Eight decades ago, Patricia Douglas made nationwide headlines, upstaging even the wedding of the former king of England and the American double-divorcée Wallis Simpson. Then, just as suddenly, she vanished, hounded into exile by Hollywood’s most omnipotent men.
Why? Because Douglas did something unique: For the first time, a rape survivor not only refused to be silenced, but took her case all the way into federal court, where she reframed the crime as a civil rights issue. And she battled the system alone, without the support of today’s collective outrage and hashtag campaigns.
Douglas has been all but forgotten since. But when Hollywood’s biggest stars wore black on the Golden Globes red carpet last weekend in solidarity with sexual assault victims, they did do so in part because, many decades ago, Douglas blazed a trail for the uprising we’re seeing today.
In 1930s Hollywood — its so-called Golden Age — Douglas was a dancer, shuttling among studios for musical numbers. "I was good," she recalled in an interview for my 2007 documentary film Girl 27. "I moved just like J.Lo." So when a casting director sent her to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the world’s most prestigious film factory, the 20-year-old Douglas didn’t think twice.
What happened next defines Golden Age tarnish: She was bused along with 119 female dancers to a remote ranch, which the women were told was a film set. Actually, it was an MGM-sponsored "stag affair" for 282 visiting studio salesmen, a reward for record annual profits.
Without telephones or transportation, the young dancers were trapped. Two salesmen pinned down Douglas, a teetotaling virgin, and poured Scotch down her throat. She managed to flee; one of the men, David Ross, followed and raped her. "Cooperate!" he demanded as Douglas began to black out. "I want you awake."
Sexual assault in 1937 implied two things: First, the victim had somehow provoked such abuse, and second, she must stay silent or become "damaged goods." Douglas understood each but ignored both, taking her case to Buron Fitts, district attorney of Los Angeles County. Fitts’ top campaign contributor was the MGM chieftain Louis B. Mayer, the highest-paid man in America. Needless to say, Fitts did not support Douglas’ case.
It would be no surprise if her story ended here. But once again, Patricia Douglas defied the rules, first by going public about MGM’s wild party, then filing a lawsuit against Ross; the studio general manager, Eddie Mannix; the casting director, Vincent Conniff; and others.
Coverage of Douglas’ case was predictably slanted: The word "rape" was deemed unfit to print, so front-page newspaper articles resorted to euphemisms like "ravished." And while her home address was widely published, MGM — the world’s best-known purveyor of Hollywood product and largest employer in Los Angeles County — was identified only as "a local film studio."
MGM may have seemed its invincible self, but behind the scenes there was panic. "Gee whiz, Louis," fretted the media baron (and movie producer) William Randolph Hearst to Mayer in a letter about the party recently discovered in Hearst’s private archive and quoted here for the first time, "do you realize how damaging that is to the whole moving picture industry and fraternity?"
"I am going to do everything I can now to help this situation, of course," promised Hearst. "But the public will be sympathetic with a poor little extra girl."
Douglas gave no interviews, letting her lawsuit speak for itself. Meanwhile MGM unleashed a smear campaign: Pinkerton detectives subjected her to surveillance; pressured her doctor to falsely say she had gonorrhea; and strong-armed fellow dancers to sign statements tagging her a promiscuous drunk. (In our own era, Harvey Weinstein would follow his forebears, hiring outside help to besmirch accusers.)
A Los Angeles County judge dismissed Douglas’ suit. Yet again she could have given up; instead the next day she refiled in U.S. District Court. For the first time in our nation’s history, a woman made rape a federal case by invoking its violation of her civil rights.
Douglas used every legal resource available to her, but a young dancer was no match for MGM, which best evidence shows now bought off her mother, the court-appointed guardian in her lawsuit. Blackballed by the studios, shunned as "damaged goods," Douglas disappeared without a trace, spending the rest of her life in seclusion.
"We had her killed," I was told Mannix wisecracked. So thoroughly did MGM expunge Patricia Douglas from the historical record that when I first stumbled upon her story, no reference source whatsoever cited her case, while a Google search of her name yielded nothing.
It’s a brave new world now, though Douglas did not live to see it. Sixty-five years after her landmark lawsuit and just before her death in 2003, Douglas shrugged off her pioneering importance.
"It wasn’t for glory," she told me. "It was just to make them stop having those parties." In this sense, she achieved her aim: MGM would never lure women under false pretenses to such events again.
She did so in another sense, too. "The truth will out," Douglas declares in Girl 27, and with each new account of sexual assault and harassment, her example serves as a call to arms. Injustice can thrive only in silence, and finally, thankfully, explosively, the story of Patricia Douglas and others like her now resonates in Hollywood and beyond. Sometimes winning is just being heard. And sometimes being heard is just the start of much more.
David Stenn is a screenwriter and author.
© 2018 New York Times