Harassment in Hollywood's Golden Age: A Survivor's Firsthand Story (Guest Column)
Actress, singer and dancer Janis Paige writes about one terrifying night many years ago: "Even at 95, I remember everything."
Being the victim of attempted rape never leaves your body. The feelings of terror and helplessness are finally pushed into a place of their own, and we go on. The unrelenting barrage of sexual-abuse accusations levied at the uber-rich and all-powerful Harvey Weinstein opened up my own memories. Tears, rage and fighting for my life reappeared, and I was forced to recall everything one more painful time, including what I wore that night so long ago. Even at 95, I remember everything. Closure is never complete.
I didn't ask for Hollywood, it discovered me. I was studying opera when my life changed direction forever. I sang an operatic aria for the World War II Armed Forces at the Hollywood Canteen one night. They were loudly appreciative, and when I left the stage, a talent scout was waiting for me. The following day, Louis B. Mayer signed me to a contract, and two days later I was in a movie called Bathing Beauty. The day Metro let me go, I was signed by Warner Bros. and immediately put in a movie called Hollywood Canteen. This was the heady stuff of which dreams were made.
As a child and coming from a small town, I'd been taught nothing about life, about being a woman or about the future relationships I would have with the men I would ultimately meet. At 22, I was still a virgin, untouched and blind to the predators waiting. At a salary of $150 on the famous sliding scale of pay in the studios then, I felt blessed beyond words. I earned more per week than my mother had made in a month during the Great Depression while working at the Bank of Tacoma.
One day, the director of my next movie called, asking me to come to his office. When I entered, there was a man there who was introduced as his "friend," Alfred Bloomingdale. The director spoke briefly of the film and then said that Mr. Bloomingdale would like to take me to dinner. I had no idea who he was, and when I hesitated, he assured me that I was safe and had nothing to fear.
"I would never arrange a date unless I was sure that everything was all right," he assured me. My hesitation did not come from mistrust; my hesitation came because I felt uncomfortable and, frankly, disinterested in this somewhat overweight and rather unattractive man. Not knowing what else to do, I left that day, accepting his offer of dinner.
He took me to the most famous restaurant in Beverly Hills, a place called Romanoff's. I'd never been there, and it was beyond my comprehension in every way. He ordered dinner and then began to converse with everyone he seemed to know, but not to me. I remember feeling lost and, Romanoff's or not, wanting to go home. He finally paid the check and we left.
As we headed toward my home, he parked outside the Sunset Towers. It's still there today. He said, "I have to pick up something at my apartment. I'll only be a minute or two." I told him that I'd wait in the car. He said that he'd feel terrible if someone bothered me while he was gone. "Please, Janis, I'll feel safer if you're with me and not alone," he said. I again told him I'd rather wait, and he said that it was unfair of me to make him worry.
Dutifully, I followed him into the elevator and up to his apartment. He opened the door, and as I stepped inside, I heard it slam. Without a word, he suddenly reached around me and tore my blouse open. I could feel his hands, not only on my breasts, but seemingly everywhere. He was big and strong, and I began to fight, kick, bite and scream. When he put his hand over my mouth, I couldn't breathe and thought I was going to die.
I bit him as hard as I could and opened the door. I ran down about six flights of stairs, hysterical and sobbing to Sunset Boulevard, running toward home. I remember passing people on the street, holding my blouse closed. Some of them stopped and tried to say something to me, but I just kept running toward Highland Avenue and the street where I lived. I had no idea how far that was. It was about 10 o'clock at night, and I was too terrified to stop and ask for help.
As I tried to cross a street, his car pulled in front of me, and I had to stop. "Please, Janis," he said, "I'm so sorry. Get in the car, and I'll take you home." I screamed "No" and told him I was looking for a policeman. He stopped me again and pleaded with me to "please, please be quiet. I promise, you'll be safe. You can't keep running like this, you're a long way from your home." He looked white and scared, begging me to let him take me home. I finally got in the car, with my hand on the door handle all the way to my house. I jumped out and frantically ran inside. I could still feel his filthy hands all over my body.
He showed up the next day with a bouquet of flowers, pleading with my mother to let him speak with me. I refused, and he left. The fear for my job, the fear that no one would believe me and the shame I felt at the betrayal of myself kept me quiet all these years. He was a man who would become wrapped in sexual scandals until he died, but to me, the seeming hypocrisy of his marriage continued to their deaths. The wealth, power, glamour and constant philanthropy continued while the moral corruption was ignored.
Maybe there's a special place in hell for the Alfred Bloomingdales or Harvey Weinsteins of the world and for those who aid and then deny their grossly demented behavior.
At 95, time is not on my side, and neither is silence. I simply want to add my name and say, "Me too."
Janis Paige starred in the original production of The Pajama Game on Broadway, in the Hollywood musicals Silk Stockings and Romance on the High Seas and on her own CBS sitcom in the 1950s.