Virginia Campbell, who has died on her 102nd birthday, was born into one of Louisiana’s oldest families and became an actress, painter, marionette artiste and socialite.
As an actress she performed on and off Broadway (where she co-starred in The Yellow Jacket with Fay Wray, Alexander Woollcott and Harpo Marx), before moving to Hollywood, where she worked with Ernst Lubitsch and Cecil B DeMille, featuring in the latter’s pioneer epic Unconquered (1947) with Gary Cooper, Boris Karloff (who became a close friend) and Paulette Goddard, to whom she memorably gave a bath in a rain barrel.
In 1952 she and her second husband, the writer John Becker, left Hollywood and, after many peregrinations across Europe, finally settled in Rome, where they rented a grand apartment in the Palazzo Caetani, adorned with murals by Guicciardini and Poussin. There, they established a marionette theatre around which they hosted glamorous soirées. Virginia created and directed the puppets, while her husband supplied the scripts. Those who came to their performances included Alice B Toklas, Lady Diana Cooper, Aaron Copeland, WH Auden, Karen Blixen, Robert Graves and Federico Fellini, who based the characters of Mr and Mrs Steiner in his film La Dolce Vita (1960) on the Beckers.
Being understandably wary of the Italian director’s satirical eye, Virginia declined the opportunity to play Mrs Steiner in the film with her marionettes, but Fellini recreated a Becker soirée, duplicating their apartment, and employed guests of the Beckers to appear in the film as themselves. The striking paintings that decorate the walls of the set were Virginia’s.
She was born Virginia Campbell Hortenstine in Plaquemine, Louisiana, on February 17 1914. One of her earliest memories was of wiping away her father’s tears with his tie as she sat on his knee, aged seven, at her mother’s funeral. As she grew up she recalled how, after the first motor cars arrived in the Southern states, young daredevils would drive two Fords side by side at top speed and she and her friends would jump from running board to running board as the vehicles careered and bumped along the dust roads.
After training at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, Virginia Campbell’s first job was touring small-town provincial America with the Barter Theatre Players (so called because rural theatre-goers would barter for tickets with offerings ranging from live pigs and chickens to vegetables, cakes and jars of preserves). Her Barter Theatre colleague Richard Clark became her first husband.
She went on to work on Broadway, initially as a dancer, before making an impact as an actress in Family Portrait (1939), a controversial piece in which she played the sister-in-law of Jesus Christ. The same year she earned headlines as “Television’s First Casualty”, after being knocked out by low-hanging studio lights in an early television production of Noël Coward’s Hay Fever, in which she appeared with Montgomery Clift.
After a 1944 stage revival of The Cherry Orchard, it was Jessica Tandy who recommended her to Paramount Pictures for DeMille’s Unconquered. As a Broadway actress Virginia was unfamiliar with the reverence in which DeMille was held within the movie world. When he offered her role of a blacksmith’s wife on the spot – almost unheard of – she ticked him off and insisted that he give her a screen test to ensure, for his own benefit, that she was suitable.
DeMille, unused to being ordered about by actresses, was deeply impressed and even let her get away with reprimanding him on set in front of the entire cast when he forgot to instruct the extras in a large crowd scene.
Virginia Campbell (centre, back) in That Lady In Ermine, with Betty Grable (left) and Douglas Fairbanks Jr (right)
DeMille recommended her to Ernst Lubitsch, who cast her as Betty Grable’s maid in That Lady In Ermine (1948). When filming Home Town Story (1950), however, Virginia Campbell was distinctly unimpressed by a young starlet called Marilyn Monroe, commenting: “She can’t act her way out of Grand Central Station!”
Virginia Campbell’s acting career was derailed by a serious bout of tuberculosis, after which she turned her attention to painting and had some success as an artist in the naive style, with exhibitions in galleries across Europe. By this time she had married her second husband, John Becker, and moved with him to Rome. After the marriage was dissolved, she and her marionettes travelled the world performing on cruise ships, and she even developed a side-line as a qualified plumber.
She found lasting happiness in her third marriage to Wing Commander Leonard Lambert, a British airman who had seen action at Dunkirk and on D-Day. Together, they gave “Puppets and Pasta” parties at their apartment in Sperlonga, Italy (where Virginia showed herself to be a fierce opponent at cards), and also enjoyed adventurous boating trips, including in a Dunkirk “little ship” which her husband found and restored.
Her husband survives her with a son and daughter, the artist Haidee Becker.
Virginia Campbell, born February 17 1914, died February 17 2016