Alann Lewis; Vagabond Turned Playwright

Alann Lewis went from rags to riches and back again with stints as a journalist, ad salesman, playwright, children's author and poet.
Alann Lewis went from rags to riches and back again with stints as a journalist, ad salesman, playwright, children's author and poet. (Family Photo)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 4, 2007

Alann Jack Lewis, 95, a playwright, poet, advertising executive and newspaperman, died of heart disease Oct. 26 at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, Calif., where he had lived since 1996.

Mr. Lewis lived a rags-to-riches-to-rags life. Born in Lithuania, he immigrated with his parents as an infant to New York. Turned out of his home when he was in his teens, he spent a short time as a copy boy at the New York Journal American newspaper but, unable to make ends meet during the Depression, then joined the Civilian Conservation Corps.

A physically slight youth, he told his family he left the CCC because he was often forced into fistfights. He then rode the rails, was arrested in Georgia as a vagrant and spent 10 days on a chain gang. He worked in blizzards as a Nevada mine watchman, picked oranges with Okies and ran errands for a brothel.

He became a cub reporter in Boston and then returned to the road, selling press photo services. Just before World War II, he opened a photography studio in Washington and won a contract with the military to photograph enlistees without charge. He made money by getting the names and addresses of the new soldiers' families and selling the men's photos to their parents and spouses. That business turned him into a millionaire, his daughter said.

Mr. Lewis worked for a dozen years with the Hearst Corp. in Washington as an advertising salesman, turning the photography studio into an eponymously named advertising business in 1958, although he then spelled his first name Allan. In 1962, his firm merged with Larrabee Associates, which became one of the city's largest agencies with annual billings exceeding $3.5 million, according to a Washington Post story at the time. He left it in 1967 to turn to theater.

Mr. Lewis moved to New York to write and produce his first play, "A Corner of the Bed," which was produced off-Broadway. After about five years, he moved to Annapolis and founded a weekly newspaper, the Annapolis Post. It folded after a few years, and he had moved to San Diego by the mid-1980s.

In the balmy weather there, Mr. Lewis wrote, published and produced six plays. Four of his works were performed or given staged readings. He also penned short stories and children's stories. He also held playwriting workshops from his home. He published his first book, a collection of poems, last year. His wealth was gone, but he managed to scrape together enough cash to live.

"My father was 'carpe diem.' He was like a Mexican jumping bean," said his daughter Lana Nelson of Annapolis. A slight, bookish man, "he did without when he needed to do without."

His first wife, Clara Lewis, died in 1959. His marriages to Mary Kelly, Reissa Leigh and Nancy Condomitti ended in divorce.

Besides Nelson, survivors include two other daughters from his first marriage, Seela Lewis of Mill Valley, Calif., and Marna Boxwell of Henderson, Nev.; a stepdaughter, Monica Dalton of Stratford, Conn.; a sister; a brother; two granddaughters; and two great-grandchildren.

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