Stephen Longstreet

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Stephen Longstreet, writer, artist and screenwriter: born New York 18 April 1907; married 1935 Ethel Godoff (died 1999; one son, one daughter); died Los Angeles 20 February 2002.

Not only did Stephen Longstreet write more than 100 books and a dozen films, he sketched and painted such 20th-century jazz greats as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Count Basie.

Although born in New York City, Longstreet grew up in prosaic New Brunswick, New Jersey. He decided at an early age to become an artist, and, in the late 1920s studied at the School of Fine and Applied Arts in New York. Continuing his training in Paris, he sketched Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and various black jazzmen who had left their native United States, "escaping from Judge Lynch and the back of the bus". Returning to his homeland in 1930, he travelled to New Orleans, where he sketched more African-American jazzmen, hoping "to capture, with black marks on white paper, this music created by these people, and set down what they looked like, felt and did before they were gone".

Forced by the Depression to find a second string, he turned to writing. In the mid-1930s he wrote many detective novels under pen names. He also reviewed books and films, wrote radio scripts, and such novels as The Flesh Peddlers and The Pedlocks. In 1942 he was signed by Warner Bros, whose contract writers included Dalton Trumbo, John Huston, James Hilton and the silent, forbidding William Faulkner. Longstreet told Tom Dardis for his book Some Time in the Sun (1976),

I was part of a car pool that picked Faulkner up every day outside his hotel, and he rode every day with four or five movie writers who were too scared to talk to him. It was at the end of one of these rides that one of the screenwriters said to me, "He must like you, Steve. He said "Good morning" to you.

Longstreet's first film for Warners was the Barbara Stanwyck potboiler The Gay Sisters (1942), which he adapted from his own novel with the help of the experienced Lenore Coffee. Despite his time in Paris, his work on The Impostor (1944), in which Jean Gabin played a murderer masquerading as a Free French hero, lacked conviction. In The Nation, James Agee wrote that the film "sadly proves just how nearly possible it is to make a French film in Hollywood, or anywhere else except France".

Nineteen forty-six saw the publication of The Sisters Liked Them Handsome, Longstreet's nostalgic novel about his family and their life in New Brunswick before the First World War. The composer Jule Styne, who lived across the street in Elm Drive, Beverly Hills, read his neighbour's book and decided there was a Broadway musical in it. Longstreet agreed, and wrote the libretto of the show, with Sammy Cahn providing the lyrics. Called High Button Shoes, the musical ran for 727 performances. Although its libretto had been almost completely rewritten by George Abbott and Phil Silvers, who, respectively, directed and starred, Longstreet refused to take a cut in royalties. Silvers told him, "Careful, Steve – or I'll play the show exactly as you wrote it."

For years the newspaper columnist Sidney Skolsky had been peddling a biopic of Al Jolson around the studios, but the only mogul interested was Harry Cohn, chief of Columbia Pictures. The wise guys who dubbed the project "Cohn's Folly" were dumbfounded when The Jolson Story (1946) grossed over $7.5m. The screenplay, fashioned by Longstreet, Harry Chandler, Andrew Salt and Sidney Buchman, was nothing if not fanciful. The man who dubbed himself "The World's Greatest Entertainer" was humanised almost beyond recognition. Because his embittered third ex-wife Ruby Keeler refused to have her name used in the film, she was fictitiously christened "Julie Benson". His first and second wives were excised completely, as was Harry Jolson, the Mammy Singer's older brother and first vaudeville partner.

Meanwhile, back at Warner Bros, Ronald Reagan, a keen horseman, was urging the studio to cast him in a western. In 1947 Longstreet adapted his own novel Stallion Road for Reagan, with Faulkner's uncredited help. Reagan later wrote:

I was excited, because I was going to co-star with Humphrey Bogart in Stallion Road, a Technicolor film about horses. It wasn't exactly a western, as I played a veterinary surgeon, but it did have horses! A week before shooting began, Bogart dropped out and was replaced by Zachary Scott. Warners decided to shoot the picture in black-and-white. I was back doing "B" movies.

The Errol Flynn vehicle Silver River (1948), scripted by Harriet Frank Jnr and Longstreet from the latter's novel, was a western, but an undistinguished one. So was The First Travelling Saleslady (1956), in which Ginger Rogers and Carol Channing sold girdles to the women of the plains. Apart from the incongruity of Channing's winding up in the arms of a very young Clint Eastwood, this alleged comedy is hardly worth remembering.

"Helen, you're only five feet high; you can't hide in a one-foot bottle!" was a friend's warning to Ann Blyth in The Helen Morgan Story (1957). Released in Britain as Both Ends of the Candle, the biopic, written by Longstreet and three other writers, was no more factual than The Jolson Story, although infinitely less successful. Apart from her appearance as the tragic Julie in the original production of Show Boat, the alcoholic Morgan's stage career was hardly mentioned, and her screen career (eight films) erased entirely. Instead, she suffered for nine reels at the hands of "Larry Maddox" (Paul Newman), a fictitious manager/boyfriend/crook, and was mostly seen singing torch songs (courtesy of the voice dubber Gogi Grant) in night-clubs.

In the 1960s Longstreet turned from films to writing for television and the printed page. In 1989 he wrote and illustrated the highly acclaimed Jazz from A to Z: a graphic dictionary. It was his hundredth book.

Dick Vosburgh