Chapter 8: A Miracle for Mama and a Promotion for Aggie

Summary: A subway accident is seen as the miracle the family needs to survive after Papa refuses to help beyond a few dollars. After selling a scenario to a West Coast film company, Aggie demands to be given a position as a staff writer for Vitagraph.

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Aggie Age 16
Typewritten label on back says “Agnes Christine Johnston (When she began her screenwriting at 16 years of age.)

All this time, I wasn’t too well nourished. Ten dollars a week, which seemed so much at first, was hard to stretch for rent, food, and the bare necessities. On paydays, we would eat well: round steak, a vegetable, and even dessert with whipped cream on top. But toward the end of the week, we were usually down to spaghetti or rice. My five-cent lunches didn’t fill me up. I was getting thinner and thinner.

One afternoon when I was typing, everything went strange and dizzy. Bells clanged in my ears. Pain tortured my chest. The next thing I knew I was lying on the floor drenched with sweat and exhaustion, not caring whether I ever moved again. Still, I had to be noble.

“I…I’ve got to finish my scenario,” I protested to Miss Caldwell and some of the other typists who were hanging over me,

“You’re not going to do another stroke of work today, “ Miss Caldwell said tearfully. “You poor dear child!” And she sent me home in the middle of the afternoon, just as I’d hoped she would.

When Mama heard what had happened, she insisted I write Papa. “He comes to New York often on business. He may be dallying on the primrose path, but when he sees how thin you girls are, I’m sure it will touch his heart.”

I wrote. Papa answered and asked Izzy and me to dinner the next week at the Engineers Club in New York. We went and were embarrassed by his warm hugs and too-wet kisses. When he said he missed his “girlies,” I seethed inside. He ordered a fine dinner and I brought up the subject of money. Papa turned cold and blank.

“I’ll give you each five dollars,” he said, “But not another red cent.”

“Izzy needs new shoes badly,” I said. “Hers have holes in them and the wet comes through. Show him, Izzy.” Izzy brought one leg out from under the table and held it up. Papa looked embarrassed and told Izzy to put it down. People were looking at her.

“That’s why Izzy can’t get rid of her cough,” I said, kicking her under the table. She led out a deep hacking cough that sounded as if she were in the last stages of tuberculosis. Papa set his jaw stubbornly.

“If your mother will give me a divorce, I’ll make a settlement. If not, I wash my hands of all of you,” he said. “Someday you girls will understand.”

On the way home in the subway, Izzy told me, “I was so mad at him I had an impulse to stab him with my fork.”

“A fork isn’t strong enough to go through flesh,” I said.

When we got to our apartment house, Mama was waiting for us outside, walking up and down in the snow. She flung questions at us.

“Did your father seem the least bit sorry? Did he mention my name?”

“He would only give us ten dollars,” I told here. “He didn’t act a bit sorry. And, well, he didn’t say anything about you.” I couldn’t tell her he’d insisted on a divorce.

 

The next morning, Mama was her old brave self again. She said over and over we weren’t to worry. We’d be taken care of somehow. A miracle would happen. Mama believed in miracles. I did too and still do, considering the many that have come to us.

The miracle that came this time was a whack on Mama’s head. She’d been to New York, trying to get herself a job, any kind of job. She was on her way into a crowded subway train when the guard slammed the doors shut and Mama’s head was caught as if in a nutcracker. She was unconscious for a few moments but managed to finish the trip, feeling only slightly dizzy. The guard had taken her name and address. A few evenings later, as I came in from Vitagraph, a man was ringing the doorbell. He told me he was the subway representative and wanted to inquire about Mrs. Johnston’s injury.

”Please wait here,” I told him. “I’ll see if she is able to see you.”

I found Mama cooking dinner. I hustled her onto the couch. Izzy brought her a pillow and blanket. I filled a hot water bottle and put it on her head as if it were an ice bag. Then I ushered in the subway man. He expressed his concern and offered to settle for $75. Mama was so excited she would have leaped up if I had not kept a firm hand on her shoulder. I supported her tenderly while she signed the release papers.

After the subway man left, Mama cried triumphantly, “See! Didn’t I tell you God would provide? He always does.” I nodded. “But I wish he wouldn’t always wait until the last moment.”

Two days later the subway check came. For an awful moment Mama considered returning it. She said she hadn’t been hurt $75 worth, and to accept that much was dishonest. Izzy and I yelled her down.

“Think of Izzy’s shoes!”

“We can have decent meals for a while!”

“God wouldn’t want you to send the money back!”

When there were only a few dollars left from Mama’s whack, a letter came from the American Film Company of California. I was at the studio when it arrived. Mama held it up to the light and saw what looked like the outline of a check. She phoned me to hurry home, and I sneaked off half an hour early.

All the months I’d been at Vitagraph, I’d been trying to write original scenarios. I hadn’t submitted them to Vitagraph for fear they would think I’d written them on studio time, claim them as their property, and not pay me. But there were several other motion picture companies in the East and on the West Coast. So far, my scenarios had all come back with rejection slips. But now, how we tore into that envelope! There was a check: $25 for a scenario I’d sent them two months ago.

The next morning, I walked into Miss Bertsch’s office and laid the check on her desk.

“This proves I’m a writer,” I said. “Commodore Blackton just has to give me a chance on the writing staff.”

“I’ve already talked to him about it,” said Miss Bertsch. “That day you fainted. But he said you were too young. Perhaps when you’re eighteen…”

“Eighteen?” I cried. “Didn’t I tell you…?”

“I know how old you said you were.” Miss Bertsch’s face crinkled into a knowing smile.

“Well, we’ll just have to go on trying to make it on ten dollars a week—all three of us,” I said with a look on my face I hoped was heroic. I’m sure Miss Borsch saw through my playacting, but she also must have realized the desperation behind it.

“I could tackle the Commodore again,” she said. “Could you wait to cash this check until I can show it to him?” Two days later, she sent for me. “The Commodore is willing to give you a tryout.”

“Oh, how simply dandy…” I began.

Miss Bertsch interrupted quickly.

“It doesn’t mean you can go on staff. I couldn’t talk the Commodore into that. But here’s a magazine story we bought.” She handed me some paper-clipped printed pages. “See if you can picturize it. You’re still a typist and being paid for it so the work will have to be done after hours. Even if we can use the scenario, you won’t get any extra money. You might drop a note to the Commodore thanking him for this great opportunity.”

Today, the Screen Writers Guild would scream to high heaven at this arrangement, but at the time it seemed to me a most generous offer. I thanked Miss Bertsch and left. I might still be a typist but before I went back to my copying, I slipped into the washroom and gave the magazine story a quick read. What it was about, I don’t remember. I believe at one point the heroine was tied to the top of a tree. Somehow, I must have gotten her down. Although I’ve forgotten the story, how well I remember the work I put into it. During office hours, I’d sneak little half pages into my typewriter and make notes. Nights and weekends, I not only labored myself but I put Mama and Izzy to work. They had to read and criticize even if the dishes went unwashed and the beds unmade.

When I finally turned in my great work, nothing happened. Days went by, then weeks. I avoided Miss Bertsch in the halls and the café. If she had bad news for me, I wanted to put it off as long as possible. Finally, she sent for me. Her face was all smiles. “Aggie, Commodore Blackton likes your scenario. You’re a writer now.”

I wept my thanks and stumbled back to the typist department to clear out my desk. I gathered up my dictionary and thesaurus, hairpins, safety pins, a can of talcum, and an empty chocolate mint box. With these treasures almost spilling from my arms, I walked on rosy clouds to the Writer’s Building.

There in my own private stall, I sat down at the typewriter and had a bad case of the terrors. I was a writer, yes, but what was I going to write? Only on rare occasions did the company buy magazine stories or originals from outsiders. The staff writers were supposed to think up their own plots and turn out at least one reel a week. Before me were stacks of paper: melodramatic pink, drama blue and comedy yellow. Melodrama? Drama? It suddenly hit me that I was still too young to know much about life. Comedy? Somehow I couldn’t get into a slapstick pie-throwing mood. All day long I sat and brooded.

When I went home and told Mama and Izzy our income from now on would be twenty-five dollars a week, they were delirious with joy. We were rich! Mama was sure her “little girl” would be able to turn out masterpieces. We must celebrate, she said.

We went to the Liberty Theatre in New York where D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” was showing. The picture was the sensation of the industry at seven reels long. When Mama found the price for orchestra seats was two dollars, she wanted to go right back to Brooklyn. It was robbery, she said. No motion picture could be worth that much. But, hoping I could learn something and perhaps get an inspiration, I insisted on balcony seats at seventy-five cents. “

Learn something indeed! Griffith’s masterpiece held lesson after lesson for me. I was instantly intrigued by the writing technique, the new style of close up shots, and the switchback chase that cut from the escaping fugitive to the inexorably pursuing night riders. There was no bosom heaving or body writhing. Lillian Gish, Henry Walthall, Mae Marsh—they were people you could believe in and identify with. How I loved and hated and suffered with them! It hurt me when the picture ended and I had to be just myself again.

For the next few days at the studio I dreamed up epics, or tried to. But some inner sense warned me that my ideas were no more epics than firecrackers were cannon. The harder I tried, the more nonsensical they seemed.

Finally, I thought of the scenario I had typed for Frank Dazey. That was a tender human story. Of course, he was a big writer, getting $30 a week, and they were more apt to accept it from him. But what else to write?

The plot I pounded out was pure whimsy, the style borrowed from my two favorite writers, J.M. Barrie and Frances Hodgson Burnett. “The Shabbies” were a rollicking family who lost their money and home and yet managed to be perpetually merry. The only part I remember was that the heroine had only one of a pair of gloves, but she wore the lone glove to a party and carried a rolled up sock in the other hand. She dropped the sock and it was picked up by the rich hero, who revealed it for what it was—a comedy touch.

My subtitles for this tale were really something, a technique I learned from a new California producer, Thomas Ince. Ince was turning out some very successful pictures. He brought to the screen the first great Western hero, William Hart, who was never allowed to kiss the heroine but often kissed his horse. In Ince’s pictures, instead of the short, pithy subtitles we were told to write at Vitagraph, such as “Came the Dawn,” the Ince subtitles would read something like this: “Mother Morning tiptoes across the sky to tie blue ribbons on her pink cloud babies.”

I sopped up this sentimental style. When my “Shabbies” were about to be put out of their broken down mansion, the subtitle read, “They leave their Home Sweet Home, faces smiling masks, hearts bleeding tears.”

As for the plot itself, it came easily enough, probably because there was so little of it. Of course, the “Shabbies” fell into fortune at the end when the heroine married the rich and handsome hero.

As I was finishing the script, I knew I had a problem. What I’d written was neither a comedy nor a drama but a mixture of both. I toyed with the idea of typing alternative pages on yellow and blue, then settled for blue, hoping the director wouldn’t throw out the comedy in the story because of the color of the script.

With the finished scenario in hand, I tiptoed up and placed it fearfully on Miss Bertsch’s desk. Would this new kind of story be rejected? Would I be fired from the writing staff, perhaps not even be able to get my $10-a-week typing job back again? It would be weeks before the answer came.

. . .

 

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