The sad, gruesome demise of a 1950s starlet.
You feel it’s a story you’ve heard before, but that’s often the way in Los Angeles where there are more scripts than cars on the street. This happened at a cottage on Benedict Canyon, one of those roads that wind down from the crest of Mulholland Drive to Sunset Boulevard. The cottage was tucked into the hillside, overgrown with ivy, shrubberies, and bad karma. It looked like the forsaken or forgotten house in a fairy story. Over a period of time, a neighbor noticed that its delivery box was crammed with more and more junk mail. So she decided to break into the house. You see, she knew there was a woman who lived there. The neighbor had been an actress once herself.
You need a sense of drama to break in like that. In the frequent screen version of such incidents—as when Russell Crowe finds a corpse underneath a house in L.A. Confidential—it’s played as the big bad smell. The actor puts a handkerchief to his mouth. He may throw up. Everyone works hard at the idea of nauseating horror, but the movies don’t do smell (it’s one of the many aspects of death they omit), so we say to ourselves, no problem, we can take that. But people who’ve know that smell say you never get rid of it.
In that cottage on Benedict Canyon it’s possible the smell had subsided—the place could have been as clean as a movie playing in a perfumed theater. By all accounts, Yvette Vickers, eighty-one, was “mummified.” Her space-heater was still on. It must have been on all the time. The reports said she had been dead at least a year.
So, if this was May 2011, she may have died in the winter of 2010. I suppose the power bills were on some automatic payment, with money to cover it. Otherwise you’d guess the electricity would have been turned off.
But I looked up “mummification” and it doesn’t ring true: The process needs persistent cold or the addition of chemicals—that’s how the Egyptians did it. I think Yvette Vickers just rotted, but I suppose after a while the flesh and the organs turn to dust.
There was a record heat wave in Los Angeles in 2010. It reached 113 degrees on September 27th. So maybe the ordinary process of decay had been accelerated, or maybe the raccoons had got into the house.
I know, this is not pleasant, but I can’t get the story out my head. I keep feeling I’ve heard it before.
Iola Yvette Vedder was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1928, the daughter of musicians. She came to Los Angeles to study drama, and in 1950 she had a moment in Sunset Blvd.—there is a big party scene where William Holden goes to get away from Gloria Swanson. And at the party, there is a blonde on the telephone, giggling—she wasn’t credited, she didn’t have a line, but that was Yvette Vickers.
She might have thought she was going to be a real star. After all, there were blondes who made it like that in pictures in the 1950s—Kim Novak, Grace Kelly, Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe—and Yvette Vickers was cute. She got big parts in a couple of B pictures in the late ’50s—Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and Attack of the Giant Leeches—and in both of them she played a slutty wife having an adulterous affair who gets destroyed by the monster.
But she was pretty and seductive and she could hit a line in an obvious way. In July 1959, she was Playboy playmate of the month. For a moment, it seemed, she had a chance.
But then it trailed away. She had a small role in Hud and she did a lot of episodic television in smaller parts. She was married and divorced three times. On the face of it, it’s hard to see how she had a cottage on Benedict Canyon and funds in the bank to pay the power bill.
Still, you have to wonder about a life where no one notices you aren’t there for a year. Especially when the girl wanted to be famous, and started out in one of the most celebrated of Hollywood pictures, Sunset …. Snap! I’ve got it. In Mulholland Dr., the David Lynch film, the Hollywood hopeful, Betty (Naomi Watts), lives in an apartment complex, and there’s another actress in another cottage, Diane Selwyn. And Betty finds her there one day, curled up on her bed, deceased. But then later in that film we see Diane, only now she looks like Betty and she’s dying. It’s Lynch’s way of saying don’t be surprised if in the endless fairy tale called, “Betty Goes to Hollywood,” you end up badly. If you want to be a famous movie star don’t be astonished if you die alone and with no one knowing or telling your story—unless they find a body.
Betty is a blonde, too, and in the fairy story, the girl is usually a blonde. Yvette Vickers had brown hair, I think, but early on she made herself blonde and she said something that could have been Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes—“Men expect a blond to be more frivolous and less intelligent.”
Is that it? Is that all I need to remember? No, there’s more. In Sunset Blvd. it was William Holden who noticed Yvette Vickers giggling on the phone. And Sunset was the picture that made Bill Holden a big star. Well, in November 1981, Bill was in his apartment in Santa Monica, a very nice place. He was only sixty-three, but he was drinking all the time. He slipped on a rug and smashed his head on a table. He bled to death, and either he was too drunk to call for help or he didn’t care. It was four days before anyone found him, and everyone knew he was a real star.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.
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