Her Claws as Sharp as Ever, Pamela Mason Tells Her Old Family Firm to 'Stuff Its Stuffiness'

updated 10/22/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/22/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The directors of Illingworth, Morris—the staid British textile firm—were aghast. Their controlling stockholder descended on the company last month, sacked Price Waterhouse, which had kept its books for more than five decades, installed a cosmetics marketing whiz as its new chief executive and bullied them into reelecting her absentee son to a seat on the board. Never in the genteel 59-year history of Illingworth's—whose worsteds make vestments for the Pope and tunics for Her Majesty's Guards—had its officers seen the likes of Pamela Mason, 61. "There will have to be some changes," she harrumphed at the firm's annual stockholders' meeting. "Get off your butts."

In a cooler moment some time ago, Mason demurely observed: "For years it's been said I'm a frightening woman. I've never known why." Perhaps because no one dared to tell her. The worst anyone said publicly about the acid-tongued author-actress—and ex-wife of actor James Mason—was Groucho Marx's comment that she was Hollywood's steadiest talker and that her main topic was sex. So the celebrity-dissecting 1960s talk show hostess found the employees of Illingworth, Morris easy game. In 1975, Pamela became executrix of her multimillionaire father's estate, which included 46 percent of the firm's voting stock. But she only took command of the company last month, after the six-month balance sheet turned up $2 million in the red. "I began to see another Leyland and Chrysler looming," she says, and she warned company executives that she wouldn't let the firm follow those troubled footsteps. "If they need a kick up the backside," she snapped in London, "I've got a sharp, pointed toe."

The kick was swift. Mason named Thomas Yeardye—a former Vidal Sassoon executive who figures prominently in the steamy memoirs of '50s sex goddess Diana Dors—as Illingworth's executive director. She then demanded that shareholders reelect her son Morgan to the board. Though 24-year-old Morgan is better known for his liaison with 45-year-old actress Louise Fletcher than as a diligent director—he hadn't been at a meeting in two years—Mom argues that his full-time job as a fund-raiser for the Reagan-for-President campaign will serve the company well. "If Reagan gets elected," she argues, "we can say we clothe the President. It will be a tremendous asset."

Perhaps. But synthetic fibers and cheaper labor abroad have made inroads on the antiquated, strike-plagued British textile industry, and some experts contend that Illingworth's problems may be intractable. On the other hand, Pamela has successfully run her own vitamin mail order company in L.A. and manages property in Los Angeles and Las Vegas—and she is convinced that some good old American moxie is just what the stodgy British need. "They believe you don't fly in the face of tradition, you just stay there and die," sniffs Mason, a naturalized American. "I want to stuff all those stuffy attitudes." She has ordered Yeardye to open up markets in the United States—and she plans to oversee operations from her mansion on the eponymous Pamela Drive in Beverly Hills. "Up to now I thought the people who ran the company were the experts," she declares. "Now I know they don't know any more than I do."

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