Maxwell Anderson

Maxwell Anderson
Maxwell Anderson
Born James Maxwell Anderson
15 December 1888(1888-12-15)
Atlantic, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Died 28 February 1959(1959-02-28) (aged 70)
Stamford, Connecticut, U.S.
Pen name John Nairne Michaelson
Occupation Playwright
Alma mater University of North Dakota
Stanford University
Spouse Margaret Haskett (1911-1931†)
Gertrude Higger (1933-1953†)
Gilda Hazard (1954-1959)
Magnum opus Both Your Houses
Awards Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1933)

James Maxwell Anderson (15 December 1888 – 28 February 1959) was an American playwright, author, poet, journalist and lyricist.



Early years

Anderson was born in Atlantic, Pennsylvania, the second of eight children to William Lincoln "Link" Anderson, a Baptist minister, and Charlotte Perrimela Stephenson, both of Scots and Irish descent. His family initially lived on his maternal grandmother Sheperd's farm in Atlantic, then moved to Andover, Ohio, where his father became a railroad fireman while studying to become a minister. They moved often, to follow their father's ministerial posts, and Maxwell was frequently sick, missing a great deal of school. He used his time sick in bed to read voraciously, and both his parents and Aunt Emma were storytellers, which contributed to Anderson's love of literature.

During a visit to his grandmother's house in Atlantic, at age 11, he met the first love of his life, Hallie Loomis, a slightly older girl from a wealthier family. His autobiographical tale, Morning, Winter and Night told of rape, incest and sadomasochism on the farm.[1] It was published under a pseudonym, John Nairne Michealson, to prevent offending family. The Andersons bounced between Andover, Ohio, Richmond Center, Ohio, Townville, Pa., Edinboro, Pa., McKeesport, Pa., New Brighton, Pa., Harrisburg, Pa., to Jamestown, North Dakota in 1907, where Anderson attended Jamestown High School, graduating in 1908.


As an undergraduate, he waited tables and worked at the night copy desk of the Grand Forks Herald, and was active in the school's literary and dramatic societies. He obtained a B.A. in English Literature from the University of North Dakota in 1911. He became the principal of a high school in Minnewaukan, North Dakota, also teaching English there, but was fired in 1913 for making pacifist statements to his students. He then entered Stanford University, obtaining an M.A. in English Literature in 1914. He became a high school English teacher in San Francisco: after three years he became chairman of the English department at Whittier College in 1917. He was fired after a year for public statements supporting Arthur Camp, a jailed student seeking status as a conscientious objector.

Anderson moved to Palo Alto to write for the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, but was fired for writing an editorial stating that it would be impossible for Germany to pay off their war debt. So he moved to San Francisco to write for the San Francisco Chronicle, but was fired after contracting the Spanish Flu and missing work. Alvin Johnson hired Anderson to move to New York and write about politics for The New Republic in 1918, but he was fired for winning an argument with Editor-in-Chief Herbert David Croly.

Anderson found work atThe New York Globe, and the New York World. In 1921, he founded The Measure: A Journal of Poetry, a magazine devoted to verse. He wrote his first play, White Desert, in 1923, which ran only twelve performances, but was well-reviewed by the book reviewer for the New York World, Laurence Stallings, who collaborated with him on his next play, What Price Glory?, which was successfully produced in 1924 in New York City. Afterwards he resigned from the World, launching his career as a dramatist.[2]


His plays are in widely varying styles, and Anderson was one of the few modern playwrights to make extensive use of blank verse. Some of these were adapted as movies, and Anderson wrote the screenplays of other authors' plays and novels — Death Takes a Holiday, All Quiet on the Western Front — in addition to books of poetry and essays. His first Broadway hit was the gritty 1924 WW I comedy-drama, What Price Glory, written with Laurence Stallings. The play was notable for its use of profanity, which caused censors to protest. But when the chief censor (Rear Admiral Charles P. Plunkett) was found to have written far more obscene letters to General Chamberlaine, he was discredited. Soldiers really did speak that way.[3]

The only one of his plays that he himself adapted to the screen was Joan of Lorraine, which became the film Joan of Arc (1948) starring Ingrid Bergman, with a screenplay by Anderson and Andrew Solt. When Bergman and her director changed much of his dialogue to make Joan "a plaster saint" he called her a "big, dumb, goddamn Swede!" Anderson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1933 for his political drama Both Your Houses, and twice received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, for Winterset, and High Tor.

He enjoyed great commercial success with a series of plays set during the reign of the Tudor family, who ruled England, Wales and Ireland from 1485 until 1603. One play in particular - Anne of the Thousand Days — the story of Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn — was a hit on the stage in 1948, but did not reach movie screens for 21 years. It opened on Broadway starring Rex Harrison and Joyce Redman, and, in 1969 became an Oscar-winning movie with Richard Burton and Geneviève Bujold. Margaret Furse won an Oscar for the film's costume designs.

Another of his Tudor plays, Elizabeth the Queen, was adapted as The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), starring the legendary actress Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. Still another of his plays involving Elizabeth I, Mary of Scotland (1936), was turned into a 1936 film, starring Katharine Hepburn as Mary, Queen of Scots, Fredric March as the Earl of Bothwell, and Florence Eldridge as Elizabeth. The play had been a hit on Broadway starring Helen Hayes in the title role.

His play, Wingless Victory, was written in verse and premiered in 1936 with actress Katharine Cornell in the lead role. It received mixed reviews.[4]

Adaptations and awards

Honorary awards include the Gold Medal in Drama from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1954, an honorary Doctor of Literature degree from Columbia University in 1946, and an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from the University of North Dakota in 1958.

Two of Anderson's other historical plays, Valley Forge, about George Washington's winter there with the Continental Army), and Barefoot in Athens, concerning the trial of Socrates, were adapted for television. Valley Forge was adapted for television on three occasions — in 1950, 1951 and 1975. Anderson wrote book and lyrics for two successful musicals with composer Kurt Weill. Knickerbocker Holiday, about the early Dutch settlers of New York, featured Walter Huston as Peter Stuyvesant. The show's standout number, September Song, became a popular standard. So did the title song of Anderson and Weill's Lost In The Stars, a story of South Africa based on the Alan Paton novel Cry, The Beloved Country.

Anderson's long-running 1927 comedy-drama about married life, Saturday's Children, in which Humphrey Bogart made an early appearance, was filmed three times - in 1929 as a part-talkie, in 1935 (in almost unrecognizable form) as a B-film Maybe It's Love and once again in 1940 under its original title, starring John Garfield in one of his few romantic comedies, along with Anne Shirley and Claude Rains. The play was also adapted for television in three condensed versions in 1950, 1952 and 1962.[5]

Anderson also adapted the William March novel The Bad Seed into his last successful Broadway stage play. He was hired by Alfred Hitchcock to write the screenplay for Hitchcock's The Wrong Man (1957). Hitchcock also contracted with Anderson to write the screenplay for what became Vertigo (1958), but Hitchcock rejected his screenplay Darkling, I Listen.[6]

Personal life

Anderson married Margaret Haskett, a fellow classmate, on August 1, 1911 in Bottineau, North Dakota. They had three sons, Quentin, Alan, and Terence. Anderson then wrote a prophetic play, "Saturday's Children," about a vain, neurotic liar who cheats on her husband. When he catches her, she commits suicide by inhaling gas.[7]

Anderson then began a relationship with a married woman, Gertrude Higger (married name, Mab Maynard, stage name Mab Anthony) starting circa 1930. Anderson split with Haskett, who then died shortly after a car accident and a stroke in 1931. Mab divorced her husband, singer Charles V. Maynard, and moved in with Anderson. She was a significant help with clerical duties, but had expensive tastes and spent Anderson's money freely. Their daughter, Hesper, was born August, 1934. Anderson had left Higger[8] because of her affair with Max's friend, TV producer Jerry Stagg. The combination of losing Anderson, their massive tax debt and losing her home was too much for her. After several unsuccessful attempts, Gertrude committed suicide by breathing car exhaust on March 21, 1953.

Hesper wrote a book, South Mountain Road: A Daughter's Journey of Discovery about her unearthing, only after the suicide, the fact that her parents had never married. Maxwell Anderson married once more, to ABC's TV Celanese Theater Production Assistant, Gilda Hazard, on June 6, 1954.[9] This final marriage was a happy one, lasting until Anderson's 1959 death.


Maxwell Anderson died in Stamford, Connecticut, on February 28, 1959, two days after suffering a stroke. He was 70 years old. He is buried in Anderson Cemetery near his birthplace in rural northwestern Pennsylvania. The inscription on his tombstone reads:

Children of dust astray among the stars

Children of earth adrift upon the night

What is there in our darkness or our light

To linger in prose or claim a singing breath

Save the curt history of life isled in death

Stage productions

  • White Desert - 1923
  • What Price Glory - 1924 - a war drama
  • First Flight - 1925 - (with Laurence Stallings)
  • Outside Looking In (play) - 1925
  • Saturday's Children - 1927
  • Gods of the Lightning - 1929 (with Harold Hickerson)
  • Gypsy - 1928 -
  • Elizabeth the Queen - 1930 - a historical drama in blank verse
  • Night Over Taos - 1932
  • Both Your Houses - 1933—Pulitzer Prize for Drama
  • Mary of Scotland - 1933 - a historical drama in blank verse
  • Valley Forge - 1934
  • Winterset - 1935 - New York Drama Critics Circle Award
  • The Masque of Kings - 1936
  • The Wingless Victory - 1936
  • Star-Wagon - 1937
  • High Tor - 1937 New York Drama Critics Circle Award
  • The Feast of Ortolans - 1937 - one-act play
  • Knickerbocker Holiday - 1938 - book and lyrics
  • Second Overture - 1938 - one-act play
  • Key Largo - 1939
  • Journey to Jerusalem - 1940
  • Candle in the Wind - 1941
  • The Miracle of the Danube - 1941 - one-act play
  • The Eve of St. Mark - 1942
  • Your Navy - 1942 - one-act play
  • Storm Operation - 1944
  • Letter to Jackie - 1944 - one-act play
  • Truckline Café - 1946
  • Joan of Lorraine (partially written in blank verse) - 1946
  • Anne of the Thousand Days - 1948 - a historical drama in blank verse
  • Lost in the Stars - 1949 - book and lyrics
  • Barefoot in Athens - 1951
  • The Bad Seed - 1954
  • High Tor - 1956 (TV score)
  • The Day the Money Stopped - 1958 - (with Brendan Gill)
  • The Golden Six - 1958



  • September Song (from Knickerbocker Holiday), by far his most famous song lyric
  • Lost in the Stars (from Lost in the Stars)
  • Cry, The Beloved Country (from Lost in the Stars)
  • When You're in Love
  • There's Nowhere to Go but Up
  • It Never Was You
  • Stay Well
  • Trouble Man (from Lost in the Stars)
  • Thousands of Miles


  • You Who Have Dreams - 1925 - a book of poetry
  • The Essence of Tragedy and Other Footnotes and Papers - 1939 - essays
  • Off Broadway Essays About the Theatre - 1947 - essays
  • Notes on a Dream - 1972 - poetry


  1. ^ Morning, Winter and Night
  2. ^ Shivers, Alfred (1983). The Life of Maxwell Anderson. New York: Stein and Day. pp. 61–63. ISBN 0-8128-2789-9. 
  3. ^ Shivers, Alfred. The Life of Maxwell Anderson. ISBN 0-8128-2789-9. 
  4. ^ Tad Mosel, "Leading Lady: The World and Theatre of Katharine Cornell", Little, Brown & Co., Boston (1978)
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ The Life of Maxwell Anderson by Alfred S. Shivers, Ph.D. published by Stein and Day, New York, 1983. ISBN 0-8128-2789-9
  8. ^ The Life of Maxwell Anderson by Alfred S. Shivers, Ph.D. published by Stein and Day, New York, 1983. ISBN 0-8128-2789-9
  9. ^

External links

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