“It is strange how a girl can disappear without leaving a ripple upon the waters of the Port of Missing Girls.”
In 1943 Chicago Tribune journalist Marcia Winn traveled to Hollywood to report on the stories rarely covered by their local papers. She brought back tales of scandal, corruption, cover-ups, and crime, but none of her articles had as big an impact as the second in her series: “Hollywood Vice Swallows Up 300 Girls a Month.” In the article, Winn interviewed an anonymous law enforcement official who laid out in brutal terms what often happened to girls who arrived in Hollywood looking for fame and stardom: finding movies hard to break into, the girl would meet a “snappy looking customer” who promised help getting work, only to quickly lure her into prostitution and drug dependency. Penniless, addicted, suffering from assault and often disease, the girls—“They’re victimized,” the law enforcement officer made clear—faced impossible choices. Unable to turn to the police for fear of being arrested and too ashamed to return home, they often stayed with their abusers or simply “disappeared”—according to Winn, around 300 of them a month.
Winn’s article led to an outcry from defenders of Hollywood, who pointed out the resources available to young women in the city, including charitable organizations, affordable housing run by upstanding matrons, and funds from the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce to help young women return home (occasionally, as an escort to a dead body). But it also exposed a raw nerve in Hollywood, the truth that it was a city known for luring young, beautiful, and often naïve women and girls to an industry largely run by wealthy and powerful men who could—and did—bribe their way out of the consequences of their actions.
Stories like Winn’s article helped inspire my new novel, A Starlet’s Secret to a Sensational Afterlife, about one of those young women who arrived in Hollywood in the 1930s to discover the darkness underneath the city’s glittery façade. My starlet, Henny, escapes a beauty contest scam and handsy executives at a studio party to finally win a coveted screen contract, only to start seeing visions of girls: broken, bloody, and furious. They’re the girls the studio used up and discarded, their deaths written off as tragic suicides or unfortunate accidents, and as soon as they realize Henny can actually see them, they’re hungry for revenge.
In real life, 1930s Hollywood executives had a vested interest in making sure any stories of abuse, violence, and death—stories that inspired the girl ghosts in A Starlet’s Secret—didn’t come to light. After a string of notorious scandals, national civic groups demanded something be done about the lack of morals in Hollywood. Film executives responded with what was called the Hays Code, self-imposed regulations on what movies could and couldn’t portray. It was a last-ditch effort to avoid more serious government regulation, and it went hand-in-hand with decades of silence and misinformation campaigns designed to keep the industry’s worst behavior from coming to light.
For women who tried to find justice in Hollywood during this time, they faced an all-powerful industry with deep connections to the police, legal system, politicians, and newspapers. In 1937, actress Patricia Douglas went up against the biggest studio in the world, MGM, when she made the radical decision to press charges after she claimed she was raped by an MGM executive while performing at a studio party. While sexual abuse at film studios was an open secret—jokes about the “casting couch” were so common and widespread, one studio executive had a plaque installed on the ceiling of his office commemorating the practice—Douglas was among the first women to openly accuse a film executive of assault and faced a ruthless smear campaign, orchestrated by MGM’s general manager and all-around “fixer,” Eddie Mannix. After relentless attacks that exposed her home address and impugned her character, Douglas’s case was dismissed, her story and name forgotten until uncovered and reevaluated by recent historians.
In A Starlet’s Secret, my version of Eddie Mannix is named Richard Mulvey, and Henny learns more about the role he plays in keeping studio secrets buried once she meets the ghost of his mistress, Gussy, a brash and beautiful showgirl. Gussy’s story stands in for Mannix’s real-life girlfriend, actress Mary Nolan. Like Douglas, Nolan tried to find justice and sued Mannix, claiming he frequently abused her, ruining her acting career and leading to dozens of hospital stays and surgeries. And like Douglas, Mannix used the full force of MGM against Nolan, feeding the press salacious stories about her and threatening to have her arrested for her addiction to the painkillers she had received as treatment for Mannix’s abuse. Nolan quickly dropped her suit, leaving Hollywood behind and slipping deeper into her addiction, finally succumbing to an overdose in 1948.
While Douglas and Nolan’s legal battles stand as records of their attempts to expose their abusers, there were countless women who we will never know about. Their deaths were called unavoidable tragedies, they were shamed or intimidated into staying quiet, or they never gained enough fame to be remembered by history: like Winn’s article stated, they simply “disappeared.”
The ghost girls in A Starlet’s Secret nod to those untold stories: Jet, a glamorous flapper whose official cause of death is “complications from appendicitis,” references women who were pressured by the studios to undergo risky abortions, many of whom nearly died, like Rita Morena, who in 2013 described being pressured into a medically unsafe abortion in the 1950s. Tressie, a talented Black singer and songwriter who appears to Henny as a silent ghost, dies penniless in spite of her songs dominating film soundtracks, a victim of a common, predatory recording deal in the 1920s that often targeted Black artists. And in the years before Hollywood enacted safety regulations, Henny meets a ghost who died in an on-set accident that should have never occurred, like silent film star Martha Mansfield, killed in 1923 when a carelessly-thrown match set her billowing costume on fire (the studio baselessly suggested Martha, who did not smoke, had dropped the match).
Those real, often anonymous women had their stories twisted or ignored, but in A Starlet’s Secret, the ghost girls could reclaim their voices and take back the identities the studio had tried to control. Inspired by the bravery and courage of the real whistleblowers who spoke out about the oppression they experienced or witnessed, I imagined what these girls would have asked for and hoped for, what kind of justice they expected and deserved. The systems of exploitation in Hollywood weren’t dismantled in the 1930s, and still exist to some extent today, but I wanted to ask the question: what could we have done if we listened to those girls back then? What could we do if we listen more closely now?
Not long after meeting the ghost girls in A Starlet’s Secret, Henny, usually a lighthearted firecracker determined not to let anything break her down, collapses in tears, crying for the ghosts she met, that they should appear to her “as bruised, broken, bloody shadows instead of beautiful, laughing, living girls.” It’s a moment that galvanizes her to fight for these girls, try to find for them the justice they never received. Just like Henny, I could feel the real ghosts of Hollywood as I wrote this book, reminding me to dig deeper, to look for the forgotten girls, to listen to their stories of pain, tragedy, and heartbreak. While we might never know them all, they leave behind a painful reminder of what can happen when power silences truth, along with a call to action to protect against abuse and exploitation, to listen and believe survivors, and ensure there are no more forgotten girls.