Vampira and Me - An Addendum to the Radio Documentary by RH Greene
(Recently, INCARNADINE author RH Greene was given an entire hour of airtime on LA public radio station KPCC FM 89.3 to present a new radio documentary entitled "Vampira and Me" about the life and cultural importance of his friend, the late Maila Nurmi, aka Vampira.
The experience of sifting through many hours of unpublished audio, video and transcribed interviews with Maila in Greene's collection inspired further thinking about her. Hence what follows.
To listen online to RH Greene's radio documentary "Vampira and Me" or to download a commercial-free mp3 of the full 50 minute broadcast, go here.)
Dana Gould, who was the dearest friend of Maila Nurmi in her declining years and possibly the dearest friend she ever had, mailed me a picture of Maila as Vampira just after she died. It was an outtake from the 1954 LIFE Magazine spread Maila's creation landed after just six weeks on the air--when you keep in mind that LIFE was the highest circulation national magazine of a magazine-mad era and that The Vampira Show was local TV unavailable outside of Greater Los Angeles, you get some idea of the character's explosive impact.
The photo Dana sent instantly became my all time favorite Vampira image, and my favorite picture of Maila. It shows Maila in full Vampira mode, leaning out of the back seat of her trademark black 1932 Packard toward a mother and two daughters who look like they just stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting for the Saturday Evening Post.
We can't see the girls' faces, but their body posture indicates hesitation. And no wonder. Because Maila's expression captures something simultaneously true to the character and to the woman who played her: she's utterly baffled by the pretty little tableau of normalcy before her. This affluent trio of females is an alien thing to Maila/Vampira, some horror from another world. A walking nightmare herself, Maila stares at a perfect icon of American middle class bliss as if she's the one having the bad dream.
I think this picture speaks to the fundamental appeal of Maila's Vampira creation, and also to a primary truth of what could be thought of as Maila's tragic but also rather brave life. In the interviews I conducted with her when we were friends back in the 1990s, she made it clear again and again how completely uninterested and even hostile she was to the conformity and largesse that were universal priorities of her era and every era since. "I don't like to do wholesome people," she said to me when describing the inspiration for the giddily unwholesome Vampira. "I don't like to dwell on their very existence, let alone pretend to be one."
In the radio documentary about Maila I just did for public radio, Dana can be heard wishing Maila, who died childless and impoverished, had been surrounded by grandkids in the posh LA suburb of Glendale rather than readily available to latter day fans who became friends like him and me. I think that's a beautiful sentiment, and very reflective of his selfless love for her. In my own way, I share Dana's wish, and at the same time I wonder whether Maila would have been capable of living that way.
Vampira became an enduring icon because she offered a place to stand for all the misfits who hear a stifled scream churning away beneath the smiley face pasted over so much of modern life. And she was empowered to do this by the fact that the woman who created her meant it with every molecule of her being.
The goth kids suiting up this Halloween weekend may not even know whose crest they're wearing when they slip into their black fishnets, cinch their waists and press on their long red fingernails. But the momentary exhilaration they feel--that sense of danger, and the cool breeze of freedom wafting like oxygen though the stale air of the everyday--has been blown to them like a kiss from Maila's ruby red lips. It's a cliche, but freedom isn't free--especially not for the pioneers. In the end, it cost Maila a lot to maintain that stance for so long, but I don't know if there was another one available to her.
She cut a trail so early into such a dense thicket of received wisdom. It's no wonder she never thought to find a way back. I like to think if we could see the faces of the little girls in that fifty year old LIFE magazine outtake, their expressions would not be ones of horror but of dawning realization.