Chapter 31: Parties, Parties, Parties!

Summary: With the money flowing in, Aggie decides to “go social in a big way” by throwing lavish parties, and is invited to many in return. Her guests include the biggest stars in Hollywood, famous directors and producers, and even the boss of all MGM, Marcus Loew.

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In those long past days, money really was money. There was no withholding tax, no Social Security deductions and, for me at least, no ten percent agent’s commission. The Screen Writers Guild had not even been thought of so there were no dues. And, compared to today, income tax was infinitesimal. Nowadays, even a medium-salaried picture writer is lucky if half of what he earns comes through to him. But in those times, my $1250 a week was mine. All mine.

Many of our friends urged us to put our money in the soaring stock market. One day, Peggy Wood and her poet husband, John V. Weaver, came to us and said, “Why don’t you let our man handle your money? He’s already run our stake up to half a million, and he says he’ll make it a whole million in a year or so. Then we’re going to pull out, stop speculating, and retire.”

But Frank, with the memories of his father’s stock dealing misfortunes, was not tempted. “What the hell does an author know about the stock market?” he said.

“But dear,” I protested, “so many of our friends are piling up fortunes.”

“Sure. Everybody’s in the market. May be a good reason to keep out. You have enough to worry about with your writing without having to grab the morning paper to look up quotations.” So, with speculation out, money really did bulge in our pockets. It seems incredible now, but sometimes Frank and I would say to each other, “Let’s go downtown and spend money.” It didn’t make much difference on what.

I had done some modest entertaining for the MGM gang, but now, as though with Frank and the children and the studio I didn’t have enough on my mind, I was determined to go social in a big way. My method for becoming a Hollywood hostess was simple. I’d noticed that celebrities liked to go where other celebrities went. So I’d phone one “social lion,” and mention that some other “lion” was going to be one of my guests. This always resulted in an acceptance. Then I’d phone “Lion Number One” to tell him “Lion Number Two” was coming and, of course, he accepted too. With two “lions” trapped, the rest of the guest list was easy.

To a “small” dinner—only twenty guests or so—I invited Norma Shearer, the lovely young actress whose picture “The Emperor” had been a disappointment for both of us. She hesitated about coming because she didn’t have an escort.

“Don’t be silly, “I said. “I’ll send Olaf for you, and I’ve got some extra men. One of them will take you home.”

But, at the end of the evening, none of the stags—Jack Gilbert, Raymond Navarro, Bill Haines—seemed to want to take my hints, either because they had to work the next day or because they had other dates after my party, or perhaps merely because the actress was a remarkably nice girl. As usual, it was Irving who stepped into the breech.

“Sure, I’ll take Norma home,” he said. Then, looking at her smiling face: “It will be fun.” Soon after, Norma and Irving were engaged, and then married. Until Irving’s death, their romance was one of the finest things of Hollywood.

One evening, I blossomed out with a sit-down dinner for sixty guests. We had a huge T-shaped table built in the garden; Chinese lanterns were hung about in profusion, and on the table itself our six pairs of silver candlesticks and some others we had rented rose from massed gardenias. As an afterthought, I’d engaged a second orchestra. “Nice to have music in the house as well as the garden,” I’d told Frank.

Half an hour before my sixty guests were due, Louella Parsons called up and said some friends had dropped in and she couldn’t get away. Louella was not only a close friend but also an amusing guest—a distinct asset to a party. So I said, “Bring along as many people as you like.” She brought six.

Charlotte Greenwood and her husband, Martin Broones, brought Marcus Loew. This timid looking little man, founder of Loew’s Incorporated, was the boss of all of us, including Irving and Mr. Mayer. Naturally he was welcome. Marion Davies and Mr. Hearst showed up just as we were about to sit down. With them were Charlie Chaplin, Harry d’Arrast and Harry Crocker. Usually at a party of this size some guests would not show up. Not this time. Every single person invited came.

I had a very efficient housekeeper who took me aside. “Mrs. Dazey,” she said. “I count 70 people here and there’s only 60 fillets.”

“Get more,” I told her.

“Impossible. All the butcher shops are closed.” Tears came to my eyes. I’d planned on such a nice party. “Don’t worry, dear,” said my noble housekeeper, patting my arm. “Half of them stars, trying to keep skinny, don’t touch a mouthful on their plates. I’ll fix things.”

At dinner, it seemed to me that the waiters were more frenzied than usual. If they put down a fillet before an actress, and then snatched it up before it was touched to set it down for someone else, it was something I didn’t want to know about. In the end, everybody seemed to get fed.

The fillets weren’t the only problem of the party. After the last guest had been separated from the last bottle of scotch, we discovered that our favorite wedding gift, a pair of two-foot-tall sterling silver candelabras, was missing. I began to cry. But Frank said, “Stop blubbering, Aggie. We’re insured, aren’t we?” We called the company and reported the loss. An inspector came out promptly and interviewed the servants and us and then, pencil poised over a blank form, he wanted to know the name and address of every guest who had attended the party.

“Why?” I demanded.

“We have to question them, of course,” he said.

Send a detective to question Louis B. Mayer or Mr. Hearst about a pair of missing candlesticks? Or Greta Garbo who had conquered her shyness enough to make her rare social appearance? Frank and I looked at each other. “Skip it,” we said.

Of course, entertaining so much, I was invited in return. Perhaps the high point of my social career came when, at a rather select party at “uncle” Carl Laemmle’s, Sylvia Thalberg, Irving’s delicately beautiful dark-eyed sister, said, “My goodness, Aggie! You and Frank are sure invited to a lot of places, considering you’re just writers.”

This was the era of the Mayfair Club. Every big star, every producer, every director, and a very few writers belonged, along with a scattering of the leading bankers and politicians. As always, Irving was the leading spirit. I think he envisioned the goodwill that flourished in his studio spreading over the whole industry.

The Mayfair dinner dances were given at the Hotel Biltmore once a month. And, of course, no woman would ever think of wearing an evening gown she had appeared in before. I remember my succession of gold lamé, beaded chiffon, rhinestone encrusted satin, mink-trimmed black velvet, and other little items which, with the exception of a couple of the bouffant “period gowns” just coming in at the time, had waistlines around my hips and skirts that reached only to my knees.

One Thanksgiving night, Frank and I hosted a party, and the Biltmore was a-jump with college celebrants from a big U.S.C.-California football game. However, as the Mayfair dances were held in a private ballroom, we didn’t think the collegians would bother us.

As it was Prohibition, the hotel couldn’t serve drinks. We engaged a double suite, had a private bar installed, and brought in a Hawaiian trio so our guests could have music with their drinking. Frank and Olaf carried up two suitcases full of liquor apiece. Frank boasted that his bootlegger had managed to get two cases of sparking burgundy–the real thing. This prize liquor turned out to be a pale and watery pink without fizz. What bottles we opened were poured down the toilet. Fortunately, there was plenty of Scotch for all.

It seemed my only problem was Greta Garbo. She came with Jack Gilbert, but was tiffing with him. Seeing her alone at a table like a wallflower, I sent one after the other of my prize stags to ask her to dance. To each one, Greta would only give a blank stare, and rumble in that husky voice of hers, “I don’ wanna.”

When the party was over and Frank and I had said goodbye to our guests, we stayed in the suite for a few minutes to help Olaf collect what bottles were left. Suddenly, from the hall came the sound of crashing blows and a barrage of ripe oaths. Frank opened the door. I peered over his shoulder. Some college boys who had engaged the room opposite our suite were now enjoying a furious free-for-all that was spilling out into the corridor. One youth was down, and another was kicking him while others were swinging blows wildly but enthusiastically.

To my horror, Frank gave a great roar and flung himself spread-eagled into the center of the mêlée. Miraculously, the fighters flew apart. Frank drew himself up and gave a brief, dignified lecture. “Now boys, it’s been a good evening. Why spoil it?”

Then we pranced with Olaf to the elevator, but I’d noticed that the boy who’d been kicked was still lying on the floor. When we reached the hotel desk to pay for our rooms, the hotel manager was beside the room clerk.

“Mr. Dazey,” he said, “there’s been an injured man reported in your suite.” With the manager, we raced to the elevator. In our rooms we found the hurt boy, only half conscious. Those college rascals had put him in our suite, hoping to dump their scandal on us. “This young man wasn’t in our party,” Frank told the manager.

“I’ll still have to report it to the police,” said the manager. Report it? That meant that the newspapers would scream out with the news that there’d been a brawl and a man injured at the Dazey’s Mayfair party. Not only Greta Garbo, but also Irving and Norma and Louella Parsons and many other bright names had been with us that night, names that wouldn’t appreciate connections with a scandal.

Frank did some quick thinking. He took two $20 bills from his pocket and shoved them towards the manager. “Look, fella,” he said. “Here’s $20 to get the poor boy a doctor and $20 for an ambulance to take him to the hospital. That ought to clear things.” The manager looked thoughtfully at the bills, then reached for them. “Yes,” he said, “it should.” I don’t know how much of that $40 was spent on doctor and ambulance, but no word of the mayhem ever reached the papers. And Hollywood was spared another scandal.

Hollywood scandals! One of the questions most often asked of me is “How about the wild parties?” I have to admit I’ve never been to one. At least, not a picture one, though Frank and I went to a couple given by just plain businessmen that were full of hellfire and damnation. In my Mary Pickford days, Fatty Arbuckle and several other big shots were supposed to have thrown some real whiz bangs, but I was too young to be asked. If I had been, I don’t think “the boys,” Ward Crane, Jack Pickford, Bert Lytell and the others, would have let me go. Much later, a certain eminent New York philanthropist, financier and patron of the arts used to make an annual trek to Hollywood. Our own Olaf was sometimes hired to help park cars and clean up at the parties that were given for him. From Olaf’s accounts, these soirees, for sheer degradation, equaled anything from the days of Nero, but Frank and I, married and with children, were not invited.

One New Year’s Eve, Jack Dempsey and Estelle Taylor asked us to their Mayfair party. Ah, but we were also invited up to San Simeon for the weekend. Not willing to miss out on anything, we had Olaf fix up a bed in our Pierce Arrow limousine—a mattress over the back and jump seats complete with sheets, pillow, blankets and a down comforter. Soon after midnight, a crowd of jovial guest escorted us downstairs to the hotel entrance. The dignified, uniformed Biltmore doorman opened the door of our car with a flourish and, kicking off my gold slippers, I plunged into our automobile bed. Frank followed, and we slept soundly with full confidence in Olaf’s careful driving. When we awoke, we were on the twisty road beyond San Luis Obispo, and could see the castled hill of San Simeon before us.

The most brilliant party we went to during this period was given by Charles Ray and his wife, Clara. It started with a barbecue lunch complete with roast piglets. There was swimming, a diving exhibition, and gorgeous singing by a young baritone, Lawrence Tibbett, who was soon to be the sensation of the Metropolitan. That evening, while a Hawaiian orchestra played soft music, we dined at a table that completely encircled the Ray’s octagonal swimming pool. Hundreds of white candles set between bowls of lush red roses lighted the faces of the guests. Every important figure in Hollywood was there.

The next morning, Frank shoved the newspaper across the breakfast table. Headlines announced that Charles Ray had gone into bankruptcy. It seemed such a short time ago that he’d told me, “Aggie, I’ve got a cool million dollars in gilt-edged bonds tucked away in my bank vault.” With his own company, he’d been able to walk away from the bashful country boy characterizations all right but, as Tom Ince had predicted, this had ruined him. Years later, Clara gave me the reason for the grand party. “Charles and I wanted to go down with our flags flying,” she said.

One afternoon, Frank called me at the studio and asked me to tell King Vidor we couldn’t go to a dinner he was giving that night. Commodore Blackton was billed in a special show at the Majestic Theatre that evening, and we ought to take it in. I agreed instantly.

The Majestic Theatre in Santa Monica, since remodeled, was stuffy and drab in those days. Frank and I sat through an indifferent picture. Then the lights were turned on and the Commodore appeared from the wings, carrying what looked like a large cardboard birdcage. It proved to be a kind of magic lantern into which the Commodore would drop slides that showed on the screen and illustrated a talk he delivered on the origin of motion pictures. It was not a brilliant talk, and the audience stirred restlessly. Several people walked out. Standing in back behind the last aisle, the theatre manager was glowering.

We knew things hadn’t gone too well for the Commodore. We knew he’d lost his Vitagraph Studios, his yacht, his Minerva town car, and also a pair of wives. But to come down to this! After the performance, we found the Commodore in the theatre office. He was as jaunty and confident as ever. At his side was a beautiful young girl, his new wife.

That night, over a bottle of Scotch, Frank and I had a long talk. We both felt a deep gratitude toward the Commodore. Hadn’t he given each of us our start? And, at the studio, he’d always been courteous and kind. Now there was nothing we could do to help him. Nothing! It may not be the same way in other businesses, but in pictures the people who have helped you are usually too far over the crest for you to help them by the time you are able. All you can do is to be kind to the newcomers and hope they will be kind to their newcomers when the time comes. Commodore Blackton was killed not long after, crossing some downtown Los Angeles intersection. I like to think of him breasting the traffic, jaunty and confident to the last.

Poor Charles Ray! Poor Commodore! I wonder why Frank and I weren’t warned by their example to slacken our spending a little. Just one economy could we boast those days, and how I detested that! Frank always went hatless in the daytime, and was forever leaving his hat at different parties and nightclubs we went to. One morning, he bounced into my dressing room, wearing what seemed like a piece of very ordinary headgear.

“Look at this Aggie,” he said. “It’s a J.C. Penny hat. I’m tired of forever losing those expensive Stetsons.” Now I have the highest respect for J.C. Penny merchandise. It was Penco sheets that lasted us through the war and the shortages that followed. I buy my denims there today and sometimes even my hats. But when our famous hosts’ butlers would take Frank’s hat and see the “J.C. Penny” label inside, they’d bear it away, tilt-nosed as though the crown had been packed with redolent cheese. And, of course, Frank didn’t lose that hat for almost two years.

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