“One doesn’t fuck porcelain. It might break.”
— Maila Nurmi, 1953
Men burn out and crash in grand displays of self-destruction. Hollywood is full of stories of men who flew too close to the sun, their careers—and lives—careening through spontaneous explosions of brief brilliance and shocking tragedy. Orson Welles, James Dean—public perception of their art is now defined as much by the ends of their careers as it is their talents. Part of the allure in watching and listening to them is that the genius that brought them fame also destroyed them. Do we afford the same opportunity to women? Sandra Niemi’s new book Glamour Ghoul: The Passions and Pain of the Real Vampira, Maila Nurmi makes a case for Maila Nurmi, an actress best known for her roles as the original TV horror host Vampira and co-star of Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959).
Maila dreamed of stardom, and it is not hard to see why. She was born Maila Elizabeth Niemi, daughter to a Finnish immigrant father and American mother. Her family struggled for most of her childhood but this was not for lack of opportunity. Her father, Onni, was an ego-driven showman—too proud to compromise his beliefs, too stubborn to admit when he was wrong. He was an orator and newspaperman prone to abandon obligations at home to chase work (and accolades) in Finnish immigrant communities throughout the United States and abroad. To win his heart, Maila began imitating his blustery speeches from a young age, but she also picked up some of his more combustible traits and they would propel (and hinder) her in ways not dissimilar to Onni.
However, Maila was not built for life in small towns. She could never accommodate the stifling social conditions or limited opportunities for women. Her childhood heroes were the Dragon Lady of Terry of the Pirates and the Evil Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). These were outwardly evil characters—but also strong, fearless women who did as they pleased. Maila began looking for inspiration in other unorthodox characters. One evening, while listening to the radio, she heard a peculiar voice on the other end. She asked her mother who was speaking, and in that moment Maila Nurmi was born. The voice belonged to Orson Welles. “He is not your friend,” her mother snapped. “You are Maila Elizabeth Niemi, and you work in a fish cannery in Astoria, Oregon. And don’t you forget it.”
Maila’s mother was wrong. Maila moved to Hollywood, changed her last name, and began collecting stars. She met Welles and their brief interaction cast a pall over all future relationships. Men drifted in and out of Maila’s life. Her first husband Dean Riesner, a child-actor-turned-screenwriter, humored her until Maila’s success rivaled his own—and then there was Anthony Perkins, the Psycho star, who could never decide if he wanted to be her friend, but who was always in desperate need of her attention. The only ones who never abandoned Maila were the losers. Her friend Jack Simmons was a failed actor, and romantic partner Chuck Beadles an abusive drug addict. Oh, and James Dean.
Maila’s relationship with Dean altered the trajectory of their lives, in ways exhilarating and tragic. They haunted graveyards together, literally. But after his death, a story ran in a tabloid, blaming her “black magic” for his crash. “JAMES DEAN’S BLACK MADONNA,” the title read. Maila, who always allowed for some level of notoriety in her life, could not cope with the fallout and withdrew from society.
But that kind of accusation—witchcraft—is a double-edged sword. It may have ruined Maila’s life but it also gave her the fame she so desperately desired. In 1954, she appeared on Los Angeles television station KABC-TV as Vampira, the world’s first horror host. The Vampira Show was an immediate sensation. Though only broadcast in the Southwestern United States, word of Vampira spread through photos and write-ups in magazines like Newsweek and TV Guide. Her combination of wit and morbidity would inspire generations of horror fans and musicians to follow. Not just the first horror host, Maila was, in Sandra’s words, the “architect of the goth phenomenon.”
Unfortunately, being the first is not always a good thing. Maila was fiercely protective of her Vampira persona, often to her detriment. A dispute over licensing rights led to a cancellation of the The Vampira Show after one year, and Maila had to get by on small roles in B-movies. One such appearance, portraying the Vampira character in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, would earn her legions of fans decades later, but paid only $200 at the time. This continued for years as Maila watched others around her become wealthy off of her creation, culminating in a decades-in-the-making return to television for KHJ-TV, in 1981, that saw the station steal her concept and rebrand it as Elvira’s Movie Macabre. The show’s centerpiece, Elvira, reached a level of fame even greater than that of Vampira in her heyday, rivaling eighties pop stars. Maila received nothing for her contributions.
Glamour Ghoul is an infuriating read, if not because its central figure throws away opportunities left and right, then because it highlights how dismissive the entertainment industry is of women. Maila could be difficult, at one point she gave up a career under Howard Hawks on a whim, but she was never less than brilliant. Vampira, a Morticia Addams-inspired character she designed and developed, set the world on fire many times over. It cast such a long shadow that her visage had a hand in shaping several major youth subcultures in the 20th-century. This in spite of the fact that The Vampira Show lasted a little over two seasons spread out across the fifties.
Yet Maila never got the recognition or the money owed to her. Her fame was in caricature. Celebrities who met her, thought her a novelty; and her fans were worse, a collection of creeps and potential serial killers. The saddest part was that as time passed, and the counterculture began to catch up to her, she had no way of cashing in. By then, every city had its own droll horror host. And her one chance at a big return was stolen out from under her, by men who second-guessed her every step of the way.
Sandra Niemi does an amazing job at providing Maila with a platform to tell her story in her own words. She pulls from Maila’s diaries and an unfinished autobiography, providing the book with a running inner monologue that moves from playful to heartbreaking. “For twenty years,” Maila writes, thinking over her brief resurgence in popularity in the seventies, “I kept myself within five days of being camera-ready. And then I thought, how sad is this? I kinda figured out that nobody was going to call.” But they did, most especially Sandra, the book’s author and Maila’s niece.
Glamour Ghoul’s best moments come in the final chapters when the book shifts from a story about Maila to another about the search for Maila. Sandra spent most of her own life chasing a ghost. In her childhood, she knew Maila as her eccentric aunt who lived in Los Angeles, but as an adult she finally discovers Vampira and tracks Maila down so she can learn the full story. Sadly, the trip does not go as planned and Sandra learns far more about Maila than intended. The family reunion also does nothing to change Maila’s enigmatic nature. An intensely private person, Maila again withdraws from society until her death in 2008. The only thing she leaves behind are her personal thoughts, collected in the diaries and notes that now make up the book.
Glamour Ghoul is as much a work of historic preservation as it is the retelling of one woman’s life. It recreates the Vampira persona for generations who know her image, borrowed and mass-produced in goths, punks, and scene kids, but not her name or history. It also reconstructs the thoughts of a deeply flawed but nevertheless brilliant person. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that Maila’s personal demons are the source of her drive to succeed and her undoing. She is no less a tragic genius than the men around her. Hopefully Glamour Ghoul can raise Maila’s profile, and maybe Vampira will rise from the grave one last time, to seek vengeance on behalf of Maila and give her the justice she deserves in the afterlife. Or as Maila herself observes in a late-entry in her diary, “In the name of God, let me speak!!!”