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A Myth Maker's Clarification

The Oft-Told Hollywood Story of Alexander Pantages' Scandalous 1929 Rape Case Had Everything--Sex, Celebrity, Money, Power, Political Intrigue. Most of It Was Even True.

June 16, 2002|MICHAEL PARRISH

Do you not know how famous your mother became when she was young?"

This was the second mysterious communication that Marcy Worthington had received from Paul Dickman, an aspiring writer from Chicago. Dickman had been puzzled when he couldn't find a death certificate for Eunice Pringle, a figure in a book project he was researching. Worthington, a 48-year-old Southern California commercial photographer and instructor at the San Diego Police Department academy, had been skeptical of Dickman's earlier note. But this letter, dated Nov. 26, 2000, blew open a family secret that Worthington had never known:

When her good-humored, nearsighted mother--Eunice Pringle--was a teenager, she had been at the center of a great American sex scandal.

"I knew she'd danced in Los Angeles," Worthington says of her late mother. "When I asked why she'd stopped, she always said, 'Dancing was too corrupt.' "

Worthington recalled that when she was 12 years old, her father, a psychologist, told her in confidence that her mother had once been raped by a producer, but he offered no details. Worthington decided then that her father was only trying to discourage her own ambition to become a singer.

Dickman's second letter, however, explained more about Pringle, who had been the most publicity-shy of their La Jolla and Point Loma social set when Marcy Worthington was growing up. And then, in a phone call to Dickman, Worthington learned her mother had been front-page news in 1929 for millions of Americans, a pretty young dancer whose rape charge would bring down one of the most flamboyant impresarios in Hollywood, Alexander Pantages. Dickman also told Pringle's stunned daughter that nearly all accounts of her mother's experience got the most intriguing aspect of the story wrong. One of those accounts, it turns out, was my own.

In 1929, Alexander Pantages--who got his start entertaining Alaskan gold miners--was running a chain of vaudeville and movie palaces from offices above his ornate theater at 7th and Hill streets in downtown Los Angeles. On Aug. 9, Eunice Pringle, a 17-year-old performer from Garden Grove, had her fourth appointment with Pantages. Pringle, a former USC student, had been lobbying Pantages since May to book her one-act musical sketch.

The meeting didn't go well, and it ended with Pringle, her clothing in disarray, running out of Pantages' office screaming, "The beast!" Pringle told police that Pantages had raped her. Pantages denied it and said he was being framed. He was arrested and bound over for trial.

Public sentiment, and the press, strongly sided with Pringle, not the wealthy Greek immigrant entrepreneur. Pringle was described in one newspaper as "the sweetest 17 since Clara Bow." Pantages was a less-attractive figure, growling out his denials in broken English at a time when the public equated the entertainment industry with debauchery.

The Pantages trial was daily front-page news. For her first round of testimony, Pringle appeared in court in a conservative outfit, flat "Mary Jane" shoes and with her hair tied back in a bow and ponytail. Jerry Giesler, a member of Pantages' defense team, had the judge order Pringle to appear for her second day as she had in Pantages' office--in makeup, a red sleeveless dress and high heels. Giesler also tried to argue that Pringle and the author of her sketch, an older man whom Giesler termed a Russian playboy, were lovers and that Pringle wasn't the innocent she pretended to be.

The judge disallowed that argument, ruling that Pringle's character didn't matter since Pantages could still be guilty of statutory rape based solely on her age. Pantages was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Two years later, the California Supreme Court granted Giesler's appeal for a new trial based on his argument that the alleged rape victim's moral and personal history was pertinent, even if she was underage. Giesler also had disputed the prosecution's claim that the elderly, slight Pantages could have forcibly held down and raped a young woman who was so athletic that she could perform splits and back flips. Chief Justice William Waste declared Pringle's testimony "improbable."

At the second trial, Giesler was able to focus on Pringle's past, portraying her as worldly and certainly no virgin. He told jurors that she and her manager, the Russian, had threatened Pantages if he wouldn't sign her act. Giesler also alluded to a larger conspiracy involving "higher powers."

Pantages was acquitted.

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