Article as originally featured in Rollins Alumni Record, Vol.
67:2 (Summer 1989), 14-17.
author and award-winning playwright Jess Gregg was 21 and a senior
at Rollins College, his first short story, The Grand Finale, was
published in Esquire. Certainly the plot had the boldness of youth:
an apparently multi-gratified composer had five mistresses. The
trouble began when he realized he was dying and concluded that his
mistresses were coming around so often he couldn't get his work
done. In the imaginative denouement, the young Gregg had the
composer pretend to die five times, in turn, in the arms of each of
While at Rollins, Gregg was also editor of the R Book, a
normally bland rule book for freshmen. To the editor, the samples of
previous issues he studied seemed as much alike as freshman caps. He
made a decision to use a different approach. He not only rewrote
every page, he also decided to spice things up with his own versions
of what he regarded as "funny rather than sexy" drawings of those
fat nude ladies in the "cutesy style of the 1880s." He says today
that college officials "were not amused."
examples may adequately reflect the boldness and industry of the
undergraduate imagination, they do not adequately anticipate a
successfully sustained literary career that was to span at least
five decades, a career that has not been without inner and outer
conflict between two all-compelling callings: one to the novel, the
other to the theatre.
His skills and
accomplishments as a playwright have sometimes associated Gregg with
such luminaries of the theater as Joshua Logan, Elia Kazan, Hal
Prince, and the longtime Gregg family friend, the late Gower
Champion, as well as with well-known actors and actresses.
Playwriting, especially during the revisions-during-production
phase, often involves travel and can be a social and learning
experience for the playwright, if he so chooses. The writing of
novels, however, is essentially a loner's calling. Virtually no
group decisions are involved in the writing of first drafts of
novels. Although he writes and speaks quite often of this at times
frustrating and perhaps-at-times sublime rivalry, there is little
doubt, when decision time is at hand, as to which of these muses he
more readily responds. Any writer, year in and year out, must
constantly decide what to undertake next-an often difficult
determination. "What I work on next," producer Stephen Spielberg
once said, "is the most important decision I ever make." The facts
are that Jess Gregg's long string of high-quality work includes
twice as many plays as novels, even though he is presently finishing
the first draft of a 400-page novel that, so far, has taken nearly
four years to write.
Which again brings
back that rival muse, playwriting. A part of those nearly fifty
months of fleshing out the novel was spent revising two plays. One,
The Underground Kite, which opened in Central Florida in
February of this year, underwent revisions -- some after Gregg
talked with actors about their conception of their parts. Another
play, the musical comedy Cowboy, written with composer
Richard Riddle, toured 11 western states in '87 and '88.
"I no longer know,"
he said recently, "whether theatre is a blessing or a curse in my
life. But saying no to it never crosses my mind."
The late Dr. Edwin
Granberry, Professor Emeritus of Creative Writing at Rollins, was
both an author and a playwright. During the years, he and his former
student read and criticized each other's drafts and scripts. Gregg
calls Granberry's influence "simply enormous." He even dedicated his
issue of the R Book to his mentor: "From most, advice is small
change. From him, it is a legacy."
"Perhaps a little wide-eyed," Gregg says of his dedication today,
"but I still feel that way." Appropriately, Gregg was at his
typewriter last December when Howard Bailey, former director of the
Annie Russell Theatre, phoned with news of Granberry's death.
"I was," Gregg
wrote on a 1988 Christmas card, "full of gratitude that I knew him
and learned from him and kept up with him all these years. I came
from California to Rollins because of him. When I was a teenager in
Beverly Hills High School and my father realized I was serious about
writing, he made a thorough investigation of writer's workshops and
teachers. All roads led to Granberry."
Gregg's next stop
after Rollins was a year at Yale Drama School. "Then," he says, "I
sat down at the typewriter." He wrote first, not a play, but two
novels. The first, The Other Elizabeth, was published in
1952. It attracted immediate attention, appearing initially in the
Ladies Home Journal, but, he says, "so cut down as to be
creepy, if not embarrassing." The book sold well, was widely
published in Europe, remained in print for years-in one language or
another-and is still going the rounds on TV. Novelist Kay Boyle
wrote that she had discovered the book while in prison for civil
disobedience. Actress Bette Davis phoned one day to tell the author
how much she liked it. "It was made for me!" she said.
One reason Gregg
and his father had decided on Rollins as the best place to begin was
Granberry's reputation as a perceptive, as well as lyrical, regional
novelist. "In a sense," Gregg says, "The Other Elizabeth was
a regional novel, although today it might be called a Gothic. My
second book, The Glory Circuit, which dealt with itinerant
evangelists in Florida, was my first truly
regional novel, a form which has always interested me."
When this writer
first came under the spell of its deft dialogue and consistent "real
people," The Glory Circuit seemed to possess much more valid
regional perceptions on this subject than I had found elsewhere,
even in Sinclair Lewis's powerful Elmer Gantry.
novel came out during a newspaper strike. "It sold poorly," says the
author, "but Marilyn Monroe did want to play the white trash waif,
Millie Marie. That put some rainbow into the experience."
Jess Gregg's first
play, A Swim in The Sea, was brought out by Hal Prince,
producer of Cabaret, West Side Story, and Phantom of the Opera. It
was, as they say, a great way to start. It played Philadelphia and
other cities-even, eventually, the Annie Russell Theatre at Rollins.
But, like hundreds of other American plays, it never came to New
His second play, however, made
England-in a conspicuous way. That was The Sea Shell,
produced in 1960 by Stephen Mitchell and starring Sean Connery and
that grand old actress and friend of George Bernard Shaw, Dame Sybil
But how to sustain
the art and skills needed for the long pull he had aligned himself
for? For an actor, that sometimes means understudying an
accomplished star. For Gregg, it meant assisting accomplished
directors and producers. As early as the mid-fifties, his
apprenticeship with three of the New York theatre's best-known
directors and producers began. Joshua Logan, who masterminded such
hits as South Pacific and Mr. Roberts, hired him as
his assistant on Fanny. He also worked as an assistant to Elia Kazan
on Tennessee Williams' Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Choreographer
and director Gower Champion used him in four shows, including
Hello Dolly and I Do, I Do. Champion was, he says, his
most important lifetime influence. They had grown up together in Los
Angeles, their two families had been close for over a century-and
Jess watched Gower grow into a major figure in the Broadway theatre.
"He came to hire me because he was surrounded by people who only
agreed with him, and he needed someone he could trust to argue with
him when his ideas weren't first-rate. Sometimes it got pretty
sticky. We'd start talking about the show about a month before
rehearsal, but my real work was during the out-of-town try-out where
the show usually takes shape. Sometimes I didn't know if I would
emerge with a job, much less a friend."
apparently survived, however, for Gower named his first son after
Gregg. Champion's early death was a great blow to Jess.
In 1964, Gregg's
play, Show From The Rooftops, was produced
off-Broadway. Later, three one-act plays with an all-male cast,
The Men's Room, also appeared off-Broadway; of these, The
Organ Recital at the New Grand won the John Gassner Award. In
the '70s, Gregg did the Broadway adaptation of an old Jerome Kern
musical, Very Good Eddie, which played 90 performances at the
Meanwhile, he did
not forget the regional novel, or the investigative research
required to dig it out and properly phrase it. A Florida ramshackle
fish camp run by a man who hired ex-convicts provided the spark.
"From talking to ex-cons," he says, "I became interested in the
problems of the convict's upside-down existence in prison: living
among enemies, the food, the humor, all of it. And the eventual
problem of going out into the free world again. Finally I wrote the
Florida Department of Corrections asking to be allowed into the
penitentiaries for study. I told them I was not interested in
sensational matter; my research would be simply to report. Somehow,
they dared to let me, and I was given carte blanche to come and go
in the Florida penal colonies. I even served at one of the road
camps as a guard-without-gun."
mined enough human lode and authentic patterns of regional speech to
fill, so far, a novel, a play, and a one-actor. Baby Boy, the
novel, came first-in 1973. Its look behind the locks had an
unsentimental sensitivity about it reminiscent of John Steinbeck's
Of Mice and Men. Baby Boy was selected as Book-of-the-Month
Club alternate. It was optioned by Hollywood, and Gregg went west to
his old childhood home to write the screenplay for director Robert
Mulligan (To Kill A Mockingbird).
screenwriters were assigned to it. The story, as usual, got further
and further away from the book. Eventually, it was optioned by
Twentieth Century Fox, and later by Oliver Stone. "Now," he says,
"somebody else has it, and I'm afraid Baby Boy will be an old
man by the time it's done."
Image courtesy of
Orlando Sentinel Star, (January 3, 1974).
In Florida prisons,
an "underground kite" is a message slipped out of jail. Several
years ago, Gregg's most recently produced play, The Underground
Kite, won a contest sponsored by Florida's Theatre-in-the-Works,
and in 1987, was presented for five performances as a "staged
reading"-first step towards production. Both Jess's sister, Jenelle,
and her husband, Howard Bailey, participated. Jenelle read the part
of Lorraine, a tourist, and Howard, who had directed Jess in plays
at Rollins long before, read "Gator," the Florida cracker who ran
the fish camp on the Huwatchee River.
Last February, Theatre-in-the-Works sponsored "The Premiere of a New
American Play" at Valencia Community College's Black Box Theatre for
a week's run. Gregg was there as a playwright-in-residence, a role
he says is "usually a frustrating experience since everyone has to
pretend the playwright doesn't exist, and that the play was brought
to the theatre by the stork."
"But this time," he
adds, "I was allowed to work very closely with the director, Ed
Dilks, and even encouraged to discuss the play with the actors. As a
result, it was the kind of collaborative effort the theatre is
supposed to be. The cuts suggested themselves painlessly, and a week
after the curtain came down, I had the revisions ready for the
script's next step-whatever that may be."
As the playwright
knows best, chance plays the role of a giant in the American
theatre. Jess never promotes or sends anything out on his own.
According to Jenelle, he doesn't even read, much less save, reviews.
The way he divides things, the game of "Huwatchee The Kite?" is best
played by his New York agent.
His musical play,
Cowboy, roughly based on the life of Charles M. Russell, the
cowboy artist, was first tried out at Connecticut's prestigious
Goodspeed Opera House in the mid-'70s. It has since had a number of
productions regionally. Two years ago, it opened at the University
of Montana's sparkling new theatre, and a year later, the State of
Montana, in celebrating its Centennial, presented the show in a tour
of the far and middle western states.
It was also given a
three-week New York showcase; but when the concrete canyons of that
city will be ready for a full production of the play is anyone's
guess. This is a question for the rest of us, not a seasoned veteran
like Jess Gregg. "Regional writing," he says matter of factly,
"hasn't attracted much support from the commercial theatre, but it
has gradually found audiences away from New York."
At this writing,
Jess Gregg is busy at his typewriter with what Jenelle admires as
"his tunnel vision about writing. I've seen him take an entire day,
or longer, in trying to get a sentence exactly right. Between his
two work places, New York and Winter Park, he's totally absorbed in
his work." His current absorption is a novel, four years and four
hundred pages along. In the waggish spirit of his undergraduate
days, he gives the same working title to any play or novel in
progress: No Bed Of Her Own. The real titles come later. He's been
around long enough to have earned some traditions. Another is that
he exerts no effort studying or following trends. And he doesn't
talk about-or "talk away," as Hemingway once put it-any work in
However, New York novelist Don
Matheson, author of Stray Cat and the forthcoming Ninth Life,
provides one insight: "I think of him as a writer who has a rare
degree of commitment to quality. He avoids cheap tricks. He writes
very slowly. He spends all day, every day, around his work. He is
very good at turning a phrase. More importantly, he has the strength
to put his phrases in the right setting.
"In his current novel," he adds, "he's coming closer and closer to
what's most important about what he knows best. He has a wealth of
information about the movie industry in Hollywood, the theatre,
offstage-all of it. His new book strikes me as one of the best
things he's ever written. It's his world."
For the rest of us,
the new novel is something to look forward to: as a book, yes; as a
play, maybe; as a movie, who knows? Jess Gregg has trained himself
to do it-almost in his head-all three ways.
- Bill Shelton '48