One day in 1943, my telephone rang. It was Theresa Helburn,
at the Theatre Guild, asking me to come to her office. Elia
Kazan was there. I was astonished to learn that the Guild
was going to put on my play "Jacobowsky and the Colonel,"
and that Elia Kazan was to direct it. In its casting of the
play, the Guild was inspired: Louis Calhern for the Colonel;
Annabella for Marianne; and, for Jacobowsky, the Viennese
comedian Oscar Karlweis.
I had seen Karlweis once, some time before. An Austrian
friend had invited me uptown, to the East Side, to see a
performance of "Fledermaus," promising me, "You will see an
entrancing actor." Karlweis played Prince Orlofsky. I was
entranced by him from the moment he appeared on the stage.
He was stylish, he was crisp and elegant, he was an
aristocrat who saw through aristocracy's pretensions.
Through everything he said and did there was the sportive
javelin thrust of humor. The refrain "Chacun
à son goût"
he sang with a je-m' en-fiche nonchalance, an air of
"I can take it, but I can leave it," that was irresistible.
He had the audience in the palm of his hand. That's where I
was. I had long been fascinated by the idea of writing a
play about Montaigne. As I watched Karlweis, I thought, Here
is my Montaigne. I no longer had an excuse; I must write
this play, and for him. He even looked like Montaigne.
And now here was Prince Orlofsky-Montaigne sitting with me,
and with Kazan and Miss Helburn, in the Oak Room of the
Plaza. He had been singing in a Paris night club at the time
of the fall of France. A high-placed friend, whom he later
married, knew the way things were going and facilitated his
escape. Karlweis was half Jewish. ("So was Montaigne," I
said to myself.) "But," Karlweis said, "the way things are,
half is more than enough." He captivated all of us; he was
so light in touch, witty, and self-deprecatory. I determined
that as soon as we'd opened in New York I would sew him up
All through rehearsals, which went swimmingly, the Guild and
Kazan were after me to find a title for the play, since it
was manifestly impossible to call a play "Jacobowsky and the
Colonel." For one thing, that title was unpronounceable.
"Can you imagine people coming to the box office and asking
to buy seats for a play with a title like that?" Kazan said.
I couldn't imagine it, and promised to find a title. I wrote
down scores, but I didn't like any of them. Neither did
anyone else. We decided, finally, to open with the one we
had, and, with false confidence, were sure we'd get a
workable title on the road. We opened in New Haven, on a
Friday. As soon as Karlweis walked on and spoke a few
sentences, we knew we were all right. The audience took him
to its heart. In the first intermission, Terry Helburn came
up to Lawrence Langner and me, beaming. "We're in," she
said. "I've just talked to Lee Shubert. He says it's Potash
and Perlmutter with class." In the inevitable conference
that night at the Taft—which included Stewart Chaney, who
had done the sets, and Paul Bowles, who had written a modest
but evocative score—the atmosphere was optimistic, even
though we all knew that we could do with a stronger last
After a weekend in New Haven, the play went to Boston. I had
spent the weekend in New York doing rewrites. I watched from
an aisle seat in the fifth row, making notes. In front of me
sat two elderly gentlemen of a type more frequently
encountered in London than in this country—tall, slim, with
narrow faces, keen eyes, and beautifully brushed silver
hair. The first act had gone well, and Karlweis had
captivated the audience, as he had done in New Haven. I
wanted, if possible, to get a comment on the play from these
two gentlemen. In the intermission, I walked up the aisle
just behind them.
"You know," said one, "I think that fellow Karlweis . . . is
There was a long pause. The other man took time to
assimilate this bizarre fact. Then he said, "Well . . . I
We sold out in Boston and in Philadelphia, which was our
last stop before New York. Audiences seemed able to
pronounce the title, so we all forgot that we were going to
find another one. After we opened in New York, at the Martin
Beck, Louis Calhern told us that, walking in for the first
Saturday matinee, he saw two bearded Williamsburg Jews
staring up at the marquee. He overheard one say to the
other, "Jacobowsky and the what?"
I studied Karlweis during the run of "Jacobowsky and the
Colonel." We became friends. More and more, I identified him
with Montaigne: he was aristocratic, as Montaigne was; he
was skeptical, as Montaigne was. I told him I was writing a
play for him. He was much excited. I didn't tell him what it
was about, but I told him I would soon have something to
After "Jacobowsky" closed in New York—it ran for a year—the
Guild sent it on tour. In Chicago, Karlweis had a heart
attack. He was sent to the hospital. The tour was ended.
Karlweis recovered. One bright January day some years later,
he came to see me in my apartment. He looked wonderful and
was in wonderful spirits, and was now much excited about a
new project, with which he wanted my help. There was to be a
drama festival in West Berlin and he had been invited to
appear in it. He wanted to do "Jacobowsky and the Colonel,"
which was about the flight of two men from the Nazis.
Wouldn't it be marvellous? Wasn't it an ideal, a poignant
choice? Wouldn't it really prove that the Nazi horror was
over? He wanted me to try to get Kazan to direct it. I said
that I would do my best and that I'd call him the minute I'd
spoken to Kazan. He was radiantly happy. Two days later, I
got the news: Karlweis was dead.
I went that afternoon to see Mme. Karlweis. She asked me if
I would speak at Oscar's funeral. I said that I was no
speaker but that I would. The next morning, I stood beside
Karlweis's coffin in the Little Church Around the Corner and
said farewell to him.
On a spring morning in 1932, during one of my Hollywood
stints, Sonya Levien, the screenwriter, burst into my office
in excitement. "It's all settled," she said. "On the
"Has there been a dispute on the Aquitania?" I asked.
"Sol just told me. He asked me to tell you." (She was
referring to the Fox producer Sol Wurtzel.)
"In that case, why don't you?"
"We're going to England," she said. She sat down on the sofa
and began fanning herself with a huge silk handkerchief. I
gave her a minute to get control of herself. "The studio has
bought 'Cavalcade.' Noël Coward's. They want us to go to
London to see it. They want us to write the screenplay."
This excited me as much as it did Sonya. It seemed too good
to be true. "The studio has made all the reservations—the
Savoy," she concluded.
"Well," I said, "that is news. When do we leave?"
"Friday, on the Chief. Gets us in just in time for the
Aquitania. She sails Wednesday."
"Just the two of us?"
"Oh, no. Frank Borzage and Lou."
Frank Borzage was one of Fox's top directors. Lou was his
brother, and was on his staff.
"What about Carl?" I asked, referring to Carl Hovey, Sonya's
"Oh, he's coming."
"I'm glad," I said. "It'll be fun to have him."
"Carl loves England. He used to go all the time when he was
running the Metropolitan—to see authors."
I went to the studio post office and cabled my friend
We had a pleasant journey on the Aquitania. Carl had
suggested that we postpone discussion of the film version of
"Cavalcade" until we had seen the London production. Sonya
had agreed. Perhaps it had occurred to her that Carl
deserved a rest from the perpetual story conference in which
his life was spent, during meals at home, in the family car
(Sonya was always travelling with one or another of her
collaborators)—everywhere and all the time. As we started
the voyage, we were as free as birds. We dined together
every night—Frank Borzage, Lou (I called him Soothin' Lou,
because he always agreed heartily with everybody), Sonya,
Carl, and I. On the wall above our table in the dining room
hung a tremendous oil painting of the Renaissance general
Colleoni. Carl was the only one who knew who Colleoni was;
he enjoyed teasing Frank by pretending to see a resemblance
between him and Colleoni.
"But isn't it extraordinary?" he said. "Don't you see
it? Same chest, same arms, same shoulders."
Lou was the first to agree that he saw the resemblance. "Spittin'
image," he said.
"Oh, no," said Sonya. "He looks so fierce, and our dear
Frank is so gentle."
"That's true, too," said Soothin'.
Frank, an authentic innocent, was embarrassed. He didn't
like being the subject of a conversation. He blushed. To
spare him, Sonya changed the subject.
"Isn't that a wonderful little scene in 'Cavalcade'—the
honeymooners on the Titanic?"
That did it. The story conference was on. Everybody except
Carl, who hadn't read the play, became articulate and
combative: little quarrels about casting; ideas on where to
stay with the script and where to depart from it; where to
place Queen Victoria's funeral, which the "Cavalcade" family
watches from a window, in a scene with the final, blackout
line "She must have been a very little lady." It went on
full tilt. I watched Carl nursing a liqueur. He smiled
When you travelled for a film company in those days, you
travelled at the height of luxury, and in London I found
myself in a river suite looking out at the twilit Thames. It
was thrilling. I felt at home at the Savoy, though I had
never stayed in it before. Previously, I had felt most at
home in a room I rented at the house of Siegfried's friend
"Dame" Nellie Burton, on Half Moon Street. Arnold Bennett
had devoted his last novel to describing the Savoy and the
intricate mechanism that manipulated it. It was amusing to
keep testing Bennett's accuracy. He held up pretty well.
I found a message from Siegfried; he was still living at
Campden Hill Square. I called him. He was having dinner with
Glen Byam Shaw at the Reform Club. I had become fond of Glen
and of his wife, the actress Angela Baddeley—on the several
visits he had made to New York, where he had come to direct
English plays. He was sensitive, modest, and all kindness. I
insisted that Siegfried and Glen come to the Savoy for
dinner. "I don't want to leave the river," I said. "I have
become very much attached to it." Siegfried laughed, and
said he was sure it would be all right with Glen.
We had a happy time in the Savoy dining room. Glen wanted
the Grill, because theatre people were addicted to it, but I
insisted on getting a table in the dining room, with a river
view. Siegfried looked older. He was very quiet; it pleased
him greatly that Glen and I had become friends. In a
satirical voice, he expressed criticism of me for making
this journey to see someone else's play when I should be
retiring to the country—to the Spread Eagle at Thame, for
example—to write one of my own. I made a weak defense. I
said that I shouldn't in that case be entertaining him and
Glen in the style to which they were accustomed.
"I don't think I've been in the Savoy in twenty years,"
Siegfried said mildly.
I asked Siegfried whether he had succeeded in finding a
country house for himself.
"He hasn't succeeded for himself," said Glen, "but he's
succeeded for Burton."
Half Moon Street had proved no longer possible for Burton,
and Siegfried had found her a pleasant house with a large
garden in Woodside.
"Angela and I went to see her," Glen said. "Her new house is
lovely, but somehow everything about it is huge. The
tomatoes are huge, the sunflowers are huge, the sofa in the
drawing room is huge, and the lunch was huge. I don't know
how we ever got through it. But she's always wonderful. You
must go and see her, Sam."
"Of course," I said. "I can't wait."
"I always kiss her when I see her," said Glen. "It's like
kissing a large, wet gooseberry."
Back in my river suite, I telephoned Burton. She invited me
for lunch on the following Thursday. I said I'd prefer tea.
She yielded to my preference. Sonya and Carl were not back
yet, and neither were the Borzages. The Borzages had gone to
the Drury Lane Theatre to see "Cavalcade," and the Hoveys
were spending the evening with some London friends—the
writer F. Tennyson Jesse and her husband, H. M. Harwood. I
sat at my window to see what was doing—so late in the
evening—on the Thames.
The next night, we all went to "Cavalcade." We arrived at
the historic theatre and were ushered into a stage box
reserved for us. The vast house was crowded. One felt a
palpitant expectancy in the audience. As the play unfolded,
one could feel increasingly a deep wash of sympathy, of
recognition, of national identification, of pride. The
things that were happening to this family had happened to
all of them. Those who had not seen Queen Victoria's funeral
had nevertheless deeply felt it: the symbol of the great
Empire laid low. Frank Borzage, though not English, had
tears in his eyes.
In the intermission after the first act, we were greeted by
Charles B. Cochran, the producer of "Cavalcade." "You've
made Borzage cry," I said to him, "and he is a very hard
man." Cochran laughed; it was only too obvious that Borzage
was not a hard man. We asked for Noël. Cochran said that he
had gone to South America. Having directed and opened
"Cavalcade," and having received the thanks of the King,
he'd treated himself to a holiday. Cochran asked whether we
didn't think it would be a good idea to photograph the play,
so we'd have a record of the London production. We all
thought it would be. Cochran said he would see to it. He
also told Sonya and me that Noël would he in Hollywood
before we really got working on the script.
I had invited Harold Laski and his wife to lunch the next
day. Harold asked if he might bring a friend whom he greatly
admired, and who was prominent in the Labour Party—Edward
Frank Wise. I said fine, but that I would retaliate by
inviting Siegfried. "That will be perfect," said Laski. We
met next day in the Grill, at one o'clock. I liked Wise at
once—good-looking, very forthright and open. Laski was in
great form; he had a great deal to say, very edged, about
Ramsay Macdonald ("The ribbon is in his coat and he will
never know the verdict of history"), and he also talked
about former Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Arthur
Henderson, whom he loved. Laski had spent justice Oliver
Wendell Holmes's ninety-first birthday with him, and the
recollection of this made him happy. He quoted the justice
on Coolidge's writing: "He makes even his platitudes seem
vulgar." Mrs. Laski was very quiet; she had learned,
evidently, that this was the destiny of the wives of great
talkers. I asked the Laskis whether they had seen
"Cavalcade." They had. Laski took a poor view of it.
"Sentimental nationalism, in which the whole play was
drenched," he said. The treatment of Queen Victoria
particularly irritated him. The Queen, he said, was a tough
woman, who would not abolish whipping in the Navy.
Frank Wise took issue with him on this. "I don't agree with
you, Harold," he said. "The Queen is, by this time, a
symbolic figure. She is part of the mystique which made this
little island a great power in the world. Don't forget—while
she lived, the people in the audience lived. They shared,
more or less, the same fragment of time. They share, with
her, the national memory. I don't at all agree with you."
Laski then said that of course she was a symbol universally
accepted—a symbol of the nationalism that was the greatest
breeder of wars. He attacked Cecil Rhodes and Standard Oil
as conquistadores who enticed their governments to take
certain actions in order to protect their own investments.
He touched on the conflict over Morocco, the scramble for
Africa, the fight for the spoils of Manchuria, the Middle
East. Siegfried and I exchanged glances. Laski was way
beyond our depth. To show that I was not without
international outlook, I quoted from Maurice Hindus's just
published book on Russia, in which he mentions that gypsy
music was banned in Moscow, because it didn't help the Five
Year Plan. Frank Wise laughed, but said he was sure this was
an improvisation of Hindus's. Wise was a most charming and
likable man. He had just returned from America; he had seen
all our labor leaders. He was struck by our heterogeneity,
whereas in England, he said, labor is so homogeneous that "I
can mobilize all of British labor in one morning."
I rode back with Siegfried in a taxi, to drop him at Campden
Hill Square. I asked him whether he didn't feel himself lost
in a conversation like that, with Laski's dizzying spirals
all over the world.
"But, my dear Sam, that is my habitual feeling wherever I
go," he said. "I am totally uneducated, and the people I see
know everything. I often think I should call my book,
instead of 'Sherston's Progress,' 'SimpIeton's Progress.'"
Siegfried asked me to meet him in Salisbury, so that I could
see the cottage he'd taken for the summer at Teffont Magna.
I had to go to see "Cavalcade" again. I asked Siegfried to
join us, but he said he simply had to get some quiet in the
country. He told me of a good train to Salisbury on Tuesday
morning, and I said I'd he on it.
Siegfried met me at the train that morning and drove me the
fourteen miles or so to his cottage. I was enchanted by the
beauty of the country and the villages through which we
drove. To get in to his cottage, we had to cross a little
bridge over a brook that ran right beside his front door. I
have never forgotten that day. Siegfried and I talked about
it many times in Heytesbury, Wiltshire, where he finally
settled. He showed me the poems he had written—enough for
another book. He had also been rereading George Meredith and
was about to gather himself to write a biography of him. He
hoped to revive interest in this unjustly neglected author,
and, especially, to reanimate interest in him as a poet. We
talked until late in the evening. I said what I felt—that I
could spend the rest of my life in Teffont. And there have
been times when I've wished I had. I had to get back to
London to keep my Thursday date with Burton, and I was
sailing Saturday on the Berengaria. Siegfried suggested that
I come back on Friday. He would drive me to Southampton—an
easy drive—to make the sailing. I accepted his offer.
As Siegfried was sitting and brooding, with large silences,
his face would crease into a smile. It was always some
memory of Burton. "I came back from Bayreuth one summer,
full of excitement about the performances I had seen there,"
he said. "I could get no adequate response from Burton. I
did my best over 'Tristan.' She cut me short. Her favorite
opera was 'Carmen.' She had seen it in Berlin, in the
company of Robbie Ross's mother, and, she said—with a great
suspensive silence before to set it off—there had been nine
horses on the stage! Could Bayreuth match that? I had to
confess it couldn't. Burton loves animals."
On Thursday, after lunch, I hired a car at the Savoy, gave
the address to the chauffeur, and started out for Woodside.
It took about an hour. The car stopped, finally, before
Burton's new home—a square, verandahed house on a leafy
street. Burton opened the door. I hugged and kissed her.
Never having tasted a gooseberry, I couldn't test the
accuracy of Glen's comparison. We were certainly glad to see
each other. She was a bit older, a bit grayer, but otherwise
unchanged—the same look of irrepressible beneficence and
gaiety. She was tidy; everything about her was tidy.
"Come in—come in," she said. I followed her down the front
hall and into the sitting room. It was large and pleasant.
It was a rare afternoon for England—full of sunshine. On the
piano I saw a photograph of Burton happily cuddling a lion
cub on her lap. I asked her how she had acquired this pet.
"I got 'im in the Berlin zoo when I was there with Mrs.
Ross. They lent 'im to me. 'E was 'appy with me. I was 'appy
with 'im. 'Is nyme is Siegfried."
"I saw Siegfried," I said. "He sends his love. So does Glen
"'Ave you been to Teffont?"
"Yes. I spent the night there."
"It's good for Sieg. It quiets 'im."
"I think so."
"Come into the garden. Then we'll 'ave tea."
"You look wonderful, Burton."
"You can see I don't use pynt or powder. I'm a natural
"Where's Mr. Fleming?" I asked, referring to the Theosophist
who had rented the rear double back at Half Moon Street.
"When I see you, I miss Mr. Fleming."
"'E went to America. 'E's naughty. 'E 'asn't written yet."
The garden was lush: sunflowers as tall as I was, birch
trees, maples, and elms. Burton took me by the hand and led
me to the bottom of the garden, and to the side farthest
from the road. It debouched into a small clump of trees.
There was a circlet of enormous sunflowers and, in its
center, a bamboo reclining chair, like a chaise longue.
Burton had a great air of showing it off. "Siegfried's
bower," she said. "'E loves to sit 'ere an' muse."
"I don't wonder," I said.
She took my hand again. "An' over 'ere I'll show you—Osbert's
nook." She was referring to Osbert Sitwell.
The nook was less relaxed and less protected than the bower.
It had a swing between two of the trees in the clump behind
the bower, with an ordinary wicker chair and a huge ashtray
on a taboret beside it.
"Cigars, 'e smokes," said Burton.
"I should think they'd spend all their time here."
"Osbert 'as a 'ouse in Italy," said Burton, to account for
his non-presence at the moment.
We walked back to the house. Burton rang, and a maid entered
and served tea in a bay window overlooking the garden—a Half
Moon Street tea. Burton produced a bottle of champagne. We
sat drinking it. Suddenly she said, "Do you think 'e's 'appy¬Siegfried?"
The question startled me. Actually, I'd had the feeling that
all was not entirely well with Siegfried.
"Tolerably," I said. "Not especially."
She shook her head. "It's no good," she said. "That's why 'e's
in Teffont. No use 'is styin' there. No use. The longer 'e
styes, the worse 'e'll be."
I did not inquire. I knew she would not tell me.
"I'm going back there," I said. "My last night in England.
He's driving me to the boat."
"Good," she said. "I'm glad you'll be there. I wish—just
now—you'd tyke 'im back to America."
"I'll ask him," I said.
There was a long silence. I saw that it was time to go.
Burton walked with me to the door. "Well," she said,
"they're a genius, I suppose—meant to leave some wonderful
book or poem, an' that's all?"
There was a query, but I could not answer it. Did she wish
me to say "That's enough"? It would not be good enough for
Burton. Instead, I said, "I'm happy to see you so nicely
settled here. I loved Half Moon Street, but this is ampler."
"'E did it—Siegfried. 'E took the trouble to find it. 'E
bought it. 'E pyed for it. You couldn't 'ave a more loyal
friend in the world than Siegfried."
"I have found that to be true."
Burton was moved. She held my hand. "I can sy this," she
said. "Between Siegfried an' me . . . it's a pure love."
She stood outside the front door and waved to me as the car
moved down the street. It was the last time I ever saw her.
By the time of my next visit to London, she had died.
On Friday afternoon, Siegfried met me in Salisbury, and the
externals were as usual, but I knew Siegfried well enough to
realize that these might be deceptive. I felt that all was
not well. Also, I had been troubled by Burton's odd remarks.
Why had she said that he should not stay in Teffont, that I
should take him to America? I was troubled by this but was
also cherishing the appealing beauties of the countryside.
Siegfried said, "Would you mind if I made a detour here? I
feel I should pay a call on the Hunter girls. They have been
extraordinarily kind to me during a difficult period
they—are taking care of a friend of mine. Also, they are
theatre-crazy, and eager to meet you."
I said I'd be delighted.
We drove along in silence for a while. Then Siegfried told
me that the estate we were about to visit belonged to a
famous British public figure. The Hunter girls, who were in
charge of the house, were at present looking after the
famous man's nephew, who was there alone and ill.
The next hour or so still has a quality of phantasmagoria,
and when I consult my diary I find it there, too. The quiet,
ordered beauty of the estate we entered—the gardens, the
lawns, the trees—was as warm as an embrace. The house, with
its tower and its solitary invalid, exercised a spell that
was disquieting, necromantic. I met the Hunter girls: two
ladies, one past forty, her sister a little younger, who
were manifestly darlings who adored Siegfried and were eager
to do anything in the world to make him happy. Siegfried
asked a few questions about the invalid: Did he know that he
was coming? Yes, they had told him, but he was not well
enough to see anyone.
"There's nothing wrong with him, as we know," said
This seemed to embarrass the Hunter girls, but one of them
quickly covered it up by asking me questions about the
theatre. They were especially keen about the Lunts, whom
they had seen in London. Were they coming again? When and in
what? I answered these questions as well as I could. All the
time, I was in a daze at the beauty by which I was
surrounded—the dappled lawns, the vista of the far hills,
the church steeple in the village that belonged to the
Siegfried and I walked a little way down the lawn to the
great flower beds, streaming color.
"I've never seen any place so utterly beautiful," I said to
I followed his glance. He was looking up intently at a
window in the square tower. "Yes," he said. "It is
beautiful. It's like 'The Turn of the Screw.'"
Siegfried changed direction, heading back to his car. We
stood for a moment chatting with the Hunter girls. And then,
suddenly, we were not alone. A young man had joined us—a
flamboyantly dressed and arrogant young man. The women
evidently knew him. He treated them with condescension. "'Ow
is 'Is Lordship today?" he asked, with a jocular wink at
The elder Hunter girl introduced us.
"'Ow do you do?" He nodded up toward the tower room. "'E
expects me, an' I 'ave to make the six-thirty to London.
Apologies." He turned abruptly and walked into the house.
The Hunter girls suffered. Having told Siegfried that the
invalid was too ill to see him, they were embarrassed and
unhappy. Siegfried had gone white. He turned and walked
toward his car. I followed.
We rode in silence. Siegfried's face was set; he kept his
eyes on the road. I wondered, Had the invalid contrived this
visit from the disagreeable young man in order to humiliate
Siegfried? The ride back to Teffont passed in painful
silence. The incident was ugly, grotesque. We crossed the
rivulet in front of Siegfried's house and entered his
cottage. I said I thought the Hunter girls perfect. He said
it would be nice if I sent them something from America. I
said I certainly would. Conversation at supper lagged. The
visit had left an impression of evil, intensified, somehow,
by the surrounding beauty. It remained with me that
Siegfried had mentioned "The Turn of the Screw." It was like
that—a poisoned beauty.
After supper, I gave Siegfried my new play to read. He gave
me his new poems. Next morning, before we left for
Southampton, he presented me with a lovely little book of
woodcuts of churches and village street scenes in the
Salisbury environs. It is before me now. I read Siegfried's
On Shakespeare's Birthday—
Off to the boat.
I had a good deal to think about on the boat. I remembered
Burton. I thought I saw why she had suggested that I should
take Siegfried back with me to America. About a year later,
in New York, I had lunch with a famous English stage star.
He said that there was no more pernicious young man in
England than the occupant of that tower room. Now I sat in
my cabin thinking about Siegfried with a heavy heart. He was
one of the few people I had known with a true quality of
nobility; he was a poet of exquisite sensibility. I had been
a witness to his humiliation—a humiliation arising from a
vulnerability that had nothing to do with his character.
Because of the loftiness and sensitivity of his nature, he
could not defend himself. It was tragic.
In 1915, I was a junior at Harvard. I blew myself to a
second-balcony seat at the Colonial Theatre in Boston to see
"The Ziegfeld Follies," which featured Ina Claire. She was
then under twenty, and was a star of musical comedy. She
carne before the footlights in an organdie dress and, in a
spotlight, sang a satiric song called "Marie-Odile." The big
musical revues then used for material takeoffs on plays that
had recently been successful. "Marie-Odile" had been a
tremendous Belasco success, starring Frances Starr. She had
played a young peasant girl whose knowledge of biology was
rudimentary; she did not know how babies were generated, and
was shocked when she had one.
As Ina Claire sang, I craned forward in my faraway seat to
take in this personality, because she saliently was a
personality. There was a comedic edge to her singing that
made the audience laugh warmly. By the end of the song, Ina
had the audience at her feet. The next time I heard her sing
that song was in Paris some forty-five years later. I was
staying briefly with my friend, and erstwhile producer,
Joseph Verner Reed, who was doing a stint as cultural
attaché to President Eisenhower's ambassador to France. In
the Place Vendôme, I ran into Ina. She had by then done
three plays of mine. I hadn't seen her in a long time. We
fell on each other's neck. She was free for dinner. I asked
her to come to the Reeds'. I was sure they would be
delighted to have her. They were. As we sat having cocktails
before dinner, I said, "Ina, do you remember the song you
sang in the Ziegfeld show in Boston in 1915—the 'Marie-Odile'
one?" She said, "Of course I do." "Won't you sing it for
us?" Joe Reed asked. She sang it—two verses and the
choruses. She wowed the Reeds, as she had wowed the audience
in Boston forty-five years before.
I tried to get Ina for my seventh play, "Rain from Heaven,"
in 1934, but that didn't work out. Ina was busy; Jane Cowl
played it. A couple of years earlier, I had given
"Biography" to Guthrie McClintic, who wanted Laurette Taylor
for it. I had an unhappy correspondence with Miss Taylor
about it; things swerved, the way they irrationally do in
the theatre. Ina was in Philadelphia trying out a European
play for the Theatre Guild. Terry Helburn called from
Philadelphia and asked me to come to see Ina in this play,
which, she said, had almost got over. She felt that if I
were to do a rewrite on the play it might work. I went. I
would go anywhere to see Ina in a play. We made a date in
Terry's suite at the Ritz-Carlton to discuss a possible
rewrite. We met after the performance—Ina, Lawrence Langner,
Terry, and I.
Ina is the most candid, most unsecretive person in the
world. She is like some British aristocrats I have known,
who tell you everything about themselves and their families
at first meeting. This candor has often astonished me. I
think it comes from a feeling of independence, of ultimate
security. Ina liked to talk about her romances, especially
if they hadn't gone well for her. Soon after I met her, she
told me of her experience with Vincent Astor. He was in love
with her and wished to marry her. The great obstacle was his
father, John Jacob Astor. One day, the obstacle disappeared
in the Titanic disaster. When the obstacle disappeared, so
did Vincent. She simply stopped hearing from him. Years
passed; she had written him off long since. One day, she
arrived in New York, feeling low, and went to the Pierre,
where she always stayed, in a single room. She felt she must
find a place for herself—a home. She said, "I thought, God
damn it—Vincent. One thing he could do, with all the real
estate he owns, is find me an apartment. I'll call the
swine." Before she could follow up on this plan, the phone
rang. It was Vincent. He was awfully glad to hear her voice.
She was the one person in the world he wished to see at that
moment. Ina kept listening. He finally came to the point.
"The fact is, darling, I've written a play. I'd love to have
your opinion of it. Frank, you know—utterly frank. Will you
read it for me?" She told me, "I never got an apartment from
him—I never got a chance to mention it. I just found myself
reading his goddam play. It was lousy, I'm happy to say."
In Terry's suite, Ina began to talk about a more recent
romance of hers, with a European princeling. Ina had begun
to wonder about him, and she went on to clarify her feelings
in front of all of us. She went on and on. Meanwhile, I was
getting very sleepy. I hated midnight conferences anyway.
Terry jumped up. "We're all tired," she said. "Let's
postpone this till tomorrow—the noon train to New York. I've
got a drawing room for Ina. We'll have our conference
there." This suited everybody. I went thankfully to my room.
I was glad to be alone, because that afternoon in New York I
had received a most surprising letter from Siegfried,
announcing that he was going to be married. I had brought
the letter along with me, and I now reread it for the third
time. Siegfried had been to a fête
given by some friends of his. It was a costume party on the
lawn of their country place. He had danced with a masked
girl in a Renaissance costume. He had been so beguiled by
her that by the time the evening was over he had asked her
to marry him, and she had accepted. His mother was a friend
of the parents of the bride-to-be, and liked her greatly.
His mother was very happy. So was he. He longed for me to
meet her. He would write presently, when they were settled.
I had cabled at once, saying how happy I was.
The next day, Ina appeared at the train: tall, sparkling,
beautifully dressed. The members of the company were
gathered in a knot at the Pullman entrance. When Terry,
Langner, and I arrived, we found Ina in impassioned
conversation with her leading man. We all got aboard the
train, and the company distributed itself in Pullman chairs.
Ina's conversation was going full tilt when the train
started. Terry told Ina we'd wait for her in her drawing
room, at the end of the car. We marched into the drawing
room and sat, leaving the door open. We watched. Ina and the
actor showed no sign of reaching a conclusion.
"What on earth are they talking about?" Terry asked.
"She's talking to him about the play," said Langner.
"That's what we'd like to do," said Terry. "We certainly
couldn't get to it last night."
Langner placed himself so that he could look down the length
of the car.
"Take it easy, Terry," he said. "I'll report."
In about half an hour, he did. Ina and the actor were
lengthily saying goodbye to each other. Ina started to her
drawing room, but she stopped to say goodbye to the ingénue,
the character woman, the second lead. She sat in an empty
chair to accomplish each of these farewells in depth.
Trenton passed, and Princeton, but Ina did not pass. She had
something personal and interesting to say to every member of
the company, When we got to Newark, Ina had not yet reached
the drawing room. Terry appealed to Langner. "For God's
sake, Lawrence," she implored. "Do something."
"Stop Ina talking?" Langner said hopelessly. "It can't be
We arrived in Pennsylvania Station. Langner, Terry, Ina, and
I started the long trek up the platform.
"I've never been in a company I liked better," said Ina.
"They're charming—absolutely charming. When are we going to
talk about the play?"
"That's what we're beginning to wonder," said Terry.
"Well," said Ina, "I'll be at the Pierre, and available."
"What about five o'clock this afternoon?" said Terry. "O.K.
with you boys?"
Langner and I said it was all right with us boys.
"I just remembered," said Ina. "Five o'clock is no good for
me. There's a feller coming up to talk to me at five
"He will not," I said, with some bitterness, "realize his
Ina laughed. "These wisecracks of yours! Why don't you get
them into your dialogue?"
I knew in my bones that the play I had seen in Philadelphia
was a dead duck (it was), but I was glad to have seen it.
Ina's timing and diction were miraculous. I wanted more than
ever to have her do "Biography." I knew that she had read
it—my agent, Harold Freedman, had given it to her and that
she was tepid about it. I'd identified her so passionately
with the heroine of "Biography" that I felt I didn't want to
do the play without her. Her readings were translucent, her
stage presence encompassing. The flick of an intonation
deflated pomposity. She never missed a nuance. She was under
contract to the Guild; I told Terry and Langner that I must
have her. But she was reluctant; in fact, she asked the
Guild if she might not try out another play, which she
fancied. I was furious that they allowed her to do it. The
all-wise Miss Helburn advised me to allow her to burn her
bridges. I went to see that tryout, too—without making my
presence known to Ina. My obsessive feeling about her was
only deepened. This play also closed on the road. Some time
later, I heard a story, told me by one of Ina's offstage
friends, that quickened my heart. I have never asked Ina
whether it is true or not, and I cannot vouch for it.
According to the story, Ina told how she had outwitted the
Theatre Guild. "They gave me a lousy play of Behrman's, sure
that I would reject it," she said. "But I was hard up and
needed the money. If I'd rejected it, it would have broken
my contract. So I fooled them—I accepted it!" We opened in
Princeton. Ina, who always had trouble remembering her
lines, was prompted all evening by her pet stage manager.
When the final curtain fell, Ina rushed to him, embraced
him, and said, "Darling, it's the best performance we ever
What with its New York run and the road tour, Ina appeared
in "Biography" for two seasons. Then, after the tour closed,
she played it in summer stock, and the stage manager at
Marblehead, Massachusetts, made a recording of a performance
there. After all these years, it projects Ina's special
qualities: her timing, the edge and clarity of her readings,
her acute gift for comedy. Some people think of Ina as a
brittle actress. The truth is that in addition to being a
superb comedienne she had great warmth, with profound
emotional control. Somerset Maugham said of "Biography" that
it was a tragic play. It was Ina's performance that made it
Ina was immensely voluble and graphic on the subjects close
to her heart: posture, dress, proper breathing, the function
of the diaphragm in voice control, and diction. She felt
that you could achieve poise only by frantic discipline. She
would think nothing of lying down flat on the floor in the
middle of a party to illustrate one of her five points.
While she was supine, her diaphragm stayed perfectly flat
but still cooperated subtly in voice control, which she
illustrated by reading Shakespearean lines at different
rates of speed and volumes of sound. Her diaphragm never let
her down. She also had made a deep study of clothes in
different epochs and in different regimes; she had a library
on the subject.
When I told her my idea for "End of Summer," the next play I
was writing—for her, I hoped—she was delighted and accepted
it at once, though she was no longer hard up. She cautioned
me. "Don't put it all in the stage directions," she said.
"You fool yourself doing that, but you don't fool me. Get it
in the dialogue." I promised to try. "End of Summer" ran
successfully in America for two seasons. There is a moment
in the third act when the heroine, preparing for her
wedding, which doesn't come off, walks downstairs in her
mother's wedding dress. As Ina played it, it was a moment of
It was tremendous fun having Ina in a play. Before we
brought "End of Summer" to New York, we played Boston. One
day, Ina said that she'd never seen Harvard. Would I take
her to see it? On a sunny afternoon, I took Ina for a walk
through Harvard Yard, passing Weld Hall—where I had
lived—and other landmarks. We must have made a rather
bizarre couple as we walked along: Ina taller than I,
golden, dressed with great chic in expensive simplicity; I
in an unpressed suit that I'd been wearing for weeks. Before
we had walked very far, dormitory windows started popping up
and wolf calls began to fill the Yard. As we continued our
walk, we were serenaded by whistling undergraduates.
"You see, Ina," I said, "they are awfully happy to have me
back on campus."
One spring day in 1938, Sidney Howard called and asked me to
have lunch with him at the Plaza. I had known Sidney for a
long time; he had been a co-member with me of one of
Professor George Pierce Baker's playwriting classes—English
47—at Harvard in 1915 and 1916. I had seen him only
sporadically in the intervening years, but I had a healthy
regard for him as a writer and as a person. I had been
impressed by him early in English 47. Professor Baker's
first assignment to us was to dramatize a short story of our
own choosing from any of the current magazines. Sidney chose
an unusual one—a short story by John Galsworthy. The scene
is a mangy night club on Christmas Eve. The comedian, a
raffish and illiterate scavenger, tries to pick up laughs by
denigrating Christmas. In the middle of this unholy
doggerel, Jesus Christ appears, a figure of compassionate
dignity. He does not reproach the comedian, who has been
making fun of him; he takes him into his confidence. The
Christ figure vanishes; the comedian and the audience,
vanquished by this display of good manners, remain to bless
the gracious apparition. (I chose a story from the Smart
Set about a bounder who makes love to the nurse of his
dying wife; the rest of the class was similarly addicted to
sensation.) Professor Baker praised Sidney for having chosen
a theme that was impossible from a practical point of view
but had spiritual significance. I had watched Sidney's work
since then—his magazine articles and his plays. He had
written "They Knew What They Wanted" and "Yellow Jack," the
first play that ventured to dramatize a heroic episode in
medical science. In one season, he had had two hit plays
produced by the Theatre Guild—"The Silver Cord," the first
exposure, as far as I know, of virulent momism, and "Ned
McCobb's Daughter," a study in bootlegging, with a wonderful
performance by Alfred Lunt.
What Sidney proposed to me over lunch at the Plaza was that
I join the Playwrights' Company, an organization about to be
created at the instigation of Robert Emmet Sherwood. Bob was
then surely the most popular playwright in the
English-speaking world. The Theatre Guild had produced two
of his plays—"Idiot's Delight" and "Reunion in Vienna"—with
tremendous success, both with the Lunts, who were members of
the Guild acting company. The other members of the new
company were to be Maxwell Anderson and Elmer Rice. Max
Anderson had also been produced successfully by the Guild. I
asked Sidney what we could do for ourselves that the Guild
couldn't do. This was a sore point. Sidney told me finally
that Bob was not happy with the Guild, for all sorts of
reasons, too minute to go into then. "Bob wants to talk to
you," Sidney said. Bob had a new play, "Abe Lincoln in
Illinois," with which he wanted to start the company's
season. What did I have? I said that I was just finishing a
play called "No Time for Comedy." "I have one, too," said
Sidney. "'Madame, Will You Walk?' That will give us a start
The truth is that Sidney's proposal rather bowled me over,
and I said as much. This would mean breaking with the Guild.
They had produced my first play and several plays since. The
members of their board were friends of mine: I was fond of
Terry Helburn, Lawrence Langner, and Phil Moeller, who, as a
director, suited me perfectly; Maurice Wertheim had been
extraordinarily kind to me. I was flabbergasted; I just
didn't know what to say. "It bowled me over, too," said
Sidney. "But Bob cleared up my doubts." Sidney added that
Bob had persuaded John Wharton, a highly regarded theatrical
lawyer and a member of a distinguished firm, to be president
of our company. There it was, already in existence,
seemingly—a company of five playwrights, with a president.
Sidney had a paper for me to sign stating that I would join
the company. I put off signing it. Sidney agreed that it
would be better to wait till I had seen Bob.
Of course, I discussed the idea at once with my agent,
Harold Freedman. He took a very poor view of it. He did not
believe in playwrights' producing their own plays. Four of
us were his clients. He believed in deciding on a manager in
each individual case. He believed in the open market—even if
it meant that most of us ended up with the Theatre Guild in
I had met Bob Sherwood, but I didn't come to know him
intimately till later. He was a tremendously impressive
person—six feet seven inches tall, straight and thin, almost
cadaverous. He had dark, expressive eyes, which deepened,
when he was seriously involved, into a tragic look. He was
self-conscious about his abnormal height; I had been told
that when he was young he felt sure that girls didn't want
to dance with him. He was at the peak of his profession, as
much at home in the London theatre as he was in New York. He
was powerful. He could get the Lunts whenever he wanted to.
When it came to casting a new play for which he wanted
Spencer Tracy, he got Spencer Tracy away from
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; this was a thing that could not be
done, but he did it. He had an overflowing sense of humor;
he was known throughout the city as a party turn. Just a few
weeks before, at a party given by George Kaufman and Moss
Hart, I had seen him get up on an improvised stage and do
the number for which he was famous—"When the Red, Red Robin
Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin' Along." He wore a dinner jacket and
an opera hat, and wielded a vaudeville comedian's ebony
stick. With all this, his face was set in troubled
seriousness. His eyes were sombre with tragedy. The walking
stick cavorted, circling and pointing irrelevantly,
following some sinister choreography of its own. The total
effect was incredibly and strangely funny. The applause was
vociferous, but Bob refused to sing another verse and
In my first talk with Sherwood about the company, I was
overwhelmed by the intensity of his feeling about it. It was
as if it mattered to him more than anything else in the
world. "Why don't we simply do our plays ourselves?"—it
seemed a plausible question, to which there was no ready
answer. About the Guild, Bob was voluble and bitter. It had
offended him as an author. I asked for particulars. He
produced some—the kind of trivialities that tear people
apart for a few hours during rehearsals and are forgotten
the next day. I could not believe that a man of Bob's
stature could he so riven by such differences. It was clear
that his passion to start his own company came from some
fundamental impulse for self-assertion. But I felt from that
first talk—from the very beginning—a deep reservation about
the venture. My first response was emotional: I hated the
idea of breaking with the Guild. I had no interest whatever
in profits made from play production; I was interested only
in author's royalties made from plays I had written. If I
needed money—and I often did—I could go to Hollywood.
Sometimes I didn't even have to go. A few weeks before,
Nicholas Schenck, the grand panjandrum of
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, had called me from Hollywood to ask me
to come out to work on the screenplay of Sherwood's
"Waterloo Bridge." I had said flatly that I couldn't come—I
was finishing a play of my own. Presently, I got a wire from
Eddie Mannix, the studio manager, saying that they were
sending Gottfried Reinhardt, the son of Max, to work with me
on the film in New York. In those days, being allowed to
work away from Hollywood's direct supervision was
practically unheard of. Gottfried was an immensely
entertaining companion, and I welcomed his arrival. The
first thing he told me was that I had acquired a new
reputation in Hollywood: the first writer who had frontally
turned down Nicholas Schenck.
It was very hard for me to hold out about the company. Who
was I to resist a man as eminent and lovable as Bob
Sherwood? I didn't. I signed. Neither Bob nor I divined the
problems that would beset us, including the underlying one:
that any play any of us wrote would automatically be
produced—that the sieve of play-peddling would not operate
with us. We did not foresee having to produce the work of
writers who mask sterility with incessant productivity. One
day, early on, Bob grumbled to me, "Max, who hasn't even
paid his initial investment, has got us involved in a
musical comedy he wrote with Kurt Weill, 'Knickerbocker
Holiday.'" Sidney and I sat through a rehearsal. We were
charmed by Walter Huston, who sang the to-become-famous
Sidney had married Polly Damrosch, the daughter of Walter
Damrosch, the conductor. They had bought an old house and a
farm in Tyringham, Massachusetts, a village in the foothills
of the Berkshires. Sidney was an outdoor type; he was
descended from a line of California shipbuilders. He meant
to farm his land in Tyringham. He bought tractors and manned
them himself on his acres. I had married Elza, the younger
of Jascha Heifetz's two sisters. The Howards invited us to
Tyringham for the weekend. It gave Sidney and me a chance to
go over his play "Madame, Will You Walk?" The play presented
problems. Bob had tried to get the Lunts for it, but had
found them somewhat intractable when he approached them for
a play that was not by him. It was a very pleasant weekend.
Polly was the most unobtrusively considerate of hostesses.
Sidney and I didn't get very far on his play. It lacked the
clarity and drive of his best plays; we could talk about it
endlessly without hitting on an expedient that would pull it
together. Sidney and I made a lunch date for Friday in New
York to go on discussing it.
Elza and I returned to New York on Sunday night. On Thursday
morning, I got a telephone call from Victor Samrock, our
company manager. He told me that Sidney was dead. He had
been killed by one of his tractors. He had been standing
between it and the back wall of the barn and had cranked the
motor, not knowing that the tractor was in gear. It had
leaped forward, pinned him against the wall, and killed him.
The following Saturday, we were all at the little church in
Tyringham for his funeral. At the graveside, Polly threw a
rose on Sidney's coffin as it was being lowered. I have
never forgotten the expression on her face—anger and
Polly's brother-in-law Tom Finletter called me to say that
Sidney had not left much in the way of worldly goods
(everything had gone into the farm), and that he hoped that
I and the others would do all we could for Sidney's play. We
were left with a tragic chore. Bob, with the best will in
the world, refused to rewrite Sidney's play; he wished it to
be Sidney's, not his. He felt terrible about Polly. We did
what we could. We engaged George M. Cohan for a major role.
It was an expensive contract. Cohan told us that it was his
habit to travel with an entourage when he went on the road,
and that previous managements had not hesitated to pay for
it. We opened Sidney's play in Baltimore. I don't think that
four playwrights could have worked harder than we did to
make a play acceptable. The company had instantly acquired
great prestige and publicity, and now we made formal entry
into the various cities of the play's scheduled tour. We saw
the critics and did our best to condition them. In
Baltimore, we had lunch with the drama critic for the
News-Post, Louis Azrael, who was to review the play. We
swamped the poor critic with our pooled reputations. We
listed Sidney's earlier plays and said that in our
considered judgment his latest, which Azrael was to see that
night, was his maturest, his best. While we were flooding
him with encomiums, a note was handed to Bob Sherwood. It
was from Cohan, giving notice that he was quitting his part
after the opening. Actually, the play was kindly received,
and Cohan stayed on. But it was no go. The audience was
always disappointed that Cohan did not sing or dance.
Finally, feeling the frustration of the .audience, he did a
little dance on his last exit, to a salvo of applause.
The company failed in the discharge of this tragic chore.
The play closed in Baltimore. Coming back from Baltimore on
the train with his wife, Madeline, and me, Bob Sherwood
said, "I like the plays of Robert Emmet Sherwood. He hasn't
got much to say, but at least he doesn't try to say anything
else." This was a half-conscious reflection on Sidney's
play. Sidney had tried to say something else but had not
dramatically integrated it. We were aware of our failure and
were desperate to make it up to him. One day, at a
full-dress meeting, Bob suggested that we revive "Yellow
Jack." It seemed to us a good idea. We applauded it. But by
the time the applause had died out the worthy idea had
vanished. The envoi to the history of "Madame, Will You
Walk?" was supplied by Cohan on his deathbed. He had a
twinge of conscience for having made us pay so heavily when
he signed his contract with us for himself and his
entourage. He sent us an apologetic note and a check for
fifteen hundred dollars.
The company had started out auspiciously. "Abe Lincoln in
Illinois" was an impressive success. It was the first
Lincoln play that made salient the melancholy side of
Lincoln's character. It opened at a singularly tense moment.
Hitler had begun his takeover of Czechoslovakia; one did not
know what was going to happen in Europe. Americans were
reassured and very much moved to see a play showing that in
a national crisis of our own we had produced a man of great
moral force who steered us safely through it. My own play
"No Time for Comedy" was a success also. Max Anderson's "Knickerbocker
Holiday" was not a financial success when we produced it,
but it had a fragrance about it that appealed to many
people. Walter Huston singing "September Song" enraptured
people, as he had done Sidney Howard at the rehearsal we saw
together. A great many years later, Max Anderson told me
that year after year he received a royalty of eight thousand
dollars for the lyrics of this song. He deserved it. Serious
musical-comedy lyricists said that Max was potentially a
unique writer of musical-comedy lyrics. But he preferred to
write verse plays in which he hovered imaginatively in
I became very fond of Max. His personality radiated
universal benignity. He had a great shock of brown hair,
wore glasses, and was on the qui vive for injustice,
especially that committed against the American Indians.
Max's father had been an itinerant preacher. They were
always travelling in impecunious piety. Max couldn't
remember at any time in his youth having a home. Later, when
he was travelling on his own, he met Laurence Stallings.
They collaborated on a play, "What Price Glory?," and this
made a confirmed playwright of Max. Max didn't think it was
good for creative artists to have money; he thought its
possession devitalized them. Whenever be earned any, he
immediately gave it away—to members of his family. One day,
Harold Freedman startled me by calling to say that a
reputable publisher had offered to pay me an advance of
thirty thousand dollars to write a book on Maxwell Anderson.
I said the publisher must he crazy. Harold said not at
all—that I didn't realize what a vogue Max had in the
universities in this country. He was a campus hero; the
undergraduates thought that Max, single-handed, was
converting the shoddy American theatre to poetry. I turned
the offer down.
After the war started, things became very tense in this
country, and even within the Playwrights' Company. Bob
Sherwood got himself passionately involved in the war crisis
on the side of England. He was fearless and courageous. He
attacked Lindbergh and what he called Lindbergh's
"mechanical heart." He got the idea of taking a full-page ad
in New York and out-of-town newspapers with the heading
"Stop Hitler Now!" It was a plea for us to send planes,
guns, munitions, and food to Europe right away. This
proposal had already been discussed in high places. The
Communists, better financed than Bob, had propagandized the
White House against it. I spent the whole of one night in
Bob's apartment on Sutton Place helping him to edit the text
of his ad. I asked him how he intended to pay for it when he
finally had it finished. He said, without worry, "I don't
know." I knew that he would manage it, and he did. The ad
appeared, and caused a stir. Meanwhile, Harold Ross, the
editor of The New Yorker, had asked me to do a
two-part Profile of Bob. I called it "Old Monotonous"—a
description applied to Bob by members of his own family. At
one point, my Profile worried Bob. He had been asked to be
the Commencement speaker at Milton Academy, which he had
attended as a boy. He had accepted the Academy's invitation.
The date was set. What worried Bob was that in recalling his
history as an undergraduate I had recalled perhaps too
much—that Bob didn't do so well in his studies and didn't
get very good marks. He hadn't wanted his parents to see
those marks. The solution he'd evolved was simplistic. He
set fire to the building containing the poor marks. Bob said
that this arson might undermine his authority as an
inspirational preacher at the Commencement. I pointed out
that the Profile recorded also how hard he had worked to put
the fire out. Bob still felt that his new role would be
vitiated. There was nothing to be done about it The New
Yorker inexorably came out. Bob delivered the
Commencement address. There were no cries of arson against
him; the students evidently approved of his simplistic
Presently, the Playwrights' office, which was in Rockefeller
Center, came to have a semi-official nimbus: Bob was made
head of the Office of War Information. He also became a
member of the President's official staff of speechwriters.
Bob told of taking the typescript of a speech he had written
to the President's office. As F.D.R. sat in his wheelchair
going over it Wendell Willkie was announced. "Ah, Willkie!"
said F.D.R. "I sent for him. I am sending him abroad." While
he was saying this, he began mussing up the typed pages of
Bob's manuscript and scattering them all over the desk. Bob
looked on uncomprehending; he had thought F.D.R. liked the
speech. The President, with an explanatory nod at the
dispersed papers, simply said, "I want Willkie to think I'm
a busy man."
Elmer Rice I hardly knew at all until I met him through the
Playwrights' Company. He was socially charming and humorous
but was apt to be strident when he was arguing for his plays
at company meetings. When I first came to New York, in 1917,
Elmer was already famous. The theatrical columns and the
magazines were full of him. He was a phenomenon: he had been
a lawyer and had written a tremendous success, a melodrama
called "On Trial." It had had a long run in New York and was
touring the United States in various companies. He was then
in his early twenties; he gave up the law and made
playwriting a full-time job. By the time he came to us, he
had also written "Street Scene" (which Kurt Weill later
converted into an opera) and "Counsellor-at-Law," which Paul
Muni played with great success. There had also been
innumerable others, none of them successful; his
productivity lowered his average. Elmer was public-spirited;
he took an active part in the crusades of the American Civil
Liberties Union. There were those who said that the
Playwrights' Company was a lifesaver for him, because the
regular managers had become leery of his product. I thought
that he must he aware of this and that that awareness made
him unduly sensitive to criticism offered by his
colleagues—not that we offered much. One time, after reading
Elmer's latest, I had asked Sidney how he liked it. He had
said, "Terrible, but I am not going to tell him." Nobody
told him. We just produced the plays.
Elmer lived at that time in the Hotel Ansonia, at
Seventy-third and Broadway, and after one of his openings—I
have forgotten which—he gave a party. It was sad, because we
all knew that the play didn't have a chance. The walls of
Elmer's suite were plastered thick with modern abstract
paintings; they contributed to a sense of claustrophobia.
Elmer, obeying some impulse to dig up one artifact of former
glory, came upon what he wanted while going through a desk
drawer. He displayed it to us. It was a yellowed box-office
statement of the tour of the third company of "On Trial"
from Erie, Pennsylvania. Elmer made it thematic: how the
American theatre had in the interval become constricted and
provincial. He said that in most of America now no one had
seen live theatre.
Generally, our company meetings were great fun. One day, Max
Anderson said he was on tenterhooks about something. Elmer
asked, "What are tenterhooks, anyway?" Sherwood explained.
"Tenterhooks," he said, "are the up-hol-ster-ry of the
anxious seat." After Bob became head of O.W.I., he spent
most of his time in Washington, and came to very few
meetings. He was flown to England on a bomber. He was full
of inside stories of Washington, of the President, of
Winston Churchill, of the war. After the death of Harry
Hopkins, he undertook to complete Hopkins' memoir, for which
only the notes existed. It appeared under the title
"Roosevelt and Hopkins," and was universally acclaimed.
One fateful day, John Wharton, our president, summoned us to
a serious meeting. Bob was not present—just Max Anderson,
Elmer Rice, and I. Wharton had some accountants' statements
before him. He confronted us with the bleak fact that the
company had lost twenty-five thousand dollars in the past
year. At this announcement, Max Anderson grinned widely and
said, "That's good." He meant it, since it was a major theme
of his that financial stringency was a stimulus to creative
effort. Without contradicting Max, Wharton went on to say
that he thought it would he expedient for us to give up our
expensive offices and move into cheaper ones. It was put as
a motion, and we passed it. Victor Samrock was designated to
find the cheaper offices. Wharton undertook to notify Bob of
our decision. Bob demanded another meeting, at which he
would be present. That meeting proved tenser than the
earlier one. Bob confronted all of us with a plea. "Do not,"
he said, "take away from a man who has already lost
everything—do not also take away from him this office." We
at once revoked our earlier decision. Samrock was ordered to
stop looking. I did not know that Bob's statement was
literally true—that he had indeed lost everything. I had
lunch with him the next day and he explained it. On a train
several years before, Bob had asked me what I did with my
money. I said that I kept it in savings banks. Bob said that
that was very foolish; he had found a wonderful stockbroker
to whom he had entrusted his entire capital—even his
daughter Mary's—and that the broker was doing wonderful
things for him. The broker would do the same for me. He gave
me the broker's telephone number and strongly urged me to
call him, using his own name as a reference. I devoutly
meant to call him, but I am badly organized and never did.
Now, at lunch, Bob told me what had happened: He had
arranged for the broker to get his entire income directly;
he lived on an allowance given him by the broker. The
allowance stopped coming. Sherwood demanded an explanation
and discovered that the broker, through stupid investment
and embezzlement, had lost everything Bob had in the world.
The story made the angry. How could Bob have let that run on
so long without looking into things, without making
Bob answered with simplicity. He spoke very slowly,
islanding each syllable. "He was so bor-ing," he said, "that
I a-void-ed him."
The years went on. It was becoming increasingly clear that
the company had developed a life force of its own, which
sapped my life force. I was constantly having to read,
criticize, and watch rehearsals of four plays concurrently.
I had not Bob's facility; he could sit down in an
office—preferably our office—with telephones ringing and
people walking in and out and write a play. I couldn't. I
required privacy. Little differences arose between the
company and me; they were trivial, but they led, finally, to
my resignation. The basic issue was that I felt that Harold
Freedman's original reservations about the company were
valid: that playwrights should not produce plays, especially
their own; that the function of the manager, who had no axe
to grind, was not dispensable. I came to this decision
gradually and painfully, in great agony of spirit. I loved
Bob, and I knew that my resignation would be a blow to him.
He was one of the most remarkable and admirable men I have
ever known. His integrity was inviolable; on any question of
principle he would not give an inch.
"No Time for Comedy" was the fourth production of the
Playwrights' Company. I sent the final draft to Bob Sherwood
before I had even signed to join the company. He was keen
about it. He said Katharine Cornell would be great for it,
and undertook to get her for me and to get her husband,
Guthrie McClintic, to direct. Harold Freedman had wished to
give it to Ina Claire, who was in a betwixt-and-between
position professionally. Harold wanted passionately to keep
Ina in New York—"to save her for the theatre," as he put it.
Certainly Bob had a lot on his side. Miss Cornell was the
most popular star in the country; an emanation of her rich
and generous personality as well as her luminous beauty had
got across to the American audience. In the course of the
two-rear run of my play, I came to know her well.
Exhibitionism is taken for granted as the sine qua non
of any acting career; Miss Cornell had less of it than any
actress or actor I have ever known. Her position in the
theatre transcended technique; she was not, like Ina Claire
or Lynn Fontanne, a great comedienne. It was something
essential in herself, as a person, that the audiences sensed
and reached out to. Had she not been an actress, she might
have been the effective head of a great humanitarian
enterprise. Once, in Boston, at the Wilbur Theatre, I peeped
at the stage through the closed auditorium doors. I could
hear nothing, but I saw Miss Cornell. I became instantly
aware that the whole stage and the other actors took light
from the radiance of her personality.
Whom to get to play opposite her? Harold Freedman, who knew
all the great actors and those who were to become great as
well, called up young Laurence Olivier, who was then in
Hollywood. He sent Larry the script, and Larry consented to
play the part. Once we had Cornell and Olivier, Guthrie was
able to complete the casting most felicitously. We had,
besides Larry, two other Englishmen Robert Flemyng and John
Williams. FIemyng played the tiny part of Makepeace Lovell,
called Pym. Lynn Fontanne once told me that Pym was the best
small part she had ever read. No member of the audience knew
at the end of the play what a tiny part it was; Flemyng had
made it salient. We also had Margalo Gillmore, who had been
in my first play, and whose satiric humor had cheered me up
often during the intervening years, and we had Gee Gee
James, who played the maid. We embarked by train for
Indianapolis, where we were to open. I went to the station
with Larry; I was surprised that he carried only one light
suitcase. "What about your stage clothes?" I asked. "I am
going to wear this," said Larry, pointing to the suit he was
wearing. "Anything wrong with it?" There was nothing wrong
with it. I thought, How wonderful, just to walk onstage in
your street clothes!
Kit and Guthrie were taking another train; Bob Sherwood and
the other members of the Playwrights' Company were coming
later, in time for the opening. Larry, Margalo, Bobby
Flemyng, John Williams, and I spent the evening in the club
car. There is something exciting and adventurous about
taking a new play to an unfamiliar city. Of course, being
young helps. The fact that you don't know whether the
audience of strangers is going to like you adds a tang of
hazard, which no one mentions. Larry began to tell stories.
"I'd been playing Hotspur in England," Larry said. "I played
him in a red wig. Once you've decided to wear a red wig, you
have to make up for it all over. My makeup, to live up to
that red wig, took me about three hours. I had to get into
my dressing room by five o'clock in the afternoon. At one
performance, I was annoyed from the very beginning by a
flamboyant commercial type sitting down front with a girl.
He kept whispering to her all the time, especially after I
made an entrance. The man became an obsession with me. I
tried not to see him, but—do you know? —I could see nobody
else. Next time I came on, he gave me a personal welcome. He
said out loud to his girl, 'Well, here comes Old Ginger
"Love's labor's lost," said Margalo.
"Exactly," said Larry.
John Williams asked Larry how his son was.
"Tarquin?" said Larry. "Oh, he's all right. He's growing
"Don't tell me that you had the effrontery to pin a name
like that on your son," said Margalo.
"Why not?" said Larry. "I thought it would look good on the
bills." He traced it out with his hand—"Tarquin Olivier"—and
asked, "Is it bad?"
"It's not bad, but it's impossible," Margalo said.
We asked the porter to switch off all the lights in the car
to give the visiting Englishmen a sight of the famous U-turn
that the Pennsylvania train makes around Horseshoe Curve,
We opened, appropriately, at the English Theatre, a lovely
old house that reminded me of the Hollis in Boston. It must
have been of about the same vintage, and has probably
disappeared by now, as the Hollis has. Because Kit was in
the play, the performances were all sold out before we
arrived. Bob Sherwood and the rest of my colleagues showed
up, as did Alexander Woollcott, a devoted friend of Kit's.
The little contingent from New York did not alleviate the
tension of appearing before a new audience; if anything, it
heightened it. It was apparent to me from the first that Kit
was nervous and insecure; it was the first time in years
that she had played a straight comedy part. John Williams,
who had a long scene with Kit before Larry came on, played
with authority and ease and made his effect in a strange,
laconic part. Larry walked on in his street suit. His
playing was, from the moment of his entrance, so effulgent
that the audience was startled and fascinated. Kit looked
wonderful; she had her beauty. But beauty is a static thing.
Larry had the most engaging and volatile good looks. There
was a stir in the audience about him that lasted all
evening. His authority and idiosyncrasy were so compelling
that they put the play out of balance, in a way; the other
actors seemed a bit perfunctory. The only one who was
imperturbable was Bobby Flemyng, as Pym; he had a razorlike
edge to his comedy playing that nothing could dent. In the
intermissions, I heard people exchanging queries about who
this surprising young man Olivier was and where he had been
keeping himself all this time.
When the play was over, I went to see Kit in her dressing
room. She was crying. "I let you down," she said.
I made light of it. "Bob and the others think the play got
over," I said.
"Thanks to Larry," she said.
In our conference after the play, at which Aleck Woollcott
put in an appearance to register how dazzled he was by
Larry, I was conscious of the panic that afflicts
managements on occasions like this: Would Kit quit? But the
apprehensive ones did not know Kit. She did not quit. She
stuck. She got better and better as she vanquished her
nervousness. The company was her responsibility. She
mothered it. Everybody in it blossomed under her
ministrations. I made a discovery myself—that the woman she
was playing was Kit, though I had hardly known her
when I wrote the part. She became surer and surer. By the
time the company left Indianapolis, it was an ensemble.
Our last stop before New York was Baltimore. On the closing
night, I went into Larry's dressing room for a word with
him. He had just finished taking off his makeup. He put a
few things in his suitcase. He was delighted that he had so
little to carry. I asked him whether he wasn't going to buy
a new suit for New York. "It would make me uncomfortable,"
he said. "I want to keep the feeling I've had in the towns
we've just played. I've had such a good time." I could see
that Larry's performances were like a stroll in the park for
In New York, Brooks Atkinson wrote, "The cast is the most
spring-like event that a sullen April has borne this
season." Of Kit he said, "After two years of silence in New
York, which does not enjoy the quiet, Katharine Cornell has
returned in all her magnificence, playing comedy with
effortless skill and personal sincerity." The company
settled down happily for a run at the Ethel Barrymore
Theatre. I have never known anything quite like the sympathy
and warmth of that engagement.
Several months later, I had to go to England to see Rex
Harrison, who was to play the Olivier part in "No Time for
Comedy" in London. It was the fateful summer of 1939. My
talk with Harrison was satisfactory; he was keen to do the
play. I also saw Binkie Beaumont, who was to produce it at
the Haymarket. I liked Binkie's casting ideas: Diana Wynyard
and Lilli Palmer. The Sassoons were away. So was Laski. I
returned home on a leisurely boat. The evening I got back, I
looked in at the Ethel Barrymore. Everything was going
tidily. But when I went back to see Kit I found her
downcast. She told me awful news: Olivier was leaving the
show. He simply could not remain for the transcontinental
tour that Guthrie had arranged for the following fall and
winter. It was a heavy blow.
When it became apparent that England would soon be at war,
Bobby Flemyng left, too. He loved his part, he loved being
in New York, he loved playing with Kit, but he felt he must
go home and enlist. He had a varicose vein in one leg; he
knew that this would disqualify him. He quit the play and
went into New York Hospital to have an operation on his leg.
(He sailed for home, qualified for enlistment, and served
all through the war. He put in what the English describe as
"a good war.")
There were two doleful evenings when I went to see Bobby
Flemyng for the last time and Larry for the last time. On
both occasions, I went with Gertrude Macy, Kit's business
manager and a great buddy of mine. Gert Macy was considered
one of the ablest managers in New York. On both occasions,
Flemyng and Larry were at their best, which made the
evenings more poignant. Gert and I condoled each other—she
felt the way I did. On Larry's last night, Gcrt and I took
Kit home. We mourned Larry. "It was so exciting playing with
him," Kit said. "You never could tell what he would do. But,
whatever he did, it was always right—some new facet, some
new insight." When we left Kit, I said to Gert that I
couldn't imagine the play without Larry but that Kit had to
do more than imagine it—she had to play it. "That is exactly
what she will do," said Gert. "She will play it. Moreover,
she will keep it up. You'll see."
Play it Kit did, till late next spring, on an immense tour
that went from Boston to Seattle, with major cities in
between, and from Seattle south through California and Texas
to New Orleans, from New Orleans to the East and the final
performance, in Newark. From Newark, I went to Kit's house,
on Beekman Place, where she was giving a farewell party for
I loved Kit's house. I always felt in it that I was in a
Chelsea house in London. It was comfortable, spacious, and
unpretentious. Everyone was pretty tired; the company had
been touring hard for many months. Guthrie made me a little
speech and gave me a present from the company—a silver
cigarette box that had a map of the United States on the
cover with a red band marking every town the company had
played. The stage manager played the piano. Gee Gee James,
John Williams, and Margalo—along with Kit, the veteran elite
of the original company—stood around the piano and sang. It
was all slow-paced and pleasant. I sat with Kit on a sofa in
a corner, under a Burchfield painting. I thanked her for
what she had done for me and for the play.
"The audiences enjoyed it," she said "But I was never—not
from the beginning—happy about my own performance. I have
never been happy about my own performance—not in anything."
I said that that was nonsense—that she had been marvellous
in "The Barretts of Wimpole Street."
"I came nearest in that," she said. "That suited mc. But,
you know . . ." She paused; she was gathering her thoughts.
"I wanted to act when I was young. There was nothing I
wanted so much. But I was never secure in it. I never . . ."
She paused again. "I've always had to be cautious."
This quality in Kit—modesty in so great a star—was
remarkable. She is one of the most distinguished and
gracious women I have ever known. Some time after this
party, Kit got together a company—which included Margalo—and
took it to Italy to give performances for the G.I.s. The
G.I.s adored her. Margalo wrote a book about it. In it she
reveals how admirably Kit carried out this demanding
In Verona, Italy, the home town of Romeo and Juliet, I once
was taken to see the house where Juliet lived. I was sure
that this attribution was apocryphal, but I inspected the
commonplace little cottage. From it came the strains, on a
phonograph record, of George Gershwin's "The Man I Love."
This was thematically appropriate. Was the present occupant
imagining the supposed earlier tenant's last thoughts? But
"The Man I Love" was followed almost immediately by another
Gershwin composition, the "Rhapsody in Blue." This was in
1938, about a year after George's death; it saddened me that
I should be unable to report this little concert, on a
Verona street, to the composer of both works. It would have
amused and delighted him. I had heard him play both
unforgettably; I should have liked to tell the present
tenant that I had known him and adored him. I walked away
from the little house, pondering the mystery of the
incidence of genius. There is no mystery more incalculable,
more tantalizing than the emergence of genius from an
ordinary, even coarse, social texture. I walked along
thinking of the years I had known the Gershwins—from the
early Saturday nights at the Lou Paleys', on West Eighth
Street, to the later, grand nights at George's duplex
apartment on East Seventy-second Street.
To a memorial volume published after George's death Ira
contributed a compact and lucid essay, with a paragraph
describing the environment and the early tribulations of the
My brother, born in Brooklyn, N.Y., September 26, 1898,
was the second of four children of Morris and Rose
Bruskin Gershwin. I was the oldest, then came George,
then Arthur, and last, our sister, Frances. Most of our
early boyhood was spent on the lower East Side of
Manhattan, where my father engaged in various
activities: restaurants, Russian and Turkish baths,
bakeries, a cigar store and pool parlor on the
Forty-second Street side of what is now Grand Central
Station, bookmaking at the Brighton Beach Race Track for
three exciting but disastrous weeks. We were always
moving. When my father sold a business and started
another, we would inevitably move to the new
neighborhood. George and I once counted more than
twenty-five different flats and apartments we remembered
having lived in during those days.
A great day in the Gershwin history was the arrival of the
family's first piano. It was a second-hand upright, bought
on the installment plan. Mrs. Gershwin thought she ought to
have one, because her married sister had one. It was
addressed to Ira as the eldest of the children. The moment
it arrived, George began to play by ear some popular songs
he had heard. Pleased to find a pianist in the house and
relieved of responsibility, Ira returned to his thoughts and
to the St. Nicholas Baths, at Lenox Avenue and 11th Street,
where he was then working. George found a piano teacher, and
the two brothers went their own ways, without suspecting
that soon their destinies would be inextricably welded.
George left the High School of Commerce at fifteen to become
"the youngest piano-pounder ever employed in Tin Pan Alley,"
for fifteen dollars a week. When he submitted a song of his
own to his employers, he was bluntly told, "You're here as a
pianist, not a writer." Little by little, George
demonstrated that he was indeed a writer.
Ira was literary. He sold a filler to the Smart Set
for a dollar. Not long afterward, he tripled his income; he
describes the process in his book "Lyrics on Several
In my late teens I fooled around with French verse forms,
such as the triplet, villanelle, and especially the rondeau—with
its opening phrase taking on new meanings when repeated. I
even sold one to the New York Sun, for which I
received three dollars:
My Rosie knows the places where
One goes to lose all trace of care.
The ultra swagger cabaret . . .
The crystal chandeliered café . . .
And oh, she knows the waiters there.
Her wink will fetch from magic lair
A bottle of a vintage rare . . .
And potent beer? Hot dog! I'll say
My Rosie knows!
Without my Rosie, I declare
I'd plumb the depths of dark despair.
To her I dedicate this lay;
To her I owe my spirits gay,
My smiling mien, my cheerful air,
My rosy nose.
Ira was known to his family as "the floating soul."
Unanchored, he took a job touring with a carnival show. On
tour, from Pittsburgh, he wrote to a friend to thank him for
clippings about George's successes as a rehearsal pianist
for musical-comedy celebrities; he wryly admitted, "I now
belong, I see, to the ranks of Brothers of the Great." It
was a role Ira set for himself early, and he has remained
contentedly within it ever since. Now that George is gone,
Ira devotes himself to fostering his memory. He became a
lyric writer of singular genius. His book "Lyrics on Several
Occasions" is an enchanting volume, not only for his songs
but for his numerous comments upon them. I said to him once,
while I was reading it with enormous pleasure, "You know,
Ira, you are every bit as good as George." He shook his
head. "No," he said. "George was an original." At the
Gershwin parties, with everyone spellbound around the piano
while George was singing Ira's lyrics, I would steal a look
at Ira, standing on the outskirts of the crowd, a small,
benignant smile on his face, stirred to happiness by the
effect his brother was creating. That they were his lyrics
George was singing was, to him, peripheral. He was under the
spell of his brother's overwhelming personality, as the rest
of us were.
The fact is that in the Gershwin years there was nothing
more thrilling than to hear George play the piano. It
heightened the sense of being alive. How universal his
effect was is attested to by Eva Gauthier, the first singer
to perform George's songs in a concert hall. In a piece she
wrote for the Gershwin memorial book, she recalls:
After our London concert, which was a repetition of the
New York and Boston programs, Lord and Lady Carisbrooke
(cousins of King George V) gave a party for us. It was
Gershwin's first meeting with royalty and it was as if
he had always belonged there. With his charm and talent
he made the party alive and interesting and had everyone
around the piano as he sang and played all his latest
songs and dance hits. . . . In London he became the good
friend of Prince George, now the Duke of Kent, who used
to drop in at George's apartment while he played to him.
Gershwin took great pride in a photograph inscribed "To
George from George."
Those lucky enough to have the acquaintance of certain
members of the prolific Strunsky family in the early
Gershwin years had, although they did not suspect it, a jump
of many years on Lady Carisbrooke and the party she gave for
Eva Gauthier and her accompanist. There were two Strunsky
girls—Leonore and Emily. The former married Ira Gershwin,
the latter Lou Paley, an English teacher who wrote song
lyrics on the side. He wrote some for George. The Paleys had
an apartment on the second floor of 18 West Eighth Street.
On the first floor lived Mr. and Mrs. Howard Dietz. Dietz
began to be annoyed because on Saturday nights the
chandelier in his living room had the shakes, owing to a
rhythmic pounding on the floor above. One Saturday night, he
and his wife were going to the theatre. Just as they were
leaving, Dietz decided to go upstairs and protest the
tremors of his chandelier. "One of us might get killed if
that chandelier falls," he said to his wife. Dietz, who
later became vice-president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and a
librettist and lyrics-writer for revues and musical shows,
has described what happened on his trip to save his
I knocked on the door of the Lou Paleys'. Someone opened
the door carefully and put his finger to his lips,
cautioning me not to disturb the music. About forty
people were sitting on the floor around the grand piano
at which a dark-haired chap was playing and singing in a
rich guttural, and vastly entertaining. I took a seat on
the floor. My wife below got impatient waiting and came
upstairs to find out what had happened to me. I went to
the door, put my finger to my lips and motioned her to
come in and sit beside me. We never got to the theatre
and we stopped bothering about our chandelier. We became
regulars at the Saturday nights at the Lou Paleys' to
hear George Gershwin.
I have read numberless pages of musical analysis of Gershwin
songs and his more ambitious compositions by
experts—"diminished sevenths," "tonic triads," "broken
chords." I don't understand any of it, as I know nothing,
technically, about music. Gershwin's originality, they all
agree, came from his intuition for the dramatic and the
colloquial. But when I first heard him, and subsequently, I
found that I had an intuition of my own, as a listener. I
felt on the instant, when he sat down to play, the newness,
the humor—above all, the rush of the great, heady surf of
vitality. The room became freshly oxygenated; everybody felt
it, everybody breathed it. In Philadelphia, some time after
my initiation, I met Josef Hofmann. He said of Gershwin, "He
is a pianist. He has complete command of the keyboard." One
got this sense from Gershwin immediately: command, mastery
triumphal. I knew from the first Saturday night at the
Paleys' that I was having the best time I'd ever had in my
life. Other composers there that night played their stuff,
but these were preliminaries. They were all waiting to hear
George play "That Certain Feeling," "Liza," "The Half of It,
Dearie, Blues." He demolished rivalry. Later, on East
Seventy-second Street, the audience was augmented by Society
and Finance. The old regulars from West Eighth Street did
not snub them. It was fun to show George's paintings to
Doris Duke—those he'd done himself and those he'd bought.
George was striking in appearance—handsome, lithe, and well
built. Osbert Sitwell has described his looks, in one of his
books, as "streamlined." This was so; George was streamlined
in all his activities: as a composer, as a pianist, as a
painter, as a golf and tennis player. As I think over the
people I have known, it strikes me that George stands
practically alone among them for possessing an almost
nonexistent quality: the quality of joy. Pessimism,
melancholia, depression are a dime a dozen; joie de vivre
is the rarest phenomenon in the world. George knew that he
was something new; he was perpetually fascinated by the
development of this novelty. A great many of the stories
about him can be explained by this view he had of himself.
Once, when he was talking about his mother, he said, "You
know, the extraordinary thing about her—she's so modest
about me." It was not that George especially valued modesty
as a quality. It was that he wondered whether his mother
appreciated fully the scope of what he was—whether her
modesty perhaps emanated from her being half informed.
DuBose Heyward, the author of "Porgy and Bess," said of
George that his self-appreciations were beyond modesty and
beyond conceit. George was incapable of insincerity; he
didn't see why he should suppress a virtue or a talent
simply because it happened to belong to him. The popular
composers are a race apart, like dancers and kings. The
fatuous ones are canny and move about in a carefully spun
cocoon of pretentious modesty, George Gershwin was neither
canny enough nor calculating enough for that. He was just
plain dazzled by the spectacle of his own music and his own
career; his unaffected delight in it was somewhat
astonishing, but it was also amusing and refreshing. George
was becoming one of the most eligible bachelors in America;
there was curiosity among his friends from the beginning as
to who the girl would be. I began hearing about the Dream
Girl. The Derain Girl was a Chicago physical-culture
teacher, whom I never met. She gave George elaborate
workouts, which he thought were good for him. Physical
well-being led to infatuation. Perhaps some of us thought it
was a bit naïve of George to enhalo his sweetheart in this
way, but on the whole we didn't mind. We liked the concept;
we believed in Dream Girls. It was a more guileless time. We
waited for a wedding announcement. It didn't come; it kept
on being delayed. One day, Ira called me to tell me some
devastating news: Dream Girl (we never referred to her in
any other way; I never knew her name) was married. He hadn't
the heart to tell George. He begged me to relieve him of
this disagreeable chore. I took on the job. I went up to
110th Street, where George and his parents were then living.
I went up to George's room; he was working on the Concerto
in F. He played me a passage; he completed a variation on
"George," I said, "I have bad news for you. Dream Girl is
His brown eyes showed a flicker of pain. He kept looking at
me. Finally, he spoke. "Do you know?" he said. "If I weren't
so busy, I'd feel terrible."
The phrase "Music by George Gershwin" came to have an
incantatory spell for managements; George White signed him
up five times to write the music for his "Scandals."
George's activities were incessant; his involvements in
musical comedies did not stop while he was preparing
"Rhapsody in Blue." The audience that assembled on a
February afternoon in 1924 to hear Paul Whiteman's
orchestra, with George as piano soloist, play the "Rhapsody"
included Walter Damrosch, Victor Herbert, John Philip Sousa,
Jascha Heifetz, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Ernest Bloch, Willem
Mengelberg, Leopold Stokowski, Mischa Elman, Fritz Kreisler.
The concert added a dimension to George's reputation. Samuel
Chotzinoff, the music critic of the New York World,
wrote that George had made "an honest woman out of jazz."
Walter Damrosch commissioned him to write "a work of
symphonic scope" for the New York Symphony Society. The
Concerto in F was the result. My listener's intuition told
me that the opening of its slow movement was one of the
loveliest, most poignant passages I had ever heard.
The Gershwin brothers wandered about in all directions.
George wrote shows with other lyricists. Ira interpolated
his lyrics wherever he could find an opening for them. He
wrote the musical comedy "Two Little Girls in Blue" with
Vincent Youmans and Paul Lannin. But one day it occurred to
the producers Alex Aarons and Vinton Freedley to combine
George and Ira in a show with music and lyrics written
entirely by them. The result was "Lady, Be Good," which was
a big hit and established George and Ira as a team—who
ideally complemented each other in producing something
unique: music and lyrics that matched each other in
spontaneity and verve. In it the brothers found each other.
Their wanderings ceased; they produced an unexampled series
of musical-comedy hits, and branched into folk opera—"Porgy
and Bess"—and various films.
George knew that his own circle, his tried-and-true friends,
took a deep, personal interest in him. He shared this
interest. When he moved into his new apartment, the duplex
on East Seventy-second Street, he invited Emily Paley and
her friend Mabel Schirmer to lunch. The girls were much
excited. They wanted to justify the honor of being George's
first guests and hoped to impress him. They spent the
morning making themselves as glamorous as possible. At one
o'clock, they rang his front doorbell. George, who had put
on a new suit he had bought in London, opened the door. He
presented himself. "Well, girls," he said, "how do I look?"
In this apartment, George began his work on "Porgy and
Bess." The Theatre Guild was producing the opera. I called
on him one day with Theresa Helburn. He played sections of
it for us; he played "Summertime." Our reaction delighted
him; he was in a state of tremendous excitement. "You know,
Terry," he said, "they tell me that the interest in 'Porgy'
is so great that, just to be sure they'll get good seats,
they're subscribing to all that stuff of yours." As among
that stuff there was a play of mine that the Guild had just
announced, I hoped the rumor was true.
The stories about George and his self-absorption grew into a
mythology. When any of them were repeated in front of him,
he laughed as heartily as everyone else. He laughed when I
told him that my play was included in the "all that stuff"
remark of his. "Just the same, it's true," he said. "I was
told that." He respected the truth. There is a famous story
of his playing catch with his friend Harry Ruby, the
songwriter. Ruby threw very hard; George quit. "I've got to
be careful of my hands," he said. "With you, it doesn't
matter." Ruby chided George for this remark. George listened
hard and adjudicated the case impartially. "Well," he said
"it's true, isn't it?"
George's time was far too valuable for him to waste it on
building up a pose of modesty. And he was incapable of it
even if he had had the time. He enjoyed his life and his
work, and he didn't see why he should muffle this enjoyment.
George Kaufman complained that he played his stuff so much
at parties that by the opening night of a show, when the
audience heard the overture, many of them must have thought
it was a revival. George's mother cautioned him about this;
she begged him to quit playing his new songs at parties.
George refused to be cowed. "You see, Ma," he said, "if I
didn't play, I wouldn't have a good time." Neither would the
people at the parties.
George was engaged to play the "Rhapsody" and his concerto
with the Pittsburgh Symphony. He invited Oscar Levant along.
When Oscar got into their drawing room on the train, George
had already settled down in the lower berth, smoking a big
cigar. Oscar resignedly climbed into the upper. "Well,
Oscar," said George, smiling up at him through a cloud of
cigar smoke, "it's the difference between talent and
Rouben Mamoulian, who directed "Porgy and Bess," has spoken
of George's extraordinary modesty as a composer:
It seems to me that this sense of exaggerated modesty in
artists is highly overrated by people. It is made out to
be a saintly virtue where frequently it is merely
sanctimonious and actually nothing but masked vanity and
conceit. Very often people who seem so modest about
their work would all but tear you to pieces if you
suggested cutting anything out of what they had written,
considering every word of it as well-nigh sacred. Yet
George, who loved his own stuff as much as he did, never
hesitated to make any cuts that were necessary. "Porgy
and Bess" as performed in New York was almost forty-five
minutes shorter than the original score. He did this
because he had no false vanity about his work and also
because George was one of the best showmen I have ever
The difference in the personalities of the two Gershwin
brothers was striking. If George was streamlined and
dynamic, Ira was reserved and scholarly. He was gently
humorous. One sensed in Ira, even at the very center of
involvement, a well of detachment. George gave you
everything at once; he was boyish, with an extraordinarily
sweet character. He wanted his listeners to participate in
the excitement of his own development. Ira was shorter than
George, somewhat rotund. It took time to discover the pawky
humor that irradiated him. He was diffident. He was too
modest and too proud to want to coast along on the rapidly
expanding reputation of his kid brother. To his early songs,
which were inserted as "interpolations" in occasional shows,
he attached the name of Arthur Francis, which he took from
the first names of his younger brother and sister. When he
came to write his book "Lyrics on Several Occasions," in his
quiet way he let himself go. As an epigraph for his book,
Ira uses a quotation from John Aubrey's "Brief Lives": "How
these curiosities would he quite forgott, did not such idle
fellowes as I am putt them downe!"
In this book, he prints the lyrics of the shows he wrote
with George and others, and comments on the exigencies that
produced them; these comments confirm what the lyrics have
already established—that Ira is one of the most authentic
humorists of his time. A veteran in this field, P. G.
Wodehouse, happens upon this book every year at
Christmastime and writes to Ira annually to tell him the
renewed joy he finds in it. At the first performance of "Of
Thee I Sing," during the torchlight parade for Wintergreen
that opens the show, when I heard Ira's first lyric—
Wintergreen for President!
Wintergreen for President!
He's the man the people choose;
Loves the Irish and the Jews
—I knew that I was in for a first-rate political satire. It
couldn't have been neater—without malevolence, but sharp
enough. Ira repeats this lyric in his book with the
For some years Strickland Gillilan's "On the Antiquity
was considered the shortest poem extant. But this record
fell when someone (Anon.) came up with "Lines on the
Questionable Importance of the Individual":
I . . .
Compared with both of these, the words of "Wintergreen
for President" almost equal the length of an Icelandic
saga. I imagine, though, that in Songdom "Wintergreen"
is one of the shortest lyrics ever.
Additional lines would have been supererogatory.
In 1928, the Gershwins went to London to see the closing
performance of Gertrude Lawrence in "Oh, Kay!"—a salute to
the benignity of the times—and then went to Paris for a
holiday. George met the leading composers—Milhaud, Ravel,
Stravinsky, Prokofieff, Poulenc—and worked on his tone poem
"An American in Paris."
In 1930, George and Ira made their debut in Hollywood; their
first film was "Delicious," for Fox. As it happened, I was
working for Fox at that time. We had a happy reunion. I
introduced them at once to the Hoveys, who had become like
my own family. Sol Wurtzel was the producer, and he put
Sonya on the Gershwin film; she worked on it with them and
with Guy Bolton, who was to write the screenplay. The three
Gershwins—George, Ira, and Ira's wife, Leonore—took a
two-story Spanish house at 1027 Chevy Chase, in Beverly
Hills. George's charm and his piano brought people from near
and far. Artur Rodzinski led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in
"An American in Paris." George became a friend of Arnold
Schoenberg, who used to come over to swim in his pool and
play tennis with him. George painted him. In all this,
George had the advantage of having his sister-in-law as
hostess. As I myself can testify, there is no more gracious
hostess in the world.
In those days, everybody was going to a psychoanalyst.
Herman Mankiewicz, an outstanding wit, wished all the
patients of his own doctor, whose name was Ernst Simmel, to
have a huge "S" embroidered on their sweatshirts, to show
that they had the courage of their special cult. George went
to the same man; he also had a psychoanalyst in New York.
Oscar Levant added to the gaiety of nations. Most of the
habitués took seriously the injunction forbidding them to
report on their séances; Oscar defied this injunction. He
reported singing to his analyst George's song "Love Walked
In," by which Oscar was enthralled. "The s.o.b. is so
unmusical that he didn't realize what a great song it is!"
In May of 1937, when the Gershwins and I happened to be in
Hollywood at the same time, I had to go to New York to meet
the Lunts to rehearse "Amphitryon 38." They were to open the
next month in San Francisco. I went over to say goodbye to
George. He played me some of his Shostakovich records; he
spoke of the Russian composer's addiction to short themes.
He held forth a bit on this, as if it were a method he might
himself apply. He suggested we go for a drive. I said all
right. As George drove, I realized that there was something
odd about him that day—something I had never noticed in him
before. He was subdued, shadowed. I edged about in my mind
to account for this. I had heard that he had fallen
seriously in love with a film star and that the affair had
not been going well. George said nothing about this. Neither
did I. He had been writing great stuff: "A Foggy Day" and
"They Can't Take That Away from Me." I asked him to sing
them and he did, in bits:
"The way you wear your hat,
The way you sip your tea,
The mem'ry of all that—
No, no! They can't take that away from me!
"The way your smile just beams,
The way you sing off key,
The way you haunt my dreams—
No, no! They can't take that away from me!"
I spoke of how marvellous it was of Ira to have added
singing off-key to the list of the heroine's perfections—how
it bathed nostalgia in humor. George agreed. We got together
on how extraordinary Ira was.
George began asking me about "Amphitryon 38." He said he
couldn't wait to see it. I said, "You will. After two weeks
in San Francisco, we come to Los Angeles. I’ll have seats
for you opening night." George thanked me.
All the time, I wanted to break through and ask him if there
was anything worrying him—he did not seem as carefree as
usual. But I didn't do it. I felt that if he wanted to talk
about whatever it was, he would do so. Still, it was a
beautiful day and a lovely drive. He dropped me at my door.
I confirmed our date: I would meet him on Monday, July 5th,
at the Biltmore Theatre in Los Angeles, where "Amphitryon
38" was to open. He looked forward. I looked forward.
From San Francisco, on the Friday night of the second week,
I called the Gershwins in Beverly Hills. I got Ira. I told
him I was returning the next day and hoped to see them that
night. He said fine. He said that George had not been
feeling well the last few weeks. When I asked what was
wrong, he seemed unable to give me a definite answer. George
had had a three-day physical checkup the week before at
Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, but tests revealed no physical
disability. It seemed to Ira to be some nervous ailment. I
told him I was leaving seats for him and Lee for Monday
night, and two for George also. He said he would tell
On my arrival, on Saturday, I called up Sonya Levien and
Oscar Levant. We had dinner together. I tried to find out
what was wrong with George. I could get nothing definite.
Oscar said that the general opinion was that George had been
frustrated by his lukewarm reception in Hollywood and by the
mild success of the films he had worked on. This drove Oscar
crazy, because he felt that George had never written
anything better than the songs in his recent films. In any
case, George was in the hands of his psychoanalyst, Dr.
Simmel, who was trying to cheer him up.
When Oscar said this, I remembered an incident recounted to
me by George Kaufman. "There are days when I just feel awful
and have to stay in bed," Kaufman said. "Beatrice [his wife]
had been trying to get me for a long time to go to her
analyst, Dr. Zilboorg, but I was stubborn and wouldn't go.
On one of my bad days, she looked in on me and offered again
to call Dr. Zilboorg. I said, 'No, thanks.' She gave me a
long look and said, 'You know, George, with you it may be
partly physical.'" Hollywood was so preempted by the
psychoanalysts that it was inconceivable that any ailment
could on occasion be physical. Such a bizarre source of
malaise never occurred to anybody, even as a possibility.
Whatever was wrong with you must be a mental aberration
owing to some disappointment connected with the film
We went over to the Gershwins'. Lee and Ira greeted us.
George was upstairs. Lee told us that George knew we were
coming and would be down presently. We waited in the living
room. George came downstairs, accompanied by a male nurse. I
stared at him. It was not the George we all knew. He was
very pale. The light had gone from his eyes. He seemed old.
He greeted me mirthlessly. His handshake was limp. The
spring had gone out of his walk. He came to a sofa near
where I was sitting and lay down on it. He tried to adjust
his head against the pillows. The nurse hovered over him.
I asked him if he felt pain.
"Behind my eyes," he said, and he repeated it. "Behind my
I knelt beside him on the sofa and put my hand under his
head. I asked him if he felt like playing the piano. He
shook his head. It was the first such refusal I'd ever heard
"I had to live for this," he said. "That Sam Goldwyn should
say to me, 'Why don't you write hits like Irving Berlin?'"
There was silence. He spoke of the "Porgy" tour, which had
not been successful.
I asked him whether he would come to my opening Monday
night. He shook his head slowly. He moved his head around on
the pillow. I took my hand away.
He looked at me with lustreless eyes. I had a sinking
feeling: he is no longer one of us. He turned to the nurse
and said he'd like to go back to his room. The nurse got him
up. They went upstairs.
When he had gone, I looked at Lee. "How long has he been
this way?" I asked.
"For several weeks. He seems worse tonight. Maybe it's
seeing you—reminds him of the past."
"Didn't you tell me he has trouble eating?" Oscar asked Lee.
"Yes," said Lee. "He doesn't seem to be able to manage his
food. I have to cut it for him."
We sat for a time, not speaking. Oscar, Sonya, and I rose to
In the car, Sonya, Oscar, and I rode in silence. Finally,
Oscar said, "You think George is very sick, don't you?"
"Yes," I said. "I think he is very sick."
The next day was Sunday. Sonya drove me out to her beach
house in Santa Monica. I said to her that I thought
something should be done about George. I was leaving for New
York on Tuesday, and I felt I should take George along and
get the best medical treatment possible for him there.
"You can't take the responsibility," Sonya said.
When I got back to Beverly Hills that night, I called Ira.
George had seen Dr. Simmel, who had conferred on the
telephone with Dr. Zilboorg, George's New York analyst. They
had decided that it would be wise to separate George from
his family and the activities going on in their busy
household. He had been transferred to the house of a friend
who had luckily left that day for New York. Ira was relieved
by the fact that the two analysts had conferred and come to
The next afternoon, I went to the Gershwins'. I saw Paul,
George's Swedish butler, whom I had known in New York. He
had driven George to his new domain. I asked him how George
had behaved. "He was all right till we got to the house,"
"What happened then?"
"He asked for a dark room. I darkened the room for
him—pulled all the shades down, made it quite dark. Then he
asked for a towel to put over his eyes."
When I heard this, something snapped in my mind. For a long
time, I had been irritated by the pseudoscientific
vocabulary that dotted the conversation of most of my
friends who were involved with psychoanalysts. I had a
special antipathy to George's New York psychoanalyst; he was
boorish. I called in Lee and Ira. I told them that I thought
George was gravely ill. I asked their permission to call Dr.
Abraham Flexner in New York to get his advice. While I was
trying to get Dr. Flexner, Moss Hart, who was in analysis,
came in. He didn't see why I was making all this fuss. "I
myself have had many suicidal impulses—I have been helped
over them," he said. I lost my temper a bit with Moss. I
said his suicidal impulses were not relevant to George's
case. I got Dr. Flexner, finally—at his summer place in
Canada. I described George's condition as briefly as I
could. He advised that the Gershwin family should, as soon
as possible, get hold of a brain specialist. That night, I
went to the theatre alone. I sat in the balcony. By this
time, I knew the performance by heart. Watching Lynn's and
Alfred's exquisite interpretation, I couldn't help thinking
of George Gershwin lying in a strange house, in a darkened
room, with a towel over his eves. I hoped that the hours
would go swiftly for him.
I tried to postpone my departure for New York, but I was
urgently needed at home. I arranged with Oscar that he
should call me daily when I got home. On his second call, on
Friday, Oscar told me that George had been taken to the
hospital and was in a coma. I had to talk to somebody. Who?
I thought of one of George's friends, who was also a patient
of Dr. Zilboorg's. I told him George was in a coma. George's
friend took it lightly. "That coma," he said, "is
self-induced." The surgeons found a brain tumor. George did
not survive the operation.
In the years since George's death, when I have met new
people whom I have especially liked, I have invariably
thought, If only I could introduce them to George Gershwin.
I feel pain over the missed delight they would have taken in
him. Looking back on George's career now, I see that he
lived all his life in youth. He was given no time for the
middle years—for the era when you look back, when you
reflect, when you regret. His rhythms were the pulsations of
youth; he reanimated them in those much older than he was.
He reanimates them still. Fred Astaire said after his death,
"He wrote for feet." A Gershwin tune has a propulsive effect
still, all over the world. He was perpetually in pursuit of
new musical horizons. In youth, there is always time for
everything. We all aged; George remained young. His own
tempo was as propulsive as the tempos of his music, whether
he was playing golf or tennis or painting pictures or
collecting them. "Golf is supposed to be a leisurely game,
but not for George," a friend of his wrote. "He ran from
hole to hole. He was like a young colt." One can never know
the truth about anyone—what his inmost motivations and
feelings are—but George's life was lived so out-of-doors, so
in the public eye, and these activities so absorbed him that
he was always "too busy," he said, for introspective
agonies. He told me once that he wanted to write for young
girls sitting on fire escapes on hot summer nights in New
York and dreaming of love.
Every playwright is hemmed in, in space and in time, by the
words he has to write at the beginning of every play:
"Scene; Time; At Rise." Once you have risen, you are
committed until you are able to write the final "Curtain."
Those two words, "At Rise," are the most fateful in the
language—more fateful than "I thee wed" or "I will and
bequeath." In the first case, there are remedies for
disaster; in the second, the bequeather, by the time his
gifts are delivered, is himself beyond disaster. The words
that one writes at the beginning and the end of every play
form the parentheses by which life itself is bounded: the
rises and falls within our lives, the innumerable rebirths
and renewals from the mock deaths of depressions to the
plateaus of self-belief, the diminuendos and crescendos of
the psyche. The rises and falls of non-playwrights, of the
anonymous stumblers, are no less momentous for them, even
when they are neither heroic nor tragic, even when they are
I keep filling my notebooks, which have been lifelong
companions, with ideas for plays that I shall never write.
In my last years, these jottings have been dominated by an
old ambition: to write a play about Montaigne. I had early
become addicted to Montaigne. I wrote down a sentence from
him: "We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that
what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of
what we condemn." The idea of pluralism in personality, of
duality, fascinated me. My first play was on this subject. I
had a sense of plagiarism some years ago when I found that
W. H. Auden had used the sentence just quoted as an epigraph
for his book of poems "The Double Man." My play about
Montaigne was to he called "The Many Men," and was to be a
dramatization of a passage in which Montaigne speaks of the
many men resident in every man. The theme of the warring
selves within the self has always beckoned to me, because I
have always had to cope with it myself. One uncomfortable
manifestation of it has been indecision. I no sooner decide
on a course than I reject it. It was being victimized by
these perpetual tournaments that drew me to Montaigne. Over
the years, I have gone far with the idea for the Montaigne
play, but not far enough. I have written the "At Rise," and
that is all there is of it, except for a sizable crammed
When you are absorbed in a project, people seem to turn up
to help you. This happened to me. I met Professor Donald M.
Frame, of Columbia, the biographer and translator of
Montaigne. I have been told by other scholars that he is the
foremost Montaigne authority in America. I feel that the
meeting was psychic—that my interest in his favorite subject
was so keen that we were bound to meet. He has been
immensely kind—has sent me his special writings from learned
journals, illuminating recondite phases of Montaigne's
career. Were I younger, had the strength, I should ask this
gracious man to collaborate with me on a Montaigne play. I
suggest to some future playwright who might engage in this
difficult task that he couldn't do better than to introduce
himself to Donald Frame.
Montaigne lived in a barbarous time, somewhat like our own.
His friend Henri de Navarre, the future Henri IV, was, on
St. Bartholomew's Day, a prisoner in the Louvre. He looked
out of the window and saw Catholic women drinking the blood
of freshly slaughtered Protestants. I have read extensively
for years about this era—an era during which Montaigne kept
a level head. He realized that all he had, all he could
cling to, was himself. He expressed himself—his various
selves—and this expression has given him an ever-fresh
immortality. Montaigne gave up the life of action for the
life of thought; the former is easier to dramatize than the
latter. I thought to resolve this difficulty by dividing the
play between Montaigne and Henri de Navarre, who was fairly
active. For a time, Montaigne worked with him, and Navarre
enjoyed coming to see Montaigne for discussion and advice.
Heinrich Mann, in his novel "Young Henry of Navarre,"
touches frequently upon this relationship. The Scottish
scholar J. M. Robertson, in his book "Montaigne and
Shakespeare," gives chapter and verse for the immense
borrowings by the latter from the former. My notes call for,
in scenes between Navarre and Montaigne, dialogue with
casual remarks in it by Montaigne which the Shakespeareans
would recognize. I conceived also that the idea for the
Grand Design—the sixteenth-century adumbration of the League
of Nations—should be suggested to Navarre by Montaigne. I
dreamed of a scene in which someone should tell Montaigne
that a talented young English playwright devoured his essays
and used ideas from them in his plays. But who? In G. P. V.
Akrigg's "Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton" I thought
that perhaps I had found a link: this was Florio,
Southampton's Italian-language teacher—a hot-tempered fellow
who got around.
I keep in my room an engraving of Montaigne—the frontispiece
of one edition of his essays. He was short, bald,
grave-looking, with a full mustache and a small beard. Who
could play him? In every cast of every play—mine and
others'—I looked for Montaigne. It is a moment I shan't
forget—that moment when 1 first saw Oscar Karlweis and had
the instantaneous thrill of recognition. He was Montaigne. I
still think that if he had lived I would have put steam on
and written the play.
After my first meeting with Karlweis, I went home and wrote
the "At Rise." I hope some future playwright may use it. To
him I will and bequeath all my notes and the only part of
the play which is written:
A circular turret library in a small chateau in the
environs of Bordeaux, in France. The tower, with this
room at the top, is the retreat of Michel de Montaigne,
Mayor of Bordeaux. The Mayoralty of Bordeaux was an
office Montaigne did not want, but he yielded to the
entreaty of his friend Henri de Navarre. It is the
winter of 1581. The room is lined with books—choice
editions, tooled volumes, red, brown, and gold. In this
library are the books left him by his dearest friend,
Étienne de La Boétie. In a frieze over the books,
running around the circle of the walls, is written
Montaigne's tribute to his dead friend: "In as-much as
he desired that there should be some unique memorial of
this most sweet, most dear, and most close companion,
than whom our age hath seen none better, none more
absolutely perfect, Michel de Montaigne, unhappily
bereft of so beloved a guardian of his life, mindful of
their mutual affection and of the kindly feeling which
united them, hath set up, since nought more expressive
could be found, this learned shelf, a special laboratory
for the mind, in the which is his delight."
On the rafters above the frieze are aphorisms culled by
the Mayor of Bordeaux from his intensive reading: "Who
knoweth if what men call living be not dying?;" "To any
reasoning one may oppose an equally strong reasoning;"
"Rejoice in those things that are present—all else is
beyond thee;" and, from Terence, "I am a man; nothing
human is alien to me." But the dominating motto is "What
do I know?"
When the curtain rises, Montaigne, in black, is talking
to his intellectual disciple Marie de Gournay. She is
wildly excited, because Henri de Navarre, the Mayor's
guest, is about to arrive. Montaigne tries to calm her.
"The King," he is saying, "is, after all, only a man . .
(This is the third part of a three-part article.)