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Tarnished tinsel

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In the early 1990s, TV writer-producer and biographer David Stenn, deep into research for his biography of 1930s movie actress Jean Harlow, was busy delving through newspaper microfilm for the first week of June 1937.

David Stenn

Harlow died at age 26 on June 7 of that week. And the Duke of Windsor, the former King Edward VIII of England, married Wallis Simpson, the woman for whom he had given up the throne, on June 3, 1937.

Both Harlow’s early death and the duke’s wedding were blockbuster news. But to Stenn’s astonishment, another story, one he had never heard about, kicked those stories to the curb in America’s newspapers. The story dominating front pages that first week in June 1937 was about Patricia Douglas, a 20-year-old movie dancer who charged that she had been raped during a Hollywood party given by the MGM movie studio for visiting studio salesmen.

Once done with the Harlow biography, Stenn started the long, arduous task of tracking down Douglas’ story. He eventually found Douglas herself, wrote a story about her and her case for Vanity Fair in 2003 and made a 2007 documentary film, “Girl 27,” about the shocking episode and its consequences. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

In this newspaper photo from 1937, movie dancer Patricia Douglas, 20, left, is comforted by her mother at the Hall of Justice in Los Angeles after confronting the man she accused of raping her. (SOURCE: David Stenn)

Now, 11 years later, the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and abuse, which exploded in October 2017, has given new legs to “Girl 27.” It will be shown at 6 p.m. Sunday at Santa Fe’s Jean Cocteau Cinema. Following the screening, Stenn and Santa Fe author James McGrath Morris will talk about the film and Stenn’s experiences digging out the story.

“Patricia is no longer seen as a historic case, but as a (#MeToo) pioneer,” Stenn said during a phone interview from New York City. “It (sexual harassment) was happening then, too. What happened to Patricia that was so toxic is that she was silenced. What is encouraging about the #MeToo movement is that it gives people a voice.”

Douglas was one of 120 female dancers, ages 14 into their 20s, Stenn said, who were bused to producer Hal Roach’s Studio Ranch in Culver City for what they thought was a movie call. The film’s title comes from Douglas’ place on the movie call sheet. The dancers were dressed in Western-style costumes and put in makeup. But they had actually been sent to the studio ranch to act as “hostesses” for 282 MGM studio salesmen from around the country.

“It started out with a Wild West theme, barbecue out in the open,” Stenn said. “Then it got wilder and wilder. There was champagne, other liquor and young girls in heavy makeup and skimpy costumes. It was almost a perfect storm for disaster.”

He said some of the girls were too young to even understand what was happening, and he does not believe the studio chiefs gave any thought to what might happen to them.

“Those girls just didn’t matter,” he said. “They were collateral damage.”

Douglas, who had just turned 20, was old enough to catch on. She said she tried to escape but a salesman from the Chicago office forced her into a car and raped her. Were other young dancers raped or otherwise abused that night? Maybe. But Douglas was the only one who reported it.

“The deck was stacked against any woman in a rape case,” Stenn said. “You were blamed. The victim becomes the guilty party.”

A grand jury was convened and the accused rapist summoned to appear before it. Douglas testified, as did others who were at the party, including waiters who called the party “debauched.”

But, Stenn said, MGM was powerful, witnesses were bought off and the grand jury did not indict the accused man. Douglas did not stop there, however. She filed a suit in Los Angeles Superior Court accusing the alleged rapist and studio big shots with conspiring to debauch and seduce her for the sensual gratification of male guests. When that suit was dismissed, Douglas refiled in U.S. District Court, thereby becoming, Stenn believes, the first woman to make rape a federal case by charging violation of her civil rights.

It came to nothing. Stenn said Douglas’ lawyer, mysteriously, failed to make court appearances on three occasions and the case died. He said that Douglas – blackballed by studios, shadowed by Pinkerton detectives hired by MGM and smeared by testimony from witnesses who had been paid off or strong armed – disappeared, just as MGM had scripted the end to the story.

“At this point, she was so traumatized, she had lost everything,” Stenn said. “She just wanted to go elsewhere and start over.”

Her story evaporated with her. Until Stenn uncovered it. In the late ’90s he found Douglas, who was living in Las Vegas, Nev.

“She did not go out into the world,” Stenn said. “Her mother really took care of her. She married three times, but it never lasted more than a few months. She did not feel worthy of love. She had a daughter who grew up not understanding why her mother never left the house, why she slept all day and stayed up all night.”

It took Stenn, now 57, about two years to convince Douglas to meet with him.

He said he was eventually able to earn her trust.

“It was not a single incident or event,” he said. “It was cumulative. There was a consistency to my persistence, the fact I emphasized vendication.”

Douglas died in 2003, after publication of Stenn’s Vanity Fair article but before the release of the movie, in which she appears and talks about her experience.

“I read the Vanity Fair article to her,” Stenn said. “She just sighed and said, ‘I can go now.'”

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