Eight decades ago, during Hollywood’s Golden Age, Patricia Douglas made headline news. She got more national attention than the king of England and the American double-divorcee Wallis Simpson. Then, just as suddenly, she disappeared as she was pushed into exile by Hollywood’s most powerful men.
Why? Because she did something that had never been done before. For the first time, a sexual assault survivor didn’t just refuse to keep her mouth shut; she took the entire situation to court to reshape the crime into a civil rights issue. She was fighting the system all on her own, before the modern age of collective outrage and hashtag campaigns.
It Started With an Intriguing Story
In September 1993, David Stenn just finished Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow, in which he discussed the mystery surrounding the sudden death of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s (MGM’s) beloved, gorgeous blonde at the age of 26. (*Spoiler Alert* Harlow had been suffering from kidney failure since age 15.)
While researching the book, Stenn stumbled upon a fascinating topic while he was researching the blonde beauty. In 1937, just one month before Harlow died, a dancer named Patricia Douglas had been assaulted at Louis B. Mayer’s wild MGM party. Instead of negotiating cash or a studio contract for her silence, Patricia took her story public and filed a landmark lawsuit.
Who Is Patricia Douglas?
Back in the late 1930s, MGM was the greatest and most powerful studio in Hollywood. MGM was known for its famous stars, but Patricia Douglas was not one of them. In fact, she was a young “wannabe.” She lived with her mom and had never had a sexual encounter in her life. That is, until one fateful night when she was invited to be included in what she thought was an upcoming movie.
Along with dozens of other underage girls, she was brought in to entertain hundreds of salespeople who arrived in Los Angeles for an MGM convention. Surrounded by popping champagne bottles, the 20-year-old virgin was a victim of sexual harassment (reports incorrectly state that she was 17 at the time).
A Long-Lasting Cover Up
Patricia Douglas decided to press charges against a salesman named David Ross. However, the case was dismissed after powerful men conspired against her. Douglas was devastated. She isolated herself and refused to bring up the subject for decades. That’s when talented screenwriter and film historian David Stenn tracked her down.
Stenn got to the bottom of what happened to her and discovered connections between MGM execs, the District Attorney’s office, and even the doctor who examined Douglas after the incident. That investigation became the topic of Stenn’s 2007 documentary, Girl 27.
A Well-Hidden Scandal
According to one person whom Stenn interviewed, “They had her killed.” Initially, Stenn wasn’t sure if he believed it. After all, MGM was the biggest and most powerful studio. I mean, it even had its own railroad and police force. Stenn knew he had to get the bottom of it and shared his findings in Girl 27.
The remarkable story was supposed to be buried forever. Patricia’s past might be the biggest, most suppressed scandal in the history of Hollywood. Luckily, Stenn found some old newspapers, unseen photos, critical studio documentation, long-forgotten legal records, and even cinematographic evidence hidden away in an MGM film vault.
He Tracked Her Down
But perhaps most amazingly, Stenn found Patricia Douglas herself. He tracked down the reclusive woman and convinced her to break her 65-year silence finally. With an evolved world and a time where sexual assault is taken much more seriously, Patricia deserves to share her story…
Since Patricia was living with her mom at the time, she didn’t really need to work. She was able to put her dreams and aspirations first. The aspiring dancer was just as excited as you could imagine when she was giving the opportunity to work at MGM.
What Exactly Happened to Patricia Douglas?
So, let’s start at the beginning. In May 1937, MGM’s Louis B. Mayer held a party to reward its salesmen for the most successful financial year they had ever had. The event included a ticker-tape parade; they rented out the Ambassador Hotel and hosted a lunch with all the stars from the studio. It certainly sounded like a fun convention.
The event ended with a private party that took place at the Hal Roach Ranch, now known as Beverlywood. Roach’s studio held a casting call for 120 female dancers. It was a legit casting call from a well-known casting director.
Cheers to a Successful Year
That year, MGM produced three all-star blockbusters: San Francisco starring Clark Gable, Jeanette McDonald, and Spencer Tracy; Libeled Lady with Spencer Tracy, Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, and William Powell; and The Great Ziegfeld featuring William Powell and Luise Rainer, which won the Best Picture, Oscar. The other films were nominated as well.
So, clearly, it was an excellent year for MGM, and they had a lot to celebrate. Louis B. Mayer, through an annual five-day sales convention held in Culver City, promised salesmen “a super-special production.”
Skimpy Western Outfits
The dancers selected were asked to report to Western Costume, where they were fitted in revealing cowgirl outfits. After they got their skimpy clothes, they were sent to the studio and taken to a remote location. There were no lights, cameras, or crew.
The crew never arrived. Instead, the 282 convention attendees got there after dark. It was a party that the girls were tricked into, trapped into service. As the party went on, the men continued to drink. They assumed that the women in the cowgirl outfits were mere party favors. Sadly, the girls had no way to escape.
A Heartbreaking Crime
David Ross, an MGM salesman, had been following Patricia that night, trying to teach her how to “truck,” which was the latest dance craze. She was then held down by Ross and another man as they poured alcohol down her throat.
Naturally, she wasn’t feeling well and went outside for some fresh air. But Ross followed her out, dragged her into a car in the parking lot, and cruelly sexually assaulted her. The parking attendant saw her trying to get away, but he later denied it in court and lied under oath.
Rewarded With Cowgirls
After three days of “strenuous business activities,” the attendees were rewarded. “Yippee! Get Set for Wild West Show” at Roach’s: “It will be a stag affair, out in the wild and woolly West where ‘men are men.’”
Producer Hal Roach hosted this “typical California celebration,” but the Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang shorts were interrupted by MGM. On May 5, 1937, at about 4 p.m., the 120 dancers were summoned by casting assistant Vincent Conniff to come to the Hal Roach Studios. They were fitted in cowboy hats, belted bolero jackets, leather studded cuffs, short skirts, and black boots.
Don’t Trust the Studios
Then, at about 7 p.m. Mayer, Mannix, and Roach separated the MGM toppers and male stars, and almost 300 riled-up salesmen showed up at the ranch. They were promised a stag affair. “You’d never think they’d pull anything like that,” Patricia explained. “You’re trusting the studios. You’re not expecting anything except to work in a movie. That’s what you’re there for.” At first, the Wild West party didn’t seem out of the ordinary.
The open bar only offered scotch and champagne. Other things to indulge in included a cafeteria-style barbecue in a huge tent and boxing matches to watch. Laurel and Hardy tipped off representatives about the upcoming Kentucky Derby (Hardy said, “Bet a Dellor!” of the horse that would take the Trial Purse.) The Dandridge sisters also performed in a live revenue, including 13-year-old Dorothy.
Wealthy Salesman David Ross
A 36-year-old Catholic bachelor from Chicago named David Ross was fixated on Patricia Douglas; he didn’t care much for the other women. When he tried to dance with her, she agreed but found him “repulsive,” saying, “he was slimy, with eyes that bulged like a frog.”
Patricia was a dancer, not an actress. She wasn’t used to this type of behavior and had no idea how to handle “an annoying creep doing his best to cop a feel.” After their little dance lesson, Douglas bolted into the ladies’ room, saying, “I’ve got a man, and he’s really sticking.”
The Men Were Handsy
Henry Schulte was a waiter at the event. “The party was the worst, the wildest, and the most rotten I have ever seen,” Schulte recalled. “The men’s attitude was very rough. They were running their hands over the girls’ bodies and tried to force liquor on the girls.”
An 18-year-old ex-Miss Wichita begged actor Wallace Beery to help her: “I’m tired of being mauled,” she said. Beery got her off the premises and “socked a couple of men” in the process. Good for him. That’s how a true gentleman treats women – by protecting them.
No Means Yes
Unfortunately, Patricia wasn’t as lucky. He had gotten rejected by a girl whom he assumed was there for his pleasure, and he wasn’t taking no for an answer. “He and another man held me down,” she said.
“One pinched my nose, so I’d have to open my mouth to breathe. Then, they poured a whole glassful of scotch and champagne down my throat. Oh, I fought! But they thought it was funny. I remember a lot of laughter.” When they finally let her go, the young, innocent dancer ran to the bathroom to throw up.
From Bad to Worse…
Still startled, Patricia went outside to get some fresh air. She stepped outside the banquet hall to get some fresh air. In front of her, she saw a parking lot filled with studio Ford sedans. A hand came from behind and covered her mouth.
“Make a sound, and you’ll never breathe again,” Ross hissed in her ear. He then dragged the young dancer to a parked car and pinned her onto the backseat. “I’m going to destroy you,” he said. When Douglas started blacking out, he slapped her with the back of his hand and yelled, “Cooperate! I want you awake.”
A Witness on the Scene
At around 11:30 p.m., almost seven hours after the women got to the ranch, parking attendant Clement Soth heard screams and then saw Patricia running toward him, terrified. “My God,” she yelled. “Isn’t anything sacred around here?” As Soth got closer, he saw David Ross and ran away.
Patricia was hysterical as she was taken to the Culver City Community Hospital, across the street from MGM, where she threw up again. She explained that ever since she was a child, she wouldn’t undress “around anyone, not even my mother.” The modest girl then suffered more torture: “I was giving a cold-water douche. Then, the doctor examined me. It’s no surprise he didn’t find anything. The douche had removed all the evidence.”
He Owed Him a Favor
The hospital owner who treated her, Dr. Edward Lindquist, relied heavily on MGM. “For us, he was ‘the family doctor,’” said one old studio worker. If he botched the exam, MGM would owe Dr. Lindquist a favor. He claimed that there was no intercourse, but he couldn’t prove it.
Someone drove Patricia home in a studio car. Despite the attendance of 11 officers (from four different police departments) at the Wild West party, only one of them, Culver City motorcycle cop Tom Lindsay, went to the hospital with her. No crime scene report was ever filed.
Embarrassed but Brave
For 14 hours, Douglas was in a state of shock. She remembers that when she woke up, she “was so sore down there, and my face was still swollen.” She did not seek medical attention. “I would’ve been too embarrassed,” she explained. “Someone would’ve seen me naked.”
Feeling embarrassed about being taken advantage of is not uncommon, especially in a time when you were considered “ruined” without your virginity. And the worst part? They blamed the victim. However, Patricia Douglas proved to be braver than most women.
Telling Her Story
She marched right back into Roach Studios two days later. “You ought to know what happened to me,” she told the cashier. “So, it doesn’t happen to anyone else.” Instead of getting the support and compassion she deserved, Douglas was handed $7.50, her payment for her job that night. As if the nightmare she suffered was a movie role.
Another victim might have exploited the cover-up for a bigger paycheck, demanding hush money or a studio contract. But Patricia didn’t want any of those things. “I wasn’t trying to get anything,” she explained. “I just wanted somebody to believe me.” But she didn’t hear from MGM, and her rapist went back to Chicago scot-free.
But Nobody Would Listen
Her mother wasn’t the most supportive either: “I don’t remember any words of comfort from her, no ‘Too bad this happened to you,’ nothing.” She felt like she had nobody to turn to. Nobody cared. Her deep anger led her to make a crucial decision.
Her mortified mother joined her when she showed up at the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office to file a complaint against David Ross. Since Patricia was considered a minor, the document was signed by Mildred Mitchell as a court-appointed guardian.
At that time, rape victims were branded as damaged goods. Her complaint was unique and historic. At the time, no woman would have dared to associate a Hollywood film studio with sexual assault, especially the powerful MGM. Even if the victim were to win the case, the stigma would wreck her career and reputation.
But Patricia Douglas wasn’t worried. “I guess the Irish in me came out,” she exclaimed. “You knew you’d be blackballed. Me, I didn’t care. I just wanted to be vindicated, to hear someone say, ‘You can’t do that to a woman.’”
No One Cared
She imagined that special someone might be the D.A.; unfortunately, that couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Six months prior, Buron Fitts was elected to a third term in spite of a perjury charge in a rape case involving a 16-year-old victim.
Fitts was close friends with Louis B. Mayer, and the MGM owner was the number one contributor to his campaign. According to Fitt’s daughter, “there was a strong bond between them. Also, if you know anything about Louis B. Mayer, he wasn’t the nicest guy in the industry and certainly didn’t treat his starlets with success… let alone any other women.”
The Waiting Game
Douglas trusted the system and waited patiently. But weeks passed, and she still didn’t hear anything from Fitts. Most women would have given up at that point, but Douglas wasn’t like most women. She went to get help from a Mob-connected acquaintance, who contacted attorney William J. F. Brown.
His son, Kelly, described his attorney father as “a larger-than-life character, the Johnnie Cochran of his day.” Brown definitely looked the part, wearing double-breasted suits, driving custom Packards, and he had a knack for controversial yet effective courtroom theatrics.
Helping the Underdog
After Brown’s wife was shot four times right next to her husband, Brown’s emotional appeals saved her. “He always went for the underdog,” Kelly Brown explained. “and took cases no one else would touch.”
After Brown offered to represent Patricia Douglas pro bono, Brown came to Fitts with an ultimatum: Either the D.A.’s office would take this seriously and investigate his client’s complaint, or she would take her story to the press. Fitts thought it was an empty threat. However, this was no bluff, and he was underestimating the wrong girl.
“Rape” Was a Bad Word
During that time, rape was still considered a taboo word, so reporters had to use more prude descriptions: She had been “attacked,” “outraged,” or “ravished,” at a “studio orgy.” As a sign of how powerful the studio was, MGM wasn’t even named in the newspaper articles. They did, however, include Patricia’s full name and even her home address!
The unnamed studio came out with a short statement: “We have read with astonishment the alleged charges of the girl. It is difficult to make any real comments as to a situation which appears so impossible and as to which we know nothing.”
MGM Starts to Panic
But behind the scenes, MGM was freaking out. First, there was Paul Bern’s strange suicide. (Two months after tying the knot with Jean Harlow, he stood in front of a mirror and put a .38 to his head.) Somehow the studio managed to steer clear of scandal.
At this point, nobody at MGM felt mercy for her. Even if her rape charge would be refuted, her revelation of “stag affair” cost them $35,000 ($440,000 today). As it turns out, grown businessmen, free-flowing alcohol, and teenage girls weren’t a good look. Not only did it horrify the stockholders of Loews Inc. (the corporate parent of MGM), but it also ruined MGM’s squeaky-clean reputation and the moral compass of Louis B. Mayer himself.
A Jolly Affair
So, the blame-the-victim campaign began. Workers at the Pinkerton Detective Agency, the oldest and largest security services company, were asked to track down every girl on the “guest list” and strong-arm her into toeing the party line. In an interview, 19-year-old Virginia Lee assured reporters that the alleged orgy was “a jolly affair, with lots of good clean fun.”
As Patricia explained it, being held down against her will is not “good clean fun.” She wanted to stand up for her rights but was stuck in a situation where rich, powerful men were all against her.
She Was a Virgin, After All
Pinkerton detective followed Patricia to gather as much dirt as they could. “Douglas must have attempted to proposition men,” according to an internal Roach Studios memo. “Many of them must have turned her down but can testify to her solicitation.” But they figured out the truth – Patricia was a virgin before she got raped.
Studio efforts grew desperate. Especially after urologist Dr. Wirt Dakin, who previously treated a cyst on her bladder, declined a request from Hal Roach to re-diagnose it as a genital, urinary infection – which at the time was a discreet term for gonorrhea.
He Said, She Said
As it turned out, there was a collusion among powerful studio executives and some of the attorneys. There was also a campaign for character assassination. MGM hired Pinkerton detectives to interview people and trick them into lying.
They were coerced into saying that she was promiscuous and had a venereal disease. Since that was the “defense” they could use, the twisted logic was: If they could prove she was promiscuous, then they could prove she wasn’t sexually assaulted. The misogynistic mindset at the time was, “sluts can’t be raped.”
Fending for Herself
Meanwhile, Patricia was abandoned by all her celebrity friends. “My name was mud, and they couldn’t get dirty,” she explained. “They had their careers to think about.” So, in the face of scandal, Douglas was all alone.
Coverage of the Wild West party increased when Buron Fitts showed Patricia pictures of two dozen MGM salesmen. The D.A. reluctantly told the press that “without hesitation,” she identified David Ross. “That’s the man,” Douglas said with confidence. “I can never forget that face.” With no other choice, Fitts summoned Ross, who described the charges against him as “absurd” and “ridiculous.” Once he landed in Chicago, he immediately went to meet with Mendel Silberberg, Louis B. Mayer’s personal assistant.
Who Would Want Her?!
On June 16, 1937, in the Los Angeles Hall of Justice, the grand jury hearing traumatized the young dancer over and over again. Out of the 120 dancers who showed up at the party, only two dared to testify on her behalf: Ginger Wyatt (whose rescue by Wallace Beery is now denied in the actor’s MGM scripted statement) and Paula Bromley.
She was forced to describe the rape in detail, and the victim had to watch Lester Roth (Silberberg’s law partner representing Ross) point at her rudely and unapologetically as he told her jurors, “Look at her. Who would want her?”
Face-to-Face With Ross
As she left the courtroom, Patricia found herself face-to-face with Ross and immediately froze. He was smoking a cigarette calmly as paparazzi pushed them together and yelled at the poor girl to “Look at Mr. Ross!” She cried, “I can’t, I can’t,” and ran down the hall to a window.
“I was going to jump through the glass,” she admitted. “To get away from everything and everybody… so I couldn’t be hurt anymore.” Douglas was restrained by her lawyer and mother, and photos were taken. Wire services got a hold of the pictures, which ran nationwide the very next day.
A Deal With the Devil
Back in the grand jury room, Lester Roth called Clement Soth, the parking attendant who initially found Patricia in the parking lot. He originally claimed that he saw Ross run away from the scene, but now he denied that very crucial detail.
“The man was much thinner,” Soth said in court. “Mr. Ross’s face is fat.” Reportedly, Soth’s daughters confirmed that in exchange for lying under oath, MGM offered their father “any job he wanted.” Soth joined the MGM “family” as a driver and stayed there for the rest of his life.
What Went Wrong?
The California state court ended up dismissing her lawsuit without prejudice, which means it wasn’t a matter for state court. That’s when Patricia went to federal court. She did everything in her power and tried every possible legal recourse.
The following month, with her mother still acting as her guardian, Patricia filed another suit in the Los Angeles County Superior Court. This time, against David Ross, Eddie Mannix, Hal Roach Vincent Conniff, and “John Doe One To Fifty” for “unlawful conspiracy to defile, debauch and seduce” her and the other girls “for the immoral and sensual gratification of male guests.”
This time, she was going after everyone who tried to cover up the incident and asked for $500,000 in damages. Once again, she made headlines. MGM didn’t issue a public statement.
Threats and Bribes
In private memos, however, the studio’s lawyer dubbed Patricia “our girlfriend” and bribed/ rewarded perjurers with jobs. “I just had another talk with [bit player and gossipmonger] Bobby Tracy, one of our star witnesses in the Douglas case,” said Roach Studios attorney Victor Ford Collins.
“He seems badly in need of work and was very much in the hopes that somebody could phone Mr. Mannix directly about him getting a few days at MGM… It is highly imperative that we keep these people in good humor and get them some kind of work. May I again say it is really important!”
To make matters worse, it looked like Patricia Douglas had been betrayed once again. As if she didn’t go through enough. This was a different kind of betrayal because it was apparently by her lawyer and dear old mom.
As a court-appointed guardian, Mildred Mitchell promised to protect her daughter’s best interests. She did so by exposing Brown’s brazen malpractice. Another attorney could have taken over the case, but she instead ignored Brown’s flagrant misconduct.
One More Question…
Six decades later, one question remains: Were Douglas’s lawyer and mother bought off? It certainly seems so, but there is no evidence to confirm it. If there was, they got rid of it. Fitts beat Brown in the 1940 primary election, and Mildred Mitchell married an alcoholic gambler who spent all her money before ghosting her.
Sadly, Patricia Douglas’s case was doomed from the start. “I never sued about money,” she explained. “That’s not me. And it wasn’t for glory; it was just to make them stop having those parties… And, besides, money can’t cure a broken heart.”
Evidence Supports Her Story
As we mentioned, even the parking attendant’s children (the one who saw her trying to escape) admitted that he had lied when he said he didn’t see anything. There was also a three-page letter discovered from publisher William Randolph Hearst to Louis B. Mayer, saying, “Shut this down, make her stop. Do you realize how damaging this is to the whole picture industry?”
You have the most powerful people in Hollywood worrying about this chorus girl, and how would it look if the general public discovered they’d spent money on a private party where underage girls were essentially being offered to visiting salesmen with 300 cases of champagne for the 282 men. The goal was to shut her up, and, unfortunately, they succeeded.
A Sad Reality
Not only was sexual assault and harassment common back then, but in many cases, it wasn’t even considered rape. Remember, this was a time when Hollywood’s biggest movie star, Clark Gable, routinely manhandled women… and that was his on-screen persona.
Thankfully, we have progressed a lot since then, especially after the #MeToo movement. But during that time, women were told that if they were raped, it was their fault – that they must have done something to provoke it. Women of that time were treated as objects by men. And, of course, the entertainment industry objectified them as well.
Unfortunately, the world has since forgotten all about Patricia. But when Hollywood’s biggest stars walk down the red-carpet wearing black to represent sexual assault victims, it’s partly because Patricia Douglas paved the way.
In the 1930s, Patricia was a dancer bouncing among studios for a musical number. She recalled, “I was good,” in an interview for the documentary Girl 27. “I moved just like J.Lo.” So, when she was sent to the most prestigious film factory, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, by a casting director, the excited 20-year-old didn’t think twice.