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James Maxwell Anderson (15 December 1888 – 28 February 1959) was an American playwright, author, poet, journalist and lyricist. He was a founding member of The Playwrights Company.


Early years

Anderson was born in Atlantic, Pennsylvaniamarker, the second child of William Lincoln Anderson, a Baptist minister, and Charlotte Perrimela Stephenson. His family initially lived on his maternal grandmother's farm in Atlantic, then moved to Andover, Ohiomarker, where his father became a railroad fireman while studying to become a minister. They moved to Jamestown, North Dakotamarker 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 Forksmarker 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 Dakotamarker, also teaching English there, but he was fired from this job in 1913 because he had made pacifist statements to his students. He then entered Stanford Universitymarker, obtaining an M.A. in English Literature in 1914. He became a high school English teacher in San Franciscomarker: 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 a student seeking status as a conscientious objector.


Anderson became a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Bulletin, then moved to New Yorkmarker, where he wrote editorials for The New Republic, The New York Globe, and the New York World.

In 1921, he founded Measure, 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 Citymarker. Afterwords he resigned from the World, launching his career as a dramatist.

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. 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. 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.

Anderson was, above all, a strong believer in the dignity of man (although humanism might be too strong of a word), and many of his plays focus on the concepts of liberty and justice. He chose to write in solitude, preferring to write longhand in a wire-bound notebook, and refused to attend the opening night of his plays.

He enjoyed great commercial success with a series of plays set during the reign of the Tudor family, who ruled Englandmarker, Walesmarker and Irelandmarker from 1485 until 1603. One play in particular - Anne of the Thousand Days — the story of Henry VIII's brutal marriage to Anne Boleyn — was a hit on the stage in 1948, but did not reach movie screens for twenty-one years, perhaps due to censorship (there is much use of the word "bastards" in the play, and frank discussion of sexual relationships). 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 for her costume designs, but in a year that the costume drama might have been seen as old-fashioned, that was the only Oscar out of several nominations that the film actually won.) The play is still occasionally performed today. 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 Hollywood pin-up, Errol Flynn. Still another of his plays involving Elizabeth I, Mary of Scotland (1936), was turned into a film, albeit an unsuccessful one, in 1936, 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 Broadwaymarker starring Helen Hayes in the title role.

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.

His popular 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.

Anderson also adapted the William March novel The Bad Seed into a play, one of his last to reach Broadwaymarker. 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 Listen, Darkling.

Personal life

Anderson married Margaret Haskett, a fellow classmate, on 1 August 1911 in Bottineau, North Dakotamarker. They had three sons, Quentin, Alan, and Terence. Margaret died of cancer on 22 February 1931. Anderson then resided with Gertrude "Mab" Higger starting in about October 1933. A daughter, Hesper, was born 2 August 1934. Gertrude ("Mab") committed suicide on 21 March 1953. Her daughter Hesper (who was screenwriter for the movie Children of a Lesser God), 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 did marry once more, to Gilda Hazard, on 6 June 1954.

Maxwell Anderson died in Stamford, Connecticutmarker, on 28 February 1959, two days after suffering a stroke.

Stage productions



  • "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 - poetry 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


External links

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