Benson, Sally (1900–1972)

views updated

Benson, Sally (1900–1972)

American writer, best remembered for her "Junior Miss" stories that began in The New Yorker. Name variations: (pseudonym) Esther Evarts. Born Sara Mahala Redway Smith on September 3, 1900, in St. Louis, Missouri; died on July 19, 1972, in Woodland Hills, California; daughter of Alonzo Redway (a cotton broker) and Anna (Prophater) Smith; attended Mary Institute, St. Louis, Missouri; Horace Mann High School, New York, New York; married Reynolds Benson, on January 25, 1919 (divorced); children: one daughter, Barbara.

Selected writings:

People Are Fascinating (short stories, 1936); Emily (short stories, 1938, published in England as Love Thy Neighbour, 1939); Stories of the Gods and Heroes (1940, reprinted, 1979); Junior Miss (short stories, 1941, reprinted, 1968); Meet Me in St. Louis (1942); Women and Children First (short stories, 1943, reprinted 1946).


Shadow of a Doubt (Universal, 1943); Experiment Perilous (RKO, 1944); National Velvet (M-G-M, 1944); Anna and the King of Siam (20th Century-Fox, 1946); Come to the Stable (20thCentury-Fox, 1949); Conspirator (M-G-M, 1950); No Man of Her Own (Paramount, 1950); The Belle of New York (M-G-M, 1952); The Farmer Takes a Wife (20th Century-Fox, 1953); The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (M-G-M, 1960); Bus Stop (20th Century-Fox, 1961); Summer Magic (Walt Disney, 1962); Viva Las Vegas (M-G-M, 1963); Signpost to Murder (M-GM, 1963); The Singing Nun (M-G-M, 1966). Plays: (With Walter Kent) Seventeen (1954); The Young and Beautiful (1956).

Although Sally Benson is best remembered as the creator of Judy Graves, the teenage heroine of Junior Miss, her work covered a broad spectrum, including short stories, novels, newspaper features, film reviews, plays, screenplays, and movie and television adaptations.

Benson married soon out of high school, had a daughter, and later divorced. She started writing as an interviewer for the New York Morning Telegraph, doing a piece a week on various celebrities. From there, she reviewed movies for a pulp-paper house, producing some 32 reviews a month in addition to some interviews. Her segue to the prestigious New Yorker was dramatic in its simplicity: Benson sent off

her very first short story and it came back with a check and a request for more. So buoyed was she by her good fortune that she did not write another piece for a year, until she ran out of money. "My style fits here and it wouldn't most places," said Benson about her association with The New Yorker. "Every once in a while editors of some of the national magazines have asked for stuff, but what they really want are healthy, clean-limbed, hearty young people on a raft, and that isn't for me." In American Women Writers, Mary Anne Ferguson discusses Benson's sharp edge, describing her stories as "'slices of life' in which characters, through stream-of-consciousness or dialogue, reveal foolish pretenses; swift narration and irony preclude sentimentality but sometimes result in cruel revelations."

Benson's first books were collections of her New Yorker stories. People are Fascinating, published in 1936, contains "The Overcoat" and "Suite 2049," two O. Henry prize stories for 1935. In 1941, she was astonished by the success of the "Junior Miss" collection. Benson had not intended to write more than one or two stories, but was convinced by Harold Ross, then editor of The New Yorker, that she'd be a fool to drop them. She was further amazed by plans to turn the stories into movies or plays, feeling that they lacked the kind of plot and continuity that movie and play producers wanted. The adaptations, however, proved extremely successful. After the stage play in 1941, the first radio show, "Junior Miss," starring Shirley Temple (Black) , premiered on CBS in 1942. It led to a second radio version, which ran from 1948 to 1954, and a television movie, starring Carol Lynley , Don Ameche, and Joan Bennett , in 1957.

Published in 1942, Benson's novel Meet Me in St. Louis was based on her own childhood memories as well as diaries her older sister had kept at the time of the World's Fair in St. Louis at the turn of the century. Sold to Hollywood, the book was transformed into a popular musical film starring Judy Garland .

Benson's two plays were both adaptations. The musical Seventeen, written with Walter Kent, was adapted from the popular novel by Booth Tarkington, about a 17-year-old boy who falls in love for the first time. The Young and Beautiful was based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Josephine" stories. Of Benson's numerous film scripts, several have become classics, including National Velvet, which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney, and Come to the Stable, which won Loretta Young and Celeste Holm Oscar nominations. For her screenplay Anna and the King of Siam, Benson was nominated for an Academy Award in 1946.

In a widely publicized 1965 case, Benson testified that her California doctor had given her injections of codeine over an 18-month period that resulted in a drug dependency. She brought the case to the attention of the narcotics bureau, which led to an investigation and indictment for a narcotics violation. After the ordeal, the 68-year-old Benson unexpectedly found it easy to cure herself of the drug dependency and resumed a busy writing schedule. She died on July 19, 1972, at the age of 71.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts