Mildred Shay is the ‘Pocket Venus’ of the title – an American film actress of the 1930s. Although never a Hollywood leading lady, this never stopped Mildred living like one. The eldest daughter of a wealthy lawyer, Shay came from a comfortable background of West Palm Beach old money, and when she was 19 years-old, the family moved to Los Angeles for her father’s work, which included legal representation for various movie studios.
Soon she was living with her mother and sister at the legendary Garden of Allah hotel which in its day was home to an array of movie stars, and provided a village-like atmosphere for actors to enjoy privacy away from the prying eyes of their adoring public.
Shay would mingle with Laurence Oliver, Harpo Marx, Gary Cooper, and her spa and skinny-dipping partner, Ginger Rogers. It wasn’t long before Mildred landed her first screen test with Douglas Fairbanks Jnr. Dubbed the ‘Pocket Venus’ by Hollywood gossip columnist, Walter Winchell, due to her petite height at five-feet tall, Mildred was on her way.
Subsequent small roles followed in films such as A Bill of Divorcement with John Barrymore, Roman Scandals with Eddie Cantor, and Grand Hotel where Mildred dubbed the voice of Greta Garbo. She also played Joan Crawford’s scene-stealing French maid in The Women. After moving to England during World War II, Shay literally gave up acting for the next two decades to concentrate on her family life, returning in 1968 with amongst others, supporting roles in Star! with Julie Andrews; The Great Gatsby; Valentino (where she danced with the film’s star, Rudolf Nureyev); Superman III, and her last appearance in Parting Shots in 1999.
Sashaying through the heady days of the Golden Age of Hollywood, Mildred was perhaps better known for her affairs, marriages, dramas, and glamorous social life than for her acting roles. And this is what author, Austin Mutti-Mewse, captures so poignantly and at times, hilariously, in his book: Pocket Venus: The Rise, Fall & Rise Of A Hollywood Starlet. Austin and Mildred make unlikely friends; he, a young jobbing obituary writer living in London, and Mildred, a desperately lonely film ingenue who has sunk into desperate poverty with only her Hollywood memories to sustain her. But as their cross-generational friendship develops, it soon becomes clear that Austin is the main catalyst for Mildred’s re-emergence into life. Like Norma Desmond before her, Mildred is again ready for her close-up.
Pocket Venus tells the story of Mildred’s last act. Always the seasoned raconteur, her raucous retelling of stories from the thrilling days of old Hollywood are simply jaw-dropping; everything from fighting off the unwanted advances of Errol Flynn, to climbing through a window to escape the amorous attentions of the mighty Cecil B. DeMille, to a rather surprising indiscretion with the dancer, Rudolf Nureyev! Not to mention the affairs with Howard Hughes, Victor Mature, Johnny Weissmuller and Glenn Ford…
But as well as a celebration of the colourful, fascinating and flamboyant life of a former Hollywood starlet, this is also a story about the loss of fame and fortune, being haunted by a family tragedy, the paralysing loneliness, vulnerability, and isolation of old age, and the overwhelming human need to connect. The topics here are universal, and are relatable to all, not just those with an interest in film history.
A delightful and heart-rending read.
To purchase a copy of Pocket Venus: The Rise, Fall & Rise Of A Hollywood Starlet visit here.
For further information on Austin Mutti-Mewse’s work, follow @film_mewse on IG or visit www.muttimewse.com