Regrettably retitled “Ready for My 15 Minutes of Fame, Me. DeMille,” this appeared on-line in the Nov. 7, 2009,”Broad Street Review.” It was one of my most satisfactory pieces to write, though, in that I literally knew nothing about my subject when I began it and had no idea in advance where this writing would take me. It also became the BSR piece of mine that received the most comments (three or four) from strangers, including a nephew of Ms. Manley’s and a woman in Georgia who remains an e-mail correspondent to this day. I assume whenever someone Googled “Peggy Manley,” mine was one of the only entries that bobbed up in response to their query.
Peggy Maley delivered one of the most famous set-up lines in film history: “Hey, Johnny, what’re you rebelling against?” “What’ve you got?” everyone remembers Marlon Brando answered. She’d tossed the perfect insouciant lob and he, slouching, slam-dunked it. But all the times I’d seen “The Wild One,” until I set out to write about it, I thought Mary Murphy asked the question.
But I’d always remembered Maley’s Mildred, the beautician. Buxom, pouty, her platinum blonde D.A. lodged between my synapses like an ember. She appeared an older sister – or, at nearly thirty, an underage mother – to the girls on corners or at soda fountains who had come to fascinate me. In tight skirts and tight sweaters and zipper jackets flashing with zebra stripes, they hung upon guys in pegged pants and box-toed shoes and pink shirts, the black undersides to their collars hiked up and showing. “Rocks,” we called them and, twenty years before Sylvester Stallone, “rocky” their style. Wary at first, Maley is quickly heated to party with the Black Rebels. But when they ravage her shop, there is pleading in her voice and terror in her eyes. “Please don’t do this, please” she begs before vanishing off-screen, lost, forever.
She was born June 8, 1924, in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. At eighteen, she was named “Miss Atlantic City.” She never wore a larger crown, but, one year later, was in New York, a “chorine” noted for her resemblance to Lana Turner. That was enough – or a large part of “enough” – for Hollywood. In four years, she appeared in eleven films, usually uncredited, as a “show girl” or “dance hall girl,” “marine’s second girl friend,” “girl in officer’s club,” “pretty blonde neighbor.” One assumes she rarely spoke. One contemplates the acts she performed to secure these meager bookings. One wonders, from her position on her back or knees, how far up the heights that were Lana Turner she imagined she might climb.
From 1947 until 1951, her cinematic credit line is empty. One assumes she returned to New York, for she is noted, in 1948, as “the only girl” in “Mr. Roberts.” She seems to have frittered away few other hours on employment. She “is seen” with a department store heir. She “gives insomnia” to a George DeWitt. (Even Google is no help here.) She throws a party in which a wastebasket catches fire. She “dates” Artie Shaw and “tells off” Buddy Rich for paying her insufficient attention. She has “a big romance” with Al Capone’s cousin. A Greek shipping tycoon leases her an apartment. A British lord hosts her in London. On the continent she “is kept” by King Farouk, who “showers her with… haute couture.”
By 1951, she is back in Hollywood. She is a “very close friend” of Frances Faye. She is a “good friend” of Ava Gardner, Betty Grable, Shelly Winters. She is spotted at the Cresenada, Mocambo, Bantam Cock. She is linked with Farley Granger, the bon vivant and professional golfer Al Besselink, Corey Allen, ten years her junior, who will lose (or “win”?) the chicken race with James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause.” She is “one of Harry Cohn’s ‘girlfriends,’” a friendship which, since Cohn headed Columbia and Columbia produced “The Wild One,” may have profited her as much as Farouk’s. (It may explain, for instance, her billing over Yvonne Doughty, who, as Britches, Johnny’s ex-squeeze, had more scenes with Brando – and more lines.) In a single month (February 1953), she is noted to (a) “date” John Hodiak but (b) have “her mind on” Mike Ireland, while being (c) “the love of” Brad Dexter, Peggy Lee’s most recently divorced husband. She is said to have a “nasty mouth,” “terrible drinking problem,” not even “a dime to her own.” She is married for two months.
By 1960, she has appeared in eighteen more films and thirty-nine TV shows. She is a “showgirl,” “tavern maid,” “blonde stripper,” “blonde barfly,” “blond woman.” She is “Gladys,” “Midge,” “Marge,” “Gwen.” She appears in “Tarawa Beachhead,” “The Brothers Rico,” “Live Fast, Die Young.” She is on “The Untouchables,” “Peter Gunn,” “Dragnet” three times. One wonders if anyone who saw her in one role recalled her when they saw her in the next or if, in each appearance, she had registered no more than a firefly’s blink. Within one year of helping launch Brando into immortality, she is uncredited in “Saga at Red River” and “Drive a Crooked Road.” Within a few years of that, she has aged into “The Rookie”s “Aunt Mabel.”
Envisioning a career ripening into someone’s aunt or mother or worse seems not to have sustained Maley. She returned to New Jersey to manage her father’s bars. She never again appeared on stage or screen. Of her next five decades, “Glamour Girls” finds only three items worth reporting: (1) a visit to Las Vegas, during which a “male model” escorts her to a coffee shop, where, upon meeting Troy Donahue, she embarrasses her date with “non-stop” talking and “inappropriate” dress; (2) her marriage (1961-75) to a Long Island policeman, fifteen years her junior, whose name (Schoenborn? Schoenberg?) can not be precisely attained; and, following a twenty-five year gap, (3) her living “in California.”
It is a life I associate with those I glimpsed in “Confidential” or “Whisper” or “Stag” on my boyhood barber shop’s low table. These are lives – Linda Christian’s and Lila Leeds’s and Barbara Payton’s – conjured up for me by the scent of Wildroot Cream Oil or Bay Rum like Combray was by Proust’s madeleine and tea. Lives of beauty pageants and car wrecks, champagne and Percodan, weekends in Acapulco and marriages annulled. They are lives played out in the shadows of more sumptuous and more sustained tales – in alleys that could have led into boulevards but for one or two wrong turns. Maley’s is a skeleton on which I weave a flesh of thoughts and associations. The words that come to mind are “glamour” and “tawdriness” and “exploitation” and “her own bootstraps.” America sets prizes, like plush bears on a carnival’s shelves, that some citizens must have to plug the holes that riddle their walls. They contort and gyrate and strive – and soon only the motions are left, all doors slammed, all hopes locked in the trunks with the pageants’ scepters and tiaras. Was, one wonders, being kept by King Farouk – being lain upon by his heaving, fat – a pinnacle? a pit? a piece of business? an improvement over Pottsville? By how much? For how long? Who among us is sufficiently without cravings to judge?
I think again of her in Bleeker’s Café, happy, dancing, flirting with Brando over Gil Stratton’s shoulder. I am twelve or thirteen, when I first see Maley, and hoping to understand sex. I have danced the box step and, maybe, spun-the-bottle and have little beyond that in actual girl-against-boy experience to go on. She is telling me it is fun; it is exciting; it is to be held at arm’s length; it is to be feared.