Sirens: May Britt

By JEFF BENZIGER
Featured in Autograph January 2009

Signed 8x10 by May Britt.

Those who know how to reach May Britt for an autograph have one up on their fellow collectors. Having given up acting for the art canvas decades ago, the former sex-pot actress leads a low-key life today and her address has eluded us. In other words, collectors will need to turn to autograph dealers for anything signed by her.

Britt’s autograph is inexpensive, but the pickings seem slim, indicating that demand is less than exceptional. A 1974 May Britt contract to play the role of “Ingrid” in the film, Haunts (aka The Veil), appeared on eBay recently for $125. For one of the few contracts from a short film career, it sat there a while.

It’s hard to believe that the attractive lingerie-clad blonde who dazzled audiences in The Blue Angel in 1959, will soon be 76. But it’s been more than five decades since the daughter of a Swedish postal inspector was accidentally discovered while working as a photographer’s assistant. When Italian producer Carlo Ponti and director Mario Soldati went to a Stockholm, Sweden, studio to check out photos of beautiful models for their 1952 film, The Daughter of the Black Corsair, they certainly pored over photos of lovely ladies, but they liked the beauty in front of them—Maj-Britt Nilsson. She hopped at the chance to go to Rome where her good looks were put to use in films.

The first English language role for May (pronounced My) came in 1956 with the epic, War and Peace. After signing a film contract by 20th Century Fox, Britt went on to star with Marlon Brando in The Young Lions (1957) and Peter Falk in Murder, Inc. (1960). In 1958 Britt appeared in The Hunters, a homage to the flyers and the fighter aircraft of the Korean War, with Robert Mitchum and Robert Wagner.

Her most famous role was in The Blue Angel, where she played a scandalous nightclub entertainer in a club named the same as the film’s title. A professor (played by Curd JÜrgens) goes to the club with intentions of “catching” some of his male students but is crippled by Lola’s sensuality. He develops an obsession with the gorgeous Swede and engages in a romance that ultimately causes him to lose everything. The role drew an unwanted storm of criticism; some disliked the film being remade from its 1929 original version with Marlene Dietrich in the role of Lola. But it also drew Britt lots of American attention, and on August 17, 1959, Britt made the cover of Life magazine, then an indicator of fame.

Not thrilled by her fame, Britt pulled the plug on her film career in 1960, the year she married entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. The marriage drew lots of public jeers and brow beating—even death threats against Davis. At the time, interracial marriage was illegal in many states until 1967 when the Supreme Court weighed in on the matter. The marriage is portrayed in the 1998 HBO movie, Rat Pack, which centers on the relationship between John F. Kennedy and Sinatra and the legendary Rat Pack. The movie suggests that the interracial marriage hampered Kennedy’s chances of being president because of Davis’ close association with Sinatra. JFK’s father, Joe Kennedy, warns Sinatra that Americans won’t appreciate Davis as Sinatra’s best man since Davis is married to a white woman, and that voters’ outrage will deliver a backlash to JFK at the polls.

The marriage produced a daughter, Tracey, who has since written a book about her famous dad, and two adopted sons. Britt left Davis in 1968 after he had an affair with dancer Lola Falana.

Britt came out of obscurity in 1977 to make the psycho-sexual thriller film, Haunts. She later appeared on TV up until 1988.

About Steve Cyrkin, Editor

Steve Cyrkin is the editor & publisher of Autograph, and focuses mostly on forgery, market and consumer protection issues.

Comments

  1. Max Benedetto says:

    Hi,

    just to correct one thing: the real name of May Britt is not Maj-Britt Nillson, that is another swedish actress, but Maybritt Wilkens.

    Thanks.