Authors: Robert E. Sherwood

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright and screenwriter

Author Works

Drama:

The Road to Rome, pr., pb. 1927

The Love Nest, pr. 1927 (adaptation of Ring Lardner’s story)

The Queen’s Husband, pr., pb. 1928

Waterloo Bridge, pr., pb. 1930

This Is New York, pr. 1930

Reunion in Vienna, pr. 1931

Acropolis, pr. 1933

The Petrified Forest, pr., pb. 1935

Idiot’s Delight, pr., pb. 1936

Tovarich, pr., pb. 1936 (adaptation of Jacques Deval’s comedy)

Abe Lincoln in Illinois, pr. 1938

There Shall Be No Night, pr., pb. 1940

The Rugged Path, pr. 1945

Miss Liberty, pr. 1949 (libretto; music by Irving Berlin)

Small War on Murray Hill, pr., pb. 1957

Long Fiction:

The Virtuous Knight, 1931

Screenplays:

Cock of the Air, 1932 (with Charles Lederer)

The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1935 (with Arthur Wimperis; adaptation of Baroness Orczy’s novel)

The Ghost Goes West, 1936

Thunder in the City, 1937 (with Aben Kandel)

The Adventures of Marco Polo, 1938

The Divorce of Lady X, 1938 (with Lajos Biro; adaptation of Biro’s play Counsel’s Opinion)

Abe Lincoln in Illinois, 1939 (adaptation of his play)

Idiot’s Delight, 1939 (adaptation of his play)

Rebecca, 1940 (with Joan Harrison; adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel)

The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946

The Bishop’s Wife, 1947 (with Leonardo Bercovici)

Man on a Tightrope, 1953

Nonfiction:

Roosevelt and Hopkins, 1948 (also known as The White House Papers of Harry Hopkins, 1949)

Edited Text:

The Best Moving Pictures of 1922–1923, 1923

Biography

Robert Emmet Sherwood was the product of an affluent and artistic family. His mother, the former Rosina Emmet, was sufficiently well known as an artist to be listed in Who’s Who. His father, Arthur Murray Sherwood, was a prominent investment broker and held a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. Arthur Sherwood was a frustrated actor and had been an active member of the Hasty Pudding Club during his student days at Harvard University, where he was also the first president of the Harvard Lampoon. Robert Sherwood followed in his father’s footsteps at Harvard, both as a member of the Hasty Pudding Club and as editor of the Lampoon.{$I[AN]9810001506}{$I[A]Sherwood, Robert E.}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Sherwood, Robert E.}{$I[tim]1896;Sherwood, Robert E.}

Sherwood was named for the Irish patriot Robert Emmet, brother of his mother’s great-grandfather, who led an attack on Dublin Castle and was hanged in 1803. Sherwood was proud of his renegade namesake. Mary Elizabeth Wilson Sherwood, mother of Sherwood’s father, had been honored both by the French government and by Queen Victoria of Britain. She was active in literary and artistic circles and in her lifetime wrote more than twenty books and hundreds of articles.

Thus, Robert Sherwood, the next to the youngest of five Sherwood children, was born into an artistically active family of considerable means. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to a house on Lexington Avenue in New York City. The family also maintained a forty-room Georgian mansion, Skene Wood, set on three hundred acres bordering Lake Champlain. It was there that Sherwood spent most of his childhood summers.

During the summers at Skene Wood, Sherwood and his siblings put on amateur dramatic productions, and Sherwood produced a handwritten newspaper, Children’s Life. At eight, he wrote an ending for Charles Dickens’s unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and two years later he wrote his first original play.

When he was nine years old, Sherwood was sent to the Fay School in Southborough, Massachusetts, and at thirteen he was sent to the Milton Academy near Boston to begin his preparatory studies for Harvard. Both in preparatory school and later at Harvard, Sherwood’s energies were to be directed more toward literary matters than toward academic ones. He was managing editor of Milton’s monthly magazine, Orange and Blue, for much of his final year at Milton; he was deeply in trouble with his studies, however, and in April the school forced his withdrawal from this post. Ultimately, his grades were so low that Milton Academy refused him a diploma, giving him instead a certificate of attendance. Despite this, Sherwood was elected valedictorian by his classmates, and he gave the valedictory address.

Sherwood’s academic career at Harvard was no more distinguished than his career at Milton Academy had been, although his contributions to Harvard’s dramatic and literary clubs were substantial. On the brink of expulsion three times during his freshman year alone, Sherwood did not make it to graduation.

In July of 1917, having been rejected (on account of his great height) by the various branches of the United States armed forces in which he attempted to enlist, Sherwood became a member of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, serving in the Forty-second Battalion of the Fifth Royal Highlanders and achieving the distinction of being probably the tallest serviceman in World War I to wear kilts. At six feet, seven inches, he towered over his fellow combatants. He served six months in France, where he was gassed on Vimy Ridge. In 1918, Harvard awarded him a bachelor’s degree in absentia, although he had not met the academic standards for this degree.

On his return from the war, Sherwood was offered a position at Vanity Fair, a magazine that the Lampoon under Sherwood’s editorship had burlesqued so effectively that its editor wanted Sherwood on his staff. At Vanity Fair, Sherwood shared an office with Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker; the three were fired in 1920 for rebelling against Vanity Fair’s editorial staff, but soon they were all hired by Life magazine, to whose editorship Sherwood rose in 1924. During this period, Sherwood was a regular participant in the Round Table which met at the Algonquin Hotel.

Sherwood married Mary Brandon in 1922. Their turbulent marriage lasted until 1934, when they were divorced. The following year, Sherwood married playwright Marc Connelly’s former wife, actress Madeline Hurlock Connelly. Sherwood’s extravagant lifestyle during the early years of his marriage to Mary Brandon had caused him to sink deeply into debt, from which he extricated himself in 1926 by writing The Road to Rome in three weeks’ time. When the play opened on Broadway the following year, it was an immediate success and ran for 392 performances. Throughout his career, Sherwood frequently relied on his gift for rapid composition to free himself from debts.

The activism that had led Sherwood to serve in the armed forces during the war and to speak his mind at Vanity Fair shifted its focus to the problems of actors and writers as well as national affairs. In 1935, he became secretary of the Dramatists’ Guild, and he rose to the presidency of that organization in 1937. In that year he combined forces with Maxwell Anderson, S. N. Behrman, Sidney Howard, and Elmer Rice to form the Playwrights’ Company, which was incorporated in 1938 for the purpose of permitting playwrights to stage their own plays, either directing the plays themselves or appointing directors of their own choosing. Sherwood was elected president of the American National Theatre and Academy in 1939.

Although Sherwood had been a strident pacifist, Adolf Hitler’s ascendancy in Germany forced him to rethink his stand. A political idealist, Sherwood was finally forced to recognize the impossibility of allowing a dictator to run roughshod over Europe. There Shall Be No Night calls for action against aggressors of Hitler’s ilk and represents an important turning point in Sherwood’s thinking. In his presidential address to the Dramatists’ Guild in 1939, Sherwood called upon writers to turn their talents to writing in support of freedom. There Shall Be No Night is in line with this imperative.

Long a friend and political supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Sherwood was asked by the Roosevelt Administration to write war propaganda. He did so willingly, and in time he became not only a confidant of the president, visiting him often at the White House, but also one of his chief speech writers. In 1940 Sherwood was appointed a special assistant to the secretary of war, and in 1942 he was appointed director of the overseas branch of the office of war information. In 1945 he served as a special assistant to the secretary of the navy.

Sherwood was also active as a screenwriter. As early as 1932, he had collaborated with Charles Lederer on Cock of the Air for United Artists, followed in 1935 by The Scarlet Pimpernel, a collaboration with Arthur Wimperis, and many others followed. His finest Hollywood effort was The Best Years of Our Lives, in 1946.

Sherwood received Pulitzer Prizes in drama in 1936 for Idiot’s Delight, in 1939 for Abe Lincoln in Illinois, and in 1941 for There Shall Be No Night. The historical work Roosevelt and Hopkins won for Sherwood a fourth Pulitzer Prize in 1949. His film script The Best Years of Our Lives took an Academy Award for Best Screenplay of 1946, one of nine Academy Awards garnered by the film. Sherwood also received the Gold Medal for Drama of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1941, the Gutenberg Award in 1949, and the Bancroft Prize for Distinguished Writing in American History in 1949. He was awarded honorary doctorates by Dartmouth College (1940), Yale University (1941), Harvard University (1949), and Bishop’s University (1950).

Always a man of the world, Sherwood’s insights were deepened by his direct contact with high levels of government during the war. His work with the Hopkins papers was meticulously researched, although some scholars think that Sidney Hyman deserves more credit than he was given for the high level of research apparent in Roosevelt and Hopkins. The quality and effectiveness of Sherwood’s dramatic writing declined after the war. He died in 1955 at age fifty-nine.

BibliographyAlonso, Harriet Hyman. Robert E. Sherwood: The Playwright in Peace and War. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007. This is an extensively researched biography that sheds light on the life and times of Sherwood and the ways in which he shaped American history.Brown, John Mason. The Ordeal of a Playwright: Robert E. Sherwood and the Challenge of War. Edited by Norman Cousins. New York: Harper & Row, 1970. Brown’s uncompleted second biography furnishes a fragmentary but telling portrait of Sherwood as being wrenched away from devout pacifism to become aroused by world affairs. Includes an index and a complete text of There Shall Be No Night.Brown, John Mason. The Worlds of Robert E. Sherwood: Mirror to His Times, 1897-1939. 1965. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979. This thoroughly documented and admiring biography extends from Sherwood’s early childhood and up through his career as a critic and playwright to include the writing of Abe Lincoln in Illinois. Contains a list of Sherwood’s work and an index, in addition to twenty-eight illustrations of Sherwood, his family and friends, and several productions.Meserve, Walter J. Robert E. Sherwood: Reluctant Moralist. New York: Pegasus, 1970. In addition to examining Sherwood as a dramatist, Meserve considers the playwright’s role as an adviser and speech writer for Franklin D. Roosevelt, as a prominent member of the Author’s League, and as a founding partner in the Playwright’s Company. The book offers a detailed analysis of all Sherwood’s plays and includes a bibliography and an index.Mishra, Kshamanidhi. American Leftist Playwrights of the 1930’s: A Study of Ideology and Technique in the Plays of Odets, Lawson, and Sherwood. New Delhi, India: Classical, 1991. The author looks at the political and social views of Sherwood, Clifford Odets, and John Lawson. Includes bibliography.Shuman, R. Baird. Robert E. Sherwood. New York: Twayne, 1964. An accessible and comprehensive biographical and critical treatment of the playwright and his work. It contains a chronology, a detailed examination of Sherwood’s plays within the context of his life and career, and an annotated listing of secondary sources.
Categories: Authors