Chapter 17: Just Trust Yourself to Me

Summary: Mary Pickford’s new director rejects Aggie’s next script so she is out of a job. She hides her unemployment, dates many of the soldiers coming through Hollywood, and has a frightening run-in with Mr. Wolf.

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Like a cook trying to make an omelet out of a rotten egg, I had a rough time picturizing the “not very good, but cheap” book. Some days I simply doodled in my office. Other days, in the hope of sparking inspiration, I’d take long hikes in the mountains or go to the beach for a swim.

Nothing helped. The book was still bad, and I knew the fifty pages I’d painfully worked out over seven weeks were bad, too. I tried not to worry. Hadn’t Mrs. Pickford told me to take my time?

One Thursday afternoon, having spent most of the day at the zoo—of all places—I dropped by the studio to find a note on my desk: “Miss Pickford would like to see the new script.”

I was too nervous to see Mary, so I waited until I was sure she’d gone home, then called her secretary, Miss Jackson. “Please tell Miss Pickford that the script’s all done, but I want to make a few changes. I’ll give it to her on Monday,” I told her.

On Friday, I went to the studio early and stayed in my office till 9 p.m. Net result: seven pages. On Saturday morning, I lugged my suitcase and typewriter to the Red Car Line and rode down to the old Virginia Hotel in Long Beach. A change of scene might help. It had better!

The Virginia Hotel was quaint and charming. And in it I had my first coffee jag, complete with doctor and policeman. All Saturday evening, while pounding my typewriter, I drank cup after cup of strong black coffee to keep myself going. I don’t know just when the room started to heave and whirl, or when my hysterical screaming behind the locked door caused the hotel manager to summon help. But I do remember, as the hotel doctor shot some injection into my arm, a kindly policeman saying, “This gal ain’t drunk. She’s just having a coffee jag.”

The next morning, I woke early, feeling horrible. I forced myself out of bed and tottered to the typewriter. There, by some miracle, was a fat sheaf of typed pages. Reading them, I realized I had finished my scenario. It had probably been the release from the tension that had set off my hysterics.

On my way to the studio, I tried to leaf through my script. Due either to eyestrain in the jolting streetcar or my coffee jag hangover, I became mildly nauseated. Or could it have been the script itself that was upsetting my tummy?

In my office, I put a cover on my pages. Then, making sure that Mary wasn’t around, I sneaked in and laid the fruit of my travail on her secretary’s desk. Coming back, I stopped in the washroom and looked at myself in the mirror. What I saw would have frightened almost anybody.

I knew Mary wouldn’t read the script that day, so I went downtown to Hamberger’s (Editor’s note: Later sold to May Company), the big department store in Los Angeles. A new outfit would give me confidence. I was too drained to have much judgment of my own, so I tried to buy something in the style of Vi and Shirley’s clothes. Of course, they always had their dresses specially made by the best modistes, and wore them as only actresses can.

When I went to the studio the next morning, I was decked out in a ruffled brown taffeta, ornate with bunches of huge green wax cherries, a costume I thought stunning at the time, though the memory of it makes me shudder. I rustled into Mary’s dressing room and found her putting on her makeup in front of the mirror. Her golden hair was bound in a towel and her face was covered in dead-white foundation, but she still had a gentle and thrilling beauty.

“About your scenario, Aggie,” she began.

“Yes?” I waited, holding my breath. Mary slowly penciled one eyebrow over the chalk mask before she went on.

“Mr. Franklin doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like it at all.”

“Wha .. at?” I said, my voice cracking. I trembled so the green cherries rocked and bumped together with ominous cracklings.

“But…but…surely you don’t agree?”

Mary gave me a quick one-eyebrowed glance. “I haven’t had time to read the script,” she said. “But, as Mr. Franklin is the director, I have to bow to his judgment.”

“But Mary,” I said. “After all, “Daddy Long Legs…”

“’Daddy Long Legs’ will be a very good picture, I’m sure,” Mary said. “However, Mr. Franklin wants to do something finer.”

Something “finer” than “Daddy Long Legs” that I’d worked so hard on and to which Mickey Neilan had given his best? I seethed.

“If Mr. Franklin feels that way, perhaps he’d rather have some other writer do his script,” I managed to say haughtily. “Perhaps that friend of his, Bernard McConville.”

“I think Mr. Franklin has McConville in mind,” said Mary.

“Well, then, I might as well go back to New York and write for Marguerite Clark,” I said in a desperate bluff.

“Yes,” said Mary. “I think you’d better.”

I was so stunned that it was an hour after I’d left Mary before the full realization sunk in. I loved Mary Pickford. I loved her work. And I felt there was nobody—nobody—who could understand her as well as I did. And here I was fired just because Mr. Franklin wanted to do something “finer” than my beloved “Daddy Long Legs”!

It was four miles from the Pickford studio to the Hollywood Hotel, and I walked them through a driving rain that streaked my new brown taffeta and mingled with my tears.

It was dance night at the hotel. Lew Cody introduced me to a new guest, a warm-eyed angular woman who had come from New York to make a Western picture.

“Aggie Johnston—Texas Guinan,” he said. “Tex, Aggie is Mary Pickford’s scenario writer.”

Miss Guinan’s eyes lit up. “Gee, kid, that must be wonderful!”

“It sure is!” I answered, too, too brightly. “I’m a very lucky girl.”

I kept up the lie for weeks and weeks. Sometimes I told the gang I was doing work at home. Other times I deliberately left the hotel in the morning and stayed away all day. I couldn’t bear to let anybody know I’d been fired.

Evenings, I went out with every man who asked me. Officers about to leave the service often stopped at the hotel to sightsee in Hollywood. I didn’t find it hard to annex swains. One lieutenant spent money on me wildly. Too wildly, I’m afraid. A few months after, I saw his picture in the paper. Back in his hometown in the East, he’d been charged with absconding.

Another handsome captain I met on his last night in Hollywood. It was Friday, and, every Friday after that, he had a box of violets delivered to me. For a while this gave me a fine lift, but then my conscience bothered me. So I wrote, “You mustn’t send me violets every week.” He answered, “What do you want? Roses?” And, on the next Friday, there came a box of two dozen American Beauties. But, after that, no flowers at all and I never heard from my captain again.

One beau was a boy with wild, straw-colored hair and a grotesque nose, Dudley Murphy, who wanted to be a director and later became one. He was taken away from me by a very young girl who became the first of his five wives.

All this time, I was putting out feelers for jobs. One brought me an interviw with Cecil B. DeMille, “the great.” I was ushered into his sanctum at the Famous Players Studio, a plushly furnished suite all in shadows except for one hypnotic, bright light over Mr. DeMille’s desk. I happened to be wearing a rather childish gingham dress that day, and I guess I looked even younger than I was as I sat in the glare of that blinding light. From murky shadows, Mr. DeMille studied me in silence for a long, long time. Then, he almost hissed at me: “Miss Johnston, what to you know about s…s…sex?”

Frightened, I gulped out, “Why, er…er…I’ve seen your pictures, Mr. DeMille.”

I thought this was a neat answer, but I’m afraid Mr. DeMille didn’t. He just said, “Leave your telephone number, Miss Johnston. When there’s an opening I’ll call you.”

Leave your telephone number? It was the first time, though not the last, I heard that Hollywood brush-off.

One Saturday afternoon, chatting in the lobby with Vi and Shirley, I was paged for a phone call. It was the studio executive I call “Mr. Wolf.”

“How are you, honey?” His voice was warm and genial.

“Fine. Just fine!”

“Got another job yet?”

“N…no. But I have some swell prospects,” I bluffed.

“Glad to hear that, sweetheart. I called because ’Daddy Long Legs’ is cut and titled now. Like a sneak look at it?”

“Oh, would I!”

“Okay. I’m not supposed to run it for anybody, but if you’ll come to the studio Sunday afternoon…”

I accepted, fairly squealing my thanks. Thank goodness Frank wasn’t around to stop me. Mr. Wolf wanted to be my friend. And if he got fresh, well, I was old enough know how to handle him.

For the appointment, I put on a pink ruffled organdie dress and a drooping leghorn hat trimmed with rosebuds. My mirror told me I was indeed the picture of sweet, girlish innocence. Surely Mr. Wolf would be touched! However, as insurance, I wouldn’t have minded the hatpin Mama had made me carry in the Vitagraph days. But hatpins were out of style now. The best I could do was a pair of sharp French manicure scissors which I slipped into my pocketbook.

A studio lot on Sunday is eerie, with deserted stages and sets of half houses and fake buildings. The grass and flowers that had been stuck in for the cameras withered in the sun. There was only silence instead of clatter and buzz. On the way from the main gate to the projection room where I was to meet Mr. Wolf, my sophisticated new pumps clop-clop-clopped on the pavement. Mr. Wolf was alone in the projection room

“The operator’s been delayed, honey,” he said. “He’ll be along soon. Meanwhile, we can have a little talk.”

“Wonderful!” I cooed, and sat down, spreading my organdie ruffles about me demurely.

Mr. Wolf closed and locked the door, then came to sit beside me and threw a careless arm about my shoulder.

“By the way,” he said, “how’s that soldier fellow of yours?”

“Oh, that boy! He’s East,” I said in a tone that implied I hoped Frank would stay East permanently.

“Well, honey,” Mr. Wolf went on, “that’s good. Now you can really get down to work on your career. You’re a sweet kid, and I want to help.”

“Oh, that’s awfully kind of you…”

His hand was on my knee. I ignored it. After all, it could be there by accident. But I fixed earnest and, I hoped, soulful eyes on Mr. Wolf.

“Are you sure the projectionist is coming?” I asked.

“Yes, but you know how it is on Sundays. He’s probably still playing poker in last night’s game. Or drunk maybe.”

I knew then that the projectionist wouldn’t show up. Indeed, he had never been told to show up. It was high time to make my appeal to Mr. Wolf’s better nature.

“I’ve heard a lot of bad things about you, Mr. Wolf. Nasty things. But I don’t believe them,” I said in my best “hearts and flowers” tone. “Any man as successful as you are is bound to make enemies. I know you’ve got a good heart or you would be so kind to a young girl like me.”

“Sure, honey, sure,” said Mr. Wolf. “Nobody can say I’m not good to my friends. Now I’ve had my eye on you from the start. You’ve got talent, oodles of talent, but you’ll never get anywhere till you know about life. You need experience.”

Now this line was new to me, but over time it became the oldest and stalest in Hollywood. The hitch, of course, was that the man who tells the young girl she needs experience always wants to supply said experience himself. Why just a few months back, a young starlet came to me and asked tearfully, “Miss Johnston, do I have to?”

“Look here,” Mr. Wolf went on. “Just trust yourself to me and you’ll go places. You’ll be the biggest writer in Hollywood.”

His hand wasn’t on my knee now. He was pressing my body to his, his fat pig mouth coming closer and closer. I managed to wrench myself free and backed away.

 

“Please, please!” I said, with high dramatics. “When I came here, I trusted you.”

‘Oh, tommyrot!” he snorted. “When you came here, you knew what I wanted all right. And I’m telling you straight out, if you want to stay in pictures, you’d better be nice to me.”

He came toward me, arms outstretched. I fumbled for my manicure scissors. Oh horrors! Somehow they’d stuck in the lining of my pocketbook. Mr. Wolf came closer and caught me.

“Don’t be a little fool!” he shouted. “Where do you think you’ll get without me? Mary Pickford may carry ‘Daddy Long Legs’ through, but really the whole thing’s childish…”

Whether it was my innate virtue or his calling my beloved “Daddy Long Legs” childish that gave me strength to wrestle loose from him I’ll never know. I lurched away from him, scrambled over a row of seats, and put a little pulpit-like script-stand between us. From this flimsy sanctuary I launched into a tirade beside which Media’s denunciation of Jason would seem like milk and honey.

The more I screamed at him the redder Mr. Wolf’s face became and the more his eyes narrowed. Then he started toward me again. I knew he was strong enough to push over the little pulpit. My hysteria stopped and, to my surprise, I found myself speaking quite calmly.

“Listen!” I said. “Vi and Shirley are my friends. And the boys—Norman Kerry, Lew Cody, Tom Moore, Bert Lytell—oh, they’re rascals all right, but they’re big strong boys. Just put your hand on me once more and I’ll tell them, and they’ll take you apart and spatter the piece all over Hollywood.”

Mr. Wolf stared for a moment, breathing heavily. Then, without a word, turned and slouched out of the projection room. I straightened out my clothes as best I could in the dim light, and then went and clop-clopped in my high heels through the deserted, sun-drenched studio lot.

***

 

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