Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1086
Robert Emmet Sherwood was the product of an affluent and artistic family. His mother, the former Rosina Emmet, was sufficiently well known as an artist to be listed in Who’s Who. His father, Arthur Murray Sherwood, was a prominent investment broker and held a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. Arthur Sherwood was a frustrated actor and had been an active member of the Hasty Pudding Club during his student days at Harvard, where he was also the first president of the Harvard Lampoon. Robert Sherwood followed in his father’s footsteps at Harvard, both as a member of the Hasty Pudding Club and as editor of the Lampoon.
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Sherwood was named for the Irish patriot Robert Emmet, brother of his mother’s great-grandfather, who led an attack on Dublin Castle and was hanged in 1803. Sherwood was proud of his renegade namesake. Mary Elizabeth Wilson Sherwood, mother of Sherwood’s father, had been honored both by the French government and by Queen Victoria of Britain. She was active in literary and artistic circles and in her lifetime wrote more than twenty books and hundreds of articles.
Thus, Robert Sherwood, the next to the youngest of five Sherwood children, was born into an artistically active family of considerable means. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to a house on Lexington Avenue in New York City. The family also maintained a forty-room Georgian mansion, Skene Wood, set on three hundred acres bordering Lake Champlain. It was there that Sherwood spent most of his childhood summers.
During the summers at Skene Wood, Sherwood and his siblings put on amateur dramatic productions, and Sherwood produced a handwritten newspaper, Children’s Life. At eight, he wrote an ending for Charles Dickens’s unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), and two years later he wrote his first play, Tom Ruggles’ Surprise, soon to be followed by How the King Was Saved and The Curse of Bacchus.
When he was nine years old, Sherwood was sent to the Fay School in Southborough, Massachusetts, and at thirteen, he was sent to the Milton Academy near Boston to begin his preparatory studies for Harvard. Both in preparatory school and later at Harvard, Sherwood’s energies were to be directed more toward literary matters than toward academic ones. He was managing editor of Milton’s monthly magazine, Orange and Blue, for much of his final year at Milton; he was deeply in trouble with his studies, however, and in April, the school forced his withdrawal from this post. Ultimately, his grades were so low that Milton Academy refused him a diploma, giving him instead a certificate of attendance. Despite this, Sherwood was elected valedictorian by his classmates, and he gave the valedictory address.
Sherwood’s academic career at Harvard was no more distinguished than his career at Milton Academy had been, although his contributions to Harvard’s dramatic and literary clubs were substantial. On the brink of expulsion three times during his freshman year alone, Sherwood did not make it through to graduation. In July of 1917, having been rejected on account of his great height by the various branches of the United States armed forces in which he attempted to enlist, Sherwood became a member of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, serving in the Forty-second Battalion of the Fifth Royal Highlanders and achieving the distinction of being very probably the tallest serviceman in World War I to wear kilts. At six feet, seven inches, he towered over his fellow combatants. He served six months in France, where he was gassed on Vimy Ridge. In 1918, Harvard awarded him a bachelor’s degree in absentia although he had not met the academic standards for this degree.
On his return from the war, Sherwood was offered a position at Vanity Fair, a magazine that the Lampoon under Sherwood’s editorship had burlesqued so effectively that its editor wanted Sherwood on his staff. At Vanity Fair, Sherwood shared an office with Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker. The three were fired in 1920 for rebelling against Vanity Fair‘s editorial staff, but soon they were all hired by Life magazine, to whose editorship Sherwood rose in 1924. During this period, Sherwood was a regular participant in the Round Table that met at the Algonquin Hotel.
Sherwood married Mary Brandon in 1922. Their turbulent marriage lasted until 1934, when they were divorced. The following year, Sherwood married Marc Connelly’s former wife, actress Madeline Hurlock Connelly. Sherwood’s extravagant lifestyle during the early years of his marriage to Mary Brandon caused him to sink deeply into debt, from which he extricated himself in 1926 by writing The Road to Rome in three weeks’ time. When the play opened on Broadway the following year, it was an immediate success and ran for 392 performances. Throughout his career, Sherwood frequently relied on his gift for rapid composition to free himself from debts.
The activism that had led Sherwood to serve in the armed forces during the war and to speak his mind at Vanity Fair shifted its focus to the problems of actors and writers. It led Sherwood to assume prominent roles in the Dramatists’ Guild and in the American National Theatre Association and to be instrumental in forming the Playwrights’ Producing Company.
It was natural that, with the spread of fascism in Europe, Sherwood’s basically activist personality should lead him to encourage his fellow writers to strike out against aggression of the sort that Hitler was practicing and should lead him to write a play, There Shall Be No Night, which departed drastically from his romantic liberalism and pacifism of the 1920’s and 1930’s. It is also significant that Sherwood at this time tried to rewrite his pacifist play Acropolis, for which he could never arrange a production in New York and which ran for only twelve performances when it played in London in 1933. Sherwood was unable to rewrite it satisfactorily, probably because he no longer believed in the kind of pacifism that the play promulgated.
Always a man of the world, Sherwood’s insights were deepened by his direct contact with high levels of government during the war. His work with the Hopkins papers was meticulously researched, although some scholars think that Sidney Hyman deserves more credit than he was given for the high level of research apparent in Roosevelt and Hopkins.
Sherwood became a propagandist in the years following Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939. The quality and effectiveness of his dramatic writing declined after the war. He died in 1955 at age fifty-nine.