Today, most people don't recognize the name Norman Corwin -- but in the 1940s, he was much admired and nearly as well known as President Franklin Roosevelt. On Monday, he turned 100 years old.
Back in the days when Americans gathered around their radio sets every night, Corwin -- a young newspaperman from Boston -- showed up at CBS and pushed the boundaries of what radio could do. And before long, he had a list of well-known admirers.
"The best way to describe Norman Corwin is he was the greatest director, the greatest writer and the greatest producer in the history of radio," says science fiction writer Ray Bradbury. "There was nobody like him. Nobody could touch what he did."
In 1938, when Corwin first arrived at CBS, the network was still a small company. NBC had most of the stars and almost all of the popular programs -- Burns and Allen, Bob Hope, Jack Benny.
CBS couldn't afford to compete head to head against NBC. The Great Depression still gripped America, and CBS was having a hard time selling ads, so the president of the network, William Paley, decided to experiment. He created a strong news division with journalists like Edward R. Murrow, Robert Trout and Eric Sevareid. For dramatic broadcasts, Paley brought in John Houseman, Orson Welles -- and Corwin.
Corwin ran with that freedom -- writing programs like this rhymed fantasy for Groucho Marx, The Undecided Molecule.
"I think the radio network people were smart enough to know that he had more than one track on his, you might say, LP record," Bradbury says. "He had a sense of humor, he had a sense of drama, he had a sense of horror at times. And that if you were wise enough to encourage that, then he would relax himself every other week and do something totally different."
Corwin was called "the bard" of radio's Golden Age. Corwin says, even as a young boy, he loved language.
"Even when I didn't understand it, I felt it was rich and melodic and beautiful for its sound if nothing else," he recounted in 1995. "So long before I understood what Keats was writing about or Shakespeare was writing about, I became tipsy on imbibing their lines."
We Hold These Truths
Corwin took on a series for CBS -- 26 by Corwin. Every week, he wrote, cast, rehearsed and directed a completely original play starring the top actors of the day -- Orson Welles, Charles Laughton, Lionel Barrymore. Every program was broadcast live.
"How he did it every week, I could no more explain to you than to tell you how he was made chemically and the quality of that output," says producer Norman Lear.
In 1941, Corwin was commissioned to create a program for the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. The four major networks carried it simultaneously. Jimmy Stewart played the central character.
We Hold These Truths was to be a celebratory piece for the occasion. But eight days before the broadcast, the scope of the project changed dramatically. With only a week to finish the script, Corwin was engrossed in writing on a train across the country. He took a break to tune in to a repeat broadcast of one of his shows.
"One could rent a radio set on those trains. And the porter showed up and I said, 'I'd like to rent a radio set.' And he said, 'Are you kidding?' And I thought it was a strange answer. I said, 'Certainly not, why?' He said, 'Well, haven't you heard?' 'Heard what?' 'The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor!' "
Corwin spent many all-nighters rewriting the program. Americans were now preparing for war, and We Hold These Truths rallied the country.
The program ended with an address by President Roosevelt and a rendition of the national anthem conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Sixty million people tuned in -- the largest audience to ever hear a single radio program at the time.
Soon after, CBS invited Corwin to go to England. His task was to report back home to America how things were going with the people of Britain. Corwin developed a series called An American in England, the first of which was Cromer, based on Corwin's visit to a small town that lay in the path of war.
Corwin visited Cromer at the suggestion of Murrow, with whom he shared an office in England -- and chronicled his visit in scenes like this one.
"I went down to the post office. It was opposite the church of St. Peter and St. Paul, and you could hear the organist practicing across the way. The postmaster explained that the stained glass windows of the church had been blown out when the bomb struck, and so there was nothing to stop the sound from crossing the street and filling the post office."
The individual always played a central role his wartime writings. Corwin was especially attuned to the experience of the soldier.
"I was a kid in [World War I], and I lived in a tenement house," Corwin said. "And there was a woman -- a family that lived on the floor below my family's -- which had a young son in the war. He was on a submarine chaser, which was torpedoed and all hands lost. That, I remember to this day, going up the stairs and hearing the sobs of his mother through the door. How can you forget that? All these years later, it haunts me."
On A Note Of Triumph
Corwin's "masterpiece" from the war years is the program he wrote for broadcast on the day of victory in Europe called On a Note of Triumph. Carl Sandburg called it "one of the all‚Äźtime great American poems."
"And I was listening to it with my family," says novelist Philip Roth. "And I was riveted. We were all riveted. But certainly I had never been so riveted by anything in my life before."
"I can never forget the moment hearing it," said the late author and radio broadcaster Studs Terkel before he died in 2008. "It was early evening in Chicago. The company all sat there transfixed."
So they've given up. They're finally done in, and the rat is dead in an alley back of the Vilhelm Strasse. Take a bow G.I. Take a bow little guy ... Is victory a sweet dish or isn't it. And how do you think those lights look in Europe after five years of blackout, going on to six? Brother, pretty good. Pretty good, sister. The kids of Poland soon will know what an orange tastes like, and the smell of honest to God bread, freshly made and sawdust-free, will create a stir in the streets of Athens.
These soaring words were Corwin's trademark -- with cadences reminiscent of Walt Whitman. What might sound exaggerated or grandiose to contemporary ears was heard very differently in 1945.
"When the war ended in 1945, I was a kid at the Jersey shore, all the kids made a long conga line and danced down the middle of the boardwalk," Roth says. "Wonderful high spirits and all along the boardwalk people were crying -- grief for those who had died and grief for those who spent the last four to five years fighting in this war. So Norman's drama comes out of that moment."
On a Note of Triumph was the last of its kind. Radio, as Corwin practiced it, exists no more.
Sixty-five years later, we remember this deeply patriotic time when radio was the national voice -- and Corwin had the nation hanging on to his every word.
Mary Beth Kirchner is an independent producer and Corwin's longtime collaborator.