Biography of Robert Lee

Together, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee have written famous works of American drama ­ including Inherit the Wind, The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, and Auntie Mame. For their work as playwrights, they have won two Peabody Awards, the Variety Critics Poll Award, multiple Tony Award nominations, and many more awards. Their plays have been widely produced in America and throughout the world, have been adapted as films, and have been translated into numerous languages.

Jerome Lawrence was born July 14, 1915, in Cleveland, Ohio, into a literary family. His father, Samuel Lawrence, was the owner a printing company, as well as an expert on baseball. His mother, Sarah Rogen Lawrence, was a poet. As a teenager, Jerome Lawrence studied writing with Eugene C. Davis. After graduating from Glenville High School in Cleveland in 1933, Lawrence went on to study with Harlan Hatcher, Herman Miller, and Robert Newdick at Ohio State University. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Ohio State in 1937. Between 1937 and 1939, Lawrence was a graduate student at the Universty of California at Los Angeles.

Robert Edwin Lee was born on October 15, 1918, in Elyria, Ohio. His father, Claire Melvin Lee, was an engineer. Lee may have inherited his interest in writing from his mother, Elvira Taft Lee, who was a teacher. Lee graduated from Elyria High School in 1935. He studied at Northwestern University in Chicago in 1934 before transferring to Ohio Wesleyan, where he was a student from 1935 to 1937.

Both Lawrence and Lee were fundamentally shaped by their participation in World War II. The conflict gave both their first opportunities to put their writing talents to use. Staff Sergeant Lawrence served as a consultant to the Secretary of War and later as an Army correspondent in North Africa and Italy. Lee was similarly appointed Expert Consultant to the Secretary of War in 1942. He also served in the USAF from 1943 to 1944, during which time he and Lawrence co-founded Armed Forces Radio.

Lee's involvement and experience in American theater transcends the boundaries implied by his fame as a playwright. As co-founder, with Lawrence, of the American Playwrights Theatre and the Margo Jones Award, Lee has been involved with both academic and professional theater communities, working as a director and teacher as well as a playwright. Lawrence's interest in drama extends back to his high school and college days, when he acted in and directed school and summer theater productions.

As is evident from their participation in the armed services during World War II and other career paths, both Lawrence and Lee have a great deal of life experience that informs their playwriting. Lawrence, in addition to his service in the military, as a young man worked as a journalist, reporter, and telegraph editor of small Ohio daily papers and as a continuity editor at KMPC in Beverly Hills. Before World War II, he had worked two years, form 1939 to 1941, as a senior staff writer for CBS Radio, experience that became useful when he and Lee founded Armed Forces Radio. Lee worked after college, from 1938 to 1942, as an executive at the firm of Young and Rubicam in New York City.

Working together on Armed Forces Radio, Lawrence and Lee produced the official Army-Navy radio programs for D-Day, VE-Day, and VJ-Day. After the war and throughout their careers, they created radio programs for CBS, including the series "Columbia Workshop." They also co-wrote radio plays including The Unexpected (1951), Song of Norway (1957), Shangri-La (1960), a radio version of Inherit the Wind (1965), and Lincoln the Unwilling Warrior (1974). Lee was awarded a Peabody Ward for a UN radio series in 1948.

From late 1940s onward, Lawrence and Lee collaborated on the writing of many plays that would come to be seen as standards of American drama. Their first theatrical collaboration was writing the book for Look, Ma, I'm Dancin'!, which premiered at the Adelphi Theatre in New York in 1948. Their second play, Inherit the Wind, was not produced on Broadway until 1955. Their agent, Harold Freedman, had been shopping the play around for nearly a year when Dallas producer Margo Jones agreed to give the play a try-out in Texas. The play opened at Theatre '55 on January 10, 1955. Its success in Dallas lead to the play's opening at the National Theatre in New York on April 21, 1955.

Inherit the Wind earned Lawrence and Lee numerous awards in the year after its production. The play won the Donaldson Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Variety New York Drama Critics Poll Award, and the Critics Award for Best Foreign Play and was nominated for a Tony Award. Since its publication, the play has been translated into thirty languages.

Though Inherit the Wind may be Lawrence and Lee's best known play, their collaboration continued for decades after its initial premiere. Working with James Hilton, they adapted Hilton's novel Lost Horizon as the book and lyrics to the musical Shangri-La, which opened at the Winter Garden in New York in 1956. Together, they wrote the plays Auntie Mame (1956), The Gang's All Here (1959), A Call on Kuprin (1961), and the book to the musical Mame (1966). Lawrence directed the first arena production of Mame in Sacramento in 1968. Lawrence and Lee also wrote Dear World (1969), The Incomparable Max (1969), which Lawrence directed, and The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail (1971).

The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail premiered at Lawrence's alma mater, Ohio State, as the Centennial Play for the American Playwrights Theatre. Since its premiere, The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail has had more than 2,500 performances worldwide, making it the most widely produced play of our time. Other plays by Lawrence and Lee include Jabberwock (1972), Diamond Orchid (1965), based on the Henry James book, and Laugh Makers (1952).

The number of film adaptations of Lawrence and Lee's plays attests to their widespread popularity. As writers, they were involved in adapting Auntie Mame, Inherit the Wind, and Mame for the screen. The films premiered in 1958, 1960, and 1974, respectively. Inherit the Wind has since been remade twice as a television movie.

Lawrence and Lee's excellence in theatre has been rewarded by the Ohioana Award, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Theatre Assocation, and a number of honorary degrees. Lawrence is the recipient of honorary doctorates from Villanova, the College of Wooster, Farleigh Dickinson University, and Ohio State University. Lee has received an honorary doctorate in literature from Ohio Wesleyan, a doctor of letters from the College of Wooster, and a doctor of humanities from Ohio State. Together, Lawrence and Lee have won numerous Tony nominations, in two separate instances keys to the city of Cleveland, the Moss Hart Memorial Award for Plays of a Free World, a US State Department Medal, an Ohio State Centennial Medal, a Pegasus Award, the Ohio Governor's Award, and a Cleveland Playhouse Plaque.

Both Lawrence and Lee's involvement in education has not been limited to the receipt of honorary degrees. For twenty years, Lee served as an adjunct professor of playwriting at UCLA and was committed to new plays and new playwrights. Lawrence was a visiting professor at Ohio State and a master playwright at New York University, Baylor University, and the Salzburg Seminar in American studies. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California.

In 1990, Lawrence and Lee were named Fellows of American Theatre at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. That same year, their final collaboration, Whisper in the Mind, was produced at Arizona State University and in 1994 at the Missouri Repertory Theatre.

On July 8, 1994, Lee died in Los Angeles. Lawrence passed away in 2004, writing and supervising productions of his plays from his Malibu home until the end. He is the author of Actor: The Life and Times of Paul Muni, which has been called one of the best theater biographies of the century.

Study Guides on Works by Robert Lee