Sybil's Hollywood History On This Day... “Formerly Aggie Ann”… January 21st, 1924...


Miss Agnes Ann Abernathy had grown up in the secure privilege of a wealthier suburb of Minneapolis surrounded by golf courses, tennis courts, and private schools for nice young ladies from successful families of Northern European and Scandinavian extraction. Many of the immigrants that migrated to the Midwest and the prairie states had “adjusted” or even replaced their surnames with more standard and “acceptable” American-style names that eliminated controversy or questioning by neighbors. Accents were worked on strenuously so that any trace or memory of a week in Ellis Island faded as quickly as possible before the long treks to the “whiter parts” of the new world were completed. And here they settled in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas surrounded mostly by their own kind except for the inconvenient and rapidly being displaced Native Americans who lived on the outskirts of even the most rural areas, their crafts and handiwork a source of passing curiosity, condescension, or hostility by the blonde and blue-eyed interlopers at the middle and close of the 19th century. 

Agnes (or Aggie Ann, as she was known to her large family), was that pretty and popular girl who got excellent grades, was perfect in deportment, and was always asked out to social affairs by equally likable and accomplished young men from good families like her own. Her mother Abigail (née Thompson and formerly Tunfisksmørbrød) never had to worry, and never complained to her lady-friends, about Aggie Ann’s moods, tantrums, or “notions”, because there were none. Aggie Ann’s father, Ed Abernathy (formerly Eadgårdt Aebårnjentørst) always bragged to his golf buddies that his daughter “sailed smooth as a schooner through school” with nary a care or calamity.  

But then came the Summer of 1923 right after Aggie’s graduation from the Wayzata Academy for Gifted Girls. The first sign of a problem had actually been at the graduation ceremony when Aggie was introduced as the valedictorian to the assembled crowd, and she delivered a rather impassioned speech about “A Woman’s Role in the Work World”, the title of her talk that immediately startled some of the more conservative audience members and faculty. There was a smattering of nervous but polite chuckling as she opened, and then a stunned silence punctuated by audible gasps and fevered mumbling as the talk continued on about girls not being satisfied only with typing and secretarial jobs, girls not being reduced to make-up counter careers, girls excelling beyond nursing into full doctoral degrees, and girls leaving nursery school teaching and becoming fully tenured professors… at Ivy League Universities, no less! Aggie’s speech, beautifully edited and presented, took only 15 minutes, but the effect on everyone was galvanic. Mrs. Gretel Sweeney (formerly Gaertyl Shvenskaå) fainted right after the part about a woman presiding over an orphanage for non-white foundlings. Abigail’s role as the newly elected President of the Women’s Perennials and Deciduous Trees Club was brought into question at the punch bowl and cookies table by Myrtle Cambridge (formerly Mirska Käfer), her arch-rival in many social interactions involving canasta, mahjong, bridge, tango lessons, tea sandwiches, and bulb planting. Fortunately, Abigail ‘s knowledge of gardening, especially of deciduous trees and their diseases, honed by an intelligence as sharp as her daughter’s, precluded her replacement by Myrtle, even at the tempest being stirred at the punch bowl and cookies table by friend and foe alike. At the end of the speech, met by a polite rustle of clapping and program shuffling, Aggie was escorted (almost firmly!) from the dais and herded out with all the other graduates to their waiting families! Her parents and relatives stood stolidly, staring at her or their feet as she approached, at first confidently and then with greater and growing timidity, especially as she focused on her father’s stern face. To say he adored his daughter did not even begin to express it, but now… he was mortified, not so much for himself, but for Aggie Ann and her prospects in their community, especially among potential suitors in the coming years.  

He needn’t have worried much though, for even as Aggie Ann approached them through the giggling, gossiping, or scowling groups, she secretly resolved that she was not going to be defeated… or thwarted. Her passage to her waiting family was perhaps only a hundred feet or so; so much less than the passage her parents, grandparents, and ancestors had made across the wide continent by railroads and wagon trains to this new promised land. By comparison, her crossing to the bustling punch and cookies table was laughably short and silly, and she chuckled at her discomfort in spite of herself (at her discomfort?)… but the journey in those few moments inside her young green psyche would be something too wondrous and terrible to behold, even for her loving parents, for Aggie Anne’s spirit was sailing “smooth as a schooner”… from one world to another. 

The dinner party (really a banquet!) that her parents threw for the family and a dozen friends continued on without a hitch. Indeed, it may have been even more festive because, as the wine, champagne, whiskey, cherry beer, schnapps, and aquavit flowed, everyone grew more and more tickled at their Aggie Ann’s audacity. The spunk and courage that brought them and their ancestors to new destinies in a strange new land flashed as they saluted their 18 year-old girl with the fiery heart and mind. At one point, Abigail, after making everyone stand and toasting her daughter, burst out laughing as she recounted Mrs. Sweeney’s fainting (and re-enacted it with great flourishes!). Aunt Bertha described in detail how Myrtle Cambridge had button-holed several ladies and corralled them over to the punch and cookie table to stage an impromptu coup for the gardening club, only to be snubbed and mocked by loyal friends of Abigail’s, the telling of which made Abigail blush deeply and turn aside as her eyes filled with grateful tears. Ed caught her as she turned and embraced her tightly, whispering how proud he was of her, and of the daughter they had produced together. One of the cousins eagerly mentioned that he had overheard Mr. Gordon Tomlinson, the highly esteemed mayor of Wayzata, tell a group of city elders over a round of whiskies, that “Old Eadgårdt is right about his Aggie Ann. She sails smooth as a schooner, even in stormy seas!”. The Mayor then toasted her and Ed, and Ed, hearing that little story felt the warm prick of tears in his own eyes as Abigail threw her arms about his thick neck and planted a passionate kiss on his handsome mustachioed mouth. That brought cheers, and laughter, and deep feelings from everyone watching, broken only by the same cousin following up his telling with the Mayor calling both Gretel Sweeney and Myrtle Cambridge a pair of sows fit only for the County Fair that fall. More laughter and cheers, hugging, toasting, and grateful tears into the night while other households celebrated their daughters’ graduations in polite conversation, sensible and nutritious foods, and the quiet opening of graduation gifts like pin cushions, leather bound journals of household hints, and little silver fountain pens that would be used over the years only for grocery lists and jotting down shared recipes with other nice little wives over back fences.  

A week after graduation, as June unfolded in the glorious way that Summers start in the Minnesota lake and prairie towns, Aggie asked her father if she could travel to New York City accompanied, of course, by her Aunt Bertha, who had already (and secretly!) suggested just such an outing at her elder brother Ed’s expense. Ed, knowing the wiles and charms of all the women in his extended family, pretended to be averse to such an adventure (and the extravagance!), but, unable to contain his delighted laughter, said yes and began making long distance telephone calls to arrange everything, start to finish. Aggie and Bertie (as her friends called her) were ecstatic, and Abigail was tempted to tag along with her daughter and sister-in-law, but Ed reminded her that this trip was a “coming out” for their daughter, and one adult, especially NOT Aggie’s mother would be enough to chaperone without squelching the excitement of seeing what had become one of the greatest and most diverse metropolises in all history. New York City after the Great War was the prosperous, frenetic, and glamorous jewel of industrial civilization, ranked with Paris and London, and compared by historians and novelists to the great capitals of ancient empires as the center of this wondrous new century! Huge ocean liners, rushing automobiles, steel and glass skyscrapers, and the miraculous aeroplanes filled the headlines of major newspapers and the crackling airwaves of the newly-invented radios in people’s homes. 

It was in this atmosphere that Aggie and Bertie boarded the Art Deco Chippewa Zephyr in Minneapolis with only a few stops in Chicago, Toledo, Cleveland, Buffalo, before finishing in New York. Aggie had never been outside of Minneapolis so even Toledo and Cleveland seemed exotic, but Aunt Bertha had had rather scandalous and unspoken of adventures herself as a young girl, and Aggie managed to get her once-glamorous aunt to reveal them one-by-one on the journey as the countryside sped by and turned into a jumble of villages, corn fields, open pastures with cows, and small towns with their public squares and gazebos filled with local bands and waving people. Aggie would stare out of the window as they ate watching the world pass by and listening rapt at her aunt’s stories of big cities, corsets and bustles, street cars and the first “horseless carriages” that would stop people dead in their tracks in the middle of Broadway and Union Square in the theatre district of Manhattan as she was taken to Lüchow’s for a feast of pheasant, caviar, champagne, and mousse made of imported chocolates, currants, and meringue. The meals on the Zephyr were just as elegant, and they inspired Bertie, breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner to regale the wide-eyed and silent Aggie with increasingly fabulous but true tales of her own youth in Manhattan and up and down the Eastern seaboard. Finally they arrived at the Hudson River side of Manhattan, twinkling with a million lights from its soaring towers as the huge red sun began to sink behind them in the West and on everything that they had known before… The conductors came down the corridors and announced the upcoming arrival in the magnificent Pennsylvania Station which ironically sat in the heart of New York City, a fact that Bertie had to explain to Aggie. And Aggie was profoundly disappointed that they wouldn’t be arriving in Grand Central Station which she had once seen on a post card and was, after all, called The GRAND Central Station because that’s exactly what it was with its vaulted ceiling of stars and constellations floating 12 stories above the marble floors. But all of her doubts or disappointments were squelched when they pulled into the dream-like palace of Pennsylvania Station; impossibly high columns in the Corinthian style, sweeping stairways, and steel tracery supporting a vast sky of glass that dazzled in the sun, and rumbled in the rain… and revealed the real stars and constellations if the night was clear and dark enough, not painted-on ones with Edison light bulbs screwed into them. “Oh, brave new world!” she whispered to herself, remembering her Shakespeare from 7th grade and how Miss Phillips had given her the role of Miranda in the class readings. Bertie watched Aggie’s eyes sparkling in the station’s blazing lights as they gathered their bags and the nice porter helped with their larger luggage and walked them to the waiting cabs. The ride through the bustling streets on a typical weeknight stunned Aggie; she passed more people in just ten city blocks than lived in all of Wayzata, and she remembered that her geography teacher had told her that New York City alone was equivalent to six Minneapolises. She actually got out of breath at the sight of the skyscrapers all aglow in the night air and wondered how all that electricity could be summoned for this radiant display; Times Square lit up as if it was midday!  

They arrived at the spectacular Astor Hotel, driving under the enormous porte-cochère, and then it was into the breathtaking lobby with all its side salons, hallways, and passages to beautiful shops, lounges, and cafés. And the people! Aggie had never seen so many beautifully dressed and styled people, strolling, chatting, and laughing, everywhere! Everywhere!… in every corner, at every table, and tucked into cushioned sofas and tapestried armchairs. An orchestra was roaring out Dixie-land dance music in one of the ballrooms, and girls Aggie’s age or thereabouts were dragging chuckling boyfriends in white tie and tails in to do the Charleston! Bertie and Aggie glanced at the dance floor crowd as they passed to the elevators, and the concierge merrily suggested that they come down later after they had changed to join the fun. He could even introduce them to hotel escorts who would accompany “single ladies” as lovely as them for the evening, unless of course, they were comfortable being out on their own and “unattached”. He gave a knowing wink and a warm smile which made them both laugh out loud and filled them with the wild fizziness of children who are about to embark on a new adventure and meet fantastic characters. And that is exactly what they did; they changed out of their traveling suits, and put on their best evening ensembles with the new “flapper-length” hemlines and dangling necklaces. Bertie wore a midnight blue panné velvet sheath cut on the bias with lace detailing overlays, and Aggie was in a new rose charmeuse dress with panels of dangling bugle-beads that shimmered and swayed with her every step. Both hadn’t “bobbed” their hair yet, (but they would the next morning) so the rhinestone headbands would have to do for now. And then it was back down in the elevator, chatting brightly with the adorable elevator-boy, through the lobbies again, past all sorts of smiling and nodding folks and into the ballroom through it’s 18’ high French doors with the beveled cut-glass panels in leaded swirls and flourishes. Everything was polished mahogany, sculpted marbles, gilded ornaments, twinkling crystals… beautiful men and women, their faces glowing in the amber light of a hundred candelabras, wall sconces, and chandeliers! Had anything ever been this heartbreakingly beautiful, thought Aggie. Her eyes hurt from the glory of it all; hurt in the most wonderful way, and Bertie saw… and knew what her niece was feeling.  

And then the whirl of it all began! That first night, and its adventures. Meeting new people, and spending a single evening with them but feeling the next day that you had known them for years. Breakfast in bed, wheeled in on a silver and rosewood cart with orchids in bud vases mounted on the sides; truffled soufflés, Crepes Marchioness, cherry scones, and imported teas served by a butler. A bubble bath in a marble tub large enough for three, then off to a redo of one’s hair in a famous salon on Fifth Avenue, and the scary but wonderfully freeing feeling of watching as all that hair fell to the floor, and you looked into the three-sided mirror at your sculpted head in the boyish cut! Your ears, always complimented as cute and perfect were now totally visible and ready for the dangling pair of emerald and diamond pendants in the Cartier box that your Dad had secretly tucked into your toilette case. That strangely funny feeling when you’ve been away on a vacation for just one day, but you feel like you’ve been gone for weeks. Life and every moment of it is so vivid and loaded with sights, smells, sounds, and sensation that time seems to both rush by and stand still. And that is how Aggie lived, with Bertie at her side, encouraging her, inspiring her, and only advising her when Aggie asked. Days and nights swept them up and clutched them to the great thumping heart of New York City as it climbed higher and higher, carrying millions of souls into the clouds. The week was gone, yes, but they felt they had lived in New York for a year, and then Ed told them to stay another week, and they did!  

And it was over lunch at the Algonquin that Bertie reminded Aggie of her valedictorian speech at the graduation ceremony… was it only a couple of weeks earlier? How was that possible? How could that even be possible? For you see, Aggie had said all those things and believed them too, from the deepest places in her heart, but her heart had expressed only what it suspected, and guessed at, and hoped for, but had never experienced. It was instinct, but not fact. And here she was, still just barely 18, but so much older. She had met so many people from different towns, different countries, different continents; they had accents and complexions of different colors. They worshipped differently, ate exotic foods, knew exotic music, lived in exotic architecture, and many of their names had remained unchanged from their homelands. They mixed in the presence of each other, figuring out how to manage and even enjoy the differences in each other… millions of them, jumbling, jostling, and even joking about the frantic life they were sharing. And Aggie loved it. She LOVED IT!... as if she had always been made for it, perhaps in some former life or other world that her soul had known. She adored the Italian food they ate down on Mulberry Street. She lived for the new ragtime music that was playing uptown in Harlem. She roared at the Vaudeville shows with their Jewish comedians. And she knew what she wanted… and who she suspected she was. As she told Aunt Bertie what she was feeling, the table next to hers, filled with raucous chatter, bickering, and laughter quieted and started to eavesdrop… Aggie had noticed them when they first came in, eccentric in look and deportment, even comical in some cases, and totally different from the sameness one found in the small-town Midwest where conformity and “normalcy” were considered virtues. Here in New York City, it seemed that people tried everything they could to be different from their six million neighbors, and they often succeeded! Certainly, the round table beside hers was as quirky as she had ever seen. And then the tall gentleman with the round spectacles and frizzy hair turned and spoke to the two. His name was Kaufman, and he asked about them while the rest of his guests turned in their seats to listen and ask their own questions. Although they were clearly city sophisticates and had sharp senses of humor, which they used on each other, they were gracious and encouraging to the two adventurers from little Wayzata, Minnesota. A woman named Dorothy complimented Aggie on her green eyes and her naturally platinum blond hair, so fashionable now, and a Mr. Connelly asked if she had ever acted in school. He said he knew people in the theatre and film business, and maybe she’d like to meet them. More exciting people that simply turned and started chatting with Aunt Bertie and Aggie, with none of the reserve that was daily life in Midwest small towns. People of all types in the city just spoke to you, without even an introduction. It all was happening so quickly, and Aggie had no idea how important or famous these funny people were, which seemed to delight them! As charming and entertaining as she and Bertie found them, the circle of diners at the next table found the two even more so.  

And that was that! Telephone calls to photographers, a stylist and a modeling agency, a casting director in the Ziegfeld office, a few more to a movie company still stationed in New Jersey, and of course, several calls to Ed and Abigail explaining what was unfolding day by day with Bertie staying on as a chaperone and eventually as Aggie’s manager… Dinners for planning, luncheons for conferring, afternoons of script-reading and acting classes, weekends of photo shoots for magazine ads of expensive soaps, silk stockings, luxury automobiles, and then the theatre at night. Aggie was cast in lines of gorgeous girls coming down great rotating staircases dressed as flowers, or jewels, or months of the year, or heavenly creatures. It was about six months later that Bertie and Aggie were sitting with her agent and a couple of producers discussing her casting in a new show that would open at the Winter Garden Theatre in Time Square, and then be filmed by the Metro Goldwyn Studio. But her name, “Agnes Ann Abernathy”, would no longer work really for the star she was becoming… there was a pause, a beat, and then Aggie and Bertie began to chuckle, then laugh, more and more heartily, rising from their guts, and even deeper, roaring now with hot tears running down their cheeks, their hysterical laughing making them laugh even harder, and their companions began too, not knowing what was so funny, but weeping with laughter at the abandon of Bertie’s and Aggie’s, all of them gasping and rolling now. How big life was. How huge the journey. How much can the heart and the soul hold. From a little town and out into the wide world. How many lives can a single life hold… named one thing or another. How many lives can a single lifetime hold… if one wants to.

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