Biography of Garson Kanin

Garson Kanin, 1979

Garson Kanin Key Facts:

Birthplace & Date:
Rochester, NY – November 24, 1912
David M. and Sadie (Levine) Kanin

Michael Kanin, Ruth E. Kanin
James Madison High School, NY
American Academy of Dramatic Arts, NY
Military Service:
1941-1942: U.S. Army, Signal Corps
1942-1943: U.S. Army Air Forces (became Sergeant Office of Strategic Services)
1943-1945: U.S. Army Air Forces (served in Europe; became Captain)
December 4, 1942 to (Actress/ Writer) Ruth Gordon (deceased August 28, 1985)
June 19, 1990 to (Actress) Marian Seldes (deceased October 6, 2014)
March 13, 1999, NYC

FulL Biography

Playwright Garson Kanin was a 20th Century Renaissance Man: a musician, burlesque comedian, actor, stage and film director, writer, and raconteur. He wrote plays, essays, screenplays, short stories, novels, memoirs, songs, and a libretto, and directed plays, musicals, documentaries and films.

Born in 1912 in Rochester, New York, the young Kanin fell in love with show business when his father, a real estate developer, acquired a movie theater. Kanin used this opportunity to study the silent films–sometimes frame by frame, alone in the projection booth. He dropped out of high school during the Depression to work at Macy’s as a stock clerk, and soon formed his own band, Gar Kay and the Red Peppers, featuring himself on clarinet.

Although he was always self-conscious about his lack of a high school diploma, his never-ending curiosity and desire for improvement led him to befriend experts who could guide him. Among them were Justice Felix Frankfurter, W. Somerset Maugham, and Thornton Wilder. Kanin often said he went to “Wilder University,” his tribute to the Pulitzer prize-winning playwright’s influence on his education.

In his early twenties Kanin immersed himself in performance–he worked as a comedian in the Catskills and at the Eltinge Theater in New York. He graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and made his Broadway debut in 1933 Little Ol’ Boy. In addition, he often performed in radio shows, including a recurring role on The Goldbergs.

Two acting jobs brought unexpected rewarding results. In 1935, he was cast in the legendary George Abbott’s play, Ladies’ Money, and made himself useful in Mr. Abbott’s office. Eventually he became Abbott’s assistant, casting and directing road companies of Mr Abbott’s shows.

The second opportunity arose in 1936 when performing in Robert Ardrey’s Star Spangled. Ardrey was a protege of Thornton Wilder, who attended a performance of the short-lived show. When Wilder learned that Kanin lacked a college degree, he encouraged him to keep a journal. Their friendship lasted nearly forty years until Wilder’s death.

In 1936, at the age of 24, Garson Kanin directed his first Broadway play, Hitch Your Wagon. Word of his talent spread quickly and that same year he was recruited to become a production assistant with Samuel Goldwyn in Hollywood.

After a year’s internship, he moved to RKO Studios and directed his first feature film, 1938’s A Man to Remember, written by Dalton Trumbo. At the time, Kanin was the youngest director in Hollywood. He directed seven more films at RKO, including Bachelor Mother and My Favorite Wife. During his last RKO project, a Ginger Rogers comedy called Tom, Dick, and Harry, Kanin was drafted into the U.S. Army’s Film Unit. For the first few years he was stationed in Washington D.C. and directed training and patriotic films.

He married stage and film actress Ruth Gordon in December, 1942, and months later, the military enlisted Kanin in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA, and sent him to the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) in London. Kanin, with Carol Reed, co-directed General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s official record of the Allied Invasion, a documentary titled The True Glory. The True Glory was named Best Film of 1945 by the National Board of Review and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary that year. Top-secret while in production, it covered the period from the preparations for D-Day to the liberation of Paris.

Ruth Gordon’s success on Broadway in her play Over 21 made it possible for Kanin to stay at Claridge’s instead of the barracks. At night, while Nazi bombs blitzed London, Kanin wrote a draft of Born Yesterday, still his most widely performed play.

After the war, Garson Kanin experienced a creative explosion that established his reputation as one of America’s accomplished and most influential talents.

Born Yesterday opened on Broadway at the Lyceum Theater on February 4, 1946. Kanin directed the play, which catapulted the then-unknown Judy Holliday to stardom. The hit comedy ran for four years (1649 performances), still holding the record for longest-running play at that theater.

Also in 1946 Kanin directed Ruth Gordon’s play Years Ago. Kanin co-wrote four screenplays with Gordon, three of which–A Double Life (1948), Adam’s Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952)–were nominated for Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay. Kanin also directed Gordon in plays, including The Leading Lady and A Very Rich Woman, both written by Gordon as well as The Smile of the World, which he wrote in 1949.

Kanin was exceptionally busy between 1949 and 1950. During those two years he wrote and directed three Broadway plays, The Smile of the World, The Rat Race, and The Live Wire, wrote the libretto for and directed Fledermaus at the Metropolitan Opera; wrote the screenplay for Born Yesterday (although he never received credit for it); and adapted and directed The Amazing Adele, based on a French play by Barillet and Gredy.

Throughout the 50’s, Kanin wrote several screenplays, including It Should Happen to You, which starred Judy Holliday and Jack Lemmon. In 1955 he directed the Broadway and London premieres of The Diary of Anne Frank by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. 1955 also marked his foray into fiction when his short story “A Day at a Time” was published in Good Housekeeping. Throughout the next four decades, Kanin published many short stories and six novels: Blow Up a Storm, One Hell of An Actor, A Thousand Summers, Moviola, Smash and Cordelia?. He continued to write essays as well as five well-received nonfiction books, including Remembering Mr. Maugham and Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir.

Kanin’s commitment to theater continued throughout the 60’s. On Broadway, he directed the musical Do Re Mi, which he adapted from his novella, with music and lyrics by Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. He also directed Robert Redford in Norman Krasna’s Sunday in New York and Henry Fonda in A Gift of Time, which Kanin adapted from the memoir Death of a Man by Lael Wertenbaker. In 1964 he directed the young Barbra Streisand in her first starring role on the stage, Fanny Brice in Funny Girl.

For television, he created the series Mr Broadway, which starred Craig Stevens. In 1978 Kanin and Ruth Gordon co-wrote the CBS TV movie Hardhat and Legs. The miniseries based on his novel Moviola was broadcast in 1980.

In 1985, the year he was inducted into The Theater Hall of Fame, he wrote and directed Peccadillo starring Christopher Plummer, Glynis Johns and Kelly McGillis.

That same year, his wife and partner of more than forty years, Ruth Gordon, died in Martha’s Vineyard.

During his last decade Kanin reaped the rewards of a successful artistic career. For many years he served on the Dramatists Guild Council and as first Vice-president of The Players Club. The Authors League of America elected him its President. Born Yesterday enjoyed a Broadway revival and national tour, starring Madeline Kahn and Ed Asner. Numerous organizations honored his life and career: he received the William Inge Lifetime Achievement Award (1987); the Writers Guild of America’s Valentine Davies Award (1989); The Players’ Edwin Booth Lifetime Achievement Award (1996); and the Mr. Abbott Award from the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers (1997).

In 1990 Kanin married the actress Marian Seldes. He died in 1999 in New York City.

Today there is a bronze plaque on the 41st Street sidewalk across the street from the New York Public Library. The quote is from Born Yesterday, but it reflects Garson Kanin’s personal belief:

I want everybody to be smart. As smart as they can be. A world of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.