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Robert E. Sherwood

The Playwright in Peace and War

Harriet Hyman Alonso

Publication Year: 2007

One of the nation's first film critics, an acclaimed speechwriter on his own and for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a propagandist during World War II, and a leading producer on Broadway, Robert E. Sherwood scripted some of the most popular plays and films of his day, including Waterloo Bridge, The Best Years of Our Lives, Idiot's Delight, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, and Rebecca. His work brought him four Pulitzer Prizes and an Oscar. In his personal life, however, he was driven by a deep conviction that war was a societal evil that must be eradicated and human rights a moral responsibility that all governments should protect. At times, his belief in pacifism and his commitment to defending freedom and justice came into conflict with each other, causing frustration and emotional trauma which found their way into his writings and actions. In this book, Harriet Hyman Alonso unravels Sherwood's inner struggle and portrays his political journey. Relying largely on his letters, diaries, plays, films, essays, and biography of Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins, she traces Sherwood's obsession with the world of politics and its effects on his life and art, from his experience as a soldier in World War I to the Cold War. She also describes his participation in the Algonquin Round Table, his friendships and working relationships with such notables as Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, Edna Ferber, Spencer Tracy, Harry Hopkins, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, his two marriages and uneasy relationship with his daughter, and his leadership role in the Broadway community. Alonso brings together history, theater and film studies, and peace studies in this interdisciplinary political biography. In the process, she illuminates major currents in U.S. foreign policy, society, and culture from 1896 to 1955—the years of the remarkable life of Robert E. Sherwood.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. ix

Part I: Act One

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pp. 3-5

In June 1901, when Robert Emmet Sherwood was just five years old, his mother, Rosina (or Posie, as her loved ones called her), visited a fortuneteller. She was skeptical of fortune-tellers, spiritualists, and other seers of the unknown, but her sister Lydia, an avid fan of such practices, insisted that she go, and Posie’s curiosity and sense of fun allowed no other option. After giving...

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Chapter 1. Being an Emmet and a Sherwood

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pp. 7-20

Robert Emmet Sherwood was born into two illustrious families, the Emmets and the Sherwoods, both with long histories in the United States and with shared common values. First, they were patriotic, loved the nation they lived in, and supported their government’s positions in both domestic and foreign policies as long as they deemed them fair and honest. Second, they were committed to social justice—to standing up for individual freedoms...

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Chapter 2. Born to Be a Ham

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pp. 21-35

Over forty years after his birth on April 4, 1896, Robert Sherwood’s mother still recalled how happy she was on the day he arrived, when her artist’s eye took in the heaps of white snow on a maple tree “covered with scarlet tassels” outside her window and heard the doctor say, “This is the biggest baby I ever saw.”1 Indeed, even in his adulthood, Sherwood’s...

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Chapter 3. From Soldier to Pacifist

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pp. 36-62

The month after war broke out in Europe in 1914, Robert Sherwood entered Harvard University as a freshman. His father, Arthur, had graduated from Harvard in 1877, his brother Arthur in 1910, and Philip, now a senior, was scheduled to complete his degree in 1915. Sherwood’s experience at Harvard duplicated those at the Fay School and at Milton Academy. He excelled...

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Chapter 4. Life after the War

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pp. 63-93

For almost a decade after his war experience, Robert Sherwood went through a series of changes. For some time he suff ered from a case of moderate postwar trauma with nightmares and sweats, fear of rodents, and general restlessness and bouts of undisciplined behavior. In seeming contradiction to his wildness and hyperactivity, he was also often withdrawn, pensive, and...

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Chapter 5. Writing Plays for Peace [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 94-132

In 1925, when Robert Sherwood decided to take Edna Ferber’s advice and become serious about his writing, he knew that he wanted to spread an antiwar message. By then, he had spent almost five years commenting on the way filmmakers handled the subject of war—giving high praise to a very few and damning the many. It was his time to make it right, but not on...

Part II: Interlude

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Chapter 6. Marriage, Divorce, and The Petrified Forest

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pp. 135-163

Although World War I remained the defi ning moment of Robert Sherwood’s life until the day he died, the experience most affected him over the years from 1919 to 1934. His eleven-year marriage to Mary Brandon illustrates the impact the war had on his psyche and his behavior. His emotional...

Part III: Act Two

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Chapter 7. From Pacifist to Soldier

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pp. 167-217

On January 18, 1938, Robert Sherwood wrote in his diary: “Made up my mind today that I’m interested (in writing) in nothing less than reforming the world. The other day I said to Alex Korda, ‘I’m sick of world affairs, war, etc. I wish I could write a plain drawing room comedy.’ He laughed and said it was impossible. ‘You can’t even keep world affairs out of the drawing...

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Chapter 8. Sherwood and Roosevelt

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pp. 218-266

Robert Sherwood had to play an active role in World War II because, like some interwar pacifists, he believed that his support of self-protective isolationism and neutrality had contributed to its cause. He blamed himself for aiding in the breakdown of what he termed “civilization” and the return to “the apes” by using his role as a playwright and screenwriter to sway...

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Chapter 9. Changing the Message

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pp. 267-296

Like a number of men of his generation, Robert Sherwood had taken two turns at war which resulted in vastly different postwar experiences. A private in the trenches during World War I, he returned home to the common global disillusionment over the declared aim of that struggle: to make the world safe for democracy. His anger and disappointment resulted in a...

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Chapter 10. The Message Is Lost

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pp. 297-323

Robert Sherwood spent the last six years of his life split between two worlds. He received a constant stream of honors for his work as a playwright and biographer despite being stuck in the quicksand of writer’s block. Although he tried several times to compose a play or fi lm that would once again capture the nation’s heart, he was continually unsuccessful. Meanwhile,...

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pp. 324-327

Many people gathered to honor Robert Sherwood after his death. ANTA, of which he had been one of the creators and presidents, held a memorial to him on November 29 which attracted more than three hundred people. A host of theater people spoke, among them Sam Rosenman, Moss Hart, and Elmer Rice, and the newsman Charles Collingwood. The Dramatists...


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pp. 329-365


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pp. 367-380

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pp. 381-382

In the summer of 1990 I attended a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar for College Teachers. The topic, “American Playwrights, 1920–1980,” was of tremendous interest to me, as I had always had a love for the theater and as an undergraduate had majored in it and in En glish and American literature Life plays funny tricks on people, and in a move that surprised everyone who...


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pp. 383-394

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613760628
E-ISBN-10: 1613760620
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558496187
Print-ISBN-10: 1558496181

Page Count: 416
Publication Year: 2007