Chapter 10: The Stories Come Tumbling Out

Summary: Aggie works directly with actresses as she writes for the Thanhousers, and has two major film successes, “The Shine Girl” and “Prudence the Pirate.”

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The Thanhousers believed that if writers knew the people they were writing for, it would help with characterizations and business. One day there was a knock at my office door. I opened it to see Mrs. Thanhouser and a lovely, fragile blonde with vivid blue eyes. She wore a black chiffon street dress and a large black horsehair “picture hat.”

“Aggie, I want you to meet Miss Jeanne Eagels,” Mrs. Thanhouser said. “She’s going to star in the picture you’re writing.”

Jeanne hadn’t yet played her glorious role of Sadie Thompson in “Rain,” but glamour stuck out all over her. She looked me up and down and seemed puzzled. No wonder. I had on an old middy suit, my pompadour was messy, and, as I found out later, there was a smear of carbon on my left cheek.

“G…g…. glad to meet you,” I stammered.

Miss Eagels shook hands and turned to Mrs. Thanhouser. “Could you spare Miss Johnston for the rest of the afternoon? I’d like to take her to my apartment in New York where we could have a long talk about the story.”

Mrs. Thanhouser agreed. I rushed home and fell into a new, brown velveteen suit I’d charged at Stern’s, where Mama had opened an account. I poured some toilet water over my neck. I didn’t seem right to go out with a star like Jeanne Eagles unless I was perfumed.

I was numb with thrill as we rode to town in her big, maroon limousine with her monogram on the door and a liveried chauffeur driving. I couldn’t think of how to start a conversation. Miss Eagels just sat back and smoked a cigarette, relaxed, an odd little smile tingeing her beautiful mouth.

Her apartment was in a Greenwich Village brownstone. It had a huge bay window, rich, deep blue velvet hangings, and a painting of a nude that covered almost an entire wall of the living room. The whole place was scented with a heavy perfume I was sure was French. A neat Negro maid took our coats and disappeared with them through some velvet curtains, and I caught a glimpse of a huge, black satin canopied bed. Carefully folded on its white fur cover was a nightgown of black chiffon.

Miss Eagels asked me what I’d like to drink. I said a Crème de Menthe, not adding that it was the only alcoholic drink I’d ever had. She told the butler to make one and ordered a “Pink Lady” for herself.

She had me sit on a brocaded armchair and perched before me, cross-legged on a large red leather hassock. Even before the drinks came, she started asking me questions, not about the story I was writing for her, but about myself and my love life. I told her about the long hours of dictation with Frank Dazey and how, although I hadn’t seen him since, he was the only man in my life and always would be. She listened, amused and somewhat appalled. She told me about her recent trip to France.

“The French have very different ideas than we do about life and love and beauty,” she said. “For instance, I went to a dinner party in a sleeveless gown and the Frenchman sitting next to me tweaked my shaved arm pit and said, ‘Ah, too bad. Mademoiselle, you cut off zee beautiful hair.’”

We finally got around to my story.

“I hope you’ve given me some good gutty drama,” Miss Eagels said. “On the stage they always cast me as ingénues because I’m young and soft and pretty. What I’d like to play is a hard-boiled whore.”

“I…I’m afraid you’re not a…harlot in my story,” I said, and went on to explain the plot. The Thanhousers had signed on a distinguished Shakespearean actor, Frederick Warde, to play opposite her. As he was an old man, I’d made him a middle-aged millionaire who had worked so hard to build up his fortune he’d never had time for fun. Now he was always sneaking into a secret, locked room to play with toy trains. When Miss Eagles came into his life as his secretary, he found a new interest. I’d called my millionaire “Peter” because I liked the name and, when I told Miss Eagles the title of the story, she looked at me, stunned for a moment, then muffled a giggle.

“Hmmm….’Peter’s Lost Youth,’” she said, repeating the title I had come up with. “I think the studio will change that.” (They did.) We didn’t discuss my scenario anymore. I think Miss Eagles had given up hope.

The Thanhousers signed on another stage actress, Gladys Hulette. She had become a famous child actress, playing Tytal in Maeterlinck “The Blue Bird” As I was considered a “child writer,” I guess the Thanhousers thought—especially after the picture I’d written for Jeanne Eagles—it was a good idea to pair us together. Certainly the story I concocted was redolent—or should we say, —“stank” of youth.

Ah woe! There was a young orphan who lived alone in the basement of a slum tenement. Nary a thin ray of sunshine penetrated the gloom. Her only friend was a puny, potted geranium she had named “Sally.” Every day, no matter how tired she was, my heroine contrived to find time to trudge up six flights of stairs to the roof so that, for a few minutes at least, Sally could bask in the warm sunshine. But these meager moments were of no avail. Sally was dying.

My title for this was “The Shine Girl,” because my heroine made her living as a female shoe black. As one subtitle cooed: “She shines up shoes and she shines up people’s lives.” One calamitous day, the Shine Girl was falsely accused of stealing a loaf of bread and hauled off to the Children’s Court. There she was arraigned before a handsome young judge. At first, he excoriated her as a juvenile delinquent. Then, seeing the stunted geranium clasped in her arms, he asked questions.

“Why did you bring a scrubby plant like that into my courtroom,” he boomed. (In a subtitle, of course.)

“Her name is Sally,” said the Shine Girl, and told him the sad, sad story of her pathetic attempts to save the plant’s life.

“Ah!” cried the judge in the subtitle. “A girl who loves flowers can’t be all bad.” The judge invited the Shine Girl and Sally to visit at his mother’s estate in the country. In this healthy atmosphere, both bloomed. And, as has no doubt long since been guessed, the Shine Girl married the judge. Final subtitle: “Ever afterwards for them life was shining.”

“The Shine Girl,” which cost $12,000 to produce, was a shining success. The critics hailed Gladys Hulette as a great actress and one even hinted that “Mary Pickford had better look to her laurels.” Women’s Clubs all over the country endorsed it as a picture people could safely take their children to see.

My success was helping my family thrive. Izzy got a half scholarship to Vassar, and with my new salary, there was enough to make up the rest. I’d always wanted to go to college. Even though I’d only had three years of high school, I’d pled with the Dean of Barnard to let me take the college entrance examinations. I hadn’t known where the money would come from, but I’d toyed with the hope that I might win some kind of scholarship. I failed the tests miserably.

Now it was almost as good that Izzy could go. The sight of our little, blond darling starting off on a train all by herself for the first time in her life brought a choke to my throat. My movie imagination ran wild.

Oh, Mama,” I moaned. “What if she’s robbed? Or kidnapped? Maybe by white slavers….”

“She won’t be,” Mama said, the flame of victory in her eyes. At least one of her daughters was going to get a college education. “I pinned her money inside her corset and she has a hatpin in her pocketbook.”

“The Shine Girl” was followed by “Prudence the Pirate,” the tale of a society deb who wanted to become a pirate and did. I was the real pirate, stealing the idea from “Peter Pan.” Then came “Wicked Old New York,” in which the heroine, a little country miss, took her pet hen to the big city and blundered into a “bad house.” But, before the white slavers could sell her to the rich man who coveted her, “Mrs. Hen” flew out of the window. My heroine followed in pursuit and never realized she “had escaped a fate worse than death.” (Subtitle.)

Scenario followed scenario. I averaged about four weeks on each story. Mama often protested, “It isn’t right for a girl of your age to work so hard, Aggie. You’ve got to slow up a bit or you’ll go stale.”

“That’s daffy,” I cried. “It’s so much fun. I can’t help it if the stories come tumbling out.”

I soon found out it would have been better if I’d taken Mama’s advice.

. . .

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