Chapter 12: The Girl Who Commutes from New York

Summary: Frank is released from the Army, but Aggie’s reunion with him is a disappointment. He leaves for Hollywood, promising to write. The Thanhousers close the studio and retire. She negotiates with a new studio and signs up for a workshop at Harvard on Frank’s advice.


Gladys (Hulette) had told me that other picture companies had been making her offers. At first, she thought she couldn’t even consider them because she had signed a contract with Thanhouser. But a smart lawyer pointed out that she had been underage when she signed it. The contract was worthless. She quickly signed with Pathé and left the studio without bothering to say goodbye. The Thanhousers were shocked and disgusted.

What’s more, right after she left I was asked to come in and talk to an executive at Pathé. Since he was French, Mama insisted on going with me. I sat in his office, feeling very much the successful author in a new navy blue suit and a white felt sailor hat that occasionally wafted a spiral of smoke from the French chalk I’d cleaned it with.

“We’ll pay you more than Thanhouser,” the executive announced.

“Hmm,” I muttered thoughtfully. Then, keeping my eyes away from Mama, I ventured, “When I went from Vitagraph to Thanhouser, I had my salary doubled. It’s established a precedent with me. If I make a change, I want $150 a week.” The executive leaped halfway out of his chair, his eyes popping.

“Mrs. Johnston,” he shot across to Mama, “You’re daughter is hardly more than a child and she’s asking for a bank president’s salary!” Mama opened her mouth but before she could speak, I gave her a stern look and she kept quiet.

“If you don’t feel you can pay it,” I cooed demurely, “it’s perfectly all right. I love working for the Thanhousers anyway.”

“Okay, kid,” the executive said wearily. “You’re hired.”

I broke the news to Mrs. Thanhouser. She looked at me, her blue gentian eyes wide and reproachful.

(Editor’s note: Pages missing. The italics indicate my guess as what Aggie intended, if not the exact wording.)

Finally, she sighed and said, “I lured you away from Vitagraph with more money, so I guess this is what I deserve. All our best people are leaving. We can’t afford to lose, you Aggie! We’ll pay you $150 a week if you’ll stay with us.”

“Oh, yes, Mrs. Thanhouser. That would be swell! I’d love to stay if you can afford that salary,” I said, gulping.

As soon as I got home, I told Mama, “We’re going shopping!” We headed to Stearn’s and bought new dresses, blouses, undergarments—everything… right down to shoes and stockings and “teddies.” I tossed my old bloomers and corset cover on the floor and told the salesgirl to throw them away.

Shopping trip complete, we went to The Astor and ordered a feast. While we were debating dessert, Mama whispered to the waiter, “My little girl has just signed a contract for $150 a week.” Shocked, the waiter spilled the water he was pouring on the tablecloth. After he had scurried away for a replacement, Mama suddenly looked tearful.

“I wish…” she began, and choked up.

“You mean, Papa?” I asked. Mama nodded. I knew what she was thinking. I’d felt the same ache under the wild joy of our celebration. If only Papa were with us, sharing our triumph! But we couldn’t go to him and say, “Won’t you come back and love us again now that we’re making $150 a week?” I just squeezed Mama’s hand under the table and told the returning waiter we wanted Baked Alaska for dessert.

In the spring, the papers announced that Squadron A was coming back from the Mexican border. There would be a parade up Fifth Avenue. I wanted to see it but it was held on a workday. That night the phone rang.

“Hi Aggie,” came Frank’s voice. “I’m through with the Army. Can I see you Saturday?”

“Oh, yes. Yes! Yes!”

It was Thursday, so I had two days to get ready to meet my lover. I told Mrs. Thanhouser I had to have a whole day off. I ‘d make it up by working on Sunday.

Into New York I went to shop for the perfect outfit, searching Stern’s, McCreary’s Lord and Taylor, and Best’s. I wavered from store to store. Finally, a gentle blue crepe de Chine came off its rack and kissed me. Like all fine things, it had its price: $69.95. That was an enormous amount in those days but I didn’t care. I’d show Frank that I wasn’t the ratty little kid who’d taken his dictation or the girl in the garish plaid with onion breath who’d kissed him goodbye in Van Cortlandt Park.

Next, I went to a beauty shop where I demanded everything: a facial to smooth out my eighteen-year-old lines, an eyebrow plucking—my first—followed by a manicure and a heavy Marcell Wave, which left my hair fashionably crimped and metallic.

I slept little that night, not only because I was thinking about Frank, but also I did not want to muss that expensive wave. I lay open-eyed and planned the whole evening. How his eyes would light up when he saw me in my new dress. How impressed he’d be with the dinner I’d made Mama promise to cook. How we’d go for a walk after dinner. I knew the very place—a strip of lonely beach with a romantically tumbled-down summerhouse, a place to kiss and kiss. At last, I was at the station and there was Frank getting off the train. He wore a uniform as ill fitting as the one he’d had at Van Cortlandt Park. He’d lost weight and the uniform was spotted and worn.

“Haven’t had time to get my civvies yet,” he explained as we shook hands. “Better not look at my back. A damned horse kicked out the seat of my pants in the picket line last week and I had to mend it myself.”

Not a word about how I looked. After all the thought and money I’d spent. Well, perhaps he’d be impressed when he heard about….

(Editor’s note: Missing pages. Italics indict the possible link of ideas, if not the exact wording.)

…my $150 a week salary. I never got the chance to bring it up.

 After Mama’s delicious dinner, we took a walk down to the beach. We never made it to the summerhouse. Instead, we sat on a weathered bench, where Frank regaled me of his adventures in the Calvary. He told me how difficult the living conditions had been, with hot, dry conditions and horses dying under the strain.

“We didn’t get around to burying them for days,” he said, shaking his head. “The camp stunk all the time. We didn’t have any way to take a bath, either. A one-inch pipe brought all the water for 500 men and their mounts. And the water didn’t always run. Some days you were lucky if you got a chance to wash your hands after you finished grooming the horses. When we went into town, everybody had it in for the soldiers. They charged a dollar for a shower and a dab of soap. Meals were sky high too. And remember, Army pay is only $15 a month.”

“It sure must have been tough,” I said lamely.

“It was good for me,” Franks said brightly. “But now I’ve got to get to work. I spent all the money I made from selling those stories before I left for the border.”

“With all those swell pictures you wrote, you won’t have any trouble selling more stories or getting a job,” I assured him.

“Don’t be too sure. Those pictures were released months ago. In movies, you get forgotten mighty quickly.”

“Anyway, you’re home. You’re here,” I said. Surely he must sense the hunger in my voice.

“Yes here…and practically broke,” he said. “Come on. We better shake a leg if I’m going to make that train back to town.”

We walked back through taunting moonlight. At the door of the Dirty Faced House, Frank thrust out a hand, shook my hand goodbye, and was off down the walk. I went heavily to bed. I might be a smart girl, earning a bank president’s salary, but my dream evening had fizzled.

The next Thursday, Frank phoned. “You ought to see me now, Aggie. Got a suit from Brooks Brothers. Looks better than that old uniform.” I quickly invited him to dinner. “Gosh, Aggie, I’d like to. But I just had a telegram from the Famous Players-Laski studio in Hollywood. They liked my “Manhattan Madness” and want me to write for them. I wish I could see you before I go, but the telegram says I have to leave tonight. I’ll write you. ”

(Editor’s note: Charles T. Dazey, Frank’s father, is also credited with the story for “Manhattan Madness.” Author of the long-running Broadway play “In Old Kentucky,” Charles T. Dazey was a well-known playwright. “In Old Kentucky” was made into a film in 1935 starring Will Rogers. )

“Thanks,” I said grimly. I knew just what kind of a letter writer he was.

He did write. But only at long intervals. And always the letters were short and impersonal. Things weren’t going too well for him at Famous Players-Lasky. He’d disagreed with everybody. He’d sold a couple of stories to other studios and he’d left Famous Players and signed with the American Film Company in Santa Monica. A telegram came at Christmas: “Happy Holiday. Too busy to write. Playing lots of golf with Mary Miles Minter.”

Mary Miles Minter, a golden-haired, be-dimpled miss had popped up as a popular ingénue star. She ranked second to Mary Pickford. Frank was too busy to write but not too busy to play lots of golf with Mary Miles Minter. What a hate I had for her!

I was working hard at Thanhouser, writing for a very young girl who was taking Gladys Hulette’s place. Later, she was to make a hit on Broadway and do well in pictures. But then she was only a scared child with a thin, colorless personality. I found very little stimulation in writing for her.

It became torture to finish a script. It seemed I was always tired. I had morbid fears. What if driving myself so hard at so young an age had strained my brain, as Mama had warned. What if I could never write well again? Mama made me have massages and take an iron tonic but nothing did any good. With money accumulating in our savings account, I could afford to feel sorry for myself.

One morning at breakfast, I read numbing headlines. We were at war with Germany. Since the sinking of the Lusitania, hatred of all things Teutonic had spread over the land. Dachshunds, these shy little worm-like dogs, weren’t safe on the streets anymore. Once I had loved Goethe, but now a guttural accent filled me with a fierce anger.

I knew Frank would go to war. I hadn’t had a word from him since that Christmas telegram. I snatched at an excuse to make him write. I told him how stale my work was, how tired I was, and asked him what he thought I could do to help myself.

He answered promptly, the longest letter I’d had from him.

“Why don’t you try to get into the 47 Workshop at Harvard?” he wrote. “Study dramatic technique under my old teacher, Professor George_Pierce_Baker? I don’t agree with all his ideas but the course is swell. Half the successful plays on Broadway recently were written by men who took his course, like Edward_Sheldon and Eugene_O’Neill. It would be a break for you to get away from thinking about movies and earning money all the time. I don’t want you to be just a movie person.”

The “I don’t want you” bit sounded warm and personal. And yet, considering this Mary Miles Minter business and the way he always signed his letters “Best ever” with no hint of love, what right had he to dictate my life? Still, when I reread the letter that night, I realized I was tired of drudging for money, and thinking of nothing but pictures, pictures, pictures.

I tried out for Professor Baker’s course, dashing off a one-act play on a weekend so as not to cheat the Thanhousers. Professor Baker accepted me, though I was never sure whether it was on the merit of my play or because he thought a scenario writer might add spice to his classes.

In the last week of my contract with the Thanhousers a letter came from an organization I had never heard of. I was about to throw it into the wastebasket when Mrs. Thanhouser happened into my office and her eye fell on the letterhead: “Who’s Who in America.”

“What on earth are they writing you for?” she asked. I showed her the letter. She read it, amazed. “This says they want to print your biograph. I thought they only took famous people.”

“It will probably cost me a lot,” I said.

“No. It says here you don’t even have to buy their book”

In filling out the form, one query hit me right between the eyes: my age. I was 18 years old now, but I’d always lied about it beginning when my family was going through one of our “hard up” periods and Izzy and I had to scrunch down in railroad seats and pretend we were too young to pay full fare. And then, as I’ve told, trying to get my first job, I’d added four years to my age. Later, much later, I began to chip off the years until, at one time, Izzy and I were twins. For the “Who’s Who” questionnaire, I gave myself three extra years. And that’s the way it read until some time later when I implored them to take out my age altogether.

Mama and I could never manage to keep more than a little over a thousand dollars in our savings account. Like a stomach, shrunken from too little food, it seemed only to hold just that much. Anything more was spewed out—for mortgage payments and taxes, for clothes or for any something-or-other we felt we simply must have. When the time came to go to Boston, there was only that thousand dollars and a little interest. Even though Izzy had won another scholarship at Vassar, there wasn’t nearly enough to see us through the year.

The Thanhousers were retiring and selling the studio but when my contract neared its end, I had offers from four other picture companies. Out of a sort of perversity, I went to Pathé. I asked to see the executive who had made the verbal contract with me. When I’d skipped out on it, according to the grapevine, he’d called me a “spoiled arrogant brat.” Now, to my surprise, he gushed, “Why, little Aggie Johnston! How nice to see you again. How about working for us?” I had a different idea.

“You have that new child star, Baby Marie Osborne,” I said. “I could certainly write well for her. And I’m going to Harvard. It would be great publicity—your baby star putting her writer through college.”

The executive ground his cigar end into a sliver ashtray and roared, “Look here! How in blazes can you write for us if you’re going to college?”

“It’s a cinch,” I said. “Professor Baker has his classes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I’d take the Monday night train to Boston and the Wednesday one back. That way I’d be at the studio four full days. You’d only have to pay me half salary.”

He looked at me with his cold fish eyes but finally grunted, “Sounds crazy but I’ll gamble on it. No contract though. Week to week.”

Thus I began a hectic routine. In New York, working at the Pathé studio, I’d sleep in the room Mama and I had engaged at the Hotel Bristol. Monday night I’d spend in a berth on a train to Boston, Tuesday night at a Cambridge boarding house, and on Wednesday night back to New York and Pathé. It made me a sort of celebrity at college. I was known as “the girl who commutes to New York.”

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