The shocking Frederica Sagor Maas

A 99-year-old former screenwriter remembers Joan Crawford as a gum-chewing tart and producer Irving Thalberg as a mama's boy.

By Jenn Shreve
Published August 13, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Frederica Sagor Maas remembers 1927 better than most people remember yesterday. Seventy-five years after she honeymooned in San Francisco, the petite 99-year-old easily rattles off all the places she visited: the jewelry dealer in Chinatown, the wonderful hotel, the stop in Big Sur on the way up. "I would remember every detail of my honeymoon if I walked around the city; it comes right back to me."

When I ask her how it's possible to remember so much so clearly, Maas shrugs her shoulders, smiles and taps her forehead with her index finger. "When you use your brains, they just get sharper. Everything is recorded up there; you don't have to make it up."

Indeed, Maas' recently completed memoir, "The Shocking Miss Pilgrim: A Writer in Early Hollywood," is a bittersweet, extraordinarily detailed recollection of her 30-year career in the motion picture industry. Because she's losing her eyesight, when Maas talks, she places her hand on your arm and pulls you toward her. The gesture has a conspiratorial feel, like every word spoken is the greatest of secrets.

The daughter of Russian immigrants, Maas was 19 and working as a copy girl for the New York Globe when she saw an ad in the New York Times for an assistant story editor at Universal Pictures. She applied, got the job and a career was born. Four years later, she moved to Los Angeles to become a scriptwriter, first for Preferred Pictures, then MGM and later for Fox and Paramount. Her screenwriting credits include "The Waning Sex" (starring Norma Shearer), "Flesh and the Devil" (starring Greta Garbo) and "The Shocking Miss Pilgrim" (starring Betty Grable). Maas' first screenplay, "The Plastic Age," launched the career of the "It Girl" of silent film, Clara Bow.

While in Hollywood, Maas saw films go from silent to "talkies," and from black-and-white to color. She struggled through the Great Depression and the tempestuous days of the Hollywood Ten, during which she and her husband were interrogated by the FBI for having subscribed to two Communist publications.

"I'm something of a Bolshevik. I'm always for the underdog," Maas says. "I remember when I was 17 or 18, marching in a New York parade, right before women got the vote. I marched in the schoolteacher segment, because my sister was a schoolteacher. I remember we held hands, and I remember how I felt. My God, I thought I was revolutionizing the world."

Maas' book is chockablock with such anecdotes, and a blinding amount of star-wattage to boot. She frequently lunched next to the legendary wits at the Algonquin Hotel's "roundtable," received a personal invitation to Hearst Castle, had Irving Berlin play piano just for her and dispensed clothing advice to the then-undiscovered Joan Crawford. "She was a gum-chewing tart from New York," Maas says of the actress now known to many as "Mommy Dearest." "But she came to Hollywood -- she was going to be a movie star, see. She quickly learned to speak the King's English and turned into a lady. Whatever debts she had to repay to get out here, I don't know, but I'm sure she paid them pretty damn quick, and then locked the door and concentrated on her work."

Although she shunned actresses in general, Maas was close with Norma Shearer, for whom she wrote many scripts.

"Norma and I were good friends. We used to tramp around a lot together. We used to go to parties and hike together. We had a lot of fun until she met Irving Thalberg, and he fell head over heels in love with her. She told me she was engaged and intended to marry him. I thought it was a big mistake and I told her so." Maas explains that the MGM producer, director and writer was a mama's boy. And when she said as much to Shearer, the friendship cooled abruptly.

"I think it's pretty generally known that writers do not mix with movie stars, or directors. We stick to our own," Maas tells me. "We go from assignment to assignment, and we are primarily interested in writing. Most of us look a little askance at the stars. We're not over-awed by them."

Beautiful and photogenic herself, Maas was pegged as an actress by Ben Schulberg, then the head of Preferred Pictures. "I could turn you into another Theda Bara," he told her.

"I told him, 'I might be good looking but that doesn't make me an actress.' And besides, I have sort of contempt for this motion picture type of acting. Maybe on the stage, I would have liked to have been a Sarah Bernhardt, but that's not my calling."

Maas, still beautiful, has large, dark eyes and thick eyebrows. Lush gray curls are tucked neatly into a bun. She's tiny, no more than 5 feet tall, but height isn't necessary when you've got stage presence. The night before we met, Maas was interviewed by "Entertainment Tonight" film critic Leonard Maltin before an audience of 2,000 at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles. "Fortunately, my eyesight is gone, so I don't see faces," she says, shaking her head. She didn't need 20-20 vision to hear the thunderous applause of the standing ovation that followed the talk.

It's somewhat of a surprise that Maas' book is so well-received in Hollywood, since much of it is an indictment of the motion-picture industry. Maas and her late husband and fellow screenwriter, Ernest, both had their work plagiarized repeatedly -- including a film called "Beefsteak Joe," which Maas describes in her book as "a work of love, based on the life of Ernest's father."

One of their most serious scripts, "Miss Pilgrim's Progress," about how the invention of the typewriter opened up economic opportunities for women, was transformed into a frivolous musical, "The Shocking Miss Pilgrim." Maas says she was labeled a troublemaker by studio muckety-mucks early on and had difficulty finding work, despite earlier successes.

"I know I've been hard on the motion picture industry [in the book]," she remarks. "The facts and the stories I tell -- about the plagiarism and the way I was handled and the way other writers were handled -- are true. If anybody wants to take offense at the fact that I tell the truth and I'm writing this book ..." She pauses a moment, collects her thoughts, then -- Whammo! "I can get my payback now. I'm alive and thriving and, well, you SOBs are all below, because I've lived to 99. And I quit the business at 50."

Between 1938 and 1950, Maas and her husband wrote screenplay after screenplay. All were "swell fish," old Hollywood-speak for scripts that never see the light of day. In one of the most moving passages of the book, Maas describes how she and her husband drove to an isolated hilltop with the intention of committing suicide:

When the last rays of the red sun disappeared, we calmly rolled up the windows of our Plymouth. This was to be our last sunset. The final step was to turn on the ignition. Next thing we knew we were clutching at each other in frightened embrace and sobbing. What were we doing? Failure, disappointments, lack of money, humiliation -- none of these things mattered. We had each other, and we were alive.

But we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that our Hollywood days were over. There would be no going back. No more "Swell Fish" ... not this time.

"I was through with the business and it was through with me," she says of the time. "It was life that was prompting me to sink or swim. I had to get money to pay the rent and Ernest was 59. A man doesn't go out and get a job at 59 in another career. I could, as a woman, see. I always looked younger than I was. And when I made out the applications, I lied like hell, you know, and changed all the dates and didn't say I was 50. I said I was 40, that's all."

Maas started as a typist and retired an insurance adjuster. Her husband, whom she came to San Francisco with in 1927, died in 1986. "When we met each other, we knew we couldn't do much better. We were satisfied with each other; we complemented each other. We had an intellectual response to each other, a physical response to each other. And, I guess, we shared an ability to take hard knocks."

Maas doesn't think much of current films. "There's no lack of material, there's just lack of incentive to make anything else but what they consider box office. And, hell, who can dispute them? Pictures are making money. And people are getting stupider and stupider. They'll pay seven and a half dollars to see a motion picture and it's all in the same vein: sex, sex, sex, sex, sex and violence, violence, violence, violence. You know what they've done? They've taken the vulgar, low part of old-fashioned vaudeville -- all those terrible little acts -- and they've put it on TV."

I ask her if she ever imagined she'd be this busy at the age of 99. "I can't believe it," she almost whispers. "And I'm on my feet. I just hope that I'll be able to complete the journey. So far, it hasn't exhausted me."

I'm not sure if she's referring to her book or her life, but I'm fairly certain it's the latter.

Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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