“Don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars,” breathes Bette Davis, gazing soulfully at Paul Henreid.
“Have yourself a merry little Christmas,” Judy Garland sings tenderly to a tearful Margaret O’Brien.
“There’s a name for you ladies,” smirks Joan Crawford, just before sweeping from the room, “but it isn’t used in high society . . . outside of a kennel.”
These and many other immortal scenes are treasured by classic movie fans like me. We tend to look back at the Golden Age of Hollywood as a time that was both more elegant and more innocent. In part, it was: The famous and much-debated Production Code toned down a lot of the onscreen behavior that many of us now take offense at, and female stars often had more substantive and less sexualized roles than they do now.
Offscreen, however, things were very different. According to a recent story in Vanity Fair, female stars like Davis, Garland, and Crawford paid a high price to give us those memorable moments.
“Much like today, in Old Hollywood, the decisions being made about women’s bodies were made in the interests of men—the powerful heads of motion pictures studios MGM, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros., and RKO,” write Marcie Bianco and Merryn Johns. And therefore, “from the very infancy of America’s film industry, abortions were necessary body maintenance for women in the spotlight.”
The article is filled with painful stories about women who in public appeared powerful and in control but in private were pressured or even coerced into aborting their children. (It should be noted that, then as now, Hollywood gossip wasn’t always trustworthy or well-sourced, but most of these stories were recounted by the actresses themselves.) Everyone was in on it—the men who wanted to play the field without having to deal with the consequences, the studio fixers who were paid to hush up scandals, and sometimes even the stars’ own mothers.
Married stars sometimes faced just as much pressure as unmarried stars. Judy Garland’s mother arranged her daughter’s first abortion during Garland’s marriage to bandleader David Rose. Image was everything, and even for a married woman, a baby could spoil that image. Expectations were so high and often so contradictory that no woman alive could meet them: They had to be simultaneously accessible and sophisticated, tough and sweet, sexy and “virginal.” Ironically, the “morality clauses” in studio contracts—which were written in for the purpose of promoting good character and avoiding scandal—made the problems and the pressures even worse.
On top of all that, having a baby meant taking time off work in the short term and having divided loyalties in the long term. In the end, “get[ting] rid of the problem,” as one studio boss put it, was the obvious solution.
So the children were sacrificed.
And their mothers suffered—not just because of the abortions, but because of the callousness and lack of support they faced. Garland’s abortions “haunted” her all her life and likely contributed to the downward spiral that led to her drug-induced death at the age of 47. Another actress, Lupe Velez, committed suicide rather than have an abortion. Others were affected differently. Davis, after having children later in life, “‘was proud of the fact that, after her abortions, she could have a baby at last and a career, because her mother had always insisted that she couldn’t have both.’” But whether they collapsed or survived, all of them suffered.
It’s hard to deal with this truth—hard to realize that behind the scenes of films that shaped our culture and even our lives, such sordidness and evil went on. Hollywood was born out of a time of rapid societal change, when both sexes gained unprecedented levels of power and freedom, and with that came temptation. But even so, perhaps it didn’t have to be that way. Perhaps with less hedonism, less hypocrisy, and less foolish obsession with perfect, pristine stars, things could have been different. Perhaps if people had placed more value on life and family, if the sexual double standard hadn’t allowed women to be harshly punished while men moved on to their next conquest, the story could have had a happier ending.
We’ll never know. As C. S. Lewis wrote in Perelandra, “Whatever you do, [God] will make good of it. But not the good he had prepared for you if you had obeyed him.” We can recognize the good in our cultural heritage—including the great movies that have been passed down to us—but it’s important that we also recognize and mourn the good that was lost.
The most tragic part of this story is how little we seem to have learned from it all. The Vanity Fair writers are commendably indignant over Old Hollywood’s culture of coerced abortion. And yet they still make snide remarks about those “patriarchal” types of today who try to keep women from getting abortions—as if the old problem has entirely disappeared. As Mona Charen points out in The Weekly Standard, even in these more permissive, “liberated” days, “women are often the victims of male pressure to abort babies. Feminists, so exquisitely sensitive to male pressure on women in every other context, avert their eyes on this.”
In any era, under any circumstance, abortion is child sacrifice. And whether they make their choices freely or—as is still often the case—under pressure, the mothers suffer. (The fathers suffer too, although their pain often goes unrecognized.) If the story of Old Hollywood reminds us of anything, it should remind us of this: The culture of hedonism leads directly to the culture of death. Alternatively, when we pursue grace, mercy, and honesty, when people are prioritized over publicity, and when communities support mothers and babies instead of considering them “in the way,” that’s when we find a culture of life where men, women, and children flourish together in the goodness of God’s kingdom.