In a field that prides itself on accuracy in production, it took a woman to recognize the importance of organizing and conducting research to verify facts and figures. Forgotten today, Elizabeth McGaffey established the Lasky Feature Play Company’s library with only a handful of books in 1914, before gaining recognition as Hollywood’s top reference librarian in the 1920s.
Born in Chicago, Illinois, as Elizabeth Brock January 17, 1885, McGaffey apparently loved the arts, both written and performed, from a young age. One publicity story would claim that she attended St. Mary’s School in Knoxville, Tennessee and later worked writing features for the Chicago Inter-Ocean newspaper. I have found little on her life, but by 1903 she studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. She received a few good notices for performing in presentations by the school, including the one act play “The Interview” in 1903 and the large production “The Good Hope” in 1904. Over the next few years, Brock is listed as a member of the chorus in several large productions on Broadway, including The British themed “The Lady Shore” in 1905 where she plays Big Meg and a production of “The Time of Napoleon.”Her name disappeared from print at this point, with some later stories claiming she became a reader for theatrical production.
In spring 1911, Brock married press agent and theatre advance man Kenneth McGaffey in New Jersey, presumably after meeting him through theatrical work. The couple moved to Chicago in 1912 when McGaffey obtained newspaper and press agentry work there and perhaps, so did Elizabeth. Two years later, it appeared that the couple had finally found their entry into the moving picture business. The May 22, 1914 Variety reported that “Bessie” Block McGaffey was writing the scenario for a film documenting the life of actress Evelyn Nesbit, in which the former show girl would also star and produce, to be filmed on the East Coast. Unfortunately nothing came of the project.
A few months later, however, the couple arrived in the exploding filmmaking town Hollywood and found themselves part of the exciting new field. While Kenneth McGaffey joined the Lasky Feature Film Play Co.’s publicity department, Elizabeth saw opportunity to fill a need and grabbed it. In an article entitled, “Problems of a Motion Picture Research Library” published in 1935, Miss H. G. Percey of the Paramount Studios Research Department acknowledged that Gaffey established the first film research library in 1914. Calling her “an actress who had ‘trod the boards’ from Minnesota to Louisiana and from New York to California,” Percey stated that McGaffey was a script reader recognized for her “wide experience and excellent memory” in recalling details of plays, books, furniture, or history as well as catching anachronisms. Recognizing the need for accuracy, McGaffey convinced studio chiefs to establish a research department, receiving a dictionary, “National Geographic” magazine, and a public library card to get everything started.
Book by book, McGaffey began organizing a giant reference library to try and answer any question put to her and her assistants. For more difficult research, she reached out to local colleges, archives, and even the Huntington Library or Library of Congress for help solving difficult queries. McGaffey’s passion, organization, and attention to detail gained the department renown and helped it grow. Many of her policies for indexing and organization, a form of double or triple indexing to ensure discovery of materials, would be copied by other studios as well as the Los Angeles Public Library, who would tour her facility.
At the same time, McGaffey put her writing skills to use, devising the story “The Honorable Friend” for the studio’s dashing and intense superstar in 1916, Sessue Hayakawa. The story of a young Japanese gardener who finds that his employer sends his photo to a picture bride in Japan and how the younger man rectifies the situation, the script would become McGaffey’s only screenplay writing credit. For a short time afterwards, she continued to supervise the research department while serving under William C. deMille and Marion Fairfax to try and concoct original stories for the studio as well as occasionally writing stories for fan magazines, like one on the establishment of the Hollywood Studio Club as a home for young women attempting to break into the industry. Quickly recognizing her true talents and passions lay in conducting research, McGaffey returned to full time control of the department, increasing its importance and stature.
The research department continued expanding upon McGaffey’s return, so much so that by 1920 it required its own building. McGaffey, too, would expand her horizons, traveling for over three months through the Orient in 1922, conducting research but also learning more about the world and herself. When she returned, she again joined the cause promoting the Hollywood Studio Club. Outgrowing its current leased building, the group, led by such people as Constance DeMille, decided to construct its own facility with the amenities required to help young women find positions in the entertainment industry. While prominent society figures like Mrs. DeMille contributed funds, McGaffey canvassed all the moving picture studios for donations as chairperson of the group’s industry board.
Through the-mid 1920s, the McGaffeys continued their work for Paramount, Elizabeth discovering history details and Kenneth publicizing the studio’s films. While the studio recognized her talents by naming her head of the department, Kenneth mainly served as middle management, working under department heads like Harry Reichenbach and Pete Smith as advance and idea man. Perhaps Elizabeth’s success with DeMille and his lack of greater recognition led to issues, as the couple would eventually separate but never divorce. At times trades would call her Mrs. McGaffey, at other times, Miss McGaffey.
Cecil B. De Mille, a stickler for details and accuracy, grew to love McGaffey’s talents. More and more he turned to her for discovering the history and atmosphere of centuries past for his over-the-top extavaganzas. He trusted her judgment in compiling details for his 1923 biblical drama “The Ten Commandments” as well as his romantic melodramas hearkening to past centuries. For “The Ten Commandments,” McGaffey studied the illustrations of Henry Hunntington’s Gutenberg Bible at his San Marino library. The great man himself recognized the talents and skills of intelligent women, surrounding himself with many and finding them his most trusted advisors.
When the potentate left Paramount in 1925 for what he hoped was the greener pastures of independent production, DeMille hired McGaffey away from the studio to head his own research department. Determined and unshakeable, the redoubtable researcher employed any means to obtain information. The department did yeoman’s work on DeMille’s massive “King of Kings.” McGaffey informed Motion Picture News in November 1926 that more than 2,500 reference books were consulted and then compiled in one gigantic volume for Jeanie Macpherson.
When DeMille joined MGM in 1928, he brought McGaffey over to continue her excellent work. For the great man’s production of “Dynamite” in 1929, the story of a miner set up for murder, McGaffey explored dark, murky mines to truly understand a miner’s world and atmosphere. She visited with workers of the various departments required in exploding, extracting, and removing product, obtaining details of their daily practices and any unusual events to add color to the story.
To prepare for his 1930 film “Madam Satan,” McGaffey studied dirigibles as well as cruising about in them, coming to understand how they felt while moving. As with “Dynamite,” she interviewed and observed the crew to pick up slang, language, and phrasing in the profession. Sometimes she recognized the wisdom of the men, suggesting they be employed to provide technical details and help on the set. In a 1930 feature for “Talking Pictures,” McGaffey described how she organized a large book for DeMille, presenting all her research on the subject of each picture, filled with newpaper and magazine clippings, photos, brochures, or small ephemera, with other studios now copying her practice. She jokinglly told the magazine that she considered herself “an authority on over a hundred bath tubs,” a popular item in many of DeMille’s melodramas.
When DeMille returned to Paramount in 1932, McGaffey was forced to look for work. RKO-Radio snatched her up to head their growing research department and sleuth for details, eager to be affiliated with such a leader. At times, though, producers and executives forgot about research before starting a film, often leading to problems. As McGaffey told Screenland magazine, “The burning point today is to educate executives in the importance of research. We should have the script as soon as it’s written so that we may be prepared for whatever is asked of us.’
For a wire story entitled “The Smartest Gals in Hollywood” in 1931, McGaffey explained the difference between research in 1914 and now. A one woman show in 1914 at the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, McGaffey now supervised 12 assistants at RKO. When she began, directors’ main concern was architecture before costuming also featured on setting background and period. Eventually all manner of details were desired to tell the story. “At present, our work embraces all these things and goes farther – delving into the habits and obscure customs peculiar to certain groups of people.”
By this time, the film industry itself recognized the importance of research and what it meant to their productions. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted to add research department directors as members of the technicians’ branch under the art directors’ division, and McGaffey was one of the first four women and people to be added.
In 1940, the Academy once again honored librarians when it turned to research department heads and city librarians to help organize an advisory board to set the guiding principles for book acquisition of the Academy Library. People such as McGaffey, Warner Bros. research department head Herman Lissauer, Gladys Percy, Paramount research department head, 20th Century-Fox research department person Frances Richardson, Robert Bruce, MGM studio research head, Althea Warren, librarian with Los Angeles City libraries, Helen Vogel, of the Los Angeles County Library, and Mrs. Bess Yates, Glendale librarian, were selected to assist Margaret Herrick with expanding and organizing the library. At the time, it was considered among the top four specialized collections regarding motion pictures in the country, with approximately 1,970 books, 2,000 issues of foreign magazines, 15,000 pamphlets and clippings, 7,000 unbound magazine and trade paper issues, scripts, and bound volumes of trade magazines.
Suffering from a heart ailment, McGaffey succumbed to a heart attack at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital on March 13, 1944 at the age of 59, leaving no heirs, and thus seeing her story disappear from movie histories. As with so many women, she helped advance the industry in its early days and make it the gigantic success we know today. We owe McGaffey a debt of gratitude for promoting and recognizing the importance of research in providing authenticity and elegance to films.
Fantastic article, Mary. Thank you. Ms McGaffey would surely approve its meticulous and thoroughly researched detail.
Hard not to think of “Desk Set” while reading your piece. I wondered briefly if the playwright for the Broadway source material for that movie hadn’t encountered or been aware of Ms McGaffey. Surprisingly though, William Marchant was only about 20 when she died. Research departments were certainly an important source of popular culture coherence in the 20th century.