Jerome Lawrence

Playwright co-author of 'Mame' and other hits
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The Independent Online

Jerome Lawrence, playwright: born Cleveland, Ohio 14 July 1915; died Malibu, California 29 February 2004.

Jerome Lawrence, with his collaborator Robert E. Lee, wrote some of the biggest theatrical hits of the last 50 years, notably the play Inherit the Wind, the comedy Auntie Mame and its later musical version, Mame.

Inherit the Wind (1955) was a powerful dramatisation (with names changed) of the trial of a Tennessee schoolteacher, John T. Scopes, who was arrested for teaching Darwin's theory of evolution. The case became known as "the monkey trial", since the central issue was the theory that mankind evolved from primates. Scopes's defence lawyer was Clarence Darrow, the most famous criminal lawyer in the United States, and attorney for the prosecution was William Jennings Bryan, three times a Democratic presidential candidate. The play, a strong defence of independent thought, ran for three years on Broadway, has been translated into more than 30 languages and became a film starring Spencer Tracy and Fredric March.

Some years later the authors returned to a similar theme with The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, about Thoreau's act of civil disobedience in refusing to pay taxes to support a war in Mexico. Produced during the era of the Vietnam War, it was premiered at Ohio State University in 1970. Although the authors deliberately avoided Broadway, it had over 75 productions during that year in regional theatres and college campuses, due to American Playwrights Theatre, a network that Lawrence and Lee helped found in 1963. It has since been a staple of amateur and college groups, and Lawrence stated that the play was probably the most performed in America despite its lack of Broadway exposure.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1915 to a literary family - his father ran a printing business and his mother was a poet - Lawrence was educated at Glenville High School, Ohio State University and UCLA. After writing for local newspapers, he contributed stories to the Saturday Evening Post which led to his being signed as a staff writer for CBS radio. He met Robert E. Lee, who was working in advertising, in 1942.

The pair began their first collaboration, a radio play titled Inside a Kid's Head, over lunch in Manhattan. Joining the Army the same year, they were co-founders of the Armed Forces Radio Service, and both wrote and directed the official army-navy programmes for D-Day, VE Day and VJ Day. When they left the army in 1945, they became prolific writers for radio, one of their top shows being Favorite Story (1946-54), with Ronald Colman as host to a series of celebrities who chose their favourite book or play, which was then presented in an adaptation by Lawrence and Lee.

From 1948 to 1954 they wrote for the highly successful series The Railroad Hour, which starred Gordon MacRae with guest leading ladies in adaptations of stage musicals and operettas. Their scripts were superb models of condensation - despite its title, from 1949 the show was actually only 30 minutes long with commercials - featuring half a dozen songs and a dramatised storyline in the brief time. Lawrence and Lee occasionally provided original scripts for musical biographies, or stories by Mark Twain and others, and the classy but popular show is regarded as one of the finest of American radio's golden age. Among the team's other shows was the situation comedy Young Love (1950), starring Lee's wife, Janet Waldo.

The first Broadway show by Lawrence and Lee was a musical, Look Ma, I'm Dancin'! (1948). A satire on the world of ballet, it was conceived by Jerome Robbins, who began writing the libretto with Arthur Laurents, but when Laurents had to withdraw for other commitments, Robbins turned his ideas over to Lawrence and Lee. The show's stars, Nancy Walker and Harold Lang, received greater praise than the score (by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane) or Lawrence and Lee's book, which was described by the critic Howard Barnes as "less of a satire than a series of gags fed to leading comedians between tunes".

The team's next show on Broadway, Inherit the Wind, was initially turned down by every major New York producer. It was then read by Margo Jones, who ran a theatre-in-the-round in Dallas and presented only new plays. Her production of the show in January 1955 was a great hit, and in April the play opened on Broadway, directed by Herman Shumlin and starring Paul Muni as Henry Drummond, the Darrow-like crusader for the underdog. The opening night was greeted with cheers and cries for the author. Muni, not noted for giving curtain speeches, made an exception and, after quietening the audience, he said one short sentence: "I did the play because I love the words." Critics agreed, finding the play engrossing, literate and witty.

Film rights were acquired by the producer Stanley Kramer, who later wrote,

I suppose I could have chosen another title and ignored the stage play, since our main source for the screenplay was the trial transcript, but I so admired the Lawrence and Lee script I thought it was only fair to give them their due.

Spencer Tracy played the Darrow character with Fredric March co-starring as Bryan (played on Broadway by Ed Begley).

Lawrence and Lee had another big hit with Auntie Mame (1956), adapted from Patrick Dennis's novel about a madcap lady whose philosophy is that "life's a banquet and most poor sons-of-bitches are starving to death". Starring Rosalind Russell, it ran for over 600 performances, and a London production starred Beatrice Lillie. Ten years later it was adapted by its authors into a musical, Mame, which had songs by Jerry Herman, starred Angela Lansbury and ran for over 1,500 performances. A production at Drury Lane was also a hit, starring Ginger Rogers, but a film version starring Lucille Ball was less successful.

A subsequent collaboration with Herman and Lansbury, a musical entitled Dear World and based on The Madwoman of Chaillot, evinced a less shrewd choice of material and was not a success. Neither was a musical version of Lost Horizon entitled Shangri-La (1956), for which Lawrence and Lee wrote book and lyrics.

In total, the pair wrote 39 plays, 12 of them reaching Broadway. Among their later shows was Jabberwock, based on the writings of James Thurber and staged in Dallas in 1972, and First Monday in October (1975), a political drama starring Henry Fonda. They worked together until Lee's death in 1994. Their last collaboration was Whispers in the Mind, a play about an imaginary meeting between Benjamin Franklin and the 18th-century hypnotist Frank Anton Mesmer. In 1974 Lawrence wrote a book, Actor: the life and times of Paul Muni, which is acknowledged as a prime example of theatrical biography.

Lawrence was devastated a few years ago when a fire in Malibu totally destroyed his house and virtually all his belongings, including priceless memorabilia. Though friends rallied around and helped replace much of the lost material, it had a shattering effect. His friend the journalist Clive Hirschhorn said, "Jerry was such a bright and lively personality, a witty raconteur who loved celebrity and show business and was always fun to be with, but he was never quite the same after the fire."

The recipient of countless honours over the years, Lawrence was three times the winner of the Peabody Award for radio work, won the Donaldson Award and Variety Critics' Poll Award for theatrical achievements, and in 1963 received an honorary doctorate from Ohio State University. He also contributed material to an extensive Lawrence and Lee collection at the university's library and Museum of the Performing Arts. His longtime companion was Will Willoughby.

Tom Vallance