The origin story of Vampira

Our friends at Feral House books gave us this excerpt from Sandra Niemi's excellent new biography, Glamour Ghoul—The Passions and Pain of the Real Vampira, Maila Nurmi.

Vampira is an icon of horror, fashion, and drama—but the woman behind the make-up was far more interesting. Maila Nurmi, the beautiful and sheltered daughter of Finnish immigrants, stepped off a bus in 1941 Los Angeles intent on finding fame and fortune. She found men eager to take advantage of her innocence and beauty but was determined to find success and love. A talented seamstress, she created a provocative Halloween costume that paved the way to a small role on the Red Skelton Show that then grew into a persona that brought her the notoriety she desired yet trapped her in a character she could never truly escape. This is Maila's story. Her diaries, notes, and ephemera, and family stories bring new insights into her relationships with Orson Welles, James Dean, and Marlon Brando. Sandra Nurmi—Malia's niece—fills in the nuances of her life before fame and her struggles after the limelight faded, as she found a new community within the burgeoning Los Angeles punk scene who embraced her as their own. Includes rare family photographs and revelations that will alter our understanding of Hollywood's legendary playboys.

The following excerpt contains the origin of Vampira.

KABC-TV Vampira publicity still. Dennis Stock/Magnum Photos. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Feral House

He had to have her.

The station [KABC-TV in Los Angeles] had a slew of third-rate movies they wanted to package up for late-night viewing but were challenged as to how to present it. [Hunt] Stromberg [program director for KABC-TV] believed the cadaver girl who rocked the house at the Bal Caribe would be the perfect host to present the recycled horror flicks. So effusive were Stromberg's efforts to get the studio execs on board with his idea, they agreed to give the girl a shot—if they could find her. And that task fell to Stromberg.

Weeks, then months passed, and the girl's identity remained a mystery. Stromberg's superiors were on his tail with increasing urgency.

Stromberg was nervous. The name Stromberg was well known in town, thanks to his father, Hunt Stromberg, Sr., one of the most prolific producers in Hollywood history. At 23, Jr. had produced several plays on Broadway to a modicum of success. But now in Hollywood, even with the advantage of his pedigree, Stromberg Junior's quest proved difficult. Because the girl had been in costume, he wouldn't recognize her even if he were standing next to her on the street.

Still, Stromberg didn't give up, and finally, five months into his intensive search, he asked the right person: Rudi Gernreich.

"Do I know her? Of course I do," Gernreich said. "She's Maila Nurmi, the first woman in Southern California to wear backless shoes. She's in the phone book under Mrs. Dean Riesner."

On a blustery Ides of March in 1954, Maila rode the Red Car to meet with Stromberg at KABC on Prospect and Talmadge. Her haircut was short and blonde, and she'd dressed in black from head to toe: sweater, capris, flats, and cape.

Inside, she heard the secretaries' whispers. "That's Hunt's vampire girl."

Stromberg took a look at his girl ghoul sans makeup and was pleased. She was a beauty.

He explained that the studio was looking for a host to introduce a lineup of late-night horror films. They were interested in the Charles Addams character she'd portrayed at the Bal Caribe.

Here it was. The break Maila long worked for. Excited as she was, she was also curious as to who would portray the rest of Addams' cartoon family.

Stromberg's answer came as a shock. "We only want you." The proposed program was really just an experiment tethered to a skimpy budget.
Maila asked if Addams would receive credit.

Stromberg's answer was clear. "No need to. These are horror films, not cartoons."

"Well then, I can't possibly do it," Maila said. "I can't infringe upon Charles Addams' creation."

Stromberg wanted Maila. Badly. He asked her if she could change up the character. "You could make her a vampire instead of a zombie."
Maila asked for two weeks. Stromberg gave her four days.

The clock was ticking on her future as she rode the railway home. Ninety-six hours to come up with something so fantastical that, when the studio heads saw it, their eyeballs would pop out and roll across the floor. Nothing less would do.

I started by thinking what people said was inevitable, that being sex, death & taxes. Hunt wanted a vampire. So then I thought what about a sexy vampire. Addams' flat-chested, barefoot mute certainly wasn't that. I could be a sexy vampire pondering death in all sorts of crazy and urbane ways. The taxes? I'd leave those up to the Republicans.

The dress needed major work. Maila turned the dress backward so what had been the zippered, low-cut back of the ball costume was now the front of the vampire dress. For structure, she stitched a wire hanger into the bodice to support the plunging neckline. She shortened the sleeves and reattached them with tatters intact, then slit the skirt as far as modesty allowed. Finally, she adjusted the seams to accommodate her waist cincher, push-up bra, and bust and hip pads.

With a four-day time frame to make it all happen, Maila was relieved that she already owned a fetish wardrobe. She had only to shop her own closet to acquire the foundation pieces needed for the look.

The fingernails were a problem. Even Woolworth's didn't stock three-inch fingernails, so Maila cut pieces from a plastic food container, which required boiling to soften them up, and shaped them to fit over her own nails. Then she wrapped them around pencils and secured them with rubber bands. Finally, they were cooled in ice cube trays. The process was time-consuming and didn't end even after the nails were glued on and polished. Their length caused them to pop off at the slightest bump. Maila had to carry spares. Later, she bought pairs of mesh gloves and glued the nails to its fingertips. Maila would describe the recipe for her look as "one part Greta Garbo, two parts each of the Dragon Lady, Evil Queen and Theda Bara, three parts Norma Desmond, and four parts Bizarre magazine."
All the cutting, sewing, and polishing was simply the window dressing. The bigger task was how Maila would breathe life into her brand-new baby and animate her, as she was no longer the silent, one-dimensional cartoon character who attended the Bal Caribe.

Per Stromberg's request, Maila arrived at KABC in full costume. In the pocket of her black cape was a list of names that she and Dink had concocted for her vampire girl. It was the most fun they'd had together in months.

Just before Dink dropped me off at KABC, I asked him how I looked. He said, 'Looking at you is like drinking a shot of hundred- proof whiskey. After you recover from the shock of it going down, you want more.' I was unnerved by his response & so I said 'Oh, so you have to be drunk to find me appealing?' He said 'It sure as hell wouldn't hurt.' He laughed at my expense. I thought he was being callous but he said it was my own fault for setting up the punchline. I was often his unwitting straight man. Maybe he should go get drunk. Maybe then he would find me sexy.

Maila walked into Stromberg's office, her black wig in sharp contrast against her pale skin. With the flourish of a magician, she threw off her cape to expose a figure that provoked a double take. Stromberg could scarcely believe his eyes. The evidence of Maila starving, exercising, and swathing her waist in meat tenderizer was still in evidence. A black patent-leather belt cinched Maila's waist down several inches smaller than the circumference of a 45rpm record. She pulled a long black cigarette holder from her cleavage and positioned it between two lacquered three-inch talons, painted a color she would later call "hemorrhage red."

"Cigarette?" she commanded in a low, sultry voice.

Although the specifics of Maila's audition remain a mystery, it can be assumed with certainty that she created a sensation, because before she left, a deal was hammered out.

Courtesy of Jove de Renzy Collection
Courtesy of Jove de Renzy Collection