Chapter 13: America’s Sweetheart Takes Aggie to Hollywood

Summary: After a year at Harvard, Aggie returns to New York and is told she’s “all washed up” in pictures. She writes to Mary Pickford, who agrees to hire her if she can leave immediately for California. 

****************

At first, the New York-to-Boston commute gave me a feeling of importance, but after a while it began to grow wearisome. Mama was a problem, too. Living in a hotel with nothing to do, she brooded about Papa. I wasn’t very comforting. Between school and work, my nerves were strung tight. We quarreled often, wept and made up, then quarreled again. I really didn’t mind when Pathé changed executives and the whole Scenario Department was fired.

My Pathé engagement over, I threw myself into the Harvard Workshop course. It was a wonderful year for me. A working girl since childhood, I loved the carefree college life at Radcliffe, Harvard’s campus for women. I loved being a real college girl! I sent Mama back to Stony Brook and moved in with a houseful of girls my own age. We were carefree, giggling, and gossipy. I had no family or money cares for the first time in years. We rolled bandages together for the Red Cross, went to Boston for pop concerts, and had gabfests every night.

I roughed out a three-act play I was sure would be the Great American Drama. Alas, the curse of moving pictures followed me. Professor Baker was asked by the War Department to prepare a scenario that would inspire men to enlist. How flattered I was when he turned to me for advice on technique! For months we worked together, of course at the expense of my play. By the end of the course it was unfinished—and still is. As for Professor Baker’s masterpiece, it disappeared into a pigeonhole in Washington, D.C.

In June, the course completed, I bounded down to New York, oozing health and confidence. But then I received the worst jolt the industry has handed me before or since. Editors who had begged me to join their staff only a year ago, were cold. They pontificated gravely that pictures had changed. I suggested that I might have changed, too. I was a much better writer after resting and working with Professor Baker, who had graduated such playwrights as Eugene O’Neill and Edward Sheldon.

Some of the editors didn’t even know who Professor Baker was. Those who did scoffed at him as an impractical longhair, fine for the stage perhaps but not for movies. One put it right on the line: “Aggie,” he said, “You haven’t had a single credit on the screen for a year. That means you haven’t been able to sell anything or even get a job. I’m afraid, honey, you’re all washed up in pictures. “

I wanted to scream out that I hadn’t tried to sell anything or get a job, but I couldn’t give my editor friend the satisfaction of seeing me break down. I thanked him stiffly and left the office.

Hurt and bewildered, I holed up with Mama and Izzy at the Holly Tree House. Our savings were almost gone. Grocer and butcher bills mounted. The mortgage interest was overdue, and it would soon be time for Izzy to go back to Vassar. The fear of poverty dogged me like an old unwelcome friend: skimped meals, borrowing, begging for more credit. Would I have to go through all that again?

The thought made me sick in the pit of my stomach, but I also felt a cold and mounting anger. Because I hadn’t had my name on the screen for a year, no studio would give me a chance. How unfair it all was. Here I was at age 20 branded a “has been”!

Walking home from the village one morning, I read an item in the newspaper that made me thoughtful–very thoughtful indeed. And my anger made me do something I would never have the nerve to do today. I reached into my pocket for the money Mama had given me for groceries and headed for the telegraph office.

When I reached Holly Tree House, I burst into the kitchen door. Mama was scrubbing the floor, looking gray and tired. There was the ugly smell of yellow soapsuds. Izzy was stirring a stew at the stove.

“Listen!” I shouted, waving the newspaper. “I’m going to be Mary Pickford’s scenario writer.”

Every so often, America takes some brilliant personality to its heart, worships and rewards it, for a while anyway. Jenny Lind, Sarah Bernhardt, Theodore Roosevelt, and Charles Lindbergh had all had their time as stars. In those days, just before the “flapper,” it was Mary Pickford, “America’s Sweetheart.” When she tossed her golden curls across the silver screen and stared out of close-ups with impish grins or tragic eyes, audiences all over the country laughed or wept. Famous Players-Lasky was said to be paying her $20,000 a week. Now she was starting her own company.

When I screamed out the magic name, Mama sat up so quickly she tipped over her bucket of suds. Izzy turned from the stove to gape at me.

Mama said, “You’ve gone stark crazy, Aggie

“Mom I’ve just thrown a dollar and twenty cents down the drain,” I said, a bit sheepishly. Mama lifted her head, pushing a straggle of gray hair back from her sweaty brow. I could see she was shocked.

”Aggie…” she began

“Of course it might mean hundreds of dollars for us, even thousands,” I cut in, blustering with courage I did not truly feel. ”You see, Mary Pickford…” And I poured out about the telegram I had sent with the only spare change we had. Mama rose to her feet, looked at me doubtfully a moment, then broke into a smile, her eyes shining.

”Why, Aggie, what a wonderful idea!”

“Of course, I should have written a letter to Miss Pickford and saved money,” I said, softly.

“Oh, no! If you want to catch the attention of the big actress like that, you have to telegraph. You were smart, Aggie,” Mama said.

“But supposed Mary Pickford never answers?”

Mama reassured me. “She will, Aggie. She will!”

“And even if she did give me a chance, would I be good enough to write for a big star like that?” I asked.

“Of course, Aggie. Miss Pickford would be lucky to get you. You’ll land the job and make good at it, too,” Mama said. My little girl can do anything!”

For the next few days I went around in a sort of despairing daze. But Mama was bright and hopeful. Mr. Davis, who ran the old horse-drawn stagecoach to and from the village station, also delivered telegrams. Every time the stagecoach came rattling down the street, Mama would run to look out of the window, sure it would be stopping with a wire for me. One day it did. Mary Pickford telegraphed that she was interested and would try to see some of my pictures.

“You see?” Mama crowed. “I told you!”

News of Mary’s telegram went all over the village. Neighbors dropped in and people stopped me in the street to ask about it. The bank agreed to give us two months more to pay the mortgage interest and Izzy and I went down to Percy Smith’s grocery and bought over $10 worth of stuff: canned goods, a whole pound of butter, strawberries, and a quarter pint of whipping cream.

“Charge it!” we said with airy boldness.

Yes, Mary Pickford answered my wire, but that was all. Every day Mama was sure I’d hear from her again. But the old stage never stopped at Holly Tree House. Some three weeks later, Mama and I were doing the washing together when she said, “Aggie, you got to think up some excuse to wire Miss Pickford again. You have to keep after a big star like that.”

“It would only waste more money,” I said. “She just doesn’t want me.”

“I won’t believe that,” Mama said. “But she may have forgotten about your telegram. If you could only attract her attention in someway.”

“But how, Mama?”

“You’ll think of something, Aggie.”

I rubbed away on the washboard for a while. Then I said, “Famous Players-Lasky is making a lot of fuss about Marguerite Clark. They have been ever since Mary Pickford left. They claim that Marguerite is a rival for Mary’s throne. Now if I could work it so Miss Clark wanted me…”

“That’s it!” cried Mama. “Drum up some competition. But since Miss Clark’s in New York, it’s no use sending a telegram. Just write special delivery.”

That afternoon I sent Marguerite Clark a list of my credits and coyly added that Mary Pickford had wired me about a job on the West Coast but that Hollywood was so far away it might be better if I became Marguerite Clark’s writer instead.

Her sister answered, and I was called into New York for an interview. Miss Clark, a lovely little Dresden doll, was very polite and sweet to me. She promised to speak to her story editor about me. Perhaps she did, but I never heard from him. But now I could wire Mary Pickford: “Marguerite Clark interested having me write for her. Will hold off if any chance with you.”

An answer came quickly. “Seeing your pictures. Expect to be in New York October. Will talk to you then. (Signed) Mary Pickford.”

Mama went down to the bank and on the strength of the star’s two telegrams got a loan. We kept on charging with grocer and butcher. And waited.

October came. We read in the papers that Mary Pickford had arrived in New York to defend a lawsuit concerning an agent’s commissions. Then came the news that the case had been postponed and the star was returning to the West Coast within a week.

“You see!” I told Mama. “Mary Pickford didn’t even let me know she was here. She’s simply not interested.”

“Fiddlesticks!” cried mama. She probably has a lot on her mind. If there were only some way you could get to her…”

I thought for a while. Then burst out, “Mr. Malvinsky!”

“That’s it!” said Mama. “Mr. Malvinsky will help you.”

At that time, O’Brien, Malvinsky and Driscoll were the foremost theatrical lawyers in New York. During the years when our family had been flush, I’d gone to Horace Mann School, and Dorothy, Mr. Malvinsky’s daughter, had been my classmate. She was a lovely girl and we became good friends. Later, during my rise to that $150 a week, I’d naively signed with both Pathé and Thalburg studios at once. I’d called on Mr. Malvinsky for help. He’d gotten me out of the mess and hadn’t charged me one cent. Now, according to the papers, his firm was representing Miss Pickford.

“Phone Mr. Malvinsky first thing tomorrow morning,” Mama ordered. “Mr. Anderson will let you charge the call.”

Mr. Anderson’s small candy and ice cream store had one of the few telephones in Stony Brook, and I was there when he opened up. The total was $.50, but as Mama had predicted, Mr. Anderson let me charge the call. I went through two secretaries, but when I finally reached Mr. Malvinski, he was friendly. He said he would try to arrange an appointment with Miss Pickford. I was to call him the next day. The next morning, Mr. Anderson let me charge the call again.

“I’m sorry, Aggie,” Mr. Malvinski told me. ”But I can’t can pin Mary down to a definite appointment for you. But if you want to come to New York tomorrow and take a chance…” I was on the milk train the next morning. Mama walked me to the station. She kept saying over and over again, “You’ll get the job. You can do anything, Aggie!”

When Mr. Malvinski’s secretary ushered me into his office, he was very apologetic. “It’s a shame, Aggie, “he said, ”but Miss Pickford isn’t coming to the office today after all. However, she’s postponed her trip West till next week. Why don’t you come in, say, Monday?”

The fare to New York and back had used up the last of our cash, but Mama was not dismayed. ”I know what we’ll do,” she said. “Jane Townsend, the new schoolteacher, is quite literary. She told me she admired our set of encyclopedias and wondered if I’d ever think of selling them. I’ll ask if she’ll pay $20.” Jane Townsend said yes. I carried the heavy books the half-mile to her boardinghouse, some 10 trips, until my arms were cramped.

Monday, I took the milk train again. At Mr. Malvinski’s office, I waited all morning. Neither he nor Miss Pickford ever came in. I didn’t dare go out to lunch for fear I’d missed my chance. Two o’clock came, then three o’clock, four o’clock…

Suddenly, the office boy galloped in and whispered excitedly to the receptionist. She hastily plugged wires, alerting everyone. Miss Pickford and her mother had arrived. More whispers and sharp orders. Someone reported that Mary was heavily veiled so her worshipful fans wouldn’t mob her when she stepped out of her car to go into the office building.

I waited another tense hour. And finally word came that ”Miss Pickford would see Miss Johnston.” I was weak from missing lunch and perspiring from nerves. I stumbled across the reception room, legs wobbly. The door to Mr. Malvinski’s office opened.

I stepped through and saw Mary Pickford. She stood by a great oblong of window, a small figure in a great hobble-skirted gown and a white turbine. A gray squirrel coat, soft and fragile as pussy willows, lay across the back of a chair near her. She turned and smiled at me, that merry-yet-tragic smile of hers.

“This is Miss Johnston,” Mr. Malvinsky was saying from far away.

Mary Pickford’s smile widened. “So you’d like to be my scenario writer.”

All I could choke out was a faint “Grmp-glug.”

“You look young for a writer,” came a husky voice from another part of the room. I turned. A buxom, dark-haired woman, who had Mary Pickford’s tragic eyes, was sitting in a big chair, slumped wearily.

“This is Mary’s mother,” Mr. Malvinsky said.

I found my voice. “Yes, I am young. But isn’t this a young business? And because I’m young, my ideas are fresher—and better.”

You have an argument there,” Miss Pickford said. “The pictures of yours I saw were very fresh and original. But I can’t pay $500 a week. No scenario writer has ever had such a salary.”

“Oh, I just asked that to attract your attention.” I said hastily

She laughed. I laughed too, and felt more at ease.

We talked. Miss Pickford told me she had bought “Daddy Long Legs,” the Jean Webster book that had been put on the stage with Ruth Chatterton.

“I saw the play,” I said. “And loved it. I’ve always wanted to do an orphan story. And for you…oh my!”

“But later on the heroine goes to college,” said Miss Pickford.

“I can handle that. I’ve been to college. At least for a year.”

Even Mrs. Pickford seemed impressed by this. “That’s good,” she said. “Not many scenario writers have had a college education.”

About this time the door opened and Douglas Fairbanks came in. He had been on a Liberty Loan drive with Mary. The whisper was they were romancing. They began to reminisce about their trip. While they talked, Douglas Fairbanks kept roaming restlessly around the office. Once, for no reason at all, he vaulted lightly over a chair.

They seemed to have forgotten all about me. Finally I broke in with, “I…I’m afraid I’m rather in the way here.”

Mary Pickford turned to me quickly. “Not at all. Now where were we? Oh yes. You’d like to do the picturization of “Daddy Long Legs”?

“More than anything in the world!” I fairly panted. I knew it would have been better business to play hard to get, but I simply couldn’t.

“You’d have to come to California right away,” Miss Pickford said.

“I can go anywhere, any time.”

“But how can Miss Johnston get reservations?” asked Mrs. Pickford. “You know the trains are jammed with troops.”

Mary Pickford glanced at my anxious face, then thought for a moment. “Tell you what,” she said, “Miss Johnston can go in the drawing room with me instead of Cecile. I won’t really need a maid on this trip.”

Mrs. Pickford turned to me. “I guess you can do anything for Mary that Cecile would.”

“Oh yes!” I agreed.

“We leave at noon tomorrow,” Mrs. Pickford went on. “You’d have to get your clothes packed and everything ready by then.”

“That will be easy,” I assured her.

“Now one more thing.” The little star was frowning slightly. I think my too-obvious enthusiasm had frightened her. “I can’t really promise you the job yet. “I’ll have to try you out, see if you have the spark.”

“I’ll work my head off,” I promised.

“Then there’s the question of salary,” she continued. “You’ll have to trust me. I’ll decide what I can pay you after I’ve seen your work.”

Nowadays, the Screen Writers Guild would scream to high heaven at such terms, but then it seemed to me a most generous arrangement. I accepted, and thanked the Pickfords profusely.

“Well, then, everything’s settled,” Miss Pickford said, and turned to talk to Douglas Fairbanks.

I started toward the door. But Mrs. Pickford stopped me. “Just a minute Miss Johnston. Do you know good grammar?”

“Good grammar?”

“Yes. It’s not absolutely necessary for a scenario writer, of course, but if your grammar’s good, you could write the subtitles too.”

It’s really very good,” I said, and left quickly. I didn’t want to give the Pickfords any chance to change their minds.

*****

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