Author Sandra Niemi writes about her time growing up with her TV icon aunt, Vampira in the new biography "Glamour Ghoul." / Courtesy of Feral House
Many idols in the goth subculture have risen and fallen as pop culture icons. Few have stood the test of time the way the blood-sucking seductress of the 1950s Maila Nurmi has.
Portrayed on the silver screen as Vampira, Nurmi’s position atop the hierarchy of horror has lasted since her Hollywood debut in 1954. Even before her passing in 2008, horror fans have hungered for details about Nurmi’s life both on and off screen. Due to the era she rose to fame in, much of these details were unknown to the public. One fateful evening in her aunt’s home while in town for a funeral gave Nurmi’s niece Sandra Niemi the inspiration to create what would become Vampira’s swan song.
Halloween Every Night: Vampira went on to become something of a horror icon to even the younger generations today.
Sandra Niemi: “Who would’ve thought that in 1954 when Vampira came out that people would still be talking about her 60-70 years later? It’s crazy.”
HEN: Icons certainly seem to have a way of persisting throughout time.
SN: “That’s true. If only she could see now she truly is an icon.”
HEN: What are your first memories of your aunt Maila Nurmi?
SN: The first time I remember meeting Maila was when I first went down to Hollywood to pick up my grandmother. That’s when I met Maila for the first time. She was the most gorgeous woman I had ever seen. She had blonde hair, vivid blue eyes with blue eyeshadow, bright red lips, a golden dress and transparent heels. I interpreted those as glass slippers. She was like my own personal Cinderella.”
HEN: Sometimes people in the Hollywood area have an aura of fame about them, like they’re really going somewhere. Did Maila have that?
SN: Well my grandmother told Maila that Sandra is quite taken with you, she couldn’t take her eyes off you. I guess I thought she was a big movie star. She’s in Hollywood, she’s beautiful, she must be a movie star.
HEN: Did your relationship with Maila begin there?
SN: “I saw her again when I was 10 for my grandmother’s funeral. We were there for three days and I remember Maila never changed clothes. The day before the funeral my mother asked her if she would change clothes, but she didn’t. She just wore the sweater she had on inside out. I guess that signified that her life had been turned inside out.”
HEN: When did you see your aunt again after that?
SN: “I didn’t see her again for 32 years. I wrote to magazines, newspapers, I wrote to Johnny Carson once because he mentioned Vampira on his show. In 1988 I picked up a Star magazine that mentioned Vampira suing Elvira and that’s how I found my aunt. We started writing letters back and forth to each other. In 1991 I sent her a Christmas gift and never heard back. I thought, well that’s Maila. When she wants to erase you from her life, she does and you never hear from her again.”
HEN: That’s quite the gap of time. What happened after that?
SN: “It was the Ed Wood movie. She became popular and in demand again. She was blossoming, she didn’t have time to write me. That was why the relationship broke down.”
HEN: Given that, how did the book come to be?
SN: “I found out from my local newspaper that she had passed away. I knew I had to get out to LA to take care of her. I was the only family she had left. I was able to find her apartment through a bizarre happenstance and got in. I found all these scraps of paper inside. I thought, “Oh, this is what I want. I want to know who this woman is.” Every scrap of paper I saved. Whether it was a sentence long or a hand written article. I saved them all. That’s how the book came to be.”
HEN: What were these letters? Random thoughts, essays, poems?
SN: A lot of them are in the book. I put her exact words in italics. I thought her fans would want to hear from her directly, how she was feeling, what was happening in her life and her relationship with Chuck Beatles. He was a big love of her life. Her relationships with Jimmy Dean, Marlon Brando, Anthony Perkins, they’re all in the book. And at the end, how she felt as an old woman. How she felt alone and lost and impoverished, it’s all in there.”
HEN: Lastly, why write this book? Why did you feel you were the one to tell her story?
SN: “If I hadn’t written this book, Maila would just be a footnote in history. It was hard to find information about her. How would I feel knowing I had this information and just sat on it? I would be devastated. I had to do this because I loved my aunt Maila, and she deserves to have more than a footnote in history. She deserves to have a sense of immortality.”
Sandra Niemi’s biography of her aunt Maila Nurmi, “Glamour Ghoul: The Passions and Pain of the Real Vampira, Maila Nurmi,” is available through Feral House Publishing and can be found at a bookstore near you.