by guest columnist Bobby Copeland
Virginia Mayo is not primarily recognized as a Western leading lady. However, she did star in a dozen large production Westerns with such leading men as Joel McCrea, Kirk Douglas, Alan Ladd, Dale Robertson, Randolph Scott, Rory Calhoun and Clint Walker.
Born Virginia Jones November 30, 1920 in St. Louis, MO, she was one of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars during the ‘40s and ‘50s. Her beautiful and immaculate blonde hair, combined with her enchanting eyes and buxom figure, made her a perfect romantic interest for the male lead in outdoor Western dramas. During the apex of her career, Mayo was one of the film industry’s leading pinup girls. Her beauty was once described as “tangible proof for the existence of God.”
B.C.: Is your name really Virginia Mayo?
V.M.: My real name was Virginia Jones. I took Mayo from a vaudeville act that I used to do.
B.C.: Tell me about the act.
V.M.: It was really pretty funny back then, but people are so sophisticated today they probably wouldn’t find it very funny now. It was a “horse act”. Two brothers named Mayo would dress up like a horse, and I would introduce them and be their spokesperson during the act. We did all kinds of crazy things.
B.C.: When did you decide you wanted to be in show business?
V.M.: I always wanted to be in show business, even as a little girl. It was something that was ingrained in me. My aunt had a dramatic school and I started training when I was about seven. She taught me many things, including dancing. I danced with the St. Louis Opera when I was in my teens.
B.C.: How did you get to Hollywood?
V.M.: After the vaudeville horse act, I joined Billy Rose and the Diamond Horseshoe. From that I got offers to come to Hollywood. It was Samuel Goldwyn who signed me to a movie contract. I did a few little things, but my first good part was in “Jack London” starring Michael O’Shea. Michael and I were later married.
B.C.: Tell me about some of the other big stars with whom you worked.
V.M.: Oh, there were so many! I did four movies with Danny Kaye. Danny was hilarious, always cutting up and doing funny things. I worked with Jimmy Cagney in some films including “White Heat”. Jimmy should have won an Oscar for that film, but for some reason they thought gangster movies shouldn’t win Oscars. It’s a shame because Jimmy gave a magnificent performance. I also worked with Bob Hope, Alan Ladd, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Joel McCrea, Gregory Peck, Steve Cochran, Gene Nelson, Clint Walker, and Ronnie Reagan. I guess I should call Ronnie “Mr. President”. There’s still a picture around of me leapfrogging over him at the beach. Playing leap-frog with the President, that’s pretty funny!
B.C.: What kind of person was Ronald Reagan?
V.M: He was great fun to be with. He was always friendly, gracious, charming and very professional. Everyone enjoyed being with him.
B.C.: How about Kirk Douglas?
V.M: He was too intense for me. He was okay, just too intense.
B.C.: James Cagney and Alan Ladd were very short. Were they sensitive about their size?
V.M: Jimmy surely wasn’t. Alan was very short and he was very sensitive about it. Alan was a nice person but very shy. Facially, Alan was perhaps the best actor I worked with. He seemed to be such a troubled person. He left us so tragically.
B.C.: How was Joel McCrea?
V.M: Wonderful, friendly, funny…great to work with. He loved to tell jokes, and his riding was like watching a symphony. He rode so beautifully.
B.C.: What was it like working with Burt Lancaster?
V.M.: He was very intense, but much more likable then Kirk Douglas. He’s very intelligent and reads a lot. He used to keep in great shape. He was an acrobat and did his own trapeze work in one of his films. He had a love scene and he was supposed to be angry at me. He grabbed and kissed me so violently that I thought I’d lost my teeth. My arms turned black and blue. I surely didn’t want to kiss him again.
B.C.: Tell me about Gregory Peck.
V.M: Oh, now there’s a man! He’s so fantastic, wonderful, and charming. He and Reagan were equal in charm. Greg was a better actor because he took it more seriously than Ronnie. Greg was great in love scenes. He was tender, sensitive, and a good kisser. Love scenes with him were enjoyable.
B.C.: How about Clint Walker?
V.M: He was the biggest man I ever saw! Like Burt Lancaster, he exercised a lot. Brian Keith was in the film with us, and Brian was always relaxing and drinking beer. Clint would be over lifting logs or doing other physical things while Brian was lying around taking it easy. They were so different. Clint didn’t drink, smoke or swear. He was a nice, shy, clean-living individual. I don’t think he was meant for show business; he seemed too stiff, but I like him.
B.C.: Let’s talk about Randolph Scott.
V.M: I hardly knew the man! I was supposed to be the leading lady in “Westbound” but my part was tiny. The director (Budd Boetticher) gave his girlfriend (Karen Steele) the big part, and I didn’t like that at all.
B.C: I’ve heard Steve Cochran was pretty wild.
V.M: Yes, he was like Brando; he did what he wanted to do and when he wanted to do it. Steve was one of my best friends, and he always confided in me. He used to take girls out on his boat. I think they thought he was going to get them into the movies. He had a heart attack and died on one of those trips, and no one aboard knew how to get the boat back to the dock.
B.C: Did you like making Westerns?
V.M: Yes, but making films outdoors is far more difficult than making them inside. You always have to worry about the weather and something interfering with the sound.
B.C: What was your favorite picture?
V.M: “She’s working Her Way Through College”. I enjoyed doing musicals best because I got to dance.
B.C: Who was your favorite director?
V.M: Raoul Walsh. He liked me and I liked him. He was a funny man and nice to work for.
B.C: I’m surprised you didn’t do a TV series.
V.M: I did a pilot for it didn’t fly. I worked in several TV programs, but I never got my own series.
B.C: What do you think about today’s Hollywood?
V.M: It’s very different now. I think the old days were better when there was the studio star system; it was more glamourous. I don’t go to the movies much anymore. I don’t like the way women are treated today. I would like to see them get better roles.
B.C: What film stars do you enjoy watching?
V.M: Goldie Hawn, Mel Gibson, and I like Patrick Swayze a lot.
B.C: Are you still working?
V.M: Some, I did a movie in early 1990. It was a horror film (“Evil Spirits”)—and it probably will be horrible.
B.C: What are your future plans?
V.M: Just to keep on breathing.
Virginia's Western Filmography
Movies: Colorado Territory (1949 Warner Bros.)—Joel McCrea; Along the Great Divide (1951 Warner Bros.)—Kirk Douglas; Iron Mistress (1952 Warner Bros.)—Alan Ladd; Devil’s Canyon (1953 RKO)—Dale Robertson; Great Day in the Morning (1956 RKO)—Robert Stack; The Proud Ones (1956 20th Century Fox)—Robert Ryan; The Big Land (1957 Warner Bros.)—Alan Ladd; The Tall Stranger (1957 Allied Artists)—Joel McCrea; Fort Dobbs (1958 Warner Bros.)—Clint Walker; Westbound (1959 Warner Bros.)—Randolph Scott; Young Fury (1964 Paramount)—Rory Calhoun; Fort Utah (1967 Paramount)—John Ireland. TV: Wagon Train: Beauty Jamison Story (1958).
top of page