It seemed so easy: Arrive in Hollywood with a suitcase and a pretty face. Get discovered by an agent or, better yet, a movie exec. Next step: stardom.
This seemingly simple formula was the dream of many aspiring Hollywood starlets—and the myth of Hollywood’s Golden Age. For a significant number of movie stars, a career in pictures started instead with sexual exploitation on the “casting couch” of Harry Cohn, one of Hollywood’s most powerful—and brutal—men.
As the head of Columbia Pictures from 1919 to 1958, Cohn expected sex in exchange for a chance at stardom. And as one of the most influential figures in Tinseltown, he usually got it.
He was one of the men responsible for instituting the system of Hollywood’s “casting couch,” which demanded women trade sexual favors with powerful executives for a chance at a movie role. Although the casting couch cliché predates the Columbia head’s career in Hollywood, Cohn helped entrench the system in the movie industry during four decades in film.
Cohn, the son of Jewish emigrants, grew up in a crowded apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side—a background he would work for much of his life to obscure. Aggressive, independent and rebellious, the young Cohn couldn’t stand authority figures or bosses. So he went into business himself, hustling and gambling his way to financial freedom.
One of his businesses was song plugging—demonstrating new sheet music to lure audiences into buying it. At the time, music publishers were plugging songs at movie theaters using slides that encouraged audience sing-alongs before films. Cohn hit on a better way: using short films to promote the songs instead.
This ingenious use of film got Cohn out of New York and into Hollywood, where his brother Jack already had a behind-the-scenes movie career. Together with Jack and their friend Joe Brandt, Cohn founded the CBC Film Sales Corporation, later renamed Columbia Pictures.
Cohn had stiff competition in Hollywood. At first, he stayed true to his roots in vaudeville, producing low-budget films. The studio became part of Poverty Row, a group of B movie studios that clustered in a less desirable part of Hollywood. Over the years, Cohn—by now an aggressive and relentless businessman—drove it from a small, obscure company into a well-known studio.
Part of his success rested on his ruthlessness, and from the start Cohn used that aggression to exert control over female stars. Not only did he force them to change their names and their appearances, but he regularly forced them to trade sex for employment, then scrutinized and even spied on them.
Take Rita Hayworth. Cohn forced the Spanish-American star—born Margarita Cansino—to change her name to something more Anglicized before she signed a contract with Columbia. Along with her husband, Edward Judson, he pressured her to dye her hair and undergo painful electrolysis for the sake of stardom. And when she refused to sleep with him, he stalked her, meddled with her private life and even bugged her dressing room.
“I’m never afraid of anybody, not even Harry Cohn,” Hayworth told the New York Times in 1970. “Why should I be afraid of him? I made a lot of money for him… I was attractive, that was all, he didn’t give a damn about anything else!”
This penchant for abusive behavior earned Cohn the nicknames “King Cohn” and “White Fang.” He was known for having shelves of perfume and stockings in his office—trinkets he’d offer as “payment” for sexual favors. His office was also directly connected to a special dressing room just for the starlets he harassed. He had a microphone and loudspeaker system installed on every sound stage so that he could interrupt filming with just his voice, startling actors who had no idea he’d been listening to every word.
Cohn’s bullying tactics were well known around Hollywood—so well known that stars like Joan Crawford and Katharine Hepburn began negotiations with him by telling him they weren’t interested in his casting couch. However, less powerful women often felt they could not afford to turn down his sexual advances.
As Hollywood studios began to fold, Columbia Pictures and Cohn endured. He became the last of the infamous moguls, and his outrageous and exploitative behavior continued. In the 1950s, he became obsessed with his newest star, Kim Novak. But though he forced her to undergo a painful makeover, she refused his sexual advances.
When Novak fell in love with the entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. in 1957, Cohn retaliated. He ordered a Mob hit on Davis, who was black, unless he left Novak and immediately married a black woman. Arthur Silber Jr., Davis’ best friend and business partner, told Vanity Fair that Davis paid an African-American woman to marry him within hours.
Two months later, Cohn died—and all of Hollywood came out to mourn him during an extravagant funeral. Though he was buried in a lavish tomb in the Hollywood Cemetery, his legacy of sexual exploitation, harassment and surveillance did not die along with him.
Cohn was not the only Hollywood harasser; other powerful studio executives like Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox used their positions to bully women, too. But he was by far the most notorious, and his use and abuse of unequal power dynamics helped normalize the exploitation and harassment of women in Hollywood. In the words of E.J. Fleming, whose book The Fixers focuses on how Hollywood studios controlled their stars’ images, Cohn “was said to have verbally or physically raped every woman that ever worked for his studio.”
He was not the first to play into the casting couch system—and as the fall of Miramax head and accused serial sexual assaulter Harvey Weinstein shows, he was hardly the last.