In my adult life, whenever the subject of my grandfather MacKinlay Kantor came up, I would begin, “You’ve probably never heard of him,” and most people hadn’t.
They were impressed by the mention of a Pulitzer Prize, of course, but the title Andersonville most often produced a squint—the name seemed kind of familiar, though possibly because of the unrelated recent Turner Broadcasting movie of that name or the historic prison camp itself.
The one thing that almost always rings at least a faint bell is The Best Years of Our Lives, a 1946 movie that killed at the box office, swept the Oscars, and still makes most lists of great American films. When humanities scholar Stanley Fish did a top ten all-time movie list for The New York Times in 2009, Best Years was number one—the greatest American movie, period. Fish’s blurb: “Regarded as producer Sam Goldwyn’s masterpiece… filled with thrilling and affecting scenes.”
I always hesitated to mention it, though, because this was one aspect of my grandfather’s career I had always known, or thought I had known, and it was complicated.
The story I remember my mother telling was this: Mack wrote a novel about vets returning home from the war. Against his editor’s strenuous objection, he wrote the entire book in blank verse. When Sam Goldwyn asked him to turn it into a screenplay, he got halfway through the script, then said he was quitting to go back to the war. Goldwyn, enraged, brought in another screenwriter. When the movie came out, he vengefully changed the title to The Best Years of Our Lives, chosen by a focus group. Mack hated it, thought the internal irony would be missed or misconstrued. He had named his book Glory for Me, after a hymn his mother had loved (When all my labors and trials are o’er, / And I am safe on that beautiful shore, / Just to be near the dear Lord I adore,… / O that will be glory for me). Goldwyn refused to even mention the name of Mack’s novel in the film’s credits, leaving my grandfather feeling bitter and betrayed.
My research told a far more complete, and significantly different, story.
Articles written when the movie came out said that either Goldwyn, or Goldwyn’s wife, became fascinated with a story that appeared in Time magazine in the summer of 1944.
As a Goldwyn publicist put it in Dramatics, a glossy publication distributed to promote what was then considered a big-budget film ($2.5 million), the story was “a moving and factual account of a trainload of American Marines coming home on a furlough to a country that seemed unfamiliar and occasionally hostile. [Mr. Goldwyn] saw in the news story the subject for a film at once novel, important, and tremendously human. So, with the instinctive gesture of the man who knows he is right and goes ahead, he put in a call to MacKinlay Kantor … Mr. Goldwyn himself might not be able to explain why this name sprang immediately to mind.”
The PR piece went on to speculate that perhaps it was because in books like Long Remember, Mack had shown himself to be a “writer with deep sympathy and understanding of the American scene,” or because several of his books had already become successful movies, or because he’d just “lived through a particularly intense period as virtual member of a heavy bombardment group.”
Anyway, Goldwyn called, and Kantor came. “Within a week he was in Hollywood. (‘A few minutes of conversation with Goldwyn,’ his biographer Alva Johnson once wrote, ‘and writers go to California as if extradited.’)”
A month later, the account continues, Mack entered Goldwyn’s office not with the requested fifty‑to‑sixty-page screen treatment, but one hundred typed pages that covered only the first quarter of the story—“in blank verse!”
“Whatever consternation the producer experienced he managed successfully to conceal, and Mr. Kantor was instructed to continue his ‘treatment.’”
I found an annotation in a Library of Congress file that sheds light on Mack’s odd approach to this assignment. A year before Goldwyn called him, during his first return home from the war, Mack made a journey around the country “to call on the next of kin of a number of the boys I had known who had gone down. From this highly emotional experience” came the idea of writing a story about a returning vet forcing himself to visit his fallen comrades’ families and confront the altered landscape of home. It didn’t go well. “It seemed that I couldn’t write about anything except the war, and yet somehow I couldn’t get started properly.” He put aside the few aborted pages he’d managed, and returned to Europe and the 305th bomb group.
When Goldwyn called, Mack, just back home again, saw an opportunity to begin afresh on the very subject he’d been forced to abandon. It went no better the second time around. He worked for a month in frustration, hating everything he wrote, until he thought of the success of the piece he’d written for the Saturday Evening Post about a young airman who died when he had to bail out of his plane and his parachute caught fire. He’d written it in blank verse, which was an odd choice even three-quarters of a century ago, but it had been a huge hit with readers. As he wrestled with this new assignment, he decided to try verse once more. After all, what subject could be more Homeric than coming home from the wars? Suddenly, something in him unlocked. He pounded out the first hundred pages in a fever, and that’s what he brought to Goldwyn. Either Goldwyn took it in good grace, as the publicist claimed, or he didn’t. Some other articles cite allegedly eyewitness accounts of Goldwyn’s reaction to the manuscript. “What the hell am I going to do with this?” is one. “This is utterly useless” is another. But whatever Goldwyn’s reaction, it didn’t stop Mack from finishing.
By the time he handed the completed screenplay to the movie mogul, it had mushroomed to 434 pages. The publicist’s account concludes in astonishment, “Mr. Goldwyn had bought a poem!”
The most complete account comes in an extensive 1996 piece in the VQR literary journal by Philip D. Beidler. Beidler says that, first of all, it wasn’t true that Mack “came immediately to Goldwyn’s mind,” as the publicist would have us believe. The producer would have preferred to have had Lillian Hellman write the treatment, but the two were feuding. His second choice would have been Sidney Howard, who wrote the screenplay for Gone with the Wind, but Howard had been dead for five years.
What Mack delivered to Goldwyn, “a homey conflation of verse modes” according to Beidler, “seemed so eccentric … he gave up on it at once as unfilmable and prepared to write off the whole business as a bad $12,500 self- indulgence.”
Beidler asserts that the director William Wyler, just back from the war himself and still owing Goldwyn a film on his prewar contract, was the sole reason that Glory for Me didn’t end up in the trash heap. Goldwyn tried to interest Wyler in two other projects without success. In desperation he pulled Mack’s poem out of the circular file.
I found a 1946 interview with Wyler in The New York World-Telegram in which he describes his reaction: “I told Mr. Goldwyn I didn’t want to work for a long time. He asked me to read some stories, and I read a good many of them. Then when I hit this thing of MacKinlay Kantor’s, it really set me on fire. Whatever anybody contributed to this production, the primary thing is that it was Kantor’s inspiration that made the picture possible. He is really responsible for the whole thing.”
(The glossy-paper account written by Goldwyn’s press agent entirely reversed the poles of the story. Wyler, it said, “soon became as enthusiastic about [Kantor’s] story as was Mr. Goldwyn himself.”)
I was struck by something Wyler was quoted as saying at the end of Beidler’s essay. Talking about why his war experience had so affected him, Wyler said, “The war was an escape to reality … The only thing that mattered were human relationships; not money, not position, not even family … Only relationships with people who might be dead tomorrow were important. It is a sort of wonderful state of mind. It’s too bad it takes a war to create such a condition among men.”
In Wyler’s words, I understood for the first time why my grandfather’s identification with the Air Force, the surly colonel who commanded him, and the slouching men posed beside planes painted with naked women in those group photos on the wall of his study had become a primal force, perhaps the primal force, throughout the remainder of his life.
If that interest in, and identification with, the military by my grandfather influenced me in any way, it was to push me in the opposite direction. I grew up anti-regimentation (I was bounced from the Cub Scouts for wearing the wrong color socks to a “jubilee”), antiwar, and extremely suspicious of all men in uniform. Yet, when I found the love of my life, it just so happened that she was an Air Force colonel’s daughter who grew up on air bases around the world. And when I wrote my most recent nonfiction book, Acid Test, I chose as the emotional focus a Marine veteran of the Iraq War and his painful struggle to return to civilian life. In the scores of hours I spent getting to know the most intimate details of his combat experiences and their painful aftermath, and the weeks and months I spent writing about it, I never once considered the glaringly obvious connection between my work and my grandfather’s efforts in writing Glory for Me. Until. Just. Now.
Now I had a fairly complete picture of Mack’s involvement in the film, except for one thing: None of the accounts—except my mother’s and my uncle’s oral history—mentioned anything about Mack starting, and then abandoning, a screenplay.
I was forced to wonder, Was that a fantasy? An artifact of a story too often told?
Then I found it—in a bulging file stuffed into box 71 at the Library of Congress: the screenplay itself.
At 226 pages, it is twice as long as most movie scripts, and it ends with a synopsis of unfinished scenes—which, fleshed out, would have made it even longer. So it seems that the “half-finished” screenplay idea my mother had told me about was an understatement.
I found Mack’s explanation, once again, in his annotations: “I didn’t proceed any further with this because I quarreled with Goldwyn, who insisted I come to Hollywood and take a seven-year contract with him … at a suggested salary of $2,000 per week. I think that this was a lot of money for any young-middle-aged writer to turn down, but I had my complete fill of Mr. Goldwyn. All I wanted to do was to go back overseas, and when Goldwyn said somewhat sneeringly, Well, what good could you do over there? that really clinched the deal. Incidentally, Frances Goldwyn, his wife, told me that she considered this the greatest screenplay she had ever read in her life, even in its incomplete form.”
Given the above, and the actual existence of the screenplay by my grandfather, the complete lack of any mention of it in the accounts, both from the ’40s and from recent retrospectives, is puzzling. The official press agent account says Wyler and Goldwyn were already hashing out “who should be cast in the principal roles and how certain scenes should be played. And then they remembered that they still lacked a screenplay.”
It’s possible, even likely, that despite Mrs. Goldwyn’s alleged high opinion of it, Goldwyn and Wyler considered Mack’s script so unsuitable that it was not even worth mentioning. They hired four-time Pulitzer-winning dramatist Robert Sherwood to write the screenplay, and the contemporaneous articles say quite clearly that he based the work on the original story, not the first draft of a screenplay. In her 2007 biography of Sherwood, Harriet Hyman Alonso says the initial reaction of the playwright (and more recently FDR’s speechwriter) to the story was “negative … He found Kantor’s emphasis on the veterans’ isolation and their ‘bitterness against civilians, whom they considered slackers and idlers’” too depressing. He said he’d work on the film only if he could make it clear that the vets realized that those on the home front also had had a tough time, and so would they as civilians. “Kantor was very amenable to the revisions,” Alonso wrote.
Sherwood would win a Best Screenplay Oscar for his effort, and even Mack praised his work. But he clearly believed he deserved some of the credit.
“I will not venture to estimate how much or how little Sherwood depended on my screenplay when he came to write his own,” he wrote. “I do know that I saw a copy of my play on his desk several times when I had business with him at the Goldwyn studio. Let me say, modestly, that I suppose it would be difficult for two accomplished writers to write their respective screenplays about the same story and keep them entirely dissimilar.
“My own approach, I am now confident, was entirely too melodramatic. I am glad that this melodrama was finally discarded … I have always had enormous respect for the talent of Bobby Sherwood.”
In newspaper features on the opening of the film and its blockbuster success, Goldwyn, Wyler, and Sherwood all say kind things about Mack, and Mack lavishes praise on the film and everyone involved in making it. Nobody mentions the odd absence of the name of the novel Glory for Me in the movie credits, though later correspondence makes it clear that Mack and his editor and publisher Tim Coward conducted a campaign to correct that. Unsuccessfully.
Goldwyn’s advertising director blew off their objections, saying, “Using the title Glory for Me would have been confusing to readers of the ads.”
That’s about as clear a “fuck you” as I can imagine.
So, despite the lovefest in the papers, there was bitterness, even infighting. Tim Coward wrote to Mack and threw a roundhouse at Donald Friede, Mack’s Hollywood agent. “Any agent who allows you to make a contract which is a means of putting out one of the greatest pictures in years without reference to your name and to the title of your book in public announcements should be bounced on his head.”
The novel, which came out well before the movie release, had been reviewed viciously and sold poorly—at one point Coward sent a telegram warning that sales had come “to an absolute stop.” It seems that even in 1945, epic poetry was a hard sell.
Now that the movie was such a hit, Goldwyn’s revenge on Mack—and surely it was revenge he intended, either for writing a poem instead of a treatment or for walking out on the screenplay—assured that Glory for Me would remain a relative failure.
What should have been a high point in Mack’s career was actually the beginning of another decline. After Glory for Me, Mack worked on several small books that Coward rejected, and then wrote another Western novel Coward didn’t believe in and refused to publish without extensive revision.
In the spring of 1947, Mack wrote back in anger, saying he wanted out of his contract with Coward McCann.
Coward responded with a letter that not only echoed Peggy Pulitzer’s breakup letter, but cited it. It must have been almost unbearable for my grandfather to read:
… I’m sorry indeed you are gone from us. It marks the end of an epoch … I think you have been on the wrong track for years & I blame myself for not facing it & risking a showdown. I probably owed it to you, but whether you would have paid any attention I doubt … Peggy criticized, but not the right things &, of course, Irene has never had the courage or perhaps the knowledge to stand up to you in things that really count … You surrounded yourself with inferiors or people who so admired you personally they were incapable of a sound critical attitude toward you or your work … All those who didn’t like your work were bastards with some axe to grind … You have resolutely refused to grow up so that a remarkable fresh talent has been put to little use for the past ten years. Glory for Me, thoroughly thought out and with four times the time given to it that was and written in decent straightforward masculine prose might have been a great novel. It’s getting late & the discipline of a full length novel is going to be harder & harder to suffer. A few more years of Hollywood & its quicksilver written under high pressure will be all you will be able to do … I’d like you to make a smashing success with a full length, fully thought out, digested creation worth divorce from any thought of Hollywood, that graveyard of serious literary talent. No one would shout Hosannas louder or be more pleased to point to the fact that C‑McC first published you … I have too much respect for the writer I once knew who WAS a writer and not an appendage of the movie industry. If this letter makes you grind your teeth and swear “I’ll show that x‑xxx?@ so & so” I’ll be delighted.
It was almost immediately after my grandfather received this letter that he fixed on the idea of writing an epic novel about a notorious Southern prison camp, the book that would win the Pulitzer and become a huge bestseller. Tim Coward must have been delighted indeed.
Excerpted from The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived: a True Story of My Family by Tom Shroder. Copyright © 2016 by the author and reprinted with the permission of Blue Rider Press.
Author of The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived: A True Story About My Family, Tom Shroder is an award-winning journalist, editor, and author of Old Souls and Acid Test, a transformative look at the therapeutic powers of psychedelic drugs in the treatment of PTSD. As editor of The Washington Post Magazine, he conceived and edited two Pulitzer Prize winning feature stories. His most recent editing project, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, by Brigid Schulte, was a New York Times bestseller.