Norman Corwin was born May 3, 1910. His family then lived in East Boston. His parents, Samuel and Rose, had four children altogether, including his elder brothers Emil and Albert, and younger sister Beulah.
As a boy, young Norman earned family applause by reciting poetry, even at 5 years old, and wrote his first full-length story at age 7. The public library had a strong influence, not only providing books for an avid reader, but 78-rpm records as well, beginning his lifelong love of classical music. His high school English teacher, Lucy Drew (Stuetzel), had a profound and lasting influence on his love of writing – and of poetry, introducing him to Keats, Browning and Shelley.
Corwin’s introduction to radio came as a boy in East Boston, when his brother Al built a classic crystal set out of a Quaker Oats box.
He started his working life at 17, as a journalist, working for two Massachusetts newspapers, first the Greenfield Recorder and later the Springfield Republican. He started as a general utility reporter, covering every part of the community – he once surprised an editor with an account of a football game written in verse. He reviewed movies, and eventually was asked to write human-interest features. It was one of those stories which led to the very first Norman Corwin radio broadcast.
A Springfield garbage man boasted of his prowess, and Corwin wrote up the story. Another garbage collector issued a challenge to a can-rolling match, and Corwin both arranged and covered that. The Associated Press picked up the story, and the manager of Springfield’s radio station, WBZA, asked Corwin to interview the local champ on the air.
WBZA soon decided they needed a news reader, and asked the newspaper to provide one. Corwin got the job and was also made Radio Editor, reviewing and criticizing broadcasts. Very quickly he decided he could do better than most of what he heard, and persuaded WBZA to let him create his first series of programs: Rhymes and Cadences. On this show, Corwin read poetry while a friend, Ben Kalman, played the piano – between the poems, not during them. It became quite popular.
In 1931, Norman Corwin traveled to Europe, with his brother Emil and a friend, visiting France, Switzerland, Italy, and Germany. In France, he met a woman who was convinced there would be another war. In Munich, he was deeply moved by a memorial to World War I which had the names of the city’s dead inscribed, as our Vietnam Memorial does today. In Heidelberg, he chanced to meet and know a young Nazi – a 17-year old who was enthralled by, and deeply committed to, Adolf Hitler. These experiences would prove haunting, and invaluable.
In 1935, Corwin landed a job as a newsman on station WLW, in Cincinnati. He only lasted two weeks; when he objected to a station policy that strikes by workers could not be reported, or even mentioned, on the air, he was fired. He later took up the matter through the American Civil Liberties Union, and the station changed its policy.
Corwin moved to New York City after that, taking a job as a publicity writer for the 20th-Century Fox movie studios. Remembering his program on WBZA, he proposed a poetry program to the managers of WQXR, New York’s independent station. It went on the air in 1936 as Poetic License. Among the poets Corwin corresponded with was Louis Ginsberg, father of Allen Ginsberg.
The networks began to take notice. NBC gave Corwin his first chance on the networks, when he was invited to appear on The Magic Key of RCA in 1937. It went virtually unnoticed, and NBC never followed up. Their blindness proved a blessing to their principal rival.
In 1938, a CBS executive, William Lewis, heard one of the Poetic License programs, a presentation of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. He quickly offered Corwin a job as a radio director, at the (then-pretty-darn-good) salary of $125 per week. Corwin felt utterly unprepared; he knew nothing of engineering, control-room procedure, or intricate audio production.
Ten days before his 28th birthday, Norman Corwin started work at CBS. He directed various programs written by others, learning his craft. Before long, he was given a chance to direct Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge Of Courage for the network’s premier showcase, The Columbia Workshop. By fall, he was ready to propose a version of his poetry program to CBS. The network thought the idea had potential, and asked him to produce a pilot program, but offered only a $200 budget. It was, however, to be called Norman Corwin’s Words Without Music: the first time a radio writer or director had ever been billed in the title of a show.
Corwin was rehearsing the pilot on October 31, 1938 in a CBS studio. On the floor below, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre On The Air were broadcasting The War Of The Worlds. Corwin worked on, oblivious to the now-famous furor erupting across the country, until, late that night, the overloaded CBS switchboard somehow routed a call to his control room. He told Lodestone the following story:
“I took the call and it was a man, very excited, with a gravelly voice and a thick New York accent. He said,
“ ‘Is this the station that broadcast that program about the Mars invasion?’
“I said it was, and the man erupted,
“ ‘I just wanted you to know that my wife heard that program, and she got so excited she ran outside and fell down a whole flight of stairs!’
“I was horrified, and started to say something, but the man went right on, appreciatively,
“ ‘Geez – what a WONDERFUL program!’
“And he hung up.”
Norman Corwin’s Words Without Music debuted a month later, and was immediately acclaimed. The New York Post wrote: “Mr. Corwin’s method is to dramatize poetry while retaining most of the original lines. We can assure the purists that the first program at least was in the best of taste, and we hasten to add for the lowbrows, made darn good entertainment.” Corwin worried and sweated over each broadcast, never satisfied, always dedicated.
“While we were in the bar across the street from CBS, drinking, Norm was at home writing a goddamn script!” said famed producer William N. Robson.
Two of Corwin’s programs during this became classics. The Plot To Overthrow Christmas was his first original play for the network. Public reaction was excellent, and the following morning there was a knock on Corwin’s office door. A tall man stood there, and said,
“I just wanted you to know that my wife and I heard your broadcast last night and we thought it was wonderful! I wanted to meet you and thank you in person. My name’s Ed Murrow.” Thus began a close friendship which lasted until Murrow’s death more than twenty years later.
Two months later, Corwin wrote his next original piece. It was a reaction to the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War (which also inspired the famous work by Picasso) and to Vittorio Mussolini, son of the Italian dictator, a pilot who had dropped bombs and then given an utterly callous account of the experience. They Fly Through The Air With The Greatest Of Ease brought instant national acclaim.
He accumulated successes. His new production of Spoon River Anthology was honored when its author, poet Edgar Lee Masters, sat in on the broadcast. Masters was reduced to tears – he though the voices were uncannily perfect and the production superb. Seems Radio Is Here To Stay created excitement throughout the broadcast industry.
Corwin wrote most of his celebrated broadcasts, but sometimes he presented the work of others. He helped Earl Robinson develop his musical Ballad for Americans for broadcast, and the great African-American performer Paul Robeson starred. The studio audience arose as one to cheer the production, and the ovation lasted long after the program had gone off the air. On a lighter note, My Client Curley was his adaptation of a short story by Lucille Fletcher (who wrote Sorry, Wrong Number), and was hailed as fast and funny, delightful and satirical.
In 1940, Corwin took leave from CBS to try writing for the movies at RKO in Hollywood. It was a disappointing experience, and he found much more satisfaction in the few broadcasts he did for the radio network. He returned to New York to find that CBS was prepared to give him complete control of the Columbia Workshop’s resources and time slot for six full months.
26 By Corwin was the full flood of Norman Corwin’s radio genius, pouring forth with liberal support from the network. It was a half hour of network time, every week, to do with as he liked. Studios, crew, and musicians -- a full orchestra, if wanted -- were provided by the network, along with a substantial budget for performers. There were no sponsors to worry about; this was a CBS presentation, a "sustaining" program. There was no official interference. Many times, the network had only been given the title of a program when it went on the air.
But it was a marathon achievement. Every week, Norman Corwin presented a brand new play. There were no continuing characters, regular locations, or established topics. Each program had nothing to do with the program before or after.
Each week, he had to conceive an idea, write a script, arrange for a musical score, find a cast, develop sound effects, rehearse, direct and produce a live broadcast performance. Then he would go home, put a blank piece of paper in his typewriter, and start over again.
The fact that he was able to do it at all is astonishing, but what makes Corwin's work so famous is the superb level of quality he maintained. His scripts range all across the radio landscape, from comedy and satire to history, poetry, fantasy and tragedy. Each is a gem in its own way, and Corwin attracted the finest talents of the day.
1941 was Corwin’s year in many ways. His reputation glowed brighter and brighter with every CBS broadcast, and he capped the year with an astonishing achievement: We Hold These Truths, a celebration of the American Bill Of Rights, was heard by the largest audience in all history for any dramatic performance, and it galvanized the country.
In 1942, America was engulfed by World War II. Norman Corwin threw himself into the war effort, helping to mobilize broadcasting for the cause. After the great success of the Bill of Rights show, the United States Government picked him to direct America’s first war-time radio series, which would also be heard on all four major networks simultaneously. This Is War! marshalled such writing talents as Philip Wylie, Maxwell Anderson, and Stephen Vincent Benet, and Corwin wrote several scripts himself.
Then he was sent to England. An American In England was a superb series of shows about life in wartime Britain, created in England with help from the BBC. He returned to America to create program after program which touched the hearts and minds of Americans and their allies, examined issues great and small, uplifted, inspired, entertained, and above all encouraged people to think.
“Poor Corwin!” cracked lyricist “Yip” Harburg. “He’s out of touch with everything except the world.”
By late 1944, it was becoming obvious that we were going to win, and that the Nazis were going to go down before the Japanese did. Corwin began working on a Victory Day show for the European war in the fall of ’44, when some expected the Germans to give up by Christmas. When V-E Day finally did arrive, on May 8, 1945, he was ready with a masterpiece: On A Note Of Triumph. This one-hour live studio broadcast, with a full orchestra playing Bernard Herrmann’s original score, had an enormous impact. Thousands of calls, letters and telegrams poured in; the show was released as a set of 78-rpm records, which promptly sold out – and a hardcover copy of the script also went immediately into additional pressings, becoming an instant best-seller.
It is difficult to fully explain the impact of On A Note Of Triumph to anyone who has not heard the program. After more than half a century, its power is still overwhelming. It is, arguably, the greatest single radio broadcast of the 20th Century. It is, unquestionably, Corwin’s masterpiece.
A similar show for victory in the Pacific War had to be created literally overnight, when the atomic bombs brought World War II to its ending far sooner than anyone had dared to hope. 14 August was only 15 minutes long, a hurried but heartfelt effort featuring Orson Welles, some hastily arranged music, and a single sound effect. Corwin was far from satisfied, and eventually remade the program entirely in 1995, calling it 50 Years After 14 August.
1946 brought Corwin worldwide recognition. The Wendell Willkie Foundation gave him the first One World Award, in recognition of his services to radio. The prize included a trip around “what was left of the world.” Corwin chose to take along a magnetic wire recorder, and CBS provided an engineer. Travelling 37,000 miles in 4 months, visiting 37 countries, he sent home more than a hundred hours of recordings. He interviewed heads of state and people in the street, people of all types and ranks and walks of life.
Returning home, Corwin mined this treasure and created One World Flight, a series of broadcasts taking the listeners around the globe, presenting the actual voices and sounds of many lands. The programs made an important contribution to international understanding at this critical time, and were much praised. They also helped the development of radio broadcasting, by ending the longstanding network rule banning the broadcast of recordings.
By the late 1940s, the American scene was changing. Television was beginning to compete heavily with radio. CBS had grown to be able to challenge NBC’s leadership in the industry, and was moving toward more commercially-successful programming. And the atmosphere was poisoned by the political witchhunting of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and people like Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Norman Corwin was caught up in this morass, and slandered like so many others. Aside from a number of utterly baseless accusations, he was suspected because of his work during the war. Today, it is hard for many to believe, but the programs he had done – at the request of the Government and the network – to support unity among our allies were actually pointed out as evidence of “subversive activity.”
Corwin left the regular staff CBS in 1948, but continued to do special programs for the network’s Documentary Unit. In 1949, he was hired by the United Nations to produce six special programs for UN Radio, to be heard in many countries. The first, Could Be, became a radio classic. This broadcast, heard in America over NBC, brought praise from around the country as well as Britain, Canada, and Australia. It even brought a letter from Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, who wrote he was walking out the door to take a stroll when it started:
“…the program had to be good to keep me indoors for the full hour, but I stayed in until It Could Be [sic] was finished. I wish to congratulate you on one of the best radio dramatizations that it has ever been my good fortune to hear, and I wish not only every American but all foreigners could hear it.”
Four more programs followed, but after October, 1955, Norman Corwin turned away from radio. He had worked for the movies, off and on, since 1940. In 1957, he was nominated for the Academy Award for his screenplay in Lust For Life, a biography of Vincent Van Gogh. He continued to write, publishing articles and books, and stage plays.
Corwin, the author, worked on many fronts:
In 1971, Corwin took on yet another series of shows, a new show each week, unrelated to the last, and with his name above the title. This time, it was on television, and was called "Norman Corwin Presents."
In 1976, Corwin wrote, directed, and toured nationally with the play "Together Tonight: Hamilton, Jefferson, Burr."
In 1978, Corwin wrote for the CBS's 50th Anniversary televised all-star celebration.
Another book of poetry, Holes In A Stained Glass Window, was released in 1978.
In 1983, Corwin rocked the country with his critique of contemporary American culture, Trivializing America.
In 1991, Corwin returned to radio. A group of young radio producers, meeting at the Midwest Radio Theatre Workshop (now National Audio Theater Festival). in 1988, had suggested re-creating We Hold These Truths on its 50th Anniversary. Corwin insisted on rewriting and updating the script keeping only about 30 percent of the original. It was expanded to a full hour and now covered all the constitutional amendments.
Major funding was found and once again, the resulting program – this time a studio recording instead of a live performance – was heard on every network in America, both public and commercial. Once again, acclaim rolled in from coast to coast; the program won six major awards, including a special Silver Gavel Award from the American Bar Association.
This project introduced Corwin to his most influential modern producer, Mary Beth Kirchner. Highly respected at National Public Radio, she persuaded the public broadcast network to air a recording of On A Note Of Triumph on its half-century anniversary in 1995. The public response astonished Corwin and many others: toll-free lines were jammed with requests for tape copies.
NPR then wanted to broadcast 14 August, but Corwin turned them down flat. The V-J Day program had been hurriedly prepared, and he was never satisfied with it. Instead, he agreed to produce a remake, not only better but longer, and NPR provided resources. Fifty Years After 14 August starred Charles Kuralt and Pat Carroll, filled out a half hour, and its NPR broadcast repeated the success of the V-E Day show.
Norman Corwin was very firmly back on the radio map. National Public Radio asked him to select his favorite programs from the available recordings, and broadcast his choices under the title 13 By Corwin.
Then they offered him – at the age of 86 – a chance to create new programs, and he accepted with pleasure. As in the old days, Corwin was given a free hand, and an adequate budget. Once again, top stars jumped at the chance to appear in a Corwin production.
History, fantasy, satire, biography and spiritual values are some of the topics that leaped through Corwin's wide-ranging mind as he created the new scripts. To proven techniques, he added modern technology, from word processors to sampling keyboards, showing that his mastery of the radio medium was as brilliant as ever.
The final program of this group of six was Memos To A New Millennium, broadcast just as the 20th Century was coming to a close and the Third Millennium was beginning. This program offered a his thoughts on the past, present, and future. Famed film composer Elmer Bernstein created the score, and the program was widely applauded for its wisdom, insight, and brilliant use of the radio medium.
Today, Norman Corwin writes, teaches Journalism classes at the University of Southern California, and lives quietly in Los Angeles, still in touch with his brother Emil, who finally retired at the age of 98. Sam, their father, lived to be 112. We have every reason to hope that Norman Corwin’s story, and his writing, will still need updating for some time to come.