My Most Unforgettable Character

By Frank Dazey

 

Editor’s note: Reader’s Digest had a regular feature with the title Frank uses for this essay, which was probably never submitted, much less published. It seemed unfinished in spots, with many ellipses ( . . . ) edited out. Other than punctuation, only minor edits have been made.

1914

I was a staff writer at the old Vitagraph Company of America, then the foremost motion picture studio on the world. On my desk lay rough notes for a story, a two reeler that had to be put in full scenario that afternoon if I was going to catch a train for the West where I wanted to see a girl I was much interested in. Pressed for time, I’d asked for a stenographer, a rare luxury for movie writers those days as we were supposed to type our own. I was waiting impatiently when there was a small knock at my office door.

“Come in!” I yelled.

A skinny dark little girl with a snub nose tiptoed in. She looked about sixteen—and was.

“Get at that typewriter, “ I said gruffly. “I only hope you’re good.”

She was. For two hours she took my dictation as fast as I could bark it out. Then, almost unconsciously, I found myself asking questions. What would the little girl heroine of my story wear to her birthday party? My typist suggested a pink accordion-pleated dress, confiding that she, herself, had always wanted a pink accordion-pleated dress. And, finally, when I was puzzling how to end the yarn, my typist put in, “Why not have the picture fade as the little girl blows out her birthday candies?”

“That does it!” I said. “We’re in.”

By the time the pages were proofread it was nine-thirty, and the studio deserted.

“Now you take the script to your office,” I said. “And be sure it gets to the scenario head first thing in the morning.”

She was halfway through the door before I called out, “Hey, I’ll bet you’re as hungry as I am! Neither of us has eaten since noon. I ought to take you to dinner.”

For a moment there was hesitation. “My mother won’t like my being out this late with a man,” she said, “but I’ll go.”

Fillet Mignon. Asparagus Hollandaise. Baked Alaska. Even for an established movie writer with the vast salary of thirty a week, I was extravagant that night. But it never occurred to me I could be anything else. I learned that my typist’s name was Agnes Christine Johnston, and that she was supporting her mother and sister on her salary of ten dollars a week. That, when her family had had money, she’d gone to fine schools—Packer Collegiate and Horace Mann. That, as a child, she’d owned and loved a pony named “Jackie.” Also, I told her almost all there was to know about me.

We were two scared kids (I was only twenty-two myself), both with responsibilities too heavy for us. But, as I looked into those enormous brown eyes across the table, I felt a strange serenity. There was no talk of love. No holding hands under the table. Yet I knew that here was courage, fidelity, faith. As long as the dinner lasted and for the few square feet or so our table occupied, the world was good. A happy place to be alive in.

We did not meet again for two years and, during that time, I met some lovely girls and tried honestly to fall in love. But, somehow, it never worked out.

1918

My typist had developed herself into a writer by this time. A most successful writer. At nineteen she was, I think, the youngest scenario writer ever to be listed in “Who’s Who In America.” Then, suddenly, she’d broken off everything and entered Professor George Pierce Baker’s famous 47 Workshop at Harvard.

“I was tired of just writing and writing. And I wanted to really learn something,” she explained later.

At the time, my orders to go overseas had come, and I was “dating”—as one might say—a singularly beautiful young star in Hollywood. But it wasn’t love, and I knew it. From the East-bound train, I sent a chance telegram to Boston.

Now since that Baked Alaska dinner four years back, Aggie and I had met perhaps three times, and exchanged less than a dozen letters. Nevertheless, when I reached New York, she was at the station to meet me. Till I embarked four days later, we were together some sixteen hours out of every twenty-four. Breakfast, usually at the Astor, lunch, say at the Biltmore, and, at night, Bustenoby’s or Churchill’s or, when we wanted to be quiet and just talk, Keen’s Chop House.

The five hundred dollars I’d arrived in New York with dwindled to sixteen, but what of that? Going off to war, with this girl I found peace. Of course there was love making. Delicious love making! But when my ship was chopping its way across the Atlantic, it was not on those times or the rides in taxi-cabs around Central Park that my mind dwelt. It was the laughter—like when I’d taken her to Abercrombie and Fitch and, pretending to be an officer’s wife, she’d picked out my overseas kit. Or the long pound, pound, when hand in hand, we’d banged our way up the iron stairs of the Statue of Liberty.

I knew I was headed for the front and, with war on, it did not seem right to tie up any girl’s future with mine. Therefore, during all those four miracle days, there’d been no use of the word “love.” I knew she’d understand, and she did.

1921

Married twenty months. A one-year-old baby. Another two months off. And an out-size wolf sticking its ugly snout in the door. Hollywood didn’t go in for babies those days the way it does now. A prolific pair, such as we were, was regarded as somehow suspicious. Word was around the studios that the Dazeys had “lost their spark.” Overwhelmed by unaccustomed domesticity, it is quite possible we had.

Ah, but a producer friend from the East, who hadn’t heard of our unsparkness, wanted a story! This was a chance to regain a toehold in the industry. We set to work. For a pair branded as dullards, we didn’t do badly. The story progressed. Then our year-old darling came down with pneumonia and, the same day that the doctor made his pronouncement, a call came from our producer friend. He was going back to New York and must have our yarn in two days. Unable to afford a nurse or even a maid, we worked out a schedule. While one of us typed, the other nursed our very sick child.

It was early in the morning of the day our friend was to leave. The baby had had convulsions and I’d been holding her, trying to keep her warm, letting her quivering little body rest across my stomach. The tap-tap-tap of Aggie’s typewriter in the next room went on against the sound of the baby’s dry hacking cough.

Blue daylight came, full of little waking bird sounds. The door opened and Aggie came in, pushing her enormous pregnant stomach in front of her.

“Look! The baby’s fallen into a natural sleep,” I whispered. “I think she’d going to get well.”

On Aggie’s face was as much of a smile as two sleepless nights and days permitted. In her hand was a piece of paper. She showed it to me. Halfway down was written those words so wonderful to a writer: “The End.”

Our friend bought the story all right. It started a whole series. “Rich Men’s Wives” led to ”Poor Men’s Wives” and “Mothers-in-Law,” etc. Word went around the Dazeys had recovered their “spark.” And I’d been witness to an exhibition of courage such as it had never been my lot to encounter during my time at the front.

1924

Since the “wives” series, I’d had a play produced on Broadway that had failed, but Aggie had gone from one minor success in pictures to another. Now she’d been asked to come to the newly formed Metro Goldwyn Mayer Company to talk about a long-term contract. I drove her to the studio in our spanking new Peerless and, on the way, gave advice.

“Look here, Aggie,” I said. “We’ve had uncertainty ever since we’ve been married. A year’s security would certainly be swell. Of course you won’t get as much as your regular salary on a freelance job. Why don’t you start by asking four hundred and come down to two-fifty if you have to? Play it safe.”

She smiled and said, “Thanks for the advice.”

For half an hour, I waited outside the studio. Then she appeared, a sort of trance-like look on her face. Without a word, she got into the car and we drove off. We were halfway home when I finally burst out, “Well, what happened?”

“Don’t be mad, Frank dear,” she said. “But I’ve learned always to do the exact opposite of everything you advise about business. I had my interview with Irving Thalberg, asked for a thousand a week, and he said, ‘okay.’ This will be great for the kids. We can buy a house now.”

1926

Those were the days when income taxes were infinitesimal. I had had two plays accepted for Broadway. She was making twelve-fifty a week. We were both still pretty young and obviously something had to be done about this prosperity. What we did was polo. We soon had a string of five ponies. I played with the Uplifters Club men’s team on Wednesdays and Sundays. She played with the girls’ team and Will Rogers’ young sons, Will Junior and Jimmy, on Saturdays. One morning I woke to find her sitting straight up in bed, a taut look on her face.

“What’s the matter?” I asked. “Something wrong at the studio?”

“No,” she said. “It’s my polo. I’m just no good at it.”

“I watched you Saturday and you were terrible,” I agreed.

“A couple of the girls and even young Jimmy Rogers kidded me about it after the game, but I fixed ‘em.”

“How?”

“I said I was giving up polo. Not exciting enough. From now on it’s steeplechasing.”

“What!” I cried. “You don’t know a darned thing about jumping. You’ll break your neck.”

“I’ve entered for the Women’s Steeplechase at the end of the month,” she said firmly.

I’d been married long enough to know protest was futile. One of our ponies was both swift and sure-footed. Every morning we rose at the crack of dawn and I did my best to train both horse and rider. On the afternoon of the race, I planted myself in the center of the track so if an accident occurred I could pick up the pieces.

But there was no accident. Although there were professional riders in the race, movie stunt girls, and great hunting thoroughbreds, my wife and my horse came in second. After that there were other steeplechases and jumping contests, one for which Aggie actually picked up a blue ribbon. And all her life she’s been scared to death of horses.

1928

And a baby later… We were in New York, both feeling low, as I’d had a play die a lingering death, one of those near-hit things that can break a writer’s heart. She saw how low down in the mouth I was so, one morning, “Frank,” she said, “we’re going to take a vacation in Europe.”

“How can we?” I said. “The baby’s only four weeks old and there’s your MGM contract….”

“I’ll wire Irving I’m too weak after the baby to go back to work,” she said. “And as for Frankie Junior, we’ll just pop him into a clothes basket. I haven’t severed connections with him yet you know, and I’ll bet he’ll thrive on milk and champagne—via me.”

Thus it happened that our youngest can boast, “Sure, I’ve toured Europe. Went over at four weeks and came back at eight.” The trip was a grand success for everyone. Even young Frankie gained a pound and a half.

1930

I came home from polo practice one afternoon to find her sprawled out on our big living room lounge-chair and—what was most unusual—crying.

“What the heck’s up?” I demanded.

“Look!” she said, and handed me a smudged piece of paper.

On it was our eight-year-old daughter Ruth’s penciled scrawl. It read:

THE MOTHER WHO THOUGHT BUSINESS WAS

MORE IMPORTANT THAN CHILDREN

ACT ONE

“See,” said Aggie, “Ruth thinks I’m a rotten mother.”

“Oh, she’s just a kid,” I said. “You’re wonderful.”

“No, she’s right. I’m not only a rotten mother but a rotten housekeeper and a rotten wife. If I hadn’t been so darned tied up with my job, I could have helped you a lot more with your last play. We’ve got to do something, Frank. We’ve just got to.”

“What?” I asked.

“Well, get away from Hollywood for one thing.”

“Huh. Times are rough, you know.”

“I don’t care. We’ve saved some money. Not as much as we should have, but some. We can dig in at that old house we own on Long Island and try fiction. Or you can write another play.”

“If things don’t work out, you may have to cook and wash dishes,” I said.

“So what! At least I’ll get to know my own children and not have to talk to them through servants.”

Things didn’t work out. Not for a long, long time. But we did get close to the children, and I like to think that, sharing our difficulties, the children got close to us. For a while, so we could have more time for our writing, they did all the housework except on weekends.

Eventually, what with the screenplays of seven of “The Hardy Family” series, two “Janie” and other ‘youth’ pictures, a measure of prosperity returned. But those four lean years somehow made a unit of our family. It is not impossible that they were really the most “profitable” of any we’ve been through.

1942

All three children went off to the war, and our home was a still and lonely place indeed. Sometimes we gave parties, sometimes we went to them, and we had what passed for very good times. But often, even after a third cocktail, we’d catch each other’s eyes across the room and what we’d see was not joy. And, soon after, we’d make our excuses and go home.

One afternoon, as we were driving down Wilshire Boulevard, she suddenly leaned towards me and said, “Frank, we’re going to give a party tonight.”

“I’m sick of parties,” I answered. “And, anyhow, it’s too late.”

“Not too late for this one. It’s going to be for soldiers.”

“Soldiers? We don’t know any soldiers. None who are in town.”

“We’re going to pick ‘em off the street. You know—the kind who just mill around Santa Monica looking lonesome!”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll drop you off at home to get things ready, and then go for some hamburgers and beer.”

“Like hell you will!” she said, lapsing into rare profanity. “I’m going to call the butcher and tell him we’ve got to have fillets. And you can bring out your best liquor. Lots of it.”

“What do you want to do? Get the army drunk?”

“Nobody’s going to get drunk,” she said. “I’ve got a plan.”

McGinty…..Weiss….Politz….Jones….Farworthy! I can still remember the names of some of the boys we brought in that night. And I’ll never forget the looks on their faces as they saw the fat fillets sizzling on the barbecue, the good Scotch and bourbon standing on the serving table. No second-class entertainments for soldiers that night! They could relax in a real home.

After the first round of drinks, Aggie went to each of our eight uniformed men, a pad and pencil in her hand. “Give me your mother’s name and address,” she said. “I want to write her that I’ve seen her son and that you’re just fine. Coming from a stranger, she’ll like that.”

We gave many soldier parties after that. They were the most fun we had of any during the war years. And, even when things were boiling at the studio, within two or three days after each party a warm personal letter would go off to the parents of our soldier guests. And every letter we sent off was answered, often with such gratitude that it made us feel humble indeed. One, on tear-stained paper, from an Italian mother ended, “I thank you from the bottoms of my heart.”

1951

Aggie is playing tennis in the club tournament with the formidable Dorothy Bundy Cheney as partner. Their opponents are a European champion and another girl who has won a fair share of cups. Aggie is not—and never will be—a great tennis player, and naturally the opposition directs every possible ball at her. All she can do is to block the strokes and lob. But, red-faced and puffing slightly, she blocks and lobs, usually to within six inches of the back line. And, on the opponent’s return, Dodo moves in for the kill. A tough three set match, and she and Dodo walk off with the cups. Not bad for a player with four grandchildren!

1952

An assignment to go to Germany and write pictures for the State Department. For research, a rather incredible trip down the Rhine as guests of a tug boat captain. Our stout craft had a crew of four, the captain, the engineer, the mate and the “ship’s boy.” As is not uncommon on the Rhine, the young engineer had his young wife aboard, and his young wife was pregnant and ‘first baby scared,’ a situation that obviously called for Aggie’s attention.

As the Maus Turm….Bingen….Pflaz….and the fabled Lorelei Rock marched by in proud and beautiful procession, the two women would sit for hours on pillows thrown on the center hatch. There would be squeals of laughter followed by the hum of earnest conversation. What the long talks were about I could never imagine. At the time Aggies’s German vocabulary was something less than twenty words. The engineer’s wife knew just three of English.

1953

En route home. And so much excitement behind us! Besides the Rhine trip, one on a military train through the Russian Zone to Berlin, then stays in Frankfurt, Cologne, and the VIP house in Munich. We passed through three borders to the Zugspitze in the Alps. And then a month’s vacation. Solid loafing, drifting down Italy. Verona, Venice, Rome, Florence, Pisa, Naples, Vesuvius, Pompeii, the blue Grotto. And two weeks in incredible Sorrento, making friends with the natives, sometimes helping the fishermen haul in their nets at noon.

But, on our new Orleans-bound freighter, no excitement at all. No swimming pool, no ping pong table, not even a bar, for we had booked a liquorless ship. Just two other passengers, a grandmother and her eleven-year-old grandson. Two solid weeks of this and, as our ship made her slow but steady headway, we were more alone together than we had even been before. If any talking was to be done, it had to be with each other.

Such a long, long time had passed! Thirty-nine years. Surely there’d been time for us to talk ourselves out, for the mystery that had first brought us together to become weak and tenuous! But no. As we trudged our daily fifty laps around the deck, as at night, grasping to the rail, we stood wondering at the ocean’s black heaving immensity, I knew that here beside me was courage, fidelity, faith. While we were together, the world was a good world, a fine brave place to be alive in. It was the best trip we’ve ever had in our lives.

I wouldn’t say that my wife is my most unforgettable character, but she might easily be the most unforgettable six.

***

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “My Most Unforgettable Character

  1. Wow. Just wow. What a beautiful essay and amazing story! I really felt like I knew Frank and Aggie after reading this. Where did you find this essay?

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    1. I found it in a file cabinet in the garage along with all the scripts she had saved over the years. I actually mailed it to Aggie, who was living in Stony Brook at the time. She loved reading it again, as Frank had just passed away and it reminded her how much he loved her. Thanks so much for your comments!

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  2. Well I don’t know if my previous comment went through as Word Press took me to my personal page. But anyway, I loved this essay and beautiful story. I really felt like I knew Frank and Aggie after reading this. I have such admiration of Aggie and also of Frank for supporting her in all her risky endeavors.

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  3. This is such a lovely essay and compliment to Aggie’s autobiography. A wonderful story! What a journey they had and it’s been fun following along with them and learning so much about so many things–history, culture, Hollywood, writing, family, and love!

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