Finding Yvette Vickers

A Q&A with Steve Mikulan about his February feature, “Left Behind”

Photograph by Aya Brackett

In the February 2012 issue of Los Angeles magazine writer Steve Mikulan reports on the unusual life and death of Yvette Vickers, the B-grade screen star whose mummified corpse was discovered in her Benedict Canyon home last year. 

Here he talks with executive editor Matthew Segal about the actress’ career, the fame that eluded her, and the psychological demons that plagued her final years:

As you point out in the story, the death of Yvette Vickers generated headlines around the world. They weren’t so much about the personage of Yvette Vickers as they were about the concept—a long-ago B-actress and Playboy Bunny who was found mummified in her home. Did your own view of Vickers change much from the time at which you set out to report the story and the point when you finished typing the last word?
Yes, but it wasn’t exactly out of Laura, where the investigator falls in love with a mysterious woman’s portrait. What continually struck me was how ordinary this actress’s descent was—she was a recluse who was swallowed up by her own home.

What struck you most about her appearances onscreen?
She definitely had a Baby Doll sultriness that captured the imagination of pubescent boys—if not men—of the 1950s and early ’60s. I have never forgotten Liz Walker, swamp tramp, whom she played in Attack of the Giant Leeches, even though I only saw the film once, nearly 50 years ago. She had a way of swaying that suggested the delights of adulthood.

You say she had a different kind of beauty—less come hither and more come-and-get-it. It’s a good observation. What was different about her?
I think that because she appeared in over-heated science fiction fables, she felt her sexuality had to be amped up in order to compete with the grotesque narratives. The result is the projection of a carnality far more obvious—and playful—than the times were accustomed to.

Her friends described her as being paranoid toward the end of her days. It’s impossible to know for sure what was going on with her, but did you get a sense from them what they thought was going on with Yvette Vickers?
The theories I’ve heard basically boil her troubles down to mental disease marked by paranoia acerbated by extreme drinking. It seemed as though she somewhat lived in the past—a condition that the autograph and fan circuit would only reinforce.

She wasn’t much of a drinker early on was she?
By all accounts she wasn’t. Then again, the men she was later romantically link to—Ralph Meeker, Jim Hutton—were notorious drinkers and this may have affected her relationship to alcohol.

A few sources you spoke with talked about how Vickers spent a lot of time dwelling on her past relationships with men. Did you walk away with any sense of whether Vickers was a free spirit or someone simply unable to hold a relationship together?
At first she was a woman who completely balanced her obsession with a career with a fairly wild party life. I think over time, though, she got caught up in relationships she couldn’t control. Each one took her down a peg more than the previous one. 

Listening to people of her generation talk, you really get a vivid sense of how much LA has changed. And how much it has remained the same. What’s something that has stuck with you from one of the interviews?
How much some things actually do remain the same in this town. Her neighborhood—leafy, well-off, coveted—is the kind of place young actors coming to L.A. dream about moving to. Yet it’s also a place of death and violence. Besides Vickers’s own sad death, there was a rape committed across the street, involving a firearm about 18 years ago. And before that, of course, the Sharon Tate murders occurred not too far away on Cielo Drive. Then, there’s Vickers’s rise and fall—a career trajectory that’s almost as predictable as a solar arc. 

Vickers wound up making a career of signing autographs at fan conventions. How much could someone of her stature—or lack thereof—bring in?
For someone of her middling stature, she could probably count on $25 a pop for a signed 8-by-10. Apparently, though, this was enough to sustain her at some level of comfort.

In telling the story of Yvette Vickers, which really begins in the 1950s, you wound up delving into a fair amount of Hollywood history. Are you a film buff?
I am and one of her early films, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, was one of the first science fiction movies I saw on TV. It was a kind of primal moment, introducing me to films that had unhappy endings — and which everyone is “bad” in some way.

ALSO: Read “Left Behind.”