Born Yvette Vedder on August 26, 1928 in Kansas City, Missouri, her parents Charles and Maria were professional musicians who had a successful touring act for many years. Charles had been with the bands of Paul Whiteman, Tommy Dorsey and Harry James, and Maria had been a classical concert pianist. The Vedders saw that their daughter was raised in a safe and loving environment. “Oh, I had the best childhood. My parents were truly wonderful people. We moved from Kansas City to Malibu, California when I was six months old and I remember music being an absolute constant in our lives. They rehearsed a lot and they always had jazz records playing in the house. Dad played the tenor saxophone and my mother played piano and they performed in lounges all over the country. Malibu was a great place for a child. I had this huge sandbox to play in and I was a real beach baby! We lived in the beautiful mountains of Ramirez Canyon in a kind of artist colony. There were a lot of actors and musicians living up there and it was a very nurturing place. I couldn’t have had a better childhood.”
As professional jazz musicians, Yvette’s parents befriended many famous players of the day, including Charlie Parker. Musicians would often gather at the Vedder home after their gigs and jam ail night. Yvette remembers joining in the fun while still a toddler. “I was weaned on jazz, I know it like the back of my hand. Those guys were the coolest, friendliest people. As a very small child I would wander out into the living room while they were playing. I’d do a little dance for them and sing along, They loved it!
They were perfectly respectful, too. There were no drugs, no drinking. My parents weren’t into that scene at all, so when the guys came over it was all about making music. Looking back, I think that whole period of my life was almost like a clinic to me. I learned so much and I just soaked up every bit of the music and energy that I could. Even though my primary dream as a child was to be a writer, music was always important to me and I always knew that I would do something with it one day.”
A student at the Catholic Academy of St. Catherine’s in LA. for twelve years, Yvette studied journalism (her maternal grandfather had been the editor of The Kansas City Star) and classical piano and by age fifteen was acting in local little theater productions. “I was already socially active in L.A., I’d bleached my hair and pushed up my bra to look 18, so I could get into any bar.
I was with a girlfriend to see Bobby Short in a nightclub when someone sent a note to our table asking if I’d like to be in a Billy Wilder film. I’m one of the guests at the New Year’s Eve party in Sunset Boulevard (1950) where I’m seen laughing into the telephone. Then comes my one line, to William Holden: ‘You can have the phone now.’ Hey, being in a big film like that was pretty exciting for a kid just starting out!” Following this auspicious debut, Yvette saw her last name changed to Vickers. “A producer of a play I was in plucked it out of the phone book. I was pleased, I thought it suited me fine.” Armed with her new surname, the luscious blonde continued her theatrical work in L.A.
In addition to her interest in music, dance has also been an integral part of Yvette’s life. “I started taking dancing classes as a child and later went on to perform with the Sonia Shaw national ballet troupe in 1954 and ’55. I was so serious about it and so disciplined, I took three ballet classes a week for several years. Music and dance touch my soul in the very same way that nature and Yoga do. They’re all part of what I call my spiritual journey, and they’ve brought a lot of happiness to my life.”
In ’55, Yvette was in a stage production of the musical That’s Life when she was spotted by a Hal Roach Studios casting agent who got her a White Rain shampoo commercial. “I danced in the rain with an umbrella, like Gene Kelly. It was on national TV and I was paid about one hundred dollars each time it aired (wherever it aired). It wound up running for several years (including during World Series broadcasts) so I received a nice residual check every week. I remember thinking, ‘If this is how show business works, let me in!‘ It was a high-profile spot…a terrific springboard for me.”
She landed a small role as a flapper in Jack Webb’s Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955). Webb, a jazz fan who had also been in SUNSET BOULEVARD, cast her on his DRAGNET show several times too. “By this time, I was already married. I met my first husband, Don Prell, while I was performing at the Player’s Ring Theater in Hollywood. A group of us had been hired to do a show for the Army out at Camp Edwards Air Force Base and I was introduced to Don on the tour bus. He was a very talented bass player and a real nice guy. I was only 18 when we married, which was far too young. I was wild and a little hard to handle back then. I still had a lot of living to do! Don and I were married for four years and our divorce in ’57 was amicable. Our marriage ended because I was busy concentrating on my acting career and he was on the road a lot. There were no rip-roaring fights, we just never saw each other! Don’s playing with a symphony orchestra these days and he’s doing great.”
“When I first met her, we got it on in the sand at Huntington Beach,” recalls Prell, who is 82 but speaks with the enthusiasm of a much younger man. He lives in San Francisco, where he spent 35 years with that city’s symphony. “We met and got rolling,” he says of Vickers. “She said she wanted me to meet her parents, and so we drive to her parents’ house at the top of a hill in Malibu. Her father knew Charlie Parker, who was my hero, and he’d visited him when he was in Camarillo. Her father was working at a little joint in Oxnard.”
Prell and Vickers soon married in Tijuana. After driving back the same day from Baja, the newlyweds attended a party thrown by Vickers’s friends in Los Angeles. Prell found the gathering a little too wild for his taste. “I was a hick jazz musician,” he says. “I didn’t know about guys that were like ladies. It was overboard.” He would leave the party alone and spend his wedding night at his parents’ home.They moved into the house Prell had bought on Westwanda Drive, an elfin two-gabled cottage built into a steep hillside; Prell spent hours painting the ceilings different colors. To help speed their careers, the pair opted against having children. But the marriage was short-lived. She worked days. He worked nights, when his wife would often go out to party. Prell would return from gigs at two or three in the morning to an empty home, though at the time he took their distance from each other in stride. “When you’re with somebody who’s pretty slick looking, you don’t think about it,” he says. “I thought that’s how Hollywood ran that you hardly talk to each other. She was probably getting chased around a couch someplace.” One night Prell came back from a cross-country road trip with the Bud Shank Quartet to find a note from Vickers informing him that she’d left him. “She said I was ruining her career,” he recalls. “We had some really good stuff together. It wasn’t like we were walking around holding hands saying this is paradise. But being an actress really puts a crimp in things you can’t play that casting couch thing to get jobs if you’re married.”
By ’56, Yvette had earned a bachelor’s degree in theater arts from U.C.L.A. and was vigorously pursuing her acting career. That year she had the Marilyn Monroe part of the beloved barroom floozy, Cherie, in an L.A. stage production of Bus Stop and when she was in a Hollywood Repertory production of Finian’s Rainbow, Marlon Brando visited her backstage. Soon she was hand- picked by James Cagney to play the flashy role of Daisy, a “little rooming house tramp” in Paramount’s Short Cut to Hell (1957). It was the famous star’s lone film as director.
Short Cut to Hell (1957) A professional hitman is hired by a friend to commit two murders. His friend pays him off in what turns out to be stolen money, and the police soon trace the money to him. On the run, he kidnaps the girlfriend of the police detective in charge of his pursuit and threatens to kill her unless the hunt is called off.
The movie was a remake of the popular Alan Ladd picture, This Gun for Hire (1942). It lacked the original’s power and spark.” Although her character completely disappears from the screen after the first twenty minutes, Yvette made a memorable impression, especially in the film’s opening shot, where the camera lovingly follows her super- sexy chassis as she saunters down a hallway. “That scene got some attention. Photographers and cameramen back then were always trying to shoot me from behind!”
Yvette was grateful for the unforgettable experience of working with Cagney, “Probably the finest and most decent man I knew in Hollywood. He was generous, kind and always had that marvelous twinkle in his eye. I just idolized him. James very patiently worked with all of us and was constantly sending journalists over to interview me. He’d say, ‘This is a wonderful new actress, Yvette Vickers. You talk to her because she’s going places.’ Such a sweet and honorable man. And totally devoted to his wife, too. Trust me, that’s not something you see all that often in Hollywood! I don’t believe they make them any better than James Cagney.
The lower budgeted Reform School Girl (1957) was shot after SHORT CUT… but released first in August. “I had a good role in Reform School Girl over at AIP I was a tough-talking, teenage delinquent named ‘Roxie’ in that one, a real heavy! There were a lot of girls on that set, but there was no rivalry between any of us; we all got along fine. I was especially close to Luana Anders, who was a very intelligent girl, a bit reserved, but nice. Sally Kellerman and I palled around in the beat clubs down on Sunset Boulevard. Gloria Castillo, the lead, came from an extremely wealthy family in Malibu, and was a very friendly person. I was sad to learn a few years ago that she died at a young age. Diana Darrin worked a lot at AIP and she was something else, talk about bubbly! When I would see her around town at parties and things she would always scream from across the room, ‘Yvette!,’ and then come running over to say hello. She was very nice. At the time I did Reform School Girl, I owned a while Jaguar with midnight blue leather seats, and I used to drive it all around Hollywood, you know, a real movie-star car! I loved it!”
Reform School Girl (1957) Donna Price (Gloria Castillo) is picked up on a double date by Vince (Edward Byrnes). During the course of the evening she discovers that the car they are riding in is stolen. As the night unfolds, an argument ensues in the car and Vince tells the others to get out, leaving Donna as his only passenger. When she asks him if he is worried about the other couple notifying the police, Vince tells her that he would murder anybody who ever turned on him. Subsequently, the police attempt to pull Vince over for speeding. During the high speed chase, Vince strikes a pedestrian and kills him. He flees the scene leaving Donna alone in the car. Fearing for her life, she refuses to identify Vince as the car’s driver. Considered a juvenile delinquent, Donna is sent to a state school for girls. At the school, Donna attends a history class that is taught by David Lindsay (Ross Ford) who is also the school’s psychologist. Although Donna does not reveal her secret to David, he believes that she is a good person who may have been caught up in a series of bad events and that she can straighten out her life with his help.
While Donna is in the school, the police continue the accident investigation. Vince is troubled by the event and is worried that Donna will eventually tell authorities what happened. He develops a ruse where his girlfriend places a phone call to the police and identifies herself as Donna. She tells the police that one of the girls in the reform school is a thief. Eventually the other girls come to believe that Donna is a police informer. She is attacked by Roxy (Yvette Vickers) and while defending herself, Donna cuts Roxy with a pair of scissors. Despite David’s plea to conduct an investigation, the school superintendent determines that Donna is a high risk student and that she should be transferred to the state prison. School authorities also question David’s judgment, his relationship with Donna, and his ability to help students. Vince, who is still convinced that Donna will turn him into the police, attempts to break into the school and kill her. He fails and is apprehended. The police and school authorities investigate the incident and as a result of the investigation David is vindicated, and Donna is exonerated and released.
Yvette was a participant in Hollywood’s Beat scene, a gathering of poets, writers and artists who reveled in a liberating, and somewhat groundbreaking, environment of nonconformity and self-expression. “It’s where I belonged at the lime. The people I surrounded myself with all shared an interest in jazz, literature and social issues and we took our various career goals very seriously. In those days, there were a lot of beat clubs and coffee houses down on Sunset Boulevard and I went to all of them. I was a bit of a nocturnal creature back then, so that whole trip suited me just fine! We were a fun-loving group, very politically-aware, a bit idealistic, maybe a little rebellious. But we all had a passion for living that couldn’t be tamed. I know I sure did! You know. I’ve always done exactly what I wanted to do, whatever my heart told me was right. As a matter of fact, that’s probably what got me into health food (an interest that I have to this day). Very few people in the 1950s were into eating right and taking supplements, but I intuitively knew those were things I needed to do to slay healthy, so I followed that regimen religiously. I had a health guru, a wonderful lady named Marie Deauville Ellison, who showed me how to prepare all these wonderful vegetable juice concoctions, and they helped me stay at the peak of my game. I would say that whole part of my life, especially my involvement in the Beat scene, was very important to me (and to my growth as a person). It was an intellectual selling, very vital, very exciting, and absolutely alive with energy and ideas. It was great.” She was also friends with comedian Mort Sahl during her beatnik days.
It was on the set of Reform School Girl that Yvette met her next boyfriend, burgeoning teen idol Edd Byrnes, soon-to-be known throughout America as Kookie on 77 SUNSET STRIP. Despite his convincing turn as a surly villain in the film, Byrnes’ real-life warmth quickly won his co-star’s affection. “Edd was a real sweetheart. We had so much fun together. We went to a lot of parties hosted by John Ashley, Nick Adams and (actor) Dennis McCarthy, and to a couple big film premieres at Graumann’s Chinese Theater.
And then there were those terrific lunch dates at The Cock and Bull Bar, where we laughed and joked and drank bullshots for hours! Let me tell you, it was a great time to be in Hollywood in the late 1950s! Edd and I had a blast together, and we’re still friends to this day.
“You know, speaking of lunch dates, a lot of the girls back then would use the lunch dale to slave off the ones we didn’t want to go any further with! Now, I’m not referring to Edd Byrnes here, because he and I did date for several months. I’m talking about the guys who would bug you for a date, guys you weren’t interested in. If you agreed to only meet them for lunch, rather than dinner, sometimes they would gel the hint that it wasn’t really going to lead anywhere. Anyway, that strategy always worked for me! One guy I would meet for dinner, though, was Hugh O’Brian. I’ve known Hugh since I was in my early teens and we dated, off and on, for a period of several years. Although he’s always treated me wonderfully, I understand that several women who have worked with him have complained about his extremely healthy ego! Well, it’s true, he is a confident guy, but as I said, he’s always treated me with respect. When we dated, he was very protective of me, almost like a big-brother would be. One thing about Hugh, though, when you were dating him, he was convinced that after being with him, you would never want to date anyone else again! He also believed (or hoped?) that when the two of you weren’t together, you were phone, waiting for his next call! Believe me, I wasn’t! Hugh O’Brian is quite the macho man!
“A guy I did see exclusively for a time was actor Steve Cochran, although our initial meeting was less than promising. I played a junkie in I Mobster (1959), and Steve was the leading man. I had one brief scene with him where he delivers some drugs to me at my apartment and I try to seduce him. I’m sure everyone knows how good-looking and wild Steve Cochran was (and how charming he was with the ladies), but on the set, he was very cold to me. Real aloof, and not at all friendly. However, I didn’t take it personally, I just accepted it for what it was and figured he had his reasons. So it kind of surprised me one evening after we finished the shoot when, out of the blue, he invited me up to his house on Mulholland Drive, for dinner. I was very curious about this change of attitude in him so I went up there and we wound up having a wonderful meal together. I guess you could say he fooled me!
“That night, Steve had two female servants waiting on us hand and foot and I remember thinking, ‘What nice little old ladies.’ Later on, I found out that these two wrinkled, old women were actually only fourteen years old! Someone told me that they looked so weathered because they would stay up all night, drinking and partying with Steve! Whew. I won’t comment on that! I began seeing Steve after our dinner date that evening and ours was an exciting, if relatively brief romance. He had his pilot’s license and we flew up the California coast a lot in his private plane. Steve was a very handsome and sweet man. I remember him helping me when I was trying to get the role of the trashy, pregnant character in This Earth Is Mine (1959) He very patiently did line readings with me and helped me prepare, but I wound up losing the job anyway. It wasn’t his fault; I never do my best work at auditions. I’m at my best when I already have the part and can just throw myself into it. So, I suppose I wasn’t in the proper mind set for that role. Besides, Rock Hudson, the star of the picture, wound up pulling some strings and got his friend Cindy Robbins the part. That was a real bummer. I felt I could’ve done some really good work in that film, and it broke my heart to lose the opportunity. I think it would have built on what I had already done in the business and would have kicked the heat up a little on my film career. As it turned out, though, it didn’t do too much for Cindy Robbins. I don’t know why.
“Anyway, Steve and I split up after a while, but we remained friends. I know his drinking habits increased over the years, which is a shame. I last saw him just a short time before his death (in ’65). We bumped into each other at a marina and he was very excited about his boat. It looked like an old pirate’s ship and Steve went on and on about it. It was clear to me that he had been drinking heavily that day. Well, just a few weeks later, Steve died of a sudden heart attack on that boat while he was out at sea with a group of young girls. It was horrible. The girls had to float around out there for several days, with Steve’s body. When I heard that story, it bothered me a lot. Steve Cochran was a sweet, funny, lovable rogue, and he was gorgeous, too. But, my God, he drank way too much! So sad.”
Republic released Juvenile Jungle (1958) starring Corey Allen in March. Vickers’ role was small. Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), directed by Nathan Hertz/Juran, was released by Allied Ailisls in May. “I was offered the part of the ‘honky-tonk harlot’ in 50 Foot Woman. the same time I was up for a really good role in a Lana Turner Film at Universal (IMITATION OF LIFE). My agent. Jack Pomeroy, told me to take the part of Honey and worry about the other job later.
A robust if sometimes unintentionally hilarious marriage of space-age paranoia and pre-feminist revenge, the film’s cornerstone is a disaster-bound love triangle involving a warring married couple (Allison Hayes and William Hudson) and the husband’s sluttish, roadhouse paramour (Yvette). Whether shaking her hips to a hot, R&B sax blaring from the bar’s jukebox, or undressing behind a wardrobe screen in her tawdry bedroom,
Vickers is tough and sexy — and makes the most of every frame she is in. Throw a flying saucer, a bald male giant in a Nordic breastplate and some cheesy special effects into the mix, and you have the stuff that cult classics are made of! The irresistible combination of alluring female pulchritude, the stars colorful histrionics and a fun script that featured a transparent Hayes prowling the California desert in a jumbo-size bikini, has endeared the Film to countless fans over the years.
Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958) A television announcer reports sightings of a red fireball around the world. Facetiously, he calculates its path will take it to California. Nancy Archer (Allison Hayes), a wealthy but highly troubled woman with a history of emotional instability and immoderate drinking, is driving on a road that night in an American desert. A glowing sphere settles on the deserted highway in front of her, causing her to veer off the road. When she gets out to investigate the object, a huge creature exits and reaches for her (the viewer sees only an enormous hand falling upon the screaming woman).
Nancy escapes and runs back to town, but nobody believes her story due to her known drinking problem and a recent stay in a mental institution. Her philandering husband, Harry Archer (William Hudson), is more interested in his latest girlfriend, town floozy Honey Parker (Yvette Vickers). He pretends to be the good husband in the hope that Nancy will “snap” and return to the “booby hatch”, leaving him in control of her 50-million-dollar estate.
Nancy bargains with Harry, asking him to search the desert with her for the “flying satellite”, agreeing to a voluntary return to the sanatorium if they find nothing. As night falls, they find the spacecraft and the alien creature emerges, now as an enormous male humanoid. Harry fires his pistol at the giant, but the gunfire has no effect. Harry flees, leaving Nancy behind.
She is later discovered on the roof of her pool house in a delirious state and must be sedated by her family physician, Dr. Cushing (Roy Gordon). The doctor comments on scratches he finds on Nancy’s neck, and theorizes that she was exposed to radiation. Egged on by his mistress Honey, Harry plans to inject Nancy with a lethal dose of her sedative, but when he sneaks up to her room, he discovers that she has grown to giant size (in a scene paralleling Nancy’s first alien encounter, only an enormous hand is seen as Harry reacts in horror).
Cushing and Dr. Von Loeb, a specialist brought in by Cushing, are at a loss on how to treat their giant patient. They keep her in a morphine-induced coma and restrain her with chains while waiting for the authorities to arrive. The sheriff and Jess (Ken Terrell), Nancy’s faithful butler, track enormous footprints leading away from the estate to the alien sphere. Inside the sphere, they find Nancy’s diamond necklace (containing the largest diamond in the world) and other large diamonds, each in a clear orb. They speculate that the jewels are being used as a power source for the alien ship. The huge alien reappears, and the sheriff and Jess flee.
Meanwhile, Nancy awakens and breaks free of her restraints. She tears off her mansion’s roof and, clothed in a bikini-like arrangement of bed linens, heads to town to avenge herself on her unfaithful husband. Ripping the roof off the local bar, she spots Honey and drops a ceiling beam on her rival, killing her. Harry panics, grabs Deputy Charlie’s pistol, and begins shooting, but she picks up Harry and walks away, the gunshots have no apparent effect on her. The sheriff fires a shotgun at her, which causes a nearby power line transformer to blow up, killing Nancy. The doctors find Harry lying dead in her hand.
“People just can’t seem to get enough of that picture! If only we had known we were creating something so lasting when we Filmed it! I loved working with Allison and Bill. They were kind and wonderful people, God bless them. Very professional and serious about doing good work. We did 99% of our scenes in one take. Since the picture was shot in just eight days, there was no time for fooling around! The special effects might have been lousy, but I think the acting holds up pretty well. I thought Allison, in particular, was very good. She played that part so believably and so straight.” The Saga of Hemp Brown (1958), a Universal Rory Calhoun western, was released in August.
Yvette was Playboy’s 5’3″ 35-22-35 blonde “Beat” Playmate of the Month in July 1959. The subtly provocative photos, were photographed by Russ Meyer in Malibu and around Hollywood. The centerfold was considered pretty hot at the time. Yvette lies face down on a bright orange couch while changing a jazz LP on a portable record player on the floor. She has a blue shirt on but no pants. Her legs are spread and she has been drinking wine. Her smile is almost a sneer. She later said that Meyer told her to make a face like Elvis. “The whole objective behind it was to stir up some interest and help me get better parts in Films. It wasn’t necessarily an unusual thing to do at the time. Several other young actresses posed nude for Playboy in the 50s with the same intent. Marilyn (Monroe) had her centerfold out a couple of years earlier and the rest of us were hoping ours would get the same kind of reaction her spread had received! In retrospect, it didn’t help my film career that much, I know, but I still don’t regret doing it. The layout was understated and tasteful and a fun experience for me. Russ Meyer is a great guy and he was a complete professional. He later took some gorgeous photos of me in a kind of rustic setting up in the Malibu mountains that are just incredible! Russ is a genius with women!” Note: Monroe’s famous nude photo in the first Playboy issue in ’53 had been taken earlier for a calendar. Early actress Playmates included Jayne Mansfield (55),
Sally Todd (57), Mara Corday (58), and Stella Stevens (60). ’59 was also the year of Meyer’s The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959), the nudie hit that launched his directing career. He later asked Vickers to be in several of his movies but she declined the offers.
Yvette had married a writer (Leonard Burns) but they were quickly divorced after the Playboy issue hit the stands. “My subsequent two marriages were much more problematic and I’d rather not discuss them. All I can say is, thank God for my work as it has really seen me through the tough limes! I was very driven in those days, very self-confident, and that gave me the impetus I needed to get out of those unpleasant situations quickly. Focusing on your work is often the best thing to do when your personal life goes awry. And, in my case, it was an absolute lifesaver!”
By the time Vickers appeared in Playboy in 1959, she had remarried and quickly separated. Vickers would later tell a judge that her husband, Leonard Burns, “ended all our arguments with the statement, ‘You are not worthy of me.’ ” As the 1950s ended she landed on Broadway in The Gang’s All Here, a Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee drama about a doomed Warren Harding-esque president. Vickers appeared prominently in caricaturist Al Hirschfeld’s New York Times illustration for the show, though her part was small. She played Laverne, a Roaring Twenties flapper/escort, who’s described as “giggling” before she enters the stage. Indeed, A.C. Lyles remembers Vickers the same way off the stage. “She was very sweet,” he says. “She giggled a lot.” Maybe that was it—she was typecast as a giggling tart and wasn’t taken seriously for A-list movies. There must have come a moment when she wondered if there was anything she could have done to make it in the entertainment industry. What, after all, determines who snatches the brass ring of recognition, or even notoriety?
“If I could answer that, I would be the richest man in Hollywood,” says Lyles. “We kept in touch for some time afterward. Once she called me and said she’d gotten an apartment on Sunset Boulevard near Columbia Pictures. She said, ‘I would only have to walk five minutes to get to work if I got cast in something.’ I lost touch with her because she seemed to disappear. It happens a lot in our business.”
It was during this heady period in Yvette’s life that she entered into her next serious relationship, this time with one of Hollywood’s most elegant stars, the classy and debonair Cary Grant. “I met him in 1959 through my friend Stanley Shapiro, who was a screenwriter we both knew, and I was immediately blown away by the man’s character. What a kind man Cary was. Absolutely no ego, just totally sweet and down-to-earth, and so funny! He not only had the best sense of humor, he also made you feel like you were the most important person in the world. I was young and spirited and I think Cary was kind of fascinated with me! I really enjoyed our relationship and if I had played my cards right, maybe we would have even married. But when we began seeing each other, I was still very gun-shy. I had already gone through two failed marriages and I certainly didn’t want to take the chance of having another one, especially with such a nice man as Cary Grant! It wasn’t just me, though. At the time, Cary said he didn’t want to get married, either. So we dated off and on, right into the 60s, and it was wonderful. And then one day when he did start talking about marriage, I began to panic a little until he explained that he had decided he wanted to marry Dyan Cannon! So, there you go. We roared over that one! Cary felt bad about it at first, but I told him it was perfectly okay because I still wasn’t ready to get married! We sure had a lot of fun together. He took me out to dinner a lot, either to Madame Wu’s or The Luau in Beverly Hills. Cary was class personified, a gentleman through and through, and I still miss him. We were friends right up until he passed away and I’ll always remember him with the most utmost respect.”
Following her splash as Hollywood’s Beat Playmate, Yvette headed to NYC in the fall of ’59 to co-star in the Broadway show The Gang’s All Here. The actress was hired to emote as a fun-loving flapper amidst an otherwise all-male cast of industry veterans (including Melvyn Douglas as a President based on Warren Harding, and E. G. Marshall). “The fact that I was a Playboy centerfold was not lost to the play’s writers, director and producers. In fact, they loved all the publicity I was getting. So I would say that my doing the play was good for me and good for the play’s business, too. We had a nice, healthy run of about a year which may not sound like a long time, but I think we all accomplished what we set out to do. While I was in the show, I got into that whole New York social scene and when I wasn’t on stage working hard, I was out having fun. Every day, a group of us would hit Joe Allen’s or Elaine’s Restaurant or Michael’s Pub and we’d have the best time! I loved everything that New York City offered in that period, and I took in all of it, from the museums and the nightclubs to the beatnik bars in the Village. I was very young and while I was totally dedicated to my acting career and loved working hard, I really enjoyed my off-time, too.
“My co-stars in The Gang’s All Here were all veterans of the stage and I was in awe of their talent. Melvyn Douglas was a dignified man in his late 50s and he kept me enthralled with his stories of all the people he knew back in Hollywood, including my idol, Greta Garbo. One night, Melvyn took me out for dinner and told me he wanted to get to know me better, but I nipped it right in the bud and he behaved just fine after that! I was flattered, but the interest has to be mutual. Still, he was quite a wonderful man. And what a brilliant actor!
“I met actor Ralph Meeker, the next man I was seriously involved with, while I was doing the show. He was a very roman- tic guy and he took me to some of the most exclusive French and Italian restaurants in town. We hit it off right away and wound up having a love affair that lasted for five years. Ralph was a real straight-shooter and he always encouraged my career aspirations. He was constantly telling me, ‘Don’t let anyone try to hold you back, Yvette. You go for it!’ We did everything together. We played a lot of tennis, worked out at the gym and took massages, and even after the romantic-side of our relationship cooled down, we always stayed friends. Ralph and I were together both in Manhattan and on the west coast.”
“One thing that I do think is important to mention, and that I would like to make clear, is that when I had a physical relationship with someone, it was absolutely exclusive. I might have dated other guys but the personal stuff was confined to one guy only. You know, it’s funny, but because of the characters in 50 FOOT WOMAN and The Giant Leeches, plus all the other bad girls I’ve played, a lot of people just surmised I was a husband-stealing tramp and a cheap little hussy in real life! I promise you,
I wasn’t, and I’m not! I’ve always loved to flirt, that’s true, and I think that healthy, innocent flirting is very normal and can be a lot of fun. But, I’ve never been the type of man eating barracuda that Honey and Liz were. I just think it’s important that people know the real me.”
Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959) was released in Oct., ’59 and found Yvette once again enacting the role of the naughty tramp, this time, as a cheating wife in an isolated swamp village that’s been targeted by the titular creatures in question. “Leeches was another eight-day shoot. Again, we were restricted a lot by the budget, as you can tell when you see the stuntmen writhing around in those plastic garbage bags! (laughs) And yet, a lot of it works. I thought the scenes where the leeches have a bunch of us stored in the underwater grotto, where they’re slowly sucking out all our blood, were very frightening! It was also kind of haunting the way it took me so long to die! At first I didn’t understand all that prolonged moaning and groaning I did, but now I think it really added to the overall creepy feeling of the film. The down-and-dirty, white trash ambiance really worked, too. The characters were interesting and believable and parts of the film almost resembled a Tennessee Williams play! I loved the character of Liz, and I appreciated the fact that they took time to explain her history a little bit. She was married to this heavyset, middle-aged shopkeeper (Bruno Ve Sota) which, on the surface, doesn’t make much sense, but then that two-shot by the water with (co-star) Michael Emmett reveals the events that had brought them together. That one little scene really strengthened it. Roger and Gene Corman produced The Giant Leeches and they were adorable. They both have such an appreciation of actors, such respect. It makes a big difference.” The Giant Leeches co-starred Jan Shepard
Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959) In the Florida Everglades, a pair of larger-than-human, intelligent leeches live in an underwater cave. They begin dragging locals down to their cave, where they slowly feed on them, draining their victims of blood. Two of the first victims of the leeches are local vixen Liz Walker (Vickers), who has been cheating on her husband (Bruno VeSota), and Liz’s latest paramour. Game warden Steve Benton (Clark) sets out to investigate their disappearance. Aided by his girlfriend, Nan Grayson (Sheppard), and her father, Doc Grayson, Benton discovers the leeches’ underwater cavern. The creatures are destroyed when Steve, Doc and several state troopers blow up their underwater cavern using dynamite.
Although she received reams of favorable press during her stage stint in New York, upon her return to Hollywood in the early 60s, Yvette met with some resistance from the industry when she attempted to follow up on her Broadway success with more film roles. “I tried very hard to get some strong Film roles in those years, but it just wasn’t happening. The thing is, from about 1955 to the early 60s, I guest-starred on well over 100 television shows so although my film resume may not be as extensive as I would have liked, I did work a lot more than many people realize. In the late 50s I did a lot of bad- girl roles on shows like DRAGNET, MIKE HAMMER and M-SQUAD, and then right into the 60s I guest-starred on a ton of TV westerns. I did two or three episodes of each of these shows. The producers would always call me back, which made me happy. And although a lot of those parts were different variations of the cheap, tough-talking vamp, there were some nice exceptions. For instance, on one of THE REBEL episodes that I did, I played a sweet and sympathetic character who worked with a deaf child. I learned sign language for the show and was quite happy with the way it turned out.
“I had a great time on The Texan (TV series)”, which starred Rory Calhoun. We had worked together a few years in The Saga of Hemp Brown (1958), and we got along wonderfully! Rory was an absolute doll and he had a great sense of humor. In fact, on the set of THE TEXAN, he and the show’s producer, Vic Orsatti, busted my chops unmercifully! I remember one time, I was in my trailer getting dressed and they snuck up to the window and scratched and giggled and pretended they were peeking in. Now, of course, they couldn’t see anything, but they sure as heck wanted me to know they were back there! Rory was happily married, so it was definitely all in good fun. I thought the way he liked to tease me was adorable. Totally harmless fun.”
“I sometimes refer to that period of time, 1956 to 1963, as my Hot Property Years. I worked non-stop during that stretch, doing a lot of television (especially), plus my stage work, some modeling, and of course the two cult movies and the other film work I did. Along with all of that, I was also taking three ballet classes a week, studying acting in various workshops and having a ball in my personal life. So, it really was a jam-packed couple of years, but I loved it!” I had a small part in a Sidney Poitier/Bobby Darin movie, Pressure Point (1962). I played a drunk.” U.A. released the serious Stanley Kramer production. “Then I did a silent bit as a Yoga girl in AlP’s Beach Party (1963). I was duped on that one. I had originally been signed to do a ‘celebrity cameo’ in the film, and I thought, ‘Why not?’ The producers told me it would be a lark to see me in leotards, doing a silent meditation. I would get special billing and it would be a great gag. Well, the gag turned out to be on me because in the end, they stuck me in the background with another girl and took away my ‘special billing.’
Yvette felt a renewed surge of hope for her movie career when she was offered a good part in Martin Ritt’s Hud (1963) from Paramount starring Paul Newman. “I thought, ‘This is it! This is exactly the kind of film I need to put me over.’ I played Lily Peters, an unfaithful wife who is running around with Hud Bannon (Newman), a nasty, no-good womanizer who treats everyone like dirt. I originally had four, dynamite scenes in the picture, but then some very innocent flirting on the set between Paul and me apparently caused some waves somewhere and the powers-that-be responded by cutting my part down to nothing. Paul and I had been photographed goofing around on location in Texas and it upset some people who thought our onscreen interaction might come across as too intense. (Obviously, a ridiculous excuse!) In the end, I was left with just one tiny scene in the beginning of the film. I was crushed.
“But it got even worse. Right after that happened, one of my ex-boyfriends got into a terrible screaming match with my agent, a man named Abby Greschler, causing Abby to have a near-fatal heart attack! The story spread through town like wildfire. The coup de grace, though, was when someone began planting vicious rumors all around Hollywood that I was selling myself on the street, picking up sailors, and such. It was horrible, an outrageous lie! The damage that was done from those last two events, especially, was incalculable. Most of the interviews I went on after HUD were only for bit parts, instead of starring roles. So, just like that, my film career kind of dried up. It was tough on my heart, it really was. I went back to working in the theater, and although I had several great stage roles over the years, I never managed to pick up the pace and get back on the same track that I was on before.
“One such job was Grand Guignol, which was the umbrella title of two very scary one-act plays I did at The New Club in Hollywood. It was a very innovative production, based in part on the shock theaters that were so popular at the time in Paris. The show was quite a grisly affair and people came out in droves to see it! In the first play, I was a Hollywood reporter being chased around by a mad scientist and a gorilla, and in the second one, I played a nagging, trailer-trash-type wife who ends up being murdered by her husband. He cuts off my head and puts it in a potbelly stove. My co-stars in the show were Tom Troupe and Charles MacCauley, two really good actors. The production values were very strong and the director, Jim Collier, was just great. We opened in early ’63 and it ran for almost a year. I remember it closed right after President Kennedy was shot. Somehow the money for the show had disappeared and I don’t know if it’s ever been found!
“I’ve acted in over 25 stage shows and Frenzy and Phoenix Too Frequent were especially interesting. I also produced Frenzy, which was an adaptation of an Ingmar Bergman Film and translated by Peter Ustinov. It was about a college student named Bertha (my character) who is having an affair with one of her professors until she meets a concert violinist whom she also falls in love with. Everything explodes, of course, and I wind up get- ting killed in the end. It was a dark piece of work, very powerful. Phoenix Too Frequent took place in ancient Rome and I was in full regalia as a woman of royalty. My husband has just died and I’m down in the catacombs with my handmaiden and a guard. Well, the guard and my character get drunk on wine and proceed to have an affair right there in the tomb! I got totally lost in that role. I remember going on stage and immediately going into this deep, dreamlike state. It was a breathtaking experience! Both plays were extremely well-received and I got some of the best reviews of my career.’’
Yvette’s stage success during this time helped ease whatever frustration she felt over her stalled screen career and her personal outlook was further enhanced when she met the man she refers to as ‘the love of my life,’ Film and TV actor Jim Hutton in ’64. It was a highly-charged, soul-baring alliance that at various times bounced, rocked and sputtered along until Hutton’s death in June ’79. “Jimmy and I were caught up in a kind of wild and wonderful whirlwind that’s almost impossible to describe now. We were friends, lovers, soul mates, everything but married! He and I often talked about marrying, but it never happened. We were together, off and on, for fifteen years. He was the stereotypical, Irish-Catholic male, hard drinking, chauvinistic, funny as hell, but underneath it all, he had the insecurities of a child. We clicked on an emotional level that was deeper than anything I’ve ever experienced. Jim and I took off for Malibu and were happy to spend all our time together. We walked along the ocean and had these really deep conversations that would last for hours. He was a highly intelligent, fascinating man. My acting career suffered in the late 60s and all through the 70s partially because no one could find me! I guess I didn’t want them to. I was in Malibu, laughing and loving with Jimmy, and it was all worth it.’’
Early on in their relationship, the couple courted a potentially prickly situation when Hutton was signed to do the motion picture comedy Walk Don’t Run (1966) alongside Yvette’s former flame Cary Grant (in his last role). “I thought to myself, ‘Hmm…, this could be a bit dicey,’’’ Yvette recalls, with a hearty laugh. “I thought maybe they would get together and compare notes, but it wasn’t like that at all. Cary was too much of a gentleman to bring it up, besides he had married Dyan Cannon by then. He and Jimmy got along fine.’’
Hutton had divorced not long after his actor son Timothy was born in 1960. In ’69 Vicker married Tom Howland but the marriage was quickly annulled. Curtis Harrington later hired Vickers for his What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971) from U.A., and the NBC TV movie The Dead Don’t Die (1975). Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters starred in WHAT’S THE MATTER…, and Yvette had a small role. “At the wrap party we were standing at the food table and I had started to say some- thing to Shelley when she suddenly looked me up and down and then turned and walked away while I was still talking to her! I thought that was very strange and it didn’t make sense to me, but I didn’t pursue it because I don’t believe in bothering someone if they’re not receptive. (It made much more sense to me later on when I learned that Shelley had once been in love with Ralph Meeker and he apparently hadn’t returned the sentiment. I Figured that she must have known about my prior relationship with Ralph and I guess she held it against me!)
It was during her years with Hutton that Yvette took a few steps back from her acting career and turned to working in real estate sales and investments, a professional move that proved extremely lucrative for her. “Although I was still getting stage work and some sporadic jobs in television, I felt I needed a lot more Financial stability in my life, so I switched gears and went down a whole new road. I was lucky in that I had some fine mentors in the real estate business who showed me the ropes and really helped me along. With their guidance, I learned very quickly that investing in real estate is where the big money is. For instance, you might make two to three thousand dollars on a sale, but if you invest in a property and it sells, you can make one hundred to two hundred thousand dollars. In the 70s and 80s it was important to me to start building a nest egg for the future, so I really focused on the business and worked my butt off. I wound up doing pretty well for myself, too.’’
In ’79, Yvette and Jim Hutton’s rather erratic union was newly challenged by the tragic news that he had terminal lung cancer. “What made it even worse is that he found out about it during one of the times we had drifted apart. He called me from the hospital. Jimmy was talking about us being together again in Malibu, walking on the beach at dusk and watching the sun go down into the ocean. He was later released and we did get to do it, but then Jimmy’s health took a turn for the worse and he had to go back in the hospital. He died there on June 2.’’ Speaking of their many valiant attempts to ‘get it right.’ Yvette says, “The love was there but it just wasn’t the right combination for a lasting commitment. Jimmy died at 45 and I think in his case he was still too immature, and not ready. But maybe I wasn’t, either. That goes both ways, doesn’t it?”
With a personality totally devoid of pretense, it is easy to see why Yvette got along well with the vast majority of her co-workers. Nevertheless, there have been a few minor conflicts through the years and, as Yvette is quick to admit, “They were always with other women! Gene Corman signed me for a good role in a Kris Kristofferson, Jan Michael Vincent drive-in picture called Vigilante Force (1976) It was a very violent film and I was cast as a madam in a small town bar. The character was a real brassy babe with a whole stable of teenage hookers! They put me in this huge blonde Afro and some tight-fitting clothes and I was very excited and ready to do a good job! I had several powerful scenes in the script but soon after I arrived on the set up in Calabasas, my role suddenly began to shrink and eventually all I was left with was a bit part and no billing. It was explained to me that Bernadette Peters, who had the second female lead, behind Victoria Principal thought I ‘looked too good’ (her words) and she told Gene that it just wasn’t ‘going to work.’ As a result, my role was almost completely excised from the picture. That was tough for me, it really was. I hadn’t done a thing except show up to go to work! It was very upsetting, and I thought, a very cruel thing to do.
“I originally had been signed to work on the film for six weeks and although they honored my contract and paid me for the entire time, I wound up only working a couple of days. But, you can imagine how I felt up there, on location, knowing what had gone down. It was embarrassing! I remember Kris Kristofferson was very kind to me. He didn’t get involved in it, per se, but he made a few very sweet comments to me to let me know he felt bad about what had happened. In the end, the film turned out to be a tremendous turkey, just terrible. The whole experience was a real fiasco.
“The only other time things didn’t quite mesh with a female co-worker was when I worked with Karen Black in Evil Spirits (1990). It was my first movie in fifteen years and I was excited about working in films again after all that time. I was given the part of a nosy, meddling neighbor of Karen Black’s. Her character, Edna Purdy, runs a rooming house and is systematically killing off her tenants for their Social Security checks. The premise sounds good, but the film didn’t turn out well. It was a real mish- mash. My character meets a gruesome end when I sneak down into the basement of the rooming house and get devoured by a cannibal wearing a dog collar! Wow, talk about bizarre!
“I originally had a few really good scenes in the picture, but for some reason, Karen apparently had some issues with me. She didn’t want me to wear any makeup in the film’s party scene. I have no idea why! She never explained it further, and since I couldn’t see any reason why my character wouldn’t wear makeup, I wound up wearing it anyway! I think that made her angry. Then, after we shot that particular scene, Karen told me that I had talked much too loud in it! (I had to, in order for my lines to be heard. It was a party scene!) Karen and I had lunch together a few times, in a group, and I wouldn’t say she was especially friendly to me. But that’s okay.
“I don’t know why these things happened. All I can say is I’ve learned a lot through the years and I will now only respond to (and hang out with) people who are kind and accessible. I can’t second-guess these individuals attitudes or their motives.
I just accept things for what they are, and I move on. I would have liked to have had a better working relationship with these women (and more women friends through the years, for that matter), but it just wasn’t meant to be. I don’t like cruelty of any kind and I certainly don’t want any trouble with anyone. I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but it’s true, life’s too short!”
In the late ’80s, Yvette decided to pursue another adjunct career, this time exercising her creative self through her lifelong love of music. She entered a Hollywood recording studio with a small core of jazz musicians to cut an album of sultry pop and blues-flavored ballads, and the end result was a cassette her fans embraced. “We cut that album very quickly and I distributed it myself. I moved cautiously at first because I wanted to make sure I still had an audience! Well, I was amazed and very pleasantly surprised by the response the cassette received. A lot of my fans told me they loved it! The positive feedback I got really warmed my heart and gave me the confidence I needed to move forward with my re-entry.”
No sooner did Yvette’s comeback as a jazz chanteuse commence when it was placed on a rather lengthy hold by far more crucial matters. “I was working on my second album in the early 90s, when my mother became ill. She was my lifelong inspiration and my most loving ally so I immediately put the brakes on my music so I could take care of her. My father’s illness followed in ’93 and the next couple of years found everything else in my life grinding to a halt because they both really needed me.” While Charles and Maria Vedder would eventually succumb to their illnesses, Yvette’s devotion to the two people she calls ‘the kindest and most wonderful parents in the world’ is a true hallmark of her fine character. She dedicated A Tribute To Charles And Maria, her year 2000 CD of nine jazz tunes penned by her parents, to their memory, and says that her upcoming recording project will continue to reflect her reverence for the style of music they both loved so much.
“I’m truly at a very happy place now in my life. I feel great and my writing and recording projects are keeping my creative juices flowing. With a lot of enthusiasm and positive energy. I’m looking ahead. As for the past, I would say I worked very hard at my acting career and I also enjoyed my life to the hilt. I lived it up at times, yes, but I always tried to do everything with a touch of class. With that in mind, I think I’ve come up with a really good title for my autobiography… Yvette Vickers: A Lusty Wench With Dignity! That kind of sums it all up, doesn’t it? Thus far, it’s been a pretty terrific ride, and I am very grateful!” ..
Just when she seemed dead to the public, however, Vickers underwent a curious resurrection—the era of the fan convention had arrived. All those boys who’d watched her on TV in the 1960s had grown up. They brought with them revisionist views of low-budget films and anointed nearly every movie that had been part of a drive-in bill a “cult classic.” Like “horror queens” Ingrid Pitt and Barbara Steele, Yvette Vickers became part of a circuit of lowbrow film festivals, panel discussions, and autograph signings—not only for horror fans but for western movie buffs and B-film aficionados. “These places pay all your expenses, meals, and maybe throw in a few dollars,” Weaver says. “You can make some money autographing pictures for $20 apiece.” Suddenly Vickers was everywhere—an amiable, chatty matron signing autographs at a memorabilia convention near San Francisco, reminiscing at the Memphis Film Festival, or joining Nancy Olson and film critic Richard Schickel in a discussion about Sunset Boulevard at Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre.
“It was basically her livelihood toward the end of her life,” says Albuquerque-based Boyd Magers, who organizes events dedicated to western films. Magers and Weaver got to know Vickers well—the bubbly personality, her insistence on traveling long distances by train rather than plane, and her refusal to let anyone visit her on Westwanda. Instead she’d arrange to meet people at a Hamburger Hamlet. Then, about ten years ago, both men began to get glimpses of a crumbling mental state. Weaver started receiving long, boozy calls from Vickers at his home in Sleepy Hollow, New York—bitter tirades against people whom she imagined had slighted her over the years.
“As the paranoia started to creep in,” he says, “her phone calls became rambling diatribes where she did most of the talking in a slurred speech. ‘So-and-so had rubbed me the wrong way, looked at me the wrong way. There are people in this town who are out to get me.’ She said she’d gone to a western film festival and someone had slipped her a date rape drug. She would change her phone number and complain about suspicious cars parked on her street.”
“I came home one day about two and a half years ago,” Prell recalls. “My wife was holding the phone and just said, ‘It’s Yvette.’ I took the phone, and Yvette said she was in Canada and couldn’t get home because she’d lost her identification.” Vickers had been at a memorabilia convention. Prell said he would send copies of old clippings about her so that she might be able to prove who she was. “You’re the only guy I can talk to who doesn’t want to kill me,” she told him and hung up. It was the nicest thing she had said to him since their divorce. It would also be the last.
One of the few people to befriend Vickers toward the end was actress Carol Lynley, who’d risen as a Hollywood starlet in the late 1950s and, like Vickers, appeared in Playboy. Lynley had never heard of Vickers when they met in 2007 at a movie memorabilia show. “She was jolly and fun to be around,” Lynley says. The two would sometimes meet up in public places in the prescribed way for actresses who’d come of professional age during the studio system’s dying days. “I’d get invited to a fashion show and take a girlfriend,” Lynley explains. “It was a girly thing, with lunch in a fancy restaurant in Beverly Hills, and you wouldn’t be called a dyke.”
But Vickers began to distance herself from Lynley as her anxieties started to close in on her. “I called, and I tried to get her to go out to dinner, but she told me she was a recluse. She just wanted to talk about growing up in Malibu and how wonderful it was,” Lynley says. Then Vickers stopped answering the phone altogether. When the news came out about the mummy on Westwanda Drive, Lynley understood why.
The days that followed the discovery of Vickers’s body were busy ones for Susan Savage, who began piecing together a mosaic of her dead neighbor’s last months. Upon gathering the old woman’s unpaid bills, Savage saw that she had stopped making phone calls by September 2010, which suggested that Vickers had died in August—eight months before the body was found. As Savage pored over the statements, she came to a disquieting realization: All of the calls Vickers had made were to far-flung admirers who only knew her from fan conventions or Internet sites. In fact, Savage says, Vickers’s final trip, taken in April, was to visit a fan couple in New Jersey. Vickers never lifted the stop-delivery request she’d filed with the post office before making that trip. It was only through a substitute letter carrier’s oversight that mail began going to the cottage again some months later. Tuesday, the day before entering Vickers’s home, Savage had noticed the mailbox was half filled with yellowing envelopes but didn’t think much about it; Vickers was eccentric. And anyway, Savage had seen lights on in Vickers’s place (utility companies don’t always shut off the power on delinquent accounts) and could hear her phone ringing from time to time, as she had that very day (phone companies leave a “warm dial tone” on unpaid landlines to allow 911 access). It was when she spotted cobwebs in the mailbox the following morning that she grew alarmed.
Westwanda Drive is the kind of tight, shaded road where drivers instinctively inhale when two cars pass each other. Musicians, senior UCLA faculty, and movie people live in hillside houses that seem in danger of being engulfed by the ivy and bougainvillea that creep up the vertiginous landscape. Since buying her home from Godfather II producer Fred Roos in the early ’90s, Savage had become the unofficial mayor of Westwanda. Trim and middle aged, with sand-colored hair, she sells specialty desserts to bakeries and runs a theater company, but Savage’s main focus is acting; she’d just booked a commercial that day. Savage had heard all the stories about her colorful neighbor, who’d appeared in Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman: Vickers walking up the street in her nightgown, martini in hand; Vickers striking up romantic liaisons with some of Westwanda’s men; Vickers’s home as a favorite destination for trick-or-treaters on Halloween. “I’ve got a lot of sugar daddies in the desert,” she’d tell Savage. As she became more withered and eccentric, Vickers began complaining to neighbors and friends that she was being stalked. But stalkers—at Vickers’s age and with her level of obscurity? People were skeptical.
Savage had tried persuading a resident nearby to come with her to Vickers’s, but the man wasn’t interested. Even though Vickers’s phone was still in service and there were no suspicious smells coming from her home, Savage had a hunch something was wrong. The small, reddish-brown two-story house had fallen into disrepair and surrounded by overgrown vegetation. A fruit picker held up part of the house’s framing. A door had a panel broken, mended with duct tape. Rusty shade umbrellas hung out on the tiny upstairs balcony. The shingles on the home’s roof were pulling apart. So she’d climbed the steep steps to the 676-square-foot cottage alone, past the neglected letter box and the new phone books that sat next to it, to the downstairs door, which was behind steel fencing. Mold-covered fan mail was scattered on the ground. By now Savage had begun to expect the worst. She eventually pushed in a loose window in the door that had been held in place with duct tape and peered inside. There on the floor lay a shock of blond hair. “I jumped like a cat,” she says, pantomiming the action in her living room. Once she realized the hair was only a wig, Savage reached down, undid two inside locks, and lifted up the two-by-four that stretched across the door. Then she was in.
The downstairs resembled something from an H.P. Lovecraft story: huge Rorschach patterns stained the walls and long ivy vines snaked through a house whose missing patches of wall were concealed with blue tarpaulin. The place was a hoarder’s lair, crammed with trash and empty bottles of Harveys Bristol Cream, along with jugs of Woodbridge chardonnay. Covered in cobwebs, her shin bleeding from a rebar cut, Savage called out her neighbor’s name—“Yvette! Yvette?”—but knew there wouldn’t be a reply. A staircase leading upstairs was closed off by a locked door and braced on the other side by boxes and debris. Savage discovered a tarped-over gap in the drywall and crawled through. When she emerged at the top of the stairs, the burst of hot air hit her. It was coming from a heater that whirred in the next room, a disheveled space where Vickers had set up a hot plate and a refrigerator. Savage batted away crumpled papers that were close to the heater before turning it off. Looking down, she noticed a phone receiver off the hook and, nearby, clothes that lay along the floor in front of a daybed. She bent down to inspect the pile. At one end of some leathery substance was a spray of black spores; at the other, sprouting from a mass of what looked like red jerky, were tufts of scraggly hair. The true meaning of the pile came into sickening focus, and Savage ran from the house screaming—the hair did not belong to a wig.
The police and coroner’s staff who soon arrived found Vickers’s body in a state of “severe advanced decomposition/mummification,” as the medical examiner’s report noted. At first the deputy medical examiner could only guess Vickers’s sex and surmise that she had been dead several months. Though no organs were still present in her desiccated body, calcified tissue in the area where the heart would have been suggested that she had died of cardiovascular disease. The 56 pounds of remains were driven to the county morgue and placed in Crypt 614 to await release to her next of kin. In the months leading to the macabre discovery of Vickers’s body, no calls had been placed to police from concerned relatives or neighbors. Vickers had been raised Catholic and practiced Nichiren Buddhism (a sect somewhat popular in entertainment circles), yet a June memorial service was held at Beverly Hills’ All Saints’ Episcopal Church because it had offered to host the event without charge. As Savage made the arrangements, Vickers’s half-brother, Perry Palmer, arrived to secure her house. Palmer, a retired elementary school principal who lives in the Sierra Gold Country, is two years older than Vickers and says he hadn’t known of her existence until he joined the Navy during World War II. Although the two met several times afterward, they never became close. “She didn’t relate to any family members,” he says.
Savage returned from the church services to find that Vickers’s home had been cleaned out by a junk-hauling crew hired by Palmer. Some belongings were left in the street, including a scrapbook of press clippings and an album of arty black-and-white photographs of a young Vickers on a beach. A framed Hirschfeld caricature of the cast of The Gang’s All Here had been run over by the crew’s truck. By September the Westwanda cottage had been put on the market for $499,000 (a “major fixer upper” said one optimistic ad), and Vickers still had not been laid to rest. “We have her ashes,” Palmer says. “We don’t know what we’ll do with them.”
Psychotronic Video Magazine #39