Saturday, December 14, 2013

An Article of Truth

I posted an article yesterday that was published February 2, 1936.  I've just been sitting here reading it for the hundredth time and lamenting the fact that it took me so long to get it posted.  When I first found this, and I must admit it was several years ago, I briefly glanced over it then filed it with all the other bits I've collected over the years.  I recently relocated and have been forced to go, bit by bit, through the enormous amount of stuff that I've packed away over the years.  As I go through it I come across gems like this that give a more accurate glimpse into the actual life of Agnes.  I have decided to break this article down, section by section, and talk about the things that evolved in her recollection into things that were completely different from the actual situation.

But If She Tells You The Opposite
The first thing that struck me about this article is the utter willingness of Agnes to say she really doesn't like what she's doing.  It speaks loudly about her opinion of what was actually happening in her life.  She was playing dizzy dames and hard broads.  This was not any challenge to her skill.  She could do it all day and all night without breaking an acting sweat.  It tells us that her work was irritating, she turned parts down out of frustration.  It tells us that she was completely unchallenged.  It tells us that she was, in her youth, willing to say yes I work and yes I actually dislike what I'm doing.  I'm bored.  I want something I can sink my teeth into.  How refreshing.

Agnes spent a good portion of her Hollywood career not being able to say any of this.  Starting her film career with "Citizen Kane" put her in the position of having to shut up and play nice in order to keep her film career from sinking like a rock.  During her early years in Hollywood she had to cultivate her exposure by working diligently to keep the Hedda Hopper's of the film world on her side.  This 1936 article doesn't smack of any of that.  It's just Agnes saying she wants something different.  She's issuing a written, public challenge to any director reading to give her a chance at something, anything!
I can tell you this I don't think it's coincidence that Agnes was recruited to the "March of Time" program in 1936.  I think it was a direct result of this article and her willingness to say exactly what she was thinking.  She ended up portraying every fascinating woman of the time including Eleanor Roosevelt.  Think of the career of Agnes Moorehead in radio and what you see being publicly hailed as her golden age, when did it really begin, 1936.  All of the machinations that would catapult her to fame began with this article and her willingness to say she didn't really like what she was doing.

Manna From Heaven
The phrase "manna from heaven" was pure genius on the part of Agnes.  It was her catch phrase for her early days.  She was hungry and was blessed with finding change in the telephone, or not.  This article is the only time in Agnes' life she actually admits to doing something a great many folks were doing during the Depression, pawning a piece of her jewelry for money to live off of.  Nowhere in any stories she tells later does she ever mention the act of pawning her diamond to by oatmeal, let alone apples.  It becomes a sort of Fanny Minnifer story later on.  The boiler scene where Fanny cries about having walked all over town and refusing to spend a nickel for the trolley.  She walked and walked until the heels were worn down on her shoes, so did Agnes, or so we are told.  Agnes often told the story of of one of the casting agents on her rounds insisting that she call instead of coming in and how she walked forever to a diner to use a pay phone.  In that diner she had to change her last dime in the world into two nickels for the phone.  That nickel would have bought a white roll and butter but she had to sacrifice it to a phone that, in the end, didn't work.  But she found in the phone enough money to by oatmeal and rice enough to feed her until she got her first part. What she had actually done was pawn a diamond ring for oatmeal and apples.  That she even had a diamond ring to pawn was highly unusual for the time.

Her talk about her first parts on Broadway are equally different from what would become the story of her youth later on.  Some biographers intimate that Agnes kept busy with bit parts and understudy roles until she got her first break with Seth Parker.  This article says, not so much.  It intimates that she was out of work the majority of the time until she got a nod from Joseph Bell to come and play the part of Sally, the tough girl, in an NBC program "The Mystery House."  It also says she did that role for over a year before Seth Parker and that once Seth had finished she auditioned repeatedly without any success. Finally, she landed the role of Nana on the program "Evening In Paris."  The length of the Seth Parker tour at some point is shortened to 16 weeks from 20 and Agnes admits,for the first time every, that the tour was something the gave her "the thrill of my life."  As well all know she went on to be known by many in the industry as the "Queen of the Road."  In any case, Agnes repeated, frequently, that she had trod the boards many times as a young woman in New York but this article seems to contradict that by her reference of being often at liberty.

Aloof and Self Contained
Frequently the terms aloof and self contained  were used to describe Agnes.  These terms were used by reporters, acquaintances, friends, and family repeatedly.  This is the first reference I can find to those qualities in Agnes.  Mary Jacob, who wrote the article, states that her first impression of Agnes was that she was "aloof and self contained."  She also observes, as many would over the years, that Agnes warmed up to Mary and the reticence left her once she began to speak.  I've often wondered how much of that time was spent by Agnes sizing up the person she was about to speak to and judging what she would say as the conversation progressed.  But the remainder of the interview is so candid that it seems to contradict that altogether.  I'm not so sure she was judging what she would say but more likely judging the person she was talking to.

The other thing I noticed about this article was the indication that Agnes was just very matter of fact. There appears to be none of the eccentric, larger than life personality we came to know later.  She shrugs her shoulders, taps her foot nervously, and is distracted all at the same time.  Miss Jacobs makes reference to Agnes frowning at the fireplace as she speaks.  It seems as though she was a million miles away at that point, just talking aimlessly.  Then a few sentences later she references the fact that Agnes looks up and smiles then her eyes wander straight back to the fireplace.  It made me think of the story that Agnes told to Joseph Cotton's wife about giving birth to Sean.  Staring off into space and then just leaving the room as if she had never said a word of it.

Finally there is the stunning reference to Jack Lee as John G. Lee.  Who introduces their spouse like that?  As if that isn't enough, she follows that up with "...He's in the movies.  And the swellest person you ever met."    We all know that her marriage to Jack was less than blissful and that during divorce proceedings Agnes admitted Jack had been a hard drinker since 1936.  Jack swans in kisses her and announces that he will return at six.  I almost fell out of my chair when I read that.  The only person I've ever seen Agnes kiss is Joe E. Brown and yet here she allows a complete outsider to witness an unprecedented public display of affection.  The other random mind blowing statement is that Jack is in the movies.  He hadn't even been to Hollywood let alone near a movie camera.  Agnes made an easily verifiable, blatantly untrue statement about Jack to a reporter and it wouldn't be the first time.  Some forty odd years later she would do the same thing by blatantly stating to a reporter that Jack was dead.

The Original Wallflower
I don't know about you but I had never thought of Agnes as a wallflower.  It really stunned me to ready that she honestly believed that everyone thought she would turn out that way.  She has always struck me as vivacious and impish, a little devil, if you will.  But a wallflower, honestly?  I get the whole idea of being a preachers kid and how one might appear to be a wallflower because they couldn't go wild like the other kids.  It makes sense that a preacher's child would be expected to appear conservative and religious, especially when you consider the time period.  I am sure, though, that Agnes never suffered from a "martyr complex."  Perhaps she felt like a martyr because she was unable to attend parties being given by friends but, other than her penchant for straying from the truth, Agnes did not suffer from a "martyr complex."  Her sister, well that's a different discussion all together.

I'll tell you something else a boxed up child wouldn't do and that's skip school to audition for an opera company.  In addition she confessed that to her father who responded by asking if they could get tickets for the show.  I don't see this as being the typical religious preacher, let alone father, response.

I think this article may be as close as any of us will ever get to seeing who Agnes was.  It shows various sides of her in a way that would not ever be seen again.  She doesn't insist she was 12 when she auditioned for the opera but, instead, has obviously told the interviewer she was 15.  She is distracted and focused. She is honest and dishonest.  She is outgoing and withdrawn.  She is lively and quiet.  She is every single different facet of her complex personality without apology.  She bubbles like a volcano ready to go off but you don't know just when.  She is in control and out of control  She is like a snowflake and there just never was or will be anyone quite as brilliant as she.

1 comment:

Michael Hawthorne said...

Another insightful segment. I've been reading your blogs on the elusive
Agnes Moorehead for the past two months. Thank you very much for the
massive effort and accomplishment on your blog. Regards and Best Wishes to you.

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