Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick

"Milicent Patrick's final resting place is in every single Creature from the Black Lagoon T-shirt, every Metaluna Mutant toy, every VHS tape of Fantasia, every DVD of The Shape of Water. It's on the desk of every female animator and in the pen of every woman doodling a monster in the margins of her notebook. It's always been there. It's just been hidden, purposely obfuscated."

From:  The Lady from the Black Lagoon by Mallory O'Meara

The Creature from the Black Lagoon is a name we all know. Released in 1954, it is considered to be the last of the “classic” horror films made by Universal Studios, beginning with Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931. Even more ubiquitous is the face of the Creature. Most people immediately recognize the face of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, even if they’ve never seen the movie. But who was the creative genius behind the face that has scared decades of horror film watchers (whether in theatres or on television) and graced everything from lunch boxes and T-shirts to toys and high end collectibles? In The Lady from the Black Lagoon, first time author Mallory O’Meara provides the answer to that question, and many others, informing readers about the woman behind the Creature: Milicent Patrick.

Mildred Elisabeth Fulvia Rossi was born in El Paso, Texas in 1915 and designed The Creature from the Black Lagoon in the early 1950s. As a child, she lived for 10 years in San Simeon as her father, Camille, worked as an on-site engineer overseeing the construction of what would become known as Hearst Castle. She studied illustration at Chouinard Art Institute (now known as the California Institute of the Arts or CalArts) where she was hand selected by Walt Disney to join the team of artists working on his early animated features. She worked as a model and extra on numerous motion pictures, before being “discovered” and hired by Bud Westmore for Universal Studios’ special effects makeup department. After being selected by Universal’s Publicity Department to be featured in a nationwide promotional tour for The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Patrick was fired upon her return to the studio for ostensibly doing her job on the tour too well. Westmore, who felt, as the head of the Make-up Department, he was due sole credit for the Creature’s creation, lashed out at Patrick. He began to claim that he alone had developed the design for the monster, and being related to the heads of the make-up departments for practically every studio in the industry, ensured that Patrick would never work in make-up, special effect or anywhere again. However, he did keep all of her designs and used them for films released after she left the industry.

O’Meara tirelessly researched and investigated Milicent Patrick, who, after Westmore’s death in 1973, began to claim credit for her own work. With two different stories circulating, she became a shadowy and somewhat controversial figure in horror film circles, with both supporters and detractors. O’Meara brings to the fore the facts and falsehoods behind generations of hearsay and rumors. She also describes the research done for the book--the starts, stops, dead-ends and goldmines uncovered while researching. She interjects personal experiences and contemporary statistics that show not only how male-dominated the motion picture industry was when Patrick was working, but ultimately, how little progress has been made in the intervening decades. To this day, Patrick is the only woman to design a classic monster, and it is far past the time for her story to be told. The Lady from the Black Lagoon is a compelling and enjoyable read about the legacy of a trailblazer for women in film, who not only worked, but excelled repeatedly in aspects of production dominated by men, both then and now. But not only that, to quote O’Meara from the end of the book, it’s also “an invitation.” It’s an invitation to those who have been overlooked and discarded to join the creative party and become part of the movie making team. It is also an invitation for those in power within the Hollywood system to do better, to be more inclusive. Those who are in charge and have power owe it to people like Patrick and O'Meara to do so. Even more they owe it to all the current and future women who contribute to the industry.