Adviser and confident to Hollywood stars
EDWARD BREWSTER SHELDON, variously described as “America’s first great playwright” and “Broadway’s Wonder Boy”, was a noted dramatist in the first half of the 20th century who achieved great success and wealth despite succumbing to a severely crippling illness, possibly ankylosing spondylitis, at the age of just 29.
Born into a Chicago family of railroad millionaires and real-estate barons on 4 February 1886, his major works included Salvation Nell and Romance, which was later made into a motion picture with Greta Garbo.
In his 20s, as the author of a string of Broadway successes, he was a restless world traveler and dashing social figure, according to an article by Elliott Sirkin in the Harvard Magazine in 2001.
“When he died, some 30 years later, this playwright, once the image of precocious brilliance, had been too hideously crippled for too many years to hold a manuscript in his hands. He could not even turn his head, and it had been years since he could see a stage – or anything else,” wrote Sirkin.
“But,” asserts Sirkin, “it was in those years of blind paralysis that Edward Sheldon contributed most vitally to the art form he cherished.
“In Vatican-like splendour, he dispensed serene strength, as well as uncanny advice, to colleagues stunned by his patient endurance. Lillian Gish first referred to him as ‘the pope of the theatre’, and for a generation of theatre artists whose work he could not see, his word had holy authority.”
Many of his works made it on to the silver screen; Three versions of Salvation Nell, written for the stage in 1908, were made, in 1915, 1921 and 1931.
His controversial melodrama, The Nigger, explored the relationship between blacks and whites in a political setting. The play was first performed on Broadway, New York, at the New Theatre on December 4, 1909. It became a 1915 motion picture, with its title becoming The New Governor in some markets.
His plays, The Boss (1911) and The High Road (1912) both became silent movies in 1915.
One of his most successful works, Romance, ran for 1,049 stage performances in London before United Artists took it to the cinema screen in 1920.
Romance was critically acclaimed, with one critic, writing: “Mr. Sheldon has here, it seems to us, come nearer to consistent, plausible, and really human characterisation than in any work he has so far written… They are real people, humanly felt, and they behave according to their natures…Certainly the main story has coherence, charm, force and a real touch of romantic glamour.”
Sheldon’s biographer, Eric Wollencott Barnes, claimed in The Man Who Lived Twice, published in 1956, that the dramatist was in love all his adult life with the actress Doris Keane, who starred in both the stage and film versions of Romance.
The dawning of the age of ‘talkies’ prompted a remake of Romance in 1930, with Greta Garbo in the lead role. It was a huge box office success, with takings totalling over $1.25million.
Then in 1948, two years after Sheldon’s death on 1 April 1946, a third version of Romance, this time as a musical, was produced in New York, with music by Sigmund Romberg and a book and lyrics by Rowland Leigh.
The enduring nature of Sheldon’s work is further demonstrated by his 1914 play, The Song of Songs, a dramatisation of the novel by Hermann Sudermann It was subsequently made into the motion pictures The Song of Songs (1918), Lily of the Dust (1924), and The Song of Songs (1933) again, starring Marlene Dietrich.
The play Dishonoured Lady, penned in 1930, was made into the 1947 motion picture of the same name, starring Hedy Lamarr.
His other works included:
- The Garden of Paradise (1914), adapted from The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen
- The Jest (1919), adapted from an Italian work by Sem Benelli
- The Czarina (1922), adapted from a Hungarian play and made into the 1924 silent film Forbidden Paradise.
- Bewitched (1924)
- Lulu Belle (1926), made into the 1948 motion picture of the same name, starring Dorothy Lamour and George Montgomery
- Jenny (1929)
Holding court from a hospital bed
Known to his friends as Ned, he was highly regarded by his peers and despite his debilitating health issues, he was said by Barnes to be “a great source of emotional and creative support for his many friends, including many luminaries of the literary and theatrical world such as Minnie Maddern Fiske, for whom he wrote Salvation Nell, Julia Marlowe, John Barrymore, Thornton Wilder, Alexander Woollcott, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Ruth Gordon, Helen Hayes and many others”.
He often held court from his hospital bed yet his advice was perceived by those in the theatrical profession to be gospel, said Barnes
John Barrymore was regarded by many as the finest actor of his generation, but his personal life was, to put it milldly, in turmoil.
He struggled with alcohol abuse from the age of 14, was married and divorced four times, and declared bankruptcy later in life. Much of his later work involved self-parody and the portrayal of drunken has-beens. His obituary in The Washington Post observed that “with the passing of the years – and as his private life became more public – he became, despite his genius in the theater, a tabloid character.”
Edward Sheldon became for a time his great confidant and was credited with helping to “reshape” Barrymore’s entire career following the critical and commercial failure of two plays in which starred in 1911.
In January 1912, Barrymore appeared with his sister Ethel in A Slice of Life on Broadway, which ran for 48 performances. He was back on track and from then on his career was on an upward trajectory.
At Sheldon’s urging, he turned from light comedy roles towards more dramatic parts. A few months before the outbreak of the First World War, Barrymore and Sheldon holidayed together in Italy, the actor seeking a temporary escape from a worsening marriage.
By April 1916 Barrymore was back on Broadway in John Galsworthy’s prison drama, Justice, again at the instigation of Sheldon. The play was a critical success, and The New York Times thought the audience saw “Barrymore play as he had never played before.”
The critic went on to say that Barrymore gave “an extraordinary performance in every detail of appearance and manner, in every note of deep feeling … a superb performance.”
Sheldon briefly flirted with death when in May 1915 he pulled out at the last minute from taking passage on the Lusitania’s ill-fated last voyage. He had been asked by theatre impresario Charles Frohman to accompany him to England, but a Harvard classmate of Sheldon’s was getting married on May 11 and asked Sheldon to be best man. Thus Sheldon declined Frohman’s offer.
in 1936 a lawsuit against Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for copyright infringement claimed that the script MGM used for the 1932 motion picture Letty Lynton plagiarised material from the play Dishonoured Lady by Sheldon and Margaret Ayer Barnes. The film remains unavailable today because of the lawsuit.
You can read Elliott Sirkin’s Harvard Magazine article in full at: http://harvardmagazine.com/2001/03/edward-sheldon.html
Sheldon’s full filmography can be found at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0791017/