DURING the late '60s and early '70s, Mamie Van Doren, the blond bombshell who found fame in more than a few '50s and '60s film duds from Hollywood, performed for the troops stationed in Southeast Asia and became involved in fund-raising for The Committee to Re-Elect the President.
She had known Nixon from her first years in Hollywood and he apparently arranged for her to meet Henry Kissinger, who dated her briefly and at one point gave Van Doren a personal tour of the White House. "No comment," was her comment to inquisitive columnist Earl Wilson, though Van Doren added that Dr. Kissinger "has a lot of girlfriends, but I have a lot of boyfriends."
Van Doren, now 50, started out as Joan Lucille ("I got the Mamie from Eisenhower") Olander from Rowena, S.D., where her grandparents were pillars of the Swedish immigrant community. After graduating from high school, she worked briefly as a lawyer's secretary, and served stints as a showgirl in New York and Las Vegas (working as Zaba Olander).
Eventually, her platinum blond hair and curvaceous figure got noticed in Hollywood and a talent scout plucked her out of an amateur production of "Come Back Little Sheba." Her first role was a singing stint in a Tony Curtis film, "Forbidden." "That's how I got my start at Universal," Van Doren says. "It served as a screen test for me."
The studio, looking for an actress to counter Marilyn Monroe (others would include Jayne Mansfield and Diana Dors), liked what they saw and on her 20th birthday, signed Olander to a seven-year contract at the relatively high figure of $200 a week. And they quickly changed her name.
"I was named for Joan Crawford and I adored it--but if you had a funny name, they just had to change it. And there was an actor named John Smith whose real name was Bob Van Doren; when they put him under contract, they gave me his name reportedly because the 'Van' sounded classy . I didn't realize it until he walked up one day and said 'Mamie, you've got my last name!' "
Van Doren was run through the studio mill: She studied acting, ballet, diction, horseback riding (she was told to ride through the hills of Hollywood screaming--to help lower her voice). She was also made-over, her page boy hair style defined by the woman who had also worked on Jean Harlow's hair.
"The studio took charge of me, I was an image of what they wanted to make me. I was very young when I came to Hollywood--I'd just gotten out of high school and done a couple of shows in Vegas, but I was quite naive. When they gave you a contract, it provided you with an education and you were on your way--if you could make the grade, just like at college. They'd grade you at the end of the year and if they picked your option up, you'd made it."
As a result, Van Doren went through a long period of mutual exploitation that turned her, if not into an actress, at least into a minor star. "The men at that time were really dedicated to exploiting young girls. They didn't know what to do with us and you sort of had to do what they wanted you to do, that's how they thought of women in those days. You didn't have much choice: You were a secretary or a nurse or something like that. I took the only way out and that was being an actress. But I always wanted to be an actress rather than just a sex image."
Her first two films, "Forbidden" and "The All American," were with Tony Curtis and that established Van Doren as a starlet. The fabled Universal publicity machine got her into the papers regularly. In 1953 alone, she was: "Honorary Kernel" for the American Corn Growers, "Miss Adopt-a-Dog-a-Day," "Miss Eight Ball," "Miss Official Greeter" for the VFW convention, "Miss Classy Chassis" for the United Auto Workers of Southern California, "Miss Diving Belle" for the Deep Sea Divers Club and "The Girl They Couldn't Saw in Half," for the local magicians' organization. She also played the studio's dating game, and the papers linked her at one time or another with Nicky Hilton, Eddie Fisher, Jack Webb, Donald O'Connor and Jack Dempsey.
Van Doren limped along in a series of instantly forgettable films ("Francis Joins the WACs," "The Second Greatest Sex," "The Girl in Black Stockings") until connecting with Albert Zugsmith in 1958 and finding immortality in the camp classic "High School Confidential" (followed of course by "College Confidential" and "Sex Kittens Go to College," in which she played a stripper whose IQ was larger than her combined measurements and who ended up as chairwoman of the science department of an elite university).
And there were more rotters like "The Beat Generation," "Running Wild," "Girlstown," "Private Lives of Adam and Eve," "The Navy vs. the Night Monsters." Van Doren's last film was a spaghetti western shot in Spain in 1975. Those films have acquired a cult following in Europe. "I get fan letters from Europe all the time," Van Doren says. "Especially France."
Her own favorite film, she adds, was "Teacher's Pet," mostly because it provided an opportunity to work with Clark Gable ("he was one of my favorite actors"). Like another Gable co-star, Marilyn Monroe, Van Doren had a penchant for finding romantic liaisons in the sports and arts fields. Her first husband was bandleader Ray Anthony (she has a 27-year-old son from that marriage).
Her most celebrated relationship was with pitcher Bo Belinski, the Los Angeles Angels' no-hit wonder of '62 who ended his five-year major league career with only 28 victories. Van Doren and Belinski were the minor league Liz and Dick of their time, though they never tied the knot. "I saw Bo recently," Van Doren said, adding that "of all the ex-boyfriends and husbands I've had, I'd say I'm still friendly with him. The others I wouldn't be. Except for him, the men I had were never too good to me."
Her second marriage was to minor league pitcher Lee Meyers (10 years her junior) and her third to businessman Ross McClintock (that lasted three months--"I felt I was being used for my name"). In 1969, Van Doren was briefly linked to Boston Red Sox slugger Tony Conigliaro, at which time she told the press, "Hitters are so different from pitchers. He has so many calluses on his hands."
She has been married for the past four years to Thomas Dixon ("and I lived with him six years before that"); he puts clinics and doctors together. Van Doren and Dixon share an avid interest in wild birds, particularly parrots and macaws. "We don't cage them and we're building an aviary out here," she says.
"I've never retired, but I pick and choose what I want to do," says Van Doren. "When something comes along that I want to do, I do it." Recently that meant going into the studio to record a pair of albums for the Cornerstone label. "I'm doing some new wave, some rockabilly and some '60s songs," Van Doren says, pointing out that she "did record for Capitol in the '50s when I was doing movies. I even had one semi-hit. Nobody knows it, but I was a singer before I was an actress. My nightclub act I've done all my life; in fact I just got done doing a musical where I sang."