June 20th in (Feminist) History

gail_patrick_argentinean_magazine_corpOn this day in 1911 was the birth of Gail Patrick, who was not only an American film actress in the 30s and 40s, but went on to become one of the first women TV producers. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, she graduated from Howard College, where she remained as the acting dean of women as she completed two years of law school at the University of Alabama. Her aspiration was to be the governor of the state, but in 1932 she ended a Paramount Pictures beauty pageant on a “lark” and ended up winning train fare to Hollywood. Despite not winning the contest itself, she was still offered a standard contract– but unlike others at the time, Gail took the time to read the contract and dispute it. She negotiated until she got $75 a week instead of $50, and refused to accept the usual 12-week-layoff provision. She also blacked out the section of her contract that held her to doing “cheesecake stills”, stating, “In the back of my mind I had this idea I could never go home to practice law if such stills were floating around.”

She appeared in 60 feature films between 1932 and 1948. Though she got top billing a few times, in movies such as King of Alcatraz and Disbarred, she was usually found playing the role of the ‘other woman’ or some other form of ‘bad girl’ (aka the rival of the leading lady). Some of her most notable roles were in My Man Godfrey,Stage Door (against Ginger Rogers), and My Favorite Wife (where she played Cary Grant’s second wife and helped write the judge’s lines in a courtroom scene). Later, Gail would attribute her success to luck, stating that she just happened to come to Hollywood at a time where studios were looking for “hussies”, and she thought she happened to fit that bill. While still an actress, she did patriotic service during WW2, including two tours of Canada (promoting Victory Loans), which made her the only film star to visit the whole nation from coast to coast.

Around the time that she stopped acting, she married her third husband, Thomas Cornwell Jackson, who was the head of an LA advertising agency. They adopted two children, one in 1952 and another in 1954. Her husband Cornwell was the representative for Erle Stanley Gardner, the author who wrote the books featuring criminal defense attorney Perry Mason. Burned by disappointing radio series and films, the author had refused to license the character again, until Gail won his trust. Forming a production company of which she was president (and the writer and her husband were partners), she developed the tv series Perry Mason, which ran for nine seasons and won the first Silver Gavel Award for a TV drama. Gail was the executive producer of the show, and one of the first women producers at all; at the time, she was the only female executive producer in prime time, which was incredibly tough. Gail even wrote up her own contract, one incredibly favorable to her production company that she was shocked CBS accepted it.

In her career, she would go on to serve as vice president of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and later as president of it’s Hollywood chapter. She was the first women to be a leader in the academy and the only female leader until 1983. After divorcing her third husband (who tried to run a revived Perry Mason series without her and failed), she married for a fourth time, and then eventually passed away from leukemia in July of 1980, having kept the disease a secret from everyone (including her husband) for four years.

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