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A Myth Maker’s Clarification

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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.

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“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.

In most later stories about the case, those mysterious “higher powers” were identified as former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Buron Fitts and Joseph P. Kennedy--father of the future U.S. president and a Pantages rival in the theater business. In those reports, Eunice Pringle died of a suspicious illness shortly after the trial, in 1933; some suspected poison. And in an alleged deathbed confession, Pringle was said to have revealed that, with the connivance of Fitts, Kennedy had bribed her with money and promised her a movie career if she would stage the rape.

The deathbed confession seems to first appear in avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger’s “Hollywood Babylon II” (Dutton, 1984). “Kennedy had hoped to destroy Pantages,” Anger wrote, “and in the process gobble up the Pantages theater circuit.” Anger described Pringle as a “shopworn angel.”

A convincingly detailed report along the same lines, “Showstopper,” written by early-Hollywood film historian Andy Edmonds, appeared in Los Angeles magazine in 1989. These accounts became important sources for other writers.

In “The Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty He Founded” (Warner, 1996), based in large part on the Anger and Edmonds accounts, Ronald Kessler describes how Pringle “died of unknown causes. The night she died, she was violently ill and red in color, a sign of cyanide poisoning.”

In their book “Fallen Angels: Chronicles of L.A. Crime and Mystery” (Facts on File, 1986), writers Marvin J. Wolf and Katherine Mader summed up Pringle’s supposed deathbed declaration with, “It had all been Joe Kennedy’s idea. He wanted to destroy Pantages . . . promising that when he controlled the Pantages theaters, she would be his star performer.”

My own version, alas, in “For the People: Inside the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office 1850-2000” (Angel City Press, 2001), depended largely upon all of the above sources, particularly the in-depth Los Angeles magazine account. From that, in my retelling, Pringle “reportedly” told her mother and a friend on her deathbed that she set up Pantages for the promise of $10,000 and a movie part.

I did have the good sense,

or luck, to leave out the rumors of poisoning, since speculation based on a suspiciously flushed face seemed a particularly thin reed.

But we were all wrong.

Marcy Worthington knew this as soon as she talked with Dickman, the inquiring Chicago writer. As proof, she dug up her mother’s 1996 death certificate--in the name of Eunice Irene Worthington, nee Pringle. It described how she died of natural causes in a San Diego County hospital at age 84. For Worthington, this turned the case on its head.

As for us ink-stained wretches, we’re willing to admit that no deathbed confession took place. Still, it’s possible that many other elements of the story are true. Even if the “confession” story was a fabricated incident--a counterattack by Pantages, for example-- the Kennedy conspiracy story could still be true. And Pringle? She could have just slipped away. In an era before information technology, it was easier for even the notorious to disappear.

“I researched it carefully,” Anger maintains, though the story “needs to be corrected if [the death certificate] could be verified.” Anger says he’s collected Hollywood tales since his student days at Beverly Hills High School, where he compared notes with friends, many of whom were from entertainment-world families. “We were all passionate about these old stories,” he recalls. “We were sort of a Hollywood scandal club.”

Anger says he doesn’t remember where he heard of Pringle’s deathbed scene. In any case, he notes, “she may have confessed, but it wasn’t on the deathbed. It seemed more like a Joe Kennedy setup.”

Could the “deathbed confession” have been spun from the Pantages camp? “There are a lot of myths and legends about shenanigans in this town,” says Marvin Wolf. “I’m not terribly surprised to find out that this might have happened. It’s the sort of thing that a guy like Pantages would have known to do. I mean, let’s face it. He was no sweetheart.”

“I relied on previous material that I footnoted in my book,” says Kessler. “That far back, what else are you going to do?” He adds: “I’m not terribly shocked when it comes to these old stories. It’s easy for them to get out of hand.”

Meanwhile, Marcy Worthington--on a mission to clear her mother’s name--has been sifting through boxes of her mother’s letters, photographs and documents and searching through newspaper archives. Her mother, says Worthington, simply regained her private life by returning to school in Garden Grove to learn to type, take shorthand and become an executive secretary. She married, changed her first name to Toni and quietly kept her old name out of the newspapers after moving to San Diego. But she also had friends and went to the ballet and theater.

“I’m convinced she was raped,” says Worthington. And far from being a “shopworn angel,” as Anger phrased it, her mother was valedictorian of her high school class and a practicing Christian Scientist. The Russian manager was never her lover. The tone of his numerous letters to Pringle and other family members for many years afterward, says Worthington, showed him to be no more than a friend and mentor. As to the famous red dress, Worthington says, “it wasn’t short, low-cut or tight, but it was sleeveless.”

Worthington is attempting an even more difficult feat--to clear Joseph Kennedy’s reputation in the saga. She’s convinced her mother was not involved in a conspiracy with Kennedy and Fitts to attack Pantages even though, after the scandal subsided, Kennedy bought several Pantages properties at fire-sale prices. And, of course, Marcy Worthington is currently writing a book and contemplating a screenplay to correct her mother’s story.

*

Michael Parrish is a Los Angeles writer and author of the book “For the People: Inside the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office 1850-2000” (Angel City Press, 2001).


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