Chapter 22: Baby Ruth Arrives

Summary: Aggie struggles to continue working while pregnant, but then gives up her contract with Thomas Ince. Aggie and Frank are hired by Sam Goldwyn to work with a famous novelist on a script, which is rejected by the studio’s Entertainment Committee. A car accident adds to the drama before the baby is born.

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Always, when thinking about love and marriage, I told anyone who would listen that I’d never be satisfied with fewer than six children. I intended to be as greedy about the pleasures of motherhood as I was about everything else. But now that I was actually pregnant I could find little pleasure in it. Instead, every fiber of my silly being was scared! I was a writer, wasn’t I? A temperamental-high-strung writer. Would I have the strength to endure the ordeal of childbearing? And Frank, now that I was to become bloated and ugly, would he stop loving me? After the child came, would he be jealous? Mama had often told me it was the love she had for Izzy and me that had made Papa become cold and resentful. I’m sure there never were so many babies on a train as on the one that took Frank and me to California. And every time I passed one in the aisles, it seemed to turn its head and leer at me.

In California, we found a grim housing shortage on, just as after World War I. What with my baby jitters, I insisted on economy. We finally settled in a squat little bungalow in Santa Monica not far from the beach. A friend of Frank’s parents dropped in on us and wrote back to Quincy that we were living in a shack where you could hunt rabbits in the front yard and catch fish in the back.

As a home, it was indeed far from perfect. Inexperienced housewife that I was, when I inspected the place before we rented, I neglected to look for closets. After we moved in, I found there were none. We had to hang our clothes on nails. Everything else we shoved under the lumpy living room couch and pulled the sleazy cover to the floor for concealment. Even worse, there was no system of garbage disposal. Frank had to dig graves in our stony backyard for the trash. After five weeks of digging, he bought a goat.

“Wonderful idea!” he said. “Nanny will eat our garbage and later give milk for the baby.” Never was there a more uncooperative beast! She refused to touch corncobs, bread crusts, orange rinds, and even peapods–unless the peas were left in them. And when we tried to have her mated, she bit her intended suitor. We finally gave a Mexican five dollars to take her away.

I started on my Ince contract, Frank driving me to and from the studio to make things easy for the prospective mother. Feeling sorry for myself, I’m afraid I wasn’t able to work up proper sympathy for my screen heroines. I was sure my work wasn’t very good, and Ince probably thought so too, but he didn’t complain.

When the script reached the stage where I had to have conferences with the director, I also reached the stage of upchucking. I would take huge bags of popcorn and pretzels to the studio and stuff myself during conferences, hoping by sheer mass to calm my rocking tummy. I never did get sick in front of people, but what a time all those pretzels gave me once I managed to bolt out of the meeting!

As Frank had to chauffer me, he couldn’t take a regular studio job. Instead, he said he’d stay home and write originals. After all, hadn’t he sold almost every one he’d ever turned out? He had an idea that started with the title, “Rich Men’s Wives.” “That’s box office, Aggie,” he said. “Pure box office.”

If it were my inspiration I might have liked it, but I argued that it seemed much too cheap and sensational. No doubt this discouraged Frank. Anyway, he couldn’t make the story gel. There were days when he wasn’t able to write a line. Not being wise in the knack of handling a husband-writer, I fussed and nagged, and finally insisted that he hire a stenographer, sure that he’d have to write if he was paying her $5 a day. But after a week the result was only five short paragraphs.

It was then I went to Tom Ince and asked him to call off the rest of my contract. He agreed with an alacrity that should have warned me. Slow times in pictures were in sight. Several years later, Tom was taken mysteriously and fatally ill on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht. There were ugly rumors, which I don’t believe. I know the Hearst cuisine. When I visited San Simeon, I had to play tennis or ride horseback twice a day to cope with it. On a yacht, with no chance for exercise and with the strain of discussing a pending business deal with Hearst, my hunch is that Tom Ince simply died of a super-colossal tummy ache. My hope is that he is enjoying himself in that tiny but select corner of heaven reserved for producers who ran a rare studio—one with happy actors, directors, and writers.

Now that I didn’t have to work myself, I was certain I could inspire Frank. But to my core I found that my brain was numb, too. We quarreled—about everything and about nothing. And I became more and more queasy. Even pretzels refused to stay down.

One evening, Frank said, ”Maybe it’s the smell of the kitchen and all the associations of the house that makes you sick, Aggie. Let’s go out and get ourselves a really good dinner, and I’ll bet you’ll keep it down.”

We went to Marcell’s, then the restaurant in Los Angeles and ordered a superb dinner: blue point oysters on the half shell, asparagus hollandaise, filet mignon, and, in memory of our first meal together, Baked Alaska. It wasn’t until Frank was paying the sizable check that I had to dash for the ladies room. Yes, my splendid and expensive dinner went down the drain. It was a sad young pair of newlyweds who drove home to Santa Monica that night.

Occasionally, there were moments that had a little of the magic of our eight-day honeymoon. At sundown, we’d stroll along the beach, gathering driftwood for our hearth fire. Little birds would skim over the water in swirling maneuvers. Or a pelican would make its plunging dive. In the serenity that beauty brings, we could forget our troubles for a while. But mostly those months were unhappy ones indeed.

Then, in one day, quite unexpectedly, came two job offers. “Daddy Long legs” turned out to be the most financially successful of all Mary Pickford’s releases and now someone at the studio had the bright idea that they ought to “try Aggie Johnston again.”

The other proposition was from the Goldwyn studio. Sam Goldwyn had thought to get a jump on the other companies by corralling a group of the best-known authors then writing: Sir Gilbert Parker, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Alice Duer Miller, Gertrude Atherton, Rupert Hughes, and a couple of others. He would put out a ”Famous Author Series,” his publicity blared. With writers like these, his company would become ”The Colossus of the Industry.”

Mary Roberts Rinehart had been brought to the West Coast and given the usual publicity, press teas and cocktail parties. She was not too much impressed, she later told me, and told Mr. Goldwyn that she might like help writing of her first scenario. She’d been happy with my treatment of her “23 ½ Hours Leave” and wanted Frank and me to work with her. When the Goldwyn editor called, he said Mrs. Reinhart was leaving for her Pittsburgh home in five days. Frank and I would have to go, too.

“But, Aggie,” Frank protested. “You can’t do it. The baby’s less than four months off. Take the Pickford offer.”

“I’ve already written for Mary Pickford,” I said. “And Mrs. Rinehart is the most successful author in America. Working for her wouldn’t just be another job. It would be an education.”

When we were driving to the Goldwyn studios to arrange terms, we were exuberant that we had the choice of the two best jobs in pictures. It had rained the night before but now the air was bracingly clear. Frank drove with his left hand, his right drawing me close against his shoulder. Though neither of us could carry a tune, we were singing.

As we turned onto National Boulevard we saw that the road had been flooded by the heavy rains. Thick adobe mud had spread gummily over the pavement. Frank slowed the car and used both hands on the steering wheel. We barely crawled as a truck came too fast from the opposite direction. It skidded and slewed off the road. With a wrench of the wheel, the driver overcorrected and slid straight toward us. Frank jerked the steering wheel around and turned into a bordering field. No use. The truck slithered after us as though in pursuit, and there was the slightest of collisions. Neither vehicle had much damage, but a load of iron pipes the truck was carrying shot into our car like so many javelins. One stopped within an inch of my pregnant belly.

Frank was bleeding. Turning his back to me, he asked the truck driver to put a tourniquet on his hand and said he ought to get to a doctor as soon as possible. I was alarmed, but Frank insisted he had only a slight cut. The truck driver offered to help find a doctor, and Frank insisted I move to the rumble seat.

We went to three doctors and found each one out. At the home of a fourth, the physician’s wife said she expected him soon. Frank went into the house. From the rumble seat, I leaned forward to talk to the truck driver and gasped. There on the rubber mat in the front of the car was a finger, complete with fingernail. I jumped out crying to the truck driver, “Hurry! Go all over town and find the doctor! Quick!” Then I tore into the house.

Frank was in the consulting room, walking up and down, clutching his hand. The doctor’s wife made me rest on a couch in the living room. “Poor child!” she said soothingly. “I know just how you feel. I was going to have a baby once, but I lost it.”

“How?” I asked.

“I had a shock,” she said.

The doctor finally returned in his car. The truck driver hadn’t caught up to him. As he examined Frank’s wound, I asked, “If you had the finger, could you sew it on?”

“Possibly,” he said.

But, oh, where was that truck driver with our car? I rushed out of the house and lumbered all over Culver City as fast as I could, asking everybody I met, “Have you seen a gray Cole Roadster? It has my husband’s finger in it.”

Before I found our car, the doctor had Frank’s stub all sewn up. This stub enables Frank to perform a sort of parlor trick. If he’s bored at some sedate dinner or bridge game, he will lean forward with the tip of his severed finger resting against his right nostril. Of course, to people who have never heard of the accident, it looks as though the whole finger is sticking up his nose, practically to his brain. I’ve threatened everything short of murder, but I’ve never succeeded in making him give up this grisly joke.

I phoned the Goldwyn studios about the accident, and was told that Frank and I could postpone our appointment until the following afternoon. At that time doctors forbade pregnant women to drive a car, and it was agony for Frank with his finger throbbing. But this was mild compared to what happened when we reached the studio.

By some “mischance” the conference room we were ushered into had all the windows closed and a radiator steaming. I felt close to fainting myself, and as the bickering over terms went on for one, two, three hours, I saw Frank’s face whiten with suffering. Afterwards, he told me his wound throbbed so much he was afraid it would shake off the bandages. Now I have no idea whether or not this sweltering conference room was part of a deliberate plot, and I’m sure Mr. Goldwyn had no part in it because we were talking with minor executives, but in the end Frank and I agreed to do the Rinehart script for about one-third of what the work was worth. Anything to get out of that hellhole!

Frank had insisted that the doctor remove the stitches before we left for the East with Mrs. Rinehart. The doctor protested that it was too soon and, sure enough, when Frank tried to carry one of Mrs. Rinehart’s bags, the stub began to bleed. It pained him the entire time we were in Pittsburg. When he tried to type, it was torture. And, with my protruding middle, I could hardly sit close enough to the typewriter to reach the keys. We had to take turns, each working the machine about ten minutes at a time.

Mrs. Rinehart was darling as hostess and an inspiring collaborator. The story was about the romance of a young nurse and the SSI, the Senior Surgical Intern, of a great hospital. Mrs. Rinehart had been a nurse herself, and had met her husband when he was SSI of the hospital where she worked. The tale was one of her best, and Frank and I gave to the picturization all the technical skill of which we were capable. The day before we left Pittsburg, the three of us reviewed the script in detail.

“Perfect,” Mrs. Rinehart pronounced. “ A certain box office success, and a picture that will please the critics, too.”

When we left for California, we were in a fine glow. After all, Frank and I were pretty competent craftsmen with long experience behind us. Mrs. Rinehart, in addition to her many novels, had two successful plays running on Broadway at the same time. Surely, if three of us approved a script, it must be a prize package.

At that time, the Goldwyn lot had what was called “The Entertainment Committee.” One of these great brains was the “Comedy Expert,” another judged the dramatic value of Goldwyn properties, a third was responsible for the suspense, and so forth. This agglomeration of brains rejected our prize package entirely. Mrs. Rinehart, as she tells in her autobiography, was furious. She sent us long, consoling telegrams. She never let herself be inveigled into picture writing again.

As for the “committee,” it didn’t last. But before it and most of its members faded from the scene, it promulgated one really fantastic verdict. Goldwyn had brought Will Rogers on from the East. Just after Will had finished his first picture, Frank and I dropped in on him to talk over a story idea we had for him. His house in Beverly Hills was large, with a swimming pool and a tanbark corral around which the Rogers children were galloping on ponies. The front door was opened by Will himself, and we were surprised to see inside no furniture at all. Some packing cases were being used as chairs and an army cot served as a couch.

“Shucks!” Will grinned cheerfully, “We ain’t got no furniture yet ‘cause after we made the down payment on the house and I bought us some horses, the money ran out.”

Will never did get the furniture, for the Goldwyn Entertainment Committee, meeting in solemn conclave, decided, “Will Rogers is not funny,” and ended his contract. The tale is that when he heard he was fired, he came charging into their conference room and demanded, “Hey, you fellers, why don’t you get one more of you? Somebody to represent the public?” Will came back after his triumph in the Ziegfeld Follies to make sensationally successful comedies for Fox, and by that time every one of the committee had been fired and forgotten, which caused no tears in the Johnston-Dazey family.

Two weeks before the baby was due, my old Charles Ray director, Jerry Storm, dropped in on us. He’d signed with a new firm, headed by Colonel Selig and Sam Rork, to direct that famous old story, “The Rosary.” He needed a writer. One look at me convinced him I couldn’t do the work, so he asked Frank to take the job.

Frank was delighted. It was his dream that I should do no work for many months after the baby was born. He was signed on a flat deal: $500 down and $2,000 more on acceptance of the script. He plunged right in and, even before I went to the hospital, had a synopsis that he read to Colonel Selig and Mr. Rork, and which both approved. This good news I kept hugging to myself when the pains of labor finally came.

Our obstetrician was a martinet, but somehow Frank talked his way into the delivery room, where he held my hand until the baby arrived. When I came out of the daze of the anesthetic in the late afternoon, they brought me my daughter, wrapped in a blanket.

“Let me see her hands,” I demanded. There they were, all ten tiny fingers in tact. No prenatal influence from Frank’s accident. “Look at our child,” I cried joyfully. “She’s not like ordinary newborn babies. They’re usually all red and wrinkled up like monkeys. She’s beautiful…” I stopped short, seeing something I didn’t like in Frank’s face. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.”

“You’ve been to the studio?”

“Yes.”

“How… how’s everything?” I stammered.

“Fine. Just fine.”

“You can’t fool me. Something’s wrong,” I said, accusingly, feeling that awful thud inside I always have when a job is lost.

Finally, I got Frank to admit it. “Colonel Selig wanted me on ‘The Rosary’ but Sam Rork preferred someone he’d worked with before. This writer was tied up when they signed me, but now he’s free. So they’ve taken him on, and I’m out. And guess who the guy is, Aggie!” Frank attempted a smile. “Bernard McConville.”

First me, then Izzy, and now Frank! This Bernard McConville had shoved us out of jobs we so cherished. I never met him, but friends told me he was really a swell fellow. He would probably have been much grieved if he had known the havoc he caused for the Johnston-Dazey family.

Frank didn’t take the blow lying down. Mr. Rork and Colonel Selig had told him the plot line that Mcconville was going to develop. The more Frank thought about it, the more he was convinced it wasn’t right. Mama and Izzy had come out from New York to housekeep for Frank while I was in the hospital, and Izzy offered to take Frank’s dictation. They both worked hard. Frank wrote a long analysis of what he thought “The Rosary” needed, and a fresh story line of his own. This he took to the studio and read to Colonel Selig and Mr. Rork. The Colonel was impressed, but Rork still clung to his favorite writer.

As Frank was leaving, feeling very down in the mouth, Colonel Selig clapped him on the shoulder. “I like your spunk, kid,” he said. Usually when a producer fires you, it is with a look such as a restaurant patron might bestow upon a dubious egg. But Colonel Selig made Frank feel like he had a true supporter. And, as it turned out, “The Rosary” was a prime flop.

Nowadays it’s very fashionable for picture people to have children. But in those days Hollywood didn’t like happily married young people, perhaps because of a subconscious jealousy. With temperament and the strain of acute competition, most of the big stars hadn’t been successful at marriage. You could have divorces, scandals, illicit affairs, and you were “one of the gang.” But just make the mistake of being happily and respectably married!

Vilma Bánky and Rod La Roque were given the most elaborate wedding the industry had ever known, and were dropped as stars soon after. My good friend and fine actress Zasu Pitts didn’t get a job for two years after she married and had a baby. She finally had to sneak out of her house to avoid process servers trying to take her to court for bad debts. Florence Ryerson, writer for “The Wizard of Oz,” was working at the same studio with Colin Clements, her fiancé. When they were married, the company gave them a bang up party. The next day, the groom was fired.

As the work dried up, Mama, who loved being a grandmother, tried to reassure me. “Aggie,” she said, “a baby always brings you luck.” Perhaps for some people, but not us. For Frank and me, after Ruth Margaret was born, things were slow, very slow. Probably the Rinehart and “Rosary” fiascos didn’t help either. One day, a publicist friend of mine told me that word had gone around Hollywood: “Since Agnes Christine Johnston has been married, she’s lost her touch.”

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