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.
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.