1895 – 1988
Rose Dorothy Lewin Franken was a celebrated Broadway playwright and director, a Hollywood screenwriter and a popular novelist whose fiction touched a sympathetic chord in American women. After much success as both a playwright and a novelist, she ventured into more problematic subject matter, but the adverse criticism and low box office receipts convinced her to return to lighter themes. Later in her career, she complained that Claudia, her most famous creation, had overshadowed her author.
Franken was the youngest of four children born to Hannah Younker and Michael Lewin, a businessman. Shortly after her birth on December 28, 1895 in Gainesville, Texas, her parents separated. Her mother relocated to the Younker family brownstone in Harlem, New York City, where the children were reared. Although never officially graduated from Ethical Culture High School, Rose was accepted by Barnard College. Instead of matriculating, however, she married Sigmund Walter Anthony Franken, an oral surgeon, on September 1, 1913. They spent the first ten months of their marriage at Trudeau Sanitarium at Saranac Lake, New York, where Dr. Franken’s newly diagnosed tuberculosis went into remission. Fear of a recurrence inculcated a passionate love of family that not only shaped Rose’s personal priorities but also her characters’ values.
A misdelivered typewriter spurred her long, productive career. She discovered it on her doorstep and began to write short stories. Her husband, an ardent supporter, read her daily work each evening. Her dedication to writing was immediately apparent in her disciplined work habits and her persistent, systematic search for a publishing house for her first novel, Pattern (1925). Refusing to undertake major revisions without a contract and amused that one editor insisted she rewrite the beginning while another indicated later chapters, she collected rejection slips until Max Perkins, an editor at Charles Scribner’s, accepted the novel. This began a lifelong friendship. Good Housekeeping turned down her first story, which she offered free. Years later, the magazine paid five thousand dollars for it. She continued to create fiction while rearing her three sons, Paul (b. 1920), John (b. 1925), and Peter (b. 1928).
Although influenced by the domestic dramas of Sidney Howard, she was essentially a self-taught playwright who learned dramatic construction from textbooks. Her first two dramas—Fortnight, which was optioned but never produced, and Mr. Dooley Jr., a children’s play written with her aunt Jane Lewin—were apprentice works. Another Language, her third play, which was originally titled Hallam Wives, opened at the Booth Theatre, New York, on April 25, 1932, and ran for 453 performances. The central conflict is between an iconoclastic wife, Stella, and her husband Victor’s satirically rendered family. Mother Hallam is the prototypical matriarch; the sisters-in-law are postmarital versions of Cinderella’s stepsisters—unattractive, catty, and stingy; and the materialistic sons enjoy a complacent rigidity. Stella herself represents modernism.
The play attracted many gifted performers. Cleon Throckmorton designed the sets. The original New York cast included Margaret Wycherly, Margaret Hamilton, and Glenn Anders. Herbert Marshall and Edna Best starred in the 1932 London premiere at the Lyric Theatre. Helen Hayes played Stella in the 1933 film version.
After her husband’s death from tuberculosis on December 17, 1932, the playwright relocated to Hollywood and began the second phase of her writing career. Her successes made her a sought-after screenwriter, who began at $750 a week but was soon earning two thousand dollars. A workaholic, she placed only her children’s well-being before current projects. During the next five years she wrote scripts (Say Goodbye Again, Universal 1934; Thirsty Soil; Beloved Enemy, with John Lloyd Balderston and William Brown Meloney, Goldwyn, 1936), novels (Of Great Riches, Twice Born) and short stories, which were published primarily by Redbook magazine, where her name often appeared on the magazine cover. On April 27, 1937 she married William Brown Meloney, a lawyer, writer and executive on the New York Herald Tribune’s This Week magazine. They relocated to Longmeadow, a working farm in Lyme, Connecticut, which, under their management, was adopted as a model of diversified farming by the local agricultural college at Storrs. They published individually, while also collaborating on film scripts and serial fiction, usually under the pseudonym “Franken Meloney.” Their novels include Strange Victory (1939), When Doctors Disagree (1940) and American Bred (1941).
While still in Hollywood, Franken began to publish the Claudia short stories. In 1939, she compiled them into the first of what would become eight episodic novels. They were frequently reissued, sometimes with variant titles; collected in omnibus editions, all of which sold well; and translated into several languages. As one reviewer wrote about Claudia Grows Up, the third book, the novels were “like meeting old friends again,” especially the “amusing and appealing child-wife.” The plots are replete with minor disasters, enough to keep the reader or viewer hooked. In the end love conquers all. In Claudia and David (1940), for example, we are treated to a séance, an appendectomy, Claudia’s forgotten birthday, and her son’s skating accident. In The Fragile Years (1952), the seventh novel, Pearl Harbor has been attacked, David enlists, and their eldest son dies, which is the first tragedy of Claudia’s life.
After an absence of nine years from the theater, Franken returned with Claudia, a dramatization of her fiction. Dissatisfied with the casting choices, Franken took over the direction and auditioned nearly two hundred actors for the roles, selecting twenty-three-year-old Dorothy McGuire as the lead and Phyllis Thaxter as the understudy, and discovering Jennifer Jones (Phyllis Walker at the time, later Mrs. David O. Selznick)—all unknowns and all chosen against the advice of John Golden, her producer, who recommended established actors to ensure box office success. This story of a young woman’s adjustment to marriage opened at the Booth Theatre, New York, on February 12, 1941, and was highly successful with 722 performances. It opened in London at St. Martin’s Theatre, on September 17, 1942, and returned to the St. James Theatre, New York, on May 24, 1942. Three additional road shows were cast, and there were tours of the United States, Australia and England, as well as a radio series. Burns Mantle included it in the The Best Plays of 1940–41. The script was sold to Twentieth Century Fox for $187,000, an impressive sum at the time. The film (1943) starred McGuire and Robert Young, who were paired again in Claudia and David, a 1946 movie sequel based upon another Franken novel.
Still experimenting, Franken wrote and directed two more plays in the 1943–1944 season: Doctors Disagree and Outrageous Fortune. Both were produced by Meloney when the initial producers backed out. In Doctors Disagree, the female physician not only wins the right to a career and marriage (like Franken herself) but also competes successfully with a male colleague. Critics panned it as sentimental and it closed after twenty-eight performances. There is no extant script.
Although an assimilated Jew, Franken was sensitive toward discrimination.
Outrageous Fortune, Franken’s most daring play, takes a hard look at antisemitism and homosexuality. Despite their considerable wealth and talent, many of the characters are hiding, living in conformity to the dominant culture. Franken’s descriptions indicate ethnic and gender stereotypes. Yet the stage directions specify that “no one is to be cast with racial typing, nor is any personality to play upon racial idiom or humour.” This contradiction was further complicated by Franken’s casting, in which the young Jewish woman had a turned-up nose, the Catholic wife had a turned-down nose, and an ex-prize fighter played Barry Hamilton, a tall, handsome, twentysomething violinist whose sexual orientation is ambiguous. The casting was meant to double the shock of discrimination, but it probably strained audience expectations, shifting attention from the unfolding drama to the question of whether someone looked the type. The text itself is overburdened by its several issues, but it contains some of Franken’s most dynamic exchanges and dramatic shifts, and it explores problems that were rarely even whispered about at the time of its production.
In an interview with Helen Ormsbee for the New York Herald Tribune on November 28, 1943, Franken said that Outrageous Fortune “has more of my own thinking and feeling in it than anything I’ve done in years.” She called it “a gamble in its contrapuntal form and taboo in its subject matter.” Critic Burns Mantle included this and three of Franken’s other dramas (four of the six produced) in his “Best Plays of the Season” series. Other critics, like Louis Kronenberger, however, advised her to return to a “more hausfrauish direction; when, for example, she talks about food, she makes sense.” The drama ran for only seventy-seven performances.
Franken was accustomed to immediate success, both critical and financial, and the two failures forced her to reconsider her goals. In 1944 she retreated to the popular formula with Soldier’s Wife and scored a hit that ran 253 performances. The story of domestic readjustment was timely. Although the female hero declines fame for family, Franken inserted sympathetic cameos of two career women: an actress and a journalist whose current assignments include an article on her visit to China and an interview with a Congresswoman. Franken’s last produced play, The Hallams, a sequel to Another Language, opened on March 4, 1948 at the Booth Theatre, but was not successful. The Wings, the last drama she wrote, was never published. Her autobiography, When All is Said and Done, appeared in 1962.
William Brown Meloney died on May 4, 1971. Franken relocated from New York to Tucson, Arizona, where she died on June 22, 1988.
Franken was one of those rare writers who excelled in two genres, fiction and drama. Ironically, the sentimental prose that made her name a household word later took second place to her plays. Franken’s literary style and her diverting, off-beat humor were distinctive. Once she established a sentimental tone, she would deflate it, playing against expectations. Her hints of icy rationality behind a middle-class sensibility created depth in her often cardboard creations. We hear the characters ponder the effects of their words before they speak, judge each other, and intrude to the point of rudeness before retreating once more to a drawing room courtesy. Marginalized characters, like the lesbian actress in the novel Intimate Story (1950), spice the pedestrian narratives and add a contemporary tone. Rapid literary construction, a denial of any revisions—which is not borne out by her manuscripts— and an emphasis on her feather-brained helplessness and domesticity became characteristics of Franken’s public persona.
Another Language: A Comedy Drama in Three Acts (1932); Claudia: The Story of a Marriage (1939); Claudia and David (1940); Claudia: A Comedy Drama in Three Acts (1941); Another Claudia (1943); Outrageous Fortune (1944); Soldier’s Wife: A Comedy in Three Acts (1945); Young Claudia (1946); The Hallams: A Drama in Three Acts (1948); The Complete Book of Claudia (1962); When All Is Said and Done (1963); “The Wing.” Manuscript. Rare Book and Manuscript Collection, Butler Library, Columbia University, NYC.
Abramson, Doris E. “Franken, Rose Dorothy Lewin.” In Notable Women in American Theatre: A Biographical Dictionary, edited by Alice M. Robinson, Vera Mowry Roberts, and Milly S. Barranger (1989); Bordman, Gerald. The Oxford Companion to American Literature (1984); Franken, Rose. Clipping file, photograph file, and manuscript collection. Billy Rose Theatre Collection, New York City Public Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center; Rare Book and Manuscript Collection, Butler Library, Columbia University; McGill, Raymond D., ed. Notable Names in the American Theatre (1976); Rigdon, Walter, ed. The Biographical Encyclopedia and Who’s Who of the American Theatre (1966); Shafer, Yvonne. American Women Playwrights 1900–1950 (1995) and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1984; UJE; Variety Obituaries, 1987–1988. Vol. 12. Edited by Barbara Bergeron and Chuck Bartelt (1989); Who Was Who in Theatre 1912–1976. Vol. 2 (1978).