Isabel Johnston, Writing Royalty

Isabel Johnston Graduation Photo; Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 15, 1919

Isabel Johnston Graduation Photo; Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 15, 1919


The Johnston Family:

Isabel Johnston was born on July 16, 1898, to John Parry Johnston and Isabel M. McElheny,[1] in Brooklyn, New York. John and Isabel who were married in November of 1894,[2] also had celebrated the birth of the first daughter, Agnes Christine, in 1896. Isabel McElheny Johnston was well rooted in the Pittsburgh area, her uncle, Samuel Watson donated land for a public park in Allegheny (now known as, Riverview Park in Pittsburgh), and was originally a farm belonging to Watson; her other Watson uncle was a prominent attorney in the Steel City.[3]

The story of Isabel Johnston, is a striking one, a tale that must include trips aside recounting the talents of her mother, her father and her sister. The Johnston’s women were uniquely gifted in writing, and without a clear understanding of the beginnings of Mrs. Isabel Johnston, then we are left with an unexplained start for Ms. Agnes Johnston; not that bursting upon the scene is unheard of, but this early biographical exploration goes a long way in the discovery of the commencement of a singular talent, amongst the rarified shining stars of women writers and directors during the infancy of filmmaking.

To say that all of the writing talent came only from the McElheny-line is misleading, for Agnes and Isabel’s uncle, William Andrew Johnston was a reporter for the New York Journal and the New York Press, and on the editorial-staff of the New York Herald, and also the editor of the New York World (over 30-years there), and the New York Sunday World.[4] He began his newspaper career by starting his own publication in his hometown of Wilkinsburg (near Pittsburgh), The Independent, which operated for two-years, then sold out, heading for New York and a job at the aforesaid, New York Journal.[5] William Johnston  was the author of, Tom Graham, V. C., The Yellow Letter, The Light of Death (a serial) One of Buller’s Horse, The Lost Alumnus, In the Night, The House of Whispers, The Apartment Next Door, These Women, The War of 1898, The Mystery of the Ritsmore, The Tragedy at the Beach Club, The Innocent Murders, and, Limpy (this is short of being a comprehensive catalog of his writings, for he wrote more than fifteen volumes of mystery stories[6]). Johnston while working at the New York World, recognized the talent of a hardly known writer, O. Henry; Johnston obtained 132 of Henry’s short stories and developed a close friendship with the now famous O. Henry.[7]

Adding to the personal endowment mix for Isabel was the business acumen of her father who was “well-to-do” in manufacturing in Evanston, Illinois. Johnston also did work for the firm of Babcock and Wilcox (a boiler manufacturer, situated at 29 Cortlandt Street), in New York while summering there and for a time was the General Manager of the Watertown, New York, Engine Company;[8] he may have come to wealth and position by nepotism via his father, William Johnston who owned a manufacturing concern in Pittsburgh.[9] Adding to the considerable wealth and position of Mr. Johnston, was his talents in field of mechanical engineering, leading him (as seen above) to numerous administrative offices. This look at Mr. Johnston offers no small insight into the lives of Agnes and her sister, for it was a stable and financially secure environment to which they were born and the girls had an emotional advantage throughout their developing years, afforded them from both mother and father.

Ms. McElheny had already found success writing before marrying John P., beginning as a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Press in 1891; within a year she took a position with the, New York Mail and Express. While at the, Mail and Express, Isabel wrote children’s stories organized the publication’s children’s page, making it a well-liked feature of the newspaper. It was during this period that she acted as a foreign correspondent, at least for a short while, for the Mail and Express, stationed in London. In addition to her stories for children, Isabel developed a nature study column for the children’s section, which feature was seen reprinted in newspapers nationwide. New York seemed a boon for McElheny, for it was in New York that she met John Johnston; the two were wed on November 8, 1894 and Isabel gave up her staff positon with the New York Mail and Express; although her retirement from writing was short-lived.[10]

Mrs. Johnston would take up writing for the Chicago Tribune and Leslie’s Weekly, after the family made the move to the, Windy City, and made their home in Evanston, Illinois; this would remain their main residence through 1908, located about ½ mile from Lake Michigan at 2018 Orrington Avenue.[11] It was in 1907 that Mrs. Johnston achieved the most attention of her career, with the publication of, The Jeweled Toad, a fairy-tale novel for children, this was successful both critically and in sales.[12] As 1920 drew near the Johnston’s marriage began to suffer and Isabel filed for legal separation in the early 1920’s.[13]

Agnes then Isabel:

As mentioned above, the Johnston’s vacationed in New York, in Stony Brook, there allowing the sisters the influence of the Big Apple. Young Isabel attended Vassar College (by the generosity of her sister)[14] and likewise, as her sister, became a scenarist, although, only for a short time, and proffering but a couple of handfuls of scripts. All of the adaptations and original works that Ms. Isabel Johnston wrote are attributed to her mother, Isabel Johnston. This is a terrible mistake perpetrated by the passing of over ninety-years and notoriety achieved by her mother. Yet, it is clear from all documentary evidence that it was the daughter Isabel Johnston, and not Mrs. Johnston who was writing for film for nearly ten-years.[15] This revelation flies in the face of all other modern sources which assign eleven film-writing credits to Mrs. Isabel M. Johnston, but, according to the 1920 Federal Census, Mrs. Johnston lists “none” under occupation while both Agnes and Ms. Isabel Johnston replied: “moving pictures” under the employment question. If this were the only contemporary evidence to support the younger Isabel as the writer of scenarios, I would leave it only as a possibility, yet there is another source from 1925 which states that it is the two sisters who write for film. I will leave off drawing conclusions and quote Picture Play Magazine directly as supporting proof: “In the production side of the industry, Isabel Johnston rapidly is taking rank with her eminent sister, Agnes Christine Johnston, as a scenarist. Agnes sent Isabel through Vassar and then encouraged her to write. Under her sister’s tutelage she quickly grasped the idea. Her first work was with Fox, doing stories for Shirley Mason, after that, she wrote several stories for Charles Ray, then went to England to write for the Stoll Productions. While there, she collaborated with H. G. Wells on a screen treatment of book, “Marriage,” which Fox will soon produce

The Johnston sisters come from New York. Agnes is the older of the two and got her start at the old Vitagraph studios in the East. She started as a typist in the scenario department and Mrs. Sidney Drew, who was making comedies for Vitagraph at that period, happened to be the person for whom she typed most of the time. It was through this association that Agnes was given her initial opportunity to do a continuity by herself. “Daddy Long Legs,” Mary Pickford’s production, was her first real big continuity, and since then she had done many important scripts.”[16]

Agnes Johnston at left, Isabel Johnston to the right; Picture-Play Magazine, Johnston Sisters, November, 1925

Agnes Johnston at left, Isabel Johnston to the right; Picture-Play Magazine, Johnston Sisters, November, 1925


There is a third reason to side with young Isabel as the writer of at least ten-film treatments, that, in most of the trade magazines she is referred to as Ms. Isabel Johnston. The only caveat to Mrs. Johnston collecting modern misattribution for film-work by her daughter is the first credit, The Turn of the Road (1915), where Isabel M. Johnston is listed as the writer, in both the, Moving Picture World, and, Motion Picture News magazines.[17] As well, the 1918, Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual, offers some clarity,  listing three credits for Isabel M. Johnston: The Turn of the Road, My Little Spirit Girl (His Little Spirit Girl, 1917), and, Carmen the 1915 version directed by Raoul Walsh and produced by Fox Film Corporation. One more film credit must be added to Mrs. Johnston, that of, Cupid by Proxy, 1918, where the elder Isabel was responsible for the story and such is clarified in the Catalogue of Copyright Entries, for 1918, where, Isabel M. Johnston is the copyright holder. All three of the Johnston women wrote for the silver screen, a rare feat indeed. This then clearly sets a partition between the work of Mrs. Isabel M. Johnston and that of her daughter, Ms. Isabel Johnston.


Isabel on Her Own:

Isabel Johnston did not graduate from Vassar until 1919[18] and she began churning out scenarios in 1920 and ending her film-writing stint in 1923. The popular account for Ms. Johnston was that she read plays for Vitagraph in 1914 (at the ripe old age of 16), then attended Vassar, finishing in 1919, then following in her sister’s footsteps.[19] While at Vassar, Isabel revealed herself most interested in acting and writing, her final two years at the college she was one of the editors for the Vassar Monthly Miscellany; she also wrote a, The Couple, which was produced by the Vassar College Department, in February of 1919.[20]

Ms. Johnston penned Her Elephant Man, A Woman Who Understood, Molly and I, Love’s Harvest, 45 Minutes from Broadway, Peaceful Valley all in 1920; she had nothing filmed in 1921, but in 1922 wrote Heroes of the Street and then in 1923, Swords and the Woman. While she reportedly worked on other film projects through the years, I have been unable to ascertain any of those titles.

Her Elephant Man

45 Minutes From Broadway

Love's Harvest


Isabel Johnston moved from work in film to print when she gained a position on the New York Journal, in the late 1920’s.[21] While at the Journal (she lasted three years there), she covered the Ruth Snyder-Judd Gray trial in 1927, and as Newsday reporter, John Pascal referred to Johnston, as a “sob sister,” (a girl reporter whose job it was to make her readers cry), and considered her to be one of the flashiest “Brenda Starrs” of that day.[22]

Isabel Johnston; Passport Photo, 1922

Isabel Johnston; Passport Photo, 1922


After her time with the New York Evening Journal, she worked on a paper in California, and on the editorial staff of Liberty Magazine, then she spent two-years in England, trying her hand at film-scripts. Feeling she was no good at writing for the movies, she traveled Europe for a few years, landing in Germany and Italy. While on the Continent, Ms. Johnston, wrote travel articles to make ends meet.[23]

Beginning the 1930’s Ms. Johnston began a four-decade career writing short-stories, many of which found their way into newspapers (more than 50 published); she was especially accomplished at offering stories which fit into one, two or three columns and were sometimes touted as a “Short, Short Story.”[24] Even at the age of 74 Ms. Johnston continued writing, submitting a novel she had worked on for fifteen-years, that manuscript went un-named and is one of the many pieces of her work history lost in time.

Through the intervening nine-decades since Ms. Isabel Johnston quitted her foray into movie scenario writing, a whole host of cogs and wheels of time, witnesses, dust and cobwebs have shrouded the work of the young Isabel, and leaving her written legacy at the feet of her mother. This of course is not the first occasion that such has happened, anyone who has read one of the biographies which I have written will notice the recurring theme of misattribution because of the fractured image perpetrated by the mirror of time. In this the 21st-Century, we pride ourselves on the availability of information, the speed with which we can send and receive, the quantity that we may store, from flash-memory USB drives to the Cloud, we pontificate daily of our historical achievements. Yet, with all of these technological advancements at our fingertips, a great portion of our recent history is either lost or lazily abandoned. Few research anymore. Fewer still research until the story is told. Investigative journalism has been sacrificed at the altar of instantaneous reporting; with our messaging, our posts, our blogs, the 24-hour news-cycle, have collectively, in many ways dampened our desire for the “full-story” and in its place has left us with only an appetite for what is expedient. We as readers have become satisfied with one-stop information store-houses, rather than taking the time to weed trough the copious sources available, we hasten to the assembly-line trough of the modern take on history. It sounds as though I am indicting the Internet and its nearly unlimited capabilities, yet that is far from my intention. Instead I admonish those that do not take full advantage of those digital resources, the wealth of knowledge which lies but a few hours of persistent research away on the Web.

In the case of Ms. Isabel Johnston and the mistaken identification of her work as her mother’s, the misattribution may be seen in one scholarly work, and on a couple of online repositories of film history.[25] Now, some of this work was put together prior to the full value of the Internet being available, but, the sources which have been digitized have been available all along, waiting for someone to verify the story. I do not point the finger of accusation, for in many ways a story is never fully told; new information may come to light, a source believed lost is found, a statement deemed insignificant before, may grow in significance with additional background. I have over the course of the last decade, updated several biographies as new publications were made available in a digitized form. The burden of the facts of history rests upon the writer and the reader; first to the writer to investigate as thoroughly as possible and upon the reader to demand a history, which has been researched and not regurgitated. Too often the writer (especially us that blog) gathers the grist for their story through histories written by others, without seeking the original sources themselves; this is a time-saving tactic which often leads to error. If the source is wrong than the new history is wrong. It is incumbent upon the writer to do as much original-source research as possible, and the reader must re-learn to expect the best of investigative journalism, all the while, resisting the near addictive longing for instant gratification and seeking the draught that truly quenches our thirst for knowledge.


By C. S. Williams


[1] Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) February 10, 1908

[2] The Sun (New York, New York) November 9, 1894

[3] Asbury Park Press (Asbury Park, New Jersey) February 5 1908

[4] Notable Men Of Pittsburgh and Vicinity, by Percifer Frazer Smith, published by the Pittsburgh Printing Company, 1901

Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York) September 28, 1930

[5] The Phi Gamma Delta, Volume XLV October, 1922, No. 1, Fiji Finds Fun in Being a Fat Man, page 56-59

[6] Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) June 23, 1934

[7] The Phi Gamma Delta, Volume XLV October, 1922, No. 1, Fiji Finds Fun in Being a Fat Man, page 56-59

[8] The Sun (New York, New York) November 9, 1894

[9] Notable Men Of Pittsburgh and Vicinity, by Percifer Frazer Smith, published by the Pittsburgh Printing Company, 1901

[10] The Sun (New York, New York) November 9, 1894

Atlanta Constitution (Atlanta, Georgia) April 21, 1894

Daily Republican (Monongahela, Pennsylvania) October 31, 1894

Coeur d’Alene Evening Press (Coeur d’Alene, Idaho) March 20, 1908

[11]Jacksonville Daily Journal (Jacksonville, Illinois) January 15, 1904

Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) February 10, 1908

[12] Wilkes-Barre Record (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania) March 20, 1908

[13] U. S. Passport Application for Isabel M. Johnston, May 7, 1923

[14] The Vassarion, Volume 31, 1918

Picture Play Magazine November, 1925

[15] 1920 United States Federal Census

[16] Picture Play Magazine November, 1925

[17] Moving Picture World, October 23, 1915

Motion Picture News, November 6, 1915

[18] Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York) June 10, 1919

[19] Wilkes-Barre Evening News (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania) November 22, 1922

Picture Play Magazine November, 1925

[20] Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York) June 15, 1919

[21] Motion Picture News Blue Book, 1930

[22] Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio) July 2, 1972

[23] Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York) September 28, 1930

Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio) July 2, 1972

[24] The Monkey, Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York) December 4, 1932

The Diamond Was Small, Delaware County Daily Times (Chester, Pennsylvania) October 16, 1933

Fill Out the Blank, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) May 25, 1935

Brooklyn Nights, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) July 20, 1935

Blue Bungalow, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) November 8, 1935

No Regrets, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) May 8, 1936

The Prize Package, Oakland Tribune (Oakland, California) May 27, 1936

Last Call, Oakland Tribune (Oakland, California) June 16, 1936

The Ship That Sailed, Oakland Tribune (Oakland, California) July 14, 1936

Home of Her Own, Oakland Tribune (Oakland, California) August 3, 1936

Mother Wit, Journal News (Hamilton, Ohio) September 24, 1936

Don’t Write-Wait!, Journal News (Hamilton, Ohio) October 19, 1936

Expectant Father, Oakland Tribune (Oakland, California) December 26, 1936

Happy Bridegroom, Detroit Free Press, Short Story Magazine (Detroit, Michigan) January 31, 1937

Traveler’s Aid, Journal News (Hamilton, Ohio) February 11, 1937

Bachelor Flat, Oakland Tribune (Oakland, California) March 25, 1937

Dancing Lessons, Journal News (Hamilton, Ohio) April 24, 1937

Announcement Party, Journal News (Hamilton, Ohio) May 17, 1937

Remorse In The Morning, Journal News (Hamilton, Ohio) July 1, 1937

Small Town Debut, Journal News (Hamilton, Ohio) September 10, 1937

Many Thanks, Journal News (Hamilton, Ohio) November 24, 1937

Vacation Lies, Journal News (Hamilton, Ohio) December 31, 1937

Waxed Floors, Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio) March 26, 1940

Half A House, Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio) June 3, 1940

Lost Addresses, Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio) June 13, 1940

Wedding Date, Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio) July 2, 1940

The Season’s Hat, Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio) July 24, 1940

The Starving Millionaire, Winnipeg Tribune (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada) April 11, 1942

The Unnecessary Husband, Toledo Blade (Toledo, Ohio) November 13, 1947

The Rooftop, Toledo Blade (Toledo, Ohio) December 3, 1947

Do You Mind Sharing?, Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio) March 20, 1948

Mother’s Hope Chest, Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio) May 22, 1948

Farewell To Bob, Toledo Blade (Toledo, Ohio) May 28, 1948

Late As Usual, Toledo Blade (Toledo, Ohio) August 30, 1948

Two-Family House, Toledo Blade (Toledo, Ohio) September 20, 1948

Blueprint For Happiness, Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio) November 13, 1948

Men Don’t Cry, Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio) February 12, 1949

The Runaway, Toledo Blade (Toledo, Ohio) April 29, 1949

The Divided Dog, Montreal Gazette (Montreal, Quebec, Canada) October 17, 1949

Paper Route, Montreal Gazette (Montreal, Quebec, Canada) December 15, 1949

Car Appeal, Montreal Gazette (Montreal, Quebec, Canada) February 6, 1950

Best Friends, Montreal Gazette (Montreal, Quebec, Canada) March 8, 1950

Play Safe, Toledo Blade (Toledo, Ohio) May 17, 1950

A Date for Sue, Montreal Gazette (Montreal, Quebec, Canada) June 5, 1950

Learn From the Birds, Toledo Blade (Toledo, Ohio) September 19, 1950

The Woman’s Touch, Montreal Gazette (Montreal, Quebec, Canada) February 6, 1951

The Time Clock, Montreal Gazette (Montreal, Quebec, Canada) March 27, 1951

Just What I Wanted, Toledo Blade (Toledo, Ohio) May 9, 1951

The Strawberry Dress, Toledo Blade (Toledo, Ohio) September 25, 1951

Under the Mistletoe: A True Story, Valley Morning Star (Harlingen, Texas) December 22, 1957

The Reluctant Landlady, Valley Morning Star (Harlingen, Texas (August 24, 1958

The Missing Iron: A Star True Story, Valley Morning Star (Harlingen, Texas) July 8, 1962

[25] What Women Wrote: Scenarios, 1912-1929, by Ann Martin and Virginia M. Clark, University Publications of America, 1987, page 22

Internet Movie Data Base

The Movieland Directory



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