Samuel A. Taylor (June 13, 1912–May 26, 2000)
He was probably best known for the movie “Sabrina,” drawn from his play “Sabrina Fair,” and for his work on “Vertigo,” but in fact, Samuel Taylor worked his way up from a variety of writing jobs. He started out as a reporter for The New Yorker and other magazines, then progressed through play doctoring—fixing other people’s problems—and scripted radio and television shows in the 1940s before writing his own plays, several of which became hits. In an irony he always appreciated, he felt his hit movies were a sideshow to his principal work as a playwright.
The youngest of three children (he had two older sisters), he was born in Chicago in 1912, the son of a rabbi and his Polish immigrant wife. His father, Abraham Tanenbaum, abandoned the family when Sam Taylor was an infant and he would not hear of him until 1942, when he learned his father was dying in Chicago. By the time he got there, his father was dead. Mr. Taylor grew up in San Francisco, where his mother had moved the family when he was six months old. He was graduated from the city’s prestigious Lowell High School and in August 1929 entered the University of California, across the bay in Berkeley. University records show he was enrolled until June 1934, studying English. While there, he wrote for The Pelican, the campus humor magazine and eventually became its editor. When he was a senior, and it came time to name his successor as editor, university tradition allowed the current editor to choose his replacement. But the campus chancellor vetoed Mr. Taylor’s choice and appointed someone else. Furious with this decision, Mr. Taylor abruptly left the university and decided to head for New York and try to get a job writing. New York, after all, was the center of the nation’s literary life. He headed east and never looked back.
A job writing for The New Yorker
Some time in 1934, Mr. Taylor walked into the offices of The New Yorker, where editor Harold Ross gave him a job as a reporter. The new man was assigned to go out on the street and start talking to people, mostly for what were then called “casuals,” the slice-of-life short pieces that ran in the front of the magazine. As Mr. Taylor said many years later, he was an utter failure—he said he learned very quickly that he was not well suited to the kind of cold-calling that is part and parcel of a reporter’s life. After leaving The New Yorker, he freelanced for Judge, a magazine of political satire, and for LIFE. But Mr. Taylor’s true interest, he discovered, was in drama.
In 1935, he became a play reader for the New York literary agency, Brandt & Brandt Dramatic Department (the firm is now the Robert A. Freedman Dramatic Agency, Inc.). Over the period of a year, he would read up to 200 plays, works that varied from the worst of the worst to the few that had a chance of success. In the process of reading and re-reading and making notes in the margins of hundreds of plays, and conferring with agents at Brandt & Brandt Dramatic Department, Mr. Taylor got a job doing a rewrite of Clifford Goldsmith’s play, “What a Life,” which director George Abbott was readying for Broadway. The play opened in April 1938 and was a big hit. One of its minor characters, Henry Aldrich, became its most lucrative byproduct, when Goldsmith created a radio series, “The Aldrich Family,” which was successful and ran until the spring of 1953. Mr. Taylor was a writer on “The Aldrich Family” and that job became a springboard for working in the nascent medium of television.
Mr. Taylor spent the summer of 1939 at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia, where he worked for Robert Porterfield, who had founded the theatre in 1933. Mr. Taylor was a jack of all trades at Barter—writing, re-writing, directing. It was at Barter that Mr. Taylor met a young divorcée, Suzanne Robinson, whose nine-year-old daughter, Ellinor, was spending the summer at a camp in Vermont. Ms. Robinson had gone to Barter to further her singing career. Mr. Taylor caught her eye and soon they were a steady couple. In June 1940, Sam and Suzanne were married in New York, and settled in an apartment at 93rd Street and Madison Avenue as Mr. Taylor continued his work in the theater. Producer Guthrie McClintic commissioned him to write a play for his wife, Katharine Cornell. The play, called “I Know My Love,” never opened. It was eventually bought by producer Billy Rose who wanted it as a vehicle for Margaret Sullavan, but once again it was not produced. It did, however, introduce Mr. Taylor to Ms. Sullavan, one of Broadway’s best actresses, and he would think of her years later, when he was casting one of his own plays.
His first play is a hit on Broadway
The first of his own plays, “The Happy Time” was produced by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II and opened at the Plymouth Theatre in New York in January 1950. Adapted from the novel by Robert Fontaine, “The Happy Time” was a coming-of-age story set in a French-Canadian family and starred Claude Dauphin, Eva Gabor and Leora Dana. It was a smash hit, running on Broadway until July 1951. It was later made into a movie, with Charles Boyer and Louis Jourdan. In 1968 it was produced as a musical by the team of John Kander, Fred Ebb and N. Richard Nash, with Robert Goulet in the lead.
In the spring of 1950, the Taylors, with their two young boys in tow, went to Europe for six months, settling in a rented house in Ste. Maxime, on the French Riviera. Sam Taylor spent most of that time writing.
Now established as a successful playwright, Mr. Taylor began getting steady work, even as he still spent his nights and weekends writing his own plays. He also started to experience, first hand, the vagaries of life in the theater—up one day, flat on your back the next. In 1951, still flush with the glow of success from “The Happy Time,” Mr. Taylor was asked to do a Broadway adaptation of a popular French play, “Nina,” originally written by Andre Roussin. For its New York run, it starred David Niven and Gloria Swanson—how could it fail with actors like that? It ran for five weeks, before abruptly closing down. As Mr. Taylor’s notes about the play said, it is “not often spoken of.”
For a brief period in 1951, Mr. Taylor worked for producer Sam Goldwyn who had been trying for years to make a movie out of the life of Hans Christian Andersen, the 19th century Danish writer best known for his fairy tales. When his contract was finished, Mr. Taylor told Goldwyn he was going home. Goldwyn, famous for his malopropisms, pleaded with him to stay, inviting him to lunch the next day and telling him, “Sam, I’ve been like a mother to you. You can’t leave.” So Mr. Taylor stayed on for another week. Repeat performance at the end of the week. Lunch, pleading—the same Goldwynism about his maternal instincts—and then back to work. In the third week, Mr. Taylor reported for work on a Wednesday morning and found the studio had changed the locks on his office door.
After he got home, in the winter of 1951–52, that Mr. Taylor got the idea for another play. By now, he and his wife had bought a drafty old farmhouse in Maine from a wealthy neighbor who already had several houses, nearby on a large seaside estate. With their two sons, David and Michael, the Taylors spent that winter in one of the neighbor’s homes—the owner was a summer resident who wintered in New York—and wrote the play “Sabrina Fair,” the Cinderella story of a chauffeur’s daughter who is pursued by the two sons of her father’s employer. Decades after the play was produced, Mr. Taylor said in an interview that he got the idea for Sabrina one day when he saw his neighbor’s chauffeur standing by the big limousine, waiting for his boss to emerge from a luncheon party. Mr. Taylor said to himself, “I wonder what goes through that man’s mind,” and from there the story unfolded. The play, starring Margaret Sullavan and Joseph Cotten, opened in November 1953 to glowing notices and ran until August 1954. Like many Broadway hits of the day, “Sabrina Fair” was sold to the movies and Mr. Taylor went to Hollywood to co-write the screenplay with director Billy Wilder, but left when the play began to go into rehearsal and Wilder, who didn’t like to write alone, hired screenwriter Ernest Lehman. The movie starred Audrey Hepburn, who was just coming off her Oscar-winning success in “Roman Holiday”; her “Sabrina” co-stars were Humphrey Bogart and William Holden. “Sabrina” was nominated for an Academy Award and won the Golden Globe for the three writers. (“Sabrina” was remade four decades later by director Sydney Pollack and starred Harrison Ford, Julia Ormond and Greg Kinnear.)
In 1955, the Taylor family set out for another stay in Europe and this time it would be for more than a year—Mr. Taylor had been hired to write and direct a movie called “The Monte Carlo Story,” with Marlene Dietrich and Vittorio De Sica. Years later, his son, David, who spent more than 20 years in Hollywood writing movies and television scripts, said his father took the directing job largely for the money and then “discovered he did not like being the general you have to be if you are directing a movie. Everyone comes at you with questions. Everyone wants your decision now.” It was the first and last time Mr. Taylor would direct a movie. During that winter, Mr. Taylor was also working on a more pleasant project, “The Eddy Duchin Story,” a film about the well-known band leader. Released in June 1956, the movie starred Tyrone Power as Duchin and Kim Novak as his wife, Marjorie. The picture was nominated for four Academy awards.
Alfred Hitchcock and “Vertigo”
In early 1957, Mr. Taylor was between plays when he got a call from his agent, Kay Brown, saying that Alfred Hitchcock was having trouble with the script for a new picture, drawn from a French novel, From Among the Dead. Kay Brown sent Mr. Taylor a copy of the script and he told her he thought it was so bad it was beyond repair. But she persuaded him to talk to Hitchcock and so he took a train out to California and met with the famed director. They immediately hit it off and found they worked well together. Mr. Taylor and Hitchcock spent weeks chewing over the story, with Mr. Taylor adding a major new character, Midge, and using his familiarity with San Francisco to find new locations that would fit the film. He also decided to let the audience in on the plot’s secret about two-thirds of the way through the story. The movie, starring James Stewart, Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes, opened in May 1958 to mixed reviews. Over the years, however, its luster has grown and it now regularly appears on cineastes’ best films list—in 2012, Sight & Sound, the monthly magazine of the British Film Institute, dubbed it the best film of all time, displacing perennial favorite “Citizen Kane.”
Once back in Maine after his sojourn with Hitchcock, Mr. Taylor got to work on his next play, “The Pleasure of His Company.” Set in San Francisco, it was the story of a globe-trotting playboy, Biddeford Poole (the name of a large tidal pool in coastal Maine), who comes home for his daughter’s wedding. He camps out at the sumptuous house of his ex-wife and her new husband, beguiles his daughter with tales of the rich and exciting life in Europe and eventually convinces her to go traveling with him rather than get married to a rancher who breeds bulls. The play starred Cyril Ritchard (he also directed) and Cornelia Otis Skinner and introduced Dolores Hart and George Peppard. It was a big hit and ran from October 1958 to November 1959. Mr. Taylor later wrote the screenplay for the movie version—it starred Fred Astaire, Lilli Palmer and Debbie Reynolds.
Now in his late forties, Mr. Taylor began taking on more movie work, dividing his time between screenplay assignments and his own plays. In 1960, he was in Paris to work on “Goodbye Again,” a film based on the best-selling Françoise Sagan novel, “Aimez-Vous Brahms?”, with Anatole Litvak directing Ingrid Bergman, Yves Montand and Anthony Perkins. Another of Mr. Taylor’s plays, “First Love,” based on the memoirs of French novelist Romain Gary, opened on Broadway on Christmas Day 1961, but got bad reviews and closed three weeks later.
Teaming up with Richard Rodgers on a new musical
Mr. Taylor was already working on a new project with his old friend and mentor Richard Rodgers, who had an idea for a musical. Rodgers’ longtime collaborator Oscar Hammerstein II had died in August 1960 and Rodgers decided that for this new play he would do both the lyrics and the music. He asked Mr. Taylor to write the musical’s book. The play, “No Strings,” was innovative in a number of ways—instead of placing the musicians in a traditional pit below the front of the stage, Rodgers had them wandering on and off the stage as their musical numbers came up. They would sit or stand at various places on the stage, lending an informal and easy air to the whole production. The story, set in Europe, centered on a chic American fashion model in Paris (Diahann Carroll) and her romance with an American writer (Richard Kiley) who was spending more time at parties and less time at the typewriter. The fact that she was black and he was white was never emphasized. The play ran from March 1962 until August 1963 and was also produced in London. But plans to make it into a movie died a quick death after movie executives said they doubted they could sell a love story of a black woman and a white man to film distributors in the southern part of the United States. Indeed, racism ultimately knows no borders—when the play was in tryouts at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit, one man in the audience shouted, “I ain’t gonna watch this n——loving play,” and stomped out of the theater.
Mr. Taylor’s next play was “Beekman Place,” about a retired violin virtuoso, with actors Fernand Gravet and Arlene Francis, but it was panned by the critics and ran for only three weeks in the fall of 1964. Mr. Taylor next wrote a couple of screen plays—“Rosie,” with Rosalind Russell, and “Three on a Couch,” with Jerry Lewis and Janet Leigh—then returned to work on a new play.
“Avanti!” opened in New York at the end of January 1968; after tepid reviews, it closed less than three weeks later. But that was hardly the end of the story. Long before the play opened, film producer Charles Feldman had bought the rights to “Avanti!” and convinced director Billy Wilder it would make a great movie. Wilder and writer I.A.L. Diamond started writing the script and they, in turn, got Jack Lemmon on board and, later, Juliet Mills. The picture was released in 1972. Mr. Taylor then heavily rewrote the original play and renamed it “A Touch of Spring.” It was produced in London in 1975, starring Hayley Mills (Juliet Mills’s younger sister) and Leigh Lawson and was a big hit. “A Touch of Spring” is still frequently produced and is popular in Europe.
Another picture with Hitchcock
In the late 1960s, Hitchcock called Mr. Taylor. Once again, the director had problems with a script and this time the cameras were rolling without the benefit of a completed screenplay. Hitchcock was making a movie out of Leon Uris’ cold war spy novel, Topaz, about the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba and how the head of the French intelligence service (Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage; or SDECE for short) in the U.S. helped American spies discover the presence of the missiles. Uris had done a partial draft of the screenplay, but he and Hitchcock disagreed over how the characters were drawn. Uris left the project, to be replaced by playwright Arthur Laurents. But that didn’t work out either and so Hitchcock called in Mr. Taylor, who started revising the entire script. With the movie already filming, some scenes were being shot only a few hours after they had been written. The picture was released in December 1969.
In 1974, “Perfect Pitch,” a rewritten and updated version of “Beekman Place,” ran at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. A couple of years later, Mr. Taylor, who had always wanted to do a western, wrote a play called “Legend,” about a girl (played by Elizabeth Ashley) who fetches up in a 19th century mining town somewhere in the west, and gets involved with the local powers that be. The play also starred F. Murray Abraham and George Dzundza. It had 18 previews and five performances before folding. Mr. Taylor later said of the play and its failure, “it was a fond look at the American Myth of the West, and was either too late or too early.”
In the spring of 1978, Mr. Taylor returned to the Kennedy Center with his play, “Gracious Living,” starring Tammy Grimes, Paul Hecht and Patricia Routledge in a limited run.
In 1987, Mr. Taylor spent a semester as artist-in-residence at the Department of Theater, Film and Television at UCLA.
Mr. Taylor died in Blue Hill, Maine, on May 26, 2000, at the age of 87. A few months before his death, his son David asked him if he was working on a new play.
“Yes,” he said. “I’ve written twelve pages and all of them are crap.”
At least, he died with his sense of humor intact.