Beyond Vassar

About Books

By David L. Goodrich

“A few minutes before curtain time, October 5, 1955, at the Cort Theater on 48th Street, east of Broadway, every seat is filled; many in the sophisticated, chattering audience are in evening gowns or black ties — this is a major theatrical event, the opening night of a controversial new play, The Diary of Anne Frank. Hidden in the very last row of the topmost balcony, dry-mouthed and twitching (their words), are Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, the play’s authors…. After the final curtain falls, they will walk through the warm night air to Sardi’s restaurant, where, with the cast, the director, and the producer, they will attend the traditional opening-night party, sitting beneath caricatures of grinning theater greats, bantering about nothing, waiting with fast-pounding hearts for the reviews.” (From The Real Nick and Nora: Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, Writers of Stage and Screen Classics by David L. Goodrich, Southern Illinois University Press, 2001)

Although Frances Goodrich ’12 and Albert Hackett had been married collaborators for more than 25 years and had written such film classics as The Thin Man, It’s a Wonderful Life, Easter Parade, and Father of the Bride during the Golden Age of Hollywood, the opening of The Diary of Anne Frank was still enormously important for them, because writing the play had been by far their most demanding challenge.

Goodrich’s remarkable career got a solid start at Vassar, where she, the daughter of a Wall Street lawyer, worked hard at acting and directing. The quote attributed to her in the 1912 Vassarion was “Silence, there, please! We’re rehearsing.” In stock companies, on the road, and on Broadway, she usually played the ingénue, and later modestly insisted she hadn’t really had talent; however, producers gave her steady work. Before meeting Hackett, she was married twice — to the handsome, successful-but-alcoholic actor Robert Ames and the brilliant, colorful, giant-sized bestselling author Hendrik Willem van Loon.

Hackett was 10 years younger than Goodrich and had overcome many obstacles. His father, a blue-collar worker, died when Hackett was five, and his mother put him and his two siblings on the stage so the family could survive. When he and Goodrich began collaborating in 1928, Hackett was a lean, witty, boyish-looking comic actor, and had played featured roles in many plays and films.

The pair’s writing method was “controlled chaos.” They discussed a scene at length, sometimes acting it out. Then each wrote a draft, which they exchanged. Goodrich once explained, “Then began ‘free criticism’ — which sometimes erupted into screaming matches.” The two were often overworked, once suffering what Goodrich jokingly called “a lovely mutual nervous breakdown.”

By the early ’30s, the writers reached the top of their demanding, highly paid profession — but they did occasionally have conflicts with their bosses. Most notably, while writing the screenplay for one of America’s best-loved films, It’s a Wonderful Life, they were treated shabbily by its producer-director, Frank Capra, and quit in disgust (but still got full screen credit). Of course, there were also many pleasant experiences. They loved working with Irving Berlin on Easter Parade; Goodrich called him “just the dearest man who ever lived.”

To fight against the harsh treatment given to many screenwriters in the ’30s, Goodrich and Hackett helped start the Screen Writers Guild; for two years, Goodrich was the organization’s secretary. Guild participation and their natural generosity, hospitality, and wit created a circle of stimulating friends, including James Cagney, Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, Ogden Nash, and S.J. Perelman. Added to this lively group was F. Scott Fitzgerald. After learning that Goodrich had attended Vassar, Fitzgerald would drop by her MGM office to share letters he’d written to his daughter Scottie, Vassar class of ’42.

Goodrich and Hackett embarked on their most rewarding project — the adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary to the stage — in late 1953. They wrote eight versions, traveled thousands of miles, befriended Anne’s father, Otto, and worked intensely with the play’s director, Garson Kanin. Seeking authenticity, they interviewed rabbis, people who’d known Anne, and members of the Dutch Underground. “We were brazen about asking people for help,” Goodrich reported, “but we felt the play was a tremendous responsibility.” Sometimes, discouragement set in. “It was the hardest thing we ever did,” she wrote. Perhaps because Goodrich never had children and was always passionate about supporting Anne’s story, it’s been said that Anne “became her daughter.” She wept often during the two years she worked on the play. (“I thought I could not cry more,” Goodrich once wrote, “but I have had a week of tears.”)

In the end, there was a tremendous feeling of accomplishment. The Diary of Anne Frank, the playwrights wrote, gave them “a deep spiritual satisfaction which no other work…has ever given us.” This accomplishment did not go unnoticed. The play won virtually every theater award, including the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.