In the early days of Hollywood, studios (like MGM) would force young starlets to work long hours in order to generate as much money as possible. Anything that would interfere with a celebrity's ability to work was often dealt with by their management team – including pregnancies. Most of these famous women were used as puppets who were often supervised and treated like objects. Marilyn Monroe wasn’t the only actress who was controlled by people. Other female stars also had to give up their bodily autonomy or authenticity for roles and money. And when you look at the dark history of Hollywood, you’ll find many horror stories of women who were allegedly forced to terminate their pregnancies. Here are some of them.
Judy Garland was known for her famous role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. She starred in many classic films and modeled in many stunning dresses during the Golden Era of Hollywood. But the truth is, Garland’s life was incredibly tragic and nowhere near glamorous.
Garland got married (without her management’s approval) to songwriter David Rose. She got pregnant with Rose’s baby when she was only 20 years old, but was forced to abort her child despite having the desire to be a mother. Garland’s own mom, Ethel Marion Milne, worked with MGM to arrange the abortion. Garland once wrote about her experience in the third person. She says: “She asked her mother, ‘Where are we going?’ ‘Never mind,’ she said, ‘you’ll see.’ They drove for about a half hour and pulled up in front of a dreary little establishment outside of town. Her mother took Judy by the hand, led her inside to a shabby little office. In a few minutes, David, her mother and MGM were satisfied.”
According to Jane Allen Wayne, author of the biography book The Golden Girls of MGM: Glamour and Grief, Garland briefly talked about MGM’s rules surrounding pregnancies. “MGM had all sorts of penalty clauses about their stars having babies,” Garland was quoted to have said. “If I had one, my salary would be cut off. So how could I make a living?” Unfortunately, Garland had to go through another abortion when she got pregnant again in 1943, just after her alleged affair with Tyrone Power. These series of events apparently cost Garland psychologically, and it could be one of the reasons why she fell into a drug addiction that eventually killed her.
Lana Turner, a popular actress and pin-up model, got pregnant by a clarinetist named Artie Shaw in the 1940s. MGM’s head of publicity, Howard Strickling, arranged an abortion for Turner while she was on tour in Hawaii. The medical procedure happened without anesthesia, and Turner’s own mother covered her mouth to silence her cries of agony. The studio paid the doctor $500 (that would be around $10,500 today), which was taken out of Turner’s paycheck. Just one week after the horrifying experience, Turner was forced to go back on set to film Ziegfeld Girl.
Jean Harlow would often play the “bad girl” character in films during the era of the Great Depression. The silver-haired beauty was the sex symbol of the 1930s and became Marilyn Monroe’s idol and inspiration. But like other famous celebrities, Harlow’s decisions in life were often affected by MGM, and she couldn't marry her lover William Powell. When Harlow got pregnant, she apparently called Strickling in a panic. Not too long after that, Jean Harlow visited Good Shepherd Hospital to “get some rest” in the same hospital room where she had her “appendectomy” the year before, according to the author of The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling, and the MGM Publicity Machine.
The China Seas starlet died suddenly at the age of 26 in 1937 – reportedly from kidney disease. The unexpected event prompted the creation of theories surrounding her demise among fans. There’s speculation that Harlow died of a possible botched abortion, toxic hair dye, or intestinal damage from getting beaten by her husband, Paul Bern. Though we might have to take these speculations with a grain of salt, it’s true that illegal abortions were often dangerous and had adverse health effects. “These back-alley [abortion] procedures may have caused infections and adhesions that either prevented pregnancy or led to miscarriages,” writes Jeffrey Meyers.
Abortion wasn’t always seen as “empowering.” Many female celebrities long ago wanted to be mothers but had to abort their babies so they could continue to make money for the companies controlling them.
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