You Must Remember This, the podcast that tells the secret and forgotten history of 20th-century Hollywood, has joined Panoply. And when each episode airs, creator and host Karina Longworth will share some of the research that went into the episode in a transcript excerpt here on Slate. Listen to the complete Episode 7 below, and subscribe to You Must Remember This on iTunes.
Eddie Mannix, MGM’s fixer, joined the studio near its inception and was on the payroll until his death in 1963. (Eddie Mannix is also the name of the fictionalized studio fixer character Josh Brolin plays in the upcoming film from the Coen brothers, Hail Caesar.) The real Mannix, who was written off as a gangster by some and embraced as a straight shooter by others, had a confirmed or suspected hand in covering up everyday misdemeanors like car wrecks and pregnancies, and also some of the most horrible scandals in the history of Hollywood. At the same time, it was Mannix’s job, as MGM’s comptroller and general manager, to keep the studio financially afloat, and thus he’s maybe more responsible for the longevity of MGM than any other executive.
Titles aside, at MGM, Mannix quickly settled into the role of all-around fixer. He worked in tandem with MGM’s head of publicity, Howard Strickling, a dapper former journalist who controlled how the press reported on MGM’s stars and films. Strickling made sure that scandals didn’t make the papers, which often meant giving reporters alternate stories to print, and probably also giving them stories about other stars as misdirection. Meanwhile, Mannix made sure the scandals went away. So while Strickling distracted the media, it was Mannix who arranged to get unruly stars out of the drunk tank, who made sure to pay off the victims of their car accidents and fistfights, who arranged abortions. When he couldn’t scare a star straight himself, Mannix would call in an old friend from New Jersey—i.e., a gangster—to deliver the message for him. He’d read every telegram sent or received through the studio, including personal messages sent by stars. This was one way the executives could stay on top of any trouble brewing, so they could plan how to respond to a scandal before it happened, or even prevent it from happening. Though Mannix developed close friendships with some stars—for instance, he was almost like family to Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy—he could also be extremely unforgiving of the stars under his watch: He had a sign on his desk reading, “THE ONLY STAR AT MGM IS LEO THE LION!”
Gable and Tracy were regulars at Lee Francis’ high-end house of ill repute, an apartment building on Sunset Boulevard, across the street from the Sunset Tower Hotel. Francis’ girls were paid $1,000 a week—more than most contract starlets. Francis’ house was an important part of the way Hollywood men let off steam and completely integral to the way the studio entertained important out-of-town clients. Who knows how much agency the employees of the House of Francis actually had over their work or their lives, but at least there was some kind of transparency about the services they were expected to perform as part of their job. For many young women in Hollywood, the rules and expectations weren’t so clear, and the compensation was minimal or nonexistent. Of all the scandals that Mannix had a hand in fixing—from Greta Garbo’s lesbian relationships, to the probably gangster-related murder of actress Thelma Todd, to the cover-up of a Gable car accident for which at least one book argues John Huston was made to take the fall—perhaps the biggest was the story of Patricia Douglas.
It started in May 1937. After a year that had encompassed tragedy—including the death of Irving Thalberg—and also triumphs like the major hits Mutiny on the Bounty and The Great Ziegfeld, the MGM boys planned an annual sales convention to end all annual sales conventions. In advance of the five-day conference in Culver City, California, the men who sold MGM’s movies on the East Coast boarded a private MGM railcar for the cross-country ride, and they spent the three-day trip pregaming. Louis B. Mayer himself, and a crowd of hired young ladies, greeted the drunken salesmen at the train station in Pasadena. “These lovely girls—and you have the finest of them—greet you,” Mayer said. “And that’s to show you how we feel about you, and the kind of a good time that’s ahead of you. Anything you want.”
The festivities for the salesmen included dinner at the Ambassador Hotel; a luncheon with stars like Jean Harlow (who would be dead in a month), Gable, and Joan Crawford; and finally, a party at Hal Roach’s ranch, which MGM was calling “The Wild West Show.” Held on Wednesday, May 5, 1937, the party, according to the convention’s schedule, promised “a stag affair, out in the wild and woolly West where ‘men are men.’ ”
As a teenager, Patricia Douglas had danced in the chorus line behind Ginger Rogers in the Busby Berkeley musical Gold Diggers of 1933. By 1937, Douglas was 20, living with her mother, and not working regularly in films. When she answered the casting call requesting that she show up at MGM at 4 p.m. on May 5, Douglas assumed she was going in for background work in a movie. She later said that if she had known that she was being “cast” for a private party, she never would have gone.
On the MGM lot, Douglas and the other girls were given cowgirl outfits that showed plenty of leg and full camera-ready hair and makeup. Then they were bused to the location. They were promised $7.50 for a day’s work, plus a meal. It wasn’t until the 300 salesmen and MGM executives arrived that the women realized that they had been hired to provide a female element at a party to which all the invited guests were men.
The open bar held 300 cases of scotch and Champagne to serve 300 invitees. After a few hours, any inhibitions that the male guests had walked in with had vanished. One waiter at the event reported watching the hired girls trying to evade men who “were attempting to molest them.” At some point, Douglas found herself dancing with David Ross, a 36-year-old from the Chicago office. She excused herself after their dance and complained to the bathroom attendant that she didn’t know what to do about this guy, who she called “an annoying creep doing his best to cop a feel.”
When she emerged from the bathroom, Ross was waiting for her. As she remembered it, Ross and another man held her down and poured liquor down her throat. She managed to break free, and she went back to the bathroom to throw up, and then made her way outside of the party to get some air. But Ross hadn’t given up. He found her outside the banquet hall, dragged her to a car, and threw her into the back seat, where he raped her. When Douglas started to black out, Ross slapped her. He said, “I want you awake.”
When Ross was finished, Douglas stumbled out of the car screaming. She was taken to the Culver City Hospital, which, like the Culver City Police Department, was essentially a satellite of MGM. The doctor who examined Douglas said he could find no evidence of intercourse, and Douglas was taken home in an MGM car. She spent the next two days in shock and then went back to the Roach ranch. She tried to tell the cashier what had happened to her. The cashier gave Douglas her $7.50 salary.
Patricia Douglas probably wasn’t the first person forced to have sex with a movie studio employee; it’s very possible she wasn’t the only person in that situation that night. But she was the first person to attempt to use the legal system to call a studio out for letting it happen. Douglas filed a complaint against Ross with the Los Angeles County district attorney. She probably didn’t know that the district attorney was a close friend of Louis B. Mayer, who had been the top donor to his campaign. When the DA did nothing, Douglas found a scrappy lawyer named William J.F. Brown, who advised her to tell her story to the press. That backfired. On June 4, 1937, the Los Angeles Examiner ran with a story about “a Wild Film Party.” It published Douglas’ picture and address and never mentioned MGM. But the DA finally showed Douglas a lineup of photos of men who had been at the event, and without hesitation, she pointed to Ross.
MGM went into damage-control mode. In some sense, this is what Mannix had spent his entire career to this point practicing for. Even if Douglas couldn’t prove that she had been raped—and that would have been very difficult to prove, given that at the hospital, the first thing they did was ask her to douche—the idea of a wild, booze-soaked all-but-orgy was bad for MGM’s public image as a factory for family films and for the studio’s private relationship with its corporate parent. So Mannix hired detectives to dig up dirt on Douglas. When they couldn’t find any, other girls who had been at the party were encouraged to give statements about how Douglas, who never drank, was in fact an incorrigible drunk.
The DA convened a grand jury, and Ross was forced to come from Chicago to appear. In the courthouse, Ross’ lawyer pointed at Douglas and said, “Look at her. Who would want her?” Witnesses who had previously given statements in support of Douglas would not repeat that testimony on the stand. The grand jury did not indict Ross, so Douglas filed a civil suit against Mannix, Ross, Roach, casting assistant Vincent Conniff, and “John Doe One To Fifty” for their “unlawful conspiracy to defile, debauch, and seduce” her and other dancers “for the immoral and sensual gratification of male guests.” MGM’s lawyers stalled the case until 1938, when it was dismissed by the Los Angeles County Superior Court. So Douglas refiled in federal court. But her lawyer betrayed her. Determined to challenge the DA for his seat, Brown failed to appear in court on her behalf—as did MGM’s lawyers. Eventually a federal judge dismissed the case.
Douglas had reached the end of her options. With her spirit broken, she gave up. Which was the intention from the start. MGM made sure that no record of Douglas or the Wild West Party would make it into its official histories. Douglas and her story completely disappeared for decades, until historian David Stenn put all the pieces together in an article in Vanity Fair, and then in a documentary called Girl 27. When asked about Douglas many years later, Mannix allegedly said, “We had her killed.” They didn’t actually kill her; instead she had to live with her trauma, knowing that a studio had effectively erased her for more than 60 years.