N.J.’s ‘Radium Girls’ fought for justice even as they were dying. New film tells their story.

Emilee Geist

Jean Anne Gregorzek owns a small clock that glows with luminescent paint. It doesn’t tick, but she keeps it on her dresser anyway, to remember the grandmother she never met.

Quinta Maggia McDonald died in 1929, but the radium in her bones has a half-life of 1,600 years.

Nearly a century since toxic, glowing radium paint poisoned McDonald’s body, “Radium Girls,” a movie inspired by her story, will be in virtual cinemas and select theaters Friday.

Every day for years, McDonald, her sisters and other Radium Girls ingested radium as part of their jobs at United States Radium Corp. in Orange. The company employed watch dial painters starting in 1917 to make watches for servicemen in the trenches during World War I.

The workers, including teens and young women, were instructed to apply radium paint by sharpening the point of their paintbrushes between their lips. This constant exposure to radium ensured the radioactive element would deposit in their bones.

Dozens of Radium Girls were among the first victims of radiation poisoning. Many suffered from a host of symptoms including severe pain, broken bones and tumors, and ultimately died as a result, whether in their 20s, 30s or decades later. But McDonald, her sister Albina Maggia Larice and three other Radium Girls fought back. They banded together to sue United States Radium for $1,250,000 for its fatal abuse and cover-up, speaking out even as their teeth and jawbones fell out because of the lethal work.

“It’s a piece of history that you never ever want people to forget,” says Gregorzek, 76. “She fought so hard and so did my great aunts. And they all died horrific deaths from this radium poisoning. And the thing of it is they all knew about it, the people that hired these young women and young girls. They all knew that it was killing them.”

Radium Girls

Radium Girls working at the United States Radium Corp. in Orange, circa 1922 or 1923. The watch dial painters were instructed to use their mouths to form a point on their paintbrushes, causing them to ingest the radium paint. The first Radium Girl died of radiation poisoning in 1922. Star-Ledger file photo

The radium paint, known as Undark, would make the painters’ skin glow in the dark. For a while, the luminous green was little more than a paycheck and a dreamy decoration. In the 1910s and ’20s, radium was marketed as a beauty aid as well as a cure-all for depression, impotence and nausea. Radium Girls used the paint as nail polish. But with every touch of the brush to their lips, they were being poisoned.

“Dip, lick, paint,” one of the dial painters says in the movie, describing the work process. “Repeat, repeat, repeat.”

The world would soon discover that United States Radium was sending its employees to their graves.

The women initially struggled to find support for their case, which ended up dragging on for years at a time when death was not far off for some. A fellow dial painter, Marguerite Carlough, had been the first bring a lawsuit against the company in 1925. Days before a trial was set to start, McDonald, Larice and Radium Girls Grace Fryer, Edna Hussman and Katherine Schaub settled with the company for $10,000 each in 1928. The same year, Sabin von Sochocky, who first created the paint and served as United States Radium’s technical director, died of aplastic anemia caused by radiation poisoning.

The women also received a $600 annuity for as long as they survived — McDonald, 29, died the following year — and the company covered their legal and medical costs. A postscript to the film notes that a federal judge on the trial was a stockholder in the radium company.

Radium Girls

The cast of “Radium Girls.” After a group of dial painters sued the United States Radium Corp., their case helped to set a precedent for workers’ protections.

Still, the influence of the Radium Girls could be felt long after their deaths. Their challenge to the company would lay the groundwork for the development of safety measures in the workplace and workers’ compensation, though the Occupational Safety and Health Administration wouldn’t come along until 1971.

“In my eyes, their deaths were not in vain,” Gregorzek tells NJ Advance Media. “To me, they’re like heroines.”

The “Radium Girls” film, set in 1925, was due out in April, but delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to virtual screenings at theaters in New Jersey and across the country, Cranford Theater is showing the movie at its drive-in theater Tuesday, Oct. 27 and Basie Center Cinemas in Red Bank is screening the film Oct. 29 through Nov. 1.

Directed by Ginny Mohler and Lydia Dean Pilcher in their feature directorial debuts, the movie premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018. The story is a fictionalized account of the real New Jersey dial painters starring Joey King (“The Kissing Booth,” “The Act”) and Abby Quinn (“I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” “Little Women”) as sisters Bessie and Josephine “Jo” Cavallo. The teens paint watches at an Orange company called American Radium for one cent per dial. Their world is shattered when Jo, who is praised for her efficient, precise painting, becomes too sick to work. She is told she has no more than two years to live.

American Radium tries to cover up the cause of Jo’s illness by getting a company “doctor” to say that she’s suffering from syphilis. This was a real tactic United States Radium used, enlisting medical examiners to give syphilis as one cause of death for McDonald’s sister Amelia “Mollie” Maggia. The company manufactured this explanation to shame the women as it carried on with baldfaced lies.

The business knew radium was harmful. Harvard physiology professor Cecil Drinker had conducted a 1924 study that revealed as much, but United States Radium initially blocked him from publishing his findings. Men who worked as scientists at the company were known to wear lead aprons and use tongs when handling radium powder. The Radium Girls, however, were not given any reason for concern as they mixed paint, putting the brushes in their mouths countless times each day.

Katherine Wiley, chairwoman of the New Jersey Consumers League, and Alice Hamilton, a professor of industrial medicine at Harvard, worked on behalf of the dial painters as the company stonewalled Drinker. Marie Curie, who had discovered radium in 1898 with her husband Pierre (she died of radiation poisoning in 1934), weighed in on the case herself, saying that once the radium had entered the girls’ bodies, there was nothing to be done.

“It would have been tragic if no one knew that it was toxic and they were poisoned,” Ginny Mohler, co-writer and co-director of “Radium Girls,” tells NJ Advance Media. “But the company knew. And to me that makes it criminal.”

Mohler, 32, who lives in Brooklyn, wrote the script with Brittany Shaw, a fellow alum of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. In 2013, they received a $100,000 grant for the film from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The narrative unfolds through the relationship between the Cavallo sisters.

Radium Girls

A Radium Girls illustration published circa 1922-1923 depicting skeletons holding radium paint, underscoring the toxic nature of the job.Star-Ledger file photo

“We felt so passionately about framing the story through their eyes,” Mohler says. She came up with the idea when she was working as an archival researcher on a documentary about the Manhattan Project. Reading material that talked about how to keep workers safe from radiation, Mohler came across one line that startled her so much she had to learn more.

“We all remembered the tragic dial painters of World War I,” it said. Mohler couldn’t believe she hadn’t learned about the Radium Girls in school.

“The history is in plain sight,” she says, pointing to the fact that the former radium company at Alden and High streets in Orange became a federal Superfund site. The Environmental Protection Agency conducted cleanup efforts as recently as 2016.

Co-director Lydia Dean Pilcher, producer of “Radium Girls” alongside executive producer Lily Tomlin, has produced films like HBO’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” (2017) — based on the Rebecca Skloot book and starring Oprah Winfrey — through her company Cine Mosaic. Pilcher, who produced Oscar-nominated documentary “Cutie and the Boxer,” wanted to apply her passion for environmental activism to a narrative feature. A friend suggested Mohler and Shaw’s screenplay.

“It was it,” she says. “I loved this idea of coming of age in the course of the story and that it was told through the eyes of these two young girls. They had dreams of going to Hollywood or going to Egypt and being an archaeologist. That’s where their heads where until the reality of the world brought them into this rude awakening.”

Radium Girls

Joey King, at left, and Abby Quinn as sisters Bessie and Josephine Cavallo in “Radium Girls.”Juno Pictures

While the characters are generally based on real people, some names are changed and some details come from radium workers outside New Jersey. Not all dial painters died young. In 2014, Mae Keane, who worked at a factory in Waterbury, Connecticut in the 1920s, died at 107. Keane, who refused to put the paint in her mouth, only spent a couple days on the job.

One part of the film — the exhumation of Bessie and Jo’s sister Mary — comes directly from Gregorzek’s family story.

Quinta Maggia McDonald was one of seven sisters in the Maggia family (she was the fifth; hence her name). When it became clear that radium paint could have caused her older sister Amelia “Mollie” Maggia’s death, the family allowed her body to be exhumed in 1927. The inside of her casket glowed, Kate Moore writes in “Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women,” the 2017 New York Times bestseller about the dial painters and their counterparts at Radium Dial Corporation in Ottawa, Illinois.

The reality was that Mollie had been the first of Orange’s Radium Girls to die from radiation poisoning in 1922, when she was 25.

“Her entire jaw fell out in the dentist’s hands,” Gregorzek says — and that was when Mollie was alive.

Radium Girls

The Cavallo sisters in the “Radium Girls” movie are inspired by the Maggia sisters who worked at the United States Radium Corp. factory in Orange. Mollie Maggia was the first dial painter to die of radiation poisoning.Juno Pictures

Gregorzek now resides in Cocoa, Florida. She grew up in East Paterson (now Elmwood Park) and graduated from Paramus High School, but she never knew much about her grandmother apart from her cause of death. Quinta died when Gregorzek’s mother Helen was 10. She didn’t know Quinta’s name, but she did know that her own mother suffered from scleroderma, the same autoimmune disease of the connective tissue that her great aunts experienced, along with miscarriages. Quinta had radium in her body when she was pregnant with Helen.

After Gregorzek’s daughter-in-law, Kellie Gregorzek, found Quinta’s records on Ancestry.com last year, Jean devoured information about her family and the “glow girls.” She read Moore’s book.

“There was so many mixed emotions,” Gregorzek says. “There were times that I had to put the book down.”

More than 65 years before Erin Brockovich took on the Pacific Gas and Electric Company for dumping hexavalent chromium in California, the Maggia sisters and their fellow dial painters made headlines for their legal battle. An illustration published circa 1922-1923, which is shown in the film, depicts skeletons holding dishes of radium paint for the dial painters as they work.

“It’s a story about young women who take control of their fate,” says D.W. Gregory, who published the play “Radium Girls” in 2000. “They don’t just accept what happened to them but they try to get answers, try to get justice.”

Gregory pitched the story to the Playwright Theatre of New Jersey in Madison in the late ’90s after seeing Carol Langer’s 1987 documentary “Radium City” about the Illinois dial painters. The playwright first heard about the teen workers from her fifth grade teacher.

Radium Girls

The Radium Girls working in the Orange factory in 1922 or 1923.Copy photo/Star-Ledger file photo

“I just remember being horrified by that story and totally confused as to how that could happen,” Gregory says.

According to the Educational Theatre Association, “Radium Girls” has ranked among the 10 most produced plays in American high schools for the past three years. Gregory says Moore’s book helped to generate interest. Claudia Clark, a writer from Lawrenceville, also examined the dial painters in the 1997 book “Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935.”

There are other New Jersey connections to be found in the “Radium Girls” movie. Gina Piersanti, 22, a Jersey City native and daughter of local artist Robert Piersanti, plays Hazel, one of the dial painters. Juno Films, a Princeton-based film distributor, picked up the movie this year.

“I think that people are really going to embrace the film,” says CEO Elizabeth Sheldon, noting that a trailer has drawn more than 2.3 million views on YouTube.

Quinta’s tombstone, which sits in Orange’s Rosedale Cemetery, doesn’t say anything about her place in history. But more than 90 years later, people are going to learn how the Radium Girls persisted in the face of an impossible foe — and death itself.

“I am so proud of my heritage, to find out that their lives mattered,” Gregorzek says. “All these women’s lives mattered.”

The virtual premiere of “Radium Girls” is Friday, Oct. 23; visit watch.eventive.org/radiumgirls. Cranford Theater will screen the film at its drive-in theater 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 27; drivein.cranfordtheater.com. Basie Center Cinemas in Red Bank (formerly Bow Tie Cinemas, at 36 White St.) will screen the film Oct. 29 through Nov. 1; thebasie.org/venue/basie-center-cinemas. Virtual screenings will run Nov. 6 through 20 at Princeton Garden Theatre and the Film Society of Summit, which will have a live virtual discussion with the directors Nov. 12. Visit princetongardentheatre.org or summitfilmsociety.com.

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Amy Kuperinsky may be reached at [email protected].

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