Virginia Mayo was one of the most successful actresses of the 1940s and 1950s. Remembered for her striking beauty and porcelain skin, Mayo captivated her audience as a dramatic actress and comedienne spanning several generations of film and theatergoers. The Sultan of Morocco once sent a letter to Warner Brothers saying "Virginia Mayo is tangible proof of the existence of God." During her lifetime, Mayo starred in over 45 motion pictures and many TV shows, which included The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), White Heat (1949), and around 20 stage productions such as Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951) and She's Working Her Way Through College (1952).
Mayo, whose real name was Virginia Clara Jones, was born in St. Louis, Missouri on November 30, 1920. As the daughter of a newspaper reporter, her family had a rich heritage in the St. Louis area. Her great-great-great grandfather Jones served in the American Revolution and later founded the city of East St. Louis, Illinois. Bitten early by the acting bug, all Mayo ever wanted to do was "play show." With a passion for dance at the age of six, she began training at her aunt's "School of Dramatic Expression." After graduating from Soldan High School in 1937, her natural talent led her to an impressive role in the St. Louis Missouri Municipal Opera Company. Awestruck by Mayo's talent her brother-in-law Andy Mayo, a Vaudeville performer, asked her to appear in his musical comedy called "Pansy and the Horse." Virginia soon changed her surname to Mayo and traveled the United States for four years dazzling fans with her performances as a ringmaster. Soon after she joined the act, Hollywood mogul, Samuel Goldwyn, spotted her and immediately signed her to a contract.
In 1943, Mayo had a small role in Jack London (1943) and a walk-in part in Follies Girl (1943). As producers grew more confident in her talent, the hazel-green eyed beauty was cast in more prestigious roles. In 1944, Mayo starred as Princess Margaret in The Princess and the Pirate alongside Bob Hope. A year later, Mayo appeared with Danny Kaye as Ellen Shanley in the Wonder Man (1945). Starting to grow in popularity, Mayo worked with Kaye in The Kid from Brooklyn (1946) and Dana Andrews in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). She cashed in big in 1947 when she was cast in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) as Rosalind van Hoorn. That year, she married actor Michael D. O'Shea, and later gave birth to her only child, Mary Catherine in 1953. She remained with O'Shea until his death in 1973.
In White Heat (1949), Mayo took on the cold-hearted role of "Verna Jarrett" opposite James Cagney (Cody Jarrett), a psychotic and mother-obsessed gunman. She later said in interviews that she was frightened by Cagney during the making of the film because he was so realistic. In The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Mayo received raving reviews for her role as a shallow gold digger. This film featured an all-star cast and won nine Academy Awards. Her final film was the suspense thriller, The Man Next Door (1997).
Throughout Mayo's career, she appeared opposite some of the world's greatest leading men including: Burt Lancaster in The Flame and the Arrow (1950); Robert Stack in Great Day in the Morning (1956); Kirk Douglas in Along the Great Divide (1951); Rex Harrison in King Richard and the Crusaders (1954); Alan Ladd in The Iron Mistress (1952) and White Heat (1949); Gregory Peck in Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951) and Ronald Reagan in The Girl from Jones Beach (1949).
Mayo is probably best known for her delightful performances in musicals. Even though she was talented in all areas of acting, musicals were her passion. She loved them and loved to perform in them. Some of her most memorable performances were in the following films: No No Nanette, Barefoot in the Park, Forty Carats, Hello Dolly, Butterflies Are Free, and Move Over Mrs. Markham. Mayo also costarred with her husband in musical hits such as Tunnel of Love, Ficrello, and George Washington Slept Here. In addition, she starred in Cactus Flower, How the Other Half Lives, and Good News.
In addition to film, Mayo appeared in many television shows including: Night Gallery, Merv Griffin, Police Story, Dinah Shore, Mike Douglas, and numerous variety specials. She also had feature roles on The Love Boat, Murder She Wrote, Remington Steele, and 12 episodes of the daytime show, Santa Barbara.
Mayo made her home in Thousand Oaks, California where she pursued her passion for painting. Her work consisted primarily of oils and watercolors. Her other passion in life, were her three adorable grandsons. She often said her most challenging role in her life was that of being a "loving grandmother." She died of heart failure on January 17, 2005. She was 84-years-old. She is survived by her daughter, Mary Catherine Johnston.