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Agee, James Rufus (27 November 1909–16 May 1955), writer, was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, the son of Hugh James Agee, a construction company employee, and Laura Whitman Tyler. The father’s family were poorly educated mountain farmers, while the mother’s were solidly middle class. Agee was profoundly affected by his father’s death in a car accident in 1916. He idealized his absent father and struggled against his mother and her genteel and (he felt) cold values. “Agee’s mother wanted him to be clean, chaste, and sober,” the photographer ...

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Allen, Steve (26 December 1921–30 October 2000), comedian, author, songwriter, was born Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen in New York City, the son of vaudeville comedians Carroll William Allen and Isabelle Donohue, who performed under the stage names Billy Allen and Belle Montrose. Literally born into show business, Allen toured the vaudeville circuit with his parents from infancy until his father died suddenly when Allen was only eighteen months old. Because his mother chose to continue her career, she left her young son in the care of her eccentric family in Chicago. In his first autobiography, ...

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Benchley, Robert (15 September 1889–21 November 1945), humorist, drama critic, and actor, was born Robert Charles Benchley in Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of Charles H. Benchley, the mayor’s clerk, and Maria Jane Moran. After the death of his older brother Edmund in the Spanish-American War, an event that stunned Benchley’s family, Edmund’s fiancée, Lillian Duryea, largely financed Robert’s education. Benchley attended Phillips Exeter Academy, where his bent for satire early revealed itself when his assigned essay on “a practical subject,” embalming, earned an ...

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Brinkley, David (10 July 1920–11 June 2003), broadcast journalist, was born David McClure Brinkley in Wilmington, North Carolina, the son of William Graham Brinkley, a railroad worker, and Mary MacDonald West. Brinkley's father died when the boy was eight, leaving him in the care of a dour, deeply religious mother. Brinkley, seeking escape through reading, spent hours at the Wilmington Public Library. He also enjoyed writing. Encouraged by his high school English teacher, Brinkley worked part‐time at Wilmington's afternoon newspaper, the ...

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Burton, William Evans (24 September 1802–10 February 1860), actor and editor, was born in London, England, the son of William George Burton, a printer (maiden name unknown). Hoping his child would become a clergyman, the elder Burton enrolled him at St. Paul’s School, but at the age of eighteen Burton had to withdraw and take charge of his family’s printing business when his father died....

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Carter, Boake (28 September 1898–16 November 1944), broadcast journalist, was born Harold Thomas Henry Carter in Baku, then part of Russia (now the capital of Azerbaijan), the son of Thomas Carter, an oilman and British consul in that city, and Edith Harwood-Yarred Carter. He was educated at boarding schools in England and then spent a brief interval at Cambridge University, where he wrote for a student newspaper. Carter was impatient to enter the oil business with his father, and while making preparations to do so he worked as a stringer for the ...

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Cody, William Frederick (26 February 1846–10 January 1917), frontiersman and entertainer, better known as “Buffalo Bill,” was born in Scott County, Iowa, the son of Isaac Cody and Mary Ann Bonsell Laycock. Cody’s father managed several farms and operated a state business in Iowa. In 1854 the family moved to the Salt Creek Valley in Kansas, where Cody’s father received a government contract to provide hay to Fort Leavenworth. After his father died in 1857, Cody went to work as an ox-team driver for fifty cents a day. Shortly thereafter, the firm of Majors and Russell hired him as an express boy. Cody attended school periodically, although his formal education ended in 1859 when he joined a party heading to Denver to search for gold. He prospected for two months without any luck. He arrived back in Kansas in March 1860 after a trapping expedition. He rode for a time for the Pony Express during its short lifetime (Apr. 1860–Nov. 1861). After the start of the Civil War he joined a group of antislavery guerrillas based in Kansas. Later the Ninth Kansas Volunteers hired him as a scout and guide. On 16 February 1864 Cody enlisted into Company F of the Seventh Kansas Volunteer Cavalry. He saw quite a bit of action in Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, and Kansas during his one year and seven months of duty. He was mustered out of the army as a private on 29 September 1865....

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Cohan, George M. (3 or 4 July 1878–05 November 1942), performer, writer of songs, musicals, and plays, and producer, was born in Providence, Rhode Island, the son of Jeremiah “Jerry” John Cohan and Helen “Nellie” Frances Costigan. (Cohan’s middle initial stands for Michael.) At the age of seven, Cohan was sent to the E Street School in Providence. His formal schooling lasted six weeks, after which the school sent him to rejoin his parents and sister, Josie, in their theatrical travels. He took violin lessons and played the instrument both in the theater orchestra and in a trick violin act he devised. The Cohans went on their first road show as a family in 1889; when the show failed they went back to ...

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Cooke, Alistair (20 November 1908–30 March 2004), journalist, was born Alfred Cooke in Salford, a suburb of Manchester, England, to Samuel Cooke, an iron fitter, insurance salesman, and Methodist lay preacher, and Mary Byrne Cooke. His lifelong interest in America began during World War I, when he became “fascinated” by seven American soldiers billeted in his family's home in Blackpool on Britain's northwest coast (Stewart, p. 5). While at Cambridge University in 1930 he took the name “Alistair,” edited ...

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Cronkite, Walter Leland, Jr. (04 November 1916–17 July 2009), broadcast journalist, was born in Saint Joseph, Missouri, the son of Walter Leland Cronkite, a dentist, and Helen Fritsche Cronkite. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Kansas City. When he was ten years old his father accepted a position with a dental college in Houston, Texas....

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Fadiman, Clifton (15 May 1904–20 June 1999), literary critic, anthologist, and radio personality, was born Clifton Paul Fadiman in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants Isidore Michael Fadiman, a pharmacist, and Grace Elizabeth Fadiman (maiden name unknown), a nurse. Fadiman, who was known to friends and family as “Kip,” began his lifelong passion for reading at age four, when he reportedly read his first book. By the time he was a teenager, he had read most or all of Sophocles, Dante, and Milton, among others. Fadiman later remembered that “by the end of high school I was not of course an educated man, but I knew how to try to become one” (quoted in Cross)....

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Gillette, William Hooker (24 July 1853–29 April 1937), actor and playwright, was born in Hartford, Connecticut, the youngest of six children of Francis Gillette, a politician who once filled out an interim term as a U.S. senator, and Elizabeth Daggett Hooker. He early displayed histrionic abilities and was a leading orator in high school. Some uncertainty exists about his subsequent education. He claimed at one time or another to have studied at numerous colleges and universities, including Yale, Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston University, and the City College of New York, but records show he was graduated from none of these. In his later years he did receive several honorary degrees, however, including one from Yale....

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Hart, Moss (24 October 1904–20 December 1961), playwright and stage director, was born in New York City, the son of Barnet Hart, a tobacconist, and Lillian Solomon. Hart claimed that he “grew up in an atmosphere of unrelieved poverty with … the grim smell of actual want always at the end of my nose.” As a teenager, he worked as an office boy for the theatrical road producer Augustus Pitou in Manhattan. Under a pseudonym, in 1923 Hart wrote a play called, variously, ...

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Huntley, Chet (10 December 1911–20 March 1974), broadcast journalist, was born Chester Robert Huntley in Cardwell, Montana, the son of Percy Adams “Pat” Huntley, a railroad telegrapher, and Blanche Wadine Tatham, a former schoolteacher. In 1913 his parents claimed a homestead on 960 acres of land near Saco in northern Montana. Chet’s earliest memories were of farm chores, and his early schooling was in a one-room schoolhouse built on a corner of his parents’ land, where he was taught to read by phonics (sounding out letters), a system he later advocated....

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Kaufman, George S. (16 November 1889–02 June 1961), playwright and stage director, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of Joseph Kaufman, a small-businessman, and Henrietta Myers. Raised in a middle-class Jewish family, Kaufman attended public schools and immersed himself in plays and books—particularly those by ...

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Kronenberger, Louis (09 December 1904–30 April 1980), writer and critic, was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, the son of Louis Kronenberger, Sr., a merchant, and Mabel Newwitter. From 1921 to 1924 he attended the University of Cincinnati, but he left without completing a degree; instead, he moved to New York City to become a writer. He took a clerical job at the ...

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Langner, Lawrence (30 May 1890–26 December 1962), patent agent, playwright, and theatrical producer, was born in Swansea, South Wales, the son of Baruch Bernard Freedman, a businessman, and Cecilia Sarah Langner. (He took his mother’s maiden name.) He attended private schools in Swansea and in Margate, England. After a brief stint as a clerk for a theatrical manager in 1903, he was apprenticed to Wallace Cranston Fairweather, a chartered patent agent in London. Langner passed examinations of the British Chartered Institute of Patent Agents in 1910....

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Murrow, Edward R. (25 April 1908–27 April 1965), broadcast journalist, was born Egbert Roscoe Murrow in Polecat Creek, near Greensboro, North Carolina, the son of Roscoe Murrow, a farmer and later an engineer on a logging railroad, and Ethel Lamb, a teacher. The Murrow family soon traveled to the state of Washington, which was still thought of as a frontier, full of labor strikes and conflicts over free speech, trade unionism, and legislative reform....

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Nathan, George Jean (14 February 1882–08 April 1958), drama critic and editor, was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the son of Charles Narét-Nathan, a landowner and businessman, and Ella Nirdlinger. Nathan was raised in a well-to-do family with international connections and social prominence; his father, a world-traveler, had prominent relatives in Belgium and France, where he owned vineyards; his mother’s family were among the founders of Fort Wayne. Members of the extended family had interests in the theater and journalism. After graduating from high school in Cleveland, Ohio, where the family had moved in 1888, Nathan attended Cornell (1900–1904). There he attained prominence of his own as editor of the campus newspaper and literary magazine and as an award-winning fencer. His midwestern upbringing was leavened with frequent summer excursions to Europe, and following his graduation he spent a year at the University of Bologna....

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Rogers, Will (04 November 1879–15 August 1935), entertainer and social commentator, was born William Penn Adair Rogers near Oologah, Oklahoma, in what was then the Cooweescoowee District of Indian Territory, the son of Clement Vann Rogers and Mary America Schrimsher, Cherokee ranchers. Rogers County, which contains both Oologah, site of the historic Rogers home, and Claremore, site of the Will Rogers Memorial and Museum, is named after the prominent father, not the prominent son. “Uncle Clem” was a major player in Oklahoma politics before and after statehood (1907), serving as a judge, as a member of the Dawes Commission (to distribute Indian lands prior to statehood), and as the first local banker. Will’s loving wife, the former Betty Blake, whom he married in 1908, later remembered that “Will had everything he wanted. He had spending money and the best string of cow ponies in the country. No boy in Indian Territory had more than Uncle Clem’s boy.” (Yet being “Uncle Clem’s boy” could have its downside, too.)...