Orange Is the New Black: Stella Adler’s Stint at a Women’s Prison

Mulgrew recalls Stella's expression:  "You're in the banker's way. Get out!" If you were in the banker's way, you were thinking like a banker, meaning you were mediocre; you were thinking about money; you were thinking about material things.

Mulgrew recalls Stella’s expression: “‘You’re in the banker’s way. Get out!’ If you were in the banker’s way, you were thinking like a banker, meaning you were mediocre; you were thinking about money; you were thinking about material things.”

I just finished the first season of “Orange Is the New Black,” and although I’d love to go into a deep feminist analysis of the show, this is a blog about Stella Adler. (And as you all know, I don’t have time: 35 days till I turn in Stella’s biography to my publisher!)

What does Stella have to do with a prison dramedy? Other than the fact that my favorite character, “Red,” played by Kate Mulgrew studied with Stella, there’s a little known fact about Stella once going to Chino Prison in California to talk to the women.

Of this experience Stella remembered, “A psychologist said to me, ‘You know, you can’t lie to them. Nobody can lie them, because they have been through so much. They know if you’re a liar.” The psychologist obviously didn’t know about Stella’s commitment to emotional truth.

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I wish I could tell you what Stella told these women lifers. What I do know I deleted from my latest draft of the book. I had to. I didn’t have enough factual information. But here’s what I wrote:

Although Stella had a practical, no-nonsense temperament when it came to work, she was prone to sentimentality, even toward the most unlikely of people.  Her confidant and lover during the 40s and 50s, Stanley Moss, mentioned how Stella met one of the Manson girls when she was asked to speak to a group of women at Chino Prison. “She had some kind of batty relationship that I really didn’t listen to with one the girls in the Manson case,” Moss recalled. “There couldn’t have been a relationship but maybe a correspondence or something with this one girl who sort of played up to her as an actress.  And she sentimentalized about this poor helpless little girl who of course murdered a pregnant woman.”

Of the three Manson women who were incarcerated in Chino Prison around the time Stella visited, the one most likely to have captured Stella’s attention may have been the pretty and well-spoken Leslie Van Dousen who after over forty years since her crime at nineteen years old has not been allowed parole.

Director John Waters points out how most murderers of equal crimes (Van Dousen was not involved in the murder of Sharon Tate) spend no more than eight or nine years in prison before being paroled. Waters calls Van Dousen his friend, and believes she has been rehabilitated. Perhaps, Stella was not so “batty” after all in seeing Van Dousen as a woman changed from the girl once caught up in drugs and a cult. Van Dousen has never responded to any of this author’s inquiries, leaving the extent of her and Stella’s “relationship” up to speculation.

Kate Mulgrew at Stella by Starlight Gala (2009)

Kate Mulgrew at Stella by Starlight Gala (2009)

What I take from this story is what “Orange Is the New Black” offers its viewers: the human side of the industrial prison complex.

I would have so enjoyed watching the series with Stella. A self-proclaimed “Jewish broad from Odessa,” Stella would have loved “Red” and all her Russian colors.

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