How This Project Started
While moving my grandmother out of her Torrance apartment in 1976, my father found a stack of typewritten pages in a heap on the floor. He gathered up the brittle, pencil-marked pages and took them home, where he handed them off to me. This blog is about how Aggie’s manuscript is evolving as I put it into a digital format her great and great-great grandchildren can read.
I first began typing it up several summers ago, but progress was slow. Scanning didn’t work because the letters were too fuzzy. The first chapter was a jumble of repeated passages and pages, so editing it into a cohesive piece was a tedious chore. In the fall, I returned to my job teaching college writing and shoved the manuscript back into the closet.
I retired in June 2016, and after growing bored with deleting old emails, I tried to resurrect my early attempts at transcribing Aggie’s account of her early life and how she broke into the movie business. After all, she ended up working with the biggest stars in Hollywood. And with the explosion of blogs on the Internet, I had a way to get her story out where the whole family and other interested readers could access it.
A breakthrough came when I reconnected with an old friend, Holly Sneeringer, a former student who went on to a career in writing and teaching. I sent her a Christmas card, and she emailed me back. I invited her for lunch, and we discussed our stalled writing projects. Hers was a novel that she had written longhand, and then abandoned. After thinking about it, I emailed her an idea: What if we were to establish “Typing Tuesdays” to jump start our projects and support each other in the process?
Holly’s manuscript still sits in a drawer, but she has used Typing Tuesday to work on On Thresholds, a home and garden website, and other new projects. She inspired me to start this WordPress site, and she has read every chapter of Aggie’s Autobiography as it was posted. Without her interest, I’d still be struggling with Chapter 1.
So, thanks, Holly! I know you, and maybe other readers, might be interested in my early years with Aggie, who moved near our family when I was in high school and who wrote me long letters as I went off to college and beyond. The next posting on this blog will be about the strong connection I feel with Aggie, whose presence hangs over my shoulder every Typing Tuesday. As I emailed Holly one Tuesday, “She would have loved the delete key!”
In the 38 years before I finally tackled Aggie’s Autobiography, I circled around the manuscript a couple of times. In 1981, I earned three undergraduate credits in a film class at Oregon State University by writing a synopsis of each chapter and evaluating what I should do with the manuscript. Back then, I used a typewriter with cartridges, one for typing and one for correcting. It was tedious work to write that 32-page report, but I was rewarded with an A.
I milked Aggie’s manuscript yet again when I used it for a project in a graduate course. It was 1995, and I was taking an editing class for the master of professional writing program at Towson University. In the introduction, I wrote, “I have always felt intimidated by the prospect of editing this tome . . . it will be an emotionally draining, technically demanding, and time-consuming job.” I agonized over my editing process in erudite sentences like this: “I changed the order and structure of sentences to keep the known/new contract, and tried to keep parallel structure within sentences in the use of past, past perfect, and past progressive tenses, all which are found in that one paragraph.”
In the end, though, it was my 20 years of university teaching that gave me the confidence to edit Aggie’s life story. After grading countless papers and teaching hundreds of grammar lessons, I know my way around a comma. And Aggie would have been astonished at how easy it is to move words around and rewrite sentences. The cut-and-paste function would have pleased her no end. I could almost feel Aggie looking over my shoulder and approving every change.
My personal relationship with Aggie also helped. We adored each other, and she always told me I had a writer’s imagination like she did. When she moved back to California after Frank’s health deteriorated, we’d go for long walks in Hermosa Beach, talking to the local beach bums and bathing beauties she had befriended, or we would visit Frank at the nursing home. “You were closer to her than any of us,” my brother told me a few months ago.
When I left for college in 1969, we wrote letters back and forth faithfully—long, detailed letters about everything we were going through. The University of Oregon was a hotbed of protests, as were campuses across the country. Grandad Frank died that summer, and my other grandfather died the same week. We often wonder if the protests over Vietnam and the draft hastened their deaths; certainly it didn’t help when my mother had to borrow bail money from her father. My brother had been caught up in the Santa Barbara riots and arrested. As an innocent bystander, he was beaten repeatedly when he tried to explain to police that they were mistaken. As for me, I spent the last week of my freshman year in a hospital bed recovering from an illness that would later get my brother out of the draft. Through it all, we wrote letters.
In 2017, the timing was finally perfect for the autobiography project. Not only was I retired, but also resources such at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) and Wikipedia allowed me to insert hyperlinks to biographies of all the stars Frank and Aggie worked with. IMDb is an amazing trove of information about the movies. In my 1981 film class report, I noted, “ . . . additional information about the actors, directors, producers, etc, should be annotated. Factual information needs to be verified, and oblique references made clear through footnoting . . .” Thank-you, Internet, for making footnotes obsolete (for blogs, anyway). I assure you that Aggie would be beaming with delight at this bit of modern magic!
The Internet is not the only resource I used during the year it took to type up the manuscript. The Three Villages Historical Society, near Stony Brook, returned my email and offered photos of Aggie as a young girl. I corresponded with Daniel Kinney, who wrote an article for the historical society newsletter about Aggie and Frank’s wedding. He plays the organ for the St. James Chapel where they were married to music from the same organ. I also stumbled across the Columbia University’s Women Film Pioneers Project, and, yes, Agnes Christine Johnston is among the pioneers they included.
The circle is not yet completely closed. There is an epilogue to write and more photos to post. And all those letters—should I share them with the world? Stay tuned. ~SDS