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||Irwin Shaw (1913-1984) - original name Irwin Gilbert Shamforoff|
Prolific American playwright, screenwriter, and author of international bestsellers, of which the best-known is The Young Lions (1948), one of the most famous novels about World War II. Shaw's Rich Man, Poor Man (1970) inspired a popular television mini-series. Critics have generally agreed that Shaw was a masterful storyteller, but also observed that his commercial fiction hurt his literary reputation. As a short story writer with the skill to create memorable characters Shaw have been compared to Hemingway, John Cheever, and John O'Hara. His books have sold over 14 million copies.
"He waved to the accordionist, who went into the opening chords of Deutschland, Deutscheland über Alles. This was the first time Margaret had ever heard the song sung in Austria, but she had learned it from a German maid when she was five. She still remembered the words and she sang with them, feeling drunk and intelligent and international." (from The Young Lions, 1948)
Irwin Shaw was born Irwin Gilbert Shamforoff in Bronx in New York to Jewish immigrants from Russia. His parents, William Shamforoff, a salesman, and Rose (Tompkins) Shamforoff, changed their family's name to Shaw and moved to Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn, where the young Irwin spent most of his childhood. He was educated at the Brooklyn College, where he played football, and graduated with a B.A. in 1934. During these years Shaw wrote for the school newspaper. At the age of 21, Shaw started his career as a writer by producing scripts for radio shows and adapting among episodes for "Dick Tracy". With Peter Viertel he wrote The Survivors, which was produced and directed Martin Gabel. Reviews were bad and the production was closed. Shaw's first play, Bury the Dead, an anti-war story in which six soldiers killed in battle rise up, was produced in the Ethel Barrymore Theater in New York in 1936. However, I Want You (1951), a film based on Shaw's screenplay and directed by Mark Robson, was called by Penelope Housten as a "recruiting picture which seems to accept a third world war almost as a present reality."
Shaw's co-operation with experimental Group Theatre continued in 1939 with The Gentle People, which has been filmed four times. Talk of the Town (1942), for which Shaw wrote the screenplay with Sidney Buchman, received several Academy Award nominations, among them the best picture and the script. The film, directed by George Stevens and starring Roland Colman, Gary Grant, and Jean Arthur, was a comedy about civil liberties with a lynching mob climax. The original story was written by Sidney Harmon. The Commandos Strike at Dawn (1943), directed by John Farrow, was based on a story by C.S. Forester, which told about Norwegian commandos struggling against the Nazis. In 1946 Shaw's play The Assassin closed early due to negative critics and he abandoned playwriting for years. Between the years 1947 and 1948 he contributed drama critics to New Republic, Washington D.C.
In the late 1930s Shaw wrote pieces for such magazines as The New Yorker and Esquire. These "socially conscious" stories were gathered in The Sailor off the Bremen (1939) and Welcome to the City (1942), which contain some of his best works, including 'The Sailor off the Bremen,' about a struggle between an American athlete and a Nazi sailor, 'The Girls in their Summer Dresses,' about an unhappy marriage, 'Second Mortgage,' and 'The Eighty-Yard Run,' about the fragility of success. "Nineteen twenty-nine came to Darling and to his wife and father-in-law, the maker of inks, just as it came to everyone else. The father-in-law waited until 1933 and then blew his brains out and when Darling went to Chicago to see what the books of the firm looked like he found out all that was left were debts and three or four gallons of unbought ink." (from 'The Eighty-Yard Run') Now Shaw's stories are considered 20th-century American classics and as enduring as those by John Cheever, John O'Hara, and J.D. Salinger. They influenced among others the famous screenwriter William Goldman, who wrote before his breakthroug with the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: "... for me, Shaw and Fitzgerald are the great American stylists" (Which Lie Did I Tell, 2000). Goldman met Shaw in New York, wanted to tell him what he meant, and then said: "It's easy for you, isn't it, the writing?" "It wasn't easy," Shaw said, whose disciplined existence according to his friend Peter Viertel centered on his writing throughout his life.
During World War II, Shaw served in the U.S. Army, becoming a warrant officer. The director William Wyler had wanted to attach Shaw to his unit as his writer, but Shaw turned him down. "After sober reflection," he cabled to Wyler, "I've decided that going with you as a private would mean a long succession of frustrations... So I'm going into the regular army this morning at 645." Ironically, the Army shipped Shaw first to the Signal Corps picture unit at the converted Paramount studios in Queens, New York. In wartime London Shaw had an affair with Mary Wells, the Time reporter. Shaw introduced her to Ernest Hemingway; they were married in 1946. Shaw also served in North Africa and witnessed the liberation of Paris as a member of documentary film unit.
In 1947-48 Shaw was an instructor in creative writing at New York University. Shaw's war experiences in Europe gave basis for his novel The Young Lions (1948), which gained an international success. This a panorama of the conflict in Europe was told from the perspectives of one German and two American soldiers. William Goldman later argued that critics never forgave Shaw for the success of the novel. When a reviewer compared the book favorably with War and Peace, the praise enraged Hemingway who referred to Shaw in a letter as a "Brooklyn Tolstoy". Shaw dismissed the remark saying, "Papa doesn't like anyone to invade what he considers his literary terrain, war".
In the film version, directed by Edward Dmytryk, Montgomery Clift played a sensitive Jew who eventually becomes a war hero. Dean Martin was a frustrated Hollywood draft dodger, and Marlon Brando was casted as Christian, a Nazi officer. The screenplay was written by Edward Anhalt. Clift complained that it did not bear resemblance to Shaw's novel. The author himself later said that Monty was "bitter as I was at the deformation of the book. But he was superb – the best and truest to the character I'd written." Marlon Brando wanted to die at the end dramatically, arms outstretched like a Christ figure, and Clift promised that if Brando tries it, he will walk off the picture. The Young Lions did moderately well at the box office. The Tribune wrote, "Montgomery Clift is superb in his inarticulate anguish as he walks with his girl's father who has never met a Jew." The Times had completely reverse view: "Clift's performance is strangely hollow and lackluster as the sensitive Jew. He acts throughout the picture as if he were in a glassy-eyed daze..."
Shaw's second novel, The Troubled Air (1951), was about the rise of McCarthyism. With the publication of the work, Shaw left the United States, living 25 years in Europe in such locations as Paris, the Riviera, and Swiss resorts. For more than thirty years, he went skiing to Klosters, which also attracted a number of Hollywood stars and directors, including Gene Kelly, Kirk Douglas, Stanley Donen, and Sam Spiegel. When William Wyler took his family skiing in the Swiss Alps, he met there John Huston and his latest wife, Robert Parrish, the Viertels, and Irwin Shaw and his wife Marianne, who had been one of Busby Berkely's dancing girls before her marriage. Shaw preferred the self-contained and beautiful Marianne to other women, but once complained that "nothing ever happened to a man while he was traveling with his wife". During this period Shaw wrote screenplay for such films as Fire Down Below (1957), Desire Under the Elms (1958), based on Eugene O'Neill's play, The Big Gamble (1961), and In the French Style (1963), which he also also co-produced. Shaw's idea was to ask Rita Hayworth for Fire Down Below, also starring Robert Mitchum and Jack Lemmon, when the producers failed to get Ava Gardner. The film was promoted as a Hayworth comeback, but her performance suffered in comparison with Gilda (1946).
In Europe Shaw continued with several bestsellers, including Two Weeks in Another Town (1960) and Evening in Byzantium (1973), which depicted a Hollywood producer who goes to Cannes to test his screenplay. Rich Man, Poor Man (1970) told a modern Kain and Abel story. It follows an upstate New York family and takes the reader from the post-war years to new ideas and trends of the present. In 1975 the book was adapted into a pioneering mini-series, starring Nick Nolte, Peter Strauss, and William Smith as their deadly nemesis, Falconetti, in the first 12 episodes. An enormous but somewhat unexpected hit, the series received three Emmy Awards, which went to Ed Asner, Fionnula Flanagan, and the director David Greene. Strauss played an ambitious politician, Rudy, and Nolte was his wild brother, who eventually gains happiness in his life. (Susan Blakely: "It's just amazing how he has changed." Peter Strauss: "Haven't we all?" Blakely: "Yes, but he's changed for the better.") Nolte is killed at the end of the last episode by Falconetti. The story was continued in Rich Man, Poor Man: Book Two (1976), but did not rise to the level of the first production. 'The Girls in Their Summer Dresses' was produced for television in 1981, along with 'The Man Who Married a French Wife' and 'The Monument'.
Two Weeks in Another Town is the story of Jack Andrus, a Hollywood star and an alcoholic, at the crossroads. In the course of two weeks he is forced to relieve his past in the international film colony in Rome. There Andrus encounters his old wife Carlotta, and a new mistress, the young and beautiful Veronica. There is also his former friend, the brilliant and corrupt movie director who put Andrus on top, then helped to destroy him. The film version from 1962 was directed by Vincente Minnelli, starring Kirk Douglas, Cyd Charisse, Edward G. Robinson. Minnelli shot most of it in Rome, where Cleopatra took all the attention. Edward G. Robinson played the movie director, who gives Jack Andrus (Kirk Douglas) another chance. The film had some scandalous scenes – in one a group of people sit drinking in a nightclub, watching a sexual act being performed off screen. However, most provocative shots were cut out. "I felt this was such an injustice to Vincente Minnelli, who'd done a wonderful job with the film. And an injustice to the paying public, who could have had the experience of watching a very dramatic, meaningful film." (Kirk Douglas in The Ragman's Son, 1988)
"That is," Jack read, "an American, starting at any given point, believes that his career must go from success to success. In the American artist, of any kind, it is the equivalent of the optimistic businessman's greed of the continually expanding economy. The intermittent failure, the cadenced rise and fall of the level of a man's work, which is accepted and understood by the European artist, is fiercely rejected as a normal picture of the process of creation. A dip is not a dip to an American artist, it is a descent into an abyss, an offence against his native moeurs and his compatriots' most dearly held beliefs. In America, the normal incidence of failure, either real or imagined, private or public, which must be expected in such a chancy and elusive endeavor as writing novels or putting on plays or directing motion pictures in regarded, even by the artist himself, as evidence of guilt, as self-betrayal." (from Two Weeks in Another Town, 1960)
In Acceptable Loses (1982) a small incident changes the life of the protagonist. Roger Damon, a literary agent, receives a mysterious telephone call. It starts Damon's self-examination, in which he must face his past and his mistakes. Shaw used similar plot invention also in the earlier novel Bread Upon the Waters (1981). A rich lawyer starts to fulfill the wishes of an ordinary family, but his generosity has also unforeseen consequences. "In essence, then, Bread Upon the Water is a summation of what Mr. Shaw has learned to date about the world surrounding him and the people who inhabit it. He has learned a great deal and has thoughtfully assimilated it. In today's critical climate, the word ''professional'' has taken on negative overtones. Irwin Shaw is a thorough professional, a word used here with admiration and respect." (Evan Hunter in The New York Times, August 23, 1981)
Shaw received several award, including O Henry awards for 'Walking Wounded' (1944) and 'Gunner's Passage' (second prize, 1945), National Institute of Arts and Letters grant (1946), and Playboy award (1964, 1970, 1979). In 1976 he left France and began a dual residency in Southampton, Long Island, and Klosters, Switzerland. Shaw died on May 16, 1984 in Davos, Switzerland.
For further reading: Contemporary Popular Writers, ed. by David Mote (1997); World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 4, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); Irwin Shaw: A Study of the Short Fiction by James R. Giles (1991); Irwin Shaw: A Biography by M. Shnanyerson (1989); Irwin Shaw by J. R. Giles (1983) - Note: Universal television novelizations from 1976 based bestsellers: Rich Man, Poor Man; Once An Eagle; The Rhineman Exchange; Seventh Avenue; 79 Park Avenue; Aspen; Wheels; The Dark Secret of Harvest Home; Brave New World (1979); Women in White
Irwin Shaw's film credits: