This Day in Jewish History

1893: A Master of High Comedy May Have Been Born

S.N. Behrman, a child of Orthodox, Lithuanian immigrants, discovered a knack for knocking the higher classes, which he did with brilliant wit.

We hope / Wikimedia Commons

June 9, 1893 is the birthdate chosen by the playwright, screenwriter and essayist S.N. Behrman. The child of Orthodox, Lithuanian immigrants to the United States, Behrman knew his year of birth, but not the precise day. So he selected June 8, and went on to become the leading author of “high comedies” dealing with the upper classes – something of an American counterpart to England’s Noel Coward – whose style and wit sometimes obscured the seriousness of his messages.

Samuel Nathaniel Behrman was the youngest of the three sons born to Joseph Behrman and the former Zelda Finegold. Both parents were recent immigrants to Worcester, Massachusetts, from Lithuania, in the Russian empire, and Samuel’s older brothers Hiram and Morris had both been born in the old country, near Vilna.

Samuel grew up in a tenement apartment on the east side of Worcester, an industrial city, across the street from Sha’are Tefila synagogue. His father spent a good deal of his time learning Talmud; according to the son, whose late-life memoir “The Worcester Account” (1955) reveals much about his upbringing, their apartment building was “heavily populated by angels,” thanks to Joseph Behrman’s perpetual praying.

Samuel attended the Providence Street School before entering Worcester’s Classical High School in 1907. He later recalled how he grew up with a crush on a neighbor named Ada Summit, but that she was known as the girlfriend of Morton Leavitt, a bully who enjoyed allowing other boys to hold Ada’s hand for brief periods, while he stood by timing them with a stopwatch.

At age 11, Samuel was befriended by Daniel Asher, who was six or seven years his senior, but who quickly discerned the talent in the younger boy. It was Asher who introduced Behrman to the theater, which became an addiction, and it was he who, for nearly three decades, encouraged Behrman to continue pursuing his dream of being a professional writer. Asher appears in “The Worcester Account” as Willie Lavin, Behrman having changed his name out of regard for Asher’s family, after Daniel killed himself in 1929.

After graduating high school, Behrman performed briefly with a travelling vaudeville company, but ill health caused him return to Worcester, where he entered Clark College (today Clark University.) Suspended several times for refusing to attend physical education classes, Behrman transferred to Harvard College in 1914. Both at Harvard and later as a graduate student at Columbia University, Behrman studied writing with leading faculty members.

In New York, after earning his M.A., Behrman held various jobs, including working at the New York Times Book Review, but still needed to accept support from Hiram and Morris, who had a successful accounting firm. His breakthrough came in 1927 with the play “The Second Man,” based on a short story he had written almost a decade earlier, and now produced on the stage by the Theater Guild.

All told, Behrman wrote or co-wrote 18 plays. Most were drawing-room comedies populated by well-off and witty characters, but they often dealt with serious questions of values and politics. In “Rain from Heaven” (1934 ,) Lady Lael Wyngate responds to a guest of hers who refers to another guest, a German refugee, as a “dirty Jew.” “Hobart, please remember – Herr Willens is not only my lover, he is also my guest,” Wyngate retorts. (Behrman himself wrote numerous letters to U.S. authorities during the 1930s on behalf of European Jews seeking to emigrate there.)

Behrman supplemented his income with film work, often as a collaborator on screenplays, and beginning in 1929, he was also a regular contributor to The New Yorker, where he wrote profiles of such figures as Chaim Weizmann, George Weizmann, Eddie Cantor and the art dealer Joseph Duveen. While he circulated in rarefied social and literary circles, both in New York and London, where he frequently visited, Behrman never downplayed his own working-class, Jewish roots.

Behrman married in his 40s to Elza Heifetz Stone, the divorced sister of violinist Jascha Heifetz. They had one child of their own and two children from Elza’s first marriage, to whom Behrman became stepfather.

S.N. Behrman died on September 9, 1973, at the presumed age of 80.