Sherwood, Robert E.


The great playwright & screenwriter on the value of studying Latin and the Bible as literature

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Type: Letter
Description: (1896-1955) One of the finest and most influential American playwrights and screenwriters of the 2nd quarter of the 20th century, member of the Algonquin Round Table, FDR speechwriter.

Educated at Milton Academy and at Harvard, he fought with the Royal Highlanders of Canada, CEF in WW I and wounded. After his return to the US, he began working as a movie critic for Life and Vanity Fair.

Sherwood was an original member of the Algonquin Round Table, close friends with Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley who also were on the Vanity Fair staff when the Round Table began meeting in 1919. His 6’ 8” height was subject of much humor by his close pals, incl. Groucho Marx.

His 1st Broadway play, The Road to Rome (1927), was a comedy that introduced one of his favorite themes, the futility of war.  Many of his later dramatic works employed variations of this theme, including Idiot’s Delight (1936), which won Sherwood the 1st of his 4 Pulitzer Prizes. He was actively engaged with advocating for writers’ rights within the theatre world, and was 7th president of the Dramatists Guild of America 1937-39.

Sherwood’s Broadway success attracted the attention of Hollywood; he began writing for movies in 1926. While some of his work went uncredited, his films included many adaptations of his plays. He also collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock and Joan Harrison in writing the screenplay for Rebecca (1940).

With Europe in the midst of WW II, he set aside his anti-war stance to support the fight against the Nazis. His 1940 play about the USSR’s invasion of Finland, There Shall Be No Night, was produced by the Playwright’s Company that he co-founded, and starred Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontaine, and Montgomery Clift; Katherine Cornell produced and starred in a 1957 TV adaptation. Sherwood publicly ridiculed isolationist Charles Lindbergh while he served as a speechwriter for President Roosevelt. He recounted that experience in his book Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History, which won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize. Sherwood is credited with originating the phrase that evolved into “arsenal of democracy”, frequently used in FDR’s wartime speeches.

He served as Director of the Office of War Information 1943-45 then returned to dramatic writing with the film The Best Years of Our Lives, which earned Sherwood an Oscar for Best Screenplay. 

His plays include: Waterloo Bridge (1930), adapted into 2 US films; This Is New York (1930), adapted into the 1932 film Two Kinds of Women; Reunion in Vienna (1931), adapted into a 1933 film Acropolis; The Petrified Forest (1935), adapted into 1936 film with Leslie Howard, Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart; Abe Lincoln in Illinois, (1938), Pulitzer Prize for Drama, adapted into a 1940 film with Raymond Massey; and Miss Liberty (1949), book for Irving Berlin musical.

Very good content 11 x 8 ½ TLS on “The Playwrights’ Company”, NYC letterhead, February 25 1950, to a Detroit man, answering his difficult questions. First Sherwood mentions his being a poor Latin student at Milton Academy and at Harvard but believes “…that study of [“literature” crossed through, pens in “Latin”], and the consequent study of ancient literature and culture and politics, has been of substantial benefit to me in my profession as a writer.” However, he does not think more than 2 years of Lain is necessary “for the average student” and the “traditional over-emphasis on Latin as the chief hallmark of an educated man…always seemed to me ridiculous.” He closes by stating: “…there can be great improvement in high school and also college courses in English literature and composition if a lot more time is spent in study of the Bible as literature.”

Condition:Very good

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