Virginia Mayo, the stunning blonde actress who brought beauty and romance to films of the 1940s and 1950s with such co-stars as James Cagney, Bob Hope, Gregory Peck, Danny Kaye and Ronald Reagan, died Monday at a nursing home in suburban Thousand Oaks. She was 84.
Mayo, who had been in failing health, died of pneumonia and heart failure, according to the Los Angeles Times, which first reported her death on its Web site.
“She passed away this afternoon,” longtime friend Mary Walsh told The Associated Press.
Her honey blonde hair and creamy, flawless face made Mayo ideal for the Technicolor musicals, westerns and adventures that were the rage in Hollywood in the 1940s and ’50s.
“I really wanted to be a dancer, but I ended up as an actress, and I got to perform next to some of the greatest actors of our time,” she recalled in 2001.
From chorus girl to co-star
Starting as a chorus girl, she quickly advanced to co-star status, appearing opposite Hope in “The Princess and the Pirate” in 1944. She went on to make five films with Kaye before signing a contract with Warner Bros., where she became one of the studio’s biggest stars.
When she signed the contract, Warner Bros. issued an effusive press release that concluded: “At 115 pounds she is potentially as valuable as an acre of land in downtown Los Angeles — and at least several times more desirable.”
Mayo did indeed become a valuable property for Warner Bros., appearing in five movies in 1949 alone. She also starred opposite Reagan in the romantic comedy “The Girl from Jones Beach” that year and again in the 1952 musical “She’s Working Her Way Through College.”
She made three films with Walsh’s late husband, the legendary director Raoul Walsh. They were “Captain Horatio Hornblower,” “Colorado Territory” and “White Heat.”
‘Beautiful in pictures ... in person’
“She was an awfully nice lady,” Walsh recalled. “She was very kind and very thoughtful. She was always on the set on time. She never held up production. She always knew her lines.
“She was beautiful in pictures, but she was even more beautiful in person,” Walsh continued. “I guess maybe it was because she was so good inside.”
Mayo distinguished herself in two classic movies. In the 1946 Oscar-winner “The Best Years of Our Lives,” she played the sluttish sweetheart of a returning World War II veteran. In “White Heat” in 1949 she was the neglected wife of a killer.
Child star in vaudeville era
Born Virginia Clara Jones in St. Louis on Nov. 30, 1920, Mayo got her show business start as a child, booked to appear in local plays and other events by an aunt who ran a talent studio. She adopted the last name of Andy Mayo, the boss of a vaudeville act where she worked when she was young.
Mayo’s first assignment in Hollywood was a small role in “Jack London” (1943), a biography of the author starring Michael O’Shea. In 1956 she recalled how they met on the set: “He just sat there watching me, and then he walked right up and kissed me.”
They married in 1947 and had a daughter. O’Shea died in 1973, and Mayo never remarried.