22/05/2024
Norwich, GB 18 C
Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)

VENETIA STEVENSON, aged 84

THE MOST PHOTOGENIC GIRL IN THE WORLD

Born in London, her parents were Robert Stevenson and Anna Lee.

Robert was a film director who was nominated for an Oscar for ‘Mary Poppins’ and also directed ‘The Love Bug’ and ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’.

Anna was the goddaughter of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and was known as the ‘British Bombshell’. She was in the film ‘How Green Was My Valley’ and played the matriarch in the TV series ‘General Hospital’ for 25 years.

When Venetia was just one, her father signed a contract with David O. Selznick and the family moved to Hollywood.

Her parents divorced when she was just 6 and consequently she lived with her father and his new wife, Frances Holyoke Howard. She was educated at exclusive Californian private schools.

Aged just 14, she was ‘discovered’ by photographer Peter Gowland, on a Malibu beach. He was famous for his pin-up pictures, and Venetia immediately began to appear in magazines.

She made her theatrical debut alongside her mother in the play ‘Liliom’ in Phoenix, Arizona.

She then won the title ‘Miss Los Angeles Press Club’.

By now she had appeared on the cover of Esquire magazine. She said, “I started getting recognised after my pictures started coming out in magazines. Someone would run up and ask for my autograph. I’d want to say ‘Why would you want my autograph? I haven’t done anything”.

Venetia (courtesy Hollywood Reporter)

The studio RKO snatched her up in 1956, and she immediately appeared in ‘Silver Screen’ magazine. She began to appear on the covers of even more publications.

At RKO she made friends with another, as yet unknown actress, Ursula Andress. The two of them took tap dancing and fencing lessons together.

The Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper made Venetia number one on her list of top movie newcomers (alongside Jayne Mansfield. Hopper said, “She is the most purely beautiful of all the new crop of stars”. Venetia was just 18 at the time.

Venetia at the Make Up Artist Ball (courtesy Michael Ochs Archives)

She married another young actor, Russ Tamblyn, on Valentine’s Day 1956. Although the marriage only lasted until April the following year, the couple remained close friends.

There is a famous picture of Venetia, where behind her, unbeknown to her, Tamblyn is doing a back flip.

He went on to star in ‘West Side Story’ in 1961.

In 1957, Popular Photography magazine ran a competition to find ‘The Most Photogenic Girl in the World’. There were over 4,000 entries but Venetia won. She was given her award on the Ed Sullivan Show.

The Most Photogenic Girl in the World (courtesy The Hollywood Reporter)

Venetia starred in a 1957 CBS adaptation of Charley’s Aunt (Playhouse 90), alongside Jackie Coogan and Jeanette MacDonald.

After another TV appearance in the programme ‘Sugarfoot’, she moved into films with the 1958 movie ‘Darby’s Rangers’.

By now she was a talented horse rider – her true passion. She won a prize of $300 at a Californian horse show and consequently went onto the National Horse Show which took place at Cow Palace, San Francisco.

In 1958, she became the face of Sweetheart Stout, a Scottish beer brewed by George Younger Brewery based in Alloa. It was a role she kept for 64 years.

In 1959, she appeared in ‘Day of the Outlaw’ alongside Robert Ryan, followed by the Studs Lonigan trilogy. This was followed by another 7 films, none of which were great commercial successes (including The Island of Lost Women), although she did star alongside James Garner, Christopher Lee and a young Jack Nicholson.

Venetia also appeared in many TV shows, including an episode of ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’, acting alongside Burt Reynolds and Harry Dean Stanton. Reynolds became a close friend.

She had a year long affair with actor Audie Murphy and was the talk of the movie world as she dated a string of celebrity males. At one point, she was romantically linked with Elvis Presley.

She was most often seen with the actor Tab Hunter and became close friends with Anthony Perkins. Few people realised Hunter was gay – and Perkins was his lover.

In his autobiography years later, Tab Hunter admitted his friendship with Venetia protected him from the truth about his sexuality being discovered.

About Anthony Perkins, she said later on, “As for Tony, certainly we all knew he was gay. We were real friends and he would sleep over at my house in the same bed. But there was never any…well, you know. If you have a friend of the opposite sex who’s gay, it’s just up in the air”.

She also admitted most of her dates at the time were purely for publicity, with no romance involved. She would only ‘date’ celebrities and was known in the gossip columns as ‘Hollywood’s most dated doll”.

But in 1962 she married singer Don Everly and immediately gave up acting, admitting she hated it.

They were to have three children, Stacy and Erin, who both became models and actresses, and Edan who became a musician. Venetia and Don divorced in 1970. Venetia never remarried.

Her daughter Erin married Axl Rose of the Guns ‘n’ Roses band (so Venetia became his Mother-in-Law). Erin inspired many of their songs including their biggest hit, ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ (and she appears in the video). That marriage lasted just a year.

From then on, Venetia dropped out of the limelight, but kept working in the movie industry, as a producer, consultant and a script reader for her friend Burt Reynolds.

In the film ‘Back to the Future 2’ (1989), there is a magazine featured called ‘Oh LaLa’, and it has Venetia’s picture on the cover – her very last film appearance.

Oh La La (courtesy Futurepedia)

In 2008, Sweetheart Stout updated their label to commemorate Venetia having been their face of advertising for 50 years – but they kept the same picture of her. She was a cult hero in Scotland, “All because her face was on a beer can.”

Sweetheart Stout, then and now (courtesy Sweetheart Stout website)

She was also an active part of an unofficial club, ‘The Lager Lovelies’. This was a collection of women whose faces had appeared on beer cans and bottles.

Then Venetia got Parkinson’s disease. In an interview, Venetia said, “I’ve never really known anything but Hollywood…I have lived a very narrow existence because movies are all I know”.

She died in a care home in Atlanta, Georgia.

Her brother, actor Jeffrey Byron said, “She lived a glamourous and busy life”.

June Lake, one of the Lager Lovelies (who appeared on Tennent’s Lager between 1986 and 1988), said, “She was the mother of the Lovelies, no doubt about it…But I wish I’d had a contract like hers”.

It was only at her death that Sweetheart Stout removed her image from their bottles.

RIP – Repeated Image = Photogenic

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