Chapter 16: Hollywood Shenanigans

Summary: Aggie is befriended by Hollywood’s young stars and reunites with Frank Dazey, who visits during a furlough. A movie executive tries to gain her favor, and implies that her career in Hollywood may be coming to an end unless she succumbs to his overtures.

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

During his first years in Hollywood, Buster Keaton never bought a house, rented an apartment, or even a paid for a hotel room. He kept his clothes in his studio dressing room, which was complete with washbasin, toilet, and shower. He kept a toothbrush and pajamas in his car, and at night simply slept at whatever friend’s place he happened to be near at bedtime. He had many friends, almost everybody in pictures, so it was not hard to wangle a bed or couch.

After months of living at the Hollywood Hotel, Shirley and Viola decided they needed a house where their mother could cook for them, so they rented one nearby. At that time, Buster had a serious crush on Viola, as did Jack Pickford, Mary’s younger brother. One day I was staying at the house, and Buster came over looking for Viola and, finding her not home, took her room. She phoned later, saying she had to do a retake on a street location and didn’t know when she would get home. Buster hung up with a pained expression on his face.

“She had to do a retake outside so we couldn’t phone back and trace her,” he scoffed. “I know. I’ve use the same excuse myself. I’ll tell you where she is! She’s out with Jack Pickford! When she comes home, I’m going to strangle her.” He went back into Viola’s room and slammed the door. When Viola came home, she came into the room where Shirley and I were sleeping.

“I’ve got to get into bed with you, Shirley,” she said. “He’s in a killing mood. He might just strangle me.” They snuggled up together and feel asleep, but I lay awake, filled with anxiety. Some hours later, I heard Buster’s footsteps and pretended to be asleep. He came in, went first to my bed, grabbed me by the hair and, seeing that I wasn’t Viola, went to the other bed, yanking Shirley’s head back. He then hurried around to the other side, but before he could seize Viola, she sat up and said calmly, “Hold on, Buster. I can explain everything. “

“You’d better!” he snarled angrily. He lifted Viola up on his shoulder and carried her into the next room. Shirley and I waited fearfully as we heard the murmur of voices, mostly Viola’s, and then she came into the room, a triumphant grin on her face.

“I can make that poor boy believe anything I tell him.” And she got into bed with Shirley and closed her eyes.

Also living in the Hollywood Hotel were three tall, lovely ladies. Always elegantly dressed, they’d saunter through the lobby never looking at anybody, or sit, demure and aloof, for long hours on the shaded veranda, speaking little even to one another. I told Shirley I’d nicknamed them “the three graces.” She choked down a giggle and gave her husband, Bernie, a quick wink.

One afternoon, the darkest and most beautiful of the trio was sitting on the veranda alone. She was wearing a clinging gold-colored “baronet satin” dress, beautifully embroidered yellow silk stockings, and bronze pumps with the highest heels I’ve ever seen. Although she didn’t ask me to sit down, I took a rattan chair next to her. To start the conversation, I told her I hadn’t been in Hollywood long but I thought it was fascinating. She gave me a slow, thoughtful smile, but said nothing.

“Did you come here for a vacation,” I asked, “or are you working at something here?”

She looked at me a little startled and broke into the only smile I’d ever seen on the face of any of the three beauties, then answered, “I guess you might call it a little of both.” Other conversational efforts met with similar blanks, but when I rose to leave, she patted my hand. “Thanks for talking to me, dearie,” she said. “It was sweet of you.

This gorgeous brunette was Virginia Rappe. Not long after, her name screamed out of newspaper headlines in the first really big movie scandal. She’d been found dead in a San Francisco hotel suite after a three-day party given by Fatty Arbuckle. The chubby comedian was charged with murder. During three sensational trials, Fatty’s party was made to seem like an orgy that would make Nero blush.

Moralists were outraged and censorship breathed hot on the industry’s neck. To ward this interference off, a kind of purity board was established to keep sin out of the industry. Its head was Will Hays, who had been Postmaster General in the Harding administration. From then on, all movie contracts included “morality clauses,” which were lived up to—more or less.

This period was one of the few times in my life that I was able to save money, what with my $21 a week rate at the hotel and my $250 weekly salary. I also banked something that was more important—self-confidence. I had a solid bunch of friends and, as for the studio, thinks were going well. Almost too well. The “Daddy Long Legs” script galloped to its conclusion. After a few small changes and cuts suggested by Mary and Mickey Neilan and a week’s polish, my picture was actually before the camera.

Mrs. Pickford assigned me to a new job. It was a book which she cheerfully informed me “wasn’t very good but they’d bought it cheap.” Mary was going to take a long rest after “Daddy Long Legs.” I would have plenty of time, and she and Mary were both sure I could develop a good picture. It sounded easy, but that’s when the trouble started.

At the Pickford studio was an important executive whom I’ll call “Mr. Wolf.” He was around 40 years old, stout, and deeply tanned. Mr. Wolf could smile in the friendliest fashion with his little shoe-button black eyes. When he began dropping into my office and teasing me about being Mary’s “child writer,” I was flattered. Nobody had called me a “child writer” since the Pathé executive had bawled me out.

Mr. Wolf would often take me to lunch at the little cafe across the street from the studio, and he remarked a few times that one of these days we must go for a long ride up the coast in his car. When I told Viola and Shirley about this, their faces froze but they made no comment. This should have warned me, but I wasn’t concerned. I’d been on my own for a long time now, and I’d surely proved that I could take care of myself. Besides, my soldier was back from the war.

Frank was stationed at San Antonio, Texas, where he had been sent as an instructor, and he expected to be demobilized soon. He wrote fairly often and now signed himself, “Yours,” instead of “Best ever.” This torrid interest hardly satisfied. One afternoon I got the bright idea of how I could make use of Mr. Wolf. Instead of working on the not-very-good story, I typed a long letter to Frank about the executive, describing his kind intensions, and mentioning the promised ride up the coast.

Frank wired back: “Have ten days furlough. Arrive Hollywood Sunday.” Delighted, I pranced around, showed the telegram to Viola, Shirley, Buster, and the rest of the bunch. Vi was certain it meant an immediate wedding. She proclaimed that she and Shirley would be bridesmaids.

The night before Frank was due, the two girls got me into a bedroom and gave me a little talk on what a young bride ought to know. It was a startling lecture indeed, made more horrendous by the solemn, sympathetic manner in which it was delivered. As one ghastly detail followed another, I paled, and I think I would have screamed, except suddenly Bernie, Bert Lytell and Buster Keaton came out from behind a screen, roaring with laughter. The lecture had been a gag with the “facts of life” fantastically distorted. I grabbed some ice from a water pitcher and tried to put it down Vi’s neck.

Frank didn’t ask me to meet him at the station. but he arrived as I was eating breakfast Sunday morning. He looked lean and fit. He didn’t say anything about Mr. Wolf. I didn’t either. Instead, I told him about Vi and Shirley, and the rest of the bunch.

“They’re all crazy to meet you,” I said.

“I’m crazy, too, Aggie, to get you alone somewhere.” For a moment we glowed into each other’s eyes.

“Well, I could show you my room. It’s on the top floor, three flights up. Here it doesn’t seem to shock people if a girl entertains a man in her bedroom.” Frank shoved back his chair.

“Let’s go.”

We raced for the stairs. We stopped on every landing to cling and kiss. When we got to my room, Frank lifted me in his arms and sat down on my bed. There was more kissing and caressing as if our bodies had been starved for each other. Finally, exhausted, we fell asleep.

I woke first and looked at my bedside clock. It was nearly noon. I shook Frank gently. “Oh darling, we’ve been up here a long time.”

Frank stood up and kissed the tip of my nose. “I’ll tell you what would really shock people.”

“What?”

“If they found out what didn’t happen here.”

That afternoon, we went horseback riding over the barren, low mountain range behind the little village of Beverly Hills. Most of the bunch who could ride went too, as we did every Sunday. Frank fit right in, with everyone taking to him right away. Afterwards we all went to the beach for a swim, the men changing into their two-piece bathing suits while we girls got into our form fitting Annette Kellermann bathing suits, feeling very daring showing off our figures. Afterward, we all sat at a long table at The Ship Cafe in Venice.

We went back to the hotel early, as tomorrow was a working day. The others went right up to bed. Not Frank and I. We took a long walk on the hills behind the Hollywood Hotel. It was a lovely night, bathed in moonlight and scented with orange blossom, perfect for more passionate kissing and loving. Could we ever get enough?

The next day, I couldn’t wait to show off Frank at the studio. We went down together and I marched him onto the set and introduced him all around. Mary, her sister, Lottie, and Mrs. Pickford were friendly as could be. Mary said, “Gosh, Aggie, you kids look happy.”

Standing a little back from the group, I caught sight of Mr. Wolf. For once his ready smile was not on his face. Instead was a bleak expression that, somehow, made my psychic hackles rise. But I squashed any thought of unpleasantness. Everybody else was so swell to us. All that could be the matter with Mr. Wolf was that he had some studio problem on his mind.

In the afternoon, he called me to his office.

“How are you coming with your new scenario?” he asked.

“Oh, just fine,” I said, although what with Frank’s furlough and Mrs. Pickford having told me there was no hurry, I’d only done a few pages and those were mostly notes.

“Well, glad you’re getting that story into shape. I know you’ll do a swell job,” he said. There was that ready smile again, but in an instant it was gone. Mr. Wolf tilted back in his chair, his legs speed wide to balance his heavy body, on his face that bleak look I’d noticed on the set.

“You know, honey,” he said carefully. “You may have problems with “Daddy Long Legs.”

“Why?” I asked puzzled. “Aren’t Mary and Mickey satisfied with it? All the rushes I’ve seen have been awfully good.”

“Yeah. It looks like ‘Daddy’ will be okay,” admitted Mr. Wolf. “But Mickey’s not going to direct Mary’s next picture. I happen to know she’s engaged Sidney Franklin.”

“Who’s he?”

“A young director nobody’s heard much about. He’s made some two-reelers with child actors people seem to think are good. And Mary says with a new man like that, she’ll be able to put more of her own personality into her pictures. Besides, his salary isn’t high. Neilan’s really reaching for dough these days.”

“Well, anything Mary does is bound to be good, no matter who directs it,” I said.

“Or writes it,” Mr. Wolf put in quickly. He gathered his legs under his desk and leaned forward. “That’s what I called you in to talk about, Aggie. All Franklin’s two-reelers have been written by a young friend of his, a very close pal, Bernard McConville. I think Franklin’s going to want him on this picture for Mary.”

“If he does, we could write it together.” I said. “I’ve never collaborated, but if McConville’s really good…”

“Personally,” said Mr. Wolf, “I think the picture would be a lot safer if you went along with it. But Franklin’s a very cocksure young man. He and McConville may want all the credit for themselves.”

“You mean, after the way everybody’s raved about my “Daddy Long Legs” script, I might get fired?”

Mr. Wolf was silent for a moment. His fat hands went together, his chubby fingers forming an arch.

“Honey,” he said, “in this business, anybody can get fired any time. Good work hasn’t got a thing to do with it.” He looked at his watch. “I’ve got to go talk contract with Franklin now. But, tell you what. Come up to my place for dinner tomorrow night, and I’ll give you the dope about what Franklin’s got on his mind. I’m sure there’s some angle I can work so you’ll be kept on.”

Practically numb from shock, I stammered, “That’s awfully kind of you.”

“Think nothing of it, sweetheart,” said Mr. Wolf. “I’ll drive you straight from the studio tomorrow. My house is way up in Laurel Canyon and hard to find.”

As soon as I got back to the hotel, I told Frank about the invitation. We’d planned to go to the Ship Café the next night with Bernie and Shirley, and we’d have to cancel.

“Hold on,” Frank said thoughtfully. “Aggie, is this gink married?”

“Yes, but I hear he’s not working at it now.”

“I don’t like the idea of your going to his house.”

“But that’s crazy…”

“If you go, I’m going with you.”

“Oh, Frank, how can I explain that? He’s trying to do me a favor. It will look as though I don’t trust him.”

“If he’s really a good guy, he won’t mind my being along,” said Frank.

When I went into Mr. Wolf’s office the next morning, I pulled out all the stops.

“My soldier beau is home from the wars…My fiancé who has to go back to the army…I Just can’t leave him alone for a whole evening,” I said, stammering though my list of excuses.

Mr. Wolf’s little eyes searched my face. He was a successful businessman. He knew how to size people up. I guess he could see that if my beau didn’t want me to come to his place alone, I wouldn’t.

“Forget it, honey,” he said. “There’s some eastern exhibitors out here I ought to show around tonight anyhow.”

“But please don’t think I’m not grateful…” I began.

Mr. Wolf was looking over some papers on his desk as though he didn’t hear me. I realized he had no intention of hearing anything else I might say.

That evening after we’d had dinner with most of the bunch, Frank and I wandered out for a walk. I thought I knew most of the trails, but this evening we found a new one that led to the crest of a wooded glade that was to become the Hollywood Bowl. It was lovely even then, before it became a world famous open-air concert stage. Frank took me into his arms, and I didn’t give another thought to whether Mr. Wolf would let me be fired or not.

Time went by so swiftly, it was hard to believe that Frank’s furlough was almost over and he had to go back to the border. We didn’t make any plans for his last night, and I thought he was cooking up something special. It was a surprise all right. At breakfast, he said, “Well, Aggie, this is our last meal together for a while. I’ve got to take the noon train to Santa Barbara.” I couldn’t believe my ears.

“You mean you’re not going to be here tonight, our last night?”

“No. I just had a long distance call from Mary Miles Minter. She’s back from location.”

“What’s that got to do with things?”

“Before I came out here, I promised Mary I’d run up to Santa Barbara if I had the chance,” Frank said. “She says she’s saving this last evening for me.”

“Umm, that’s kind of her.”

“Yes, Mary’s really a pretty good kid. I sure hate to miss this last evening with you, though.”

”Oh, don’t think about me,” I said with a glued-on smile. “I would keep you from having a date with a real movie star for anything.”

“Thanks, Aggie. I knew you wouldn’t mind. And we’ve really had a swell time, haven’t we?”

“I’m glad you’ve enjoyed it,” I said.

I told Frank I couldn’t go down to the station to see him off. He swallowed without question my hastily made up excuse that Mary had mentioned she might call me to come and talk over the new story. And, when he kissed me goodbye on the hotel veranda and I pulled away quickly, he thought it was because I was afraid that somebody would see us. He hadn’t the faintest idea how furious I was.

That evening Vi and Shirley saw me having dinner alone and asked where my beau was.

“Frank was, um, called away suddenly,” I said.

”Well, are you engaged, or anything?” Shirley asked.

“I laughed lamely. “Not even anything.”

At this, Vi and Shirley looked blank. It was a situation they couldn’t understand. I couldn’t either.

***

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