Maila Nurmi was the original Queen of the Modern Gothic. Vampira, her iconic macabre creation, influenced generations of filmmakers, musicians, artists and lifestylers. Sadly, she shuffled off her mortal coil on January 10th, 2008. She was aged 86.
A Finnish-born model and actress, Maila had posed for Man Ray, Vargas and Bernard of Hollywood before being discovered at a masquerade ball by a TV producer. Her pale-skin and tight black dress complete with black wig and long, haemorrhage-red fingernails were quite unique in 1953. A year later, she became the eponymous star of The Vampira Show bringing a distinctive mix of sex, horror and death.
As the world’s first TV horror host, Vampira’s sardonic wit and eye-popping hourglass-figure made her the ghoulish fantasy of guys and ghouls across the globe, despite appearing on a show that was only broadcast in LA. Every week the voluptuous vamp would unleash blood-curdling screams and utter puns in an exotic and alluring Marlene Dietrich-like drawl – ‘I am…Vampira. I hope you all had the good fortune to have had a terrible week.’
After her show was cancelled, Maila accepted a tiny fee to appear as the reanimated corpse bride in Plan 9 From Outer Space, a role in the unfairly dubbed ‘Worst Film of all Time’, but it was one that would ensure Vampira’s immortality in popular culture.
As a star in the Golden Age of Tinsletown, Maila gigged with Liberace, dated Orson Welles, was friends with Marlon Brando and formed a tremendous kinship with James Dean, whose spirit, she claimed, haunted her for six months after his death.
Even as lady in her eighties, she was an incredible bright spark, a feisty old dame and a terrific raconteur, recalling stories from the old days with childlike glee. Like her icons-in-crime Bela Lugosi and Ed Wood, Maila Nurmi died nearly penniless, but she left behind a legacy that will endure forever.
Here's the article I wrote for Bizarre Magazine...
The Lady is a Vamp
I’m sat in Pioneer Chicken, a fast-food joint off Sunset Boulevard, deep in discussion with Vampira, the world’s first TV horror host. Maila Nurmi, the Finnish-born performer beneath the famous black wig and nails was a phenomenon in the nineteen-fifties. Her iconic gothic style, sardonic wit and eye-popping hourglass-figure made her the ghoulish fantasy of guys and ghouls across the globe, despite appearing on a show that was only broadcast to the Los Angeles area. Every week the voluptuous vamp would emerge from dry-ice studio fog to the sound of creepy organ music. She would unleash a blood-curdling scream and utter puns in an exotic, sexual, Marlene Dietrich-like drawl - “I am…Vampira. I hope you all had the good fortune to have had a terrible week."
But this is not simply an interview with a vampire. Conversing with Naila Nurmi means taking a voyeuristic journey through the lives of mythological cult icons of fifties Hollywood. It seems that Vampira’s finger was firmly on the jugular pulse of the tinsletown scene during the beat generation. Captivating tales with James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Elvis Presley pour from her octogenarian lips, memories recalled with intensity and insight.
Since Maila claims psychic capabilities, one can also add a touch of the paranormal to this Hollyweird concoction. She speaks of clairaudience, strange premonitions and visions. Most sensationally, it was such psychic sensitivity that found her haunted by the spirit of James Dean, whose death profoundly affected her.
She’s certainly one tough cookie though, that’s for sure - strongly opinionated and gutsy. Before international fame, back when she was modeling for the likes of Bernard of Hollywood, Vargas and a young Man Ray, she still wasn’t taking any crap from studio big shots. Even movie mogul Howard Hawks - who discovered Maila performing a skeleton striptease in a New York show - suffered the wrath of Vampira’s razor-witted tongue, despite having just turned Lauren Bacall into a household name.
“I thought he was stupid, so I tore up my contract,” she giggles, tucking into her rice. “I told him to kindly find a place for it in one of his numerous waste baskets.”
Yet in 1956, her outspoken manner caused her blacklisting from the system. Broke, she accepted a measly $200 to play the reanimated corpse-bride of Bela Lugosi in the trash sci-fi epic Plan 9 From Outer Space. Irony, for this movie cemented her position in popular culture and led to Tim Burton’s marvelous biopic of director Ed Wood, one that cast model Lisa Marie as Maila.
At eighty-three, she’s still hip and sharp like Vampira’s fingernails.
So how did your famous horror host role come about?
I decided I wanted to become an evangelist. I had to sponsor myself and I thought I needed $20,000. How could I do it? Well, television was just warping people’s minds, so I thought could do that - and they paid big. I thought I’d satirise soap operas, I’d take improbable people and make them do all these bourgeois things. Since Charles Addams had already done it in comic form, I wanted it to bring it to television. So that is why I made the dress, went to a masquerade ball and won first prize. They discovered me and that was the end of it. But Vampira wasn’t really acting. It was television, just a lot of hogwash.
What went wrong with the revival of Vampira in the early eighties and the subsequent launch of the Elvira character?
Well I was dealing with KTTV for three months and then they suddenly didn’t want me to come to the studio anymore. They eventually called me in to sign a contract and she was there (Cassandra Peterson). They had hired her without asking me.
So it was going to be the Vampira name?
It’s Vampira all together. She did the whole thing with the Rocky Horror people. They stole it. They stole $100 million dollars. She was in 51 markets at one time with 350 kinds of merchandise; milked my cupboard bare.
Did you successfully sue?
I sued for eight years but not successfully. Finally I ran out of money. To continue would have cost $60,000. I wrote to the judge and said, “I’m sorry, I have no money. I have to close the case.” So he charged them to pay all the expenses. That money was meant for animal welfare and she spent it on cocaine and red limousines. Boy has the devil got that bitch—it’s the devil in her blood. That slut was a big player in porno movies - she was trying to hide her background. They deemed it unwise to reveal that fact so they told her to make up stuff if she was asked. But she said, “Why make it up when it is written here?” She was pretending to be me. How dare she? She’s such a low-life, such a no talent. She’s so stupid and she has no sense of timing. No sense of humor; such a common slut that speaks Americanese. Nasal. Phlegmatic. You know, the limousines and the lovers and the houses—they can take all that. Initially they wanted me. I wouldn’t do it because I didn’t want Vampira to be anything but perfect. I certainly didn’t want it to be a streetwalker-slut like that. Angelina Jolie would be a good Vampira.
Didn’t Vampira lead you to James Dean?
With the character I had been handed the keys to the city. I wanted to see who’s who and so I attended a movie premiere. But all I could find was vapid identities, people of whom I had no interest, except for one fellow who was with Terry Moore. I thought “him, that’s the one with the tuxedo and the collar, the farm boy hair that wouldn’t stay down.” Twelve hours after, I was sitting in Googies, and Jimmy rode up on his motorcycle, the windows rattled and the rest was history. We were never apart again. We were best friends instantly, like psychic Siamese twins.
Was he openly gay to his friends?
No. As he said, “do I look like someone who would go through life with one hand tied behind my back?” That was a courageous statement in those days. Jimmy was primarily heterosexual but he used men sexually to get ahead, and if he saw someone he liked, he liked them. More often it was women, but maybe that was because he had never got the really pretty girls before. He had always got the ugly leftovers that nobody else wanted.
How much time did you spend with him?
Seventeen-hundred hours, every moment to treasure. But he was just a little boy in search of his mother. Everyone must have seen it, maybe not known what it was, not how to read it, but they saw the feeling. I was a little more psychic so I knew what it was. He had the impression she had abandoned him. But after, I found out she died of cancer and hadn’t abandoned him at all, but she did go away and leave him all alone in the world. He was an only child and it was impossible for him to relate to his father. The father had probably married his mother for her boobs or something and had nothing in common with her. She raised a boy whom she named after a poet, James Byron. And the father didn’t know poetry from a hole in the ground. He was a nice, practical, and sensible dentist.
Do you remember when you heard that James Dean had died?
Yeah I was at home with Tony Perkins (Psycho). Jack Simmons (actor in Rebel Without A Cause and friend of Dean) had just left to visit some lesbian whores that lived a block away. We knew we had to tell Jack before someone else did, but then we had to go tell Ursula (Andress), Jimmy’s ladylove. We drove up and I waited in the car because I didn’t really know her very well. It was in a dead end street, and now dark. Then suddenly, Marlon (Brando) appeared at the car - he had been hiding in the bushes. Ursula had called him in hysterics screaming, “They are trying to kill me. They’re threatening me. They think he killed himself because of me. I’m frightened! You have to come. I’m alone.” She would have used any device to get to Marlon at that time, even though she was trying to break up John Derek’s marriage. She wanted Marlon above all; she even bought the same car that he had. So he went, but looked in the windows first to be sure that she wasn’t putting him on and that she was really upset. Then Jack found him in the bushes. “Maila’s over there, in the hearse,” he said.(laughs) So he came over to offer condolences.
I heard that the spirit of James Dean visited you.
He visited a lot of people. He was very active. Now a lot of people made it up too I’m sure, but even people who weren’t psychic had experiences. He was that strong. Jimmy was following me around and was with me a lot of the time for the first six months. There would be an ashtray, I’d look and say “don’t anybody touch the ashtray, it’s gonna go up. That’s Jimmy’s sign that he’s here.” And it would go up!
Did you have psychic tendencies early on?
Yeah, I was very psychic in those days. My first husband Dean Eisner (writer of Dirty Harry and Play Misty For Me) and I lived in Laurel Canyon. He came home from work one day and said a story editor was writing a TV series about us. TV was very new and it was very easy to get anything you wanted done. He said they called it “Laurel Canyon”, but apparently sold it under the working title Bewitched. That was written about Dean Eisner and I. You see my mother was a witch. She wasn’t practicing, but she couldn’t help but be a witch. It was natural. It exuded from her, the very essence of her. And I was very psychic too.
Didn’t you share some strange, paranormal experiences with Marlon Brando?
We were sitting around and chatting in the dining room and Einstein had died just three weeks before. Marlon always had a wonderful portrait of Einstein on his headboard and sometimes he would just shove it in your face. Suddenly Marlon says, “There’s someone here. It’s Einstein. He has a message for us.” I was included in the message. “You young ones have to hurry up,” That’s what Einstein told Marlon, who wasn’t inventing it - he believed it. He may have seen it or heard it. The point is that Marlon really wanted to believe that he was a humanitarian, and Einstein was urging him to hurry up with his duties. Marlon was a very humane human being, though he didn’t know how to be humane with his own children. Some of his best friends despised him and said he was a brute and a beast and nothing in-between. He’s either the gentlest, noble of human beings or the coarsest and grossest. How do you like them apples?
What was your first introduction to any of the Ed Wood clan?
I was a young girl window-shopping on Hollywood Boulevard. I was bending low to see the detail of some shoes and someone whizzed around the corner on roller skates, almost bumped my fanny and crashed into me. “Pardon me,” said he, and “Pardon me,” said I. He was wearing an ascot and a beret. It was Bela Lugosi on roller skates. He was on his way to a cigar store.
Had you heard of Ed Wood before you met him?
Yes, because there had been an article in a newspaper, saying that he wanted to make a movie with Vampira. The nerve of him! This was before I was blacklisted. After, I had no money and I couldn’t get a job. A guy came and visited me and offered $200 to make this Ed Wood movie called Grave Robbers From Outer Space (later changed to Plan 9). I thought it was a good title at least. Oh boy! So I did it, and he came into my life right after then.
Did you find Ed Wood to be an intelligent guy?
No. But anyone who has become a phenomenon has a karmic current carrying them there. Nobody who is normal has such drive. That’s got to be driven by something larger than life. There was something there that I didn’t understand or respect because I was an intellectual snob, but it was there alright.
How did Ed Wood react when he heard you didn’t want to speak his words?
Paul Marco told him, so I don’t know. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but my God, I could not say those words. I wish I had them today because I threw them away. Do you know what jewels those lines must have been? I tried to say them, but I curdled my own blood. (laughs) They were awful!
Did you go to the premiere of Plan 9 From Outer Space?
Yeah. The theatre was full of people. I was backstage and I could see the images behind the screen. People were in the wings, dictating to me when to walk out, so that I was there on screen at the same time as I walked across stage. The audience booed, whistled and threw popcorn – they loved it! But I never actually got to see the film as I had to leave, then the film was banned in Los Angeles for 26 years. It never played here and Ed Wood never knew why. They hated him I guess or maybe it was because of me. But Criswell told me that the film played in a small theatre in New York for over a year and a half, with just standing room only all the time. When it was on the road in Indianapolis, even though it was pouring with rain, people queued around the block with newspapers over their heads. It was very popular. People knew it was Lugosi’s last film.
What kind of state of mind do you think Ed Wood have when he later made porn films?
He loved the porn. He was in his element. He would have been very unhappy if he had known he couldn’t have done porn again. He just kept writing them so fast. He’d write a whole pornographic book in just two days.
Did Tim Burton talk to you before he filmed the movie Ed Wood?
Yes. He introduced me to his stuffed bat. The film was accurate in some way but he wasn’t really trying to be accurate. It was a docu-drama. He was taking liberties, which he was entitled to do, but he got some of the essences correct—the ones that he should have retained. And then he embroidered a little. Johnny Depp is such a good actor and was believable as Ed Wood. Although it wasn’t exactly the same persona, his essence was there. The enthusiasm was so believable - such gung-ho enthusiasm.
Finally, is it right you had an encounter with Elvis before he became famous?
I went to Las Vegas with Liberace and met a19 year-old Elvis. I was there eating breakfast in the hotel and across the huge dining room in backlight - because the sun was shining through the windows - I could see three older men, smoking cigars, looking plump and eating. A tall, young, graceful man came in, and sat with them. Then on the intercom it said that somebody was wanted on the telephone. This young guy got up, and walked like Robert Mitchum. All I saw was his silhouette, that was it. So I paid my bill and walked past the men and said, “well congratulations, he’s going to be the biggest movie star in the world. I see he has tremendous magnetism.” “Ah,” they said, “thank you.” (laughs). And I hadn’t yet seen Elvis’ face. But the next night when he opened, I went with Liberace and his whole family. A side curtain parted and this kid comes out alone. I had never seen someone boldly standing on a stage – supposedly a heterosexual male – wearing turquoise eye shadow and grinding his hips like that. I thought, “oh-my-god. What am I seeing? This music is great.” The orchestra, one by one put down their instruments. They crossed their arms and refused to play. The audience started booing, and they booed him off the stage. Then a voice said to me – and I wasn’t on any drugs – “go around the side of the hotel and in the back, there’s a swimming pool and you’ll find someone in a canary yellow jacket.” Now I hadn’t seen a jacket like that anywhere. But I went around and in the dark moonless night, far away I could see the double doors of the casino, golden with light. They opened and a figure came into the doorway. It was Elvis, wearing a canary yellow jacket. He looked confusedly into the darkness, so I said, “I’m over here.” We walked towards each other, sat down and talked. I told him that I was a performer and that what happened was absolutely awful. He said, “every night before I go on, I talk to God and he always answers me. But tonight he didn’t answer. When them curtains opened and I saw all those white heads and them glasses, I knew why.“ I told him I admired his courage and that they only did that because they’re sheep and they do as they think they are supposed to do. One person booed and so then they all did. They’ve never, ever seen anything like you and it frightened them. But, Life Magazine are going to discover you (because that’s what they did in those days) and they will kiss your shoes.” He said, “it’s coming out Thursday” and it did. I was thirty-three and he said to me, “I know you’re getting old and all, but if you’d like to come back after the show, I’d be proud to take you back to my bungalow.” (laughs) His hallowed words! And so Elvis went back to do a second show.
Many thanks to Joe Moe and Forry for their assistance with this interview.
(Photos and Words Copyright - Mark Berry)