Samuel Nathaniel Behrman (BEHR-muhn) was one of the leading creators of American stage comedies in the 1930’s. He was born to Joseph and Zelda Feingold Behrman, Orthodox Jews, who together with their two oldest sons had fled persecution in Lithuania three years earlier. Joseph Behrman, a grocer, was a Talmudic scholar who taught his children Hebrew and recounted Old Testament stories as if they had occurred in his recent past. The most profound influence on young Behrman was his urbane friend Daniel Asher, seven years his senior, who took him to his first play in 1904. Asher encouraged him to write and helped revise his early efforts.
After high school, Behrman toured the vaudeville circuit in a comic sketch he had written, until bad health forced him to return home. He began to attend Clark College, but when he was suspended for refusing to attend physical education classes, he transferred to Harvard University, where he studied playwriting under George Pierce Baker. After graduating from Harvard and failing to find newspaper work, Behrman earned a master’s degree in English from Columbia University. With the advice of Asher, he turned down a teaching offer from the University of Minnesota and worked for The New York Times for two years, progressing from typist of classified advertisements to book reviewer; he also published several short stories during this time.
In 1922, Behrman began collaborating on stories and plays with J. Kenyon Nicholson, and two of their plays found short-lived productions. The Second Man was a solo success for Behrman in 1927, but his insecurity about his continued progress as a playwright led him to begin contributing articles to The New Yorker in 1929, a relationship that lasted until his death. Behrman was finally beginning to achieve his goals in 1929 when he was shocked by the suicide of Asher. He examines the impact that his mentor had on him and his guilt over the...
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