Chapter 20: “We Can Lick the World, We Two!”

Summary: Frank finally proposes marriage, but Aggie must return to California to begin a one-year contract with Thomas Ince. Frank stays in New York to write for the Louis Selznick’s Company, but soon opts out of his contract to work for Louis B. Mayer in Hollywood.

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

The first evening Frank came to Stony Brook, we paddled my canoe across the harbor to Long Beach, a low, sandy peninsula sprinkled with scrub pines and beach-plum bushes. Seagulls, sandpipers, and an occasional scuttling rabbit were the only visitors. We had hardly stepped out onto the sand when he grabbed me in his arms. There was a long, long kiss and, after our months of separation, it felt wonderful. Then Frank pulled me down on the sand beside him.

“Aggie,” he said, “I think you and I ought to get married.”

“Frank, you darned fool!” I scolded. “Why have you been so long getting around to that idea?”

“Why, sweetheart,” he said, with genuine hurt in his voice. “I thought you always knew I loved you. You don’t think I’m the type that would let a girl get tied down to him when he was going off to war, do you? Or when he hadn’t a job?

“Okay, Frank. I can understand that. But why on earth, that last night in Hollywood, did you run off to Santa Barbara to see Mary Miles Minter?”

“Oh, that!” said Frank. “Mary was my friend. And I’d promised to see her if possible. But where’s all this getting us? Young lady, you’ve just had a proposal of marriage.”

I’d made up my mind that if Frank ever asked me to marry him, I’d keep him dangling to pay him back for the uncertainty and torture he’d caused me. But now I just whispered, “Oh, yes, yes, Frank. I’ll marry you.” Why waste time being coy on this lonely beach with the slow waves of the Long Island Sound gently caressing the sand?

That summer of 1919 was almost perfect. Before I’d left California, I’d signed a contract with Ince to start in the fall at a nice raise. With no money worries, Mama and Izzy and I could buy all the new clothes we wanted. And buy we did, mostly at our old friend, Sterns. And it was wonderful to have the Stony Brook villagers respect me as a rich movie writer instead of muttering among themselves about the Johnston’s unpaid bills.

I devoted weekdays to Mama and Izzy. I took on the housework to give Mama a rest, and I read all the stories Izzy had written for the Vassar Miscellany. I told her that with just a little training she could write better picture scenarios than I.

Weekends were for Frank. I had the village dressmaker turn out half a dozen organdie froths in gay flower colors, and I’d wear a different costume every time I met Frank at the station. When his train came in, I’d run along beside it, trying to see which car he was in so I could wave to him at the first possible moment.

Frank may have been an irritating suitor, but he was a delightful fiancé. He brought a present every weekend: flowers, candy, a wristwatch, an alarm clock, a fox fur, and once, after he’d wandered into my bedroom and found a pair of torn pajamas, he arrived with a foolish pair of gaudy pink-striped atrocities.

In the evenings, we headed for Long Beach. The first two weekends, we were annoyed by snoopers. We’d look off and see three indistinct forms far down the beach, dark against the light sand. We never went near them and they never came near us, but, while we were spooning, we’d be uncomfortably conscious of these half ghostly figures. The next Saturday, I had Frank paddle me over by daylight. Roaming the beach, we found our snoopers—three railroad ties that had been stuck upright in the sand, probably for boat moorings.

The day came when I had to pack my trunk to go back to California. Mama fluttered about, helping me. Izzy ironed my traveling shirtwaists.

“Oh, Aggie,” Mama said. “I hate to be separated again. Why don’t I come out to Hollywood and keep house for you? Then I could take care of you and make sure you got the right food and enough rest. Izzy could come, too. I’m sure you could help her start in movies. After all, she’s got a college education. A Vassar graduate should have no trouble writing for pictures.” I knew that I had to tell Mama about Frank.

“Please don’t be angry, but as soon as I finish my contract or Frank can get himself a job in Hollywood, we’re going to be married,” I said. Mama’s shoulder’s stiffened. I took her in my arms and kissed her. “This doesn’t mean I don’t love you and Izzy. I’ll see lots and lots of you, always, but I do love Frank. I just have to be with him,”

Mama pulled away. There was a haunted look in her eyes. “It’s your life, Aggie,” she said. “Your mother will never interfere.” She always referred to herself in the third person when her feelings were hurt. I knew it wasn’t only my leaving her that troubled her. After her experience with Papa, she was sure no man could be trusted. She saw me going through the misery she’d gone through. But not then, or at any time, did she ever say one word against my marrying.

Back in Hollywood, I looked for a house to rent. Frank had written that he was getting used to working for the Selznick Company. They’d even given him a raise. There didn’t seem any hope that he might come west any time soon. With a year’s contract ahead of me, it was only right that I invite my family to join me.

I rented a typical California bungalow of that day. It had redwood walls and a vine-draped roof that hung over the front porch, making the living room dark and cool against the sharp sunshine. And by the time Mama and Izzy arrived, I was the proud owner of an automobile. With all the skill I had acquired in three driving lessons, wrangled the car through downtown traffic and I picked them up at the old Santa Fe station.

Mama loved the bungalow and California, too, especially not having to stoke a furnace. She put on a little weight and a tan replaced the paleness of her cheeks. As for Izzy, I began to hint among my friends that I had a bright young sister, a Vassar graduate, who might consider a studio job.

One evening I came home to find a telegram from Frank. He’d accepted a contract with a new Hollywood producer, Louis B. Mayer. He would be out within a week. I showed the wire to Mama.

“That will be fine, Aggie,” she said. “Engaged couples should not be separated too long.” Unfortunately, even though Mama tried and Izzy tried and I tried and Frank tried, it wasn’t fine at all. Our small bungalow, cozy in every other way, was utterly unsuitable for spooning. Mama and Izzy’s bedrooms led off the living room. After they’d gone to bed, Frank would kiss me, but I’d imagine I could hear them stirring. It quickly became apparent that there would not be much time for kissing anyway.

Two of Mr. Mayer’s units were held up because of bad scripts. Frank straightened these out and had both pictures shooting in four weeks. The pace of this work was grueling but, for a while, he was the so-called “fair-haired boy” at the studio. We got to be great friends with Mr. Mayer. He only had one car, and, when his family wanted to use it, Frank and I took him out to dinner in my Buick, and often to see a movie afterwards. At that time, we never thought that Mr. Mayer would, for successive years, pay the highest income tax in the United States. But I think Mr. Mayer did.

Through Shirley Mason, I got Izzy a job at the Fox Studio. Frank told me this was a mistake. He’d seen the stories Izzy had written for the Vassar Miscellany, and he said Izzy was too good a writer and too sensitive a person for pictures. I looked on this as an insult, both to Izzy and myself, but I kept my hurt feelings to myself. Izzy, (Editor’s note: writing as Isabel Johnston; however, IMdB has the mother as the writer. The list of credits appear to be the sister’s.  did two scenarios for Shirley, nice little comedies that pleased the Fox people: Elephant Man and Molly and I. Then Charles Ray, who had left Ince to form his own company, came to me.

“Aggie, I need a writer like you,” he said. “Can’t you find some way to get out of your Ince contract?”

I told him I couldn’t—and wouldn’t. Ince had treated me too well. Anyway, my contract with him was ironclad. But there was Izzy. I told him she was already doing successful pictures for Fox, and was a Vassar graduate besides. Charley’s eyes gleamed. He offered Izzy three times what she was getting at Fox.

Izzy hesitated about making the change. She still wasn’t sure of herself. And, when she talked to the Fox editor about the offer, he told her sternly that if she took it, she could never come back. Greedy for money for the family, I told Izzy to make the change anyway. The more income Mama and Izzy had, the less guilty I’d feel about leaving them to get married

The big jump in salary made Izzy nervous. She had good ideas for Charles’ first story, “Peaceful Valley,” but she lacked confidence in her writing. She fretted over every scene, and wouldn’t hand in a sequence unless I’d gone over it with her, and often not until I’d rewritten some of it myself.

So now Frank, Izzy and I all had story problems at the same time. One curdled script is enough to drive a writer crazy, but three make for madness. Either Frank or Izzy or I seemed always to be faced with some insurmountable problem, often all three of us at once. When Frank and I drove out at night to be alone together, instead of kissing, we’d talk story, story, story.

One evening when Frank was coming to dinner, Mama worked hard to prepare a roast beef with all the trimmings. I’m sure she was trying to compensate for the disapproval she felt about my being engaged to Frank. As soon as he walked in the door, I shoved a handful of pages at him.

“Here’s Izzy’s first two reels of “Peaceful Valley,” I said. “We’d like you to read it and give us your opinion”

He shoved it right back. “Sorry, honey,” he said. “I’m in a jam trying to fix an Anita Stewart script, ‘The Yellow Typhoon.’ I brought it along to show you.” And he took a mass of papers out of his pocket. I motioned to him to put them back.

“But Izzy has to read her scenes to Charles Ray tomorrow. They’ve just got to be right.”

“Okay, then,” Frank said crossly. He sat down on the couch, plunking his feet on a petit-point chair that our landlady had asked us to be particularly careful about.

I could tell by the tightening of Mama’s face as she looked out from the kitchen door that she was not pleased. But she didn’t say anything about it. She just whispered, “Dinner’s ready, and the roast beef won’t be any good unless we eat it right away.”

“Sssh!” I said. “The roast doesn’t matter. Frank may be able to help Izzy with her script.”

Before he was halfway through, Frank tossed the pages aside. They slid off the couch to the floor. Izzy ran to grab them up.

“What…? Don’t you like it?” she asked, her hand clenching nervously.

“I’m afraid I don’t,” Frank said. “It, well, it jumps around too much. You’ve got some wonderful touches in it, Izzy, but it does jump…”

“Well, how would you fix it?” I demanded.

“I don’t know,” Frank said wearily. “I just don’t know.”

“I don’t think it’s right to discourage people too much,” Mama said tartly.

“I’d help if I could, “ Frank said. “But, gosh, coming back from the studio and getting into a thing cold…I’m awfully sorry.”

I looked at him. He really did look haggard. I felt sorry for him. Things weren’t going so well with him at the Mayer Studio now. From “fair haired” he’d gone to “whipping boy,” a common transition in Hollywood.

What a dreary dinner it was! I tried to make conversation but Frank and Mama sat glumly silent. Izzy scarcely touched a bite, fidgeting with the food on her plate. Frank absent-mindedly spooned most of the contents of the gravy bowl onto his plate. Mama said pointedly that Izzy and I should divide the rest. “You girls need all the strength you can get, these days,” she said with a martyr-like smile. “I can do without.”

After dinner, Frank and I got into the car and drove to one of our favorite spots. At that time, Hollywood Boulevard, not far from La Brea, trailed off into a dirt road that wound in a graceful curve around a great live oak. Parked behind this tree, you could see the lights of any car that approached. It was an ideal place for spooning, or so we thought. Later, Zasu Pitts told me that she and her fiancé, Tom Gallery, had found the same spot. They were parked there one night when an armed man came upon them and tried to force Zasu out of the car. But Tom, less trustful than we, had a gun in his car and managed to frighten the molester off.

This night, Frank and I would almost have welcomed a bandit. First, Frank told me about his “Yellow Typhoon” script, scene for scene.

“Why, it’s terrible!” I cried. “So old fashioned.”

“But that’s what the director wants,” Frank said. “He’s old fashioned.”

“Why can’t you talk him out of it? Look what I’ve got on my hands at Ince…” and I launched into my problem. I wasn’t working for Jerry Storm now, but for an egocentric male star who had ideas of his own about every sequence. I couldn’t see anything for my scenario but failure.

“That’s too bad, Aggie,” Frank said. “But this isn’t helping me out with my story.”

“Well, I can’t say you helped Izzy much tonight,” I lashed back.

“Good God, Aggie,” cried Frank. “Can’t we keep your family out of this?”

“What’s the matter with my family?”

“Izzy’s got no business being a scenario writer. And as for your mother…” Frank rolled his eyes.

“Don’t you dare say a word against my mother,” I raged. “If you don’t like her, you can’t like me.”

“I don’t like her,” Frank said curtly. “And I can’t lie about it.”

Tears came, blinding me. I fumbled for the handle of the car door and got out.

“Don’t be a damned fool!” Frank stormed.

“You! You’re a damned, selfish, egotistical…”

“Shut up!” he roared. “Shut up…”

I set my mouth firmly and began to walk down the little dirt road. After I’d gone a few steps, Frank started the car and drew up beside me.

“Hey, Aggie! Get in…please!”

I shook my head defiantly and plodded on. I must have walked a good half mile with Frank in the car drawling along beside me. Then, suddenly, Frank, pled once more, and this time not harshly but tenderly.

“Oh, Aggie! Aggie! Please get in.”

I stopped. He opened the door. In a moment I was in his arms.

“Oh, sweetheart!” he whispered. “Don’t you realize this is all just worry and nerves? We do love each other…”

“Yes,” I whispered. “Oh, we do!”

We turned the car and drove back to our tree.

That was the way it went for weeks and months. We had bitter, exhausting quarrels, followed by brief, passionate reconciliations. Engagement time is supposed to be the happiest of a girl’s life. Mine was unadulterated hell.

Finally, Frank bowed out of his Mayer contract, settling for half the money still due him. I thought that, with marriage coming up, this move seemed rather reckless. But Frank was so happy over his freedom, I didn’t dare complain. As if in reward for my self-control, he settled down, and in three weeks brought me a story as joyous as the last months of our engagement had been miserable.

“Honey,” I said. “This goes to Tom Ince pronto.”

What with Frank being free of his studio worries and me being so proud of his story, I guess we looked happy and romantic. Ince certainly made a big fuss over us. He was a “rotten husband” himself, he said, but he believed in marriage. He promised he’d read Frank’s story right away.

So many producers have made that promise! Ince kept it. The very next day, he called Frank at his hotel. A deal was closed in three minutes. The story, “Silk Hosiery,” with Fred Niblo directing his wife, Enid Bennett, turned out to be a charming picture. But I’ve always suspected that Tom Ince bought it so quickly and paid the big price he did just to give a young couple a start.

Frank phoned to tell me the news. I leaped into the Buick and dashed to meet him. It was pouring rain, but we were so keyed-up we just had to go for a walk. We tramped up to the top of the water tower hill where I’d brooded when I thought I was a flop as Mary Pickford’s writer. Soaking wet and with raindrops dripping off our noses, we clung and kissed, exultant. I shouted joyously into the storm, “We can lick the world—we two!”

***

 

 

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