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Who is Robert Sherwood?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Robert Sherwood was an American playwright and screenwriter. He was born in 1896, in New York, and died in 1955 at the age of 59. Over the course of his life he wrote thirteen plays and a biography of President Roosevelt, and was awarded four Pulitzer Prizes for his work.

Robert Sherwood was born into an artistic family, and from an early age was supported in his creative endeavors. He was educated at the private Milton Academy, and later received a degree from Harvard. He fought in World War I with the Canadian Black Watch, and this would influence some of his later writings.

When he returned to the United States, Robert Sherwood began to work in the magazine world as a movie critic. Along with fellow staff members at Vanity Fair, Robert Sherwood helped start what was later known as the Algonquin Round Table. This group, which met from 1919 until 1929, consisted of a number of writers and wits of the era, many active in the newspaper world. They would meet regularly at the Algonquin Hotel to banter with one another, and develop ideas and forge friendships. Other notables included Dorothy Parker, Marc Connelly, Edna Ferber, Heywood Broun, Franklin Adams, Robert Benchley, and Alexander Woollcott.

In 1927 Robert Sherwood had his first play, The Road to Rome produced. Drawing from feelings developed during his time in World War I, The Road to Rome was a comedic farce surrounding Hannibal’s failed attempt to invade Rome. Like many of his plays, it played up the ultimate stupidity and futility of war, using comedy to make his point.

In 1936 Robert Sherwood produced his play, Idiot’s Delight, another indictment of war, although this time from a more dramatic bent. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for this play, which was hailed as a great achievement in explaining the tragic ignorance of war. In 1938 Robert Sherwood would win another Pulitzer Prize, this time for his play Abe Lincoln in Illinois. The play covered the life of President Lincoln and was a success, with a film made in 1940, and five television versions produced between 1945 and 1964.

In 1940 Robert Sherwood wrote There Shall Be No Night, earning him his third Pulitzer Prize in theatre. This play represented a fairly drastic shift in his stance towards war, with his previous anti-war stance giving way to a patriotic fervor born of World War II. The play tells the story of the invasion of Finland by Russia. He would later go on to write a biography of President Roosevelt in 1948, entitled Roosevelt and Hopkins, for which he would win his fourth Pulitzer Prize, this time in the Biography or Autobiography category.

Robert Sherwood also worked extensively in Hollywood, and was in high demand as a screenwriter and assistant. He collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock on a number of occasions, most notably on the 1940 film Rebecca. During the Roosevelt administration Robert Sherwood also acted as a speechwriter, and is credited with one of Roosevelt’s most famous phrases, “the Arsenal of Democracy.”

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Discussion Comments
By ysmina — On Feb 26, 2011

I've read that Robert Sherwood often wrote speeches for President Roosevelt and even a private screening of his pro-war play was shown in the White House.

I wonder why Sherwood had such a drastic change of mind about war and was supportive of interventionist policies? Did he have some sort of agreement with Roosevelt to help him in his campaigns through his plays? This is a relationship that I would like to know about, especially if Sherwood had an effect on Congress' decision to enter World War II.

By burcinc — On Feb 24, 2011

The film "The Petrified Forest" was an adaptation of Robert Sherwood's play. I have the film at home as part of my Humphrey Bogart collection. Humphrey Bogart fans will remember this movie because it was the fifth film that he took part in and it gained him a lot of fame. He portrayed the role of a gangster so well in this movie that other Hollywood actors took him as a role model when playing similar roles.

The story of the film and the play was about a gangster, a criminal who takes several people hostage at a restaurant. Sherwood showed that the hostages and the criminal had more things in common than they expected even though they seem very different from each other in the beginning. This film is a classic and a must see for lovers of drama.

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