Continuing to wander through obscure corners of American playwriting, I have stumbled across a forgotten phenomenon. A writer named Rose Franken created a character who appeared first in a series of stories for Redbook, then in a series of eight novels, then as the leading figure in a Broadway play, then as the lead in two movies, then as the title character for a radio series, and then at the center of a short-lived TV series. Her name was Claudia. Indeed, one of my students tells me that her mother named her after the character.
I’m not going to make exaggerated claims for this material, but something about the character obviously made a big impression on readers at the time. Claudia is a sensitive but not well-educated woman who marries a slightly older and more sophisticated architect. They are happily married, but the combination of her lack of sophistication and her spontaneity leads her into various scrapes. Though Franken denies much of a tie between the character and herself, reading Franken’s autobiography, When All is Said and Done, I keep finding links between her experiences and her heroine’s; including the fact that both Claudia and husband David and Franken and her second husband retreated from the city to run a farm in Connecticut.
In her memoir, Franken (yes, distantly related to Al) tells story after story on herself in which she blunders impulsively into good fortune, and more than a few in which following hunches paid off. Perhaps you remember the character of Penny in You Can’t Take It With You started writing because a typewriter was accidentally delivered to her house. I wonder if Kaufman and Hart took inspiration from the fact that, according to Menken, that is exactly how her writing career started. She sat down at this felicitous typewriter and began to knock stuff out, mostly for the amusement of her first husband (a doctor). He thought it was good and he encouraged her to seek a publisher. She opened the phone book and started sending out her first novel. It was rejected by everyone until she was reduced to one last choice — Scribner’s. She marched into their offices and asked to see Charles Scribner and instead was foisted off on some underling who promised to read her stuff. The underling was the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, and he published her book and stayed a friend for the rest of his life.
Then she thought she’d write a play. She sat done and wrote for three days, one act per day. The play was called Another Language and, though she ended up loathing the producer for his underhanded dealings, it was a hit and was sold to the movies. (The film stars Helen Hayes.) Along the way, she discovered an amateur actress and insisted she be in the play. When the film was made, that actress made her screen debut. Which is how Margaret Hamilton found her way to Hollywood.
Franken decided to try to adapt her Claudia stories to the stage in a play called Claudia. John Golden offered to produce it. Gertrude Lawrence wanted to play it, but Franken said no, she wanted an unknown. Oh yes, though Franken had never actually directed anything, she persuaded Golden to let her make her directing debut. So Franken held auditions and found an actress whose major credit had been understudying Emily in Our Town. Golden thought she was nuts but gave way. Dorothy Maguire opened in Claudia in 1941 at the Booth Theater. The show was a huge hit (722 performances) and Maguire was a star. (Franken also discovered Maguire’s standy-by, who then opened the touring cast and had some luck herself — Phyliss Thaxter.) When the 1943 film was made, Maguire played the part again, and then in again in the sequel, Claudia and David.
Please understand that I’m not claiming that Franken is a lost American master, but I’ve read the scripts of Another Language and Claudia and they hold up better than most of the scripts I’ve read from the time. And I’ve read some of the Claudia short stories, and it’s easy to see why newlyweds bonded with the character and followed her year after year. I’m two-thirds of the way through Franken’s autobiography, and, though I occasionally catch her unpersuasively claiming niavete, most of it rings true. And throughout there are little encounters with the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Eugene O’Neill, Sidney Howard, etc.
The autobiography was published in 1962 and much of it is about how wonderful her second marriage was. So it was a surprise to read the obit of her second husband, William Brown Meloney, and discover that they must have divorced shortly after the book came out. I am a little surprised by how much this disappointed me.