While we all learn about the current harassment in Hollywood (and beyond), I think it is important to remember those women who fought their own battles back in the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood. Therefore I’m publishing here an article I wrote about actress Patricia Douglas. Her story filled me with horror and rage. I’m sure it will leave the same impression on you, too.
Patricia Douglas might not be a household name now, but in 1937 she was on the front pages of numerous newspapers, creating more headlines than even the death of film star and icon, Jean Harlow. Sadly her name and story were covered up in the years that followed, and you are about to find out why.
Douglas was born on 27 March 1917 in Kansas City, Missouri, before moving to Hollywood with her mother, Mildred Mitchell. Mitchell was a dressmaker determined to make glamorous gowns for movie stars, but during the course of pursuing her ambitions – and eight unsuccessful marriages – she was not an attentive mother and ended up neglecting her daughter.
As she was used to going to the cinema as a child, it was a natural progression for Patricia to make her way into the movies, which she did almost as soon as she left school aged fourteen. However, she had no dreams of becoming an actress; instead she performed in dance numbers where she was so good at learning the routines and teaching others that she made a good name for herself with dance directors and gained a lot of work in the process. However, after on one particularly tragic night in 1937, Patricia’s interest in movies ended forever and she never danced again.
On 2 May 1937, MGM started hosting a much anticipated convention for 282 of their sales executives, who had all arrived as VIPs at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. They were wined, dined and had private transport to the events; you name it, they got it. In fact, MGM were so adamant that the executives would be satisfied that MGM boss Louis B. Mayer announced at the beginning of the convention that they could have “Anything you want!” and this was repeated time and time again during the course of the next few days.
On 5 May 1937, Patricia Douglas had a 4 p.m. movie call-time at a remote barn on producer Hal Roach’s ranch. Patricia was kitted out in a cowgirl outfit, consisting of brown felt hat, suede skirt and black side-seam boots, while 120 other girls were given a mixture of Western and Spanish costumes. They had no reason to believe that this call was for anything but a film, but they were very wrong. When they arrived at the barn there was no film crew, no lights, no cameras or sound equipment. Instead there were 500 cases of champagne, Scotch and lots of food; in short, it looked decidedly like a party was about to start, not a film shoot.
At 7 p.m., the girls were proved right in their suspicions when throngs of salesmen arrived at the barn, all of whom seemed happy to see that “party favours” had been left for them. But it wasn’t the food they were interested in; instead, it was the young women who had been tricked into thinking they would be making a movie, not taking part in a free-for-all at the hands of hundreds of hungry salesmen.
Patricia Douglas was allocated to the table of David Ross, a salesman from Chicago. In 2003, she was filmed for Girl 27 (2007), a documentary by respected author/producer David Stenn, and said on camera that Ross kept asking her to teach him how to “truck”, a new dance craze that Patricia was particularly good at. “It never entered my mind that anyone would do me any harm,” she told Stenn, adding that Ross was forever “copping a feel”, and was slimy with bulging eyes that dominated his entire face.
When Patricia returned from the dance floor to the table, the teetotal dancer was asked by another salesman to try the Scotch and champagne. She refused, which prompted one of the men to mix both drinks together into a glass and proceed to hold her nose while another man poured the ghastly liquid down Douglas’s throat. The young dancer almost choked on the liquid and it ran all over her face and down her clothes.
Patricia Douglas was not only horrified by what had just happened, but extremely ill from the liquor, so she went outside to vomit. Unfortunately she was followed by David Ross, who grabbed the virginal Douglas and appallingly proceeded to rape her, slapping the young dancer’s face to keep her awake, after the alcohol threatened to make her pass out. One of the last things she remembered him saying to her was the ghastly remark, “I want to destroy you”, a comment that troubled and confused Patricia for the rest of her life.
Finally, the attack was over and her screams for help brought car parking attendant Clement Soth to her aid. She was then taken to the Community Hospital, where she was given a douche, effectively destroying all evidence of the attack. Getting rid of anything that could put Ross at the scene of the attack seems a bizarre thing to do, but when you consider that the studio executives were furious that Douglas had made a fuss and determined that they would not be dragged into any kind of scandal, it all makes perfect sense.
It would seem that the studio executives were adamant that they would make sure it was Douglas, not them, who had a ruined reputation, and as a result, questionnaires were handed out to other dancers to see what kind of girl Patricia was. This was not all, as private detectives were then assigned to spy on her, and even her doctor was reportedly paid to claim falsely that she was suffering from a sexually transmitted disease. Meanwhile, if Patricia believed she would at least find love and understanding with her family, she was very wrong as at her home at 1160 South Bronson Avenue, she received no compassion from her mother at all. “It was never mentioned; it never happened,” she told David Stenn years later.
It wasn’t long, of course, before the scandal hit the newspapers, with District Attorney Buron Fitts telling reporters that he intended to have a man with the same name as the attacker face Patricia Douglas to see if she could identify him. “I am taking no definite action until I am sure we have the right man,” he said. At no time was David Ross or MGM mentioned in the article, though Patricia Douglas was named in the very first sentence, with her full address published on numerous occasions over the coming days and weeks.
In a twist, it turned out that the man they presented to Douglas in the District Attorney’s office was not the right David Ross at all, but an innocent Hollywood theatre manager, whom Patricia had never seen in her life. Photographs were then sought to clarify exactly who the attacker could be and Patricia was once again called to the police station, where she looked through a file of “suspects” and eventually picked David Ross out of a group of twenty-four men. “This is the man,” Patricia declared, before turning over the photographs and declining to look any further.
The case was eventually brought before a grand jury, and David Ross was finally named in the newspapers, though never officially served. However, he did appear in court to defend himself, and was led into the room for official identification. That day newspapers described Douglas as accusing Ross of “beating and attacking her when she repulsed his advances” and the word rape was not mentioned at all. Then in the recess, Douglas had the unfortunate experience of seeing Ross in the corridor, a situation most likely set up by the media as a good photo opportunity. She broke down and ran towards an open window before being consoled by her mother in front of the press photographers. Given that Douglas’s mother had never shown any loving interest in the child before, one can be forgiven for thinking that her show of remorse was merely for the photographers.
Ross took to the stand to testify. He denied the attack except to say that he was introduced to Patricia Douglas with several other girls, danced and joined her for one round of drinks. He then claimed to have left with friends at midnight, while Douglas continued to party with another man at the event. It was all lies but that, coupled with the fact that a host of witnesses, including the car parking attendant, were apparently paid to change their stories and deny they had seen anything at all, resulted in the case being dropped.
This should have been the end of the matter, but actually it wasn’t as the extraordinarily brave Patricia Douglas was not prepared to give up without a fight and announced plans to sue MGM herself. This was a huge decision for a young woman to do and she deserves nothing but applause for the strength and bravery displayed at that time, but unfortunately it all came to nothing. Patricia’s plans to sue were buried without trace amid claims that both her lawyer and mother were paid off in order to let the matter drop quietly.
The outcome of the trial and her treatment at the hands of MGM, the media, her mother and the witnesses to her ordeal affected Patricia Douglas’s life forever. She married numerous times; shared no closeness with any of her husbands; had no friends; endured a tumultuous relationship with her daughter (who only lived with her briefly during her life); and admitted in 2003 that she had never been in love nor knew what it was like to be loved. The entire event of what happened that ghastly night in 1937 was then buried along with all the evidence against Ross, and if it were not for the discovery of the story by writer/producer David Stenn, it would have remained so.
Instead, shortly before her death in 2003, Patricia finally got the chance to tell her story in David’s article “It Happened One Night at MGM” (published in Vanity Fair) and his follow-up documentary, Girl 27. Her name was cleared, though her life had most certainly been ruined by the actions not only of David Ross, but the incredible forces who came together to help clear his name instead of hers.
This article was taken from my book, ‘The Mammoth Book of Hollywood Scandals,’ which includes many other stories, scandals and tragedies from Tinseltown.
(c) Michelle Morgan. Must not be reproduced without permission.