Summary: Aggie begins her job as a typist and explores the studios where silent films are made. One day she is summoned to take shorthand for a young writer, her future husband, Frank Dazey.
(Editor’s note: Chapters 1 through 6 were Aggie’s original Chapter One, and they were rewritten many times, through countless drafts and revisions. Aggie would have marveled at the ‘delete’ key! This Chapter 7 begins her Chapter 2, with the original title “The Man Who Ate Kumquats.”)
My first day as a Vitagraph typist was the longest day—or week or month—I ever worried through. In the long, narrow room, the gray-haired, gentle-voiced head of the department, Miss Caldwell, showed me to the typewriting desk and gave me a scenario to copy. She told me to make seven copies. Drama must always be done on blue paper, melodrama on pink, and comedy on yellow.
My first scenario, appropriately enough, was on blue. As I started to work, my mood was wild. I was so nervous my fingers slipped and stumbled on the keys. I made mistake after mistake. I left out words, even whole lines. And several times I put the carbons in backwards and didn’t discover it until I was halfway down the page so I had to start all over again. I worried. Did they have some way of keeping track of how much paper a typist used and how much paper I wasted? Or perhaps they would notice my wastebasket was unusually full. When I saw the girl at the desk ahead of me leave to go to the washroom, I sneaked my discarded sheets into her wastebasket, careful to see that no one was watching,
Somehow the first day passed. And another and another. Then it was Saturday, payday, when “the ghost walked.” A pimply youth came down the long room with a basket of envelopes. The other typists told me that if you were fired, your pay would come in a blue envelope. If the ghost gave me a blue one, how could I tell Mama and Izzy I’d lost my job? We were deeply in debt to Mrs. Epstein. Mama had borrowed from her again to have enough money for food and carfare. The ghost was almost upon me. Icy to my toes, I turned away, afraid to look at the envelope he put on my desk. I finally steeled myself and turned back. The envelope was white. Inside was a beautiful ten-dollar bill.
Four weeks passed without a blue envelope. Mama decided to risk renting an apartment. She found a two-roomed unit with a kitchenette, in a slightly better neighborhood. Mama shipped furniture in from Stony Brook and we kissed our kind, garlic-scented angel of a landlady goodbye.
My fear of payday gradually faded. I began to feel myself part of the life of the studio. The day would start with the impromptu show on the elevated train. Then I’d walk importantly through the big wooden gates and pass the ‘bull pen.’ This was a paved strip between the two front stages where people who were on the approved list were allowed to wait behind a wire barricade for a chance to be hired as extras. As the directors came into the studio, these poor wretches would charge forward, bleating piteously, “Can’t you use me today?” “Hey, have a heart!” “I’m a good actor, mister.” “Please use me or I won’t have any money for lunch.”
My desk in the typists’ room was at a window from which I could look out on the Vitagraph water tank. No other studio had such an expensive piece of equipment. One day, Anita Stewart, the glamorous actress, would be paddled in a canoe against a backdrop lagoon. The next, John Bunny, teetering on the edge of the pool, would be smacked by a custard pie and fall into the water while Kate Price and Flora Finch mistakenly threw him anchors instead of life rings. I thought this kind of comedy was hilarious. Once an actress was saved from drowning her unwanted baby—a sawdust doll—by Maurice Costello playing the part of the priest.
At noon, I went to the small café for a bowl of soup—never pea soup of course. I ordered broth because it only cost five cents, all I could afford. And I would gulp it down quickly and spend the rest of my lunch hour wandering around the stages. These had glass roofs from which rows of sputtering lights were suspended, so brilliant you couldn’t look straight at them. Often an actor who worked under them too long would get a case of “Klieg eyes,” eyeballs streaked with red and a painful headache. The filming of the picture would have to be stopped until he recovered.
As it was silent film, the actors didn’t bother to learn lines; they just ad-libbed anything that came into their minds—as long as their lips moved. The added subtitle might read, “Darling, I’m your adoring slave,” answered by “Beloved, life without you is like ashes in my mouth.” But the male star and his leading lady were apt to spout, “You bitch, don’t try to vamp me. Your nose is running,” answered by, “Son of a bitch, your breath is strong enough to kill a horse.” This was accompanied by the style of acting popular then. The idea was to “register emotion” as strongly as possible. Eyes would roll, breasts would roll like stormy ocean waves, and hands would vibrate with monkey-like gestures. It all seemed wonderful to me. I’d watch, often touched to tears by such ‘art.’
One day, I learned that Vitagraph was making what they called a “special,” using two reels instead of four. The story was about a moving picture studio. Actors were cheap at the time, but–this was the whole point of the picture–studio employees could be used without paying them anything. One sequence was in the typists department. I was excited at the chance to be on the silver screen even in the background. Writers were to be featured. The studio heads probably figured an hour or so off from their writing wouldn’t be much of a loss. Several were to come in and leave their manuscripts on Miss Caldwell’s desk. They did this gesticulating with their hands and moving their lips as though talking to Miss Caldwell.
Then in came a thin young man with black hair that stood up like bristles in a clothes brush, a nose almost as pug as mine, and tortoiseshell rimmed glasses. I recognized him as Frank Dazey. I’d seen him lounging around the corridors and remarked, “What a horrible name! Dazey—like the flower. No girl would ever want to marry it.”
The director had to ask him to repeat his routine again and again. All he had to do was to walk through the door to Miss Caldwell’s desk, hand her a manuscript, smile, and walk out, following the lines chalked on the floor so he wouldn’t get out of camera focus. But he couldn’t get the hang of it. He’d step outside the lines, or when he was supposed to smile at Miss Caldwell he’d stare straight into the camera. Finally, while the director was swearing at him, he interrupted to ask, “How will the audience know I’m a writer?” The director roared, “They’ll damned well know you’re no actor!” I let out a yelp of laughter and the young man looked at me with a vague glare.
One afternoon just before Christmas, Miss Caldwell told me to report to Frank Dazey for dictation. This was a stunner. The typists were supposed to know shorthand even though they seldom had to use it. But I couldn’t tell one scrawl from another, much less make them. And now, on account of Frank Dazey, I’d be exposed as a fraud. It could easily end with him getting me fired.
Hating him fiercely, I went to the washroom and did over my pompadour. I was glad I was wearing my new suit, on which I had squandered ten dollars. It was brown and, as I stood in front of the mirror ratting my hair, I decided brown was my color. I brought out my eyes, making them look like brown velvet pansies, I thought poetically. Well, if I couldn’t take dictation in shorthand from Frank Dazey, perhaps I could charm the monster.
The writer’s building was like a long cow shed, the offices stall-like cubicles. I found my writer sitting with his feet up on the opened drawer of his desk. He was scowling and his black hair looked as if he’d devoted most of the morning rumpling it.
“Hello,” he said in a flat voice. “Have to do a damned two-reeler before I leave the studio tonight. We’ll have to work fast.” Work fast? And I didn’t know shorthand. How to get out of it? Perhaps if I pretended to faint…. My writer shuffled his feet out of the drawer and stood up. “No time to take this in shorthand, “ he said. “I’ll dictate straight to the machine.”
I choked with relief and plumped down in front of the typewriter. He took the only other chair in the room, but almost right away, left it and paced up and down. A self-taught typist, I only used two fingers of each hand. But was this Frank Dazey out of his mind? It was after three o’clock and to finish a whole two-reeler before leaving the studio? Impossible!
In those days scenario writing technique was not complicated. A typical scene would run like this:
EXT. GARDEN MARY’S HOUSE. NIGHT
Mary in Joe’s arms. They hug and kiss.
Mary’s father enters, registers fury, flourishes gun, mouths threats.
Villain! Never darken my door again!
Joe registers despair and exits sadly. Mary weeps. Father rages.
Frank Dazey’s story was a tender one about a unhappy little girl who, on her birthday, decided to do three kind acts for the three people she loved: her grandfather and her mother and father, who were planning a divorce. And his writing was better than the sparse technique of the usual Vitagraph script. He described how people felt. He put in touches of characterization and humor. The thrills and catastrophes of the Vitagraph Formula were totally lacking. Hearts throbbed, yes, but no forest fires menaced, there was no gunplay, and no one fell over a precipice.
After about an hour, my writer stopped dictating and asked, “What do you think about it so far?”
“Beautiful,” I said. “The people, well, seem like real people.”
“Thanks,” he said. “The hell of writing is you feel what you want to express, but you’re never satisfied.”
He grabbed a handful of kumquats from a bowl on his desk and began to eat them as he boomed out his words faster than ever. Every once in a while, he would pause and ask me what I thought about a scene. We’d talk it over and sometimes I even dared to offer a suggestion. And he would use my ideas, after making a few changes, of course.
Five o’clock came and I could hear the other writers tramping down the hall as they left for the day. By six thirty we were alone except for the occasional pad of the watchman’s feet. I felt no fatigue. I was at one with Frank Dazey. As we neared the climax of the story, he asked, “What would the little girl wear to her birthday party? I don’t know a thing about clothes.” I suggested a pink accordion-pleated dress because I’d always wanted a pink accordion-pleated dress. I said, “When she’s pretending to be happy even though she’s heart-broken, she could whirl around and look like a flower. Of course it won’t show on the screen that the dress is pink, but you can mention it in a subtitle. Too bad pictures aren’t in color.”
“That would be asking too much, “ Frank said. “I like that accordion thing.” When we finished it was after nine o’clock. The story ended with the little girl reconciling her parents. Pictures had to have a happy ending in those days. I sorted the pages and Frank picked up the copies and said he would leave them on Miss Bertsch’s desk. He stopped at the door. “Hey it’s late. You haven’t had dinner,” he said. “And you haven’t even offered me one of those kumquats.” I replied. He grinned. “I’ll buy you a meal.” For a moment, I hesitated. “My mother won’t like my being out this late with a man,” I said. After calling home, correctly predicting my mother’s reaction, I was ready to go.
At the start of the dinner, Frank ordered a cocktail for himself. I’d looked eager but he’d said, “You’re too young. You can have a Crème de Menthe afterwards.” It was while I was sipping this delicious drink, wishing the ice didn’t take up so much room in the glass, that Frank said, “It was swell of you to stay late to help me out. I had to get the damned scenario finished because tomorrow I take a train for my home town, Quincy, Illinois.”
“Going to visit your parents?” I asked. Frank didn’t answer for a few moments. At last his eyes came back to me. “Yes, and I’ve got a girl there…” The ice in the Crème de Menthe chilled me all over. I have no idea what Frank said after that. I do know that during the taxi ride to my apartment, a silly refrain ran through my mind. “Home town girl or not, Frank Dazey has got to be mine.” But he never came back to Vitagraph. The talk was that he’d gone to another motion picture company for a vast raise in salary.