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Book Review: The Lady from the Black Lagoon

In 1953, ichthyologist Kay Lawrence joined a research expedition searching for fossils in the Amazon Basin. This was the same year that Rosalind Franklin left King’s College in London, after she created the X-ray diffraction image of DNA that was shown to Watson and Crick without her approval or knowledge. Lawrence was the only woman in a team of five scientists, and the only one without a PhD, or at least the only one who was not referred to as “Dr.” in the publicity materials for the expedition. Her fieldwork hit some snags — not the least of which was a foreboding black lagoon and an amphibious monster that fell in love with her and her extremely scientific white bathing suit.

Yes — Kay is actress Julia Adams and the amphibious monster is the Creature from the Black Lagoon. But there’s also a Rosalind Franklin figure in Creature from the Black Lagoon, and like Franklin, her contributions were obscured, overshadowed, and openly questioned for decades. Mallory O’Meara brings the story of Milicent Patrick, the makeup artist and special effects designer behind the Creature, to life in a fun and funny new biography, The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick.

Creature movie poster: flickr, Creative Commons

O’Meara grew up loving horror films and she was over the moon when she learned that her favorite movie monster, the Creature, was designed by a woman named Milicent Patrick. The world of horror is dominated by men, and so even though O’Meara only knew the barest details, she clung to Patrick as a patron saint of representation. In her introduction, O’Meara writes:

“Milicent was holding a door open for me that I never realized I had considered closed. Come on, she said. We belong here, too.
I accepted her invitation. I make monster movies for a living. I produce them, I write them. Over the years, I searched for information, for anything that could tell me more about her. For all of my adult life and film career, Milicent Patrick has been a guiding light, a silent friend, a beacon reminding me that I belonged.”

O’Meara’s book is wonderful and engaging. She pieces together the lost legacy of her horror icon and takes the reader along on the research journey. I listened to the audiobook and fell in love with O’Meara’s voice which is somehow both welcoming and acerbic, irreverent and admiring. And, from the beginning, I was struck by how well the world of science mapped onto The Lady from the Black Lagoon’s world of science fiction. The story of why Milicent Patrick’s legacy was lost turns out to be completely banal, standard issue sexism and O’Meara deftly places this history in the context of the #MeToo movement.

“So many women share this experience, women in every profession. We’re ignored, sexually harassed, talked down to, plagiarized and insulted in and out of the workplace. It’s worse if you’re a woman of color, a queer woman, a disable woman, a transwoman and worse still if you’re a combination of any of these. I don’t know a single woman working in my field, or any creative field, or any field at all, who cannot relate to Milicent Patrick. It’s not just her story. It’s mine, too.”

I love O’Meara’s description of Patrick’s process during the design of the Creature: “for inspiration, Milicent researched prehistoric animals: reptiles, amphibians, fish. She specifically looked for illustrations of animals from the Devonian period, which is when the Creature claw fossil in the film is from. The Devonian period, about four hundred million years ago, was the time period when life began to adapt to dry land from the sea. She spent weeks sketching out designs.” I had no idea The Creature from the Black Lagoon built a myth from this core kernel of scientific truth. Aside from this deep dive into a specific monster origin story, O’Meara’s book is not a science story*. But, I spent much of the book’s treatment of women in the film industry thinking about women in STEM.

The Book! Cover illustration by tattoo artist Matt Buck

When O’Meara compares Patrick’s Hollywood to her own experiences in film in the 21st century, the resemblance of these narratives to the past and present in STEM fields is eerie. O’Meara began her project because the idea of Milicent Patrick — a woman working behind the scenes in horror films — embodied such an important possibility to her in a field where otherwise she did not see herself represented. But, as she uncovered uncomfortable truths about Patrick as a person, she had to grapple with how to portray an imperfect personal hero. “The problem with being the only woman to ever do something is that you have to be perfect,” she laments. “When I found out about her as a teenager, I thought that for Milicent to be the first and only woman to ever design a famous monster, to be one of the first female animators, she had to be superhuman. She had to have been better than any other woman who ever wanted to design a monster. She had to have been the only one worthy enough to enter that boys’ club. This way of thinking is a mal-adaptation women have developed over the years to be able to deal with the fact that we’re getting passed on for jobs because we’re female. You force yourself to believe that there just haven’t been any women good enough for the job, rather than accept the fact that the entire system just doesn’t want you in it.” This is the hip, feminist-forward biographer’s way of saying that the water is not responsible for fixing the leaky pipeline.

I have my own Milicent Patrick, only her name is Annie Sawyer Downs. She left behind just enough of a scientific legacy that I’m awed by her botanical prowess and totally frustrated by the blanks in her life story. Like O’Meara, I’ve considered this woman to be “a guiding light, a silent friend, a beacon reminding me that I belonged.” O’Meara opens her book with the story of her Milicent Patrick tattoo — and, even before you read Chapter 1, you see the beautiful cover art for the book, which was created by her tattoo artist. On the Literary Disco podcast in March O’Meara explained: “When you get a tattoo of someone, you become a sort of information kiosk.” O’Meara later describes an exchange with a librarian at USC’s Cinematic Arts Library: “I even sheepishly rolled up my left sleeve to show him the tattoo of Milicent and the Creature. I’m so deeply invested in this project that asking me about it is like asking a new parent to show you pictures of their baby.”

Me and my Milicent, Annie Sawyer Downs, photo by Kate & Keith photography

I don’t have a tattoo of Annie Sawyer Downs, but I did name my kid after her. Asking me to show you pictures of my baby is literally asking me to dive into the story of my Milicent Patrick. I loved following O’Meara’s journey as she tracked down the pieces of Patrick’s life because I’ve done that too — I finagled an invitation to the Maine summer house that Annie Sawyer Downs’ built, I found her herbarium specimens at Harvard, I read through her collaborator’s field notes and could not help but notice that after she mentored him for the better part of a decade he went on to found a botanical club that did not admit women as members. I’m so happy that O’Meara got to write the book on Patrick — and I really did love this book — but I found the whole experience of listening to it to be bittersweet, and not just because the misogyny that ended Patrick’s career still hangs over Hollywood — and everywhere else. It was bittersweet for me to watch someone else find their Annie Sawyer Downs, tie up the loose ends, and bring a full story to light because I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that for Annie. Annie died almost a century before Milicent Patrick, her trail is colder, her work is less renowned, there is no cult following of Rhododendron canadense forma albiflora like there is for the Creature**. And, as much as I feel Annie deserves a book like The Lady from the Black Lagoon, I know there are countless fully erased BIWOC in my field who didn’t even get to leave behind a name, let alone a trail of breadcrumbs, for future historians to follow. And so, once again Milicent Patrick is a kind of singular woman — a stand in for a whole suite of women who have given the faintest glimmer of representation to my generation, a small hope that we could see ourselves in them, even if we couldn’t read their full story in a book or Wikipedia page. Maybe I can’t have that for Annie, but I’d love to read the story of another ecologist’s Milicent Patrick figure next — write that book and/or send me your recommendation!



Banner image: Mike Souza, Creative Commons

*Still, some science creeps in to the science fiction, for example in O’Meara’s footnote on page 19: “Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983. Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Directory in 2010, the first and only. Sixty women have been to space. It’s harder for women to get into Hollywood than it is for us to get to space.”

**There definitely should be more botanical cult classics.

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