William Ramage – The Diary of a 1950’s Male Model – Page 3


Last Update: 1/1/2009
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JO’D:  Is that when you decided to get into modeling?

Eric FlemingJoanne GilbertBR:  Yes. Ernie Bachrach put me in touch with John Engstead, who was one of Los Angeles’ top commercial photographers at the time, and he agreed to work with me. The test shots we did together turned out great, and almost right away, I landed my first modeling job—a toothpaste ad with a gorgeous young model named Joanne Gilbert. Jayne (Mansfield) heard I had several modeling jobs lined up, and she suggested I get an agent. I was just a kid from Texas, very green, and I knew nothing about the business! So, Jayne sent me to see Emmeline Snively at Blue Book Models. Ms. Snively was a legend in the industry, having discovered Marilyn Monroe, among many others. She also discovered a male model named Eric Fleming, who later branched out into acting and had a television series (Rawhide) and a popular film with Zsa Zsa Gabor (Queen of Outer Space)! (laughs) Emmeline signed me to her agency and was instrumental in getting me a series of catalogue and magazine ads, both in New York and L.A.

JO’D:  And yet you have said that your modeling career didn’t really take off until you signed with an agent by the name of Anita Colby.

Anita ColbyBR:  That’s right. Anita Colby was called “The Face” and she was the top female fashion model in the 1930s and 40s. She had formed her own agency in 1958 and she loved the photos I had done with John Engstead, so she signed me to a contract. I remember Anita telling me that she liked my “wholesome, All-American look”. She knew bread and butter for modeling was catalogue and magazine work, and she was convinced I had the look she could market. Anita also made sure I owned the rights to all my photos. From the start, there was a clause written into all my contracts that allowed me to review all my contact sheets and to kill any photos I didn’t like. I was the first model (male or female) to get that privilege. Anita and I were kind of pioneers in that regard.

The years I worked for Anita Colby were a very exciting time in my life. The female models in those days were gorgeous! I would live several months in New York and then go back to L.A. to keep my toe in acting. Getting dropped when RKO closed didn’t bother me as much as I had feared because my modeling career took off right away.

JO’D: Speaking of gorgeous models, one of the most beautiful in the 50s had to be Suzy Parker. Did you work with her?

Suzy ParkerSuzy ParkerBR:  Yes, Suzy and I did a lot of catalogue work together. Suzy Parker was, without a doubt, the best model ever! That megawatt smile of hers was nothing short of dazzling. One shoot we did together was for the cover of a jazz album, Dave Brubeck’s Red Hot and Blue. It was a particularly great shoot because Suzy looked so exquisite. She was dressed all in red, leaning over a piano in a nightclub. I was sitting at a table by the piano, looking at her. Because it was thought in those days that jazz mainly appealed to intellectuals, I wore eyeglasses in the photo. It was an incredible shoot. Suzy Parker was a stunning piece of perfection, God rest her soul. [author’s note: Suzy Parker died on May 3, 2003 at the age of 70.]

JO’D:  Your first photo shoot for Anita Colby was for Mutual of Omaha. What was that modeling experience like for you?

BR:  The ad was actually for Mutual of New York (MONY) and it was an exhilarating experience. I was a father returning home from work, being greeted by his two children and his wife. I remember Anita searched long and hard to find two children who resembled me and I thought the two youngsters she found, a brother and sister, did, in fact, look a lot like me. By the way, the cab driver in the shoot was a real cabbie. I remember he kept the meter in his cab running during the entire shoot! Insurance companies always budget commercial shoots very carefully, and it was cheaper to use a real cabdriver than to hire a model.

JO’D:  Please describe what a typical day in the life of a male model was like in the 1950s and 60s.

Bill Ramage's Sunset Strip billboard advertisement of the early 1960s.BR:  They were long days, that’s for sure. For one thing, you needed lots of money to pay the cab fare in NY, so you could get from one spot to another! (laughs) Seriously, it was tedious work at times. Time consuming, repetitive…you had to make sure you always looked good. You couldn’t look tired…you couldn’t be out of shape. What they wanted from me, for instance, was that “well-scrubbed” look. Very thin, almost to the point of emaciation, but with good shoulders and pecs. You had to be ten pounds lighter because of the camera. It wasn’t easy! There were demands and standards you had to live by, or you were out. But, let’s face it, the payoffs were great. I loved the pretty girls, the clothes, the attention. I mean, who wouldn’t.  I remember walking down the Sunset Strip one day  in the early 60s and seeing a mammoth billboard advertisement looming overhead, of me smoking a cigarette. I was in awe…it was pretty damn exciting!

To show you how things sometimes went on these photo shoots, I was hired once to do an ad for Carlings Beer. It was shot in New York in the summer on an excruciatingly hot and muggy day. It was at a time when NY used to experience “brown outs” and during the shoot the air conditioning went off and wouldn’t come back on. The beer kept going flat with the heat and I was perspiring profusely in a wool Pendleton shirt. No matter how hard she tried, the makeup artist couldn’t keep me “powdered down”…beads of sweat kept popping out on my forehead and top lip. The beer may have gone flat, but I was frothing at the mouth! (laughs) They finally brought in a couple of fans. The beer was discarded and they wound up using creme soda in which they stirred in a little Rinso to get a nice head on the “beer”. (laughs) Just one of the tricks of the trade, and believe me, back then there were many!

JO’D:  Through your acting career in L.A., you met a lot of Hollywood performers. I know you were very close to the beautiful, Italian-Irish actress Gia Scala (The Guns of Navarone), who had an extremely difficult life. 

Gia ScalaBR:  Oh, dear, sweet Gia. She was an absolute angel and I loved her very much. We met in 1957, on the set of her film, Don’t Go Near The Water, on Lot 3 at MGM. My heart almost stopped beating when I saw her the first time. She was, without a doubt, the most gorgeous creature I have ever seen. Imagine how pleased I was to learn that she was as nice as she was beautiful. We hit it off immediately and were best friends for the next fifteen years.

Gia was childlike in some ways, and yet very sophisticated in others. She was a good actress and had some strong film roles until the early 1960s, when things began to go downhill for her. She was very well read and she painted beautifully. She was also a wonderful cook. Gia liked people and she trusted them. However, I believe her trust in some instances was misguided. I’ve missed her everyday since she died in April 1972.

Guy WilliamsGia and I were very good friends of Guy Williams (Zorro) and his wife Jan. Guy and Gia had met in the late 50s when they were both under contract at Universal-International. I don’t know if people know this, but Guy was Italian and his real name was Armand Catalano. He and Jan lived in a beautiful, Spanish-styled mansion on Hillside Avenue, next door to Raymond Burr, and Gia and I went up there a lot to visit them. Jan and Gia were both great cooks and Guy was easy to talk to. He was down-to-earth and rarely ever played the part of the “actor”. It was fun riding around town in Guy’s hot, red Ferrari. It was a dynamite-looking car and he loved it!

JO’D:  There’s been some controversy in recent times about the cause of Gia Scala’s death. Much of the information has been dispensed in interviews given by her sister, Tina Scotti (AKA Tina Scala). Would you like to take this opportunity to clear some things up about Gia’s last years?

BR:  Contrary to what’s been reported in the past, Gia and her sister were not close. Several years ago, Tina gave an interview to the late Bob Slatzer, the writer who claimed he was married at one time to Marilyn Monroe, and she said there were indications of foul play in Gia’s death. These allegations of Tina Scottis are simply not true.

Gia ScalaGia suffered through a host of emotional upheavals in her life over the years, including the death of her mother, with whom she was extremely close. She had married actor Don Burnett and was devastated when they later split up. In April 1971 Gia was arrested over a dispute with a downtown L.A. parking lot attendant when she refused to pay an additional fifty cents overtime charge, and a physical altercation ensued. Then, a few months later, her sports car turned over on a winding canyon road and she lost part of her index finger. In the months preceding her death, Gia had developed a stomach ulcer for which her doctor had prescribed liquid Donatol and the tranquilizer Valium. I knew she was ill but at the time I had no idea what was wrong with her. Looking back now, I recall that there were days when her lips actually looked blue! I remember the day we took a friend to The Movieland Wax Museum in Anaheim, near Disneyland, to see Gia’s wax figure from The Guns of Navarone. Gia received the red carpet treatment that afternoon and the photographer for the museum took several photos of her. She didn’t look that bad in person but I was horrified when I saw the pictures. Gia was not well and the camera picked up on it (as it so often does). In fact, I received the photos on the same day she died and I’m glad she never saw them. They were heartbreaking.

JO’D:  What is the true story of Gia Scala’s death?

BR:  Gia had moved back into the house in Laurel Canyon where she had lived when she was married to Don. There was a lot of construction work that needed to be done on the house and she found three young men who said they would help with the repairs and also do some much needed yard work for her. One of them moved into a small bedroom over the garage.

I remember there was a misunderstanding with the young men who were not doing the work Gia had hired them to do. She asked them to leave, and they did, without argument. The kid who was staying in the room over the garage returned later that day to get some of his possessions and to thank Gia for having given him a place to stay, and he’s the one who found her dead. It was immediately reported in the newspapers that she had died of an overdose of sleeping pills and alcohol, but that wasn’t true.

I don’t deny that Gia drank. She drank white wine. But when she was found dead, there were only three Valium pills missing from the medicine bottle. I later read Gia’s death certificate and got to see for myself the real cause of her death. An autopsy revealed Gia had suffered from “advanced arteriosclerosis”, the same ailment that had killed her father. It was the real reason why her behavior was so bizarre in those last years. Her brain simply was not getting enough oxygen…it was beyond her control. I spoke to both Sgt. Estrada of the Hollywood Division LAPD and to the L.A. coroner, Dr. Thomas Noguchi, about this. They stated unequivocally that there was absolutely no foul play involved in Gia Scala’s death, nor was her death a suicide. For anyone to suggest otherwise is extremely unfair and outrageous.

When Gia passed away, it was up to Jan Williams and me to make all the arrangements for her funeral. Tina Scotti tried to keep The Screen Actor’s Guild from giving Jan the death benefits Gia had left for her (about seven hundred dollars), but luckily she was not successful. I lost touch with Guy and Jan Williams after Gia died. They separated and he later moved to Buenos Aires because Zorro was still very popular there and he loved (and I guess, needed) the attention. Guy died in his home of a brain aneurysm in 1989. What made it especially sad is that he was all alone and his body wasn’t discovered for five days. Guy was really a terrific person…a good and decent man.

JO’D:  In the 60s, you also knew Inger Stevens (The Farmer’s Daughter), another tragic Hollywood casualty.

Inger StevensBR:   Inger had one of the most engaging smiles I have ever seen. However, as I soon learned, it often hid a broken heart. I will say this for her, though…she never brought anyone else down by unburdening her woes on them. Inger was always “up” and she always acted like she was on top of the world. Inger and Gia were neighbors on Woodrow Wilson Drive in Laurel Canyon and that’s how I met her. Over time, we got to know each other pretty well. I feel Inger Stevens fell in love too often with the wrong men. She had a secret…but this is not an issue now, nor do I wish to discuss it. It kills me to think of how needless her death was. As you say…a casualty.

Just think of the casualties among the young stars who started their careers about the same time as Gia and Inger: James Dean, Jayne Mansfield, Natalie Wood, Nick Adams, Jean Seberg and just shortly before them—Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe. It really is shocking when you stop to think about it.

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