Chapter 14: Aggie Lands in Hollywood

Summary: Aggie, now 20 years old, rides in Mary Pickford’s train car to California and is dropped off at the Hollywood Hotel. The first few days at the studio, she struggles to come up with ideas for “Daddy Long Legs.” Too shy to ask for a salary, the money runs short. She meets director Marshall Neilan, who sparks creative ideas that get her on track with the script.

**********

What excitement at Holly Tree House that night, and so much to do! First we needed money. Mama didn’t think Mary Pickford would like her star writer to show up penniless, so she went to one of the summer people, a Doctor Shea. We barely knew him, but he melted at the magic name of “Mary Pickford.” Mama came back with five $5 bills crackling inside her corset.

And what discussions we had about my wardrobe! To avoid temptation, I’d closed our Stern Brother’s account before going to Boston. Mama said we’d go into town in the morning and persuade the store to re-open it. My ragged underclothes had to be washed, dried in front of the fireplace, and ironed. It was two in the morning before we were through. I wanted to stay up and talk about my wondrous luck, but Mama said, “Go to bed, Aggie. You’ll need your strength.”

Stern Brothers let us charge all right. And it was frightening the way Mama spent. She picked out new corset covers and teddies and bloomers and petticoats.

“Your underclothes must be perfect, Aggie,” she said. “Sharing the same drawing-room, you’ll have to undress in front of Miss Pickford.” Next, Mama picked out an expensive, imported navy blue dress with a hand-beaded belt. And, to go with it, a pair of black calf-high laced shoes. Then Mama marched me into the fur department and asked to see some leopard coats.

“We can’t afford a fur coat,” I protested.

“Sssh!” Mama poked me to be quiet so the saleswoman wouldn’t suspect. “You said Mary Pickford had a squirrel coat. Leopard is less expensive and wears better.”

I found myself standing before a long mirror, my face red, my breath coming fast, surveying myself in a marvelous leopard coat. The price was $225.

“We’ll take it,” Mama said.

There was a slight hitch. It seemed our credit rating at Stern’s didn’t go beyond $150, and we’d already charged over that. Mama wasn’t daunted. She hurried me down to the credit manager’s office and told him, “My little girl is going to California with Mary Pickford this afternoon. She’s going to be Miss Pickford’s writer.” Instantly, the manager oozed smiles. He’d be delighted to let us charge the leopard coat.

Time was getting short. I went to Stern’s “Ladies Parlor” to put on my grand new clothes. Meanwhile, Mama rushed off to the station by taxi so she could change my belongings from the shabby old family trunk to the new one we’d bought.

It was almost train time when I reached Grand Central Station. I found Miss Pickford near the platform gate. A rapidly increasing crowd of fans milled around her, calling out, “Hello, Mary!” “How’s America’s Sweetheart?” She was flanked from being crushed by a retinue of lawyers, studio executives, press agents and reporters. I worked my way to her and bobbed a nod that slid my new black beaver sailor hat down on my nose. Her mother, Mrs. Pickford, pushed a red leather case into my hands.

“Miss Johnston, these are Mary’s jewels,” she said. “About $30,000 worth. Hang onto them for her, will you, dear?”

When it was time for us to board, the retinue moved slowly toward the gate. Then it stuck me that I hadn’t seen Mama at the station. Probably she’d been detained in the baggage room, struggling over my trunk. Dear brave Mama! How she’d love to see me getting on the train with Mary Pickford. And how I longed for her encouraging whisper, “My little Aggie! Don’t be scared. You can do anything!” I longed to rushed all over the station and look for her. But I was stuck with Mary Pickford’s $30,000 worth of jewels in my hands. Reluctantly, I went through the gate. It was to be a long time before I saw Mama again.

We made our way to the drawing-room, where I ended up sitting opposite Miss Pickford, riding backwards. She looked at me. I managed a frozen grimace. She had said she was taking me to the West Coast “to see if I had the spark.” Well, now was the time to start “sparking.” But I was seized with dumbness. Not a word could I utter.

My star’s eyes were on me, eager and expectant. To escape them, I let my gaze wander around the drawing-room: the glossy veneer of the woodwork, the cunningly recessed lights. And, carefully suspended on a hanger, my unpaid-for leopard coat hung next to Mary’s gray squirrel coat, swaying gently with the motion of the train.

After a brief stop at 125th street, we were weaving through the color-drenched autumn countryside that skirted the Hudson River. For some time Mary Pickford had been regarding me, a slight frown on her world-famous face. After a while, she said, “Miss Johnston, I’m tired. I think I’ll take a little nap.”

The porter brought pillows and she stretched out, so tiny she could lay full length on the Pullman seat as though it were a bed. I slumped back, thinking about the overdue mortgage interest, the butcher’s bill, the grocer’s bill and, worse, that horrid monster of a bill that Mama and I had piled up at Stern’s. Worry hit me where it usually does—in the stomach. Riding backward, with the landscape pouring swiftly from behind me, I wanted to make a dash for the washroom and urp. But I didn’t dare move for fear I’d wake Mary Pickford.

There was a knock at the drawing-room door. I didn’t know whether to answer it or not. The knock came again. Mary opened her eyes.

“Miss Johnston, will you please see who it is?”

I opened the door to face a ruddily handsome young man in a Naval officer’s uniform.

“Is this Miss Pickford’s drawing room?” he asked.

I hesitated about answering. Miss Pickford might not want me to tell who she was. But she sat up quickly and said, “I’m Mary Pickford.”

“You don’t need to identify yourself.” The Navel officer stepped in. His wide admiring grin got an instant answering smile from the star.

“I’m Anthony Paul Kelly,” he went on. “O’Brian, Melvin and Driscoll are my attorneys, too. Bill O’Brian said you’d be on this train so I thought I’d look you up.”

“How nice!” Mary Pickford said.

“How horrible!” pounded my heart. I knew who Anthony Paul Kelly was all right. He was not only a top scenario writer, but also a stage playwright. His recent “Three Faces East” had been a huge success on Broadway.

“I’m on leave from the Navy,” he told Miss Pickford. “Going to visit my family in the Middle West. What a coincidence I should happen to take the same train you did!”

Coincidence my eye! The plot was plain. Tipped off by Mr. O’Brien, this bold fellow had taken the train on purpose to steal my job. Mary introduced us.

“Mr. Kelly, meet Agnes Christine Johnston. She’s going to write my new scenario.”

“Lucky little girl!” Mr. Kelly said with a condescending smile. I could have killed him.

“Sit down, Mr. Kelly,” Miss Pickford said. “I’d like to hear what you think of “Daddy Long Legs.”

“I’d be delighted to give you any ideas I have on it.” He sat down right next to Miss Pickford. No riding backwards for him!

In no time at all, he had her charmed. They talked and joked and laughed. They were calling each other “Mary” and “Tony.” I was still “Miss Johnston” when I was spoken to, which was seldom. At every opportunity, Kelly worked in mention of his play and its success. And he simply erupted with ideas for “Daddy Long Legs.”

“It should have an epic quality,” he said. “Definitely epic!”

“An epic—about orphans?” I put in timidly.

Mary Pickford shot me a quick look and smiled, her hazel eyes big and grave as a child’s. Suddenly it came to me that this was the mood I must catch for “Daddy Long Legs”: A little orphan who had been so hurt she could smile with her face but never with her eyes.

But would I ever have a chance to write that scenario? It seemed much more likely that I’d be put off the train in Chicago or Kansas City because Mary Pickford had decided it wasn’t worthwhile taking me to Hollywood. I didn’t sleep much that night. I lay tense with nerves, not moving for fear I might disturb Miss Pickford. I must have dropped off sometime for I have a memory of a nightmare—a great naval vessel bearing down on me with Anthony Paul Kelly on the bridge, a triumphant grin on his face, wearing a leopard skin coat.

I survived Chicago. And, at Kansas City, Kelly said goodbye. He was sure the war would be over soon, he told Miss Pickford, and he was anxious to get back to writing again.

“The screen certainly needs you, Tony,” she said. She went out to the platform with him. I watched through the drawing-room window, panic-stricken. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, of course, but the little star’s smile as she shook Kelly’s hand I interpreted as “See you soon, Tony!”

At that time, the run between Kansas City and Los Angeles took almost three days and three nights. I just couldn’t spend all that time sitting face to face with Mary Pickford, tongue-tied and with a glued-on smile. Inspiration came.

“I have some wonderful ideas on ‘Daddy Long Legs’,” I said. “Mind if I have the porter get my typewriter out of the baggage car so I can write them down?”

“That’s an excellent suggestion,” Miss Pickford said. “Then we can talk the story over before we reach Los Angeles.”

The porter set up my old Oliver. I got paper out of my suitcase and braced myself in front of the machine. I’d been a conversational flop, yes, but I’d prove I could write.

But could I? How many times have people said to me, “It must be wonderful to be a writer. All you have to do is sit and write.” Ha ha! I laugh bitterly. Every time I start a script and face a blank page, in some fourth dimensional way a giant hand reaches inside my brain and puts a numbing band of iron around it; then the hand stretches down to clutch my stomach in a vicious grip and tighten and twist. Next, hundreds of little mice nibble at my intestines. Now, with Mary Pickford staring hopefully at me, not a single idea came.

But I mustn’t let her know! I began pounding the typewriter frantically. After an hour or so, Miss Pickford asked if she could see what I’d been writing.

“Oh no,” I gasped. “I never show anybody my work in the first stages. Might give them the wrong ideas about it.”

“Of course. I understand,” she said dubiously.

If she had seen the page I was pecking on, she would have read hysterically mistyped lines of “Invictus”:

“Out of the night—tha5g coverrs me

B(lack as 3a pit from pole to po”le—“

On that long trip to California, I kept pounding away, sometimes utterly meaningless notes on “Daddy Long Legs,” sometimes poems I only half remembered, and over and over again, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

When we reached Los Angeles, Miss Pickford suggested that I stay at The Hollywood Hotel and took me there in her chauffeur-driven limousine. When I was dropped off at the rambling, flower-draped hotel, I had a sickly feeling that she was thankful to be rid of my boring presence. The desk clerk said the rates were $25 a week for a single room with a bath, meals included. If I wanted a suite, it would cost somewhat more. I hastily settled for a single room.

Early the next morning, I took a streetcar to the Fine Arts Studio where “Daddy Long legs” was to be produced. It was a large lot that had been used by D. W. Griffith, and part of his set for “Birth of a Nation” was still standing–flimsy wooden constructions that had shown up so formidably on the screen.

Today, a screenwriter is always given a private office, usually a suite with a place for a secretary who is in attendance eight hours a day. But such pampering was unheard of then. I was assigned to a desk in the small office occupied by Miss Pickford’s private secretary.

Miss Jackson was a friendly girl who was kept busy sorting out the enormous amount of fan mail that came in every day. Although she always smiled good morning and, once or twice, asked me to lunch with her, she didn’t have time to pay me much attention. This was just as well. I was in constant terror that she might inquire how I was getting along on “Daddy Long Legs.” Cudgel my brains as I would, the story simply wouldn’t get started. I must have written “Reel One—Scene One” at least thirty times.

When six p.m. came, release from the office was escape from a torture chamber. After a dinner at the hotel, I’d take long rambling walks in the hope that exercise would stimulate my mind. The new pair of shoes Mamma had bought me at Stern’s, turned out to be a bad fit that rubbed my heels raw. But I couldn’t buy any others. Most of the cash Mama had given me was gone, and I had to hoard what was left for streetcar fares and lunches. And I didn’t dare bring up the subject of salary with Miss Pickford, not when I didn’t have a single idea.

On the morning of my fifth day at the studio, a big, handsome Irish-looking man came bursting into the office. Miss Jackson introduced him.

“Miss Johnston, this is Mr. Marshall Neilan. He’s going to direct your picture.”

Mr. Neilan looked at me thoughtfully for a moment, appalled, I think, by my youth and the worry lines in my face. Then his scowl dissolved into a hearty grin. He slapped me lightly on the shoulder.

“Well, kiddo,” he said. “Let’s make it a whiz-bang. Hey, I’m hungry! I’ll buy your lunch.”

No Mike Romanoff’s or Chasen’s or Lucey’s in those days! Mickey, as I was calling him almost immediately, took me to a small bungalow restaurant run by two sisters. No drinks were served and there was a choice of two lunches, one costing fifty cents, the other seventy-five cents.

The little room was crowded with family-style tables. I recognized some of the stars from Famous Players-Lasky, who, I found out later, haunted the place: Fannie Ward, Elliot Dexter, Sessue Hayakawa, and others. Mickey charmed one of the sisters into giving us a table of our own.

With his Irish intuition, I think he saw that he had on his hands not just a writer but also a very frightened young girl. At any rate, he began to talk, chuckling at his own jokes and making me chuckle, too. He told me how he’d gotten his start in pictures. A brash young taxi driver, he’d made friends with the stars and directors he drove to the studios.

“There’s many an actress I’ve told to straighten the seams of her stockings,” he said. His taxi-made friend had given him an “in” at Famous Players-Lasky and this small “in” he had expanded into jobs as an extra, prop boy, assistant director, finally director, and, at age thirty, one of the highest paid in the industry.

As I listened to Mickey and laughed with him, ideas came. What had I hated most when I was a child? Eating prunes. And why did we eat prunes so often? Because they were cheap. Well, wouldn’t the little heroine of “Daddy Long Legs” in her cheaply run orphanage have prunes almost every day and hate them as much as I did? And why wouldn’t she organize a “prune strike” along with the other orphans? Timidly, I told Mickey my idea. He leaned across the table and kissed the tip of my nose.

“A prune strike! I hate ‘em too, We’ll use that darling.” I glowed.

“But would a stepped-on little waif like that have spunk enough to organize a strike?” Mickey asked. “Ha, I’ve got it!” He slapped hard on the table. “We’ll get her drunk, that’s what we’ll do.” He threw back his head and guffawed with laughter. “Won’t that be something? America’s Sweetheart drunk!”

I echoed his merriment feebly. Would Mary Pickford’s adoring public stand for a sequence like that? Mickey, pleased with his inspiration, rattled on.

“We can’t actually put it in the subtitle that she gets drunk,” he said. “We’ll have a janitor who hides a bottle of hard cider in a rubbish heap and Mary finds it. Now how are we going to get over that the cider is hard?”

Here I contributed a small suggestion.

“A little mouse could find the cider first and lap some up. He could come staggering out of the rubbish heap. That wouldn’t be objectionable, just a little drunk mouse, would it?”

“Perfect!” boomed Mickey. “And we can get the effect easily. Just shoot a close-up of a mouse and wobble the camera. And we’ll put in a subtitle: “Now bring on that cat!”

The joke even then was hoary, but I rocked with laughter. Lunch over, I suggested we go and tell Mary Pickford our ideas. That would show her, I thought, that some progress was being made on the script.

“No. The drunk gag is too daring,” said Mickey. “Leave it to me, I’ll sell Mary when the time’s ripe.

That afternoon I really whacked at my typewriter. And it wasn’t just gibberish either. It was the start of the scenario for “Daddy Long Legs.”

Leopardskincoat
Aggie’s Leopardskin Coat

***

 

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