People in a Diary

S. N. Behrman
Boston: Little, Brown, 1972
First edition in dust jacket
Inscribed by Behrman

    (On front free endpaper)  For Walter Slezak, / Beautiful artist, delightful com- / panion, / from one who has experienced / both, / S.N. Behrman. / New York: July 27, 1972.

People in a Diary was the last work that Behrman wrote; he completed it in 1972, a year before his death. Like most of his other non-fiction prose works, much of it was first published serially in The New Yorker magazine. It later appeared in book form in an edition brought out by Little Brown.

Although Behrman continued to write plays late in his life—Lord Pengo, The Cold Wind and the Warm and But for Whom Charlie were written and staged in the Fifties and early Sixties, and Fanny, his one musical, written collaboratively with Joshua Logan, also appeared at that time—he began in the late Forties to devote less of his energy to the theater and more to non-fiction prose. He had always written for The New Yorker, starting in 1929, but from the late Forties till the end of his life it was this magazine that became the main outlet for his work and raised the status of his second career as a writer of non-fiction prose.

This shift was due in part to the fact that the style of "high comedy" that Behrman had developed in the Twenties and Thirties had begun to fall out of fashion by the early Fifties and that the theater world's attention was now focused on the work of other, mostly younger playwrights. But it was due also to the delight he experienced in working collaboratively with two brilliant New Yorker editors, William Shawn and Katharine White. He felt a deep affection for and gratitude to both of them. He believed that they had an ability to help him shape his writings into a form that was as good as it could possibly be. And he was very happy when, once the writings were ready, they would appear serially, during successive weeks, in the pages of this fine and unique magazine.

That experience at The New Yorker must have been a great relief for Behrman after years of working in the theater. The theater was a crazy place, a cauldron where talented artists confronted business people who were sometimes mediocre, where decisions were made in a hurry, in a panic sometimes, under the threat of a play closing when tickets didn't sell or bad reviews came in, where there were power struggles between different factions, where egotistical producers and stars rewrote scripts, where the direction and mood of plays were changed at the last moment.

The main components of four major Behrman works were published during these years by The New Yorker: The Worcester Account, Duveen, Portrait of Max and People in a Diary. The best-known of these, Duveen, has become a classic of art history and has been translated and published in many foreign languages. Edmond Wilson referred to it this way: "It is the best profile The New Yorker has ever printed—incredibly entertaining and at the same time a filling in of a chapter of American cultural history that hadn't been written before."

People in a Diary refers to the habit Behrman developed as a young man of ending each day with a handwritten entry in his personal journal. By the end of his life the journal had accumulated to 43 volumes filled with intricate handwriting. (These volumes now reside in the depths of the basement in the New York Public Library, a part of The S. N. Behrman papers.)

In the 23 chapters of People in a Diary, Behrman discusses the various friendships that he formed and the environments he encountered during his early and middle years. These became ingredients contributing to the six kinds of writing that he did, including 1) plays for the New York and London theaters, 2) screenplays for Hollywood films, among them two, Anna Karenina and Queen Christina, he wrote for Garbo, 3) non-fiction prose, mostly for The New Yorker, 4) personal letters, very many of them, some quite long, addressed to many people, 5) daily entries in his personal journals, covering the period from 1915 to 1972, and 6) his single novel, The Burning Glass.

Copyright © 2009-2010