Chapter 24: Box Office Magic With “The Wives”

Summary: “Rich Men’s Wives” is successful at the box office and leads to two sequels. The Dazeys are in the money again, and with baby Mitchell adding to the mouths to feed, they are grateful to be back working for a studio. Aggie has a meeting with Louis B. Mayer, but he refuses to pay the high price she demands now that money is in the bank.

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Arthur Jacobs and Ben Schulberg bought “Rich Men’s Wives” at a fair price, and signed us to do the scenario. At the first conference, Louis Gasnier, the director, made observations about the plot that didn’t seem to make any sense. Jacobs and Schulberg would offer suggestions that Gasnier didn’t understand at all. Finally, the tangle resolved. Gasnier thought they had accepted our “sophisticated” angle. Jacobs and Schulberg insisted they’d bought the “sentimental” one. A heated argument ensued from which Frank and I sat serenely aloof. What if they were muddled as to what story they’d purchased? We had our money.

Jacobs and Schulberg argued Gasnier into the sentimental angle. “Rich Men’s Wives,” with the lovely Claire Windsor as star, turned out to have all the box office magic Frank had envisioned back in those dreary first month of our marriage. And, as with many successful pictures, there was a sequel, “Poor Men’s Wives.” And still another sequel to that. Oh blessed “Wives!” Because of them our children were fed and the obstetrician paid. Yes, for the time being, the ghost fear of poverty was laid deep underground with a spike through its heart.

The sale of the third picture, “Mothers-in-Law,” was a plot in itself—complete with a comedy and drama. One day, I had a call from Louis B. Mayer to come and discuss terms for doing the subtitles of one of his pictures. I was still nursing Mitchell, the baby I’d been carrying when we wrote the eventful “Rich Men’s Wives.” The Mayer studio was then near Lincoln Park, some twenty miles from our Santa Monica home. But we figured out a time when I could, with fast driving, see Mr. Mayer and get back before Mitchell would be howling with hunger.

My interview started well. First, Mr. Mayer and I talked about the rides he’d had in my old Buick. He asked about Frank, and complimented me on having two children. However, when I told him the price I wanted for the subtitles, all the storms of heaven seemed to gather on Mr. Mayer’s face.

“Why,” he sputtered, “I could get—(and he named a very exalted deity)—himself to write my subtitles for that money!”

“Well, why don’t you, Mr. Mayer?” I said, and, smiling sweetly, left. I’ve never believed in coming down in price. At least, not when there’s money in the bank.

Frank met me in the hall. His face was one wide grin. He slapped a piece of blue paper into my hand. I looked at it. It was a check for $1,000. “Oh, Frank!” I gasped. “Where on earth did you pick that up?”

“I got bored waiting for you,” he said. “So I dropped in to see Ben Schulberg.”

“This money’s from him?” I said, looking again at the check. “But what for?”

“A story,” said Frank proudly. “’Mothers-in-Law.’”

“’Mothers-in-Law’? What’s that? I didn’t know you had a story about mothers-in-law.

“Neither did I till a half hour ago,” he said a little sheepishly.

Then, looking around to be sure no one could hear us, he led me down the hall to the exit, telling me how the first thing Mr. Schulberg had said was that he wanted another “Wives” story.

Frank said it was a pity that a producer—especially a producer with money—should want for anything. So he’d promptly dreamed up a complete yarn. “And Schulberg’s crazy about it, too,” he boasted.

When Frank had finished telling Ben the story, he’d had another inspiration. “Ben,” he said. “Aggie’s in dickering with Mr. Mayer. Let’s play a little joke on her. Have a check for the advance made out to me right now, so I can show it to her when she comes out. Will she be surprised!”

“Sure,” said Schulberg, laughing. “Sure. Let’s play a joke on Aggie.”

A very fine joke. A delightful joke. But one that was to have repercussions later.

On our ride back from the studio, I asked Frank to recite me the golden story he’d sold. To his horror and my disgust he found he’d already forgotten many of the details he’d told Schulberg in the first heat of his inspiration. However, the very next morning we started to work. The blanks in Frank’s memory were filled up with fresh inventions, and finally we had a story we thought good enough to take to Mr. Schulberg. Frank phoned him, but instead of reaching Ben, he was connected with a woman whom I’ll call “Miss Cat.”

“I’m Mr. Schulberg’s scenario editor,” purred Miss Cat. “Your story should have passed through my office.”

“I’m awfully sorry,” Frank said, “but I didn’t even know Mr. Schulberg had a scenario editor.”

“Well, I suppose it can’t be helped now.” Miss Cat was still purring. “You and your wife may come in next Thursday at eleven.” That meant Frank and I would have to sit around, twiddling our thumbs, doing nothing for almost a week. Score one for Miss Cat!

During this week, our old Cole Roadster developed a case of shakes from which it never recovered. When we went to keep our appointment at the studio, it was in a hired limousine with a hired driver, and very, very solid charges per hour. By juggling the baby’s feedings around, I’d planned it so I could nurse him before we started, and be back before he would get too hungry again.

We were ushered into Ben Schulberg’s office and introduced to Miss Cat. She was a middle-aged woman with a light brown fuzzy pompadour and a kittenish blue bow at the neck of her fluffy shirtwaist. She was sweet to us. Far too sweet! The conference started off like a dream. Frank read the first part of the story, and Ben laughed often, or, when there was a dramatic moment, he’d say those lovely words, “That’s good!” and ”That’s beautiful!” He offered some suggestions and we were crazy about them. It was a real communion of minds. Then Miss Cat started in. She began to interrupt with questions and criticisms. Everything slowed up. We were only halfway through when she cried out, “Oh, look at poor, dear Mr. Schulberg. He’s so tired. We’d better knock off now and continue after lunch.”

“But it isn’t even noon,” Frank said. “And we’re all in the mood of the story. I think we ought to go on.”

“No! No!” said Miss Cat. “Poor, poor Mr. Schulberg! We just must stop now, and meet again at one-thirty.”

I saw her eyes rest on my full breasts. She knew our situation all right. And what a chance to punish us for bypassing her in the sale of our story! We rushed out of Mr. Schulburg’s office and told our hired driver to take us out to Santa Monica and back, but quick! We knew the extra trip would make the charge double, but we couldn’t protest.

When we reached home, I fed Mitch his by now very high-priced lunch, but so nervously that he coughed and hiccupped. Of course, I had to stay and calm him. This made us fifteen minutes late for our appointment, a fact that Miss Cat alluded to three times. The afternoon conference didn’t go well. That morning, Schulberg and Frank and I had the magic of agreeing minds. But that wild dash to Santa Monica had broken the mood, and we couldn’t recapture it. As things worked out, Schulberg paid us the full price for the story, but he didn’t engage us for the scenario. That fell to Miss Cat.

Our bank account might not have been expanding, but something else was. After two babies fourteen months apart–pregnant, nursing, not nursing, then pregnant again–my shape and size changed almost as rapidly and radically as Alice’s in “Through the Looking Glass.” My stern obstetrician had told me it was my duty as a mother to be a good cow. He recommended at least two quarts of milk for me a day and lots of gruel. As I always overdo everything, I drank four quarts and consumed an ocean of gruel. I was a good cow indeed, and a fat one. When I was married, I weighed 111 pounds; while I was nursing Mitchell, my second child, I weighed in at 178.

During my pregnancies, I’d bought only a couple of maternity dresses, but now that we had some money again, I went on a shopping spree, choosing flashy prints and too bright colors to compensate for the dreary period I’d just passed through. Of course, all this gaudiness only made me look fatter and wider. In appearance, I was in fact, a “mess.”

During our hard-up times we’d lost touch with many of our friends. What with work and having babies, there wasn’t much chance to make new ones. Plus, I didn’t have much to offer at social gatherings–just talk, talk, talk about babies’ diets and household problems. I suspect Frank wasn’t much better. Once I heard a friend discussing a planned Sunday afternoon party. “We don’t want the dull Dazeys,” she said.

We kept up our friendships with Milton Sills and his first wife Gladys Wynne, a niece of Edith Wynne Mathieson. Milton and Gladys had been warmly sympathetic about our marriage and our babies. And Milton had done something that’s only happened to us once since. He took Frank aside and offered to loan us money if we needed it. By that time we’d had the break of the “Wives” pictures, so we didn’t have to take him up on the offer, but it was comforting to know we had friends like that.

Frank and Milton used to take daylong hikes through the hills behind Hollywood, talking about history and philosophy, but never abut their wives, I’m afraid. One Sunday evening, Frank came back from one of these jaunts with the news that the Sills were going to throw a big party. “Better get yourself an evening gown,” he said.

“I’ll have to,” I said. “I couldn’t fit into any of the ones left over from my trousseau.”

I splurged on a red velvet model. As it came from a top couturier and cost $200, it must have had charms. I never got a chance to show it off. Frank and I drove round and round the Sills’ home the night of the party but, as we hadn’t been invited, we couldn’t go in. Years later, we told Milton about this. “Why Aggie! Frank!” he cried, amazed. “The way you two were, with babies and all, we never dreamed you’d want to come to a party.”

I think this was the first—and last—time anybody had the idea that the Dazeys wouldn’t go to a party!

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