Abortion, Drugs, and Harassment: The Unattractive Lives of Historic Hollywood Actresses

Lana Turner was one of Hollyood’s highest paid actresses in the 1940s. At the height of her career, an unexpected pregnancy was all none of the men who took care of her intended. Chosen for their beauty and the charm with which they enchanted audiences, becoming a sought-after actress for the role of mother was a real nightmare for producers.

In these cases, one name always appeared before anyone else as the man who could make any problem go away: Howard Strickling, MGM’s Image Manager. It was he who secretly organized secret abortions to preserve the stars who kept the owners of the millionaire studios intact.

Turner’s case was solved during a promotional trip to Hawaii. The operation was performed in a hotel room without anesthesia. It was the mother herself who covered Turner’s mouth to suppress the screams, the Vanity Fair reveals. The roughly $ 500 abortion was billed and deducted from Turner’s salary. The actress was only 20 years old and re-registered a week later.

This is far from the only shocking account of the filthy habits of old Hollywood. In the golden days of cinema, it was (even more) men who held absolute power. And with this immense violence, abuses were born: the producers acted as the owners of the actresses, took care of their bodies in unfair conditions, controlled their private lives and ruined careers with the snap of a finger.


The young women who flocked from all over the country to become famous in Hollywood were the studio’s big guns. The sex appeal of stars who appeared on screen before they came of age had to be protected at all costs. The studios benefited from the image of the young seducer, but they couldn’t with a young actress who had just become a mother.

Pregnancy and motherhood were a loss to large producers. That’s why they decided to take action to prevent their most profitable stars from being sabotaged – their careers and the potential profits of the men around them.

In the early 1920s, star contracts began to include morality clauses. The aim was to avoid risky behavior by actresses that could lead to a scandal.

“It was assumed that glamorous stars are no longer popular when they have children,” reveals Carl Beauchamp in the book “Old Hollywood, Without Liegen”. Although pregnancies are forbidden by contract, as might be expected, this has not prevented them. The studios’ impositions went so far as to forbid the marriage of their stars.

Jean Harlow, the platinum bomb, quickly gave MGM a headache. Not only was she allowed to marry actor William Powell, but she also became pregnant. What followed was expected.

Louis B. Mayer and Jean Harlow

Howard Strickling re-entered the scene and took the actress to hospital using the name Jean Carpenter, his first name, to hide her identity and avoid possible scandal. Only private doctors and nurses entered the room. The problem got solved.

A similar solution was developed by Strickling to help Jeanette McDonald “get rid of the problem” – according to then-head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer – who admitted she was allegedly treating “an ear infection.”

The cases followed with even more familiar names. Joan Crawford – forced not to use her maiden name Lucille LeSueuer because Strickling reminded him of a sewer in English – became pregnant after an alleged affair with Clark Gable. “Solving the problem,” the husband justified himself on the grounds that he had fallen and lost the baby.

The legendary Bette Davis finally gave in to the pressure of the studios and broke off. It was either that or the career. “If I had been a mother in 1934, I would have lost the best roles of my life,” revealed biographer Charlotte Chandler.

“MGM has all kinds of penalty clauses for stars who have babies. If I had one, my salary would be cut. How could I live like this? “Quoted Ava Gardner, who took a trip to London to secretly button this during Frank Sinatra’s wedding without his knowing, quoted by Jane Ellen Wayne.

Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner at the wedding – a power couple from the 1950s

Another name on this blacklist is Judy Garland, the eternal Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz”. Not only marriage and pregnancy were regulated in the contracts. The actresses were also contractually forced to keep their figure. When she accidentally became pregnant, it was her mother who organized the abortion with the help of the ubiquitous Strickling.

Not all stories ended well. Such was the case with Lupe Velez, the Mexican-born actress, who became pregnant and was debating whether or not to keep the child. He refused, but would end up committing suicide.

Drugs and diets

Chicken soup, coffee and 80 cigarettes a day. For weeks this was the diet that MGM executives, Judy Garland, imposed. The weight was controlled by the grass and nothing could affect the on-screen performance.

The footage was also devastating to the actress’s physical and mental health. Given this pressure, it was the studios themselves that encouraged drug use: stimulants when it was necessary to get through long days of shooting; sleep when it was necessary to rest.

She was used to taking pills – her mother started taking them at the age of 10 – and was addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates by the age of 17, even during the making of her most famous movie.

“They made us work endless days and nights. They gave us pills to keep us on our feet when we were exhausted. Then they’d take us to the studio hospital and put us to sleep with pills, “revealed biographer Paul Donnelley herself.” After four hours they woke us up and gave us drugs so we could do another 72 hours in a row. ”

Garland was constantly pressured by the men in the studio. Before he was 18, he had already participated in more than 20 productions. The first important one was when I was 14.

The producers who took care of her weight called it “the piggy”. The control was exhaustive and all calories were counted individually. Louis B. Mayer asked that he be given pills to reduce his appetite.

He would fight drug addiction for the rest of his life. He would eventually die of an accidental overdose at the age of 47.

Judy Garland at the age of 47, five months before death

At the age of 19, Debbie Reynolds achieved the coveted role of protagonist in a Hollywood classic. In “Singin ‘in the Rain” I would be opposite Gene Kelly.

The recordings of the musical, the constant shots and the rehearsals were exhausting. So much so that Reynolds got to the point where he couldn’t get up. Advised by a doctor to take a week off, MGM manager Arthur Freed told him to see another doctor who would give him “vitamin injections”.

“These were possibly the same vitamins that ruined Judy Garland,” the actress wrote years later. In the end, he took the first advice and rested without the help of drugs. “That decision may have saved me from a life of clinging to stimulants.”

Sexual harassment

As always, when power is almost absolute, abuse is inevitable. It was the same with all-powerful Hollywood managers and producers. The examples would make an endless list – and the familiar ones will just give a taste of what really happened.

Judy Garland herself had to sit on the lap of Louis B. Mayer, the then head of MGM. Shirley Temple revealed years later that MGM producer Arthur Freed showed off her private parts when she was only 12 years old.

A young Judy Garland with Louis B. Mayer

If abuses were not explicit, predatory approaches and disguised threats always lurked. Ginger Rogers was constantly harassed by the head of Columbia Pictures, and Joan Collins revealed that she had lost the role of Cleopatra because she refused to “sympathize” with the strong man from 20th Century Fox, recalls The Guardian.

The Hollywood vibe encouraged this type of abuse, especially when, on the other hand, there weren’t any established stars but young people from across the country looking for a way to shine. For many years, actress Louise Brooks revealed that decisions were made not on castings but on party sofas organized by influential men.

The most paradigmatic case of the predatory environment of old Hollywood occurred in a case of violations that became a national scandal in 1937. Patricia Douglas, a 20-year-old dancer, accepted a position as an assistant at an MGM event.

It was a Hollywood party, after all, and hundreds of MGM members would be there. Guests should “wait for a wild night when men behave like men”.

Douglas and 120 other women were taken to a desert home in a bus in a tight and revealing western suit. It was there that they realized that to entertain the 300 executives and salespeople who ate and drank a lot, they would have to dance at MGM’s expense.

As the booze flowed, the party took on such wild shapes. Douglas was molested by a 36-year-old salesman named David Ross, who at one point grabbed her and with the help of another man, forced her to drink and get drunk. In the end, he took her to his car and raped her. “I will destroy you,” he said during the attack.

Without fear, Douglas exposed the case in the press and went to court. The scandal threatened MGM, which, as expected, acted quickly. The wild party organized by the studio quickly disappeared from the mentions.

All references to the studio have been omitted. And lawyers were quick to question the honesty and character of the victim. Several men testified in Ross’s favor, saying they saw Douglas drinking during the party. The case disappeared.

Eddie Mannix, one of the thugs and a man responsible for all of MGM’s work, was one of those responsible for covering up the case. According to The Guardian, he played with the situation after it was resolved: “We had them killed.”

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