The Shocking Miss Pilgrim: A Writer in Early Hollywood

Frederica Sagor Maas died this year at the age of 111. She was probably the last writer from the earliest days of the golden silent film era. At the age of 99 she wrote her memoir of her years in Hollywood, The Shocking Miss Pilgrim: A Writer in Early Hollywood. It is a tell-all story where Sagor Maas pulls no punches and gives her story about how she was royally screwed over by the Hollywood cheating machine. Gossip galore told in an oral style, Miss Pilgrim starts with Sagor Maas’s family history and her introduction to Hollywood via an education in journalism.

Miss Pilgrim is set in a font reminiscent of that used in title cards from silent films, which makes reading the story seem like attending a film Sagor Maas in fact wrote. I found the periods and commas almost identical in appearance and thus hard to differentiate; I often mistook a sentence to be over when it had only elongated itself by a camouflaged comma.

Sagor Maas was not a well-known name in Hollywood, but she paid her dues as a screenwriter for almost thirty years, working on dozens of silent films, many of which are now unfortunately part of the vast cache of lost films. She writes about the writing process from the earliest steps of tossing around ideas, to creating “treatments” to the endless cycle of rewrites. It is in this final stage where a writer can lose complete credit for the work she has done, as common studio policy, and contract practice, at the time assigned full writing credit to the screenwriter who handled the last rewrite–regardless who had written the work in the first place. Sagor Maas lost her credit on many a film when the studio sent its final draft to another writer to rewrite again.

Miss Pilgrim was a rapid read, and I felt as though Sagor Maas was sitting comfortably across from me telling stories from eighty years ago. She has nothing to fear and no one left to apologize to so what she writes reflects exactly how she feels. Hollywood was and remains a dog-eat-dog world where today’s stars are tomorrow’s nobodies, and Sagor Maas tells us so:

“Then one fine day, the Trocadero [a new restaurant] happened and changed all that. I tell this story because it reveals like nothing else the tinsel of the Hollywood scene, its basic insincerity, its hypocrisy, its cruelty, its shabby neglect of the worthy and deserving–the desertion at the drop of a hat of the old for anything new and in the groove. Wherever the Hollywood picture people went, that is where you, if you were in the motion picture business, wanted to be seen and written about.”

Sagor Maas gives her unbiased opinion of show business people, ripping into producers, fellow writers who stole her work, and even celebrities who were prone to make fools of themselves at parties. She attended a wild party where alcohol flowed like Niagara:

“The last thing I remember was seeing Clara [Bow] atop a table, shimmying her clothes off and dancing in the nude to the hoots of her appreciative and inebriated audience. I must have passed out because the next thing I knew I was home in my own bed with a horrible hangover.”

When Sagor Maas recalled meeting Lucille LeSueur, who had not yet changed her name to Joan Crawford, at the train station upon her arrival in Hollywood, she wrote:

“When the train pulled in, I couldn’t believe what I saw. My first thought was that the name ‘LeSueur’ (pronounced ‘sewer’) was certainly applicable. She was a gum-chewing dame, heavily made up, skirts up to her belly button, wildly frizzed hair. An obvious strumpet.”

Fellow writers had no feeling of solidarity. If a colleague was assigned a final rewrite, and thus took full writing credit for the entire work, even it was the original brainchild of someone else, no one felt any guilt over the theft of intellectual property. Sagor Maas has this to say about the men and women in her field:

“Writers…writers…beware! We are a breed of brain pickers–even the best of us–not to be trusted.”

With caustic opinions like this, no wonder Miss Pilgrim was such a rapid read. Sagor Maas kept them coming, even ripping into her producer bosses:

“I had been assigned to a producer named Lloyd Sheldon, a former newspaperman but with none of the pleasant outgoing qualities usually found in gentlemen of the press. Mr. Sheldon was a first-class prig, serving in the ‘lowly’ picture business that he heartily disdained–yet at a handsome salary. Surreptitiously, he was involved with a voluptuous young woman reader in the story department fifteen years his junior. Vera (I do not recall her last name) had an aristocratic Russian background. She too had condescended to be employed in the ‘lowly’ picture business and was quite a snob.”

Miss Pilgrim had several spelling errors, including the atrocious “fourtyish”, and she refers to Thomas Mann’s son as “Gola” instead of “Golo”. It doesn’t take long to see that Sagor Maas uses her memoir as a forum to rip into everyone who ever did her wrong, but it would be a mistake to see it only in the hindsight of venom. I wish Sagor Maas had spent more time describing how the horrors of McCarthyism ruined her and her husband’s careers, as well as the careers of their friends. The Maases did subscribe to The Daily People’s World and Soviet Life, but neither Frederica nor her husband was a card-carrying Communist. The Shocking Miss Pilgrim: A Writer in Early Hollywood is foremost a valuable resource giving insight into the early workings of Hollywood. What might be at first an unknown name of a producer or a writer of a long-forgotten silent film, Sagor Maas develops into a full portrait of a pioneer in film production. She recognizes those that paved the way and makes it well known that one of those pioneers was in fact herself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *