Jerome Lawrence was born on July 14, 1915, in Cleveland, Ohio. He has said that there was never a time when he didn't want to be a writer. An affinity for language was certainly in his blood. His father, Samuel Schwartz, was a printer, and his mother, Sarah Rogen Schwartz, was an unpublished poet.
Playwriting, though, was Lawrence's particular passion. During his high school and college years, he said, he "literally read every published play in the Cleveland and Ohio State libraries," from Greek drama to the current comedies playing on Broadway. His commitment to writing plays never wavered, but after graduating from Ohio State in 1937, he worked for a short time as a reporter for the Wilmington News Journal and then as an editor for the New Lexington Daily News. Those experiences, he says, supplied him "with masses of material for the writing years that followed."
Later in 1937 Lawrence moved to California and worked as an editor for KMPC, a radio station in Beverly Hills. In 1939 he began graduate studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and that same year he obtained a position writing for the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in Los Angeles and New York. He finally moved to New York in 1942, where he met Robert E. Lee, who was at the time working in advertising. They began a writing partnership that lasted for five decades, until Lee's death in 1994. Lawrence died 10 years later, on February 29, 2004.
Robert E. Lee
Born on October 15, 1918, Robert Edwin Lee grew up in the small town of Elyria, Ohio. His father, Claire Melvin Lee, was an engineer, and his mother, Elvira Taft Lee, was a teacher.
Unlike his partner, Lee did not originally intend to make writing his career. Early on he was determined to be an astronomer and attended Ohio Wesleyan University, which, in conjunction with Ohio State University, operated a giant telescope at the Perkins Observatory. But Lee was also interested in communications, and he became involved in broadcasting, eventually working at a radio station.
As his interest in communications grew, Lee began to "get the feeling that ... communicating with the stars and planets was pretty much a one-way street," and he shifted his focus entirely to his second passion. He studied at Western Reserve University and Drake University in the late 1930s and then moved to New York to join an advertising firm. It was there he met Jerome Lawrence and began a partnership that lasted until his death on July 8, 1994.
A Promising Beginning
Lawrence and Lee met in New York in 1942, when Lawrence was at CBS and Lee was working as a director of radio ads at an advertising firm. The two had never met before, despite both being raised and educated in Ohio, only 30 miles apart. Their bond, however, was immediate and unmistakable. Over lunch a week later, they began their first collaboration, a radio play called "Inside a Kid's Head" that became wildly popular. After that initial success, Lawrence and Lee continued to write for radio. This experience, they said, taught them "to write for the ear" because radio plays were "a tapestry of words, music, sound" and depended on words to fire the imagination. They believed that learning this was what later enabled them to write so successfully for the stage.
The writing partnership was suspended briefly when both men joined the army in 1942, but during that time they cofounded the Armed Forces Radio Service. The two men created many different programs while working with the AFRS. These included comedies, dramas, and informational programs. When they returned home after the war, their collaboration resumed in earnest. Their combined talents enabled them to write plays of all types: radio plays, dramas, musicals, screenplays, and TV scripts as well as stories and articles for everything from magazines to textbooks.
Men on a Mission
Lawrence and Lee, however, wanted to do much more than just provide entertainment or make money. As Lee once told an interviewer, "If success is your only motivation, you're a failure. You need more meaningful goals." For the most part, the goals they felt most passionate about were to celebrate the importance of the individual human mind and to champion the right of every person to live life to its fullest.
To accomplish these two goals, the two men knew they would have to do more than provide an enjoyable evening at the theater. They would have to force people to think, something they described as "roughing up the consciousness" and "sandpapering the soul." As Lee explained, "If you're aiming an idea at another mind, you hope [that mind is] not so slick it won't stick." Their efforts were successful. Their plays forced audiences to deal with themes ranging from freedom of thought to race relations, political corruption, and censorship. This led to the accolade they were most proud of. They were described by a reviewer as being "the thinking-person's playwrights."
A Lasting Legacy
The Lawrence-Lee partnership, lasting five decades, was one of the most successful and prolific in the history of theater. Together, the two men wrote 39 plays, including some of the longest running and most widely produced plays of the 20th century. Among them were Auntie Mame (1956), Shangri-La (1956), The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail (1970), First Monday in October (1978), and their most famous play, Inherit the Wind (1955). Twelve of their plays were performed on Broadway, and several were made into movies.
Lawrence and Lee were presented with many prestigious awards in recognition of their contributions to the theater. Among them were Variety Critics Poll awards and two Peabody Awards for distinguished Achievement in Broadcasting. They also were given the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Theatre Association and in 1990 were inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame and received membership in the College of Fellows of the American Theatre at the Kennedy Center. In later years both Lee and Lawrence continued writing and also contributed their time as teachers and lecturers.