which meant that a sum estimated at $25,000 went out of the family coffers. The whole town knew that Mike wasn’t making such money, that it would have to come out of Virginia’s earnings, and the O’Sheas let them have their day of speculation and gossip. Mike had sold a dear piece of property at a loss to put that money back. But only a handful took the trouble to find that out.
Similarly, there was considerable talk to the effect that Virginia was bringing home the bacon while Mike stayed home and laid the eggs. One of the town’s best writers, incidentally a friend of O’Shea, finally took courage in hand and approached him with the idea of doing a story on the subject. “Sure,” said Michael—and the result was MODERN SCREEN’S story, “Somebody Has To Stay Home.” In it Mike made no mealy-mouthed attempts to justify his position. He pointed out that since Virginia was nearing the peak of her career and there was no large demand for his type at the moment, it would be pretty silly for her to stay home while he went out to work for less. These are the things Mike O’Shea will tell you if it makes a good story. He doesn’t mention, however, the run-of-the-play contract he was offered to do Guys And Dolls on Broadway. You’d think he was crazy not to have taken it. Maybe so, but it’s part of the O’Shea love story that being separated is insupportable to them, and Mike’s going into a sure-fire musical could have meant nothing else. They talked it over, and the answer came out no. There would be another opportunity.
For the amount of time and the consideration Mike gives to the career of his wife, he might seem careless of his own. He is not a careless man, but on occasion he has been exceedingly tactless. “I got a reputation for being very tough to work with, and I deserved it,” he admits. “When a director tells you how to play a scene, you don’t endear yourself to people in the business by telling him he couldn’t direct traffic on a street corner. Even if you know right down to your bones that he’s wrong.”
“Mike doesn’t do that when he works with a director he respects,” interpolates Virginia. “It’s just that he knows quite a lot about acting.”
This talk was going on out on the patio of their home in Van Nuys. The O’Shea had prowled restively from a chair under the umbrella to a lounge to a seat in the sun, and now he disappeared entirely.
“Really, the stage is where he belongs.” Virginia, wearing shorts, was stretched out lithe and relaxed as a cat. “Mike has that magnetism, vitality, stage presence—whatever you want to call it—that an actor in the legitimate theatre has to have. In Hollywood they can shoot the same scene over and over or dummy what they want, but on the stage you only have the one chance to walk out there and command your audience. It takes something special that Michael has.”
The man himself ambled back from the corral, where he had been in animated conversation with his quarter-horse stallion. “Know what I want to do?” he inquired. “What I’ve been wanting to do since I came to Hollywood? Make a western. Not one of those razzle-dazzle shoot-em-ups, because that isn’t the way the old west was. They were wonderful people, real people, those old pioneers. I read every book about them that I can get my hands on, and I’d like to do a picture about their kind of life. Know what they tell me in Hollywood? I’m not the type for a western. Me, that spent ten years on the rodeo circuit!”
When it became known that Miss Mary Catherine O’Shea was on the way, her pop said, “Baby coming, guess the old man better go out and start working.” And work he did. Maybe he set the right people back on their heels with the verbal persuasion of which he’s capable, maybe he even accepted less money than he’s worth—but all of a sudden the ball was rolling. O’Shea made a picture, It Should Happen To You for Columbia. Television discovered him; he’s done a couple of dramas, made guest appearances and filmed the pilot of a thirty-nine-week series. And when he has ten times this amount of work, the O’Shea will be completely happy. Oh, sure, he’ll tell you that somebody’s gotta stay home, that they wouldn’t starve on Virginia’s salary alone, because he has that island-unto-himself Irish pride. But it’s a curious thing that the sinus trouble and the stomach trouble with which Mike O’Shea is plagued disappears completely when he’s working.
Another so-called “big problem,” the religious one, has been conspicuous by its absence in the seven years that Virginia and Michael have been married. Virginia had eight hours of instruction in the Catholic faith from Mike’s good friend, Bishop Fulton Sheen, but whether she’ll become a convert, she does not yet know. The idea has met considerable opposition from both her family and her own church, understandably, and her husband is too sensitive to the importance of one’s religion to urge her. Virginia says with finality, “It’s my soul. I think I have to make up my own mind.”
Though Mike doesn’t want her pushed or pulled into anything, he’s an incorrigible tease, likely to ask, “Virginia, what’s my autographed prayerbook from the Bishop doing in your heathen bedroom?” She smiles back, knowing how he is, knowing he’d break his arm before he’d hurt her feelings. Knowing she could take up Yoga or Bahaiism, for all of Mike, just so long as she is happy.
With the appearance of Miss Mary Catherine, there have been some changes made. About $20,000 worth of changes in the house itself. A play pen in the dining room. “Still gotta enlarge the nursery,” grumbles the master of the house. “Nowadays, we invite people for dinner, somebody ends up eating in the play pen!” A buggy on the patio. A charming addition to the household, Mrs. Young, the baby’s nurse. And Dukie, Virginia’s already-neurotic bulldog, verges on a psychosis because of the dulcet tones in which his mistress addresses her offspring.
Miss Catherine wears her red hair in a pony tail—about six hairs deep. She has her father’s brilliant blue eyes, her mother’s lovely, tapering hands, and an inordinately alert expression for one so young. Nobody calls her “Sam,” of course, in spite of her father’s predictions—not even “Kate” as yet. Virginia calls her “Sweetheart,” her old man, “Little darlin’,” and she responds to both with the broadest toothless smile in seven counties. Altogether a remarkable child is the Princess of Tara, who has never been known to whimper in the presence of strangers.
The O’Sheas would be the last people to suggest that their own formula for happiness is workable for everyone else. For one thing, in what other marriage would you find a combination of temperament so unique that there has never been a fight?
“Of course we disagree on things sometimes,” said Virginia, who talks easily—if shyly—when the glib man of the house has wandered elsewhere. “I like to think about things, discuss them, before I make up my mind. It doesn’t take Mike that long,” she snapped her fingers, “to know what he thinks.”
Then, if anyone as beautiful as that can be said to grin, Virginia grinned. “Like the flying saucers—I don’t know whether I believe in them, but I’ve read and heard a lot and I just wanted to talk about whether they could be real. As far as Michael was concerned, it was a waste of time as a topic of discussion. When I carried my discussion one word too far, he roared, ‘It’s ridiculous—of course there aren’t any flying saucers!’ and stomped off. That was final.
“Sometimes there are more important things, more personal ones, but there still aren’t any arguments. If we talk about something any time at all without agreeing, Mike starts getting nervous. Then I know that he’s either going to give in, even though he isn’t convinced, or lose his temper and walk away. Once he does that, it wouldn’t do me a bit of good to go after him. I have to wait until he cools off and then explain that I didn’t mean to argue, only to get things clear in my own mind.”
Himself had meandered rather than stomped back on the scene and stood leaning against a wall, listening. “You don’t keep a box score on who gives in more often. The way I feel—and Virginia, too, I guess—is that it boils down to a pretty fundamental question: which is more important, my marriage or proving that I’m right? You think about that a minute. Pretty simple, isn’t it? I know people so insecure that they have to be right all of the time, regardless of where the chips fall. Me, I’d rather be married to Virginia.” His volatile face was sobered, his voice nakedly sincere, as he added, “I wouldn’t know what to do without her; my life revolves around her and the baby. Can you weigh being right all the time against that?”
They were both silent a moment before Virginia said in agreement with her husband’s thought, “We don’t make a big thing of it, that we never fight. But fights do leave scars, you know.”
“They leave scars,” Mike repeated. “Corny as it sounds, you can forgive someone you love—and really mean at with all your heart—but you can’t forget something cruel that was said or done in the heat of anger. A little of love is killed, a little of closeness that’s essential to marriage slips away because you start putting up barriers so you don’t get hurt in that particular way again . . . Nothing’s worth that.
“Sometimes I give in to Virginia on a point when I know she’s dead wrong; it doesn’t matter. She’s gonna find out for herself that she was wrong, but that doesn’t matter, either—I don’t want her dragging her heels over to me to say that she’s sorry. Sorry for what? That she had a conviction? That’s more than most have. Sorry she found out she was wrong? So she learned something. I let her have her way when it seems that important to her. She has let me have mine and I’ve really pulled a rock—but she never held it against me afterward that I was wrong.”
“I guess you could put it this way,” Virginia summed it up. “I love Michael and he loves me, and no difference of opinion is as important as what we have together and the way we feel about each other.”
It’s an old-fashioned working philosophy for movie stars, reinforced by one more secret. The latter isn’t anything they talk about, though O’Shea said in passing, “One of those bums I was reading one night when I couldn’t sleep said a man should always treat his wife like a perfect stranger.” Meaning, of course, that he should continue to observe the courtesies, make that little extra effort to please. If you’re lucky, you were born a good guy or a nice girl—and you can get along fine with your fellow men with no more than that. But the people one remembers with special pleasure show a little more thoughtfulness, a little more consideration. It’s what the O’Shea’s do for each other.
After the birth of the baby, Virginia was dissatisfied with her shape, silly as it sounds. The superfluous weight had been melted off by intelligent dieting but she felt that she was too soft. She began to take tennis lessons from her friend and former world champion Alice Marble. Mike was not far behind, the first day they walked on a court together. He knew from nothing about the game, so little that he asked if a high lob constituted a foul—but his old lady was learning, so Himself drifted over to the court. He listened with pleasure to the report that his wife would be a very good player. (When a bystander expressed surprise that anyone as dainty as Virginia could belt the ball so hard, Alice shook her head. “It doesn’t surprise me. The first time I shook hands with Virginia, she nearly broke my tired old tennis hand.”) He admired, in a spate of blarney, the two long-legged blondes as they stood side by side, tirelessly working on some stroke or other. The champ explained, the star listened, and then they dipped into a basket of balls to try it.
On the sideline the rusty-haired, bright-eyed guy sat. Just watching, maybe—but as the balls began to spray over the opposite side of the court, he rose and wandered in that direction. Probably there was never a more incongruous figure on a tennis court than Mike O’Shea in his battered Stetson and high-heeled boots, but he never left. Without a word, he collected balls so that Virginia need not interrupt her lesson to fetch them when the basket was empty. Just a little extra effort.
Similarly, there is Virginia’s attitude toward baseball. As everyone who has been within earshot of her husband knows, he digs baseball the most. He not only roots for the Hollywood team named the Stars, but in the past he has worked out with them when they played at home and traveled with them on road trips. Virginia couldn’t care less. She knows perfectly well what baseball is all about, having played it in school, but in her adult years she has become mildly disenchanted. So why does she go to the games? Well, Mike likes her to go, so she makes the little extra effort.
He isn’t sure it’s worth it. He introduces the team’s leading slugger, saying, “He hit .320 on the season, honey!” and Virginia says to the man, “Hello.” He brings one of the fielders over with the admiring statement, “Got the best arm in the league, sweetie. Nobody ever takes two bases on him!” and Virginia says, “How do you do?” to the modest hero.
“They look at her kind of funny,” Mike said in some embarrassment.
He had some hopes for her one night last season, when they were sitting in the box of the club president. It was one of the more exciting games, and throughout Virginia sat on the edge of her seat. More or less. When the last play was made, the O’Shea turned to Virginia and asked, “Well, how did you like that?”
There was a faraway look in her beautiful eyes. “Like what, Michael?”
“The game, honey. Wasn’t it great?”
“Oh, the game!” she answered. “I didn’t see it. The drive-in theatre next door is showing a picture of mine that I haven’t seen, and I was watching it. I couldn’t hear anything, of course, but if you look right over there—see, between those two trees—the screen is perfectly clear.”
“And us sittin’ with the president and his wife!” Mike groans when he remembers it. Then he leans over to kiss Virginia. “My old lady,” he says with enormous pride. “My old lady!”
—BY TONI NOEL
(Virginia Mayo is appearing in Warners’ King Richard And The Crusaders and The Silver Chalice.)
It is a quote. MODERN SCREEN MAGAZINE JULY 1954