Chapter 1: Such Fine Company

Summary: A train trip to apply for a job at a movie studio finds Agnes in the company of famous silent film stars, the family moves to Holly Tree House in Stony Brook, Long Island, and the father returns for Christmas.


The day I decided to make a lot of money, I had exactly ten cents in my pocketbook. I had just squandered a nickel to ride on the elevated train from downtown Brooklyn to the Vitagraph Company of America, then, in 1914, the largest motion picture studio in the world. I planned to get a job there. I had to.

My mother, my little sister, Izzy, and I had been living for some time in a slum rooming house. Our landlady, Mrs. Epstein, was large bosomed, ferocious looking and smelled strongly of garlic. Mama, whose powers of persuasion quickened when she was desperate, had talked her not only into letting us stay in our cubbyhole and pay the rent we owed later but also to loan us three dollars for carfare so Mama and I could look for jobs. We had looked and looked, in vain.

As I sat planning my future, a goblin-like little conductor came through the door of the car ahead. Grinning, he thumbed over his shoulder and announced, “This morning, it’s in there.”

Startled out of my brooding, I realized that in the car ahead was laughter so loud it almost drowned out the squeal of the train on the rails. The little conductor went on, “Most of the movie actors ride to work on my train so’s to check in at Vitagraph by 8:30. Usually they put on an impromptu show.” He turned and hurried back to the car ahead. I followed, along with several other passengers.

What I saw made me catch my breath. Coming up the aisle were three people I recognized from seeing them in motion pictures. Before our money had run out, we’d been able to go to nickelodeons, as movie houses were called in those days, because admission was only five cents. Now there was the gargantuan John Bunny, pillowy Kate Price, and matchstick thin Flora Finch, the popular trio of the day. Their slapstick one-reelers clocked more laughs per minute than any other pictures with the exception of Charlie Chaplin’s.

Bunny and Flora were doing a “shimmy dance” up the aisle while Kate Price lumbered after them, wailing off tune, “It’s a bear…..It’s a bear.” She caught up to them and battered John Bunny on the head with her rolled-up umbrella, at the same time goosing him in the bottom. He leaped into the air with a grimace that brought roars from the watchers. Laughing too, I forgot my worries, at least for a while.

The little conductor nudged me, pointing to a seat ahead and said, “Lookee! Who you think that is?”

I gasped. “It’s…it couldn’t be…Constance Talmadge?”

“Who else?”

Mouth dropped open, I stared at the very young girl in a plaid, pleated skirt, peek-a-boo waist and a fuzzy tam over her “Irene Castle” bob.

When Bunny and his partners had collapsed for lack of breath, Connie left her seat and began to wander down the aisle, snatching off men’s hats, giggling when their owners grabbed and tickled her.

My breath came faster as I recognized in the seat she had left her sister, who had risen to frown disapprovingly on Connie’s antics. Norma Talmadge! With her lovely body wrapped tightly in a black sheath and her large hat that spewed ostrich plumes…

It was hard to believe that I was in such fine company. And hadn’t I started the whole thing myself?

We had been living in our three-hundred-year old farmhouse in Stony Book, Long Island. It was Christmas Eve and we were sitting in the parlor after supper. On the hearth, flames from apple wood cut from our own land, curled around the old fashioned crane. Papa in his Morris chair was puffing lazily on his cigar. Mama sat nearby, beaming at him, not noticing that Izzy, my little sister, who lay on her stomach reading “Jane Eyre,” was kicking her feet in their high-buttoned shoes on the hand-carved arm of the antique. I was perched on a stool so close to the fire my face felt scorched, but I wouldn’t draw back. In a happy family group like this, somebody should be “hugging the fire.” And wasn’t it happy? Papa was with us this Christmastime when we had thought he wouldn’t be.

Since I could remember, we had always lived in rented houses near Chicago where papa, a civil engineer, had had several different jobs in “smokestack” companies. Then he got a really good position in New York and moved us there. We stayed in a boarding houses while Mama looked for a house to buy. She said she was sick of renting and had saved enough out of her household allowance to make the down payment on one

The place she found was sixty miles out on Long Island and she was so pleased with the old farmhouse, she had put all her money into it without asking Papa’s advice. A mistake, as she realized when she took us out to look at it. Papa had fumed most of the two-hour trip on the pokey Long Island Railroad, saying it was too far from New York for him to commute.

However, when he saw the old house with its red-tiled roof and dormer windows and a tall holly tree standing close against one end, he was impressed

“Why don’t we call it Holly Tree House?” I asked

“ We will,” said Mama. “ And wait till you see all the antique furniture that goes with it. That will save us money.”

She unlocked the door and we went in and through all the fourteen rooms, with fireplaces in four of them

“That will save us paying for a lot of coal,” Mama said. “There are lots of apple trees growing on the six acres that goes with it. And wood heat is much healthier than a sooty furnace.” Papa said, “It’s a pretty big house for only four people, a lot more work for you, Isabel.” “Less,” Mama said. “We won’t be all jammed together. Everybody can have a room of their own. And there will be lots of places to put things.”

The house was on a corner of the property, “Flush to the road,” Mama said, quoting Shakespeare. When the house was built people didn’t have much entertainment and liked to look out the front windows to see who was passing in the street, and speculate who was going where and why—gossip.

Papa had a job in upstate Watertown and couldn’t get home except for occasional weekends. And he’d written that he wouldn’t be home for Christmas. On account of the expense, he’d said. But Mama had fretted “There’s something wrong. The idea! A man not spending Christmas with his family!”

So one night, while Mama and Izzy were doing the dishes, I’d written Papa. A letter so oozily sentimental it had caused me to burst into tears. These I’d enlarge with spit and encircle with shaky balloons which I’d labeled, “Tears for Papa.”
No doubt, the tears had done it. Papa had not only come home, but he’d brought presents for all of us. Mama had locked them in the downstairs hall closet.   I’d found them and pinched mine. I’d been hinting about what I wanted for weeks. From the shape of the one that had my name on it, I was sure it was my yearned for ice skates. I had never skated, but I could see myself doing fancy figures on the frozen mill pond in the village. It was going to be a wonderful Christmas.

I was suddenly conscious that Papa was talking, his voice loud, which always meant he wasn’t sure he was right. “…a business proposition a man in Watertown has offered me. Something that can make me really rich.”

“Rich?” There was danger in Mama’s voice.

“A camera that can make motion pictures without the flicker.”

“Motion pictures!” Mama groaned. “Oh, Parry, are you loony?”

Papa scowled. “Isabel, you’re behind the times. Motion pictures are the coming thing. Soon we’ll have nickelodeons on almost every street corner like saloons. And admission will be more than five cents. Ten cents. Maybe even twenty-five.”

“Motion pictures are peachy, “ I put in. “Mama, remember the one we saw in Chicago? Where the little girl was saved by firemen from the burning house?” Izzy looked up from her book. “When the fire engines came, you could hear the horses’ feet.” “No, silly,” I said. “The sound was made by the man who played the piano rattling a box of stones with his feet.”

“Motion pictures hurt your eyes,” Mama said. “And they’re only a passing fad. Mr. Edison said so himself in the newspaper.”

“Stuff and nonsense!” Papa boomed. “I’ll admit motion pictures are far from perfect now. But so was the telephone when it first came out. Now this man in Watertown I sure it won’t take long to perfect his camera. He just needs a little backing.”

“Backing?” Mama’s voice was choked.

I knew she was thinking about other get-rich-quick schemes Papa had backed. And automobile tire that was solid and wouldn’t puncture….an invention for bringing music into the home by telephone. And many other things. All of them had fizzled out along with the money Papa had put into them.”

“How much backing does this man want?” Mama asked coldly.

“Only $2,000.”

“And where are we going to get $2,000? Pick it off the bushes?”

Papa looked hurt, his mouth curved down toward his double chin. “Surely there should be no question about raising a little money. If you’d only be reasonable…”

“Just what do you mean by reasonable?” Mama’s black eyes were hard.

“Our house. I’ve found a bank in Watertown that will give us a second mortgage on it.”

“Holly Tree House? Remember it’s in my name,” Mama said. “It’s hard enough to pay the interest on the first mortgage. This is the first home we’ve ever owned and I’m not going to take any chance on losing it.”

I knew how Mama felt. We’d always lived in rented places. Once, when Papa was making a large salary, we lived in a mansion that needed two maids at five dollars a week apiece to take care of it. Other times, if Papa was taking commissions or out of work, we lived in small cramped houses or even furnished rooms.

Mama always said this was because Papa had been extravagant, treating friends and business associates to meals in expensive restaurants or to liquor in saloons. In turn, he would blame Mama. “You spend a fortune on books,” he’d grumble. “And we can’t eat ‘em.”

Mama hadn’t had much education herself. One of nine children living in a small mountain village of Pennsylvania, she’d started teaching school when she was only fourteen. Some of her pupils were big, rough boys older than she was. It was her great ambition that Izzy and I “partake of culture” as she called it. When book agents called, she’d use up her housekeeping allowance on sets of Dickens, The Bronte Sisters, Smollett, Stearns, Defoe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Thoreau, and the new popular young writer, Rudyard Kipling.

But since she found out we were coming to New York she hadn’t bought any more books until we could get a house, a place to put them. So she had a nice sum to make the down payment on Holly Tree House. And at last Mama had a feeling of security that had come through to Izzy and me. No, we didn’t want to take any chance on losing our home. My selfish little heart was with Mama. I resented the way Papa was trying to make us feel sorry for him. His eyes moist and bewildered, he was saying over and over again that Mama didn’t trust him. Never had.

“No, I don’t trust you, Parry Johnston,” Mama said.


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