Monday, January 16, 2012
Crone of the Week: Hollywood Pioneer Dies at 111
University Press of Kentucky
It’s been a long time since I’ve picked a Crone of the Week, but now that it’s awards season, the honor had to be revived and the statuette dusted off for silent-era script writer Frederica Sago Maas, who died on Jan 5 at the incredible age of 111. (She was the 44th oldest verified person in the world.)
San Diego Union Tribune
The New York Times’ obituary for her begins: “She told of Hollywood moguls chasing naked would-be starlets, the women shrieking with laughter. She recounted how Joan Crawford, new to the movies, relied on her to pick clothes. Almost obsessively, she complained about how many of her story ideas and scripts were stolen and credited to others.“
In the 1920’s, in Hollywood, Frederica fumed as her writing and ideas were attributed to others. That’s what happened to women writers in those days. In New York in the 1960’s I often had the same experience. In fact, when I went to Time-Life headquarters to apply for a job with one of their magazines, armed with my Master’s in Journalism and my Phi Beta Kappa key, the (female) interviewer told me—“if you really want to write, don’t apply here, because women can never become writers at Time-Life, only researchers.”
But Frederica Sagor Maas found a good way to get back at those people who stole her writing—she outlived them all and recorded her Hollywood stories in a scathing memoir in 1999 when she was 99 years old! “I can get my payback now,” she told an interviewer. “I’m alive and thriving and, well, you S.O.B.s are all below.”
Frederica Sagor Maas was born on July 6, 1900 in Manhattan to Jewish immigrants from Russia. (Her mother supported the family as a midwife.) She studied journalism at Columbia (as did I), worked as a copy girl for the New York Globe, then became a story editor at Universal Pictures’ New York office. In 1924, she moved to Hollywood and was signed to a three-year contract with MGM, where she wrote screenplays, including a hit film for Clara Bow.
Frederica married a fellow screenwriter, Ernest Maas, in 1927. The couple lost $10,000 in the 1929 stock market crash and then found all their screenplays rejected. They were also investigated by the FBI for subscribing to Communist publications. They struggled to find work as writers’ representatives and then writing for political campaigns. In despair, in 1950, the couple decided to commit suicide and drove to a hilltop where they planned to asphyxiate themselves with carbon dioxide from their car. But they suddenly changed their minds, clutching each other in tears and turning off the ignition before it was too late.
In her autobiography, “The Shocking Miss Pilgrim: A Writer in Early Hollywood”, Frederica tells stories about early Hollywood stars like Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo and Louise Brooks. She is particularly hard on her old studio bosses, whom she portrayed as “amoral debauchers”
Her husband died of Parkinson’s disease in 1986 at 94 years old. Frederica got a job as a typist in an insurance agency by lying about her age. Then, in 1999, she wrote her autobiography, which is now a standard reference for early Hollywood history. The couple never had children and Frederica died with no immediate survivors.
The New York Times obituary ends: “As for movies, Mrs. Maas stopped going. “I think the product they’re making today,” she said in 1999, “Is even worse than the product we made in the early days.”