Feature

Frederica Sagor Maas, 1900–2012

The screenwriter who told cinema’s secrets

Frederica Sagor Maas abandoned Hollywood a half century before she published her tell-all memoir, at the age of 99, about life as a screenwriter in the movie industry’s early days. But the passage of time made her tales no less scathing or scandalous. In The Shocking Miss Pilgrim: A Writer in Early Hollywood, Maas dished about movie moguls and Hollywood legends, including an account of starlet Clara Bow dancing naked on a table at a Jazz Age party. Film historian Alan K. Rode called it “perhaps the best muckraking memoir about early Hollywood.”

Born to Russian immigrant parents in New York City, Maas studied journalism at Columbia University. When her “chauvinistic” bosses at Universal Pictures in New York wouldn’t help her become a screenwriter, she left for Hollywood on her own, at age 23, said the Los Angeles Times. She studied her craft in movie theaters, watching movies over and over to learn how to write for the screen. In 1925, she wrote the script for The Plastic Age, which launched Bow, and went on to claim nearly 20 screenwriting credits. She grew frustrated, however, with rampant plagiarism in the studio system. “Unless you wanted to quit the business, you just kept your mouth shut,” she later wrote. In 1927, she married screenwriter Ernest Maas, who became her writing partner.

The couple fell on hard times after losing $10,000 in the 1929 stock market crash, said The New York Times. For years, nearly all of their screenplays were rejected, but a break came with The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, a serious tale about a young stenographer who is the first woman to work in her office. Maas watched in horror, though, as her “study of a woman’s empowerment” was turned into a “frothy musical starring Betty Grable.” Disillusioned by the Hollywood machine, the couple drove to a Hollywood hilltop in 1950 intending to commit suicide, but could not go through with it. Neither returned to the movie industry, and Maas became an insurance adjuster. If she could do it again, she later said, she would have preferred to be a “wash lady.”

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