Chapter 15: Does Aggie Have the “Spark”?

Summary: Aggie continues work on “Daddy Long Legs.” Mama writes that she’s down to 13 cents, and contacts Mr. Malvinsky about the promised salary. Mr. Malvinsky writes to Aggie that Mary thinks “you haven’t the spark.” Devastated, she goes to see Mary, who sets her straight.

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

The table next to mine at the Hollywood Hotel was reserved for two sisters, Viola Dana and Shirley Mason, both important stars. They always nodded and smiled as I passed by, but I’d just scuttle away with a nod and drag myself to my room. This evening, however, I stopped at their table and admired Shirley’s hat, a cartwheel of whipped-cream chiffon ruffles with garlands of rosebuds and forget-me-nots.

“Oh, it’s just a little thing I bought for everyday wear,” Shirley said. “Say, why don’t you sit down and eat dinner at our table?”

“Please do,” Viola urged. “You always seem to have so much on your mind. We’ve been wanting to ask you to join us but we heard you were a writer and we were sort of scared of you.”

“Scared of me?” I gasped. “Why, I’ve been scared of you.”

We all had a giggle over that. Viola confided that she envied what she called my “writer’s brain.” She and Shirley had been on the stage or in pictures since they’d been babies, she said. They hadn’t gone to school and had learned to read from the scripts of the plays they acted in.

“Gee, I wish I had an education,” Viola said. “Then I could be sure I was counting my change right.”

“Oh, fudge! “cried Shirley, “You wouldn’t count it anyway. Know what, Aggie? Vi went shopping the other day and dropped $600 out of her purse and never missed it till the next morning. Isn’t that a scream?” Both girls laughed. Six hundred dollars lost and they could laugh about it!

Viola and Shirley became my pals. They introduced me to their “bunch,” all young men with rather lurid reputations. The bunch included Milton Sills, the “he man” star, “Gentleman” Jim Corbett, the ex-heavyweight champion, and actors Ward Crane, Lew Cody, Norman Kerry, Tom Moore, and Bert Lytell. The gang treated me wonderfully but sometimes the conversation turned a little “blue.” Then Jim Corbett would smile at me and wink, as though to say, “Don’t let those young rascals embarrass you. They don’t mean any harm.” Gentleman Jim!

In those days, the big social event in Hollywood was the weekly dance at the hotel. Each Thursday night a squeaky three-piece orchestra would appear and the furniture and rugs in the lobby would be pulled back to the walls. Most of the movie stars dropped in, as well as anyone else who cared to, for there was neither admission charge nor invitations. The proprietress of the hotel was a benevolent 70-year-old spinster, Mira Hershey, who loved to dance. Ward Crane, Lew Cody or other ‘rakehells’ of the bunch would lead her onto the floor and bounce her around while she beamed ecstatically at their attentions.

Another addition to the bunch was Buster Keaton, who was in Hollywood to make a picture with the grand old stage star, William H. Crane. Viola told me Buster’s parents had been old-time vaudevillians. At the age of two, Buster was part of their act and would be wheeled on the stage in a pram. His mother and father would start a quarrel, which would end in Buster being hurled from one end of the stage to the other like a football. Sometimes he was even caught out in the orchestra pit just before he crashed into a cello or a drum. These antics always brought down the house, and when one of his parents flubbed a catch, it brought Buster down, too. “That’s how he got his deadpan expression,” Viola said. “It’s going to make him a fortune.”

Working at the studio during the day and having fun with my new friends in the evenings, I scarcely noticed as four or five weeks slipped by. Then one morning I got a letter from Mama. She was down to thirteen cents, she said, and Stern’s had sent a frightening letter about our unpaid bill. Mama had written to Mr. Malvinsky, asking him to remind Miss Pickford that I still wasn’t getting any salary.

I didn’t like Mama interfering this way, but of course I couldn’t blame her. And I wasn’t worried. After all, I had two reels of “Daddy Long Legs” finished and I thought they were good. I spend the morning revising and polishing. Then, after lunch, I took my pages to Miss Pickford’s dressing room.

She was in conference with a half dozen people: her manager, her mother, Mickey Neilan, a make-up man, the wardrobe woman, and Charles Rosher, the cameraman. An argument was going on. As an orphan, should Mary have her hair done in two tight braids or one long pigtail?

I was all for the tight braids but didn’t have nerve enough to offer an opinion. Miss Pickford seemed to have a lot on her mind, and I thought it might not be the right moment for a writer to intrude. I was going to slip out of the room when she saw me and gave me a smile.

“Well Miss Johnston, how’s the scenario coming along?” she asked.

“Oh, fine,” I beamed. “Here are the first sequences.” I showed her my pages.

“Good,” she said. “Just put them on my dressing table please.” And she turned back to discussing pigtails again.

The dressing table was cluttered with make-up jars, a stack of telegrams, perfume atomizers, a plate of sandwiches, a glass of milk, and various other odds and ends. I pushed a few jars back on one side and put the script down. One sheet fluttered to the floor. I picked it up, then boldly moved the script to the center of the table, propping it up against the glass of milk. Miss Pickford would get hungry sometime. Then she’d have to notice my work.

Of course, I hardly expected to hear from her that first day. But after the second and third day passed with no news, I began to get uneasy. A bill I found Saturday in my pigeonhole mailbox, the first the Hollywood Hotel had presented, did not improve my morale. It was for over $150.

Monday, I could not write. Every moment I expected a summons to Miss Pickford’s dressing room. No word came, not that day or the next. I hung shamelessly around the studio corridors, hoping I’d bump into Miss Pickford or Mickey “accidently” and they’d say something about my scenes. Mickey did brush by me once. He gave me a brief smile and a “How goes it, kiddo?” and rushed on. Miss Pickford passed me twice. The first time she was on her way to her dressing room and smiled at me—rather coldly I thought. The second time, she was hurrying somewhere with her mother and didn’t notice me at all.

Wednesday, I just moped over my typewriter. A hellish thought seared me. The Armistice had come when Mary Pickford and I were on the train from Kansas City. Tony Kelly would be out of the Navy any day now. Mary Pickford must just be keeping me on until Kelly, with his “epic” ideas, would be available. Probably she hadn’t even thought it worthwhile to read what I had written.

Thursday was another blank wait. When I got back to the hotel, the clerk handed me a letter. It was from Mr. Malvinsky. I opened it shakily and read:

“Dear Agnes,

Your mother has told me that you have not received any money from Miss Pickford. I have talked to Mary on long distance telephone and she said she is afraid you won’t do as her writer. She says you haven’t the spark.

My advice to you is that if Miss Pickford gives you a further chance, accept any salary she offers you. Evidently your writing isn’t good enough for her. Perhaps she may keep you on as assistant to some better writer….”

I stared at the typewritten sheet. “You haven’t the spark” jumped out at me in giant letters. So that’s what Mary Pickford really though of me! Everything must be set with Tony Kelly. I hadn’t even been important enough to be told.

I didn’t go to the dining room for dinner that night. I felt too ashamed, as if “she hasn’t the spark” was branded across my breast in scarlet letters. I went upstairs and sat on my bed for a long time, staring straight ahead. It was dance night at the hotel and when the music began, I let it drown out by sobs.

Later, when all was quiet below, I decided to go for a walk. It was a cold night so I put on my leopard coat. Ugh, how I hated that garment! It represented two-thirds of that ogrish Stern bill, and now I’d have to look for another job as a waitress or salesgirl. And what would employers think of a young girl who went around applying for work in a leopard skin coat? They’d either get fresh or shoo me away as a “loose woman.”

I walked and walked, blocks and blocks and blocks. I walked past the rows of little bungalows I’d seen on my evening strolls. Usually cozy with lighted windows, they were dark and quiet now, their shades drawn shut like eyelids. I trudged up a steep road to a small footpath that led to a water tower high on the top of a mountain. Below lay Hollywood in the pinkness of the coming sunrise. I could see the Japanese Bernheimer mansion, with its turrets and gargoyles, unreal as if painted on a gigantic Willow Ware platter. Behind me were the mountains, great purple-feathered birds asleep with their heads tucked into their wings. In the far hills coyotes chattered and jeered.

I went back to the hotel and ate all the breakfast I could. It might be the last good meal I’d have in a long time. Then I walked to the studio to save the nickel carfare. Miss Pickford would be in early, I knew, because she was planning a wardrobe test. I waited for her in her dressing room. She came, her hair in curl papers, looking like a very young child.

“Oh, Miss Pickford!” I cried out. “Please, please, if you’re going to fire me, do it right away. I just can’t stand any more worry!”

“What on earth are you talking about?” she asked.

I couldn’t answer. I burst into racking sobs, took Mr. Malvinsky’s letter from my pocketbook and pushed it at her. By the time she had read it, I could talk, or at least blubber, about Mamma’s thirteen cents, the bill at the hotel, and the unpaid-for leopard coat.

In a moment Mary Pickford had her arms around me. I cried harder than ever. She cried too. Then she drew away from me and smiled. “I did tell Mr. Malvinsky I was afraid you didn’t have the spark,” she said. “But that was right after coming out on the train with you. To be frank, Aggie, you seemed rather, well, stupid.” She said it, laughing, and somehow it didn’t hurt my feelings.

“Oh, but I was stupid,” I cried. “I think I was stupider than anybody else has ever been in the whole world. But, you see, just being with you, I was scared stiff, as if you were Santa Claus or God or something.”

“Forget it,” Mary said. “Mickey likes your work very much. So do I.”

“You like my work?” I gasped. “My crazy ideas about you getting drunk on hard cider and the prune strike?” I couldn’t believe it.

“Yes, a lot. Your ideas are sort of crazy, but they’re not conventional. I’m going to gamble on them.”

“Oh, thanks! Thanks!” I shouted. And we were in each other’s arms again, only this time laughing.

“You’re going right ahead on the script,” Mary said. “You’re my permanent writer now.”

“Permanent!” What a beautiful word. How secure it made me feel! I momentarily forgot that nothing is ever permanent in moving pictures.

“Now about your salary,” Mary went on. “It was dreadful of me to forget about it. But I had so many things on my mind. As I told you, I can’t pay $500 a week. But how about $250?”

“Two hundred and fifty dollars!” I gasped.

Mary grinned impishly. “I’ll bet you would have been glad to get $200. But if the picture turns out as I think it may, you’ll be worth even more than $250. I’ll phone the cashier right now.”

A short while later, a messenger stopped at my desk and presented me with a sheaf of checks, dating back from the day I’d stepped on the train with Mary in New York. For a long time, I just sat and admired them. I shuffled them through my fingers and built paper houses with them. Then I rushed out to wire Mama a whopping money order.

I could picture the look on her face when Mr. Davis, the stage driver, handed her my telegram. And the way she’d stalk into the bank to add the money to that “thirteen cents” balance of hers.

“My little girl sent it,” she’d tell the cashier proudly. “My Aggie. Mary Pickford’s scenario writer. “

***

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