Chapter 3: A Vitagraph Competition

 Summary: Mama rents out the house so she can send Aggie and Izzy to private school in Brooklyn. Mama’s writing background inspires her to enter a scenario contest, and Aggie submits her own story in secret.


Mama believed that God was always at her side. And he certainly cooperated this time. Three of the teachers in the village school rented the Holly Tree House for thirty dollars a month. It was not enough for Mama’s plans, but she talked the president of the bank into giving her a loan with the house as security. She came home jubilant. She now had seven hundred dollars in her account. It seemed like a fortune.

“We’re going to the city so you girls can go to private school,” she told us. “Public schools don’t have French classes and you can’t be cultured if you don’t know French. “

“But a private school would cost money,” I said.

“I’m going to make money,” she said confidently. “Don’t forget I’m a writer.” While Mama was teaching school, she’d had written pieces about church and Sunday school activities for the local paper. She wasn’t paid, but she had clipped them out and sent them to a Hearst newspaper in New York, informing the editor that if he could give her a chance, she could be a “sob sister” like the famous Nellie Bly. The editor, Arthur Brisbane, had given her a trial job and she’d made good. Also, after she was married, she wrote a children’s book and sent it to W.W. Denslow, whose illustrations had helped make The Wizard of Oz a big success. He’d like Mama’s book, agreed to illustrate it, and found her a publisher (The Bobbs-Merrill Company) though not a good one. The Jeweled Toad didn’t make any money. Mama was not discouraged, but Papa had been furious. He said Mama must never write again. Didn’t she realize what she might do to him? “You might be a success,” he’d said, “and I would be known as “Mrs. Johnston’s husband.”

We moved to Brooklyn and Mama enrolled us in the lovely ivy-draped Packer Collegiate Institute. We rented the cheapest place we could find, a two-room apartment in the slums. Our classmates were all rich. Driven to school in carriages or automobiles, they wore fashionable clothes—well cut navy blue sailor suits and simple dark dresses. Izzy and I had motley wardrobes, made over by a Stony Brook dressmaker from some of Mama’s old clothes, most of them in vivid plaids or stripes with unfashionable ruffles. We were shy about making friends with our elegant classmates, who didn’t pay much attention to us anyway. We kept in the background, studying hard because we felt we must get all we could out of the high-priced school. Our only recreation was an occasional evening at a Nickelodeon.

Mama encouraged this. She had written some short stories and sent them to the The Delineator, Ladies Home Journal and The Smart Set, but they had always come back with only rejection slips. She had decided that perhaps motion pictures were here to stay. All she needed was to learn the technique.

Girls from the Packer school were not allowed to go to Nickelodeons. Motion pictures were considered too vulgar for refined young ladies. Before entering a theater, we were careful to look up and down the street to be sure no teacher or student from Packer would see us. We thrilled at the melodramas and laughed at the slapstick comedies. There were a few human stories, some starring a winsome little actress known as the “Biograph Girl.” Later, her name was put on the screen—Mary Pickford.

In the spring, when money from Mama’s bank loan was getting low, there was an announcement in the newspapers that Vitagraph Company of America was offering a thousand dollars for the best scenario submitted and five hundred dollars for the second best. And for any submissions that didn’t win a prize there was a chance they might be purchased “at the usual rates.” Mama was certain she could win a prize, if not first, certainly second. And that would solve our money problems.

She had an idea for a domestic drama she called “Turn in The Road.” She worked very hard for several weeks on her idea. I thought it was a little too tame, as I pointed out to her, but she said that if motion pictures had more stories about real life they would be more respected. And she insisted that I help her. I did, although reluctantly. I was getting good marks in my English class and my teacher had told Mama my stories and themes were always the best in the class.

One morning when I was home sick from school and Mama was at the library, I sat at the typewriter she had rented and decided to try a story like the movie melodramas we had seen. They usually had at least one murder if not several. I asked myself what was an original idea about a killing. The idea came with the title, “Tried for his Own Murder.” I was able to finish it and get it into the mail before Mama completed hers. I didn’t want to tell her about it for fear she would think that I didn’t believe in her story. As I put it into the mailbox, addressed to the “Vitagraph Company Scenario Contest, I had a dreadful shock. What if my story won the first prize instead of Mama’s? I had tilted up the mailbox cover and made an effort to grab the envelope before it slid down. Too late! Oh well, I comforted myself with the thought that Mama would no doubt win second prize if I won first.

Several weeks went by before the contest winners were announced in the papers. We got up early and I went out to buy the first edition, stopping in the street to shakily thumb through to find the announcement. To my shock, neither Mama nor I had won any prize.

When I got home and told Mama the story she had sent in hadn’t won, Mama didn’t look too unhappy. She said no doubt the prizes had gone to relatives of the people who owned the studio. But what they had said about buying any that would make picture material, well, she was sure her story would be bought.

Week after week went by and nothing was heard from Vitagraph. The teachers who were renting Holly Tree House had left for the summer, so our money was running low. Mama pawned her wedding and engagement rings and put an ad in the Sunday paper that the Holly Tree House was “For rent to reliable people.” There was only one response. A very nice man phoned and said he was interested in renting the house with his wife and three daughters. He brought over good references, one from his stockbroker and another from his minister. Then he paid Mama’s railroad fare to take him to Stony Brook to see the house. She came back with a check he had given her—the whole summer’s rent in advance. Not only that, but she had found a place where we could spend the summer—one of the fishing shacks on Long Beach.


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