Playboy magazine was a 6-year-old scandalous sensation when Hugh Hefner chose Yvette Vickers to appear as Miss July 1959, with a centerfold photo of her lying on a sofa flashing her bare behind.
“Our lawyer thought that photo was going to get us into trouble,” recalls Hefner with a laugh. “He literally wanted to stop the presses and change the Playmate. I said, ‘Forget it.’ ”
More than 50 years later, Hefner received another message about Vickers, this time a Tweet. The former Playmate and one-time B-movie queen had been found dead in a mummified state in her home. She had died without anybody knowing for perhaps close to a year. She was 82.
“She lived a full life,” says Hefner, 85. “But in those final years, the fact that she was able to die and not have friends who would be aware of it immediately, that is sad.”
Blonde, blue-eyed, voluptuous and beautiful, Vickers was pin-up model, actress and singer who was married twice and romanced famous men, including Jim Hutton, father of Timothy. Starring in low-budget flicks such as Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and Attack of the Giant Leeches, she became a cult icon. She was a common face at conventions and film festivals up until about two years ago when apparent mental illness and alcohol abuse caught up with her.
“She was bright and intelligent, but she became very paranoid about people stalking her and talking about her behind her back,” her longtime friend Boyd Magers, 70, of Western Clippings magazine tells PEOPLE. “She lost her looks. She became very overweight.”
She also became “delusional” after she was no longer being invited to film festivals that tended to be “an ego boost for a lot of actors and actresses who have been forgotten from Hollywood,” says Magers.
“She would say she owned property in places that she didn’t,” he says. “She thought a casting agent was doing her harm, and I don’t think that was true. She drank too much alcohol, no doubt about that.”
And she began cutting important people out of her life because she thought they were trying to harm her.
Living in a Beverly Hills cottage in prestigious Benedict Canyon, Vickers was once a vibrant presence, seen singing and dancing, but in recent years she exhibited disturbing behavior.
“She would see a car parked on the street and say, ‘I think they’re stalking me,’ ” neighbor Susan Savage says. “She got very paranoid.”
People in the canyon value their privacy and so they left Vickers alone – until last Wednesday.
“I was walking my dog up the street and I noticed yellowing envelopes and cobwebs outside of Yvette’s home,” Savage says. “I had a friend who died on Easter Sunday a few days before, so it got me thinking I wanted to do something good.”
Even though Vickers’s phone was still in service and there were no suspicious smells coming from her home, Savage had a hunch something was wrong. The small, reddish-brown two-story house had fallen into disrepair and surrounded by overgrown vegetation. A fruit picker held up part of the house’s framing. A door had a panel broken, mended with duct tape. Rusty shade umbrellas hung out on the tiny upstairs balcony. The shingles on the home’s roof were pulling apart.
Savage walked up to the front door and called inside the house several times and heard the phone ringing. After looking through the windows and seeing nothing because of obstructions, Savage pushed open the broken door and went inside. There, she found the mummified remains presumed to be those of Vickers.
The cause of death is unknown pending an autopsy, but Vickers may have been dead for nearly a year – the last time she had been seen or heard from by neighbors and her few remaining friends.
“Some of my neighbors – myself included – have been given a bad wrap for not checking on Yvette before Susan had the courage to find her,” says neighbor Rick Trent. “We are not inconsiderate people. Yvette was a recluse by her choice.”
Still, the grim end to her life has those in the community second-guessing themselves.
“We’re all longtime neighbors here and we respect each others’ privacy,” says neighbor Denise Parga, 59. “Perhaps too much.”
• Additional reporting by MIKE FLEEMAN