Norman Corwin, American radio’s ‘poet laureate,’ dies at 101

Norman Corwin, who wrote, produced and directed scores of award-winning radio dramas for CBS in the 1930s and 1940s and came to be known as the “poet laureate of radio,” died Oct. 18 at his Los Angeles home. He was 101.

The death was confirmed by his nephew, William Corwin. No cause of death was given.

In an era when radio was a dominant news and entertainment medium, Mr. Corwin was considered a visionary in the business. He wrote more than a dozen books and plays and received an Academy Award nomination for his literate screenplay of “Lust for Life” (1956), starring Kirk Douglas as tortured artist Vincent Van Gogh.

Mr. Corwin was the writer of the legendary 1938 radio program “The Plot to Overthrow Christmas,” and his honors included two Peabody Awards. He was inducted to the Radio Hall of Fame in 1993. He attracted high praise from artists as varied as Hollywood director Robert Altman and writer Ray Bradbury, who once called Mr. Corwin “the greatest director, the greatest writer and the greatest producer in the history of radio.”

Often called the “poet laureate of radio,” Mr. Corwin wrote euphonious prose that stoked the imaginations of more than 60 million Americans with his inspirational wartime productions “We Hold These Truths” (1941) and “On a Note of Triumph” (1945).

His most enduring radio drama, “On a Note of Triumph,” debuted coast to coast on May 8, 1945, the day the Allies declared victory in Europe after the surrender of the Germans. Poet Carl Sandburg called the program one of the all-time great American poems.

“So they’ve given up,” the program began. “They’re finally done in, and the rat is dead in an alley back of the Wilhelmstrasse. Take a bow, GI. Take a bow, little guy. The superman of tomorrow lies at the feet of you common men of this afternoon.”

While writing the script, Mr. Corwin consulted Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” particularly one poem Whitman had written after the end of the Civil War.

“He wrote the line, ‘Never were such sharp questions asked as this day.’ And I thought, yeah. We have sharp questions to ask,” Mr. Corwin said in a YouTube video for Anthracite Films. “We’ve beaten this monster, Hitler, the war goes on, but what are the questions? And the questions were, who have we beaten? What did it cost to beat him? Have we learned anything out of his war? And is it going to happen again?”

More than 60 million Americans, out of a nation of 140 million, listened to the historic hour-long live broadcast read by Martin Gabel with music composed by Bernard Herrmann.

“How much did it cost? Well the gun, the halftrack, and the fuselage come to a figure resembling mileages between two stars,” the script read. “But those costs are incalculable, and have no nerve endings. . . . However, in the matter of the kid who used to deliver folded newspapers to your doorstep, flipping them sideways from his bicycle, and who died on a Jeep in the Ruhr, there is no fixed price, and no amount of taxes can restore him to his mother.”

Billboard magazine called it “the single greatest — and we use greatest in its full meaning — radio program we ever heard.”

Mr. Corwin later said his inspiration for “Note of Triumph” came from an experience in his childhood.

“I was a kid in World War I, and I lived in a tenement house,” he told NPR. “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. 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.”

Norman Lewis Corwin was born in Boston on May 3, 1910. At 17, he wrote identical letters to 80 Massachusetts newspapers seeking employment, but he left out the fact that he was so young. He got two replies, took the best offer and showed up to the newsroom of the Greenfield Daily Recorder-Gazette with a newly grown mustache to conceal his youth.

Two years later he became a features writer at the Springfield Republican, where “whatever freaks showed up at the city desk, they sent them to me.”

One such person included a city sanitation worker who claimed he could roll an ashcan over any distance faster than anyone in the world — without spilling the ashes.

Mr. Corwin’s story on the ashcan roller attracted wide attention and even merited radio coverage, which introduced the young journalist to the medium.

Not long after, he moved to New York and worked as a publicity writer for 20th Century Fox movie studios. He harbored his passion for radio with a side job hosting a weekly poetry show in New York, which caught the attention of a CBS executive, who invited him in for an interview.

Mr. Corwin was known for some of his lighter work, too. “The Plot to Overthrow Christmas” was a comical broadcast eagerly awaited by listeners each yuletide season.

In one dispatch from his “An American in England” series, co-produced by Edward R. Murrow, Mr. Corwin cast a satirical eye at British news programs.

“The world came to an end at two minutes after three this afternoon,” the script read, but “Mr. Churchill could not be reached immediately to comment on the policy which His Majesty’s government intends to pursue regarding the situation.”

Until his death, Mr. Corwin served as a writer-in-residence at the University of Southern California and contributed to numerous projects for radio, television and screen.

He married actress Katherine Locke in 1947. She died in 1995. Survivors include two children, Diane Okarski of Portland, Ore., and Anthony Corwin of Somerset, Calif.

Mr. Corwin often said he was well prepared for his long life. His father lived to 110, and his brother Emil Corwin, a public affairs official with the Food and Drug Administration, lived to 107.

“The hardest thing for me is not occasional losses of balance, or a tooth, or a few hairs, but of a friend and loved one,” he wrote in the book “80” (2007), edited by Gerald Gardner and Jim Bellows. “But it is possible to approach the ultimate without staggering, and even with a kind of glow, like a radiant sunset.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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