By Sarah Johnson
Once asked how he dealt with the passing away of his closest contemporaries, Garson Kanin replied “the really great ones don’t die” (People, 13 October 1980, 51). With his own death on March 13, 1999 Kanin himself passed into the realm of the really great, the noteworthy, and the never forgotten.
His love affair with the written word began at a very young age. Nora Johnson noted that “Garson Kanin has been marinating in theatre since before most of us were ever in the audience” (“Fun, Sex and Music,” New York Times Book Review, 23 November 1980, 42). Born on November 14, 1912 in Rochester, New York, Kanin dropped out of high school during the Great Depression to work in vaudeville as a musician and comic. He entered the business mainly to support his family, but was “bitten by the theatre bug” and moved to New York City to train at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City in 1932. He made his Broadway debut in Little Ol’ Boy in 1934, but quickly left acting to work as a production assistant for Little Ol’ Boy director George Abbott.
Employed by Abbott for several more shows, he moved on to directing with 1937’s Hitch Your Wagon, which in turn landed him a contract with Samuel Goldwyn. After a year on the Goldwyn staff, Kanin was frustrated over the lack of directing opportunities and signed on with RKO, where he directed such classic comedies as Bachelor Mother; Tom, Dick and Harry; and My Favorite Wife with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne.
Drafted by the army in 1941, Kanin used his experience to make documentary shorts for the offices of war information and emergency manpower; of these the most notable is True Glory, General Eisenhower’s official report of the war in Europe. The film won the 1945 Academy Award for Best Documentary, as well as other awards and citations.
In December, 1942 Kanin married Ruth Gordon, Hollywood actress and author. The pairing was extremely successful, both professionally and personally. Their combined efforts resulted in two vehicles for (and lifelong friendships with) Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy: the critically acclaimed and highly successful Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike. In total the couple wrote only four screenplays together, three of which garnered Academy Award nominations.
Although their collaboration efforts were both lucrative and well received, the couple decided to part their professional ways. In an interview with Contemporary Authors in 1981, Kanin recounted why: “We weren’t really comfortable at work; we quarreled when we worked together. We never quarrel in private life. It soon became apparent that if we didn’t get a professional divorce we would have to get a real one” (Gale Group: Detroit. 1999, 290). Gordon went on to concentrate on acting and Kanin pursued other forms of writing.
Kanin began writing plays, short stories, journals, and novels. But his professional apex came with the completion of his play, Born Yesterday. Wildly successful, Born Yesterday opened on Broadway on February 4, 1946, running 1,642 performances until closing on December 31, 1949. In 1950 Kanin adapted his hit for the screen, catapulting actress Judy Holliday to stardom in one of her best screen roles, the persona of Billie Dawn.
It seems as if the success of Born Yesterday was the affirmation Kanin needed to know that he could write for others; in turn, he began to write for his own gratification. Over the next thirty years he concentrated on penning books and plays to amuse himself. In several of his works, both fiction and nonfiction, Kanin drew on the anecdotal material of his journals and the insights he had gained through experience in show business. In a telephone interview on April 9, 1981 with Contemporary Authors Kanin related his love affair with remembering the past:
The notebooks I have written since 1935 at the insistence of Thorton Wilder, whom I met that year, now run four to five million words. Indeed they have provided me with much material. Many things I would have otherwise forgotten were well remembered because they were written down (Volume 78, Gale Group, Detroit, 1999, 291).
He began to actively pursue portraying the important personages and aspects of the entertainment world that he had been privy to, including the greatly received Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir, prompting further forays into the secretive side of the silver screen in Hollywood, Moviola, and Together Again.
During an interview Kanin was once asked if there was one facet of his career so far that he had enjoyed the most. He replied “Yes, it’s what I do now, . . . and the reason I continued was that I was scared. I didn’t have sufficient confidence in my abilities as a writer to believe that I would ever be able to make a living as a writer. . . . It took me some time to dredge up sufficient courage to say ‘I’m not going to do anything but write.’ That’s what I’ve been doing for the past several years and it seems to be going well” (Contemporary Authors, Vol. 78, Gale Group, Detroit, 1999, 292).
t certainly did go well for Kanin. Doris Brumbach declared that “if youth is wasted on the young, old age has not been wasted on Garson Kanin (“Nonfiction in Brief: ‘It Takes a Long Time to Become Young,’” The New York Times Book Review, 26 February 1978, 22). He continued to write and direct the projects that were close to his heart until his death in 1999. When Kanin died he was hailed as “The Man for-All-Theatre-Seasons,” a celebrated playwright, film writer, director, and author, whose career spanned over fifty years.
His secret? Kanin once joked, “A man ninety years old was asked to what he attributed his longevity. ‘I reckon,’ he said, with a twinkle in his eye, ‘it’s because most nights I went to bed and slept when I should have stayed up and worried.’” I, for one, am glad that Kanin got so much sleep.