PCA Tribute: Yvette Vickers (1928 – 2011)

REMEMBERS

YVETTE VICKERS

1928 – 2011

You hear about it happening every now and then.  The unnoticed death of a stranger in a house down the street, or a neighbor in your building.  How they lay lifeless for hours, or days, or weeks without anybody realizing they were gone.  You hear about this and you ask yourself “How could it have happened?  How can somebody be utterly alone?”  It is often believed that these are the sad and lonely deaths of the recluses and the eccentrics that have nobody in their lives.  Yet, despite our curious glances at these headlines which make us quick to judge those people who die alone and forgotten, each lonely and lost individual had a life of their own.  They all had a story to tell.  In the case of Yvette Vickers, she had more then just a few stories.  One of the most glamorous actresses of the 1950’s B-movie industry, Yvette Vickers lived an exciting life as a minor actress and beauty queen during the classic era of cult films.  Attracting a following of admirers from the drive-in set, in her prime Yvette Vickers was anything but lonely and forgotten.  From the silver screen to men’s magazines, Yvette Vickers lived an up and down existence in tinsel town, and was involved with some of Hollywood’s most popular leading men.  However, as the years passed by, Yvette Vickers disappeared from the pop culture radar, only being remembered by the die hard fans of 50’s juvenile delinquency and creature features.  Yet, despite the fact that she continued to keep a devoted fan following, a lonely existence that is hard for anyone to ever understand became bleakly apparent last week when the mummified body of the once beautiful starlet was found in her Benedict Canyon home on April 27th.  With no evidence of foul play, officials suspect that Yvette died of natural causes, but had been lying alone in her home for anywhere between four months to a year.  Further investigation and what will prove to be a very difficult autopsy is yet to come in discovering the real cause and date of her death, but a stunned public is left wondering just what went wrong in Yvette Vickers’ life that nobody noticed that she was gone for up to a year?  Where were her family, her friends and her fans?  Why did Yvette Vickers die alone and unnoticed?  In an attempt to romanticize her strange and unsettling death, early news reports have compared her to the character of Nora Desmond in the Oscar winning film classic Sunset Boulevard in which Yvette made her uncredited film debut in 1950 as a giggling girl on a telephone.  However, the comparison has been made loosely, and people who had encountered Yvette in her later years paint an entirely different portrait of her. 

The daughter of Kansas City jazz musicians, Yvette Vickers came of Los Angeles at age sixteen to study journalism.  But, after taking drama studies as an elective, Yvette discovered a love for the stage and changed her major and graduated with a degree in drama.  UCLA proved to be a perfect training ground for the young actress, where she earned her small role in Sunset Boulevard, and was scouted by a modeling agency that sent her to New York where she did a prominent TV spot for White Rain Shampoo.  Choosing to return to LA to pursue a film career, Yvette began to shop herself around to different studios during the era of the peroxide beauty queens.  Transform ring herself into a third rate Marilyn Monroe, Yvette landed a couple of episodic television gigs on Wyatt Earp and The Red Skelton Show.  Eventually she caught the eye of tough guy James Cagney who was casting his directorial debut, Short Cut to Hell.  The film was a flop, but the same year Yvette would find her first defining role as bad girl Roxy in the juvenile delinquent picture Reform School Girls.  Despite the fact that the film didn’t achieve a classic status, it found its own audience by being a vehicle for heartthrob Edd “Kookie” Burns, whom Yvette had a short lived love affair with during the making of the film.  However, what was most important about her performance in Reform School Girls was that Yvette found her own unique place in films.  While most of her contemporaries strove for romantic heroine roles, Yvette Vickers discovered that what she did best was to play the bad girl.  Sultry, mean, sexy and reckless, Yvette’s career would consist of playing sluts, home wreckers and girls gone wild.  She was the complete opposite of Sandra Dee.  Yvette Vickers played the kind of girl who put out.  The one who your mother warned you about.  The one that would lead you down the road to ruin.  She was dangerous, which was just the element that she needed to differentiate her from the other blonde beauties she was competing against in casting calls. 

Yvette Vickers found her niche in Hollywood in the 1950's playing "bad girls" in classic B-films such as "Reform School Girl", "Attack of the Giant Leeches" and, most importantly, "Attack of the 50 Foot Woman"

The year following Reform School Girl proved to be a busy year for Yvette as she continued to appear in a series of unmemorable films, but her fortunate would change again when she took the supporting actress role in one of the most important films of the drive-in era, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.  In the role of Honey Parker, Yvette played the girlfriend of William Hudson, who plots to get rid of his alcoholic wife, played by Alison Hayes who, due to an encounter with a space ship, grows into a giant and goes on a rampage in search for her husband and his lover.  An outrageous film with below average special effects, the film was accompanied by one of the most iconic movie posters of the era, which in turn turned Attack of the 50 Foot Woman into one of the most important B-films of all time, ensuring Yvette Vickers’ place in Hollywood history. 

Yvette Vickers with Dan White in Roger Corman's "Attack of the Giant Leeches"

Various television appearances followed, primarily in westerns and crime dramas including M Squad, Dragnet, Bat Masterson, The Texan and Mike Hammer.   As the 1950’s winded down Yvette fell into the wild antics of Los Angeles’s beatnik scene, and became romantically linked to a number of Hollywood stars including Rory Calhoun, Steve Cochran, Ralph Meeker, Lee Marvin and Cary Grant before marrying writer Leonard Burns.  However the marriage would prove to be disastrous and would end quickly.  1959 would prove to be the zenith of her career.  Undressing for Playboy Magazine, Yvette became Playboy’s July 1959 Playmate in an erotic spread shot by future sexploitation director Russ Meyer.  That year would also see her in her last leading role when she appeared in Roger Corman’s creature classic Attack of the Giant Leeches.  Once again playing a cruel and cold vixen, Yvette ignited the screen as Liz Walker; a gold digger who marries and older man for money instead of love.  However, when caught being unfaithful, her hillbilly husband forces her into the Louisiana swamp by gunpoint where she is dragged into the muck by giant squid like tentacles.  Although low budget and with a slim plot, the film was masterly produced by Corman who had a tendency to make the most out of almost nothing and Attack of the Giant Leeches became a cult favorite.  Furthermore, Corman created the perfect role for Yvette to shine in her typical bad girl persona, allowing her to give one of the strongest performances of her career, making what would have otherwise been a lackluster low budget feature into a bonafide creature classic. 

Yvette Vicker's with Paul Newman in "Hud"

Looking to get away and clear her head after her divorce from Leonard Burns, Vickers returned to New York after the shooting of Attack of the Giant Leeches to perform on Broadway in a production called The Gang’s All Here.  Yet when her Broadway gig ended in early1960, upon returning to LA Yvette found out that Hollywood doesn’t wait around for anybody.  Out of the loop for what was an eternity for the fast paced film industry, Yvette found featured parts harder to find.  As a result she once again began taking minor roles in films, often finding herself once again uncredited.  Possibly her most memorable film appearance after her return from New York was the minor role of Lily Peters in the Oscar winning film Hud.  However, even in that film she only had two lines before being abandoned at a restaurant by Paul Newman.  Yvette also appeared uncredited in Sidney Poitier’s 1962 psychological pot boiler Pressure Point, and Annette and Frankie’s 1963 beach debut Beach Party.  More television appearances on My Three Sons, The Bob Cummings Show, The Barbara Stanwyck Show and Emergency!  kept her barely alive in the entertainment industry.  During this time she became romantically involved with actor Jim Hutton and would remain in an “on and off” relationship with him until his death in 1979.  However, as the 60’s slipped into the 70’s it was painfully obvious to Yvette that her career had already faded into the not so distant past.  In 1976 Yvette’s career was officially over after making an appearance on a forgettable TV series called Switch.  Changing gears completely, Yvette took up a successful career in real estate in which she was able to support herself in a very comfortable existence. 

One of the photos shot by Russ Meyer for Yvette Vicker's 1959 "Playboy" spread

Yet, although her film career was over, Yvette Vickers’ found a resurgence of popularity by the end of the 1980’s when the B-films of the 50’s and 60’s began to gain a new audience.  By the end of the decade Yvette began to make the rounds at film festivals and autograph shows, meeting fans and entertaining film buffs with her tales from Hollywood’s golden age of drive in features.  In 1990 she came out of retirement to make a cameo appearance in one final film, Evil Spirits.  Furthermore, in 2000 author Stephen King would cite Yvette as being one of his film idols during his childhood in his autobiography On Writing.  Described as having a bubbly personality and an endless supply of stories, she quickly became a favorite of fans and autograph show organizers.  This is a far cry from the lonely description that was painted by her neighbor, Susan Savage, who called police to her home last week when she noticed that Yvette’s mailbox was stuffed to the brim with yellowed mail, and that her front stoop had cobwebs hanging from it.  According to Savage, Yvette was a paranoid recluse who feared that she was being stalked, and lived a life of solitude in her large lonely house.  Reporters loved the idea of a former cinematic beauty queen going mad all alone in her home, but it appears that this could have been more a myth then reality. 

But the question still remains.  How does someone who found a niche in the pop culture journey become so forgotten and alone that they die and nobody notices?  In the days that followed the discovery of Yvette Vickers’ mummified remains, people who knew her have tried to piece together a timeline of when the last time they saw or spoke to her.  Margaret Netcell, the operator of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Happy Trails Children’s Foundation had spoke to her a year ago, but over the last number of months she had tried to get in touch with Yvette via telephone but when no one answered she figured that Yvette had lost interest in the charity.  Neighbors recalled visiting with Yvette in April 2010 after a trip to the West Coast, but had figured that she had taken another extended trip.  Although married four times, Yvette had no children, and the last time she had spoken to ex-husband Don Prell, the only of her former husbands still living, was as far back as 2009.  But considering that their marriage had ended over half a century ago, Prell and Yvette had little to do with each other.  As for family, Yvette was an only child, and her parents were long dead.  Remaining family that were contacted last week included long lost cousins from Kansas who remembered her fondly, but had had little contact with her in decades due to the fact that her world in Hollywood seemed so far away from theirs.  As for good friends, speculation has been that she chased most of them away due to alcohol, paranoia and reclusivness.  Yvette Vickers was all alone, and as a result died alone.  However, she was hardly forgotten.  Amongst the yellowed mail stuffed high in her mailbox were fan letters and autograph requests from film buffs who still regarded her to be a star.  Yvette Vickers found her own niche in cult film fans hearts.  Tragically it would take her lonely death to put her name back on the culture radar.  At least this way we can be assured that while she died alone, Yvette Vickers will never be forgotten.

  1. John O'Dowd’s avatar

    Sam Tweedle,
    This tribute of yours to Yvette is brilliantly written. Thank you for honoring her this way. Yvette was a past interview subject of mine and we were close friends for nearly a decade before I (rather then she) unfortunately allowed our friendship to lapse. I am heartbroken and devastated over her death, but I feel like celebrating her now with a happy heart after reading what you have written. I know she would be grateful to you, too.
    Sincerely,
    John O’Dowd

  2. AllHallowSteve’s avatar

    Just found your site and loved both this and the Peg Entwistle pieces.
    Great writing, and thoughtful, cohesive posts. A rarity on the ‘net.
    From one web “Addict” to another, keep up the great work!

    AllHallowSteve
    HalloweenAddict.com

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