THE California Institution for Women prison is no place for a Playmate of the Year. Just ask Victoria Vetri.
This cinderblock hellhole that sits quietly broiling on the edge of the desert near Corona has been her home for five years and she has a few more left to serve. She doesn't get too many guests, but when they do arrive, she knows others in the communal visiting area are whispering about her, surreptitiously pointing and judging.
Her sun-frazzled hair, dorky reading glasses and shapeless orange jumpsuit are an effective disguise in a place where ordinariness gets you through the day. But ordinary has never been a description worn comfortably by prisoner number WE3024.
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It’s said that beauty is an enormous, unmerited gift given randomly, stupidly. This fortuitous comingling of genes landed in the right order for Victoria Vetri. Born to penniless Italian immigrant parents in San Francisco in 1944, she followed a well-worn path to the balmier climes of Los Angeles, joining the scores of others scraping a living as jobbing actors and models. A few minor TV roles appeared, Vetri appearing under her stage name Angela Dorian. This name was chosen as a play on the ill-fated Italian ocean liner Andrea Doria, although choosing a handle redolent of the worst maritime disaster to occur in US waters didn’t seem wholly optimistic.
Her big break came in 1967, when she was selected as Playboy’s Playmate of the Month for September, subsequently winning the 1968 Playmate of the Year. Playboy had inked a scheme to award every one of its annual award winners a brand new car, finished in Playmate Pink. Vetri was the fifth winner of a pink car and the only recipient who kept her car pink for a while at least.
Wherever she travelled in the course of her official duties, the local AMC dealer would pull an AMX off their lot and it would be at Victoria’s disposal. AMC would traditionally number their cars but because her car was the Playmate special, Victoria’s numbered plaque read 36-24-35. Times were a bit different then.
She soon found the car attracted all manner of unwanted attention.
"I hate the colour pink. When I was in Hollywood, it didn't matter where I drove the little AMX, studio, market, wherever, it took me a little longer to reach my destination than if I would drive one of my other cars,” she explained. “Police would even pull me over, not for ticket, but for an autograph, and this happened once a week. Most people just would ask if I was 'Playmate of the Year' and that was end of it, however a few times I would be followed for great lengths and it would get ugly.”
There were really only two options. Sell the car or disguise it. “I decided after making When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth I would have the car painted as to not stand out like a sore thumb. It was painted brown, then grey, and later black.” It had a hard life, becoming a battered daily driver as money gradually dried up for Vetri.
"My car was a base AMX, 290V8 automatic, but also nicely optioned with air conditioning, power steering and brakes, tilt column, AM/eight-track, fully tinted windows and bumper guards. Originally it had Magnum 500 chrome 1968 rims, but I changed them to slot dish mags. It's one of only 484 in that 290/AT combination,” she says, clearly knowing her stuff. She vowed that one day she’d get it repainted pink.
At this point, the story takes a bit of a turn for the macabre. Vetri had a few celebrity friends and was particularly close to actress Sharon Tate. One evening in August 1969, Tate invited Vetri to her mansion in Benedict Canyon. Her husband, film director Roman Polanski, was away filming in Europe and she was having a few close friends round for a night in. Vetri declined, claiming she wasn’t feeling too well, only to wake up the next day to hear that every occupant of the house had been butchered by the Manson family. Sure, if everyone in Hollywood who claimed the same was at the Polanski house that night, the place would have looked like the Pasadena Rose Bowl, but what happened next underlined the veracity of Vetri’s story.
Roman Polanski flew back to California and, with the murders still unsolved, handed Vetri his personal handgun, a Walther PPK automatic as popularised by James Bond, as a measure of personal security. It was at that point that Vetri decided to respray her pink AMX. The gun was tucked away in her purse and there it stayed. Meanwhile, Polanski was pictured kneeling at his front door on 10050 Cielo Drive, the word "PIG" daubed over it in his dead wife’s blood, hoping the Polaroids would spark some spiritual vibe that would help solve the crime. As I said, times have changed.
Vetri scored the odd cameo in TV shows like Star Trek, Mission Impossible, Hogan’s Heroes and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. but work soon became hard to come by. She married Bruce Rathgeb in 1986, and in 2010 her well-worn AMX appeared for sale on eBay. It was clearly in need of a lot of restoration work to get it back into respectable shape but Victoria seemed in fairly good spirits even when parting with it. Cue Mark Melvin, a massive AMX fan and collector, who realised he just could not miss out on this storied vehicle. Melvin attempted to get the title for the car and tracked Vetri down, but events rapidly spiralled out of control.
After selling the AMX, Vetri had an argument with husband Bruce Rathgeb, over what she perceived was unfaithfulness on his part. He walked away and as he stood at his apartment block’s elevator doors, Vetri pulled the Walther PPK, which had stayed in her purse for 42 years and three months, and shot him in the back from about eight feet away.
“Quickly she just aimed and fired at me,” Bruce Rathgeb said, telling the court that he felt an intense burning and stinging on the left side of his body and smelled gunpowder. He testified that he passed out and subsequently awoke in hospital in terrible pain. “They tried to take the bullet out. I guess it was close to the heart so they left it in,” he said, noting that he has a four-inch scar above his left pectoral muscle and cannot move his fingers on his left hand. “Twenty-five years, I have never cheated on my wife,” Bruce Rathgeb told the judge. “I wasn’t going to listen to that all night … I have been true to her for 25 years and that’s the truth. A divorce would have been sufficient, not a bullet.” Allegedly, both she and her husband were using methamphetamine at the time of the shooting. Investigators concluded that Victoria "has a serious and violent anger management problem, and lacks impulse control”.
Vetri was sentenced to nine years in state prison for shooting her husband after pleading no contest to attempted voluntary manslaughter. In addition to nine years in prison, she was ordered to pay $70,000 to California's victim restitution fund. She cut a sorry figure at her trial, her beauty long faded, her wealth and fame a similarly distant memory.
All the while Mark Melvin, owner of Vetri’s old AMX watched in dumbfounded disbelief. As he started the restoration on the vehicle, he found a .380 calibre bullet from the Walther on the car’s floor. Perhaps he can take her out in WQX 307, her old car, now as perfect as the day she was first handed the keys, and maybe just for a moment, she'll be 24 again, windows down, Mamas and Papas on the eight-track and Sharon in the jump seat, blowing off speeding tickets on Benedict Canyon Drive. Even if all the leaves are brown and the sky is grey, Mark Melvin's going to make a troubled old lady who hates pink cars young and beautiful, sun-kissed and carefree again, if only behind closed eyes and a diffident smile.
That'll be enough.
I BOUGHT IT: Mark Melvin
I got an email from a local AMC parts vendor that the car was for sale locally, to go check it out if I wanted. I decided if it was meant for me to buy the car it would still be there, so the next day after I got off work I headed down to this little used car lot by the beach to check it out. There it was, all banged up, greasy, dirty, but under the black paint was pink paint everywhere. Plus the DMV paperwork had her name on it. It appeared to be the real car. I asked how much, agreed to the price, placed a deposit, and returned the following weekend to take it home.
When I bought the car I was given the Playmate's address and phone number but asked not to contact her until the DMV paper work was completed. The reason was that she couldn’t find the pink slip or title paper of the car when she sold it. Until the title was officially transferred maybe she could do something crazy like demand the car back. So I honoured the used car lot owner's request not to contact her. Two hours after I heard that she’s shot her husband and was in jail, the used car lot owner called to let me know he had completed the DMV paper work and transferred the title into my name.
I’ve yet to have the car appraised, but similar restored AMXs have sold recently at major car auctions in the neighbourhood of $US60,000. With the prominence of the car, I believe $US20,000-$US30,000 could be added to that number.
Since it appeared in the Jay Leno’s Garage video I have driven the car about 10 miles. On one of the weekends following the Leno appearance, the car's builder Allen Taylor and myself drove over to my good friend John Siciliano's home nearby, where we first took the car apart three years ago. I don’t plan to drive it much, trying to keep it as clean as possible and avoid some sort of "tragic mishap." As long as it's fun to take the car to shows and share it with the public, then I'll do so as often as possible.
I RESTORED IT: Allen Taylor
There wasn’t a straight panel on the car when we got it. The only parts that was straight on the car were the windshield pillars. Other than that, the quarter panels were damaged, the doors were damaged, and the fenders were damaged. We had to replace the hood and the left fender. The right fender we had such a tough time finding that we actually rebuilt the original fender.
The quarter panel on the right side was all rusted out at the bottom which is typical of AMC cars. This (ns/r) side had a rip in the quarter panel that I had to hammer weld and put back together. The rear panel of the car had been rear-ended and the rear body panel had been pushed into the gas tank and had actually collapsed the gas tank. So all those panels were removed and straightened as well as the cross member on the radiator support on the lower front side. It was totally separated from both frame rails. Three or four years before Mark got this car, I had just completed mine and I did a full rotisserie restoration just like this one.
We tried to put the car back as closely as possible to the original state of when this car was sold on an AMC lot. We didn’t have any of the pink paint to really take a spot of to match the colour. One day when I was stripping the paint off the car, I happened to take the underside of the deck lid and put some paint remover on it and I found a spot on the deck lid where the paint was not adhering to the pink paint. We just polished the pink and ended up taking the deck lid down to a paint store and having it colour-matched.
Lunar Calendar Girl
Yes, Victoria Vetri did go to the moon. The actual moon, not a Star Trek polystyrene one - or at least an image of her did. NASA equipped its Apollo moonshot astronauts with “cheat sheets” — checklists attached to the wrists of their space suits that acted as aide-memoires for their surface activities. The Apollo 12 backup crew of Dave Scott, Jim Irwin and Al Worden decided they’d give the first-teamer crew of Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon and Al Bean a bit of a grin on the lunar surface.
A little over two and a half hours into their first ‘extra-vehicular activity’ on the moon, Al Bean flipped to the page in his checklist that described the stages for taking a core tube sample. Smiling back at him was the bare-breasted Victoria Vetri, with the caption, ‘Seen any interesting hills and valleys?’
“I flipped the page over and there she was. I hopped over to where Pete was and showed him mine, and he showed me his” smiles Bean. “We didn’t say anything on the air,” says Bean. “We thought some people back on earth might become upset if they found out we had Playboy Playmates in our checklists. They would have said, ‘This is where our tax money is going?'” The practical joke had the landing crew in stitches. “We giggled and laughed so much,” confesses Conrad, “that people accused us of being drunk or having ‘space rapture.'”