First, Mallory O’Meara fell for the Creature.
She was a junior in high school, a total horror-film geek who’d watched and loved most all of the classics, from Dracula to Frankenstein to the Wolf Man. Alone one day in her family’s Massachusetts home, she popped in a DVD to take in 1954’s “Creature From the Black Lagoon.”
It didn’t disappoint – its scaly and sensitive, half-man, half-lizard protagonist in particular. “I was so struck by his character, his design, the empathy you feel for him,” O’Meara says. “Being a teenager, still in high school, and dealing with feelings of being lonely and misunderstood and like I didn’t belong anywhere, the Creature is the perfect monster for that.”
Obsessively, she scoured the internet for anything she could find on the movie and its reptilian star, and came across a photo that deepened her fascination.
A striking, dark-haired woman in a striped dress was adding a dab of paint to the Gill Man costume during a break in the suit’s underwater testing. Her name was Milicent Patrick. She had designed the iconic creature, making her the first (and still only) woman to create a monster for a major motion picture, and … well, hold on a second.
There was some dispute about that. Patrick’s boss had taken credit. He fired her after Patrick returned from a nationwide press tour, and she never did any designs or any other kind of behind-the-scenes work in film again. Her story was its own Hollywood drama, sordid and sad and not a little infuriating.
It’s told for the first time in the book that O’Meara was moved to write, “The Lady From the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick.”
Released in March, it is part biography and part O’Meara autobiography, part detective story and part screed on sexism in the male-dominated movie industry. O’Meara sets the record straight after two years of exhaustive research, interviews and writing: Patrick was the Creature’s designer, something that the American Film Institute and online movie database IMDb, among others, now acknowledge.
She should have reaped the rewards. Or at least a mention in the film’s credits. Patrick got neither.
“I’ve never felt sorry for Milicent Patrick. I feel sorry for all of us,” O’Meara says.
“If she had been allowed to step into and stay in the fame that she earned from creating the Creature and from the press tour she did (prior to the movie’s release), I truly believe so many more women would have followed in her footsteps. … Generations and generations of women who could be interested in makeup and art and monsters and film have been without a hero. It’s infuriating.”
The story is deeply personal to O’Meara, 28, a screenwriter and film producer specializing in horror and science fiction. She has endured her own brushes with sexism in the industry – lewd come-ons and casual inferences that she’d gotten onto a set by sleeping with the director. “Almost every day of my life as a filmmaker, I face the same kind of infuriating, misogynistic (B.S.) that Milicent faced in 1954,” she writes.
Patrick’s Creature remains a towering achievement in monster making alongside the likes of King Kong, Godzilla and Frankenstein’s monster. The film was a low-budget hit for Universal, spawned a couple of sequels and inspired Guillermo del Toro – who was 7 when he saw it – to make the best-picture winning “The Shape of Water” more than 50 years later.
Patrick had been one of Walt Disney’s first female animators earlier in her career. A natural beauty, she also worked as a model and a bit-part actress in 21 movies over 20 years. But she eventually faded into such obscurity that, for a long time, O’Meara could find no person or official record to tell her if she was still living or dead. (She eventually tracked down a niece who confirmed Patrick’s death in 1998 at age 82.)
O’Meara recently discussed “The Lady From the Black Lagoon,” her first book, which finally pulls back the curtain on Patrick’s life. “I’m hoping, wherever she is, that Milicent is proud,” she says.
Excerpts are edited for length.
Q: Five months after the book’s release, do you feel it has had an impact?
A: I believe so. When I do signings, I get lots and lots of women who say they feel seen for the first time, that it has made them feel they belong somewhere, that it has solidified their own journeys in whatever industries they’re in. I definitely have seen a huge amount of interest in Milicent. The New York Times did a writeup of 15 forgotten women, and Milicent was among them. People now know who she is. It was the goal of my book, and it’s the greatest honor of my life.
Q: Do you shake your head at all that Milicent was so accepting of what happened to her – her firing and disappearance from Hollywood design work?
A: We are expecting her to fight the battle against misogyny in Hollywood all by herself. I completely understand why she wanted to step away. It’s an exhausting thing, and I know a lot of women who’d step off the track. It’s too much. She had men, a lot of the publicity team at Universal, who were fighting for her, and they couldn’t do anything. So no, I’m no longer angry at her.
Q: Has Hollywood made any strides in being more equitable in the 2½ years since you started “Lady From the Black Lagoon?”
A: We just went through another Oscar season where not a single woman was nominated for best director. We’ve made strides in that people are talking and are more aware of the problem – and by people, I mean men in power who can do something about it. But I haven’t seen as many changes as I’d like. It’s still pretty abysmal out there. I’m hoping that projects like this, books like this, continue to push the needle and make the conversation so loud that people can’t do this anymore. That they have to think about hiring more women, hiring more people of color, hiring more LGBTQ+ people, hiring more disabled people.
Q: Are you at least confident that what happened to Milicent couldn’t happen today?
A: I am not confident. I’m sure that it’s still happening today.
Q: What is it about the horror/monster genre that grabs you?
A: When I was a kid and first saw “Fantasia,” I fell in love with “Night on Bald Mountain” and the monster in that. I’ve always been very, very attracted to horror and monsters. Growing up in New England, it’s something that’s very ubiquitous. There’s a haunted house in every town. There are legends everywhere. I grew up very close to Salem, Massachusetts, and that ambiance of witches and hauntings and ghosts is all around you. I fell in love with it. I fell in love with this idea that no matter where you are, there’s some sort of backstory and some sort of legend.
Q: You recently announced on Twitter that you’re taking up writing full-time after Halloween, focusing on screenwriting. What took you to that decision?
A: A couple of things. I sold my next book, and it’s going to be very research-intensive. I want to spend more time there. The company I work for is going to be shutting its doors pretty soon. Instead of getting a new film job between that book and other projects I’m working on, I decided to try to make it as a full-time writer.
Q: That new book is “Girly Drinks.” Tell us about it.
A: It’s a women’s history of booze. Just like the food world, where women are cooks and men are chefs, there’s a lot of gender disparity both behind the bar and in front of it. You go in, and there’s the idea of the girly drink – men drink scotch and beer and girls drink skinny margaritas and appletinis – and that’s really not actually the case.
Historically, women have played an important part in all the big movements, whether it was the repeal of Prohibition or the new cocktail renaissance that we’re in right now. And women like drinking booze. But in every single history of alcohol you read, when they say people are drinking, they really mean men. Women are usually just a tiny, tiny part of whatever book it is. They’ll be a sentence or a paragraph. No one has written the history of drinking from a women’s perspective.
Q: Is there a different emotional investment than you had in “Lady From the Black Lagoon?”
A: “That was a very emotional book. It continues to be. I am so very emotionally connected to Milicent, to her story, to the journey to find her. I miss her. There was a period of three years where she was in my head every day. Every time I finished a draft of the book, I would cry. I cried when I (narrated) the audiobook. She still is so important to me. It’ll probably be a long time before I do another biography because I don’t know if I’m emotionally ready for it.”
Steve Wieberg, a former reporter for USA Today, is a writer and editor for the Kansas City Public Library.
Join the club
▪ The discussion: The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a book-of-the-moment selection every six to eight weeks. We invite the community to read along. Kaite Mediatore Stover, the library’s director of readers’ services, will lead a discussion of “The Lady From the Black Lagoon” by Mallory O’Meara at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 24 at the Screenland Armour Theatre, 408 Armour Road in North Kansas City. To attend, email Stover at email@example.com.
▪ The movie: Screenland Armour will show the 1954 film “Creature From the Black Lagoon” at 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 6.
▪ The author: Mallory O’Meara will discuss her book at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 8 at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St.
From Chapter 9 of “The Lady From the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick” by Mallory O’Meara, published by Hanover Square Press. Here, O’Meara writes about the jealousy of Bud Westmore, the head of Universal Pictures’ makeup shop, over the initial attention Patrick received in connection with the movie “Creature From the Black Lagoon.” He fired her upon her return from a national press tour, insistent that he get credit for the Creature’s design.
In Bud’s mind, Milicent was making a mockery of him and stealing what was rightfully his. She was taking credit for his work, she was enjoying the fame that he should have been enjoying. She lied when she promised to give him credit. She lied and then took off to grab her chance.
She needed to be punished.
On the cusp of the nationwide release of “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” Milicent had been a guest on over forty different television and radio shows all over the country and featured in countless newspapers and magazines. She had been working in the art world for fifteen years, in and out of the film industry. She had been a professional creative for almost her entire adult life, blazing trails for women in film. Finally, she was receiving the public recognition she deserved and her star was on the rise.
Bud Westmore stepped up and shot it right out of the sky.