vp19 (vp19) wrote in carole_and_co,

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Hollywood's ladies of the night

Carole Lombard a streetwalker? Well, she portrayed one ("Mae") in the tough 1932 Columbia pre-Code "Virtue" (https://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/946397.html). But while Carole never had to ply the trade on the street, she certainly was aware of those who did.

The "world's oldest profession" was part of Los Angeles from its days under Spanish rule, and continued into the start of the 20th century. And as the city grew rapidly thanks first to oil, then the film industry, male demand for female sexual favors boomed with it.

It didn't help matters that many women headed to Hollywood, seeking jobs as actresses or in other areas of moviedom. Some succeeded; some found other work in the business; and those who remained either returned home or retreated to the sexual underground. They frequently serviced industry executives or stars.

Among those who oversaw such ladies was a madam named Lee Francis. She began her sex trade work in the Bay Area before heading to Los Angeles in the '20s. By the 1930s, Francis had begun a brothel, based in several rooms of a Sunset Boulevard apartment complex in an unincorporated area of Los Angeles County (now the city of West Hollywood):

Francis paid off both police and reporters to keep out of the public eye. Among the movie folk who frequented her place were John Gilbert, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable and director Jack Conway. MGM "fixers" Howard Strickling and Eddie Mannix kept close tabs on the House of Francis.

But in 1940, Lee refused bribes from police and wound up in the papers. Her name was in the Los Angeles Times on Jan. 18...

...along with a rare picture of her six days later:

Francis later wrote about her sexploits, and lived into the 1990s.

The building still stands, and the city of West Hollywood just gave developers the go-ahead to convert the property into a boutique hotel (https://la.curbed.com/2018/10/22/18010352/west-hollywood-piazza-del-sol-office-landmark-boutique-hotel).

But Francis wasn't the only madam servicing Golden Age Hollywood. Mannix and MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer discreetly funded a brothel in the Hollywood Hills called "Mae's"; the 14 lavish suites, run by a Mae West look-alike named Billie Bennett, placed host to replicas of stars such as Barbara Stanwyck, Ginger Rogers, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Alice Faye, Claudette Colbert...and Carole Lombard. Many of these ersatz idols were surgically altered to resemble their doppelgangers, and studied their careers and current interests. So if you had the money, but one of your favorite legends was out of your league, you could get a roll in the hay with the next best thing.

In a memorable segment of his memoir "Hollywood," Garson Kanin (who directed Carole in "They Knew What They Wanted" and like nearly everyone else, adored her) tells of the night he spent at Mae's with the pseudo-Lombard -- and the laughter the real one gave him when he told her about what had happened that night.

I've often wondered what happened to that woman when the real Lombard passed on in early 1942, and the duplicate's services probably were no longer needed...or wanted.

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