The University Record, February 11, 1998

Special Collections exhibition recalls Hopwood and the jazz age

Hopwood. Photo courtesy Special Collections Library


By James Matthew Wilson
News and Information Services

With the exception of the noted 1922 bequest to the University, the events in Avery Hopwood's life are little more remembered than his works for the theater. But with an exhibition on his life and legacy and the first reprinting of Jack Sharrar's exclusive biography, Hopwood's life may at last be appreciated as a perfect example of flaming youth in the Jazz Age.

The exhibition "Avery Hopwood and the Hopwood Awards" at the Special Collections Library traces the playwright's life from his 1882 birth in Cleveland to his 1928 drowning in France.

Kathryn Beam, associate librarian and curator of the exhibit, assembled records and a yearbook from Hopwood's days at the University. They show that he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1905, was a member of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity and the select honor society Quadrangle.

The 1904 article, "The Call of the Playwright," which inspired Hopwood to pursue the theater with promises of good fortune and fame, is among the many letters, photographs and manuscripts that trace Hopwood's quick ascension to fame in 1906, when his first play, The Clothes Make The Man, opened on Broadway.

Thereafter Hopwood wrote prolifically, sometimes on his own, but often in collaboration. While only seven of his plays were ever published in book form, he wrote 35 plays, most of which were produced on Broadway.

As the most financially successful playwright of his day, Hopwood had four of his plays running on Broadway simultaneously. He lived in a style befitting friendship with the New York literati of the 1920s, which encouraged the excessive drinking that may have caused his death. Among his close friends were Carl Van Vechten, then music critic for the New York Times, Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, to whom he confided his otherwise hidden homosexuality.

Copies of Hopwood's early short stories, his plays, and a photograph of his never-published lost novel help to explain why, despite his fame and fortune, Hopwood felt haunted by an inability to write "serious literature."

Sharrar's biography, Avery Hopwood: His Life and Plays, is now available from the University of Michigan Press, and examines this issue in great detail, revealing Hopwood as a writer full of hope, as Gertrude Stein wrote, "that there would be a great deal of writing, good writing coming out of America," though his own career amounted to no more "than a phenomenon characteristic of the most booming years of the American commercial theater."

Sharrar depicts Hopwood's struggles with his inability to write serious work, alcoholism, cocaine, fame and uncertain sexuality. He was, as Nicholas Delbanco, director of the Hopwood Awards Program, writes in the foreword, "a card-carrying member of 'the lost generation.'"

His bequest to the University was an attempt to encourage young writers to create "the new, the unusual and the radical" that he could not. It was, Beam says, "his magnum opus. What it has meant to aspiring writers is immeasurable."

Arthur Miller, to name one of many aspiring writers who came to the University specifically because of the awards, won $250 for drama in 1936. This was enough to pay his room, board and tuition for the semester.

Perhaps neither the exhibit nor the biography will restore Hopwood's lost fame as a playwright, but they do reveal the "Neil Simon of the Jazz Age" as a fascinating figure of his era whose name, says Delbanco, "will no longer mean merely that of a donor."