A Nightmare in Dreamland

I remember how taken I was with David Stenn’s Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow when I read it back at the turn of the century. As you may know, I generally despise biographical books—so-and-so was born, her parents did this that and the other; she turned 2 and this happened; at 8 that happened, blah blah blah. If I want somebody’s chronology, I’ll look at Wikipedia. Bombshell proved an exception, which shouldn’t be surprising because the book was written by TV scenarist and producer David Stenn and edited by Jackie Onassis during her time at Doubleday. Jackie had also edited Stenn’s other Hollywood biography, Runnin’ Wild, the Clara Bow Story.

My respect for Bombshell emanated from what I recognized as Stenn’s tenaciousness as a researcher and passion for telling a story. I wanted to be like David Stenn! So when I started down the path of writing a book about the plane crash that killed Carole Lombard, I sought David out because he had nailed the personality of Clark Gable and written authoritatively about him in Bombshell. It’s been 10 years now since he and I spoke, but I remember several conversations with David and appreciated his time, laser focus and advice. Speaking with him was like reading his work: He gave 100% of his attention to me and my topic, and his advice is embedded in my book Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 and my other Hollywood biographies, Mission about Jim Stewart and Dutch Girl about Audrey Hepburn.

But life goes on and I had lost track of David Stenn until last week when my friends CB and Marina were talking about a documentary called Girl 27. Their prompting nudged an “Oh, yeah!” out of my brain—that David and I had discussed MGM and its scandals of the 1930s. A couple were untold stories that had really captured his imagination.

The other evening, I sat down with the 80-minute documentary Girl 27, released in 2007, with David Stenn directing and serving as on-air storyteller. Girl 27 is one of however many—thousands, certainly—dark stories of Hollywood’s past, this one concerning Patricia Douglas, a young teenager living in L.A. who had gotten some work as a dancer in the movies. One day she answered a casting call for dancers to appear in cowgirl costumes for an evening job at the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City (also the location of MGM). But the job didn’t turn out to be motion picture production. Instead, a lavish party had been devised by MGM to entertain its exhibitors and salespeople from around the United States—hundreds of white men in town to be wined and dined. The dancers were to be eye candy for the dignitaries.

As described in an interview for Filmmaker magazine, David Stenn had come across page-one headlines as he was researching Bombshell about young dancer Pat Douglas crying rape following this event. But after a couple days of newspaper coverage, the story disappeared, as had Douglas.

Lots of things annoy me. On that list is the labeling of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer executives Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling as “MGM’s fixers.” I’ll spare you the F-bombs going off in my head just writing this term. Eddie Mannix wasn’t somebody‘s hit-man; Eddie Mannix was a vice president at MGM and right-hand man of Louis B. Mayer, who ran the most powerful studio in Hollywood. I remember watching the movie Hollywoodland and there were Bob Hoskins as Mannix and Joe Spano as Strickling sitting there stone-faced mumbling plots like wiseguys over the fact that Mannix’s wife Toni was banging actor George Reeves. But IRL Mannix ran much of a city-sized movie studio while Strickling oversaw publicity. Once in a while, a tiny aspect of their jobs involved cleaning up messes caused by studio employees, in one case the rape of Pat Douglas by a Chicago exhibitor named David Ross at the evening party on the Hal Roach lot in 1937.

The MGM field guys came to Hollywood with the clear indication from Mayer and Co. that Hollywood was opening its arms in every way possible. Liquor flowed in rivers that night, and undoubtedly many of the ambitious cowgirls on hand were ready, willing, and able to further their careers any way they could. But Pat Douglas wasn’t one of them. Pat showed up to dance, with the servicing of strangers from out of town the very last thing on her mind. She was a virgin who didn’t drink, and when David Ross forced liquor down her throat, she rushed outside to throw it back up. Later he dragged her to a car and raped her, with Douglas discovered by a parking attendant who called for an ambulance. Douglas was taken to a rinky-dink local hospital where she received a douche to cleanse her. But she had been raped and naïvely went public with this fact.

Pat Douglas agrees to appear on-camera in her Las Vegas apartment after 65 years of anonymity.

Those were the headlines David Stenn discovered, and because he had been immersed in MGM history writing the Harlow story, he knew exactly who would have covered up the incident and how they would have done it. Sixty-five years later, the case as cold as the trail, Stenn went to work employing his furious research skills and Girl 27 tells the story of what he found. He located Pat Douglas’ daughter, as well as the children of the parking attendant and the son of the attorney who was supposed to represent Douglas. Stenn turned to Judy Lewis, illegitimate daughter of Loretta Young and MGM’s Clark Gable, to understand the nature of Hollywood cover-ups. And ultimately, much to his surprise, Stenn found Pat Douglas still alive, a Las Vegas shut-in age 85.

Girl 27 has many spooky aspects. It’s spooky to see Mannix whispering in Mayer’s ear in MGM footage shot during the exhibitor convention of 1937. It’s spooky to see David Ross isolated in that same film footage as he stepped off the train in L.A., this sinister rapist on the prowl. But it’s spookiest of all to sit with haunted Pat Douglas, who at first wouldn’t even speak to Stenn on the phone but who ultimately appeared on camera, this wreck of a human tortured by one man and one night for the remainder of her life.

Girl 27 tells a huge, powerful story about the darkness of Hollywood. In fact, I have found that Hollywood was more darkness than light, a reality obscured by the fact that only the shimmering motion pictures remain while the flawed humans who created them have all passed on. In the Pat Douglas case, Eddie Mannix and others at MGM did what they had to do to protect the brand. If one young woman had to be wrecked along the way, that wasn’t so bad. They paid off the parking attendant, the doctor who attended her, and the attorney serving as her mouthpiece, and poof, the case went away.

By the end we in the audience are screaming for justice, but that’s a view for a different century. Monday morning quarterbacking. Back in 1937, the entire world and not just the movies were black and white. Back then if you were raped you had asked for it; Douglas herself confirmed that. Hers became a life of hatred and mistrust courtesy of one nightmare evening in a place so often referred to as the dream capital.

3 comments

  1. I saw that documentary some years ago on cable. How it affected me is amazing almost as much as the Carole Lombard DC 3 plane crash book.
    Pat Douglas was so haunted as you say. This one incidence changed her life forever and you can see it on her face and in her eyes.
    How I loved it when David Stenn said that he loved her on the movie I gained the ultimate respect for him then. Its was so sweet when he went to Kentucky Fried Chicken for her and you can see the affection and trust she gained for David Stenn over time. His book on Jean Harlow was superb also and us a must read.
    In short, these books and documentary on their tragic lives – some short, some long- needed to be told as the years go by so these women and their stories will be remembered. I am grateful for these books and movie and the men that created them.

  2. As a “career” woman, I agree and then, I don’t agree. Things have changed but then nothing’s changed. (Sorry Mr. Dickens.)

    Many women have advanced in all fields but more men are still in positions of authority. And many of them are greedy psychopaths, hell-bent on having their way regardless of the carnage they leave behind. It’s not even really “hell-bent.” I believe it’s in the DNA of many uncouth men. Am I a feminist? Nope, but I am a female realist with 62 years of experience competing in a man’s world.

    I believe many men in high-ranking positions abuse that authority still because they can.

    But on the flip side, many ambitious women use that unveiled greed to their advantage, either openly knowing the full consequences of their rendering, or subtly, hoping to outsmart their oversexed abusers (hunters) delicately but strategically. I was in the second category.

    Not all cases involve coercion for positions at work.

    When I was first in the Army in 1978, three of my female colleagues were raped…, by so-called friends. This was a travesty yet all three cases two things were at the forefront, copious amounts of body- and mind-numbing alcohol and seclusion/opportunity. All three could’ve easily been prevented by avoiding those two obvious contributors.

    I advised my own daughter to avoid these two factors because very crudely put, I do believe a girl or a woman is intentionally or naively putting herself in that situation.

    An example is the female Army senior sergeant who on her own initiative went to the sergeant major’s hotel room near midnight when she and he, were both inebriated. Then she had the gall to cry rape, ten years later. I just can’t comprehend that type of audacity or stupidity.

    Another example was a young Army Specialist who reported to the military police (MP) that she was raped. For some inexplicable reason, they handed the case over to our battalion commander who in turn handed it to me to conduct an AR 15-6, Army (in-house) investigation.

    I took her statement which read like it was straight out of Hustler! Did she “ask for it?” I wasn’t quite sure but rape never entered my mind after reading that statement and after interviewing all parties concerned.

    It turned out that the sergeant she claimed who raped her, was her former lover who was married. He wanted to end the affair but the lower ranking female did not.

    She later lured him to her room for one last night of playtime but then later called it rape, after they both were in the altogether, in the position etc. She claims that after all this foreplay and nakedness, she told him to stop and he did not stop.

    So it seems to me, that many women are taking the “No” a little too far if they get the Battleship Missouri underway, full steam ahead. But this young enlisted woman was clearly seeking retribution. I feel that was the primary reason the MP’s handed the case over to the battalion and not process it as a crime.

    So I say to all women young and old, if you want to avoid a really bad situation, pass on the alcohol and be prudent using the “Buddy System.”

    The poet Ogden Nash very bluntly stated it almost 100 years ago, “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.”

    In the Hollywood case, it seems there was a great deal of confusion on why the young women were there, depending on who’s perspective it was.

    By the way, I really loved the Rod Serling diction at the end of your article.

  3. NO man has the right to rape a woman EVER. Not when she’s sober, not when she’s drunk, not when her skirt’s too short, not when she’s old, not when she’s young, not when she’s home alone, not when she’s out in public, not when she rejects him, not when she changes her mind, not when she says no, and not when she has “put herself in that situation”.

    She doesn’t deserve to be raped, under any circumstance, by some piece of s**t who gets off on abuse and power.

    Pat Douglas didn’t deserve to be raped because at age 17 she answered a casting call to dance at a party. She didn’t deserve to raped because she was drunk from being force-fed alcohol. Robert Matzen didn’t mention the part where the rapist told Pat that he wanted to destroy her and then slapped her in the face to keep her awake so she would cooperate while he raped her. It seems to me that the obvious contributor in the rape of Pat Douglas was this monster of a man who undoubtedly set his sights on victimizing someone that night and made her his target.

    This woman spent her entire life in the shadow of this rape. She shouldn’t have been blamed for it then. Or now.

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