For two days I worked on the continuity. Then the two-reel star got sick. I was given another subject to prepare for another player. Not one solitary nickel had I collected for my work, carfare or meals. I began to wonder if Swigstrom was not stringing me along. I had ordered a plate of soup, and liver and bacon in the restaurant. When they brought me the check I signed it. The waiter looked askance at it and me.
"What's the big idea?" he said aggressively.
"That's okay," I said. "Show it to the boss. Mr. Swigstrom fixed it for me to sign."
The waiter came back. He was unpleasant. The boss knew nothing about it. Mr. Swigstrom had given no orders. I took off my wristwatch and handed it over.
"Give me a receipt for this," I said. "I'll come back for it."
A gentleman at another table overheard something of our discussion. He came over to me.
"Excuse me," he said. "I severed my connection with this company a couple of years ago. I happen to be here visiting friends. I'm no bloody millionaire, but if you'd like a small loan I'll be glad to help you out."
I looked up at him.
"Douglas Gerrard," I said. "How are you?"
He took out a roll of bills.
"No, no," I said. "All I need is twenty cents—no twentyfive. Got to tip this offensive person, though he doesn't deserve it."
I took a quarter from Douglas, threw it on the table and picked up my watch.
"Bloody good picture, Black Orchids," he said. "Saw it twice. Only thing I never understood was how you managed to make it here."
I found Swigstrom in the afternoon. He was with some people on the lot. He told me to see him in the morning. Then I caught sight of Allan Holubar getting into a big open two-seater car. I had known him at Fort Lee when he was playing Captain Nemo in Stuart Peyton's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
"Going to town?" I said, seeing a chance to save carfare.
"Oh, hello," he said. "When did you get back. Hop in."
On the way in I told him how Swigstrom had treated me.
"Can let you have $10.00," Allen said. "Would like to make it more, but you know how it is when you're pulling down a little dough.. all your old pals—"
"I know it, Allan," I said, "and we were never pals, so I appreciate it all the more. If I need it I'll let you know."
"You'll make a comeback," he said. "Black Orchids was a fine picture. Nothing's changed since you left. We're turning out the same old stuff, only more of it."
His words encouraged me. I did not have the cash to go to the picture shows and see what actually was being done, but I knew Holubar was the U's number 1 director.
In a Hollywood storage warehouse I had a small trunk filled with clothes and personal belongings. When I tried to get it out I found there was a ten dollar storage bill outstanding. I told the clerk that if he would let me take some of the things out of my trunk I could sell them and get enough to clear the trunk. The clerk was easy going and thought this sounded all right; but he came up with me to see that I did not empty the trunk. I took out a dress suit, a tuxedo, a serge suit and a pair of shoes.
A young man who was starting in doing extra work at Universal offered me $12.50 for the dress clothes. I refused, having paid $85. for them, and worn them no more than three times. I tried to market them elsewhere, but nobody needed dress clothes. All the extra men had them. I was obliged to hunt up my first client.
"It's okay," I said. "You can have the dress suit for $12.50."
"Too late, brother," he said. "Got another lined up at $10."
For ten bucks he got mine. With the cash I squared my landlady and paid $2.50 on account to the storage warehouse people in case I might need something later. I had enough left over to keep me in carfare and food for a week. I used to eat in an old streetcar that had been converted into a lunch counter for trollymen where you could buy steak, onions and fried potatoes for thirty cents.
By this time the slacks of my uniform had worn through in the seat. I gave them to the landlady to mend and borrowed her iron to press the serge suit. I looked quite civilized when I got it on. The only thing was that my shirts and tie were khaki which did not go so well with blue serge.
At the end of the second week I brought the second continuity in and laid it on Swigstrom's desk.
"How about some dough?" I said.
"That's okay, Rex," he said. "I fixed everything."
"The way you fixed it at the restaurant?" I said. "When does my salary start? Been here now for two weeks. Couple of bucks gone already on carfare and not the sniff of a nickel."
"That'll be okay," he said.
"When do I start on salary?" I said, "I've been selling my civie clothes so I could eat. They won't last forever."
"That'll be okay," he said. "Everything's fixed for Monday sure."
"Listen," I said, "if you're stringing me along—"
"Mr. Swigstrom, Mr. von Stroheim," announced the uniformed office boy.
Wearing a camel-hair overcoat, yellow gloves, spats and a malacca cane, entered the man I had seen coming out of Carl Laemmlae's office, the man I had taken for a German officer. Swigstrom jumped to his feet with outstretched hand. Herr von Stroheim uncovered his shaven head, removed his gloves and laid them with his cap and cane on the executive desk before taking it. But as he shook hands he did not bow.
"I am starting 'The Pinnacle' on Monday," he said, with a slight German accent. "I need a large comfortable office and script girl."
"Sit down, sit down, Mr. Stroheim," said Swigstrom.
"Von Stroheim," corrected Mr. von Stroheim.
Von Stroheim," said Swigstrom, and to me, dismissing me with a nod: "See me Monday morning."
That night, Saturday, I spent twentyfive of my last thirty cents at the lunch counter. I tried to sell my tuxedo to a bit-actor on Sunday morning, but it did not suit him. He offered me $7. for the serge suit I was wearing. I took it off and he tried it on. It fitted him. On Monday I was in uniform again, having to choose between that and the tuxedo. But I was unable to go to Universal City until noon as my landlady had the pants. She had started patching the seat of them, but had to make all the beds in the house before finishing the job.
On Monday when I got to the U, executive Swigstrom was unable to receive me....I was beginning to see red. I caught him coming out of his office with someone.
"Just a minute," I said.
"Busy now," he said. "See me in the morning."
I touched the man with him on the shoulder.
"Excuse me, I have to speak to Mr. Swigstrom urgently and privately."
The man nodded and walked out in front of the administration building.
"What is the idea?" I said.
"You heard me say to come around tomorrow," he said and started past me.
I caught his arm.
"I'm not coming out tomorrow," I said, "for the simple reason I haven't the carfare. And I'll be damned if I'm going to walk out here on the chance of being told to see you Wednesday instead of being put on salary."
"Suit yourself," he said and walked off.
The only studio in Hollywood I had not visited was the Stern Brothers' L.K.O. comedy and serial manufacturing plant. It had not even occurred to me to go there, neither slapstick nor serials being in my line. But instead of going out to Universal City now, I went over to the L.K.O. I had no trouble getting in to see Julius. I told him of my adventures with his ex-bookkeeper and asked him if he had anything I could do.
"What you want me to do?" he said. "The serial's halfway through, and you can't make L.K.O. comedies."
"How about letting me write a few good episodes for the serial?" I said.
"That's not a bad idea at that," he said.
Before I left he engaged me to write two episodes for the serial at $25. an episode. I told him I could not produce ideas on an empty stomach.
He came out to the cashier's window with me.
"Advance this guy twentyfive bucks against two episodes for the serial, and have him sign a receipt....You're sure that ain't too much?" he said, turning to me.
"No," I said, "for the moment it will do nicely."
"Be sure you don't pay him twice," said Julius to the cashier. "This is an advance."
"Thanks, Julius," I said holding out my hand. My grip closed on fingers limp, unresponsive. He could not look me in the eye, seemingly ashamed of his Samaritan gesture.
With a will I wrote these episodes. Rewrote them, wrote others—but not one suited the director.
"What's wrong with them?" I said to Julius.
"That's what I want to know," he said. "This guy's crazy. Don't know what he wants."
"Maybe you can use the episodes I wrote in the next serial," I said.
"Maybe not," said Julius.
"And the twentyfive bucks?" I asked.
"Maybe we'll get together some other time," he said. "If we do, don't forget I gave you your first chance to direct."
I had written my wife saying things were beginning to look up after Carl Laemmlae had referred me to Swigstrom and Swigstrom had put me to work—the thought that it was to be unremunerative work not having occurred to me. Her answer reached me the day before I decided to blow no more carfare going out to Universal City. She said she was very happy to know I had got going again, and to let her know how things went when I started production. With her letter in my pocket I strolled up to the corner of Pinehurst Road, and for a while mouched around the two bungalows where we had lived.
Then I went on up the street. The numerals 2041 were painted on a wicket gate at the bottom of a flight of steps leading to the studio-chalet of Miss Elizabeth Waggoner, Hollywood High School's Franklinesque professor of fine arts. The house looked cool and inviting, nestling under giant eucalyptus trees and walled in with quarried stone. After some hesitation I pushed open the gate and went up the winding flight of steps. As I paused before the door, the upper half of it opened and Miss Waggoner, looking like a Holbein drawing, though more approachable, appeared. I felt like someone caught snooping.
"I've admired your house ever since I came to California," I said. "I couldn't resist the temptation to take another look at it."
Her smile put me at my ease at once. It told me that the formalities of introduction meant nothing to her.
"You can take a much better look from inside," she said, opening the lower half of the door. "Come right in."
"You know," I said, "once upon a time we were neighbors."
"I remember quite well," she said, "at the foot of the street."
"What a grand room this is," I said. "I feel like I could stay in it forever. Here I'm sure I'd forget most of my worries."
"Well," said Miss Waggoner, "if you'll stay long enough to have a cup of tea, you'll meet the most charming little woman I know, and her two darling children."
"Who is she?" I asked.
"Here she is now," said Miss Waggoner, going to the door. "She's Anna de Mille, Henry George's daughter, and she is married to the most fascinating and shocking person I know—one never can tell what he's going to say next—William de Mille."
The little woman invited me to come to tea the next day at her house. That tea party was a portentous one for me. It opened doors that hitherto had been closed to me—only to let me step in and step out again, but opened them, nonetheless. Some of the people I met there proved kind friends in days of adversity to come. Among them Beth Fairbanks, who was there with her young son, Douglas junior; Bessie Lasky, Jesse Lasky's wife. Jesse's sister, Blanche, and Wilfred Buckland. William de Mille came in later on. He and I became friends at once. He did not seem like a motion picture director to me, not taking himself seriously enough. Anna de Mille, for whom other people's troubles were her own, soon found out mine.
"I'm going to have a serious talk with William," she said. "There must be some thing you can do at the studio. Have you a picture William could see?"
"Black Orchids," I said. "I can get a copy from the exchange."
"This looks very serious," said someone. "Anna, I'm going to tell William right now!"
"Bessie, you're just the person we need," said Anna. "Come over here and sit down."
When my situation had been explained to Bessie Lasky she said to me:
"Tomorrow night you're dining with Jesse and me. We'll see what can be done. I've a terrible lot of influence with Jesse. The only trouble is, he forgets everything I tell him when he gets to the studio."
"That doesn't sound so hopeful," I said.
"I know," said Bessie, "but I'll make him call for you when he goes to the studio, after that it's up to you."
"You know," I said to Elizabeth Waggoner, going back in the streetcar, "I've been trying to see Jesse Lasky ever since I got back."