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Obituaries

Mildred Shay, 94; Actress Made Headlines With Her Personal Life

October 24, 2005|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Mildred Shay, a 1930s Hollywood actress whose social life brimmed with tales of thwarted casting-couch seductions and affairs with famous men, making her a frequent subject of the gossip columns, has died. She was 94.

Shay, who appeared in more than 30 films, died Oct. 15 while visiting her daughter in Glendale. A resident of London, she had recently suffered a stroke.

The 5-foot-2 Shay was nicknamed "Hollywood's Pocket Venus" by columnist Walter Winchell.

She was said to have fought off the advances of actors Errol Flynn and Johnny Weissmuller. Filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille reportedly took her to his Paradise ranch in Little Tujunga Canyon and fed her oysters with pearls still attached. An affair with Victor Mature made headlines.

Every time she turned around, she said, "there was someone propositioning me." The names included studio boss Louis B. Mayer and producer Lewis J. Selznick.

At 19, she told her father, a lawyer for the studios, that she wanted to be in the movies. Within weeks, she had a screen test at MGM opposite Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

She made her screen debut in "The Age of Consent" (1932). Mostly small roles followed, including portraying a slave girl tied to a chariot in "Roman Scandals" (1933). Shay dubbed the voice of Greta Garbo in "Grand Hotel" (1932), which won an Oscar for best picture.

After a 25-year break, Shay revived her career in the 1970s by appearing on British television shows and taking small parts in movies, including dancing a tango with Rudolf Nureyev in "Valentino" (1977).

Mildred Helen Shay was born Sept. 26, 1911, in Cedarhurst, N.Y., to a New York lawyer and his socialite wife. A year later, her older brother was killed in an accident involving the family's drunken chauffeur. Shay attributed her propensity to "dance and have fun" to "make up for all that sadness" in her early life.

Educated at a Swiss school in France, Shay moved around Europe with her family before they settled in Hollywood.

After a brief first marriage ended in divorce, Shay married Winthrop Gardiner. He gave her a diamond ring so large that Winchell joked, "Mildred, you could house Manhattan on that rock!" Gardiner had an affair with Norwegian skater Sonja Henie, and the marriage soon ended.

In 1941, Shay married Geoffrey Steele, a British Army captain.

As the couple sailed for London on a Norwegian freighter with 300 soldiers on board, gossip columnists invited readers to place bets on how long the marriage would last. The answer was more than 45 years, until Steele's death in 1987.

Shay is survived by her daughter, Georgiana Steele.

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