When we talk about Old Hollywood, it's usually with nostalgia for the glamour of days past. But a startling new piece in Vanity Fair reminds us not to view the iconic era through rose-colored lenses. While women in Hollywood today battle issues like the gender pay gap and a dearth of complex roles, many starlets of Old Hollywood were faced with the unthinkable: forced abortions.
According to Vanity Fair writers Marcie Bianco and Merryn Johns, back then abortions in Hollywood were easier to access — "more like aspirin, or appendectomies" — than in many parts of the U.S. today. And the powerful male studio heads who ran the industry took advantage of that by dictating what their prized stars could do with their bodies. Oftentimes strict "morality clauses" forbidding pregnancy were written into their contracts, explain Bianco and Johns. Motherhood was a threat to stars' bodies, sex appeal, and public image — which meant lower box-office numbers.
So actresses like Judy Garland, Jean Harlow, Bette Davis, and Ava Gardner were pressured or forced into aborting pregnancies, according to the magazine's report. They would check into hospitals under the guise of an illness or injury, quickly have the procedure, and return to the big screen with their reputations — and money-making potential — untarnished. Tallulah Bankhead biographer Lee Israel wrote that the actress got "abortions like other women got permanent waves," according to Vanity Fair. But all of the accounts cited in the piece are equally horrifying.