The inside of a “dingy frame house” on Larrabee Street in West Hollywood looked more akin to a “witch-doctor’s shack in the wilds of Haiti.” Scattered were “objects of the kind associated with Black Magic” and stuck to the wall by a small golden dagger were cut-outs of James Dean’s eyes and ears. On the night of September 30th, 1955, the dagger fell to the floor, at the same moment, on his way to a race in Salinas, Dean died in a car crash.
The home belonged to that of Maila Nurmi, better known by her Horror Hostess name, Vampira, who had been not only friends with Dean, but, described as a thwarted lover. In the days leading up to Dean’s death, Nurmi and Dean attended a party, and Nurmi turned to friends there and said “James Dean is going to die soon!” That night Dean climbed through Nurmi’s window, cut up his own photo, of which Nurmi had lying about, and placed the cut out images on her wall. But what he didn’t see was her altar she had in her bathroom, “the center feature of this altar was a boyish picture of Dean, mounted on wood and autographed. To the right was a particularly macabre picture of Vampira herself, a photo she referred to as the ‘Black Madonna.’ To the left was a sign reading YE MUST BE BORN AGAIN, and in front were two tall candles in a small holder.”
She showed her altar to a friend one day, and asked what they thought. She explained that she was “using it for Black Magic against James Dean” and when asked why, she just responded with “Because I’m a witch.” There was also said to be a half black and half white voodoo doll, representing Dean. Assumptions were made that Nurmi was lashing out against Dean as he expressed interest in another woman, future Bond Girl, Ursula Andress. After Dean’s death, Nurmi claimed Dean’s ghost haunted her, and apparently refused to sleep at her home, “returning to her own house of evil only to feed her seven cats. The cats roam alone among the bizarre furnishings, rubbing their sides against such dainty items as a replica of a human skull with an ivory snake coiled thru [sic] one eye.”
Additionally Nurmi had sent to Dean of her in full Vampira garb, seated by an open grave, with text reading “Darling, Come and Join Me!” across it.
Or that is how tabloid magazine Whisper told of the demise of teen idol James Dean in their February, 1956 issue. The story was retold in one of the earliest James Dean biographies, James Dean: The Mutant King, and went further into the creation of her altar, which was supposedly designed to “stop [Dean] from killing himself” and apparently created by writer Logan Smiley. The biography also made mentions of “magic Oola-Oola signs with thrice-charmed ashes. Snakes and Lizards!” and claimed she was the person to have cut out Dean’s eyes and ears, and “incanted fiendish curses (by the Fates of Ghastly Guchkakunda!)”
However it is with this tabloid rag and the one time biography mention that Vampira’s witchcraft career comes to an end. That is if it ever really began. No other biographies mention the Vampira’s “black magic” and serious authors likely wrote it off as pure exploitation to sell magazines to those in mourning of their beloved James Dean.
The one undeniable truth however is that Nurmi and Dean did know each other. However just how deep that brief relationship was is up for debate.
In the documentary Vampira and Me, Nurmi tells of her belief in her deep connection with Dean even prior to meeting him in 1954, “We knew one another long ago in another life of course. Maybe many other lives.” The more down to earth version is that Nurmi attended the Hollywood premiere of Sabrina alone, and “went as a fan” and “to observe the scene.” She wasn’t impressed, “There was nobody I wanted to meet except one fellow. He arrived escorting Terry Moore…And he was surly and angry and I wanted to meet him.” That night though she did meet and befriend Jack Simmons, and the next day the pair went to Googie’s, the legendary coffee shop on the Sunset Strip. Seated with Simmons, Nurmi spied the brooding young man she saw the night before and exclaimed, “Jesus Christ! That’s the only guy in Hollywood that I want to meet.”
Nurmi says that when Dean walked in “instantly we were magnetized to one another. Psychically drawn…Karmic-ly drawn. We recognized one another! We knew one another instantly. Thoroughly, throughout and forever.”
Their first encounter was odd to say the least. Feeling she already knew Dean on some spiritual level, she ditched the more traditional “How to you do?”
“I didn’t waste words; ‘Where is she?’ He said, ‘Who?’ And I said, ‘Your mother’ and he made a whooshing sound, reddened and thew his arms over his head. And so then immediately, he said ‘I want you to come to my apartment. I want to read a poem to you.’ And it was actually a Ray Bradbury short story about a boy who hanged himself, a boy who had a close relationship with his mother.
The odd thing is that while mention of this supposed Bradbury story is told a few times in Dean and Vampira lore, there is no evidence that any such story by Bradbury ever existed. The tale though falls in line with what many have said about Dean after his death, that he was obsessed with it, perhaps even that he had a death wish.
After that first meeting, Dean, Nurmi, and Simmons formed a unique trio, the “unofficial Rat Pack of Googie’s” meeting there mainly around midnight for coffee for close to a year. “It was rather adolescent, ” Nurmi said of her friendship with Dean, “And Jack Simmons was always with us. We were never alone…It was very like when I was in high school and going to the local drug store, except that I was with someone with whom I could see the world in unison. I mean, I had someone who understood how I was seeing the world.” Overall, most sources agree that the relationship between Nurmi and Dean was completely plutonic, and at the time she was happily married to screenwriter Dean Riesner, who went on to write Dirty Harry.
At the time of her first meeting Dean, Nurmi herself was a local celebrity with her wildly popular horror hostess gig The Vampira Show, where she introduced and made comments prior to commercials for B-horror and sci-fi films, wearing a skin tight black gown, accentuating her tiny 17 inch waist. But as Dean and Nurmi’s friendship continued, Dean’s career took off.
According to Nurmi, “The old guard was at Schwab’s,” referring to the famous drug store where legend tells of many actors being “discovered” there.
They were established, big money actors…And the new guard, the people who came from New York, that came from Broadway, hung out in Googie’s. And we were ready to have a rumble, the Googie-ites and the Schwaberoonies…They were frightened. And at Villa Capri, Humphrey Bogart and the Rat Pack were terrified of Jimmy Dean when East of Eden was sneaked. Terrified of him. Their careers were sinking and he was the harbinger of the new things to come.
Nurmi went on to say that the “old guard” was “cruel” to Dean. One night “[t]hey called him over to their table and he said to us, ‘Ah!,’ he was sitting with us, ‘Oh the movie stars want me. I’m going to see the movie stars, I’m going to go sit with the movie stars.’ He was so happy. He went and sat with them and they tore him to pieces. He was in tears, and they continued to attack him.”
During the filming of Dean’s second film, Rebel without a Cause, Dean got laryngitis for three days, and according to Hollywood columnist, Sidney Skolsky, “Lili Kardell and Vampira have been taking turns bringing him soup and making hot tea.” She also made a visit to the set during filming.
Dean, Nurmi, and Simmons continued to spend time together, including late night drives, supposedly with Dean on his motorcycle in front of Simmons and Nurmi, who were in Simmons’ old hearse, and Dean rocking his motorcycle side to side, weaving along the middle of the road. Another tale linked to his possible desire for death.
To publicize her show, Nurmi, in full Vampira attire and make-up, was driven around with a photographer, capturing her gothic beauty against 1950s Hollywood and her bizarre and humorous interactions with its citizens. One photoshoot included her seated by an open grave. She had recently heard of Dean’s photoshoot at a funeral parlor back in his hometown of Fairmount, Indiana, in which he crawled inside a casket. Inspired, she chose to send him the open grave photo and inscribed “Having a wonderful time – wish you were here” (or “Darling, Come Join Me” according to the initial Whisper story.)
There is some debate about where the photo was sent. Some sources say that it was mailed to Villa Capri, one of Dean’s favorite Hollywood restaurants, and a waiter there thought it in bad taste, told Dean about it, and Nurmi tried to explain over the phone, “But I didn’t tell him the joke, because I’d ruin the punch line. ‘You’ll understand when you see it.'” she said. Supposedly the phone call took place on September 29th, the day before Dean died. However, another source says that while the pair spoke on the phone that evening it was Dean calling from Villa Capri, and the pair talked for about ten minutes before he said “My dinner is here, I have to go.” However if he was at Villa Capri, and that is where the photo was sent, why did he never see it?
Leading up to his death, Dean had began to lose interest in Nurmi. Dean’s only known public acknowledgement of his relationship with Nurmi came in an interview he did with infamous celebrity reporter Hedda Hopper, and they tell of a very different type of friendship…
When I finally met up with that talented young actor James Dean, I asked him about his so-called romance with Vampira. “I hear you’ve been taking her out,” I said. “I’ve never taken Vampira out,” Jimmy glowered. “And I should like to clear this up. I have a fairly adequate knowledge of satanic forces and I was interested to find out if this girl was obsessed with such a force. She was a subject about which I wanted to learn. I met her and engaged her in conversation. She knew absolutely nothing! She uses her inane characterization as an excuse for the most infantile expression you can imagine.”
He reportedly also told Hopper “I don’t go out with witches…and I dig dating cartoon characters even less,” he continued with “I found her devoid of any true interest except her Vampira make-up.”
In Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Dean biographer Paul Alexander stated Nurmi “got on Jimmy’s nerves. He may have been weird himself, but Maila was too weird for his tastes.” In another biography, Simmons is noted to have said “After months of palling around with Vampira, Jimmy just ignored her. I asked him, ‘Is there any reason you’re snuffing her out of your life?’ He answered, ‘She’s too infantile.'”
No photos of Dean and Nurmi together exist. Supposedly photographer Frank Worth took photos of the pair at an auto race in Bakersfield, but Nurmi asked Worth to destroy the photos, because she feared Dean would think she was trying to cling onto his success.
After hearing of Dean’s death, the exact moment of which will be expanded upon later, Nurmi went through a wave of emotions and thoughts,
I was stunned and incredulous. Naturally. Except that there’s another strange element too…Jimmy had repeatedly told everybody, suggested that he was going to die momentarily. And of a broken neck. So I was, uh, stunned in so many ways…I mean he was a very, very intensely alive entity. And to be told that he is no more, he’s dead, period, that’s it. It was just incredible. But then there’s the fact he had been telling us that he was going to die…So I wasn’t sad yet. Not instantly. Not instantly when I heard it, because I was in shock. I didn’t sleep or eat for six days…I felt, “My loved one, he can never eat again. Why should I? Who am I?” You know, strange sensations you have. But then, then about six days later the tears started, and they flowed for six months.
After Dean’s death, the wreckage of his car was put on display to encourage safer driving. However, fans saw it as a souvenir opportunity, and according to director and interviewer of Vampira and Me, Ray Greene, “Maila was appalled to see Dean’s ‘fans’ tearing piece off the wreckage. She fled the display in tears.”
The Halloween the year following Dean’s death, Nurmi showed up at a costume party as a witch, but with Simmons in tow dressed as a bandaged James Dean.
In 1964, almost ten years after Dean’s death, Nurmi penned a piece titled “The Ghost of James Dean” for Borderline. Nurmi regaled readers with what happened the night of September 30th. She had actor Tony Perkins (yes, Psycho Tony Perkins) over, and hanging above him was “[o]ne eye, one nostril and one ear – cut from an eight-by-ten theatrical glossy photograph of another actor – pinned to the wall with the point of a small, costume-jewelry dagger.” The images mentioned earlier, cut out by Dean himself, of which Nurmi dubbed the “remainder” of James Dean. As the evening went on “the ‘remainder’ of James Dean swung, pendulum fashion, over the mid-section of Tony Perkins…Tony and I were still quietly talking at 6:25 p.m. when the telephone jangled. The caller informed me that James Dean – that moody, brilliant artist of emotions was no longer with us. He had died at approximately 6:10 p.m. – the time when the partial photo had ‘acted up.'”
In the days following Dean’s death, mediums contacted Nurmi saying Dean, while dead “was in pain because people were trying to hold onto his spirit – to keep him earth-bound, and that he wanted to be released.” Concerned, Nurmi decided to reach out to Dean’s spirit.
Two days after Jimmy’s death, while I was alone in my living room, I gazed at the fragmentary countenance of Jimmy’s on the wall. And I talked to it. I asked it aloud, “Is it true, Jimmy, that you are in pain?” I hadn’t expected an answer. But I got one! The top part of the ear wiggled…and at the same time my radio came the song “Dig Me A Hole and Bury Me Deep and I Will Lie In Peace.”
After that Nurmi looked for a draft to explain the ear wiggle, finding all of her windows closed, she stuffed clothing under the door and spoke to the images again, “‘Jimmy, was that you – were you talking to me?’ I said, ‘Jimmy, if you were talking to me, wiggle your ear three times.’ The ear wiggled three times and stopped.” She asked it yet again and the ear wiggled.
Concerned about her ability to actually speak to Dean, she asked friends to come over to see her communicate with the ear, and they observed the occurrence. However, she began to feel she was using her abilities and Dean as if he were a “poodle doing parlor tricks” and ceased attempting to talk to him. But at the suggestion of a medium, she held a “formal seance” with only eight people. When it began the phone rang and the medium said “Answer it – there won’t be anyone on the other end. Spirits sometimes announce themselves in this way.” The phone was answered by actor John Franco, and, just as the medium said, no one was there, but also, there was no sound. Nurmi went to the phone and showed that the wires were cut, and admitted in her article that she herself cut them days prior. A woman fainted, and everyone else was scared, so the seance ended before they could confirm Dean’s presence. Even after the seance, Nurmi claimed Dean continued to visit her in various ways, including ashtrays that would set themselves aflame.
Greene noted that “Maila had unconventional spiritual beliefs, and strong powers of the imagination. Hollywood astrologer Sydney Omar once marveled in print over Maila’s quote ‘apparent psychic abilities.'” She also believed and mentioned on more than one occasion that both Jimmy and her were not of this earth, “Jimmy was from another planet, and so was I. But then there are a lot of those people too. You know he was the Little Prince,” referring to the French 1943 book under the same name, “I don’t know which planet I came from. But that’s what we both were, we were both aliens stranded here. Couldn’t find our way back to the planet, we didn’t know how we got here.”
At the end of the day, who knows just how close Nurmi and Dean really were. Up into her final years Nurmi became very emotional when she spoke of Dean, and maintained her belief in a deep, spiritual connection with Dean, but almost certainly she did not curse him into his grave.
Alexander, Paul. Boulevard of Broken Dreams: The Life, Times, and Legend of James Dean. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.
Beath, Warren Newton. The Death of James Dean. New York: Grove Press Inc., 1986.
Dalton, David. James Dean: The Mutant King. San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books. 1974.
Herndon, Venable. James Dean: A Short Life. New York: Signet, 1974.
Holley, Val. James Dean. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 1995.
Hopper, Hedda. “A Friend, A Fan, A Fighter.” The Real James Dean Story. 1956.
Nurmi, Maila. “The Ghost of James Dean.” Borderline. Jan. 1964.
Schaeffer, Sam. “James Dean’s Black Madonna.” Whisper. Feb. 1956.
Spoto, Donald. Rebel: The Life and Legend of James Dean. New York: HarpberCollins, 1996. Vampira and Me. Dir. Ray Greene. Cinema Epoch. 2012.
Vampira: The Movie. Dir. Kevin Sean Michaels. New Alpha Cinema. 2007