Chapter 6: I’m Agnes Christine Johnston, the Writer

Summary: Tired of surviving on the landlady’s days-old split-pea soup, Aggie convinces Mama to let her try for a job at Vitagraph. Dressed in an ill-fitting suit, she talks her way into the gate and scores an interview with the scenario editor.


The next morning, Mama and I continued the argument we’d been having during our fruitless job hunting days.

“I’m going to Vitagraph and ask them to put me on the writing staff, “ I said firmly. “Didn’t they buy my scenario? They know I can write. I’m sure I can convince them. “

“Oh Aggie,” cried Mama. “How many times do I have to tell you? A young girl like you wouldn’t be safe in a motion picture studio with all those wicked actors around. You wouldn’t be safe.” Then she took a long look at Izzy’s wan face and straightened her shoulders. “I guess you’re right, Aggie. We’ll just have to take the chance.”

My clothes, however, were a problem. The only good shirtwaist in the family belonged to Izzy. Mama washed it out in the bathroom and borrowed Mrs. Epstein’s iron. I brushed off Mama’s velveteen suit. With its long skirt and peplum jacket, I was sure I could pass for a lot older than sixteen. But the toque was worn looking and there was a spot where it had blown off and fallen into a mud puddle. I decided to wear my own beaver sailor hat. It was matted and dingy, but I gave it a good going over with some gasoline begged from Mrs. Epstein, and Izzy waved it out the window to get rid of the fumes.

When I was ready, we called in Mrs. Epstein to inspect me. Her eyes went over me—the shapeless beaver hat, the too-tight shirtwaist, the gown up suit too big for me.

“Well, I never seen a kid dressed like that,” was her pronouncement. “I guess they won’t throw you out. “

Mama went to the washstand, opened the top drawer and took out a long, fierce looking hatpin. “When I worked on a newspaper, I always carried a hatpin like this,” she said. “And everybody knows movie actors are reprobates. Always keep this in your pocketbook, Aggie. And if any of them get, well, disrespectful, you can give them a good jab!”

So here I was on the El train on my way to Vitagraph, the hatpin in my pocketbook. After the “impromter” show finished (Editor’s note: See Ch. 1 for a description of the actors’ shenanigans on the train.), I settled back in my seat to plan my job-getting strategy. I told myself I was going to be a great movie writer and make hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars. I rehearsed a beautiful speech about my writing prowess that I was sure would do the trick.

The train slowed down for a station. The little conductor came up, touched my elbow and pointed out the window. “There it is. The Vitagraph,” he said.

Those old Vitagraph Studios! They have been dismantled for many years now, but at the time the ugly blocks of cement buildings, rising up behind wooden walls, were as awesome as Merlin’s castle.

I got off the train and followed the flocks of actors on the block-long walk to the entrance. A stern looking guard stood at the gate. I waited until everybody else had filed through before I went up to him.

“I…I’m Agnes Christine Johnston, the writer.” I shook so much I could hardly get the words out. “I want to see the scenario editor.”

“Huh,” he sniffed, either from suspicion or the small amount of gasoline fumes emitting from my hat.

“I really am a writer,” I insisted. “Author of ‘Tried for His Own Murder.’”

“Never heard of it,” he grunted.

Since I didn’t go away, he reached for his phone and, after muffled mumblings, turned to me. “You can do to Miss Bertsch’s office. She’s the scenario editor. Number One, Writer’s Building. Down the first street to your left. Go straight there. No hanging around the stages, mind you!”

As I stepped through the gate, I had to jump aside from the path of an oncoming automobile. At the wheel sat a man I recognized, Maurice Costello, billed on nickelodeon posters as “the matinee idol of the silver screen.” Later, I was to know his daughters, Helene and Delores, and his grandson, John Barrymore, and to learn how greathearted Maurice was. But back then, when he gave me a smile, I decided it was more of a leer, and I put my hand into my pocketbook and took a firm grip on my hatpin.

In the cramped anteroom to Miss Bertsch’s office, a high-pompadored secretary told me the editor was with Commodore Blackton, who I knew was president of Vitagraph, and they were consulting about some new pictures. There was no telling how long it would be before she came back. I could wait if I wanted to.

I waited—over two hours. Squirming and twisting on a hard wooden bench, my self-confidence waned and sweat oozed through my jacket. When the secretary wasn’t looking, I investigated. The moisture had made shiny arcs at my armpits. I must remember not to put up my arms.

Miss Bertsch finally came in, a statuesque woman with warm blue eyes behind her glasses and hair like the goddess of Liberty. When I told her I was the author of “Tried for His Own Murder”, she took me into her cubbyhole of an office.

“So you wrote ‘Tried for His Own Murder,’” she said, looking me over thoughtfully. “How old are you?”

“Twenty,” I said firmly. “Guess I look a little young for my age. That’s because I have a pug nose.”

Miss Bertsch smiled. “I’m sure it’s the pug nose. Well, your scenario will need some rewriting by our staff. It’s not exactly in the movie technique. But it shows you have a great imagination.”

You think so, honest injun?” The childish exclamation was out before I could stop it.

Miss Bertsch nodded gravely. “You have promise,” she said. Here was the cue for my wonderful job-getting speech. But it just wouldn’t come out. I sat, gaping and dumb. Miss Bertsch went on to give me a helpful lesson on the fundamentals of motion picture writing, which was not what I had come for. And then she was saying, “That’s about all I have time to tell you, Miss Johnston. Nice of you to drop in.”

“But…but…,” I stammered. “I…I came to ask you for a job writing motion pictures. I’m sure I could learn the technique very quickly. I’d start at the lowest salary.”

“Sorry,” Miss Bertsch said with a kindly smile. “We don’t need any writers at present. Especially untrained writers.” She must have caught the stricken look on my face and sensed the despair rushing over me because she added, “Why don’t you have lunch with me, dear? We’ll forget about writing. Goodness knows, I’ve had enough talk of it in my conference with Commodore Blackton today.”

We went to a small café across the street from the studios. It smelled strongly of beer from the bar in the next room. I could see through the doorway that the place was crowded with actors and actresses in worn, dingy looking costumes. Their faces were smeared with the makeup the cameras required in those early days: hideous greenish-white face paint and mouths that looked as if they’d been eating blackberry pie without napkins.

Miss Bertsch handed me a food-stained menu. “What would you like, Miss Johnston?” The first thing that leaped out of me was “pea soup.” Hungry as I was, it was the last thing I wanted. It had been my only food for four days. Mrs. Epstein had expected her sister’s seven-member family to visit, but they hadn’t shown up. She’d made a big kettle of pea soup for them. Knowing how broke we were, she had asked us to help use it up. Every morning we had gone down to the kitchen and glutted ourselves with pea soup. The last two days it had been getting stale and sour.

“Pea soup. What a good idea,” Miss Bertsch said. “It’s so chilly today and it will warm us up. Pea soup is one of their specialties, and it’s so rich and filling it makes a whole meal in itself. You must try it.”

She was so enthusiastic I couldn’t refuse. All too soon, the waitress set down two large bowls of greasy greeness on the table.

Miss Bertsch beamed. “Now you’ll taste something really good.”

I tried to make myself smile back and managed to gulp down two spoonfuls. “It’s… it’s… delicious,” I said faintly.

“They cook it with a ham bone. All the rich marrow…why what’s the matter dear?”

I’m sure my face was as green as the soup. I shoved back my bowl with a hasty, “Excuse me….” I bolted from the table and ran out the front door and around to the back of the café where no one could see me. The stench of rotting garbage didn’t help as I urped and urped, surrounded by soiled napkins and the spoiled remains of meals.

Suddenly, there was Miss Bertsch.

“Oh forgive me! I’m awfully sorry!” I choked out. But…pea soup…if you knew how I hated….” I had to stop because sobs filled my vomit-raw throat.

In no time at all, Miss Bertsch had the truth out of me. I had poured forth everything. Papa deserting us. No money. The fruitless search for jobs. The landlady’s pea soup.

Miss Bertsch laughed a little and her blue eyes moistened behind her glasses. “You poor, poor child!” she said. “Now I mustn’t let my sympathy run away with me. Commodore Blackton is always scolding me for being too soft-hearted. But I do wish I could give you a job.”

“Any kind of job!” I begged. “Even an office boy. Though, I suppose you don’t have girl office boys…”

Miss Bertsch leaned against the wall of the café and thought for a few minutes. “We certainly can’t use you in the scenario department. Twenty is still a child,” she said, with a twinkle that told me I hadn’t fooled her one bit about my age. “It would be different if you were a typist…” I thought about Izzy’s small, pale face and the bed bugs and the fear in Mama’s eyes, and I told a whopper. “Oh, but I am a typist. A very good typist!” I didn’t add that I was self-taught and used the hunt-and-peck method.

“You are?” Miss Bertsch brightened. “We do need girls to copy manuscripts. If you did that, you could learn a lot about scenario writing. But we never start anybody on more than ten dollars a week.”

“Ten dollars? Oh! Oh!” I shrieked. “That would be simply scrumptious!”

Miss Bertsch looked somewhat frightened by my enthusiasm.

“But I can’t promise to keep you on more than two weeks unless you are very capable. The typing has to be neat and you have to work fast,” she said.

“I’ll be capable. I promise I’ll be most capable!”

I could hardly wait to get back to Mrs. Epstein’s with my wonderful news. Izzy had just come in from school, so I told both her and Mama the whole story. At first they didn’t believe me. They stared at me, their faces pinched as if they thought I was trying to play a bad joke. So I kept saying it over and over. “I do have a job. I do! Ten dollars a week!”



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