Thursday, January 19, 2012

132: The Self-Empowered Woman: Frederica Sagor Maas

Dear Followers,

There are so many amazing women today who are accomplishing great things that - if I had a magic wand - I could easily post a blog a day. But in the midst of all the exciting events of today's world, every now and then it's nice to take a look backwards and salute a true pioneer.

Two weeks ago, Frederica Sagor Maas died at the age of 111 years and 183 days. She was known as one of the rare supercentenarians, which means a person over the age of 100 who is known for reasons other then mere longevity.

Frederica was born on July 6th, 1900 in a cold-water, railroad flat on 101st Street near Madison Avenue in Manhattan, N.Y. Her parents, Agnessa and Arnold Zagorsky had emigrated from Moscow, and Americanized their name. Agnessa supported the family (there were four daughters) by working as a midwife (2: No Paternal Net). As a child Frederica wanted to become a doctor, but later decided to study journalism at Columbia University. She had a summer job as an errand girl at The New York Globe, dropped out of college in 1918 (11: Risk Addiction), and took a job at Universal Pictures, New York office for $100 per week.

One of the ways she learned about the movies was to carefully watch the ones she liked numerous times, and then study them critically frame by frame (10: The Critic Within). By 1923, she was story editor for Univeral and (practically unheard of for a woman of that time) head of the department. But a year later, she became dissatisfied with her job, resigned, and moved to Hollywood (14: Selective Disassociation).

She got a job writing scripts for Preferred Pictures, where she was successful, and then she moved to MGM. She quickly learned that others would take credit for her ideas, as well as her scripts, but when she complained she was labeled a troublemaker and her contract was not renewed (5: Life is Not a Popularity Contest).

In 1927, she married Ernest Maas, a producer at Fox Studios, and they wrote several movies for stars like Louise Brooks and Clara Bow. Her contribution to the 1927 hit movie "Rolled Stockings" was so pivotal that her name appeared on the screen credits, as well as on the movie posters. This was unusual, especially for a "woman screenwriter" (13: More Than Meets the Eye).

The couple's lives began a grim, downward spiral when they lost $10,000 in the 1929 stock market crash and many of their scripts were rejected. During most of the 30's they lived in New York and reviewed Broadway plays for the Hollywood Reporter. When they returned to L.A., she tried to work as an agent and continued to try to sell scripts, but they literraly lived hand-to-mouth.

By 1941, they were earning money writing for political campaigns, but did sell one script ("Miss Pilgrim's Progress") that wouldn't be made into a movie for another six years. During this tough time, they were even interrogated by the F.B.I. because they subscribed to two rumored Communist publications. They had struggled financially for so many years, seen both their careers evaporate, and then watched as the Pilgrim script was sold for a pittance and turned into a hit Betty Grable movie. Discouraged and depressed, they decided to commit suicide in their car in 1950, but cried together and turned off the iginition.

Ms. Maas foud work as a typist in an insurance agency, but had to lie about her age (she said she was 40 rather than 50). In 1999, when she was 99 years old, she published her tell-all autobiography (The Shocking Miss Pilgrim: A Writer in Early Hollywood), which is considered essential reading for history about the movie industry. Her book is full of stories about Joan Crawford, Louis B. Mayer, Ben Schulberg, Darryl F. Zanuck, and other Hollywood royalty. At the time of her death, she wa the 44th oldest verified person on the planet and the third oldest living person in California.

Looking forward to your comments...


  1. Dear Marilyn: As woman who worked in the film industry in the 80's and felt the discrimination firsthand, I am amazed that I did not know about Frederica Sagor Maas.

    Did she have any spiritual values at all that you could share. Surely such a complex and intelligent woman must have explored her spiritual values. Perhaps it is in her biography though the description and title seem more a socio-political appraisal of her career.

    1. Hi Reverend Lindsay, Wish I knew more about Trait #3 in Frederica's life, but I do believe that her family was Jewish. The fact that she and her husband couldn't go through with their suicide plan makes me believe that they had a belief system of some sort. I'm so glad that you are enjoying the blog. Please spread the word...