Virginia Mayo Biography

On November 30th 1920 at 5:30 am Virginia Clara Jones was born in St. Louis Missouri. Her father’s name was Luke Ward Jones. He worked as an advertising salesman for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. Her mother was Martha Henrietta Rautenstrauch Jones. They already had a son, Lee Lake, who was two years older than Virginia.

When she was six years old, Virginia enrolled in a drama school operated by her father’s older sister Alice Wientge which she would attend for the next ten years. During this time she be came the star actress in the plays they performed.

There was never a question in Virginia’s mind from early on that she wanted to be a professional actress saying later that “I was very lucky to fall under my aunt’s teaching and professional guidance because all I ever wanted to do was show business."

Virginia Mayo When she was 12 she performed as an extra with the Stratford-on-Avon British Touring Company where she was paid a dollar a night.

In high school she joined the drama club and took a course in public speaking.

In January 1938, Virginia graduated from St. Louis’ Soldan High School. She then joins a dancing group that performed in floor shows at the Chase Hotel. In the summer of 1938 she got a job dancing with the chorus of the St. Louis Municipal Opera which specializes in outdoor stage musicals.

When the summer ended she took a job as a dancer at the Jefferson Hotel. A month into this job, along with headliner Rudy Vallee, a specialty act called Pansy-the-Horse was booking into the hotel.

Pansy-the-Horse was a comedy act created by Andy Mayo and Nomi Morton. They comprised the front and back ends of a horse called Pansy. Andy’s wife, Florence would sing and dance and interact with the horse asking it to perform tricks. But she was pregnant and they knew they’d soon need a replacement for in the act. So Andy asked Virginia if she’d be interested in joining their act.

Virginia MayoVirginia agreed to take the job. To avoid confusion with booking agents, Virginia was asked to change her last name to “Mayo”.  For the next four and a half years she worked the theatres east of the Mississippi as part of Pansy-the-Horse. In 1940 she had to leave the show to attend her father’s funeral, but was back on the job after a few days. (There’s a 20 minute 1939 film called Gals and Galleon featuring Virginia and Pansy-the-Horse with Andy and Florence Mayo together playing the role of Pansy.)

In 1941, Pansy-the-Horse was hired as an act for Eddie Cantor’s Broadway revue Banjo Eyes.

Initially it was thought that Virginia wouldn’t be needed as Cantor intended to perform her part. But in rehearsals he couldn’t get as many laughs as Virginia so she retained her position when the show opened December 25th, 1941. However Banjo Eyes received poor reviews and closed a few months later April 15th 1942.

Next up, Pansy-the-Horse was hired by showman Billy Rose to perform at his Diamond Horseshoe. Rose also had initially intended to replace Virginia (with a male actor) but he changed his mind after meeting Virginia. He was so enamored wit her he created special dance numbers for her to perform.

Virginia Mayo It was around this time she came to the attention of David O. Selznick who placed her on an optional type of contract with no salary. She appeared briefly in Follies Girls (1943) (her appearance was unrelated to her contract with Selznick).

After seeing Virginia perform at the Diamond Horseshoe and seeing the screen test she made for Selznick, producer Sam Goldwyn signed her (after receiving the “ok” from Selznick) to a 7-year contract starting at $100 a week.

Goldwyn had just hired funny man Danny Kaye and he envisioned Virginia as the ideal actress to star opposite Kaye.

After she signed her deal, Virginia helped her now former partners Mayo and Morton find a replacement for her. At the Goldwyn Studio, she met future actress Linda Christian who agreed to join their group.

Then Goldwyn loaned her out for RKO’s Seven Days Ashore (1944) where she received 6th billing.

Her next film role was as Princess Margaret in The Princess and the Pirate. Virginia notes that the role was her reward from Sam Goldwyn for being “a good girl”. She starred opposite Bob Hope who she enjoyed working with:

“He made me feel very much at ease. I was so frightened of the camera. I would become frozen at having this big thing right on top of me. I couldn’t seem to overcome it: I held back. But working with Bob gave me a feeling of freedom and I was able to relax,” she said.

Virginia Mayo Bosley Crowther called her a “pleasant show in her own right.”

Next up she was cast opposite Danny Kaye in Wonder Woman (1945) which also featured Vera-Ellen. Shortly afterward she said, “Playing the straight woman for comedians is great experience for a girl with ambitions—well, let’s say of a higher nature. …Working with comedians like Kaye and Hope taught me timing, pace, and lots of fine points of acting that I would never have learned otherwise.”

She was cast once again opposite Kaye in The Girl from Brooklyn (1946). Kaye played a milkman turned prize-fighter and Mayo played his understanding girlfriend. (The Girl from Brooklyn was a remake of The Milky Way starring Harold Lloyd and Dorothy Wilson).

Dubbed by Betsy Russell, Virginia sang two songs in the film. Bosley Crowther wrote that Virginia possessed “not unaccelerated charms”.

She soon became the #1 attraction at Twentieth Century-Fox.

Her next film was another Kaye vehicle called The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947).

Around this time Virginia learned that Goldwyn was planning to film Glory for Me a narrative poem by MacKinlay Kantor about soldiers returning from war. She had read Kantor’s book and was eager to play Marie Derry a war bride/party girl who becomes quickly dissatisfied with her husband when he returns from the war. Originally when she asked Goldwyn he said the part was “not for a nice girl like you.”

Undeterred, Virginia had photographs taken of her in a tight-fitting costume and a restyled hairdo and sent them to Goldwyn who forwarded them to William Wyler who agreed to cast her in the role of Marie Derry.

The resulting picture, which Virginia filmed at the same time she was filming The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, was released on November 22nd, 1946. The 172-minute film titled The Best Years of our Lives would go on to become the top grossing film of 1947.  Louella Parsons singled out Virginia’s performance:

“I simply marveled at the brassy effectiveness of (her) work as Dana’s cheap, chorus-girl wife. I never dreamed such a pretty creature could be that dramatic. I never dreamed either that she could act, but I know now that she can,” wrote Parsons.

Out of eight nominations, The Best Years of our Lives took home seven Academy Awards including Best Picture. (Virginia was not nominated for Best Supporting Actress.)

On July 5th, 1947 Virginia married Michael O’Shea (who had finally been able to obtain a divorce from his wife Gloria who he had two grown children with). Virginia was 26. Michael was 41.

They had to deVirginia Mayolay their honeymoon because Virginia was working on A Song is Born (1948) (a remake of 1941’s Ball of Fire which starred Barbara Stanwyck).

Virginia’s next film was Out of the Blue (1947) where she co-starred with Carole Landis and George Brent.

In 1947, a Jonesport Maine group called The Affiliated Jones threatened to boycott Virginia’s pictures if she didn’t change her name back to Jones. Needless to say the threat was ignored.

That same year Virginia won three honors

The Master Hairdresser’s Association of Southern California announced that she had the perfect head of hair.

The Whistling Teachers’ Institute of America voted her the girl most likely to be whistled at.

The Hosiery Designers of America placed her at the top of their list of Hollywood girls with the shapeliest legs.

A Song is Born was released in August of 1948. It would be the last film she would make with Danny Kaye.

Then after five years under contract with Sam Goldwyn she was released from her contract. The only official explanation she was give was the following statement from Goldwyn:

“I’m not going to do any more pictures for the next few years that you will be suitable for.”

Virginia Mayo Her first freelance film was a B-film called Smart Girls Don’t Talk (1948)

Warner Brothers then offered year a 7-year contact. Her first movie under her new contact was the tough-talking crime drama Flaxy Martin (1949) where she played the unsympathetic title character. Next she starred in Colorado Territory a western directed by Raoul Walsh. It was a remake of 1941’s High Sierra which was also directed by Walsh.

She was then featured in The Girls from Jones Beach (1949) which also starred Ronald Reagan, Eddie Bracken and Dona Drake and then loaned to Roy Del Ruth for this film Red Light (1949) which was released through United Artists.

Her career was given another major boost when she was cast as Verna Jarrett the cheap, disloyal wife of mobster Cody Jarrett (played by James Cagney) in White Heat (1949) directed by Raoul Walsh. It proved to be one of her best dramatic roles. Bosley Crowther labeled Virginia’s performance “excellent” and Hedda Hopper said she had been “uncovered as a real actress”.

Her sixth (and last) film of 1949 was Always Leave The Laughing with Milton Berle and Bert Lahr.

Her first film of the 50’s was Backfire with Gordon MaCrae, Edmond O’Brien and Viveca Lindors. She then starred as “the flame” in The Flame and the Arrow which was written by Waldo Salt and featured Burt Lancaster as “the arrow.”

She finally got a change to dance on screen in 1950’s The West Point Story which reunited her with James Cagney.

After starring in 1951’s Along the Great Divide with Kirk Douglas a film Bosley Crowther called Virginia Mayo“routine” and “second rate”, she signed on to Lux Radio Theatre to perform Bright Leaf with Gregory Peck and Ruth Roman.

Her next film was Captain Horatio Hornblower starring Gregory Peck and directed by Raoul Walsh. She then danced up a storm in the musical Painting the Clouds and Sunshine (1951) with Dennis Morgan and Gene Nelson. In 1951’s Starlift she appears as herself along with many other of her fellow Warner Brother stars.

She was given top billing in 1952’s She’s Working Her Way Though College which reunited her with Ronald Reagan and Gene Nelson.

Next up she was a straight dramatic role in The Iron Mistress (1952) with Alan Ladd who played Jim Bowie of the “bowie knife” and Alamo fame. She then starred with Steve Cochran in She’s Back on Broadway (1953) and reteamed with Burt Lancaster for South Sea Woman (1953).

Next she was loaned out to RKO for Devil’s Canyon which was filmed in 3-D and set for the most parts in a prison (in the 1890’s). Photoplay wrote the film contained “some thrills” but “the prison’s alleged toughness is never shown convincingly and Virginia is hampered by over-genteel dialogue.”

During the filming of Devil’s Canyon, Virginia learned she was pregnant. One November 12th 1953 she gave birth to her daughter Mary Catherine O’Shea.

After taking an 11 month break she starred in four less-than-stellar films: King Richard and the Crusaders (1954) The Silver Chalice (1954) (Paul Newman’s first film),and Pearl of the South Pacific (1956) with Dennis Morgan and Congo Crossing (1956).  She also made the generally well-reviewed Jacques Tourneur-directed western Great Day in the Morning (1956) where she co-starred with Robert Stack, Raymond Burr and Ruth Roman and was made for the financially troubled RKO studio.

Then it was off to Twentieth Century Fox for The Proud Ones (1956) with Robert Ryan and back to Warner Brothers for The Big Land (1957) with Alan Ladd.

She also had a part in producer Irwin Allen’s The Story of Mankind a jumbled mess of a movie that featured some offbeat casting: Groucho Marx as Peter Minuit; Harpo Marx as Isaac Newton; Hedy Lamarr as Joan of Arc and so on. Virginia played Cleopatra. Year later she would laughingly Virginia Mayoadmit that her performance in the film was “rotten”.

Next up was a western called The Tall Stranger (1957) with Joel McCrea. Her final two films as part of her Warner Brothers’ contract were ort Dobbs (1958) with Clint Walker and Westbound with Randolph Scott released in 1959.

Virginia, almost 40 years old, was set free by Warner Brothers and forced to freelance.

In 1958 and 1959 she guest-starred in the TV shows The Loretta Young Show, Wagon Train and Lux Playhouse. She also had a part in the low budget film Jet Over Atlantic (1959).

With her husband, she also played summer stock in the late 50’s and early 60’s. She made a few more films, one (La Rivolta Dei Mercenari) filmed in Italy and Spain, and even tested for the female lead in the CBS comedy series Green Acres (the part of course went to Eva Gabor).

In 1967, she starred in an eight-month-run at the Thunderbird Hotel in Last Vegas in the musical That Certain Feeling.

On December 4th, 1973 her husband Michael O’Shea suffered a fatal heart attack.

Two years later she accepted a role in Paramount’s Won Ton Ton the Dog Who Saved Hollywood. The movie was a mess and Virginia looked unremarkable and confused.Virginia Mayo

Through out the rest of the 70’s, 1980’s and 1990’s she made a few more films and guest starred in some TV shows (including The Love Boat, Murder She Wrote, and 12 episodes of Santa Barbara). Her last film was the “so bad, it’s funny” The Man Next Door released in 1997.

In the late 1970's, Virginia evaluated her film career:

“Let’s fact it. I had to take what I could get and I did the best I could with it. I think I was a better actress and I was allowed to be. I wasn’t all that beautiful, just photographed well. I always felt Susan (Hayward) was a great actress, but people seem to single out her beauty instead. Time ran out for me because it ran out for everyone. But making movies was a thrilling period in my life. I’d like to do it all over again.”

Virginia Mayo passed away from pneumonia and heart failure January 17th 2005 at the age of 84.

- T.J. (webmaster)

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