Norman Corwin: Lofty idealism, bawdy comedy

By A.J. Langguth When Norman Corwin died Oct. 18 at the age of 101, his obituaries were long and admiring. And woefully incomplete. True, they called him “the poet of the airways” and marveled that every week he had produced an original play for the CBS network during what was invariably called “the golden age of radio.” They recalled that when his tribute to the Bill of Rights, “We Hold These Truths,” was broadcast on the eve of World War II, it ran simultaneously on all of the nation's radio networks. And that when the Nazis were beaten in May 1945, America celebrated with Norman's ode, “On a Note of Triumph,” and the exalted slang of its opening lines: So they've given up! They're finally done in, and the rat is dead in an alley back of the Wilhelmstrasse. Take a bow, G.I. Take a bow, little guy. The superman of tomorrow lies at the feet of you common men of this afternoon. The obituaries spoke of Norman's winning the One World Award in 1940. (Albert Einstein also got the award, but only later.) The stipend took Norman around the globe, taping interviews with film director Sergei Eisenstein in the Soviet Union, Jawaharlal Nehru in India and Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Japan. Those events were certainly milestones, but none of the respectful accounts of his life included the headline he always said he wanted: “Norman Corwin Shot in Bed at 95 by a Jealous Husband.” The problem lies with every obituary and eulogy, and it is worse when the departed had reached an advanced age. Then all the joys and vital juices are bleached away to create a candidate for Mt. Rushmore. In Norman's case, the admirable aspects of his character did in fact run deep. Throughout his life, he urged us as Americans to act on the noble impulses of our heritage. He also made time to offer encouragement to the oppressed and downhearted. When Orson Welles was suffering from depression over the butchery at RKO Studios of his film “The Magnificent Ambersons,” Norman wrote: “I should like to reiterate a confidence in you I have long entertained: that your kind of genius cannot be damaged by vicissitudes such as those you have experienced ... that you are at the threshold, rather than at an advanced point of your potential accomplishments.” Many such letters were designed to lift the spirits, and some went to lovely women. Norman, though born in New England, was no Puritan. After separating from his wife — a stage actress named Katherine Locke — Norman felt free to pursue friendships with a number of Hollywood actresses. Any man can have an eye for the ladies. Better still — as was the case with Norman — when the ladies have an eye for him. His collected letters include examples of his style in such circumstances — always decorous, always irreproachable. Norman's earthy side asserted itself in his limericks. He shared with Shakespeare a delight in ribald clowning, and the school of poetry that suited him best was the one popularized by Edward Lear. At parties and for his own amusement, Norman took the mild jest of a Lear limerick and doubled its entendre. After he returned from a trip to Poland, Norman sent a limerick to a friend, Abel Green, the editor of Variety: A cautious young maiden of Gdansk Who suffered from very hot gpansk .... (It would amuse Norman that even in this era of Rupert Murdoch, good taste demands that the final three lines be omitted.) Fifty years ago, at a party given by Bette Davis, Norman went around the room and on the spur of the moment came up with a limerick for each guest. The one for his hostess was not his most inspired, or his bawdiest, which means it can be quoted here: Our passionate yen for Miss Davis Is based on the hope that she'll crave us. If we had our way, We'd get in the hay, And then, O God help us and save us! Norman's admiration for Thomas Jefferson and Walt Whitman was based on their language and unshaken by revelations about their romantic lives. He'd understand, though, why his friends miss him — painfully — for his lofty idealism, yes, but also for those outcroppings of low comedy. A.J. Langguth's most recent book is “Driven West: Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears to the Civil War.” He was the editor of “Norman Corwin's Letters.” Above, Corwin is seen in 2006 at the age of 96.
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