Throughout the writing of “The Lady From the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick,” author Mallory O’Meara was watched over by her subject. Not in person — Patrick, a pioneering animator and visual effects artist in 1950s Hollywood, died in 1998 — but through the everyday miracle of a photograph. A glamour shot of Patrick, the very picture of ’50s chic in a strapless, black-satin gown and feather boa, sat on O’Meara’s desk, coolly gazing at the book’s progression.
“It was really important for me to sit down at my desk and look at her, in this incredibly glamorous photo — it’s my favorite photo of her — and say, ‘All right, let’s go, let’s do this!’ ” said O’Meara, a screenwriter and film producer who’ll appear at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. on Thursday, March 28. “When I finished the first draft, my partner found me crying, and he said ‘Why are you crying?’ I said, ‘I’m going to miss her.’ She’d been such a presence for me. It was weird to not be constantly looking at her.”
The publication date for O’Meara’s book was March 5 — coincidentally, a key date in the life of her subject, whose remarkable career had been largely forgotten, until now. “The Creature From the Black Lagoon,” the classic monster movie for which Patrick designed the title character, opened in theaters on that day 65 years ago. Patrick was uncredited on the film (Hollywood credit sequences then were much shorter than they are now, with only department heads listed), but the studio saw her — an elegant woman, in a job dominated by men — as an asset. Google “creature from the black lagoon” and “designer” and you’ll find many black-and-white publicity shots of Patrick, perfectly dressed and coifed, perched in front of an easel or playfully cradling a monster head.
That’s how O’Meara, as a teen who loved monster movies and dreamed of working in them, first encountered her. After being dazzled by her first viewing of “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” O’Meara sat at her computer to read more about the film. She found those very photos, some of them captioned “Milicent Patrick, animator and creature designer.”
“Looking at this picture was like being struck by lightning,” O’Meara wrote in her book. “Milicent was holding a door open for me that I never realized I had considered closed. Come on, she said. We belong here, too.”
O’Meara, thrilled, accepted the invitation, and over the next decade made her way into the movie business — and even acquired a Milicent Patrick tattoo. She kept waiting for someone to write a biography of Patrick, and wondering why nobody seemed to know very much about this pioneering Hollywood woman.
“She was, for the longest time, this mystery in the science fiction and fantasy and horror community,” O’Meara said. “I hoped someday we would get more information on her. I was working as a filmmaker; I didn’t consider myself a nonfiction writer. I didn’t think it was something I could do.” Finally, with encouragement from a literary agent friend, she thought, “Wow, this would make such a great project. Why not me?”
But “The Lady From the Black Lagoon,” which took three years to write, was never destined to be a traditional biography. It entwines Patrick’s story with O’Meara’s journey of finding her — and explores the parallels between the film industry then and now. Patrick faced rampant sexism in her career; O’Meara (who, early in the book, describes the pain of being asked by a colleague how often she slept with her boss to keep her job) does too, more than half a century later.
“What happened to Milicent Patrick is happening right now; I know that, because I experience it every day,” O’Meara said. When she began researching Patrick’s life, many film historians brushed her off, saying that Patrick must have been somebody’s girlfriend. “They would dismiss me, like they had dismissed her. That was the moment that I realized I might have something here — maybe there are things out there that are just lying around, that male historians haven’t noticed because they’ve dismissed her.”
Finding Patrick’s story turned into a treasure hunt — “I couldn’t just go to the library and look up books about her” — with wrong turns and unexpected clues and moments of discovery. O’Meara documents it all, with poignant honesty and palpable love for her subject (not to mention some very witty footnotes). What she ends up revealing are two eventful lives (one of them just getting started; O’Meara’s still in her 20s) and two remarkable women, now forever linked.
The filmmaker who thought she wasn’t an author is now juggling movie work with several new book projects: a biography of another woman in a classic monster film (no, O’Meara can’t name her yet), another nonfiction book about women’s history, and a young-adult book about filmmaking, aimed at young girls. And yes, there’s been interest from Hollywood regarding a film adaptation of “The Lady From the Black Lagoon,” but “my lips are sealed,” said O’Meara.
And what does she think Milicent Patrick, that quiet presence on her desk for all this time, would think of the book? “She was a person who worked so hard to create a facade, it was hard for me to permeate that,” O’Meara said. “I think that at first, she would have a lot of complicated feelings about me revealing the true Milicent — she did not like showing that to everybody. But I do think she was a woman who loved being an artist so, so much. Knowing that she is a part of women’s history and artistic history, and that she could inspire future artists — I think that part would win her over.”
Mallory O’Meara, author of “The Lady From the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick,” will speak in conversation with Moira Macdonald at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 28, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free; 206-624-6600, elliottbaybook.com