William Ramage – The Diary of a 1950’s Male Model

Last Update: 1/1/2009
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by John O’Dowd  © 2009

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In the show business hierarchy, no one has struggled harder for professional validation than the male model. Impeccably groomed and suited, these finely-chiseled gentlemen have toiled anonymously in front of the cameras for years, often with little respect paid for their efforts. Beginning in the late 1950s, one of the busiest of this natty, if unsung, breed was William Ramage, a former Texan who had earlier parlayed his father’s association with billionaire Howard Hughes into a film contract with RKO Pictures.

Bill Ramage in carThe year was 1954 and the studio was in the throes of a mass upheaval and limping steadily toward extinction. As one of RKO’s last acquisitions, Bill Ramage was placed in background roles in two of the studio’s most infamously bad, latter-day projects, but soon afterward he found himself lost in the shuffle at a company in its final days of business. Immensely photogenic and blessed with a chameleon-like quality before the camera, Bill studied the situation at hand and quickly realigned his goals under the tutelage of RKO’s gifted still photographer Ernie Bachrach. Upon the studio’s demise in 1957, Bill took Bachrach’s advice and embarked on a career as a photographer’s model in both fashion and product illustration, where he eventually became, for a period of time, the highest paid male model in the country.

Born August 27, 1933 in Shreveport, Louisiana, Bill Ramage jokes, “I share a birthday with both Mother Teresa and Lyndon Johnson—wow, talk about three completely different people. If that trio doesn’t blow astrology right out of the water, I don’t know what does!” A supreme raconteur whose keen wit is matched by a brilliant acumen in business, Bill recently sat down with writer John O’Dowd to share the fascinating story of how a shy, young man from Louisiana’s Delta Plains traveled west and found steady work beneath the bright studio lights.

John O’Dowd: What kind of work did your parents do?

Bill Ramage: My father, Bowen, worked for Sparko Gas and Oil as a service manager, and my mother, Lucille, was a housewife. Shreveport, Louisiana in the 1930s is a wonderful memory for me and I loved it there. My father made some wise land investments and he provided our family with a wonderful and very comfortable life. One night in 1936, Dad attended a dinner banquet where he had received a big job promotion, and on the way home, he was involved in a terrible car crash. He was thrown through the windshield and although he was not physically disfigured, his recuperative period was a long one and his job eventually went to someone else. After about a year, Dad went to work for The Atlas Oil and Gas Refinery in Shreveport.

JO’D: How did your father wind up working for Howard Hughes?

Howard HughesBR: In the 1930’s Howard Hughes took more of an interest in his Hughes Tool Company than he did later on, when his interests became more diversified. He met my father a couple of times at the Atlas refinery and he evidently liked him a lot. He eventually hired Dad to work for a refinery he owned in Colorado. It was a good job with great pay, however, my mother didn’t like living in Colorado, so we moved again, this time to Dallas, Texas, in 1940. My father found a job as a line foreman at The Ford Motor Company for a while and then he worked in Houston as an inspector at a military ship building plant.

JO’D: Did your father ever discuss Howard Hughes with your family?

BR: Well, you know, one of the conditions of working for Howard Hughes was absolute secrecy. One was never to discuss him! (laughs) Not even Hughes wife, Jean Peters, ever spoke about him. However my father did share a story with me once about Hughes landing a big plane at Barksdale Field in Shreveport early one morning and then sitting on the curb drinking milk out of a glass bottle. A policeman friend of my father’s came by and saw Hughes, and thinking him a vagabond, called Dad to come out to the airstrip to identify him! It appears that Howard Hughes was untidy and a bit strange, even back then.

Jayne MansfieldJO’D: As a teenager in Dallas, you knew Jayne Mansfield (The Girl Can’t Help It) pretty well. What was she like as a young girl?

BR: I knew Jayne as Vera Jayne Peers…a sweet girl, very ambitious and bright. She loved movies and always wanted to be a movie star. Jayne lived in University Park near SMU, and I would see her often at the swimming pool at Curtis Park. And, yes, she did look great in a bikini…even in those years! (laughs)

While attending Highland Park High School, Jayne married Paul Mansfield and they had a daughter, Jayne Marie, a few months after Jayne graduated. The following January she came down to Austin to attend the University of Texas, where I was enrolled, and we continued our friendship. Jayne was always very ambitious. She worked several jobs at once and attended school full-time, often bringing the baby with her to class. Jayne would leave Jayne Marie in her baby carriage just outside the classroom. You could do things like that back then without worrying, you know? It was an entirely different world. Jayne modeled for the art students and she also worked at the Austin Civic Theater, as well as for a local veterinarian. Jayne always loved animals. She had a heart of gold.

JO’D: What are your thoughts about what happened to her life and career later on?

BR: Although I knew her quite well in Dallas, I saw Jayne Mansfield, the movie star, only a few times in Hollywood. She was always very friendly, the same sweet girl I had known in Texas. I think if she had been utilized in more serious films like The Wayward Bus (in which she was quite good), she would have had a whole different career. Instead, she became a parody and a joke. As I’m sure everyone knows,  Jayne began to drink heavily in the early 60s. One night I saw her dancing at The Peppermint West when the twist was popular and she was absolutely swacked! We spoke and while she was friendly, she was also very, very drunk. Jayne was married to Mickey Hargitay at the time and he was trying to get her to leave. They were with a party of people including the dress designer Marusia, who seemed to revel in being a part of Jayne’s entourage. For some reason, she was discouraging Mickey from taking Jayne home. Mickey finally left alone—very angry. This was not the Jayne I had known back in Dallas. There were, of course, several other public incidents after that…all of them, embarrassing.

Over time, Jayne’s career just disintegrated. Her looks suffered from the drinking…she became involved in sordid publicity. Her involvement with San Francisco warlock Anton LaVey and his devil worshipers had to be the absolute nadir of her publicity stunts. I thought that was a really bad move on her part. But in spite of everything, I always adored Jayne. And I know she really loved her children.

JO’D: When did you decide to move to Los Angeles and pursue a career in show business?

BR: After graduating from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1950 I attended Texas University for three and a half years. In my junior year, I went to England and studied one semester at University of London. I earned my B.A. in English, even though I knew from about the age of seven that I wanted to be an actor. My father had taken me to see Blood and Sand as a child, and that one film planted the seed in me. The movie starred Tyrone Power, Rita Hayworth and Linda Darnell. It was in color and the richness and beauty of it really inspired me. Although I was an extremely shy child, I later studied acting with a wonderful teacher in Dallas named Pearl Wallace Chappell. I quickly grew to love the laughter and the attention that acting brought me. I guess down deep I always knew what I wanted to do with my life, so right after my college graduation in 1954, I left for California.

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