The Shocking Miss Pilgrim: A Writer in Early Hollywoodby Frederica Sagor Maas
" Freddie Maas's revealing memoir offers a unique perspective on the film industry and Hollywood culture in their early days and illuminates the plight of Hollywood writers working within the studio system. An ambitious twenty-three-year-old, Maas moved to Hollywood and launched her own writing career by drafting a screenplay of the bestselling novel The Plastic
" Freddie Maas's revealing memoir offers a unique perspective on the film industry and Hollywood culture in their early days and illuminates the plight of Hollywood writers working within the studio system. An ambitious twenty-three-year-old, Maas moved to Hollywood and launched her own writing career by drafting a screenplay of the bestselling novel The Plastic Age for ""It"" girl Clara Bow. On the basis of that script, she landed a staff position at powerhouse MGM studios. In the years to come, she worked with and befriended numerous actors and directors, including Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Eric von Stroheim, as well as such writers and producers as Thomas Mann and Louis B. Mayer. As a professional screenwriter, Fredderica quickly learned that scripts and story ideas were frequently rewritten and that screen credit was regularly given to the wrong person. Studio executives wanted well-worn plots, but it was the writer's job to develop the innovative situations and scintillating dialogue that would bring to picture to life. For over twenty years, Freddie and her friends struggled to survive in this incredibly competitive environment. Through it all, Freddie remained a passionate, outspoken woman in an industry run by powerful men, and her provocative, nonconformist ways brought her success, failure, wisdom, and a wealth of stories, opinions, and insight into a fascinating period in screen history.
"Maas's story is important because she tells us how the various studios operated back then." Rapport
"An excellent history of what it was to be a writer in the film industry then." Southern Pines (NC) Pilot
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MY MOTHER WAS A GRADUATE of Moscow University in the early 1880s. She had also been a piano student at the Moscow Conservatory of Music and aspired to be a concert pianist until Anton Rubinstein, who was head of the conservatory and one of her teachers, told her that her hands were too chubby, her fingers too short, for her to hope for a soloist career. Another of her teachers, just beginning his career, was Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Mama treasured two small autographed pictures of these great artists, and they alone adorned her bedroom bureau until I fell heir to them.
My ever-practical mother turned, instead, to the profession of midwifery, a highly respected profession then. She received her training in Germany and later boasted that, in fifteen years of practice, she never lost a patient.
In addition to her native Russian, Mama spoke fluent German and French. When she later came to America, she learned to speak Yiddish from living in Jewish neighborhoods and shopping in Yiddish butcher and grocery stores. But English was another matter. She never mastered it, although she tried very hard.
"Your devilish language," she would say in Russian, "the spelling never makes sense. In Russian, a word is spelled the way it sounds and has one meaning. In English, a word is seldom spelled the way it sounds and has so many different meanings." In later years, when miles separated us and we had to correspond, she wrote her weekly letters phonetically, and I cherished every misspelled word.
In the 1880s in Russia, the Romanov dynasty was flourishing with the backing of the decadent Greek Orthodox Church. Revolution was in the air but successfully controlled by the powerful regime. My father had come to Moscow to meet with university students engaged in revolutionary activities. One of the students was my mother, and that is how they met. She was twenty-five years old then and considered herself an old maid. But my handsome six-foot, two-inch father changed her mind, even though he was a Jew and she was not.
Papa came from a provincial town called Zagorsk, not far from Moscow. His name was Zagorsky (son of Zagorsk). It was anglicized to "Sagor" when he came to the United States. After marriage, my mother and father lived in Moscow with her parents. Her father raised and trained horses for the nobility and military. He was also an opera buff and loved music. (One of his sons, Sasha Litvinoff, was an outstanding violinistamong the first to play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in concert. He later became a conductor and, after the revolution in 1917, left for Denmark to become head of the Danish orchestra.)
While living in Russia, my parents, Arnold and Agnessa Zagorsky, had three daughters: Vera, Sonya (Sophie), and Luba (Lilly). Then one fine day, Russian officials decided that, because my father was a Jew (and a revolutionary), he and his family could no longer live in Moscow. My mother, faced with the prospect of leaving her beloved Moscow and moving to a small town in a Jewish settlement, stoically refused. If they couldn't live in Moscow, then they would live in Americawhere there was freedom to live anywhere you wanted, without fear of the secret police watching your every move. And she dispatched my father posthaste to New York to find a new life for us.
And so it was, three years later, that Ellis Island witnessed the reunion of my mother, my three sisters (ages four, seven, and nine), and my father. Papa was now in the curtain business and "making a living," as they put it in those difficult days of struggle. He had an apartment ready on the lower East Side. It was on the top floor of a rundown three-story walkup. My intrepid mother took one look around and would not allow her children to sleep there until she had washed down the walls and floors with carbolic acid.
After one week in America, she donned her palerina (a heavy, lined, blue cape with a hood made for Russian winters) and resumed her career as a midwife. In those days, for the munificent sum of ten dollars, a midwife attended her patient during the birth of the baby and provided one week's postnatal care. Mama always claimed that she knew more about childbearing than the average doctorespecially when it came to hygiene. American doctors, she said, arriving in their horsedrawn buggies, came to the bedside of patients without a thought of washing their hands. Only my diminutive mother, all four feet, six inches of her, arms akimbo, defied them. She had a pot of boiling water and soap ready, and they had to scrub to the elbows and then don a white gown that she had sewn for the purpose.
Mama's practice mushroomed, and she soon had more work than she could handle. In addition to working, she sewed all her children's clothes and never failed to have a hot lunch on the stove waiting for them to heat up when they came home from school. Dear Papa was never a moneymaker, and household expenses were barely met until my sisters began to teach, years later. The first thing my mother saved for was a pianoa secondhand upright Knabe that she bought for twenty-five dollars. The piano lessons for Vera and Sophie were twenty-five cents each, twice a month. The teacher was a dapper young Russian immigrant, a Mr. Danielson. Later, when he came up in the musical world, Jacques Danielson achieved the distinction of becoming the husband of Fannie Hurst, the famous novelist and short story writer. Mr. Danielson (he was always Mr. Danielson to us) was especially proud to have been the teacher of my gifted sister, Sophie, who he turned over to the noted Rafael Joseffy for launching as a performing artist. Yes, my mother was a terror in what she was able to accomplish. I like to think that her only daughter to be born under the American flag and christened Frederica Alexandrina (Freddie for short) inherited some of her extraordinary get-up-and-go.
I was born in a coldwater railroad flat on 101st Street near Madison Avenue on July 6, 1900. My mother was her own midwife with the help of my oldest sister, Vera, who was then seventeen. It was early afternoon; Papa, of course, was at business. There was no time to call the doctor, so Mama delivered me herself.
"Another girl," she said softly, shaking her head. "Your Papa will not like that. He wanted a son."
Dear Papa, how he had hoped for a son when I came along! Four daughters. But as I grew up and became more interesting to be with, he tried to reconcile his disappointment because he recognized almost from the start that I was different from my matriarch-dominated sisters. As I grew older, I was ever ready to challenge and defy my austere mother, who would never listen to the other side of the story and whose favorite word was "Nyet."
It was Papa who bought my Easter and school outfits downtown at Hester and Grand Streets on the lower East Side. Jewish merchants had their retail stores there, one next to another, and often stood in the doorway with a long hooked pole to pull in a passing customer. When finally I found the coat or dress I wanted, the haggling began. And they haggled to the last penny over the price of the garment I wanted so much. Those were moments of genuine terror for me as Papa and the merchant argued back and forth. Finally Papa, taking me by the hand, would prepare to leave the store. I was always sure he would lose the battle and I would lose the coat or dress I wanted. But Papa always won, for the merchant was sure to come running after us before we could enter another store.
On these expeditions, always made by the "elevated," Papa would give me a penny, which I inserted into a vending machine on the platform. The inserted penny would bring the magic return of a neatly wrapped stick of chewing gum. "Don't tell your Mama," Papa would laughingly caution. Another secret we shared was my first visit to a nickelodeon. There was one at the corner of 110th Street and Fifth Avenue. We had to stand in the back, for the place was packed. Papa posed me on his shoulders so that I could see. The picture? Hazily, I recall it was Sampson and Delilah. We came in at the end, as Sampson was tearing down the temple. Of course, I was too young to know what I was looking at. After Sampson, we saw a picture about Indians fighting the white men on the western plains. This was a subject to which I could better relate. Again, there was the admonishment from Papa: "Don't tell Mama." And I never did. It was nice having secrets from your Mama with your Papa.
During the summertime, my father and I would go for rides on the open-air electric streetcars, which had replaced the horse-drawn cars I could only vaguely remember. On a sultry summer day, it was a luxury to cool off, and, for a nickel, you could escape from the heat of the city and experience the wind running through your hair. You could breathe and not gasp for breath the way you would if you were still in your apartment in the city. We'd go to the end of the line, wherever it would take us. Few people got on or off because most people were on for the same reason we were, for a summer excursion, not every week, just once in a while. My mother never went along because she didn't like that sort of thing and she always had "other things" to do around the house.
In addition to the streetcars, my father would take me on the train to places outside of New York such as New Rochelle and Mamaroneck and Peekskill. We'd go various places where he had his tailor customers, and he'd show me off to them; one client was Mr. Resnick. Good God, how does that name still stick in my memory? I was always so proud of my father. I was small for my years, and he was tall, dark, and handsome (and bald-headed; he went bald when he was nineteen). I was his pet. In later years, I would take the same trains alone, to New Rochelle in particular, and lose myself in the countryside, reading and writing in my journal. I was a loner then.
In 1900, there was no electricity, only gas and kerosene lamps. No telephones. No automobiles. We had no steam heat, no hot water. We had to heat the water for our baths, which we took in the kitchen in a big tub near the pot-bellied stove. It was called a railroad flat because it was all in a lineone room leading into another: kitchen, bedroom, bedroom, water closet (no bathroom), dining room, and parlor, which was the only room that looked out on the street and got some sunlight.
But the Sagors soon changed all that. They came up in the world and moved to 1480 Madison Avenue at 102nd Street, a modern apartment in every sense of the word. It had three airy bedrooms (one facing the street), a bathroom with a bathtub, a kitchen with a gas stove, a dining room with a dumbwaiter, and a large parlor big enough for the Knabe concert grand we now acquired. It wasn't long before the gas lamps were turned into electric globe fixtures, and we experienced the marvels of having electricity. "A miracle," Mama called it. In time, too, we acquired a wall telephone that had to be cranked and that Mama, brave soul that she was, mistrusted and was afraid to use.
Central Park was practically at our back door. Every day when I was little, weather permitting, my mother would wheel my carriage to Ninety-first Street and Fifth Avenue, to the Carnegie mansion. The big iron gates would open as the splendid carriage with its black, prancing horses drove out for the millionaire's morning ride in the park. Sometimes Mrs. Carnegie was with him, but mostly he was alone. And, do you know, he never failed to tip his hat to my mother and wave to me. Recently, I spent several weeks in New York at a bed-and-breakfast apartment on Ninety-first Street right off Fifth Avenue. Mr. Carnegie is long gone. My mother is long gone. But the Carnegie mansion is still there in all its glorycopper fittings on the pipes in the basement and the faucets in the bathrooms. All I had to do was close my eyes and remember ...
Besides the Sagors, there were two other tenants on the fourth and top floor of 1480 Madison Avenue: Mr. Gallagher the policeman (Mama liked that, for it meant security) and the Siebels from Odessafrom Russia. The Siebels were really two familiesthree Rubins and five Siebels, all adults. Rose Rubin was also a fine pianist, a scholarship student of the eminent Lambert. When I was eight and confined to my bedroom with scarlet fever, Rose would treat me to a Bach-Scarlatti concert every day because she knew that I listened through the walls, and Bach and Scarlatti were my favorites. Mrs. Siebel was something else. She liked to visit and talk across the air shaft. Even though she spoke good Russian, she was the bane of Mama's life because Mama had no time for idle gossipin Russian or otherwise. If Mama had a spare hour, she cherished it to read one of the Russian magazines to which she still subscribed. One of these was The Neva. The magazine serialized a novel by Gogol, and Mama could hardly wait for the next installment to arrive. Mrs. Siebel was the first women I ever saw smoking. She was never without a cigarette dangling out of the corner of her mouth. Her fingers were stained with nicotine. I thought her very decadent. Nice women did not smoke openly then.
Fourteen-eighty Madison Avenue boasted one tenant who became famous. Two floors below us lived Alma Gluck and her husband Barney. The lovely songstress from Rumania was just beginning her vocal career but was already achieving rave notices for her beautiful soprano. When finally she reached the top, she divorced Barney and married Russian concert violinist Efrem Zimbalist. The press made much of the love match and the acrimonious divorce (Barney was a bad loser).
Many of my childhood memories involve music and musicians, undoubtedly because I was immersed in it almost from birth. My sister Sophie, in particular, shared my passion. The family liked to recount how, as a six-year-old, I attended a recital she was giving and called out from our box, "Mistake!" when she happened to make one. My first piano teacher, Sophie took me to all her favorite keyboard concerts from the time I was five years oldCarnegie Lyceum, Steinway Hall, Carnegie Hall. I heard such famous women pianists as Fanny Bloomfield-Zeisler, Theresa Carreño, Guiomar Navaes, Myra Hess, as well as male greats such as Sergie Rachmaninoff, Josef Levinne, Vladimir de Pachman, Paderewski, Ossip Gabrolowitsch, Harold Bauerand greatest of them all, Josef Hofmann. After the last encore, with the palms of our hands still tingling from the ardor of applause, the lights would dim and the appearance of the piano movers on stage would finally convince us that the concert was over. Sophie and I would dash over to Schirmer's Music Store to buy the music, especially the concertos: Schumann, Grieg, McDowell, Brahms. At home on our Knabe grand, we would duet, with Sophie playing the orchestral part and her little sister carrying the piano solo. What a time that was!
My oldest sister, Vera, had her wedding at 1480 Madison Avenue. The only thing I remember about that occasion was the terrible disaster that befell a huge platter of prunes rolled in powdered sugar and stuffed with nuts and dried apricots. I had been impatiently waiting to taste them all day. Right before dessert was to be served, however, the chandelier in the dining room started swinging wildly back and forth, and plaster began raining down on the table. The stamping feet on the roof were those of our irate neighbors from below us, giving notice that it was midnight and we were interfering with their slumber. The prunes were ruined and had to be trashed. I was only seven then, but to this day I still lament those luscious, untastedand discardedprunes.
Our oldest friends in New York City were the Joffes. Mama had delivered three of their children. We didn't have many friends, but the Joffes were particularly close to our family and we to them. We celebrated birthdays together and visited frequently. Solomon Joffe, an actuary at a life insurance company, and his wife had four children, a boy, Julian, who was in college, two daughters who were schoolteachers, and one little daughter, Sonochika, who was five years old when tragedy struck their family.
Sonichika was the apple of her parents' eye. In 1918, when the Spanish influenza struck, the family took every precaution to keep her safe, to keep her from falling victim. Whenever family members reentered the house, they would change their clothing, shower, and completely sanitize themselves to keep from bringing in any infection from the outside. They worried constantly and did everything they could to protect the little girl. Despite all their precautions, she was stricken, as were many others in that dreadful epidemic. Mrs. Joffe never completely recovered from the loss of little Sonichika. Though the influenza did not touch my family personally, I have vivid memories of that tragedy.
Come springevery springI came down with chills and high fever. Malaria. In delirium I was always floating on a cake of ice, crying out, "Mama, Mama, save me, save me!" It was the opinion of our Russian family doctor, Dr. Eva Dembo, that the cause of the malaria was the mosquitoes breeding in the man-made lake of Central Park.
Dr. Dembo was most impressive. A large woman, she wore a high-necked shirtwaist with a man's tie and a mannish suit and hat. Her hair was cropped short. She had a deep voice. She and another lady doctor, Dr. Fanny Abramovitz, had been living under one roof and practicing medicine together for ten years or more. At the time, Dr. Eva Dembo was my role model and clinched my decision to become a doctor when I grew up. This conviction was sidetracked, but only temporarily, by seeing Max Reinhardt's spectacular production of The Miracle, a great play about a novice entering a convent to devote her life to being a bride of Christ. I was overwhelmed with the moving religiosity of the play and decided to become a nun instead of a doctor. As I garbed myself in white raiment and viewed my reflection in the mirror, I rather liked the role and, positive that I would make a very good nun, began attending Mass with a Catholic friend. My agnostic mother did not approve of my new aspirations, but I went anyway until I became suspicious of a young priest who liked to hold us on his lap and fondle us a little too intimately for comfort. I didn't dare tell my mother, but I lost my determination to give myself to Christ, and I returned to my goal of a medical career, which I stuck to until I went to college.
When I was nine years old, the family decided to move way out into the countrythe Bronx! And in 1909, it was the country. Open fields, clean fresh air, sparsely populated. Large ads in the papers touted the advantages of getting away from the overcrowded city of Manhattan into the big, open spaces. Housing developments offered playgrounds with swings and sandboxes for smaller children and tennis courts and croquet for grown-ups as a lure. Today the same area, the very same area where we lived, Southern Boulevard and 165th Street, is the worst slum area of the borough of the Bronx, full of crumbling, rat-infested tenements, burned-out stores and buildings, gang warfare, and drugs. Through the years, I have seen election campaigners from Bobby Kennedy on down all promise to clean it up; but campaigners, long on promises, unfortunately have short memories once elections are over. It remains an eyesore.
It was while living on Southern Boulevard in the Bronx, in the apartment we occupied over Streng's Millinery shop, that my sister Sophie met her husband-to-be, Dr. Joseph Smith. My future brother-in-law's life was a Horatio Alger tale, if ever there was one. At fifteen he had stowed away on a big ocean liner to come to America. Discovered and certain to be returned to Poland, he had been befriended by a young Dr. Lichtenstein on board ship, who took him under his wing and eventually helped educate the boy in his own profession. As the boy's Polish name was long and unpronounceable, an immigration officer arbitrarily christened him "Smith." It suited him. A graduate of Johns Hopkins and an early disciple of Freud, Dr. Smith was one of our first practicing psychiatrists. President Roosevelt later commended him for his outstanding war efforts.
I could think of nothing more wonderfula doctor in the Sagor family! Without my sister knowing it, I managed to read every one of the ardent, beautifully scripted love letters this young doctor sent her, and I prevailed upon her to discard another suitor, a lawyer from Detroit, in Joe's favor. "Marry him, please marry him!" I implored.
The wedding took place in our home on Southern Boulevard. I remember it well. I was thirteen years old. My cousin Eugenia Schiffrin was visiting us from St. Petersburg at the time. She played and sang a Chopin etude in Russian to the words of Pushkin. In the middle of the song she broke down. She had been recently divorced after an unhappy marriage. Whenever I hear Chopin's Etude No. 3 in E Major, Opus 10, I am reminded of that scene.
We had a priest and a rabbi officiate. Sophie was told that if she succeeded in stepping on the groom's foot as the words "love and obey" were uttered to tie the knot, she would not have to obey. She did not succeed. Try as she would, Joe was too clever for her. Little did I dream that shortly after their marriage, this young doctor would make a brutal, if honest, confession that he really did not care much about the piano and that he much preferred the violin. My shocked and foolish sister closed her Steinway Grand and did not open it again until after her husband's death, she tearfully confessed to me some twenty years later. "You never know," she wept softly.
We moved from Southern Boulevard to East 165th Street shortly after Sophie's marriage. We no longer needed as large an apartment. My sister Lilly and I always shared a bedroom. Our new abode had five rooms, only one flight up. After eight years on the top floor of 1480 Madison Avenue, my mother had had enough of climbing stairs. This was one of those developments with playgrounds and tennis courts. I became a crack tennis player after this early exposure to the game and won many trophies. I attended P.S. 20, an all-girls school that was a good mile away. In winter, we plowed through snowdrifts that seemed as high as we were to get to school, but what fun! We sledded toboggan-style down five hills into the New York Railroad tracks at the bottom of 165th Street. In summer, we walked or took the trolley to Clauson Point or Pelham Bay. I used to wander out there alone, sit out on the rocks until the tide came in, and write poetry or read: George Eliot, Dickens, Thackeray, Victor Hugo, Balzac, Dumas, Zola, de Maupassant, Thomas Hardy, and of course, the Russians Chekov, Turgenov, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky.
P.S. 20 was a good schoolso good, I believe, that it spoiled me for high school and even college. The quality of the teachers and the education we received at P.S. 20 simply could not be duplicated. My teachers? Miss Priscilla Zoble for arithmetic, Miss Imogene Ash for grammar, and Miss Brooks for English literature. I can still remember that queenly Canadian blonde reciting Longfellow's Evangeline, dramatizing those beautiful lines and making the poem real for us:
This is the forest primeval
The murmuring pines and hemlocks
Bearded with moss and in garments green,
Indistinct in the twilight....
Then there was pretty Geraldine O'Connor for gym, even prettier Betty Smith for domestic science, and old Miss Baxter, who had a touch of St. Vitas Dance (we call it Parkinson's Disease now), for sewing and hygiene. And "66"our name for our drawing and music instructor, Miss Ehlers, so dubbed because her two curls in the middle of her forehead made a perfect number 66. When she conducted the Glee Club and sang with us in her cracked alto voice, those two curls would bob up and down in perfect time. P.S. 20 came out at the top in all State Regents examinations. Mrs. Veronica M. Curtis was our venerable principal, and Miss Cora McKinley was her shadowy assistant. The teaching staff was predominantly Catholic even though most students were not.
But the greatest teacher of them all was Miss Lillian Vion, whom I had for history. She especially stands out in my memory because she taught me so much more than historical dates. Lillian Vion told it like it was, and when you realize that this was 1913before World War Iit is all the more remarkable. She did not mince words about our shameful treatment of the native Indians, the mob hysteria of the Salem witch hunts, our shortchanging of Mexico in the War of 1848, the true facts about slavery and the Civil War, our cycles of booms and busts. She taught us how to appreciate cartoons, especially political ones. She taught us how to read the newspaper from the first page to the editorials and even through the business section.
She took five of us to see D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation when it played the Liberty Theater in New York. We sat in the front row of the balcony, and it is a wonder I did not land in the orchestra. The picture had me on the edge of my seat in riveted attention, leaning perilously over the railing from start to finish. Our assignment was to write our opinion, our reaction to the film. After we did this, she gave us the lowdown. She told us that, while it was a great film depicting the horrors of the Civil War, it was not an accurate picture of slavery. I learned from that lecture that concessions often have to be made in the interest of box-office receipts and prevailing public opinion on slavery, including the opinion of D.W. Griffith, who still wavered on the subject. There were no good slavemasters, she claimed, only better ones, for slavery was totally evil. What a teacher!
"Accept nothing," Miss Vion would say. "Examine, challenge, think it out for yourself." Small wonder no teacher could approach her, either in high school or college. I owe so much to that great woman who taught me to think for myself. It was this skill, more than any other, that helped me navigate the rocks and rapids of my future life in Hollywood and live to tell the tale.
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