by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This afternoon, about 65 visitors sat in as the Homestead’s “Female Justice” series of four lectures concluded with a deep dive into the sexual assault trial of Alexander Pantages, the powerful theater magnate, who was charged with attacking 17-year old Eunice Pringle in a room at his Pantages Theatre (now a jewelry mart) at Seventh and Hill streets in downtown Los Angeles in August 1929.
A summary of the saga can be found in a post from last October on this blog of the incident and resulting trials, the first of which, concluding in late October 1929, led to a conviction and a sentence to be determined by the state at San Quentin, while the second, held two years later, ended with Pantages’ acquittal. The main deciding factor in the change in results was that the California Supreme Court ruled that Pantages’ defense team could use Pringle’s [alleged] past to cast suspicions on her claim about what happened to her.
As noted in that post, young Pringle gave an interview from her home in the Orange County town of Garden Grove, in which she expressed relief that the legal ordeal was over and said she looked forward to resuming “the life of an ordinary American girl.” At the same time, she bitterly noted, “the verdict shows clearly the value that at least twelve persons of California put upon a girl’s honor.” She then added, “You know they say ‘in God we trust,’ but it is written on a dollar.”
While Pantages sold his theaters and retired to raising and racing horses and died within five years of his acquittal, Pringle largely returned to the quiet life to which she alluded. There was a $3,000 settlement to end a $1 million civil suit she filed against Pantages and, in 1935, she married first husband Robert White, whose family owned furniture stores in Orange County. She occasionally danced for events in that area through the early 1940s.
When her marriage ended in divorce, Eunice married Richard Worthington, a psychologist, and lived in Chicago for a brief time before returning to California and settling in San Diego County. She lived in the Point Loma and La Jolla areas until her death in 1996 when she was in her mid-80s.
In last year’s post, I referred to information gleaned from a 2002 article on the Pantages matter written by Cecilia Rasmussen, whose longtime Los Angeles Times column on regional history was filled with great information written well. Cecilia noted that Eunice had a daughter, Marcy Worthington, who was contemplating writing a book or a screenplay about what happened to her mother.
As I was working on the PowerPoint presentation for today’s talk, it occurred to me to look up Marcy Worthington on social media and, assuming she was “of a certain age,” it seemed Facebook was a reasonable place to start. Sure enough, I found her page and sent a message, apologizing if my “cold call” was intrusive, but letting her know about the lecture and last year’s blog post and inviting her to join us today if she wanted to.
Within minutes, she replied that she and her husband wanted to attend. I followed up by asking if I could introduce her and if she wanted a chance to speak about her mother after my portion concluded. She replied that she’d be happy to and I left time for her at the end of the afternoon.
It turned out that, as she and her husband Greg, were leaving, she tripped and fell in her home and bumped her head. Still, she put some ice on the bump and they climbed in the car and drove all the way from east of San Diego, arriving about a half-hour or so into my presentation.
That delay actually worked great, because they quietly came in to the room and took their seats without attracting much attention. I continued with my discussion and then immediately relayed the story of my contacting Marcy and promptly had her stand to be introduced.
The response from the audience was really great to see and hear, as they gave her thunderous applause with surprise on many faces. It turns out that Marcy has a great deal of public speaking experience from years of college teaching in forensics, forensic photography, crime scene investigation and other criminal justice topics, instruction for police officers on CPR/First Aid, mental illness and disabilities, and other elements of her interesting background (she was a police reservist processing crime scenes and was also a professional photographer, as well as an operatic soprano.)
For about a half-hour, Marcy regaled us with details of her mother’s life which, above all else, flatly and firmly related that Pantages raped young Eunice Pringle. Despite the horrors of that assault, the teenager not only steadfastly maintained her story of what happened, but did so with the relentless Jerry Geisler, one of Pantages’ attorney, trying to do whatever was necessary to besmirch her character and catch her with even the slightest variation in her tesimony.
Marcy noted that her mother was highly intelligent and poised, enjoyed close relationships with her osteopath father (a former high school principal) and high schol English teacher mother, and was a truly talented dancer. She said she was a virgin until Pantages attacked her and did not drink or smoke and dressed modestly, this despite defense characterizations otherwise and media representations of her as a “dancing girl,” as if she was a forlorn flapper, rather than a serious dancer.
It was fascinating to hear that Eunice took great pains to keep this very difficult part of her past as concealed as possible, to the extent that, when she thought a neighbor recognized her, she prevailed upon her husband to sell their house and move to another nearby. Moreover, she began to refer to herself as “Toni” and dyed her hair blond to avid the possibility of being recognized by others.
Marcy was born when her mother was in her early forties and was convinced she could not conceive and Marcy grew up totally unaware of what happened at the hands of Pantages. It was only she expressed dreams of being an entertainer that her father told her of what happened that summer afternoon decades before in the Pantages Theater. Otherwise, her mother never discussed it with her, even when Marcy undertook a career in forensics, a vocation that included dealing with rape crime scenes.
What those of us listening to Marcy got today was a rare example in history, where, with an incident going back 90 years, someone could give a highly personalized and direct perspective on a participant to the level that Marcy did about her mother. Personally, it was important to me, once she agreed to come to the Homestead today, that a particularly humanizing experience take place.
After all, Eunice Pringle became something of an object, both in terms of how the Pantages defense team tried to paint her as a loose young woman intent on framing the theater mogul to advance her career and how the media fixated upon her good looks, the red clothing she wore that fateful day, and her “dancing girl” persona as it painted the picture.
While Pantages was not often looked upon favorably, given the damning evidence presented by several witnesses who were on the scene as a panicked Pringle burst forth from the “office” that the theater mogul used for the “meeting,” it is readily apparent that Pringle was portrayed very differently, especially as the 1931 appeal worked in his favor and images showed a gaunt and sober Pantages with his family on hearing the verdict of acquittal.
Pantages came up in the difficult and violent world of the Yukons gold rush of the late 1800s, rose rapidly in the highly competitive and cut-throat environment of vaudeville and motion picture theaters, and clearly had access to questionable witnesses; those who sought to intimidate Pringle, her family and witnesses; and could hire bulldog attorneys like Geisler to smear a young woman’s good name and reputation.
Yet Eunice Pringle White (a.k.a., Toni Worthington) persevered and lived nearly 70 years after the traumatic incident that stole much of her youth, even though rumors had it that she died in 1933, paid by Joseph P. Kennedy to frame Pantages, and left a deathbed confession.
As Marcy said, even Michael Parrish, who wrote a history of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, thought she was a fraud when they got into contact. When she presented her mother’s birth and death certificates and her own, as well as provided much information about Eunice and her life, Parrish realized that much of what he heard was false information.
The audience was transfixed and riveted by what Marcy related about her remarkable mother and she generously made available some of Eunice’s photographs for this post, as well as a photocopy of an amazing pamphlet about Eunice published by the highly controversial “Fighting Bob” Shuler, a radio announcer and pastor, whose pronouncements about the Pantages’ (Alexander’s wife Lois was convicted of manslaughter in a drunk driving incident that killed a man just before her husband’s arrest and first trial) were incendiary and threatened to be prejudicial for trial jurors.
Marcy mentioned that she still hoped to write her book and/or screenplay about her mother and the Pantages attack and I told her that, if she did complete the book, to let us know so we could invite her back to give a talk about it and to have a book signing.
I started my portion of the afternoon by saying “an entertainment mogul in middle age and a young woman who wants to break into show business–does that sound familiar?” In the Me-Too era, with the Harvey Weinstein situation about to move to trial at some point (and likely to last as long or longer than the Pantages trials), the story of Eunice Pringle is as relevant as it gets. Her ability to move on and enjoy a happy marriage of near a half-century and a loving relationship with her only child, born late in her childbearing years, is, moreover, an inspiration.
It was a truly a pleasure to see how an eleventh hour “cold call” and invitation facilitated an experience for our visitors that is rare and also revealing about the power of history to make connections to current conditions. Our sincere thanks go to Marcy and her husband Jeff for making the long trip north to share the story of Eunice Pringle after the trauma of what happened, including that first trial that concluded 90 years ago this month. I hope we can have her back when that book comes out!