Book: The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick (Mallory O’Meara, 2019)

No matter how much you may regard yourself as a film buff, it is unlikely you are familiar with the name Milicent Patrick.  It is equally unlikely you know her by her birth name, Mildred Elizabeth Fulvia di Rossi, or the (at least) three other names she would adopt in her lifetime.  But it was under that first name that she achieved what should have been her claim to fame, designing the costume for the monster in 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon.  Unfortunately, that credit was stolen from her, and she lost her place in film history, in yet another of the kind of stories only coming to light in the advent of the #MeToo movement.

The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick is the first biography of this artist, who was only too briefly employed in the makeup department of Universal Studios.  Author Mallory O’Meara has done justice to this forgotten figure the best she can, struggling to pull together information about a person it seems others were determined to erase from film history.

I don’t like to say a work is something only a person of his gender, race or background could have produced, yet this is a book only a woman could write.  O’Meara seems to identify so strongly with her subject not just because she loves horror films, but because of the sexism she has faced in her own work as an independent producer of such films.  Much of the material here is about the author’s struggles in her profession, as well as trying to research a subject for whom there is so little extant documentation.  Usually, devoting so many pages to their own life would have me thinking this is because of vanity or a dearth of material.  For this book, however, her story really is half of the experience, and it is all the better for it.

Consider the requirements she believes are necessary to be a producer: “you adore cinema, you’re great with organization and you’re able to suppress the constant urge to scream.”  Even as she tries to prove herself in the field, she says she “wanted to buy a hat that says IT’S OKAY, I BELONG HERE mostly so that I could believe it myself.”  Unfortunately for her, she will have a few stories of unacceptable behavior demonstrated towards her, and I doubt she was sharing all of them here.

Patrick’s early life is interesting, as her father, Camille Rossi, was a structural engineer at Hearst Castle in San Simeon.  Remember Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu estate in Citizen Kane?  That was inspired by the Hearst place, a sprawling monstrosity 1 ½ times the size of Disneyland.  Her father had quite a career there, being the first person to successfully transplant a six-ton live oak.  It was also, unfortunately, a position in which he frequently butted heads with the chief architect, primarily because a woman, Julia Morgan, was in that role and Camille was extremely sexist.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, he also was a horrible boss, as he “’seemed to glory in human misery,’ a description usually reserved for villains who live high in mountain caves.”

The bits here about Morgan’s life are interesting, and I’d like to know more about her.  At UC Berkeley, she studied civil engineering and then went on to be the first woman to get an École des Beaux Arts certification in architecture.  Returning home, she became California’s first licensed female architect.  One would think she was a major inspiration to Milicent, but they don’t appear to have interacted much.  This is also somebody who helped others to climb the ladder, prioritizing the hiring of women and both artists and draftsmen (draftswomen?  draftspeople?).

Given her parent’s highly conservative view of a woman’s place in the world, Milicent had a very sheltered and restrictive childhood.  Even in Southern California, she was forced to wear heavy dresses ill suited for the climate and popular fashion conventions of the time.  Fortunately, she eventually enrolled at Glendale Junior College, which is where she discovered a passion for illustration.  From there she won three scholarships to Chouinard Art Institute, among whose alumni are Edith Head, Mary Blair and Chuck Jones.  The Institute would later merge with the LA Conservatory of Music to become CalArts.  Milicent just happened to be there at an ideal time, as Walt Disney began working with the school, training its students to fill his need for more animators.

It is while at Disney she had the first of many troubled relationships.  An affair with fellow animator Paul Fitzpatrick resulted in his wife committing suicide while she was carrying their child.  Milicent’s parents, already displeased with her independence from them, begin to cut her out of their lives.  One can never truly know the full nature of a relationship one is not immediately part of, but her romances don’t go well.  After the marriage to Fitzpatrick sours, she had a brief relationship with voice actor Frank L. Graham, shortly after which he committed suicide.  From his will: To Mildred, I leave absolutely nothing except the pleasure she will have knowing that now she won’t have to decide whether I am good enough for her or not.”  Ouch!

Milicent initially intended to succeed in the motion picture industry as an actress.  In a book that borders on hagiography, O’Meara has an objective take on her acting ability, which is she wasn’t very good.  The roles were consistently small, though still numerous and across two decades. 

One never knows the path they will take in life, and her career took an interesting turn when her fellow actors saw the fantastic sketches she would do to pass the time on film sets.  One person who saw her work was Bud Westmore, the head of makeup at Universal Pictures.  Soon, she is on his staff, designing makeup effects for the Errol Flynn / Maureen O’Hara swashbuckler Against All Flags.

Not much time passes before she is roped in to do sketches to improve upon the costume producer William Aland had designed for The Creature.  His concept was apparently little more than putting somebody in a smooth suit without embellishments and slapping flippers on their feet.  All that sounds like…just any old scuba diver.  Milicent’s re-design gave considerable nuance and texture to that outfit, as based on what biology would mandate for such a being to survive.  I can’t believe nobody thought of gills for the creature until she came along.

The movie was huge, and one would think that success would have her set for life.  Alas, she didn’t count on the extreme pettiness and bitterness of Westmore, who would single-handedly destroy her career, all because of his jealousy.  Milicent was sent on a tour around the country to promote the effects work of the film, and she adhered to a horrible agreement she made in which she would attribute all credit for The Creature to her boss.  Even so, Westmore was furious at the attention this very attractive woman was receiving on that publicity tour.

One odd aspect of movie history I was not aware of previously was the legacy of the Westmore family.  It was a dynasty that began with patriarch George Westmore, who collected curls from the heads of sex workers to fashion the wig that made Shirley Temple famous.  His sons then went on to head the makeup departments of the various big studios.  Something I still find hard to grasp is the idea the major studios were all clamoring to have their own “Westmore”.  Ensconced in their separate studios, the brothers were always undermining each other.  So, one would think Milicent’s career ending at Universal would just mean another Westmore would open a door for her at a different studio.  Alas, it seems the only thing that brought the family together was when any one of them was attacked by an outside individual.  And so she was locked out of the majors permanently.

They even helped to write her out of the history of the productions on which she worked, Creature in particular.  There was widespread doubt through the community of fans for such pictures that she worked on it at all and, if she did, it was in a far lesser capacity.  O’Meara has painstakingly waded extensively through vast archives to find the remaining bits of evidence that proves Milicent designed that famous monster costume.  It is a fascinating book, a portrait of a frankly unusual woman who seemed to me a tad unstable, such as when she tries to convince everybody she was an Italian baroness in hiding.  But the author sums up her feelings this complex figure in a great way: “Women don’t need an idol to worship.  We need a beacon to walk toward.”