Sonya Levien was one of the most prolific screenwriters of her day, crafting over seventy films ranging from the 1939 Hunchback of Notre Dame to the screen adaptation of Oklahoma! Levien became involved with labor unions while working as a secretary, then put herself through law school at New York University. In 1917 she married Carl Hovey and began writing screenplays. Levien became a success, writing scripts for films from the silent movie era through the 1950s. She was valued for her ability to write quickly and her talent for fixing problematic scripts by other writers. Her movies included classics like 1931’s Daddy Long Legs, 1933’s State Fair, and 1938’s Kidnapped. She won an Oscar for Interrupted Melody in 1955. Levien wrote her last film in 1957.
For forty years, from the silent movie era through 1960, Sonya Levien was one of the busiest screenwriters in Hollywood.
Early Life and Family
Sara Opesken Levien (“Sonya” is the Russian diminutive, which she used) was born on December 25, 1888, to Julius and Fanny Opesken in Panimunik, formerly Russia, now Lithuania. (She altered the date later to 1898.) By the time her father immigrated to the United States in 1891, she had two younger brothers, Arnold and Max. Sonya’s father changed his name to Levien, the name of the man who had helped him escape from Siberia, where he had been exiled for political activities, and in 1896 brought his family to New York. By the time Sonya, her parents, and her Russian-born brothers were naturalized in 1905, she had two more brothers, Nathan and Edward.
Levien’s brothers worked their way through school and became engineers. When Levien graduated from grammar school, however, she worked in a feather-duster factory and then became a secretary. In that position for four years, she became involved in settlement work and labor union activity.
Levien wanted to be a writer and began contributing minor pieces to Life magazine. In 1906, she enrolled at New York University Law School. Although she eventually applied to the New York bar, she practiced law for less than six months and instead pursued her career in writing and editing. In 1912, she was hired by Carl Hovey, the co-editor of the Metropolitan, a leading liberal literary journal. As a writer, she traveled to London in 1913 and 1914 to cover the activities of the suffragists. Her sympathies and those of the magazine lay with radical and socialist movements, but she was greatly influenced by Theodore Roosevelt, whose work she edited for the magazine.
Levien married Carl Hovey on October 11, 1917, with little protest from either her Jewish family or his “Puritan, Plymouth-Rock, New-England, rock-ribbed” family. She turned her focus to her first love, writing fiction, and in 1918 sold her first story to a motion picture studio. Her earliest pieces were about immigrant daughters. Her first screen credit, in January 1919, was for Who Will Marry Me? She helped rewrite Heart of a Jewess as Cheated Love, a 1921 movie that told the story of a Jewish immigrant named Sonya.
In the mid-1930s, Levien and her husband moved to California so that she could write scenarios while he became a story editor. He was not successful, but she was, and from then on they were primarily dependent on her income. They had two children, Serge (b. 1920), and Tamara (b. 1923).
During the next twenty-five years, Levien became one of Hollywood’s highest-paid and most highly sought screenwriters. She was known for her ability to adapt any story quickly and to fix an ailing script. She was generous with her time in assisting others and was, simply, a good colleague.
While she claimed to be attracted to the teachings of Orthodox Judaism, Sonya Levien was a secular Jew. Her youthful activism vanished, and in political Hollywood, she was known for being apolitical. In the early 1950s, her daughter, Tamara, and son-in-law, Lee Gold, were blacklisted for being members of the Communist Party, but Levien was publicly silent on the situation.
By the time Sonya Levien died on March 19, 1960, she had been credited with the stories and screenplays of more than seventy motion pictures, including some of the most highly acclaimed movies of her day: A Ship Comes In (1928), Daddy Long Legs (1931), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1932), State Fair (1933), Berkeley Square (1933), Kidnapped (1938), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), The Great Caruso (1951), The Student Prince (1954), Oklahoma! (1955), and Pepe (1960).
Selected Works by Sonya Levien
Berkeley Square (1933).
Cheated Love (1921).
Daddy Long Legs (1931).
Drums Along the Mohawk (1939);
The Great Caruso (1951).
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1932).
A Ship Comes In (1928).
State Fair (1933).
The Student Prince (1954).
Who Will Marry Me? (1919).
BEOAJ; Ceplair, Larry. A Great Lady: A Life of the Screenwriter Sonya Levien (1996).
Hurwitz, Edith. “Sonya Levien.” Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Screenwriters (1986), 171–178.
Obituary. NYTimes, March 20, 1960, 86:8.
WWIAJ (1928, 1938).