Chapter 33: A Baby in a Basket

Summary: Frank’s play, “Black Boy,” opens in New York, and Aggie has her third baby a week later. On a whim, Frank and Aggie leave the older children behind and set sail for Europe with the baby. Reporters capture their return, and their photo appears in newspapers across the country. Aggie heads back to MGM, where Irving Thalberg scolds her for skipping out on her contract, but signs her up for another year.



Black Boy” opened in New York on October 6, 1926, and it was a good play. Even today there are people who tell us it was a great one. Reviews were favorable enough, but business was spotty. Some weeks a profit was made, others showed a loss. Frank begged Liveright to get behind the play with one of his great publicity campaigns. Liveright answered curtly that he wasn’t interested in “half successes.” The show must shift for itself.

My baby was due on October 15th. On the afternoon of the 14th, Frank and I took a bus uptown to see Katharine Cornell in “The Green Hat.” There was standing room only, and stand I did through the long performance. The same evening, we went to see “The Captive” at the old Empire Theatre. The only seats we could get were in the balcony, three flights up and, of course, I had to waddle down to the lobby for a cigarette between each act. Afterwards, we walked to the Algonquin and ordered hot chocolate and toasted water crackers with Camembert cheese. When the waiter brought the steaming pot and lifted the cover from the crisply browned crackers, I felt a real pang of hunger—and a pang of another kind. But never was food tastier than the after-theatre snacks the Algonquin served in those days. I ate every bit of my share of the crackers and cheese, and had the waiter bring a second pot of chocolate. When we finally reached the hospital, Frank Junior was born practically in the elevator.

After the turmoil of the “Black Boy” tryouts, having a baby seemed as easy as a manicure, and my rather bleak hospital room was the most restful haven in the world. There was only one problem. My New York doctor couldn’t understand my wanting to nurse the baby.

“But you’re a writer,” he protested. “You must have all kinds of excitement.”

“I think I’ve had about every kind of excitement there is,” I said. “But I still nursed my other two children for six months. I’m going to do the same for this one.”

In a few days, we went back to Stony Brook to show off the baby to Mama, Ruth, and Mitchell. After a week of recovery, there was no reason on earth why I shouldn’t return to Hollywood and finish out my MGM contract. I told Frank he’d better see about train reservations.

“Okay,” he said. “I guess you can take it now.”

“I feel swell. I can take anything,” I said. Then, as a slightly sensational idea struck me, I added, “Even a trip to Europe.”

“Huh?” Frank gasped. “Huh?”

“All my life I’ve dreamed of an ocean voyage,” I said. “But the only boat I’ve ever been on was a Hudson River paddle-wheeler. And that trip was a dud.”

“You’d like England,” said Frank. “And you’d be crazy about Paris. Gosh, I’d like to split a bottle of really fine Graves with you!”

“Of course Irving might not like my running off that way. And with my option coming up so soon…”

Frank broke in. “The important problem is just how soon you can get packed.”

“Three or four days.”

“May take a little longer than that to get passports and things. But say, how about the little worm upstairs?”

“He goes too. No bother about milk changes with him. He’ll get the same food all through the trip.”

“But what if there are storms and you get seasick?”

“There won’t be storms, and I won’t get seasick,” I said firmly.

It was a cold November afternoon, with scattered snowflakes drifting down from a ragged sky when Frank and I marched tandem up the gangplank of a great Cunard ocean liner. Between us, in a clothesbasket, swung Frank Junior, exactly four weeks and one day old. His small wool blankets and satin coverlet were of the finest quality, but the old basket was one we’d had around Stony Brook for years.

Stewards scuffled away with our bags. Frank and I, each gripping firmly a handle of the basket, went to the rail of the passenger deck. There below on the dock, looking so tiny and all woolied up against the cold, were Ruth and Mitchell. With them was Frank’s mother, who had agreed to take over while we were away. Frank managed a yell that could be heard above the hurly burly of the embarking. I don’t know whether the children actually saw us or not, but they waved their mittened hands wildly.

“Oh, Frank!” I said. “It’s winter and what if they get sick? Cold or even pneumonia or appendicitis. We’ve never both been away from them before.” Frank pulled me from the rail. “Let’s get going,” he said. “When you’re on an ocean voyage, the first thing to do is to find a sympathetic bartender.” We went to our cabin, tipped a stewardess to watch our precious basket, and began a grand tour of the ship only to find all the bars were closed until we were beyond the three-mile limit. After dinner, with the liner chopping away at the open sea, we took up our search for a congenial barkeep. The first class lounge delayed us only a minute.

“The barkeeps may be swell,” said Frank, “But with all that dressed up crowd hanging around, we might as well be back with the gang in Hollywood.” The second-class salon was also dismissed. “Too damned stuffy,” said Frank. “At least the people look that way. Probably half of ‘em are sore because they didn’t have enough to go first class.”

It was in the third cabin portion of the ship where we found our haven. The salon was small and the bar made of plain, but brightly scrubbed oak, with only a single attendant. No doubt the Cunard people figured third class passengers wouldn’t have too much extra money for drinks. At the time we came in, the plain stools in front of the plain bar were empty. The bartender, a very short man with watery eyes and a tiny sprigged moustache, had a wistful expression that brightened to surprise when he saw Frank and me in our evening clothes. We perched on stools and grinned at him. He told us his name was “’arry.”

“I guess at last we’ll get some real Scotch,” I said to Frank.

“Oh, no. We’ve had Scotch or an unreasonable facsimile for years. What we want is Bass Ale. Even the bootleggers can’t fake that.” The Bass Ale, when it came, seemed heavy and bitter. I had a hard time getting through the first bottle. The second I found pleasanter, the third divine. A chunky red-faced British gent took the bar stool next to us and entered into what he obviously considered a lengthy conversation to have with strangers. It consisted of one sentence, “Looks like we might have a bit of a blow tonight, don’cherknow?”

Whether or not we had that bit of a blow, I couldn’t say. After the third Bass Ale, I had Frank take me back to the cabin where I gave Frank Junior his ten o’clock feeding and tumbled blissfully into bed. When I woke it was full daylight. And the ship had far less movement than it did when it was bouncing its way out of New York harbor. Frank was waking too.

“Hey, Aggie,” he said, “You skipped the 2:00 a.m. feeding.”

“Frank Junior must have liked his Bass Ale via me,” I said. “Look, he’s still sound asleep in his basket.” We ordered breakfast in bed. It came borne on trays by a steward and stewardess, both smiling and apple-cheeked. After we’d stuffed ourselves with liver and kidneys, fat crumpets and tangy English marmalade, we snuggled down in bed again. Frank breathed a long relaxed sigh.

“No phone calls, No appointments. No work. No worries,” he said. “By God, I feel human again. Say, Aggie, know what this trip is going to be? The honeymoon we were cheated out of by that darned Selznick telegram.”

“Oh come now, Frank! A honeymoon with a baby? And two more kids at home?”

“For me it’ll be a honeymoon,” said Frank. “Aggie, I think you’re still darned cute.”

Honeymoon or not, Frank and I didn’t look up any friends or use any of our letters of introduction. For six days in London and eight in Paris, it was just the two of us and, of course, Frank Junior. With appointments to keep with the baby every three hours, sightseeing was necessarily sketchy. After brief attempts at the British Museum and St. Paul’s, we gave it up altogether. Mostly, we’d just drift away from whatever hotel we were staying at, sometimes basket in hand, sometimes leaving Frank Junior in the care of a chambermaid. We’d walk and walk, endlessly entertained by the faces of the people in the streets, the shop windows, and the chanced-on churches or markets. When we were hungry, we ate lunch at any small inn or restaurant we hit upon. In England there’d be Bass Ale and in France Frank’s favorite Graves wine. Then we’d float back to the hotel, Frank Junior would have his meal, and all three of us would nap for hours. Afternoons, it was the same heavenly routine all over again. I’ve never seen any guidebook that recommended this precise method for seeing Europe, but it was great fun for us.

When a cable came that “Black Boy” was closing, I wanted to cry. But Frank said, “What’s the use of fussing, Aggie? We can’t have everything, and this has sure been a good trip.”

Soon, we here headed back to America on the great liner, “Paris.” There were prominent people on board. The De Pinna family, the beautiful widow of Enrico Caruso and her daughter, Gloria. But when the New York shop reporters scrambled up from the pilot’s tug, it was our basket baby they centered their attention on. It was a great story: To Europe and back, and only eight weeks old! Picture after picture was taken. I have one now—Frank in horn-rimmed glasses, me slightly ridiculous in a fur coat and knee-high leather boots. Between us, Frank Junior is riding high in his basket and happy with the world.

The reason Frank Junior was riding high was that Frank had hidden eight flat bottles of Ballentines Scotch under the mattress. One of the reporters who started to lift the basket exclaimed at the weight. Going through customs, we insisted on carrying it ourselves, and the courteous officials never suspected an eight-week old baby of law breaking.

“Movie Writer Returns with Baby in Dog Basket.” This headline with a picture appeared in almost every paper in the country. No screenplay I’ve ever written brought me so much fan mail.

“You are daring…” “Courageous”… “An example to the womanhood of America.” Or…”Brazen, disgraceful, showing off a sweet young innocent like that.” Back in Hollywood, Irving gave me a fine scolding for playing truant. I told him I knew I’d been naughty, but the trip had been worth it.

“All right, Aggie,” he said. “We’ll sign you on for another year, but no raises this time.”

Could be my baby-in-a-basket jaunt to Europe cost the family a fair sum of money!


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