How Metro Goldwyn Mayer Covered Up The Rape of Patricia Douglas
Right now is the perfect time to shine a spotlight on the forgotten crimes perpetrated in Hollywood, and Patricia Douglas deserves to be avenged.
[TW: This essay contains discussion of sexual violence]
Ten years ago, Girl 27 went to Sundance. The film should have made a bigger splash than it did, but I suppose it makes perfect sense that it didn’t garner as much recognition as it deserved, given its subject.
Girl 27 is a documentary that tracks the forgotten story of Patricia Douglas, a film extra and dancer who was raped at an MGM studio stag party thrown by Louis B. Mayer in May of 1937. She was lured there under the false pretenses of a casting call. With 120 young women and girls in total, she was listed as number 27 on the “call sheet.” David Stenn uses his quaint film to deliver an account of the entire story in gruesome detail, an extension of his exposé written for Vanity Fair in 2003.
There were four separate police departments represented at the party that night — the LAPD, the State Police, Culver City Police, and MGM’s own private police and watchmen. None of them filed a report about the rape.
When Patricia bravely took her story public with a lawsuit, the other young women and girls who worked as extras in the industry were given a questionnaire about her with questions like, “Have you ever seen Patricia Douglas intoxicated, before or after the party?” They were asked to “state in detail what you know about Patricia Douglas’ past reputation for morality.” The Pinkertons surveilled her and the doctor who first examined her was asked to create false records to show that she’d previously contracted a venereal disease. All of this was done in an effort to paint her as a drunken, loose woman.
Patricia’s lawsuit (seemingly the first known federal rape case) was dismissed by the court after collecting dust for three years for “lack of prosecution.” Her lawyer had failed to appear in federal court on any occasion. He went on to become elected as District Attorney of LA County, and David Stenn suspects that it was thanks to the support of MGM. Patricia’s own mother—appointed her Guardian ad Litem—was paid off by MGM and let the case die.
Metro Goldwyn Mayer was home to the brightest Hollywood stars at the time. Louis B. Mayer was the highest paid man in the nation and the biggest name in the film industry. Patricia never stood a chance against the most powerful Hollywood executives at the most powerful movie studio on the planet. What happened to her was almost completely wiped from the record. Her rapist, David Ross, was never served, arrested, or charged.
But Patricia did inspire a young singer, Eloise Spann, to come forward about her rape by an MGM executive. Her case was mishandled in the same way and she never received any justice. She stopped singing, became depressed, and died by suicide many years later.
Peggy Montgomery worked as a film extra during the same time as Patricia and Eloise. In Girl 27, she speaks of how she was sexually harassed on the casting couch and of the culture of misogyny rampant throughout the industry. Men using their powerful positions to coerce, pressure, manipulate, and force young women and girls into uncomfortable sexual situations was common, expected, and even encouraged.
“At sixteen, I went to work for MGM, and I considered it was a windfall. There was an air, a constant air of being pursued. All the men tended to try to break women down. These were very aggressive men. Twice, I was asked to go to be interviewed, and the guy got up and said, ‘Well, let’s see your legs,’ and you’d pull up your skirt and he’d say, ‘Turn around, Honey. Pull it up higher.’ And then he’d say, ‘Let’s see how you feel, ‘ and then he’d walk around the desk and grab you. You couldn’t go to the Citizen’s News and say, ‘You know, Mister So-and-so did this to me at MGM.’ No way! Because the studios owned Hollywood. I mean, this is no exaggeration. It was one of a laws I learned very early on. Even the adults were afraid. Everybody seemed to be afraid of something. Except the men that were pursuing girls, you know. That was the one thing that nobody seemed to have any compunction about.”
Patricia’s devastating account was only brought to light when David Stenn was researching his Jean Harlow biography, Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow (1993). The same week that Harlow died in 1937, the story of Patricia Douglas hit the papers, but after that, it disappeared.
Girl 27 and David’s investment in her experience allowed Patricia to truly be heard and believed for the first time, more than sixty-five years after she was raped. She describes how she was lured to the party, how she was literally forced to drink a mixture of champagne and scotch by two men there, how she was attacked and violated by David Ross in a field behind the barn where the party was held, how she had been a virgin before that night. For the rest of her life, Patricia struggled with physical and emotional intimacy. She experienced insomnia, depression, agoraphobia, and isolation.
But in the end, she was hopeful. “The battle is not over,” she said. “And until I am vindicated publicly where everybody knows the true story of what really happened, I won’t be. The doors are open now and the gloves are off.”
The New York Times refused to run her obituary after she passed away in 2003. They claimed that it was because they needed “something more” than what David had uncovered. They were one more entity in a long line of people who refused to help Patricia tell her story. She deserved so much more than what this world has given her.
I wrote previously about serial sexual predators and the price of silence. The people around sexual predators passively protect them with their silence, but it’s about a lot more than that. It’s also about how victims themselves become silenced in order to actively protect their abusers. And it’s also about how this kind of sexual violence has always been an open secret in Hollywood.
But there’s something about the current social and political climate that has finally made it possible to hold these men accountable for their violence. We’re in a perfect storm. The winds are swirling with outrage over Trump’s sexual violence, the white feminist obsession with his “grab them by the pussy” comment and the pink pussy hats in response to it, the fact that the majority of the women coming forward are white women. In the midst of this, I cannot help but think about how the victims of Bill Cosby and R. Kelly have not been heard and respected in the same way, but that is a discussion that deserves an essay all its own.
This is an important moment, and we have to remain vigilant, so that all sexual predators can finally be held accountable. We have to be prepared to indict our favorites at any given moment, on any given day, because they all have the potential to be a danger. Your favorite actor, your favorite director, your favorite writer, your favorite comedian. None of them are immune.
The accused are beginning to lose everything. Now a task force will assemble to (hopefully) properly investigate the rampant sexual abuse in the entertainment industry. Charges will be filed and sentences will be handed out. You may get the understandable human urge to feel sorry for them, because that’s how empathy works. Don’t. They deserve everything that’s coming to them. They deserve to lose it all—endorsements, roles, movie deals, partnerships, relationships. They deserve to have their names dragged through the mud. They brought this on themselves and I will not waste an ounce of my precious energy feeling sorry for their fates. Not for a single damn one. The doors are open now and the gloves are off.
I hope every person they ever mistreated, took advantage of, threatened, and silenced gets the justice that they are owed. I hope this is a moment that ultimately changes the ugly culture of sexual abuse in the entertainment industry, and beyond. I hope this strikes fear into the heart of every single man on this planet, working in every industry, in every system, in every institution.
I hope they’re all too terrified to ever sexually harass or assault someone ever again. I hope this inspires an eternity of self-reflection on their part, and that they pass it on to their descendants and subordinates. I hope this will ultimately be a massive blow to rape culture and that the tidal wave reaches the fucking White House. Let these predators not die peaceful, quiet deaths without paying for their crimes like David Ross did.
This is the vindication that Patricia Douglas, Eloise Spann, and all those who came before and after these women have always deserved, and I hope this moment means that they will finally get it. May we all finally be vindicated. May all of our abusers finally burn.