Movie Stars: Mayo, Virginia (1920-2005)–Best Years of Our Lives, White Heat

Updated July 1, 2020
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Virginia Mayo (born Virginia Clara Jones; November 30, 1920–January 17, 2005) was an American actress best known for her comedies with Danny Kaye.

Mayo was Warner’s biggest box-office money-maker in the late 1940s.

She co-starred in the 1946 Oscar-winning movie The Best Years of Our Lives and White Heat (1949), opposite Cagney.

 

Born Virginia Clara Jones in St. Louis, Missouri, she was the daughter of newspaper reporter Luke and his wife, Martha Henrietta (née Rautenstrauch) Jones.

Her family had roots back to the earliest days of St Louis, great-great-great grandfather Captain James Piggott, who founded East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1797. Young Virginia’s aunt operated an acting school in the St. Louis area, which Virginia began attending at age six. She also was tutored by a series of dancing instructors engaged by her aunt.

Following her graduation from Soldan High School in 1937, Jones landed her first professional acting and dancing jobs at the St. Louis Municipal Opera Theatre (more commonly known as The Muny) and in an act with six other girls at the Hotel Jefferson. Performer Andy Mayo, impressed with her ability, recruited her to appear in his act “Morton and Mayo.”

Jones toured the American vaudeville circuit for three years, serving as ringmaster and comedic foil for “Pansy the Horse,” as Mayo and his partner, Nonnie Morton,[4] performed in a horse suit. They appeared together in some short films and were a huge hit at Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe nightclub in the Broadway theater district, where she was first spotted by Samuel Goldwyn.

In 1941, Jones, now known by the stage name Virginia Mayo, got career break on Broadway with Eddie Cantor in Banjo Eyes.

In the early 1940s, Mayo’s talent and striking beauty came to the attention of movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn, who signed her to an acting contract with his company.

Goldwyn only made few films and would usually loan out the actors he had under contract to other producers. Her first notable role was in Jack London (1943), which starred her future husband Michael O’Shea for producer Samuel Bronston.

Goldwyn originally planned to feature her with Danny Kaye in the film Up in Arms, but he felt she needed more experience and gave the role to Constance Dowling. Mayo was placed in the chorus just so she could learn, but she was never officially a member of the Goldwyn Girls. Then RKO borrowed her for a support role in a musical, Seven Days Ashore (1944).

Mayo’s first starring role came in 1944 opposite comedian Bob Hope in The Princess and the Pirate (1944), a spoof of pirate genre made by Goldwyn, which earned over $3 million at the box office.

Goldwyn made her the leading lady of Danny Kaye in several successful comedies.

Mayo accepted the supporting role of unsympathetic gold-digger Marie Derry in William Wyler’s drama The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) for Goldwyn. Her performance drew favorable reviews from critics, as the film also became the highest-grossing film inside the US since Gone with the Wind. At the zenith of her career, Mayo was seen as the quintessential voluptuous Hollywood beauty.

It was said she “looked like a pinup painting come to life.” According to published reports of the late 1940s, the Sultan of Morocco declared her beauty to be “tangible proof of the existence of God.”

Eagle-Lion Films borrowed her for the lead in Out of the Blue (1947), a comedy with George Brent.

Mayo was reunited with Kaye in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), another big success, and A Song Is Born (1948), a box office disappointment.

In between, Warners borrowed her for the lead in a film noir, Smart Girls Don’t Talk (1948).

Warner ended up taking over her contract from Goldwyn. They starred her in the film noir Flaxy Martin (1949) with Zachary Scott, then she did a Western with Joel McCrea and director Raoul Walsh, Colorado Territory (1949), and a comedy with Ronald Reagan, The Girl from Jones Beach (1949).

Mayo received excellent reviews in another unsympathetic role, as Cagney’s sultry and scheming wife in the gangster classic White Heat (1949), also for Walsh. Mayo was frightened by Cagney as the psychotic gunman because he was so realistic.

Roy Del Ruth borrowed her to play opposite George Raft in Red Light (1949).

She was Milton Berle’s leading lady in Always Leave Them Laughing (1949).

Mayo was top billed in the film noir Backfire (1950).

She was in a huge hit in The Flame and the Arrow (1950) as Burt Lancaster’s love interest.

She co-starred again with Cagney and a young Doris Day in The West Point Story (1950), singing and dancing with Cagney.

She was Gregory Peck’s leading lady in Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. (1951), Warners most popular film of the year.

She co-starred with Kirk Douglas in a Western for Walsh, Along the Great Divide (1951).

Mayo starred opposite Dennis Morgan in David Butler’s Technicolor musical, Painting the Clouds with Sunshine (1951), a moderate success.

While Mayo appeared in musicals, using her training in dance, her voice was always dubbed.

Mayo appeared in the all-star cast of Starlift (1951) and was top billed in She’s Working Her Way Through College (1952) with Reagan.

She was Alan Ladd’s leading lady in The Iron Mistress (1952), a popular biopic of Jim Bowie, and starred in another musical, She’s Back on Broadway (1953).

Mayo appeared in the comedy-drama-action film South Sea Woman (1953) with Burt Lancaster and Chuck Connors.

RKO borrowed her for a Western in 3-D, Devil’s Canyon (1953), and she co-starred with Rex Harrison and George Sanders in King Richard and the Crusaders (1954).

She was top billed in The Silver Chalice (1954) opposite Pier Angeli and Paul Newman in his film debut. The film was a notorious flop.

Benedict Bogeaus gave her the lead in Pearl of the South Pacific (1955).

Edmund Grainger cast her in Great Day in the Morning (1956), with Robert Stack, directed by Jacques Tourneur.

Mayo went to Fox to play Robert Ryan’s leading lady in The Proud Ones (1956), then she did Congo Crossing (1956) at Universal.

Mayo was reunited with Ladd in The Big Land (1957) made back at Warners.

She played Cleopatra in the 1957 fantasy film The Story of Mankind with Vincent Price, Hedy Lamarr, Cesar Romero, Agnes Moorehead, and the Marx Brothers.

Mayo did The Tall Stranger (1957) with McCrea for Allied Artists, Fort Dobbs (1958) with Clint Walker at Warners and Westbound (1959) with Randolph Scott at Warners.

Her last film of the decade was in 1959, Jet Over the Atlantic, with Guy Madison and George Raft.

Mayo began guest starring on TV shows such as Conflict, Wagon Train, The Loretta Young Show, and Lux Playhouse.

Mayo and her husband made pilot for a TV series McGarry and His Mouse (1960), which was not picked up. She went to Italy to make Revolt of the Mercenaries (1961).

Mayo’s film career tapered off considerably.

She appeared in Young Fury (1965) with Rory Calhoun, Castle of Evil (1966), and Fort Utah (1967) with John Ireland. She also guest starred on shows such as Burke’s Law, Daktari and The Outsider.

She appeared on stage in shows like That Certain Girl (1967) and Barefoot in the Park (1968).

Mayo continued to act on stage for the rest of her career, in dinner theatre and touring shows. Productions included No, No Nanette (1972), 40 Carats (1975), Good News (1977), Move Over Mrs Markham (1980) and Butterflies Are Free (1981).

Mayo appeared on TV in shows such as Police Story, Night Gallery, The Love Boat, Remington Steele, and Murder, She Wrote, and a dozen episodes of the soap opera Santa Barbara.

Mayo was in Fugitive Lovers (1975) and one of several stars to make a cameo appearance in the all-star box office bomb Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976).

She had roles in Lanigan’s Rabbi (1977), Haunted (1977), and French Quarter (1978).

Her later appearances were in Evil Spirits (1990), Midnight Witness (1993) and The Man Next Door (1997).

Mayo was one of the first to be awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Hers is located at 1751 Vine Street. In 1996, Mayo was honored by her hometown as she received a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.

In 1993, Mayo published a Christmas themed children’s book entitled, Don’t Forget Me, Santa Claus through Barrons Juveniles Publishers.

Mayo wed Michael O’Shea in 1947, and they remained married until his death in 1973. The couple had one child, Mary Catherine O’Shea (born 1953). For several decades, the family lived in Thousand Oaks, California.

In later years, she developed passion for painting and occupied her time doting on her three grandsons.

She converted to Roman Catholicism, inspired by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.

A lifelong Republican, she endorsed Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972, and longtime friend Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Mayo died of pneumonia and complications of congestive heart failure in the Los Angeles area on January 17, 2005, aged 84, at a nursing home in Thousand Oaks.

Filmography

Features

1940s

Follies Girl (1943) as Chorine (uncredited)

Jack London (1943) as Mamie

Up in Arms (1944) as Nurse Joanna (uncredited)

Seven Days Ashore (1944) as Carol Dean

The Princess and the Pirate (1944) as Princess Margaret

Wonder Man (1945) as Ellen Shanley

The Kid from Brooklyn (1946) as Polly Pringle

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) as Marie Derry

Out of the Blue (1947) as Deborah Tyler

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) as Rosalind van Hoorn

Smart Girls Don’t Talk (1948) as Linda Vickers

A Song Is Born (1948) as Honey Swanson

Flaxy Martin (1949) as Flaxy Martin
Colorado Territory (1949) as Colorado Carson

The Girl from Jones Beach (1949) as Ruth Wilson

White Heat (1949) as Verna Jarrett

Red Light (1949) as Carla North

Always Leave Them Laughing (1949) as Nancy Eagen

1950s

Backfire (1950) as Nurse Julie Benson

The Flame and the Arrow (1950) as Anne de Hesse

The West Point Story (1950) as Eve Dillon

Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951) as Lady Barbara Wellesley

Along the Great Divide (1951) as Ann Keith

Painting the Clouds with Sunshine (1951) as Carol

Starlift (1951) as Virginia Mayo

She’s Working Her Way Through College (1952), Angela Gardner / ‘Hot Garters Gertie’

The Iron Mistress (1952) as Judalon de Bornay

She’s Back on Broadway (1953) as Catherine Terris

South Sea Woman (1953) as Ginger Martin

Devil’s Canyon (1953) as Abby Nixon

King Richard and the Crusaders (1954), Lady Edith Plantagenet

The Silver Chalice (1954) as Helene (top billing)

Pearl of the South Pacific (1955) as Rita Delaine

The Proud Ones (1956) as Sally

Great Day in the Morning (1956) as Ann Merry Alaine

Congo Crossing (1956) as Louise Whitman

The Big Land (1957) as Helen Jagger

The Story of Mankind (1957) as Cleopatra

The Tall Stranger (1957) as Ellen

Fort Dobbs (1958) as Celia Gray

Westbound (1959) as Norma Putnam

Jet Over the Atlantic (1959) as Jean Gurney

1960s

Revolt of Mercenaries (1961), Lady Patrizia, Duchessa di Rivalta

Young Fury (1964) as Sara McCoy

Castle of Evil (1966) as Mary Theresa ‘Sable’ Pulaski

Fort Utah (1967) as Linda Lee

Fugitive Lovers (1975) as Liz Trent

Won Ton Ton, Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976), Miss Battley

Haunted (1977) as Michelle

French Quarter (1978) as Countess Willie Piazza / Ida

Remington Steele (1984, TV Series) as Herself

Murder, She Wrote (1984, TV Series) as Elinor

The Love Boat (1986, TV Series) as Virginia

Evil Spirits (1990) as Janet Wilson

Midnight Witness (1993) as Kitty

The Man Next Door (1997) as Lucia (final film role)

Short subjects

Gals and Gallons (1939) as Virginia Jones
So You Think You’re Not Guilty (1950) as Herself
Screen Snapshots: Hollywood Night Life (1952) as Herself
Screen Snapshots: Salute to Hollywood (1958) as Herself

Live theater

That Certain Girl (1967, Thunderbird Hotel, Las Vegas)
Barefoot in the Park (1968 National Company)
No, No Nanette (1972 National Company)
40 Carats (1975/ Hayloft Dinner Theatre, Lubbock, Texas)
Good News (1977, Paper Mill Playhouse)
Mover Over Mrs. Markham (1980 National Tour)
Butterflies Are Free (1981 Tour)
Follies (1995, Houston and Seattle)

Radio

1946 Lux Radio Theatre Wonder Man
1951 Lux Radio Theatre Bright Leaf
1952 Lux Radio Theatre Captain Horatio Hornblower[13]
1953 Lux Radio Theatre This Woman Is Dangerous[14]
1953 Lux Radio Theatre China Run
1954 Lux Radio Theatre The Iron Mistress