It was 1943, at a glittering party in Hollywood hosted by society gossip Elsa Maxwell. “I was in a short, tailored dress and sat on the steps in a corner, feeling very alone, but watching in awe the movie stars — old, medium and new — greeting each other and vying for center stage,” an 18-year-old model-turned-starlet recalled decades later. “Names-names-names, and I had to pretend to be cool. I managed until one of my heroes, Robert Montgomery, sauntered over to me. Robert Montgomery — I couldn’t believe I was meeting him. He sat on the steps and talked to me — actually flirted with me. I thought him wildly attractive. It was time for me to leave, he took me to my car, asked me for my phone number. I gave it to him. He said, ‘Too easy.’”
With a scornful smirk, Montgomery walked off. The woman he had humiliated was none other than Lauren Bacall, the legendary, no-nonsense diva famed for her roles in To Have and Have Not and Key Largo. That night opened the innocent, sexually inexperienced Bacall’s eyes to the way Hollywood power dynamics worked. She hadn’t been thinking of sex when she gave Montgomery her number; she had been thinking he could be a glamorous friend and a powerful contact to help her career. “That was one of my first experiences,” Bacall wrote, “with the game that was meant to be played between men and women.”
Of course, these “games” are often sexual humiliation, harassment, assault and rape. As someone who has worked in the industry for years, I have had my butt grabbed by a superior, gotten three unsolicited neck massages in one day, been asked about my sex life countless times and had my looks commented on repeatedly.
I have participated in inappropriate behavior and banter, talking about myself and others in a way that was both demeaning and juvenile, for a quick approving laugh and a sense of belonging. Even though I was raised a feminist, until recently I believed that this attention and “easygoing attitude” made me a “cool girl” — go along to get along. Crew members and actors work very long hours and people become overly familiar with one another. Boundaries become blurred, lines are crossed and personal space invaded. “Hijinks” are a way to combat the boredom of 14-hour days. That’s just set life, I rationalized.
But I couldn’t shake the shame and confusion I felt when I got home at night.
Luckily, I have never been the victim of violent assault or intimidation or rape. But the aggressive frat-house atmosphere that is prevalent in the industry can be exhausting and tricky to navigate. One way that I cope is the same way women throughout the years have — by speaking with my close female friends who have shared similar experiences. We trade tips and war stories, and it helps.
Throughout the history of Hollywood, women have been trying to find ways to cope and fight back against the rampant, unchecked sexual abuse throughout the industry. Completely unprotected, many women set up codes, in an often futile attempt to protect themselves, which they passed on to their co-workers and friends. In a 1956 British fan magazine called Picturegoer, an actress named Marigold Russell gave her tips for avoiding sexual assault:
One: When you have to talk business, stick to offices — and office hours. Two: Refer invitations and offers to your agent. Three: Don’t give your home phone number, give your agent’s.
Women also warned one another about the worst predators, often in language that could sound an awful lot like victim blaming. Just this week, Joan Collins recalled being a newly arrived actress in Los Angeles, at a party with Marilyn Monroe:
We started chatting and after a couple of martinis, Marilyn poured out a cautionary tale of sexual harassment she and other actresses endured from “the wolves in this town.” I replied that I was well used to “wolves” after a few years in the British film industry. … I told Marilyn I was well prepared to deal with men patting my bottom, leering down my cleavage and whatever else. She shook her head. “There’s nothing like the power of the studio bosses here, honey. If they don’t get what they want, they’ll drop you. It’s happened to lots of gals. … ’Specially watch out for Zanuck. If he doesn’t get what he wants, honey, he’ll drop your contract.”
Marilyn’s words were prophetic. Only a few days later, Darryl Zanuck, then the president of 20th Century Fox, propositioned Collins, saying, “You haven’t had anyone until you’ve had me, baby. I’m the biggest and the best and I can go all night.” Collins had no other recourse but to run. “I was so shocked I couldn’t speak,” she recalled, “so I just wriggled free of his groping hands and ran back to the set.”
Barbara Eden used a similar tactic when she scored a role on the legendary I Love Lucy. She had already been warned by her agent and others about Desi Arnaz’s predatory ways, and he lived up to his reputation. “Desi seemed to pop up wherever I was during rehearsal,” she recalled. “My solution? To hide from him whenever I saw him coming. Not a particularly subtle ploy, I know, but I was unable to come up with anything more effective.”
Others honed more unconventional methods in an attempt to protect themselves. Early in her career, 1930s screwball comedienne Carole Lombard got fed up with the constant harassment she suffered at the hands of casting directors and agents. According to biographer Annette Tapert:
It was then that she took action — she had heard that nothing turned a man off faster than to hear a woman indulge in profanity. And so, to put off her seducers, she recruited her brothers to teach her every vulgar, foul word they knew. The lechers weren’t just put off, they were left dead in their tracks, mind-boggled that such filth could come of the mouth of someone so pretty and obviously nice. “Carole picked out words and phrases she wanted to use as her weapon,” her brother Fred Peters later explained.
Even a Golden Age movie star as enormously successful as Claudette Colbert was unable to stop her co-star Fredric March from groping her daily on the set of 1932’s The Sign of the Cross. “His hands had 20 fingers, I swear, and they were always on my ass,” she recalled decades later. “I finally said, ‘If you don’t stop I’ll walk right out of the scene and tell Mr. DeMille what you’re doing.’ … So, the camera rolled again. … Mr. DeMille yelled ‘Action,’ and all of a sudden I felt this hand right around my left cheek and I stopped and walked down to the camera and demanded to see Mr. DeMille!”
But the abuse continued. While Colbert was unable to stop March’s actions, she was able to score a little victory by demanding her assault not be celebrated in publicity shots. According to Vanity Fair:
Even when John Engstead was taking publicity shots for the movie, March could not resist fondling her derrière. One photo, “with Freddie’s hand wrapped around my rear end,” Colbert said, found its way into the Police Gazette. “And the caption read, ‘Even if the Marines haven’t landed, Freddie March seems to have the situation well in hand.’” Affronted, she stormed into the studio boss’s office, and as a result, Engstead said, “She was the first star at Paramount to get … approval of her photographs … and it was all my fault.”
Carole Lombard had a different way of handling March, who appears to have been one of the worst predators during this time. Sick of his unwelcome advances during the filming of the classic comedy Nothing Sacred in 1937, she invited him for drinks in her dressing room. Not surprisingly, he took this as an opportunity to grope her, and began to feel her up — and to his shock found a large dildo that Lombard had strapped on between her legs.
For some women in Hollywood, the passing of years and a position of strength in their careers allowed them to finally fight back. Starting as a young teenager, the tragic Judy Garland suffered years of abuse at the hands of Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM. “Mayer would tell her what a wonderful singer she was, and he would say, ‘You sing from the heart,’ and then he would place his hand on her left breast and say, ‘This is where you sing from,’” Garland biographer Gerald Clarke told ABC. “This went on for about four years until finally, Judy got up enough courage to say to him: ‘Mr. Mayer, don’t you ever do that again. If you want to tell me where I sing from, just point.’” Mayer sat down and cried manipulatively, saying, “How can you say that to me, to me who has treated you like a father.”
Despite this victory, the damage to Garland’s psyche had already been done.
Throughout the years, women in Hollywood, unprotected and vulnerable, have been expected by society and the industry to take it, and like it, and figure it out for themselves. They tried, in ways great and small, to assert themselves and protect themselves. Nevertheless, thousands of Hollywood’s women were victimized.
Nevertheless, they persisted.