Jerome Lawrence & Robert Lee
Highlights of a Life
Jerome Lawrence’s Beginnings
On July 14, 1915, Jerome Lawrence was born into the world of writing and publishing in Cleveland, Ohio: His father Samuel Lawrence owned a printing company and his mother Sarah Rogen Lawrence wrote poetry. It was in this environment that Lawrence would begin his walk down the road to becoming a man of letters.
His interest in drama extends back to his high school and college days, when he acted in and directed school and summer theater productions. As a teenager, Lawrence’s parents arranged to have him study writing with playwright and director Eugene C. Davis. After graduating from Glenville High School in Cleveland in 1933, he attended The Ohio State University where he studied with playwrights Harlan Hatcher, Herman Miller, and Robert Newdick. Lawrence graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Ohio State in 1937.
In the brief year after graduating, Lawrence worked as a journalist, reporter and telegraph operator for the Wilmington (Ohio) News-Journal and New Lexington (Ohio) Daily News before heading to California. There, he entered graduate school at UCLA while working at Beverly Hills radio station KMPC as a continuity editor. In one year, the job overtook his goal of completing graduate school. By 1939, Lawrence had become a senior staff writer for CBS Radio in Los Angeles, with assignments in New York.
Robert E. Lee’s Beginnings
Robert Edwin Lee grew up in a traditional working-class family in Elyria, Ohio. He was born October 15, 1918, the only child of Claire Melvin Lee and Elvira Taft Lee. His father was a toolmaker for Garford Manufacturing (a manufacturer of automobile and bicycle parts). His mother was a teacher with Elyria City Schools. This humble origin provided the catalyst for a number of life experiences that would go on to shape Lee’s talent and success as a playwright.
Lee graduated from Elyria High School, and left Elyria in 1934 to study at Northwestern University in Chicago. In 1935, he transferred to Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, where he majored in astronomy and worked as a technician at Perkins Observatory. “I gave up my studies with the world’s third largest telescope to write for more terrestrial stars,” Lee said in a 1951 interview with the Columbus Dispatch.
In 1937, Lee left behind higher education and his position at the observatory for a director’s position at radio station WHK–WCLE in Cleveland; there, he also attended Western Reserve University for one year. But in 1938, Lee again left school for work, this time for a job at the Young and Rubicam advertising agency in New York City. At Young and Rubicam, he wrote and produced some of radio’s top shows including March of Time, Kate Smith Hour, Screen Guild Theater, We the People, Aldrich Family and a number of soap operas and quiz shows. One of his successes as a producer was the Railroad Hour, through which he met actress Janet Waldo who would become his wife in 1948.
A Perfect Partnership
In 1939, while relaxing in a Madison Avenue bar, Robert E. Lee met Jerome Lawrence, who was on assignment in New York. Knowing of each other’s work, the pair quickly decided to quit their respective jobs and form a freelance writing partnership. Their first play, Laugh, God! was published in 1939 but they didn’t form an official partnership until 1942, at the beginning of their tours of duty in the U.S. Army.
In 1942, Lee and Lawrence enlisted in the Army following America’s entry into World War II. Over the two years that followed, they worked as part of a group that established the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS), where they produced patriotic Army and Navy programs for D-Day, VE-Day and VJ-Day. At the height of the World War II in 1945, there were about three hundred radio stations under the AFRS. Lawrence also served as an AFRS correspondent in North Africa and Italy, was promoted to staff sergeant, and earned a battle star from the secretary of war.
By the time they both completed their term of service in 1945, Lawrence and Lee had already published their second collaboration, Inside a Kid’s Head. They also continued to write and produce radio programs for CBS, including the series “Columbia Workshop.” Lee received a Peabody Award for a UN radio series he wrote and produced in 1948. That same year, Lee and Lawrence wrote their first Broadway show, “Look Ma, I’m Dancin’!” which opened at the Adelphi Theatre. But, their careers as playwrights reached new heights in 1955 with the production of their second play, Inherit the Wind.
Lawrence’s agent, Harold Freedman, had been shopping the play around for nearly a year when Dallas producer Margo Jones agreed to give it a try-out in Texas. The play opened at Theatre ’55 on January 10, 1955. Its success in Dallas lead to the play’s opening at the National Theatre in New York on April 21, 1955.
Inherit the Wind is a fictionalized account of the famous “Monkey Trial,” in which a young school teacher named Scopes was tried in the 1920s for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. Drawing from actual people involved in the experience, including prosecutor William Jennings Bryan, Lawrence and Lee brought to the stage what a Newsweek reviewer called “one of the best serious dramas to hit Broadway and one of the best rounded.” Inherit the Wind enjoyed a three-year run of 805 performances on Broadway, and has since been translated into 35 languages.
Inherit the Wind earned Lawrence and Lee a number of awards the first year after its Broadway run, including the Donaldson Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award and The Variety New York Drama Critics Poll Award. It also was nominated for a Tony® Award.
Lawrence and Lee’s next success was Auntie Mame, which opened in New York in 1956. The play and its musical adaptation, Mame, are quite different from Inherit the Wind. Lighter and less intent on social comment, Auntie Mame and Mame were among the longest running productions in Broadway history, lasting 639 and 1,508 performances respectively.
Another of Lawrence and Lee’s best-known plays, popular with community, university and little theaters, is The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. The play examines individual freedom by telling the story of Thoreau’s imprisonment for “moral” tax evasion; Thoreau refuses to pay taxes to support a U.S. war against Mexico. The authors purposely kept the play away from Broadway as a form of protest against the status quo and the Viet Nam war. The play premiered in 1970 at The Ohio State University as the Centennial Play for the American Playwrights Theatre. Since then, the play has been performed more than 2,500 times, making it the most widely produced play of our time.
Throughout their careers, Lawrence and Lee continued to write and produce radio programs for CBS. They co-wrote radio plays including The Unexpected (1951), Song of Norway (1957), Shangri-La (1960), a radio version of Inherit the Wind (1965), and Lincoln the Unwilling Warrior (1974).
The number of film adaptations of Lee’s and Lawrence’s plays attests to their widespread popularity. As writers, they were involved in adapting Auntie Mame, Inherit the Wind, and Mame for the screen. The films premiered in 1958, 1960, and 1974, respectively. Inherit the Wind has since been remade twice as a television movie.
Like his mother before him, Lee was an educator. He became an adjunct professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1967, where he taught aspiring actors, playwrights, and screenwriters and served on the Executive Writers Committee of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences until 1987. As a professor, Lee taught that the role of a theater artist is to explore political, psychological, and philosophical issues through drama; and that the resulting product should then enlighten audiences while also entertaining them.
In 1990, Lee was named to the American Theater Hall of Fame. That same year, his final collaboration with Lawrence, Whisper in the Mind, was produced at Arizona State University.
Lawrence suffered a great tragedy in 1993 when firestorms blazed through California, leveling his Malibu home. Many signed first edition books by friends such as Tennessee Williams, Henry Miller, Dorothy Parker and Somerset Maugham were lost, as were original art works by Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, and Roy Lichtenstein.
On July 8, 1994, Lee died of cancer in Los Angeles. He was survived by his wife of 46 years, Janet, his daughter Lucy and son Jonathan. Lawrence never married, and had no children. He died in 2004 of complications following a stroke at his home in Malibu at the age of 88.