“Glamour Ghoul: The Passions and Pain of the Real Vampira, Maila Nurmi” is an absorbing look at the woman behind the enduring character of Vampira. Based on journal entries, letters and oral testimony gathered by Nurmi’s niece, Sandra Neimi, the book reveals a passionate, flamboyant individual who struggled with fierce insecurities, difficult relationships, and the (often) heartless machine that is the movie/TV industry.
Desperate to escape a self-involved father and alcoholic mother, as well as an unglamorous cannery career in Astoria, OR, young Elizabeth Maila Syrjäniemi ran off to L.A. with dreams of becoming a voice actress. Naive and pretty, she was taken advantage of almost the moment she arrived. She unwittingly became Orson Welles’s mistress, ending up pregnant and giving the baby up for adoption. (The story of her mother finding him and telling him off is priceless.)
But she also formed a new family of likeminded oddballs, dubbed the Night Watch, that gathered at Googies near Sunset & Crescent Heights, and shared their dreams and struggles. Among them was James Dean who remained a friend — albeit a flaky one — until his death. They goofed around in cemeteries and sneaked into morgues; they were Goth to the bone before the subculture truly existed. Nurmi may have been a pretty blonde, but she idolized fierce characters like The Dragon Lady from the comic strip, “Terry and The Pirates.”
Proud and hot-blooded, she sometimes burned bridges and lost one major gig with Howard Hughes; she also refused to stick to a practical job and spent most of her life on the very edge of poverty. While the men in her life frequently took advantage of her, she often took advantage of her mother, who supported her by working menial jobs while she ran around town with her friends. Her sometime lover, Marlon Brando, also helped her out financially. Yet she had a kind heart and adored animals; she often helped out friends despite having no money herself. With every relationship, she invested her whole heart and soul.
The best parts of the book are the descriptions of 1950s Hollywood, Nurmi’s hijinks and dalliances — young Elvis Presley was not good in bed — and fun facts like her live modelling for the animators of Disney’s Maleficent in “Sleeping Beauty.” Not to mention, of course, her invention of Vampira! A lover of costumes and comic strips, she famously won a contest dressed as the pre-television version of Morticia Addams from Charles Addams’ cartoons, and caught the attention of program director Hunt Stromberg, Jr. at KABC, who needed a late-night horror host.
It’s fun to read about how she flipped her thrift store dress to have the deep V in the front and cut up a plastic container to create her three-inch nails. Nurmi created her entire look and attitude as Vampira herself, but once she became a hit — and she was a smash hit — Stromberg tried to own the character and control her. Then much later, KHJ-TV, when they could not get Nurmi to agree to their own vision of a new Vampira show, ripped her off entirely to create Elvira.
Reading about Nurmi’s second act as an icon/mentor for punk musicians like Tomata du Plenty of The Screamers, The Misfits and Satan’s Cheerleaders is comforting considering the fact that the rise of Elvira left her in the dust. Despite her poverty and semi-obscurity, Nurmi continued to make devoted friends that kept her afloat for the rest of her life. The last chapters revolving around her time with Sandra Neimi are sometimes redundant, but still touching, and the discovery of Nurmi’s son through Ancestry.com is a true delight.
Imagine finding out that your real parents were Vampira and Orson Welles??