Samuel Nathaniel Behrman was the third child of Joseph and Zelda (Feingold) Behrman and was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. The first two children in the Behrman family, Hiram and Morris, were born in Eastern Europe (in or near Vilna, Lithuania). Because no official record of the writer’s birth date was ever recorded in Worcester, he arbitrarily selected his own “birthday” as June 9, 1893. In The Worcester Account, Behrman humorously described the circumstances of his search for his true date of birth and concluded that “common sense tells me that 1893 must be reasonably close.”
Readers interested in the details of Behrman’s youth and schooling should turn to The Worcester Account, a colorful but by no means sentimentalized review of his adventures, the chapters originally written as short narratives for The New Yorker. From these pieces one learns that, although poor, Behrman’s family enjoyed some distinction among the other Jewish residents of the neighborhood because the father was a Talmudic scholar. From him, Samuel learned “the Old Testament stories as if they had taken place recently—as if they constituted his personal past.”
In 1899, Behrman entered Providence Street School, and in 1902, he heard a political speech delivered by Eugene V. Debs, then the Socialist Labor Party candidate for president. That chance occasion, as he later remarked, began in his life “an orientation it would otherwise not have had—a bias in favor of those who had suffered from cruelty or callousness.” Another direction in his life was pointed by his friend Daniel Asher (who appears as the character Willie Lavin in The Cold Wind and the Warm). With Asher, he witnessed at Lothrops’s Opera House in 1904 a melodrama entitled Devil’s Island, and years later he still recalled the enchantment of that performance.
By 1907, when he entered Classical High School in Worcester, Behrman had begun his lifelong habit of omnivorous reading. Among his early favorites were William Shakespeare and Horatio Alger. He could, for his high school classes, recite from memory passages from Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601) and Macbeth (pr. 1606, pb. 1623), and he acquired an elementary knowledge of Latin and Greek, useful tools in his cultivation of language skills. During these years, he also deepened his friendship with Asher, who urged Behrman to write and who analyzed all the youth’s fledgling manuscripts.
In 1911, Behrman toured on the Poli vaudeville circuit for some months with a skit that he had written himself, entitled “Only a Part.” The circuit covered a number of theatrical points, including a New York vaudeville house on Fourteenth Street. Behrman’s health, in those years precarious, obliged him to cut short the tour with two others, and he returned to Worcester. In 1912, at the family’s urging, he entered Clark College. As a special student at this local school, he continued to write and act, also turning his attention to oratory . His academic work as an English major was successful, but he failed to report to physical education classes and was suspended from Clark. In the summer of 1913, he enrolled at Harvard, then reentered Clark in 1914, but was again suspended for neglecting physical education classes. The next year, he sold his first story, “La Vie Parisienne,” which he wrote as a student in Charles Townsend Copeland’s class at Harvard. By 1916, he had enrolled in Professor George Pierce Baker’s Workshop 47, the only undergraduate admitted to Baker’s famous playwriting course. Also in that year, Behrman was graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree. After failing to find a job in newspaper offices in several cities, he decided to continue his education at Columbia University, where he studied under Brander Matthews and other notable teachers. In 1918, Behrman earned his master’s degree at Columbia. Offered a teaching appointment at the University of Minnesota, Behrman decided instead to hazard...
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