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James Agee Photograph by Walker Evans, 1937. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-103100).

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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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Cassavetes, John (09 December 1929–03 February 1989), actor, screenwriter, director, and filmmaker, was born in New York City, the son of Nicholas John Cassavetes, the owner of a travel business, and Katherine Demitri. Although his father, a Greek immigrant, had a “knack” for making and losing millions, Cassavetes grew up in the affluent Long Island towns of Sands Point and Port Washington, where he went to public schools. He attended Mohawk College and Colgate University, majoring in English. He left college for a brief stint as a sports announcer, but after reading the plays of ...

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Chapin, Harry Forster (07 December 1942–16 July 1981), popular singer and writer of topical songs, was born in New York City, the son of James Forbes Chapin, a big-band percussionist, and Elspeth Burke. As a high school student, Chapin sang in the Brooklyn Heights Boys Choir and, later, played guitar, banjo, and trumpet in a band that included his father and brothers Stephen Chapin and Tom Chapin. He attended the U.S. Air Force Academy briefly and studied at Cornell University from 1960 to 1964. Chapin was best known for his popular ballads, films, and cultural and humanitarian work for the cause of eradicating world hunger. He married Sandra Campbell Gaston in 1968; they had five children....

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George M. Cohan Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1933. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LOT 12735, no. 236 P&P).

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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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Coward, Noël (16 December 1899–26 March 1973), playwright, songwriter, and performer, was born Noël Peirce Coward in Teddington, England, the son of Arthur Sabin Coward, a generally unsuccessful traveling piano salesman, and Violet Agnes Veitch. Coward’s American connections began at age sixteen as an extra in a ...

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Jane Cowl Photograph by Arnold Genthe, 1914. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-G432-0155-B-007).

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Cowl, Jane (14 December 1884–22 June 1950), actor, producer, and writer, was born Grace Bailey in Boston, Massachusetts, the daughter of Charles A. Bailey, a provision dealer and clerk, and Grace Avery, a singer and voice teacher. Around 1887 the family moved to Brooklyn, where Jane published verses in ...

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Craven, Frank (24 August 1880?–01 September 1945), actor and playwright, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of John T. Craven and Ella Mayer. Craven’s parents, both repertory theater actors, were members of the Boston Theatre Company at the time of his birth. It was in that company’s production of Henry Arthur Jones’s ...

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Da Silva, Howard (04 May 1909–16 February 1986), actor, director, and playwright, was born Howard Silverblatt in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of Benjamin Silverblatt, a dress cutter, and Bertha Sohon. The family later moved to New York City and then to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Da Silva completed his education with a year at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (1927–1928), supporting himself by working in the city’s steel mills. He then hitchhiked to New York and became an apprentice in the Civic Repertory Company for a year’s study. His debut as an actor in the company’s 1929 production of ...

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Davenport, Benjamin Butler (1871?–07 April 1958), playwright, actor, and theater manager, was born in New York City, the son of John L. Davenport, a water commissioner, and (probably) Delia Post. He may have been called John at birth. Butler later claimed to have been dedicated to his art from age six, when his mother gave him a toy theater, or from age eight, when he “caught a glimpse” of ...

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DeSylva, B. G. (27 January 1895–11 July 1950), lyricist and film and theatrical producer, was born George Gard DeSylva in New York City, the son of Aloysius Joseph DeSylva, a vaudeville performer turned attorney, and Georgetta Gard, daughter of a U.S. marshal. When he was two, his family moved to Los Angeles, where his father—who had played in vaudeville as Hal de Forest—tried to make a child star of DeSylva. His debut came at age four in a song-and-dance routine at the Grand Opera House, and for a time he toured on the Keith vaudeville circuit. But DeSylva’s youthful show business career was terminated by his maternal grandfather, who insisted the boy receive a stable and normal education (Georgetta’s father had earlier prompted the elder DeSylva to quit show business and seek a “respectable” profession as a condition for marrying his daughter)....

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Dietz, Howard (08 September 1896–30 July 1983), lyricist and publicity director, was born in New York City, the son of Herman Dietz, a jeweler, and Julia Blumberg. While a student at Townsend Harris Hall, a public high school for unusually able students, Dietz took a job as a copyboy on a newspaper, the ...

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Foreman, Carl (23 July 1914–26 June 1984), producer and screenwriter, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Isidore Foreman and Fannie Rozin, milliners. Foreman studied at the University of Illinois (1932–1933), Northwestern University (1935–1936), and the John Marshall Law School (1936–1937). During his schooling he supported himself as a newspaper reporter, press agent, radio writer, fiction writer, little theater director, and carnival barker. He dropped out of law school in 1938 to pursue a career in motion pictures and moved to Hollywood, where he found work as a story analyst and film laboratory technician while continuing to write. In 1940 he broke into the movies at Monogram Pictures, a low-budget studio, where he collaborated on a series of Bowery Boys pictures. He served as a writer-producer in the Army Signal Corps from 1942 to 1945, during which he worked for a while as a writer for ...

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Freed, Arthur (09 September 1894–12 April 1973), film producer and popular song lyricist, was born in Charleston, South Carolina, the son of Max Grossman, an international art dealer, and Rosa (maiden name unknown). His father’s job as an art dealer led the family all over the world. But the family eventually settled in Seattle, in a large house filled with antiques. Freed grew up there in a musical family. His father sold zithers as a sideline and was said to have a strong tenor voice. While a student at Phillips Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, where he graduated in 1914, Freed began writing poetry. From prep school he went into show business, starting out as a piano player for a Chicago music publisher. During World War I, while in the army, he wrote shows with his partner, Louis Silvers. Then, after the war, he went back to Seattle....

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Gleason, James (23 May 1886–12 April 1959), film and stage actor and writer, was born in New York City, the son of William Gleason and Mina Crolius, both actors. Theater was always the center of Gleason’s life. Born just a few blocks from Broadway, he was first seen by audiences at the age of two months, carried in his mother’s arms in Aristophanes’ ...

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Patricia Flanagan Behrendt

Gordon, Ruth (30 October 1896–29 August 1985), actress and playwright, was born in Quincy, Massachusetts, the daughter of Clinton Jones, a factory foreman, and Annie Ziegler, a secretary.

Upon graduating from high school in 1914, Ruth Gordon Jones, an aspiring actress from the age of twelve, was accepted by the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. Months later, after the academy’s president concluded that she was unsuited to the stage and dismissed her from the program, she began her seventy-year career as a stage and screen actress, playwright, and screenwriter. Her first marriage, in 1918, to Gregory Kelly, a young actor with whom she briefly owned a minor stock company in Indianapolis, ended with his early death in 1927. Gordon’s only child, Jones Harris, the son of the legendary producer ...

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Gordone, Charles (12 October 1925–16 November 1995), playwright and actor-director, was born Charles Edward Fleming in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of Charles Fleming and Camille Morgan Fleming. His stepfather was William Gordon. The boy never knew his biological father and often referred to himself as “part Indian, part Irish, part French, and part Nigger.” With the birth of Charles, the family moved to the mother's hometown, Elkhart, Indiana, where young Charles went to school. Shirley Gordon Jackson, the older of his two sisters, recalled that the family then moved out of the “colored” part of town and crossed the railroad tracks to the white side of Elkhart's “Mason-Dixon line.” All of Charles's school friends were white. He was a straight-A student, “doing everything right,” winning honors in dramatics, music, writing, and debate. He also received sixteen letters in sports and set a school record in the high jump....

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Hawks, Howard (30 May 1896–26 December 1977), film director, was born Howard Winchester Hawks in Goshen, Indiana, the son of Frank Hawks, a hotel company executive, and Helen Howard. When Howard was two, the family moved to Neenah, Wisconsin, and then, eight years later, to Pasadena, California. Hawks attended a series of elite schools: Throop Polytechnic Institute, Phillips Exeter Academy, and Cornell University, graduating with a mechanical engineering degree conferred in absentia in 1918. During World War I he served in the U.S. Army as a flight instructor. After the war he raced cars and flew airplanes, directed one-reel comedies, and produced independent feature films. In 1923, with the encouragement of his future brother-in-law ...