Sex and Death: The Brief Friendship Of James Dean And Vampira

We have the same neuroses.
–Maila Nurmi on her friendship with James Dean

Irresistibly bound up in the seemingly eternal icon of James Dean is equal parts sex and death, like sweet heroin to the angst-ridden teenagers of multiple decades. So perhaps it was only fitting that one of Dean’s supposed “best friends” also encapsulated that dark wedding of eroticism and morbidity, her simultaneously cadaverous and sexy visage spawning a veritable amazonian army of the undead.

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Vampira—a.k.a. model and actress Maila Nurmi—had her own show from 1953-1955 on Los Angeles TV station KABC-TV, hosting horror movies and preening in mock femme fatale fatal voluptuousness. She later took her schtick to a rival TV station’s horror show as well as later starred in infamous director Edward D. Wood’s 1959 cult classic Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Somewhere between all this, she met, and apparently became good friends with, James Dean.

The two would hang out Googie’s coffee shop, a late-nite Hollywood hotspot. Nurmi later recalled visiting Dean’s apartment and noting the noose playfully hanging from the wall. Dean had a notable morbid streak (possibly as the result of his mother’s suicide when he was just a boy), making Nurmi/Vampira the perfect BFF.

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However, that friendship, as “legendary” as it might have been, obviously hit the skids by the time Dean fully “broke out” as a successful movie actor. When asked by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper about Nurmi, Dean replied “I don’t date cartoons.”

Hopper, in her 1962 memoir, elaborated on Dean’s alleged feelings regarding his relationship with the horror TV show host:

We discussed the thin-cheeked actress who calls herself Vampira on television (and cashed in, after Jimmy died, on the publicity she got from knowing him and claimed she could talk to him ‘through the veil’). He said: “I had studied The Golden Bough and the Marquis de Sade, and I was interested in finding out if this girl was obsessed by a satanic force. She knew absolutely nothing. I found her void of any true interest except her Vampira make-up. She has no absolute.”

Ouch.

Hopper’s statements, though disputed by some, might lend a drop of credence to the rampant rumors, after Dean’s tragic death in a car accident in 1955, of Vampira “cursing” the actor.

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from a 1956 issue of “Whisper”

In 1956, the gossip magazine Whisper boasted to have the true story of Dean and his “Black Madonna.” According to the tabloid, Dean had made an offhand comment to Nurmi at a party about a time when their relationship hadn’t been platonic. After Dean left, Whisper reports, a none-too-happy Nurmi turned to her friends and said:

James Dean is going to die soon!

But the article didn’t stop there. It also claimed that Nurmi had literally had a “black-magic” altar set up to curse Dean (which Whisper, being no slouch, had a picture of), as well as being in possession of a “voodoo” doll in his likeness.

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the altar, with photo of Dean

Oh but it doesn’t end there either. No, allegedly Nurmi then sent a picture to Dean of her by an open casket with the words: “Darling, come and join me.”

And Dean died shortly afterwards. Or so the story goes.

Compare this macabre Hollywood legend to that of another sex symbol who died in a car accident—Jayne Mansfield. With, like Dean, at least a passing interest in the occult, she was linked to the Church of Satan and had posed for a series of photographs in what looked like a “black magic” ritual.

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Mansfield takes a walk on the wild side

The urban legend was that CoS founder Anton LaVey said he had accidentally cut a photo of Mansfield right under the neck (while I guess…making collages or something for his “vision board”), and later found out she was near-decapitated in a car accident at the same time. In this story (which I heard from some “news” outlet as a child), LaVey doesn’t specifically say he cursed Mansfield…but it’s sort of implied. Compare the photo aspect of this tale with that of the images of snipped photos on Nurmi’s “altar” in the Whisper article.

It should be noted that trying to suss out the actual details of the Mansfield/CoS connection is difficult because much of it is posted on hard-core Christian evangelical websites. There have been denials that Mansfield was serious about the CoS, and that the “ritual” photos were just a hoax.

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Indeed, flirtation with aspects of the occult was sort of a “hip” thing celebrities did in the 1960s…though certainly, in the Fifties, when the Whisper article on Vampira (who the tabloid refers to as a “black magic practitioner” on the first page) came out, such dalliances were more frowned upon. That is probably why, at the same time of Dean’s post-death Vampira rumors, the career of the actress seemed to take a nosedive.

She was, literally, “bad luck.” Which may be a little ironic, considering the possibility that the person who was most likely to stoke the fires of that “Black Madonna” story was…Maila Nurmi. I mean, who provided all those intimate photos and details to Whisper? I’m not saying she did it herself, but…nurturing this sort of “spooky aura” in the press might not, at first blush, been seen as a “bad” thing.

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I had initially started writing this article while still under the impression that Dean and Nurmi had a friendship “for the ages.” But research has only yielded to me the impression that their association was relatively brief and became deeply soured—the tale of a woman scorned. Witness the 1956 photo of Nurmi dressed as a witch, with her friend Jack Simmons in Dean get-up and bandages all over his face. Dean had been dead for a year by that point. In bad taste much?

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Jack Simmons as a fake dead Dean, with Nurmi

But such Hollywood legends have a mythical quality that overshadows and obscures the reality of things—if indeed this elusive “reality of things” can ever be fully acquired after all this time. What remains is the myth of Eros and Thanatos—of the crowned Apollo and the Queen of the Underworld. In the prime of their lives, both James Dean and Jayne Mansfield felt drawn to the Dark Side, as if seeking an “antidote” for the ever-increasing burden of being an idealized modern deity.

While Hollywood has glorified the Apollos and Aphrodites, the Hades and Hecates these celebrities visited on their off-hours for naughty thrills have been pushed to the margins as freak shows. But the Darkness might have its revenge yet.