When I can’t sleep at night, I often peruse the obituaries. I am fascinated by the lives of these famous, infamous, and anonymous people, who I would have never heard about except in death. As a postmodern romantic who wants to keep the flame of their memory alive, I do what anyone in my situation would do: I post the obit to my Facebook page. It’s gotten to the point where a friend dubbed me “The Grim Reaper of Facebook”; when I do miss an obit that people think are worthy, they post it to my page with a little note.
One such time was earlier this month, when a friend from Texas posted a link to my page with the message: “Did you hear about this?”
I had not. The link was to an obit in the “L.A. Times” with the picture of a ’50s blonde with a headline that was as gruesome as the girl was beautiful: “Mummified body of former Playboy playmate Yvette Vickers found in her Benedict Canyon home.”
This was the rare obit that didn’t announce that a person had died, but rather that a dead person had been found.
Vickers was already living as a recluse when a neighbor began to get concerned when she hadn’t seen or heard from Vickers in quite some time. When the neighbor noticed yellowed untouched mail in the mailbox and spider webs on the front door, she decided to investigate further. Climbing through a window, she made her way through an endless tangle of junk – boxes of clothes, newspapers, and letters that were strewn everywhere and made walking through the rooms nearly impossible. Eventually, the neighbor reached a room upstairs, where she found the body of Yvette Vickers so far gone that her body had mummified beyond the point of recognition.
The police estimated that Vickers had been there for upwards to a year.
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, on August 26, 1928, as Yvette Vedder, she changed her name, moved to California, and tried to become a Hollywood star. She could be ruthless – after appearing in a nationally-televised White Rain shampoo commercial in 1955, she divorced her first husband because she felt he was holding her back, even though he had just bought her the 1920s Benedict Canyon home in which her body was later found.
And though she spent her final days as a recluse, she spent her prime years bubbling under in 1950s Hollywood. She became one of the first Playboy playmates, a B-movie star who had appeared in the likes of “Attack of the 50-Foot Woman” (as a mistress, not the 50-foot woman), and a would-be Hollywood socialite who had dated Cary Grant. After a string of television and small movie roles, it seems that her career got permanently off-track when a major role opposite Paul Newman in the 1963 film “Hud,” was left almost entirely on the cutting room floor. She spent the next decade doing sporadic television work until a B-movie buff discovered her in the ’90s and helped her go into the cult movie circuit, where she went to conventions autographing old pin-up pictures of herself.
But then, it seemed, something snapped. Maybe it was the shame and frustration of being reduced to the convention equivalent of a freak; maybe it was the alcohol she seemed to be drinking more and more; maybe it was genetics (her parents had also become very reclusive in their old age). Whatever it was, it did her in good, and for the rest of her life, she was rarely seen and hardly ever left the house. Apparently she became paranoid, spending her final days scrawling notes about people she believed were stalking her in the margins of the books in which she kept her recipes.
Yet, all of the initial articles I saw left out the thing for which Yvette Vickers can be most recognized for today: She is the laughing blonde who frustrates William Holden by tying up the telephone line in the party scene of “Sunset Boulevard.” Although uncredited, it was her first appearance in a film and, perhaps, something of a break.
Of course, she is only in the film for a few seconds because the rest of the film is focused on an entirely different lady, the delusional and aging silent screen star Norma Desmond, who is played by the aging silent screen star Gloria Swanson. The film creates a bizarre world of fourth wall Hollywood self-reference – when Desmond is watching old films of herself, they are real old films of Swanson; when she has her old friends over for bridge, they turn out to be an uncredited trio of real silent film stars, including, if you look sharply, an aging Buster Keaton.
In portraying Desmond’s histrionics in equally comic and tragic turns, “Sunset Boulevard” is the definitive romantic portrait of American madness. Here is a grand old star locked away in her old 1920s-era Hollywood mansion, a tireless performer living out her days in a performance that nobody sees.
I have often thought that “Sunset Boulevard” portrays the quintessential version of American madness: Someone cut off from the real America, who then creates their own country in their mind.
The real-life version of this can best be found in “Little” Eddie Bouvier’s bizarre “performance” in the legendary “Grey Gardens,” which documents Bouvier and her mother (Jackie O.’s first cousin and aunt, respectively) madly living in the filth and squalor of a dilapidated Hamptons beach home. But shades of this can also be found, I believe, in Brian Wilson’s lost “Smile” album, Emily Dickinson’s poetry, and James Otis’s final years. As Perry Miller famously theorized about the Puritans, perhaps the quintessential American identity is one who goes on an errand into the wilderness, fails to rivet the world on his their own, and is forced to retreat into themselves.
Yvette Vickers is thus the most striking example of this I have come across yet – there she is, at the center of “Sunset Boulevard,” a stark portrait of American madness and failure that her brief appearance contrasts, a girl-next-door blonde beauty, bubbly and laughing into the telephone, oblivious to the rest of the film, oblivious to the fact that she would spend her final years all but living this film out.