In the aftermath of World War II, unmarried women faced a hard dilemma when it came to sex. Damned if they did, and damned if they didn’t.
In the words of a 16-year-old girl quoted by Michael Phillips in his article Women and the Sexual Double Standard of the 1950s:
How are you supposed to know what they want? You hold out for a long time and then when you give in to them and give your body they laugh at you afterwards and say they would never marry a slut, and that they didn’t love you but were testing because they only plan to marry a virgin and wanted to see if you would go all the way.
The pressures could be especially intense in the torrid and ultra-competitive world of the Hollywood studios, where the casting couch cast a long shadow and having a flexible attitude to sex could be the route to stardom or the road to perdition.
The inspiration for this piece is a collection of photos given to Dr Irving Ress by his clients. Dr Ress was an obstetrician who worked in Hollywood. Among the women who came to him for advice on pregnancy and childbirth were a number of movie stars and actresses. Perhaps they dedicated their photos to him spontaneously. More likely he was susceptible to their charms and asked them to contribute to his collection. Flattered by the request, they were happy to do so.
The predicaments and concerns they confided in him we can only imagine. But that’s not difficult in the context both the time (the 1940s and early ’50s) and the place (Hollywood).
Unsafe sex – the sexual revolution of the 1940s
20 years before the permissive society of the 1960s, a sexual revolution is taking place in the US in the 1940s.
The war years have already seen the flowering of the pin-up, perfected by the Hollywood studios and designed both to market their product and to boost morale by presenting an all-American view of the sweetheart waiting back home for the soldiers and sailors — the girls worth fighting for. As the GIs return, they also bring with them pornography from Europe and Asia.
In the late-1940s “camera clubs” are formed to get around laws restricting the production of nude photos. The clubs claim they exist to promote “artistic photography”, but in reality… The years 1952 through 1957 see Bettie Page posing for Irving Klaw, who distributes his pin-up and bondage shots by mail-order. And in 1953 Hugh Heffner publishes the first issue of Playboy.
At the same time, researchers are taking a new, more scientific interest in sex and sexuality. In 1948 the Kinsey Report, Sexual Behaviors in the Human Male and Sexual Behaviors in the Human Female, is published, shining a light on topics that have hitherto been taboo. Around this time, courses on human sexuality begin to appear on college campuses.
Sex is in the air. And in this context and after 15 years of depression and war, it’s hardly surprising that young people are less inclined than their parents to defer to traditional restraints on their behavior. Between 1941 and 1953, the overall rate of single motherhood more than doubles. But it’s not a straightforward matter of celebration, liberation and hedonism holding sway.
The post-World War II years bring with them a new period of economic and sexual anxiety. The US faces a major housing crisis. Juvenile delinquency supposedly reaches epic proportions. Both Republicans and Democrats go after Alfred Kinsey and comic books (Batman and Wonder Woman are accused of promoting homosexuality and lesbianism). The mood is one of pride and depression, valour and self-doubt, stoicism and vulnerability. Welcome to the heyday of film noir.
Unsafe sex – damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t
Meanwhile, women face a tricky dilemma. Leaving aside social attitudes to women having sex outside marriage (boys will be boys so that’s okay), contraceptive techniques are crude and unreliable. So women in relationships are playing with fire – always susceptible to getting pregnant or picking up a sexually transmitted disease.
It’s no wonder that women are strongly motivated to get married at the first opportunity (during the 1950s, the average age of women at marriage is 20). But there’s always the chance that they’ll make a bad choice and end up with a violent and abusive partner. And guess what? Domestic violence is rarely punished and there are no laws against rape in marriage. Which is hardly surprising given that police forces have no special domestic-violence units or policies.
The alternative – walking out – is unlikely to be a bed of roses. Single mothers and divorcees don’t have the same rights to state aid as widows with children so money is a problem. If they can get a job, it’s likely to be menial and low-paid. In other words, there’s a good chance those women end up ostracized and impoverished.
Unsafe sex – the honey trap
Pretty girls are drawn to Hollywood like gazelles to a watering hole, where the lions and hyenas lie in wait. Some wannabes, such as Judy Garland, arrive under the influence of ambitious and domineering parents. Most are talent-spotted – Ava Gardner via a portrait photo in a New York photographer’s studio window, Lana Turner at a soda fountain – or so the story goes. Models (like Hazel Brooks) and theatre actresses (like Ella Raines) are popular prey.When they arrive in Tinseltown, they are young and innocent. And, like lambs to slaughter, onto the production conveyor-belt they go. Each is given a name (Frances Ethel Gumm becomes Judy Garland, Betty Joan Perske is rechristened Lauren Bacall ), a more or less fanciful back-story, a makeover and a contract.
What next for our aspiring starlet? A series of photo sessions with plenty of cheesecake shots and, if she’s lucky, a few bit parts. Her fate is down to a combination of factors, not the least of which is the relationships she manages to establish. Which brings us, or rather her, to the casting couch. Three of Hollywood’s foremost lechers in the 1940s are Harry Cohn, Darryl F Zanuck and Howard Hughes.
Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, is a blustering, foul-mouthed, abrasive taskmaster and acts like a tyrant. His office contains an enormous desk for him, and small seats for his visitors, enabling him to tower over them. On his desk is a photo of Benito Mussolini, whom he greatly admires. He also has ties to organized crime and is friendly with mobsters such as Chicago gangster John Roselli. Cohn enjoys using concealed microphones to eavesdrop on employees’ conversations, such as those of Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth during the filming of Gilda. Rita, Joan Crawford and Kim Novak are three of the better-known actresses who manage to build careers for themselves in spite of rejecting his advances.
Darryl F Zanuck, Cohn’s counterpart at 20th Century-Fox, is widely credited with inventing the “casting couch”. He is famously “in conference” with an endless succession of aspiring actresses between 16:00 and 16:30 every day. He’s a busy man who doesn’t have time to hang about: according to gossip, one would-be actress shown into his office finds him already naked from the waist down and primed for action.
Howard Hughes is not just a film producer and the owner of RKO Pictures; he is a business tycoon, engineer and pioneering aviator. He has a “secret” house near his LA home where he “interviews” would-be starlets. Rumour has it that he’s had affairs with a host of young actresses including Bette Davis, Jean Harlow, Ava Gardner, Carole Lombard and Ginger Rogers. Jane Greer’s career hits the buffers when she rejects his advances.
It’s not just the studio heads and producers who are in on the act. Agents, actors, publicists and others are all circling.
But back to our aspiring starlet… Assuming she makes it onto the big screen, the studio, fan magazines and gossip columnists work together to paint an attractive picture of her. By providing details of her domestic life, the studio enables fans to feel as if they can get close to the real person. Articles and photos of her home, her clothes, the events and parties she attends and so on, add grist to the mill. As does the slightest suggestion of romance – but only if our starlet is single.
It’s essential that there’s no hint of scandal. To that end, the studio enlists “fixers” to clean up potential embarrassments such as a drug addiction or an extra-marital affair. That is why it’s important for our starlet to tow the line and keep on the right side of her bosses. Otherwise they could hang her out to dry.
The trouble is that temptation is everywhere. If you want to get a sense of the corrupt and corrupting forces that are rife, just read the novels of Raymond Chandler. Carmen Sternwood, for example, Lauren Bacall’s wild, drug-addicted younger sister exploited by pornographers and blackmailers in The Big Sleep, is an object lesson in what can become of a girl who gets in with the wrong crowd. In My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars, Scotty Bowers, an ex-Marine who works as a bartender at Hollywood parties, paints a picture of the LAPD vice squad prowling the hills in their patrol cars, looking for parties and opportunities to arrest the participants.
Even big stars are vulnerable to scandal. Ingrid Bergman is one of the most-loved stars in America but all that changes overnight when, in spite of having a husband and a daughter, she gets pregnant by Italian director Roberto Rossellini. Colorado Senator Edwin C Johnson takes to the floor of the Senate to denounce her as “a powerful influence for evil.”
And if our starlet fails to make the grade? She might be relegated to the stock character pool, kept around to “pleasure” visiting executives, or just spat out.
Unsafe sex –and what of Dr Ress and his clients?
It is in this glittering and sleazy environment laced with opportunity and danger that some at least of Dr Ress’s clients seek to make their way.
Of the twelve young women who dedicate photos to Dr Ress, seven taste a modicum of success, meet and romance a few of the ‘beautiful people’ and come through (relatively) unscathed, as far as we can tell. “Tommye” Adams crashes and burns – hers is a cautionary tale if ever there was one. Virginia Walker dies tragically young. The other three are mysteries.
Information about the doctor himself is thin on the ground, apart from a brief entry in Wikipedia. But we do catch a tantalizing glimpse of him in Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931-1946 by Tom Weaver and Michael Brunas. They recount an incident involving Australian actress Betty Bryant, cast by Universal as the female lead in The Jungle Captive (1945).
Australian actress Betty Bryant, recently signed by Universal to a term contract, was originally chosen to play the female lead in The Jungle Captive (1945).
On August 30, 1944, one day before production began, she appeared in the office of associate producer Morgan B. Cox and informed him that she didn’t know whether she could find a babysitter to stay with her two year old on certain nights she was scheduled to work. On the first day of shooting she was unprepared, and on the second day she arrived 40 minutes late, just in time for a reprimand from director Harold Young.
To quiet the actress’ maternal apprehensions, her physician Dr Irving L. Ress, Hollywood’s “obstetrician to the stars,” was summoned. In private, Dr. Ress emphatically told Cox that there was nothing about motion pictures or motion picture people that he could admire. According to Ress, all the men in the movie business were concerned primarily with “making” any and all women in any way connected with the industry. Bryant was drawn into the argument and Ress nearly succeeded in creating a scene.
Over the next several days this embarrassing situation continued, with Ress hanging around the set, creating disturbances, careening around the darkened lot in his car and, in the words of Cox in a 16-page September 12 memo), “acting more like a thwarted lover than a reputable doctor.” Cox concluded in his memo that Bryant, slightly ill throughout much of this ordeal and genuinely apologetic for the entire situation, was a victim of circumstances over which she had little control. Of course the boom was inevitably lowered on the hapless actress, and she was bumped. (In his September 9 Los Angeles Times column, Edwin Schallert sugar-coated the incident, reporting that Bryant had gotten ill and “has to go in the hospital for observation and treatment.”) Amelita Ward replaced her in the picture, which ran two days over schedule (wrapping on September 16), probably as the result of the turmoil created by the mysterious Dr. Ress.
Clearly the good doctor has a jaundiced view of the industry. And who, other than the studios and their stooges, could really blame him?
Want to know more?
Two important sources for this piece are a blog about Women and the Sexual Double Standard of the 1950s and “Silent” Sexual Revolution Began In 1940’s and ’50s, an article by Alan Petigny.
For the lowdown on Hollywood, Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance, and Drama from the Golden Age of American Cinema by Anne Helen Petersen is a great read. Or you could take a look at Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars by Scotty Bowers. For an online article, there’s a Daily Express article on Hollywood’s dirty little secret.