Frederica Sagor Maas: Screenwriter who spanned the silent era and film's golden age

Frederica Sagor Maas went to Hollywood in her early 20s determined to be a writer.

She contributed to the films of cinema greats such as Louise Brooks and Greta Garbo, but did not find fame herself until the publication of her memoir The Shocking Miss Pilgrim: a writer in early Hollywood. She once advised me "Don't live past 90. It gets boring"; she died at the astonishing age of 111.

Frederica Sagor was born in 1900 to Russian émigré parents in New York. She read widely, and a radical teacher taught her more about the treatment of the Indian, the hysteria of the Salem witch trials and the truth about slavery than was customary: "Accept nothing" she would say. "Examine, challenge, think it out for yourself."

"It was this skill, more than any other, that helped me to navigate the rocks and rapids of my future life in Hollywood" she later said. She enrolled at Columbia University but its journalism course disappointed her. She joined the New York Globe as a copygirl then spotted an ad for a job as assistant to a story editor at Universal Pictures. The editor John Brownell offered her $100 a week, more than her father earned as a tailor.

She saw all the new movies, making notes and studying them. She fell in love with her boss, and he with her, and to save his marriage he left the company. His replacement was an alcoholic; Universal fired him, doubled Sagor's salary and put her in charge. She accepted on condition that at the end of the year Universal would send her to the West Coast to join the writing staff at Universal City. Before that she came across William Wyler, who wanted to work in the story department. She thought he would do better in the cutting room; he took her advice, and eventually became one of the greatest film-makers in Hollywood.

Sagor was responsible for the Clara Bow hit The Plastic Age, based on a novel by a Brown University professor which exposed the drinking and wild socialising in modern college life. She bought the book but the head of Universal, Carl Laemmle, had just been appointed head of the Clean Picture Campaign. He regarded it as a "dirty book" and refused to film it. Sagor sold the property for a $10,000 profit and Laemmle pocketed the cheque without a word.

Universal having reneged on its promise to send her to the West Coast, Sagor resigned and went under her own steam. She contacted the company to whom she had sold The Plastic Age and was hired by BP Schulberg to write the scenario. She next found work at MGM with the B-picture producer Harry Rapf, who gave her the script for Dance Madness, to "fix"; she did the rewrite in five days and she got full credit and an assignment to the Norma Shearer unit.

The big executives' secretaries politicised Frederica. "The studio waste, dirty politics, devious schemes, head chopping, ruthless ambition, greed, power out of control, debauchery so prevalent in this girlie business – in our young political eyes these were all manifest consequences of unleashed capitalism."

She joined a group from MGM meeting off the train a new starlet, Lucille LeSueur, later Joan Crawford. A week later, LeSueur appeared in her office: 'You dress like a lady, I like that. I want to be dressed smart." They went shopping. "She had class," said Sagor, "even if it showed only in her wardrobe."

In 1925 she wrote His Secretary for Norma Shearer. Carey Wilson, head of the scenario department, removed her name from the script and attached his own. "Don't worry" he said. "You'll get screen credit in the end." She didn't.

Sagor worked on a preliminary draft for Flesh and the Devil, Garbo's third vehicle for MGM and a phenomenal hit. Then on The Waning Sex, she worked with an English writer, F Hugh Herbert, who, after a long, difficult writing session asked her to marry him. She refused: "And I am sure he never forgave me." When she criticised his work to Rapf, her boss told her that they were going to shoot Herbert's story, not hers.

Eager to free herself from Rapf, she asked to join producer Hunt Stromberg's unit. Instead, Rapf, regarding her as a troublemaker, had her fired. She found work at the poverty-row company Tiffany, where in 1926 she worked on the frivolous comedy That Model From Paris. The thought of a career writing froth made her anxious to quit, but in 1927 she married Ernest Maas, a producer at Fox. "In all the time I had been in Hollywood, I had encountered no one so knowledgeable, discerning, and voluble with such a span of interests so close to my own." They had to endure their script ideas being rejected by other companies, only to be produced under the camouflage of misleading titles. They dared not sue, knowing that an industry blacklist could end their careers. But when The Way of all Flesh won for Emil Jannings a first Academy Award for acting, they felt heartsick.

They lost thousands in the Wall Street crash of 1929, and nearly lost their lives in the Newport Beach earthquake of 1933. Moving to New York, they watched as the homeless across the street built shelters from packing cases. They offered help, but the commune was burned by city workers.

She became an agent, but hated the work. During the Great Depression, she considered suicide. In 1941, the couple produced their last major screenplay, Miss Pilgrim's Progress, about the revolution of the "typewriters" – the women rather than the machines – who transformed the solidly male clerical profession and emancipated females from domestic drudgery. She said it was the story she was proudest to have written.

Four studios pursued the property, and Fox paid $15,000, but producer Darryl Zanuck had it rewritten as a musical for Betty Grable. It appeared in 1947 as The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, and, although Sagor wrote that it was a "howling box office success", it was the only out and out failure for the No 1 female star of the 40s.

The Maases found themselves doctoring other people's scripts but failing to sell their own. During the McCarthy era they were pressured to name names during three FBI interrogations, though not members of the Communist Party. Once again, suicide seemed the only option. They chose the spot – an isolated hilltop – but couldn't go through with it. Their Hollywood days over, Frederica worked in an insurance office. In 1998 her memoir appeared; her eyesight deteriorated badly, but she continued to be able to touch-type.

Frederica Sagor, screenwriter: born New York 6 July 1900; married 1927 Ernest Maas (died 1986); died La Mesa, California 5 January 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths surrounding the enigmatic singer
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
Life and Style
life
Sport
Christian Benteke of Aston Villa celebrates scoring the winner for Aston Villa
football
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
News
Bill O'Reilly attends The Hollywood Reporter 35 Most Powerful People In Media Celebration at The Four Seasons Restaurant on April 16, 2014 in New York City
media It is the second time he and the channel have clarified statements
News
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

£16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Home Care Worker - Reading and Surrounding Areas

£9 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn