Film director Preston Sturges lived a life that could happen only in the movies. And he used his experiences to create some of Hollywood’s greatest: The Great McGinty (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), and Unfaithfully Yours (1948).
Sturges grew up in pre-World War I Europe, where his mother had taken him to live the bohemian life (her closest friend was Isadora Duncan). Mother and son returned to the U.S. at the outbreak of World War I, when Preston was 16. He later served in the U.S. Army Air Corps, although the war ended before he saw action.
In 1927 he was 28 years old and working in his mother’s cosmetics business when his first marriage broke up. He consoled himself by learning to play the piano and write songs. By the end of that year, he had written a musical comedy. A few months later, he wrote his first play, The Guinea Pig, to vent his anger at a young actress he was dating who had used him to rehearse a play she was writing — without his knowledge. His second play, Strictly Dishonorable, was inspired by a failed seduction that occurred at a friend’s summer house in Monte Carlo. The comedy was the hit of the 1929-30 Broadway season.
That winter, on the train to Palm Beach, he met Eleanor Hutton, the 20- year-old daughter of heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post and financier E.F. Hutton. Her parents objected, but the kids didn’t listen: Eleanor and Preston eloped in April 1930. Their happiness was short-lived, however. His mother died on their first wedding anniversary; they separated on their second.
Looking for yet another new start at age 33, Sturges went to Hollywood to become a screenwriter. By the time he died in 1959, he had written 31 movies and directed 14 of them.
Sturges began to write his autobiography in 1959 but did not finish it. His fourth and last wife, Sandy, with whom he had two sons, took the manuscript as well as Preston’s journals, diaries, and letters, and edited them into a book. Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges will be published in September by Simon & Schuster.
Hollywood I started at the bottom: a bum by the name of Sturgeon who had once written a hit play called Strictly Something-or-Other. Carl Laemmle of Universal offered me a contract, with unilateral options exercisable by the studio, to join his team as a writer. My wife (Eleanor Hutton) had decamped, my fortune was depleted, and even though I was living on coffee and moonlight, my costs of living continued to cost. I did not have to wrestle with any principles to leap on Laemmle’s offer. On Sept. 9, 1932, I arrived in Hollywood with my secretary, Bianca Gilchrist.
I was to write, offer suggestions, and make myself generally useful, and for this I was to get a nominal or beginning writer’s salary of a thousand dollars a week. Junior writers got less, of course, but I had written Strictly Something-or-Other, and that made me a kind of senior beginner. I was charmed; it vindicated my contention that writing was my profession, and the money proved it.