A literary sketch of Sherwood seen through the eyes of John Mason Brown’s biography — The Worlds of Robert E. Sherwood
Like many another, Robert E. Sherwood came back from the First World War a changed man, as John Mason Brown writes in his 1965 biography:
“ He was a troubled and uprooted young man. He was not only convalescing physically, he was convalescing from a war. Like hundreds of thousands of other young men, he was a different man, come back to a different country to start a different life. With difficulty he was adjusting himself to the lower-keyed realities of peace. For the first time he was confronted with the full meaning, to him and his family, of his father’s failure and retirement. Skene Wood was gone. So was the Lexington Avenue in which the Sherwoods had lived for thirteen years. So was the routine of going off to school or college which before the war had been part of his life. The question Sherwood faced, once he had recovered from his immediate past, was his future. He wanted to write and he needed a job.”
Having suffered from a gas attack in 1918, and fallen onto wooden spikes in a German trench, Sherwood, on his return to the US, made his way to New York for a medical check-up and the hoped for writing job. The medical went well, with Dr James Alexander (a noted lung specialist) declaring his lungs much improved and that by the autumn he should be “…nearly normal…” which no doubt brought a wry smile to Sherwood’s face.
When it came to a writing job he pretty much fell into it, but with results far less painful than falling into a German trench.
After visiting the lung specialist Robert Sherwood answered an advertisement for a position as a writer at Vanity Fair. He was interviewed by Robert Benchley, who was impressed by Sherwood, as John Mason Brown writes:
“ On May 21 Robert Benchley, two days after he had taken over as managing editor of Vanity Fair, was writing in his diary about ‘meeting Bob Sherwood who presented his six feet five or ten in candidacy for a job he may get as Miss Bristed is leaving.’ The postscript, as expected, is that he got the job, and a week later was working at the office on a three-month trial basis at $25 a week.” That $25 would equate to around $300 in today’s values.
It was better pay than the army and a job that opened many literary doors for Sherwood during the eight months he worked at the magazine, and as Mason Brown writes in his compelling and beautifully written biography:
“ Vanity Fair was the Gideon of the sophisticated. Frank Crowninshield [editor from 1914–1935] was its boutonniere of an editor; Condé Nast [ Condé Montrose Nast], owner of the far more profitable but equally glossy Vogue, its ducal publisher; and Sherwood’s two associates, in whose office he was given a desk, were Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker with whom he at once formed an inseparable trio.”
These were the founding members of the Algonquin Round Table.
By 1954, just over one year from his death, Robert E. Sherwood had become something of a national treasure, with some of the most popular American plays, and screenplays, ever written under his belt, with a keen reputation rightly earned as an advisor to and speechwriter for President Roosevelt during World War II.
In 1948 Sherwood’s best selling biography, Roosevelt and Hopkins, was published to great acclaim, and gives an intimate and personal account of a crucial time in American history.
Sherwood was often criticised for his honesty, especially when he made a speech in the April of 1954 at his old school, Milton Academy in Massachusetts . He was consumed with weariness.
John Mason Brown:
“ Sherwood’s day had been exhausting. He had spoken that morning at the Naval War College in Newport on the political aspects of strategy, and speaking had become for him an ordeal. He had guessed he would be nervous at Milton, and he was. To take his mind off his speech, he had asked his old friend, tutor, and favorite master, Albert W. Hunt, to dine with him at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston. Though they had talked pleasantly of old times, his nervousness grew. It was even greater when they had driven to Milton. There, to subdue it, he took a giant’s slug of gin, uncontaminated by ice, ten minutes before he walked onto the platform.
“ It was not only conquered pain or the fatigue of a tiring day which pinched his face and accentuated the puffs under his eyes as he towered above the podium. It was the accumulated weariness of days and nights and years of living and giving and working as if his superb energies were endless. It was the secret fear that haunts the creator, the fear that his gift had left him because he had not had a successful new play produced on Broadway in fourteen years.
“ It was the sorrow and the emptiness of the let down after the death of Roosevelt and after the dizzying tensions and excitements of the war years spent close to the White House and to great events. It was the heartbreak of seeing the heroic efforts and sacrifices of a Second World War end in disenchantment, with Hitler and the other marchers stopped but with victory not even bringing a true peace. It was the deep alarm with which he recognised the threats of nuclear power and his realization that this time he spoke not only in a different world but in a different age.
“ Sherwood had tried to tell the unflinching truth as he saw and felt it in 1940 when Paris had fallen. He tried to do the same thing now as, with his long, nervous fingers spilling communication, he opened his manuscript and began to read, having put on his reading glasses. These turned the audience for him into a blur except for the attentive students in the front rows.”
Forgive me for quoting from the prologue of Mason’s biography at length, but it’s an extraordinary piece of writing that places the reader directly at Sherwood’s shoulder, and throughout it there are chilling echoes of Sherwood’s work, not least his 1946 screenplay for William Wyler’s, The Best Years of Our Lives (based on Mackinlay Kantor’s novella, Glory For Us), which is full of the weariness and the heroic sacrifices that many back home are not — at least initially — even prepared to acknowledge. And it’s Sherwood’s committed, honest writing that turns Kantor’s slim verse volume into a many faceted film that is perhaps the pinnacle of Sherwood’s writing career. It is one of those Hollywood movies that gets it right, giving the viewer a genuine insight into the ‘deep alarm’ of early post-war America.
The ‘deep alarm’ is a theme that runs through all of Sherwood’s work, as it does through the novels of John Steinbeck: it is the alarm of a generation.
And by the time of his speech at his old school Sherwood came out as the committed pacifist his 1946 screenplay suggested, giving the assembled students, parents and many veterans, in the school’s assembly hall, a stern lecture on the dangers of the unrolling nuclear age, not least the cobalt bomb, rounding off with an emotional role call of three of the school’s students (one his nephew) who had died in two world wars, and the more recent Korean War. He finished with saying , in a slight reversal of his message, that war was a dirty business and that those involved in war must fight in the dirtiest way possible, “…never forgetting that world disarmament is the ultimate goal.”
Sherwood was a better dramatist than polemicist, and apologized when the letters of complaint started coming in.
He was pretty much at the end of his tether.
John Mason Brown was born in Louisville, Kentucky on the 3rd of July 1900, graduating from Harvard in 1923. As a journalist he worked for the New York Evening Post for twelve years. During WWII Brown served as a lieutenant in the U S Navy, with his memoir, To All Hands, vividly describing his time aboard USS Ancon during the invasion of Sicily.
After his war service Brown’s column, ‘Seeing Things’, appeared in the weekly magazine, The Saturday Review, a wide ranging column he continued to write until his death in New York in 1969.
Brown’s biography of Sherwood is his lasting literary legacy, not only of a friend, but of a fine playwright, biographer and screenwriter.