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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 833


This is the grave of Charles MacArthur.

Born in 1895 in Scranton, Pennsylvania, MacArthur grew up in a very religious household. His father was a well-known evangelical preacher named William Telfer MacArthur and he was an extremely strict individual who sounds very unpleasant. Charles escaped from this childhood through books. He was expected to follow his father into the ministry. He refused. Instead, he left home and moved to Chicago as a young man. He got a job as a reporter and was good at it, working for both the Tribune and the Daily News. In World War I, he volunteered for the Army, where he was a private in the 42nd Division.

MacArthur came back from the war determined to make it as a writer. He wrote a memoir of life in the war in 1919 called A Bug’s-Eye View of the War. It didn’t do that much, but it was considered a respectable work. He started writing short stories that got the attention of H.L. Mencken, who began publishing them in his magazine The Smart Set. MacArthur moved to New York. He became associated with the Algonquin Group of writers and playwrights and actors and dancers and other intellectuals. He and Dorothy Parker had a romance in 1922, where she was more into him than he was into her. He was a major womanizer at this time and so she was just another woman for him.

MacArthur also started writing plays with his old Chicago newsroom buddy Ben Hecht. This was an extremely successful match. He and Hecht were huge hitmakers. Among their plays were Ladies and Gentlemen, Twentieth Century, and The Front Page. These were great plays for adaptation to Hollywood. Ladies and Gentlemen became Perfect Strangers, a 1950 film with Ginger Rogers that received only mixed reviews. But The Front Page was a frequently adapted play. It was effectively rewritten as His Girl Friday, with one of the male characters rewritten as a female character that was played by Rosalind Russell and thus Cary Grant’s love interest. Still, you can’t say anything bad about His Girl Friday. The Front Page was adapted a few other times too, most notably in the late Billy Wilder version starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, which I enjoyed quite a bit. That The Front Page was so successful is interesting because it was a comedy of sort that was also based on the defense of an escaped communist. Both Hecht and MacArthur were also massive drunks who reveled in their escapades with the bottle, often causing real problems with the production of their own plays.

Moreover, Hecht and MacArthur won the Academy Award for Best Writing (today that would be Best Screenplay) for The Scoundrel in 1936, which they also directed and produced and which was the first film Noel Coward starred in. He was nominated for two other Best Writing Oscars, on his own for Rasputin and the Empress in 1934 and with Hecht for Wuthering Heights in 1940. Despite his major success in screenplay writing, that was the last one he wrote except for 1947’s The Senator Was Indiscreet. He had also written the screenplay for Gunga Din, was uncredited for his work on Angels with Dirty Faces, and many other films.

In fact, he didn’t write much at all after 1940. He and Hecht published Swan Song in 1946 and that was it. He and his wife Helen Hayes (also buried here but of course well worth her own grave post that will come soon) had a daughter, Mary, who came down with polio and died in 1949. This is said to have destroyed MacArthur. He and Hayes at met through Neysa McMein, the largely forgotten graphic designer and socialite who was a hugely important figure in her day. He was already married, but that didn’t stop him and they married in 1928. Interestingly, Hayes was known, despite her on-screen persona, as an extremely shy and socially awkward individual in real life and yet they got along great. Anyway, the death of their daughter may have driven him pretty hard into the bottle. I’m speculating here a bit, but given his preexisting drinking and lack of production after 1949, it’s at least possible.

Charles MacArthur died in 1956. He was 60 years old.

Charles MacArthur is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, Nyack, New York.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader donations. Thanks!!! If you would like this series to visit other winners of the Oscar for Best Writing (or Screenplay), you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Monk Saunders, who won the 1931 award for The Dawn Patrol, is in Evington, Virginia and Pierre Collings, who won the award in 1936 for The Story of Louis Pasteur (along with William Wellman) is in Hollywood. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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