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Obituaries

Jerome Lawrence, 88; Co-Writer of "Auntie Mame"

March 03, 2004|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Jerome Lawrence, half of the team that wrote the Broadway hits "Inherit the Wind" and "Auntie Mame" and other enduring works of the American theater, has died. He was 88.

Lawrence, who suffered a stroke a year and a half ago, died Sunday at his home in Malibu after a long illness, according to his niece, Deborah Robison.

Lawrence's half-century collaboration with Robert E. Lee ended with Lee's death in 1994; the prolific and versatile pair wrote radio programs, television plays, screenplays and one-act operas.

That is in addition to their 39 stage plays, which include "The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail," their most widely produced work; and "First Monday in October," about the first woman on the Supreme Court.

Lawrence and Lee achieved their first great success on Broadway with "Inherit the Wind," their drama based on the famous 1925 trial of John Thomas Scopes, the Tennessee schoolteacher accused of teaching evolution. The widely praised play debuted in 1955, starring Paul Muni, Ed Begley and Tony Randall.

"Inherit the Wind," which ran for three years on Broadway, sold nearly 2.5 million copies in printed form and has been translated into 40 languages. It also was made into an award-winning 1960 film starring Spencer Tracy, Fredric March and Gene Kelly.

Although the so-called Monkey Trial focused on Scopes' teaching Darwin's theory of evolution in a state that required that creationism be taught in schools, Lawrence told The Times in 1994 that the play "was written because we were indignant, appalled at thought control in the mid-'50s. So we went back in history to another case where people were being told what to learn, what to think, and it did have a great effect on the country. It was combating McCarthy-ism."

In 1956, while "Inherit the Wind" was still running on Broadway, Lawrence and Lee scored another Broadway hit with their adaptation of "Auntie Mame," a comedy starring Rosalind Russell as the free-spirited, eternally optimistic New York socialite.

Based on the Patrick Dennis novel, "Auntie Mame" was later adapted as a 1958 movie starring Russell. It also was turned into the Broadway musical comedy "Mame," for which Lawrence and Lee wrote the book and Jerry Herman wrote the music and lyrics.

"Mame," which debuted on Broadway in 1966 and ran for nearly four years, originally starred Angela Lansbury.

"Jerry Lawrence was a wonderful, wonderful friend, and he was enormously supportive and helpful to me," Lansbury told The Times on Tuesday. "He was a very rare person in our business. He was totally devoted to what he did, and he did it in an expert way.

"I owe him and Bob Lee a tremendous amount because they gave me a vehicle that made me a big star on the New York stage, and I'll be forever grateful to Jerry Lawrence for that gift."

Born in Cleveland, Lawrence graduated from Ohio State University in 1937. He worked as a reporter and editor for two Ohio daily newspapers before moving to Los Angeles in 1937 to work for radio station KMPC. In 1939, he became a senior staff writer for CBS radio in Los Angeles and New York, where he met Lee in a Madison Avenue bar in 1942.

Not long after they met, both men entered the Army. They were among the founders of Armed Forces Radio Service, writing for "Command Performance," "Mail Call" and other programs. Lawrence also served as a correspondent in North Africa and Italy.

From the start of their collaboration, Lawrence and fellow Ohio native Lee used their work in radio and later television to subsidize themselves while they wrote their stage plays.

Although Lawrence and Lee collaborated so long they were known to finish each other's sentences, actress Janet Waldo, Lee's widow, told The Times on Tuesday that "they were two very different guys."

Lawrence, Waldo said, "was a very aggressive, driven man. He always said, 'We have to get five pages a day done,' and he was so tenacious about it. Bob was much more laid-back and relaxed. That's why they worked so well together."

For decades, Lawrence lived in Malibu, where his home was a gathering spot for international theater conferences, playwriting workshops and musical soirees.

Waldo said, "Jerry really was totally a man of the theater. He loved everything about show business and show people, and he was the world's best raconteur. He told theater stories so magnificently he could have gone on the road as a one-man show."

In 1993, Lawrence's four-story chalet-style home, which his friends dubbed the "House That Mame Built," was destroyed in a fire that swept through Las Flores Canyon.

Turned to ashes were original Al Hirschfeld drawings, signed first edition books by Dorothy Parker, Henry Miller, Lillian Hellman, Will Durant and other friends; an impressive art collection; and many photographs, play posters and other theater memorabilia.

Lawrence escaped with only his passport, bank books and the latest draft of "Whisper in the Mind," a drama he had been reviving with Lee.

"It was the only copy," Lawrence told The Times. "This was our next play, and I wanted to move forward. You look at tomorrow -- not yesterday."

Lawrence, who rebuilt his house in Malibu, taught a graduate class at USC for many years and also wrote the biography "Actor: The Life and Times of Paul Muni."

In addition to Deborah Robison, he is survived by another niece, Paula Robison; a nephew, Joshua Robison; and his companion, Will Willoughby.

Plans for a memorial are pending. Contributions may be made in Lawrence's name to the Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theater Research Institute at Ohio State University, 1430 Lincoln Tower, 1800 Cannon Drive, Columbus, OH 43210-1230.

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