Carpenter in the Dream Factory
By James Tobin (AB ’78, AM ’79, PhD ’86)
The playwright Avery Hopwood led a life of worldly riches and inner despair—but a troubled life culminated in a powerful, lasting legacy at his alma mater and beyond.
A Master of Comedy
On August 26, 2018, The New York Times carried this headline: “Neil Simon, Broadway master of comedy, is dead at 91.” The obituary said Simon, creator of iconic hits from The Odd Couple in the 1960s to Biloxi Blues in the ’80s, “helped redefine popular American humor with an emphasis on the frictions of urban living and the agonizing conflicts of family intimacy,” and he had converted those frictions into “expertly tooled laugh machines.”
Exactly those words could have been used to describe the career of Avery Hopwood, a gay Midwesterner with a superb sense of humor who, in the span of a few months in 1905, wrote his first play, graduated from the University of Michigan, and sold the play to a Broadway production company for an advance against royalties of $250.
This combination of quick effort and quick reward set the pattern of his life, leading to worldly riches and inner despair.
It also planted the seeds of Michigan’s reputation as one of the country’s best training grounds for serious young writers. But that only came many years later, after Hopwood died at an early age in the surf of the French Riviera.
“Merely a Writer”
As a boy in Cleveland, Ohio, Hopwood wrote later, “I was torn between a desire to preach and to be an actor. Fate spared both vocations. I turned out merely to be a writer.”
He was a reader and a scribbler in notebooks, not an athlete.
“I’ve got to write,” he said later. “I realized that at the age, comparatively speaking, when a duck takes to water, for the only thing I can do is to push a pencil.”
His father sold beef and pork for a living. His mother, to whom he would be close his whole life, nurtured Avery’s ambition. She moved her father’s heavy walnut desk into the boy’s bedroom so that he might study and write in style.
On vacations he would write for eight hours, then read for eight hours. When it was decided he would go to college, his mother sold her diamond engagement ring to help.
Judging from a short story he wrote about a “misfit” freshman, his first year in Ann Arbor was lonely. The story tells of one J.B. Brown, a sickly youngster of humble origins who can’t fit in with the well-to-do set that dominates campus life. He is befriended by a senior girl who wishes for a kinder sort of college “where this wouldn’t have happened,” with places where “boys like Brown … could enter without anybody asking or caring what church they belonged to … places without any mission—except to be homelike, and inviting.”
Money problems at home forced Hopwood to leave after that first year. He spent his sophomore year at Adelbert College in Cleveland. Then he returned to Ann Arbor.
Everyone was struck by his distinctive looks. His head seemed a little too large for his slender body, and his right eye drooped noticeably, which made him look slightly off-center and sad.
In his first year at Michigan the fraternities had turned him away. “They all admitted him to be a fine fellow,” a reporter said later, “but said they couldn’t tolerate such an intellectual strain and didn’t care to have his melancholy figure prowling the ‘frat’ houses.” When he came back for his junior year, a fellow Clevelander vouched for him, and he joined Phi Gamma Delta.
Later in life it became clear he was gay. But in a place like Ann Arbor in the early 1900s, the stigma associated with being gay was so powerful that one defied it only at a grave risk to one’s reputation.
Impressions of him were strangely at odds. One friend said he was “awkward, baleful [and] witty,” with an air of preoccupation that “ward[ed] off intrusion.” Another called him “a disheveled student, shy, pasty-faced and a bit grimy. He was not a mixer and had few close friends.”
Not so, according to a fraternity brother, who said, “Avery was always well dressed. … He was neat; he was not shy; he was never ostentatious and he looked happy as could be. … He was a close friend of every member of the chapter and by far the best liked of any of us.”
Yet a professor recalled him as “a lonesome, rather diffident, although brilliant student.”
Hopwood was anything but diffident about the professor who had the greatest influence on him. This was Fred Newton Scott, one of the first faculty in the country to teach journalism at the college level. Hopwood took five courses with Scott, who had students discuss their writings with each other around a big oak table. They also discussed such classic works of rhetoric and philosophy as Aristotle’s Poetics and Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus.
It was the latter work – a novel about a fictional literary work titled Clothes: Their Origin and Influence–that gave Hopwood both the idea and the title for his first play.
During his junior year, a headline in the Michigan Alumnus caught Hopwood’s eye: “The Call for the Playwright.” The author was a professional drama critic named Louis Vincent DeFoe, himself a LSA graduate of 1891. As Hopwood read, he found DeFoe speaking to his churning ambitions.
Michigan graduates had excelled in the law, medicine, the sciences, and literature, DeFoe said. So, he asked, “why is it that no Michigan man has directed his ability and energy to the writing of plays? The field is wide and inviting. There is elbow room in it for ambition. Best of all there is abundant and increasing demand for its product.”
DeFoe conceded that the American theater, with its melodramas and light comedies, did “not aspire to the highest ideals of literature.” But it offered other compensations. He cited a writer whose comic plays earned him close to $100,000 a year, and “incomes ranging from $10,000 to $20,000 a year are quite common.”
This was a time when the average mechanical engineer pulled down $5,000 a year and a professor at Michigan might make $1,500. So $10,000 a year was bait that a talented writer from a family of limited means could hardly resist.
“The more I thought about it,” Hopwood said later, “the more determined I became to try my luck in the field.”
“Mr. DeFoe’s article started me on my career of crime. Think of the havoc he wrought in my life! I might have become a college professor!”
By the last semester of his senior year, Hopwood had gained more credits than he needed. With extra time on his hands, he took to his desk to write. “The task wasn’t so easy as I had imagined,” he said later. “It took all my time before graduation. I wrote the thing at least ten times. …”
The result was a play titled Clothes, in which a young woman is tempted by the promise of wealth and luxury to marry a man she doesn’t love. “I deliberately made up my mind to do that!” she cries. “I’ve tried to make him buy! I’ve led him on! I’ve made him believe I care for him! I wanted comforts, luxuries, money!” But after a wrenching change of heart, she finally declares: “I’m not for sale.”
Hopwood had tapped a powerful and universal theme, and he showed remarkable skill in plotting and dialogue for a playwright so young. The eminent critic H.L. Mencken would later say that Clothes was “one of the most remarkable first plays ever produced in America.”
Immediately after graduating, Hopwood landed a reporter’s job with the Cleveland Leader. By summer’s end he was assigned to write a daily newsletter for the newspaper from New York. He packed his clothes and the manuscript of Clothes, and in a matter of weeks he sold the play to a producer. Reshaped by a seasoned pro, it was soon playing on the Broadway stage. It was not a great hit, but it was successful enough that Hopwood could quit his newspaper job and devote all his time to the playwright’s craft.
In the long run, Hopwood’s intention was to create a great novel—“something which an intelligent man can sit down and read and think about,” he said. But that would have to wait.
He wrote two serious plays, both of which flopped. Then he settled on a compromise that has appealed to many writers with salable talent and a thin wallet. To pile up a cushion of money to live on, he would, for a time, write plays for the broadest possible audience. Then he would quit the business to write his serious novels.
That was the plan. But the theme of Clothes —the competition between wealth and being true to oneself—was to haunt the years ahead.
Where the Money Was
Asked why he robbed banks, the infamous Willie Sutton is said to have replied: “That’s where the money is.” Hopwood felt the same way about Broadway.
The market for popular plays was soaring. In 1910 nearly 300 plays were staged on Broadway alone. Hundreds more were staged by touring troupes throughout the country.
Hopwood had arrived in New York just as the playgoing public—a much larger part of the population then than it is now—was embracing the genre known as bedroom farce, a mixture of titillation and laughs that aimed “to achieve the maximum of naughty suggestion compatible with fables so constructed as to preserve the technical virtue of all the characters concerned,” as the critic Joseph Wood Krutch put it. The style was known as “skating on thin ice.” The trick was to administer mild shocks to playgoers raised on Victorian proprieties but eager to feel daring on a Saturday night at the theater, but without provoking full-on outrage or censorship.
Over the next 10 years, Hopwood mastered the tools of this very specialized trade—how to develop an eyebrow-raising situation around an appealing leading lady; how to create sexual tension without going too far; how to create sight gags and well-timed lines that leaven the naughtiness with laughs.
With Seven Days, a collaboration with the novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart, Hopwood, at the age of only 27, scored his first big hit. This was followed by Nobody’s Widow, Judy Forgot, Somewhere Else (a musical) and Miss Jenny O’Jones—two hits and two flops—then, in 1915, a major hit, Fair and Warmer. Here, Hopwood had a young husband and wife —not each others’—create a classic “compromising situation” to excite the jealousy of their respective spouses. The players mix cocktails, hide under beds, and lock bathroom doors until finally the maid sorts out the mess to restore domestic harmony.
Most serious drama critics moaned. One of them called Nobody’s Widow “one of the silliest conglomerations of twaddle and indelicacy with which the trash-ridden stage of America has been encumbered.”
But others, like Hopwood’s friend Carl Van Vechten—a writer, photographer and cultural impresario—saw “the work of a genius” in Hopwood’s entertainment.
“Let those who do not appreciate the virtuosity of this undertaking attempt to write as successful a scene in a similar vein,” Van Vechten remarked.
Audiences ignored the critics and by word of mouth made Hopwood a prince of the box office. At a time when a run of 100 performances classified a play as a hit, Fair and Warmer ran for 377 nights in New York, spawned nine U.S. touring companies, and played 497 nights in London.
For a while, Hopwood defended what he did.
“People love a touch of the risqué just as they love a cocktail before dinner,” he declared. “Drama is a democratic art, and the dramatist is not the monarch but the servant of the public.”
His plays appealed to “a healthy instinct” in modern audiences, he said. “I refer to the instinct of sex. Prudery and false modesty may pretend to be ashamed of that instinct. I’m not.”
The theme of thwarted sexuality appears in the manuscript of the autobiographical novel that he was drafting in spare hours, an exposé of the theater world in which a young graduate of the University of Michigan aspires to write literature but turns to popular stagecraft. “There was, he found, something very satisfying about making money.”
But he never made a full-time commitment to serious fiction. He was “always finding myself outlining a play when I am talking with a manager or actor, and of course I may never be able to cure myself of this habit—consequently I shall be getting deeper and deeper into the theater.”
In “The Call to the Playwright,” Lawrence DeFoe had speculated that few Michigan men entered the theater “because the stage borders upon the strange and uncertain land of Bohemia whose enticing air castles and alluring fascinations college training has a tendency to teach men to shun.”
Not so with Hopwood. He immersed himself in the New York neighborhoods that polite society tiptoed past with curious but disapproving glances—Harlem and “Black Bohemia,” where ragtime reigned, and Greenwich Village, just entering its long history as a capital of cultural revolt.
Here Carl Van Vechten introduced him to writers, artists, intellectuals, and musicians. Briefly lovers, Van Vechten and Hopwood remained close friends and fellow partygoers for years, moving as a team through the city’s avant-garde circles, amusing and outraging friends with riotous drinking and razor-edged comic interplay.
Hopwood came to know such figures as the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, the dancer Isadora Duncan, the unconventional writer Gertrude Stein, and her lifelong companion, Alice B. Toklas. He was welcome at any wild party as a bon vivant “whose innocent, baby-faced appearance,” wrote Van Vechten’s biographer, Edward White, “was comically out of step with his hedonistic personality and incorrigibly irreverent sense of humor.”
“We adored him,” Toklas said, though Stein remarked that he had “the air of a sheep with the possibility of being a wolf.”
While Van Vechten conducted romances with both men and women, Hopwood, according to White, lived the life of a gay man “as openly as was possible amid the considerable constraints of the time and only pursued relationships with other men.”
Yet he felt compelled by his profession to play a heterosexual role in public. Gossip columnists frequently linked Hopwood, whom they called the “Playboy Playwright,” to beautiful actresses. He did not marry but he was often seen and photographed in the company of women. They provided him with cover for audiences who would have been puzzled, not to say appalled, to learn their favorite chronicler of male/female hijinks was a man attracted only to other men. He pursued affairs chiefly on trips to Europe, away from the eyes and cameras of the American press.
He made more and more money. With the end of the World War I in 1918, Broadway’s popularity rose to new heights. The spread of silent movies meant there was less call in the hinterlands for touring dramatic companies. So playwrights increasingly wrote to suit the sophisticated tastes of New Yorkers without fear of censure on the road. Hopwood led the way.
His goal was to surpass the record of London’s star playwright, Somerset Maugham, who once had five shows running at once. In the 1920-21 season, Hopwood came close, with four simultaneous hits. First came The Gold Diggers —which later inspired a string of hugely popular “talkies”—about young New York women who forthrightly “capitalize what nature has given us” to earn their livings from admiring men. Next came Spanish Love; then Ladies’ Night (In a Turkish Bath); and Hopwood’s most popular show of all, The Bat, another collaboration with Mary Roberts Rinehart.
The Bat was not a farce but a scary comedy/mystery with a surprise ending. The story line was Rinehart’s, but Hopwood added all the laughs, frights, and special effects. The two split $1 million in royalties, and by 1946 The Bat had been seen by 10 million people.
Earlier, Hopwood had been called “a carpenter in a play factory.” After years on the job, he was now a master craftsman, with producers calling him in at top dollar to reshape the drafts of less adroit writers.
But he regarded his expertise in terms that bordered on self-contempt. He had drunk himself into alcoholism. He also used cocaine. A New York columnist who had watched him at several openings said: “He has made millions laugh … but I’ve never seen him do more than faintly, boredly smile at the most shrieking farces.” The playwright flirted with Hollywood, then told a friend he had decided not to write movies. “I am too high-priced a whore for that.”
Early in 1922, just after the season when he had four simultaneous hits, Hopwood directed his attorney to rewrite his will. He was only 39. But his mind was dwelling on finalities—on the truth, as he perceived it, of his own career and the hope of redeeming it by a gift to the future. But he told no one what he had done. The terms were to be kept secret until after his death.
“Tired to Death”
Hopwood co-wrote two shows for 1922—The Demi-Virgin and Getting Gertie’s Garter. Both were hits, but the sparkle had dulled. The critic Heywood Broun said Gertie had its moments, “but they are moments which nearly every farce has had for the past fifteen years.”
Eugene O’Neill and other dramatists were raising the standard of the American stage, and playgoers’ expectations were rising with it. But “Mr. Hopwood made his reputation as a farce writer back in the days when the favorite sport was skating on thin ice. Since then audiences have learned how to swim.” But no critic was sicker of the fad of bedroom farce than the master farceur himself. In December 1924, at the end of a performance in Baltimore, Hopwood rose to give a drunken speech at the curtain. He told the audience that The Demi-Virgin and Getting Gertie’s Garter were the “dullest plays” he had ever seen, let alone written. He was “tired to death” of concocting such stuff, he said, and he was quitting.
He wrote adaptations of two or three more scripts but no more plays of his own. He spent more and more time in Europe. Friends heard reports of wild escapades and drunken public scenes. Of his novel’s protagonist, he wrote: “He was not ashamed of himself, so long as he kept drinking. … [All] that really interested him was the mood into which he could project himself, with the aid of drink or cocaine.”
On July 1, 1928, at the end of a four-day drinking spree, he visited friends at the resort town of Juan les Pins on the French Riviera. After more drinks, then dinner, he stripped to go swimming. In the waves he was overcome by a heart attack and died.
“The New, the Unusual, and the Radical”
A month later, the revised terms of Hopwood’s will were disclosed to the press. By the revisions he had dictated six years earlier, his estate, valued at well over $1 million, would go to his mother, Jule Hopwood. Upon her death, one-fifth of the estate was to endow a program of literary prizes for students at the University of Michigan.
“It is especially desired,” the will stated, “that the students competing for prizes shall be allowed the widest possible latitude, and that the new, the unusual, and the radical shall be especially encouraged.”
Jule Hopwood died only a year later, and the bequest to Michigan of $313,836 established the Avery Hopwood and Jule Hopwood Prizes. They became the most prestigious student literary awards in the nation, providing financial and moral support to many who would go on to make significant contributions in the arts. The awards also helped to lay the foundation for Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program, one of the leading graduate programs for writers in the world.
The list of Hopwood winners includes the novelists Betty Smith (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn); Marge Piercy (Gone to Soldiers); Elizabeth Kostova (The Historian) and Jesmyn Ward (Sing, Unburied, Sing); the poets Robert Hayden (an early U.S. poet laureate), Laura Kasischke, Theodore Roethke, John Ciardi, and Danez Smith; the children’s novelist Christopher Paul Curtis (The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963); and the screenwriter and director Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill; Raiders of the Lost Ark).
The most renowned Hopwood Award winner to date was the playwright Arthur Miller (AB ’38, HLLD ’56), who won awards for drama in 1936 and 1937. Miller said later the cash awards made it possible for him to finish college.
Hopwood’s biographer, Jack Sharrar, notes: “By an irony Hopwood himself would have appreciated, he made his chief contribution to the development of American drama indirectly by extending a helping hand to Arthur Miller, creator of the new tragedy of the common man: Miller was to do the kind of work Hopwood himself had aspired to but never achieved.”
Long after the writer’s death, Sharrar discovered the draft of Hopwood’s novel among his personal papers. Sharrar edited the manuscript for publication by Mondial, an independent publisher of rare and unusual works, in 2011. The title is: The Great Bordello: A Story of the Theatre.
This article originally appeared in the University of Michigan Heritage Project. It is an expanded version of the writer’s earlier story about Hopwood, which appeared in Michigan Today in 2005. Other sources included Jack Sharrar, Avery Hopwood: His Life and Plays (1989); Edward White, The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America (2014); H.L. Mencken, “Avery Hopwood,” Baltimore Sun, 12/6/1910; Linda Simon, The Biography of Alice B. Toklas (1991); Archie Bell, “A Dramatist Who Writes His Plays in a Tent,” The Theatre Magazine, August 1910; and “Some Notes About Playboy Playwright,” Phi Gamma Delta Magazine, January 1958.
For more from the Heritage Project, visit heritage.umich.edu.