Nunnally Johnson (1897-1977)

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After an early career as a journalist and short-story writer, Georgia native Nunnally Johnson emerged as one of Hollywood's most accomplished screenwriters and producers from the 1930s through the 1950s, when he began to direct motion pictures as well.

Early Years

Nunnally Johnson was born on December 5, 1897, in Columbus to Johnnie Pearl Patrick and James Nunnally Johnson. His father worked as a superintendent for the Central of Georgia Railway, and his mother was an activist on the local school board. An avid reader with an acute sense of humor, Johnson grew up and attended school in Columbus, his mother's hometown. In later life he remembered fondly his youthful days delivering on his bicycle the Columbus Enquirer-Sun, attending theatrical productions at the Springer Opera House, and playing first base on the high school baseball team. Johnson later recalled the YMCA building, an ornate marble structure built in 1903 with funds donated by George Foster Peabody, as his "social club."

Career

After graduating from Columbus High School in 1915, Johnson worked briefly as a reporter for the Columbus Enquirer-Sun before moving to Savannah to work for the Savannah Press. He continued to visit Columbus annually until his father's death in 1953.
In 1919 Johnson moved to New York City and by the mid-1920s had emerged as one of the city's leading newspapermen, reporting major national events for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (1919-25), the New York Herald Tribune (1926), and the New York Evening Post (1927-30). At the Evening Post, he also penned a weekly column of humorous social commentary under the heading "Roving Reporter." From 1925 to 1932 he published some fifty short stories in the Saturday Evening Post and several stories in the New Yorker. These writings were mostly light satirical pieces depicting contemporary manners and mores in New York City and in a fictionalized version of Columbus that he called Riverside. Three of his stories won O. Henry Memorial Awards in the late 1920s. In 1931 he published a collection of his stories, There Ought to Be a Law.
In 1932 Johnson moved to Los Angeles, California, where he worked as a screenwriter for Twentieth Century Fox. Among the dozens of scripts he wrote, he excelled at converting novels into screenplays. His most successful efforts included screenplays for John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and The Moon Is Down (1943); The Keys of the Kingdom (1944) and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956), both of which starred Gregory Peck; Daphne du Maurier's My Cousin Rachel (1952); and his final screenplay, The Dirty Dozen (1967). He worked in other genres as well. Among his most popular productions were the musical Rose of Washington Square (1939) and the comedy How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), one of actress Marilyn Monroe's earliest films. By the 1950s he was the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood.
Two of Johnson's most important adaptations were of Georgia-based stories: Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road (1941), his third partnership with the director John Ford, and The Three Faces of Eve (1957), based on a true case of a Georgia woman with multiple personality disorder. That film, which Johnson also produced and directed, earned an Academy Award for actress Joanne Woodward, a Thomasville native, in her first starring role.
In 2006 the Writers Guilds of America, east and west, named Johnson's adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath on their list of the 101 greatest screenplays.

Personal Life

Johnson was married three times. His first wife was Alice Mason, whom he married in 1919 and with whom he had a daughter. They divorced in 1920. Johnson married Marion Byrnes in 1927, and they also had a daughter. The couple divorced in 1938. In 1940 Johnson married Dorris Bowdon, an actress he met while both were working on The Grapes of Wrath; they had three children. Johnson died on March 25, 1977, in Hollywood. A collection of his correspondence with famous friends and colleagues was published in 1981.
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Further Reading
Nora Johnson, Flashback: Nora Johnson on Nunnally Johnson (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979).

Nunnally Johnson, The Letters of Nunnally Johnson (New York: Knopf, 1981).

Craig Lloyd, "Nunnally Johnson in Columbus," Muscogiana 9 (summer 1998): 29-36.

Tom Stempel, Screenwriter: The Life and Times of Nunnally Johnson (San Diego: A. S. Barnes, 1980).
Cite This Article
Lloyd, Craig. "Nunnally Johnson (1897-1977)." New Georgia Encyclopedia. 04 September 2013. Web. 27 August 2014.
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Courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia Libraries