Coffee, Lenore (c. 1897–1984)

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Coffee, Lenore (c. 1897–1984)

American screenwriter. Name variations: Lenore Cowen. Born around 1897 in San Francisco, California; died on July 2, 1984, in Woodland Hills, California; educated at Convent school of the Dominican Order, San Rafael, California; married William Joyce Cowen (an English motion picture director), June 8, 1924; children: daughter Toni (b. January 29, 1927) and son Garry (b. February 2, 1930).

Filmography (credited):

The Better Wife (1919); The Forbidden Woman (1920); Alias Ladyfingers (1921); The Face Between (1922); The Light That Failed (1922); Sherlock Brown (1922); Daytime Wives (1923); The Six-Fifty (1923); Temptation (1923); Thundering Dawn (1923); Bread (1924); Fools' Highway (1924); The Rose of Paris (1924); East Lynne (1925); Hell's Highroad (1925); The Volga Boatman (1926); The Angel of Broadway (1927); Chicago (1927); Lonesome Ladies (1927); The Night of Love (1927); Desert Nights (1929); The Bishop Murder Case (1930); Mother's Cry! (1930); Possessed (1931); The Squaw Man (1931); Night Court (1932); Downstairs (1932); Torch Singer (1933); All Men Are Enemies (1934); Four Frightened People (1934); Evelyn Prentice (1934); Vanessa: Her Love Story (1935); The Age of Indiscretion (1935); Suzy (1936); White Banners (1938); Four Daughters (Oscar nomination, 1938); Good Girls Go to Paris (1939); The Way of All Flesh (1940); My Son, My Son (1940); The Great Lie (1941); The Gay Sisters (1942); Old Acquaintance (1943); Till We Meet Again (1944); Marriage Is a Private Affair (1944); Tomorrow Is Forever (1946); The Guilt of Janet Ames (1946); Beyond the Forest (1949); Lightning Strikes Twice (1951); Sudden Fear (1952); The End of the Affair (1955); Footsteps in the Fog (1955); Another Time, Another Place (1958); Cash McCall (1958).

Novels include Weep No More; produced plays include Family Portraits; memoirs published as Storyline: Reflections of a Hollywood Screenwriter (1973).

The story of Lenore Coffee's entrance into the film business reads like one of her movie scripts. In her early 20s, while employed as an advertising copywriter for a San Francisco department store, Coffee launched an ad campaign so successful that her boss gave her a three-week paid holiday. During her time off, Coffee, who was an avid movie fan, wrote a story for silentscreen star Clara Kimball Young and mailed it to Garson Studios, the film company employing the star. The studio quickly sent Coffee $100 for her story. Instead of cashing the check, the astute Coffee sent a telegram to the studio that read, "offer accepted providing I am given screen recognition." The studio agreed and Coffee received her first screen credit on The Better Wife in 1919.

In an interview with author Pat McGilligan for the book Backstory, Coffee describes what happened next. When she met Garson Studios chief, Henry Garson, he asked her how she learned to write movies. "I said 'seeing pictures.'" He said, 'You must come to Hollywood.'" Coffee begged off, saying she couldn't afford it as she was the sole support of her mother. Garson responded immediately, "I think you're going a long way in this business. I'll pay your fare and your mother's fare. … I'll give you fifty dollars a week on a year's contract."

Garson's assessment of Coffee's talent proved accurate. Her career spanned four decades and, though she writes in her memoirs that she considered the silent era to be her own "golden age," Coffee was in constant demand in the 1930s and 1940s when Warner Bros. and MGM were producing what were referred to as "women's pictures." During that time, Coffee wrote for many of the leading ladies of the day, including Claudette Colbert (Tomorrow Is Forever) and Deborah Kerr (The End of the Affair), but the two stars for whom Coffee wrote the most were Joan Crawford and Bette Davis . Coffee's insights into the abilities of these fine actresses allowed her to tailor-make characters for them. "Bette spits out her words," Coffee told an interviewer, "Joan doesn't. I gave Bette short speeches, short sentences." In her memoirs, Coffee describes the women's different approach: Bette "thought herself into a part. Joan felt herself into one. Bette's talent was basically intellectual, Joan's emotional."

Coffee worked with many of the leading directors of the early years, including Charles (King) Vidor, Lois Weber , Michael Curtiz and George Fitzmaurice. Her favorite director was the legendary Cecil B. DeMille, or "C.B." as everyone called him. Coffee enjoyed working for DeMille and relays a story regarding their collaboration on The Volga Boatman, a classic silent film made in 1926. When, in preproduction, DeMille asked her opinion of the movie's outline, she replied candidly, "When you have a story like this, founded on capitalism and communism, you have to prove … both [capitalists and communists] behave equally badly when they are in power." DeMille agreed with Coffee. In a scene that shows capitalists attacking a boat, DeMille also showed the Bolsheviks behaving with equal aggressiveness by enslaving the nobility.

In the early days of the motion-picture industry, writers and actors were contracted to one studio. The major companies, MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros., and Universal turned out hundreds of pictures a year. Often times writers were called in to rewrite dialogue or even whole scripts without receiving credit. Coffee estimates that she worked on over 80 films in some capacity, though she received screen credit on only about half of them. At MGM, she worked with the legendary Irving Thalberg. "He had what is now called 'love/hate' feelings towards women," she wrote in her memoirs, "and he had the same thing towards writers. He said to me, 'What's all this business of being a writer; just putting one word after another.' My reply was, 'Pardon me, Mr. Thalberg, putting one right word after another.'"

Unlike her colleagues, Coffee rarely went into the studio to work, preferring instead to stay at her sprawling Mandeville Canyon estate, shared with her husband, English director William Joyce Cowen. She wrote in longhand and then dictated the work to a secretary at the studio. At first the studio did not take to her work habits and insisted that she come to the lot like everybody else. Recalled Coffee, "I wrote the first 20 pages and turned them in. Then I let time pass. They said, 'Where's the rest?' I said, 'I can't work away from home so let's call it off.' They liked the first pages I sent so much they told me I could work at home."

Though writers were often assigned particular scripts, Coffee sold original story ideas to her bosses. She was said to have been a master at the art of the "pitch," a nerve-wracking session in which the writer tells her story to a roomful of studio executives. The trick of the pitch is not only to tell a good story but to convince the studio heads the picture will be the next blockbuster hit. Though Coffee's background in advertising must have served her well, she still had much to overcome, including a serious stutter and, before a cataract operation, terrible eyesight. "Also I suffered from a nervous disease," said Coffee. "I used to excuse myself from meetings at the studio, slip out to the bathroom and shoot myself in the arm with a hypodermic of medicine. I was very good with a needle, as they say."

In 1959, after 40 years in the business, Coffee and husband moved to his beloved England. At 62, Coffee had had enough of Hollywood but not of writing. Her intention was to work on a second career as a playwright and novelist. But when her husband died not long after the move, she seemed to lose her will to write. Though she never again wrote fiction, in 1973 Coffee published her memoirs, Storyline: Reflections of a Hollywood Screenwriter.

Twenty years later, ill health and advancing poverty brought her back to the Motion Picture Retirement Home in Woodland Hills, a suburb of Los Angeles. Having outlived all her contemporaries, Coffee died July 2, 1984. Not long before her death when Pat McGilligan asked her how she viewed her time in Hollywood, she said, "I look back on my forty years in Hollywood with nothing but pleasure. If you can work forty years in Hollywood without getting your throat cut, you can count yourself lucky."


Coffee, Lenore. Storyline: Reflections of a Hollywood Screenwriter. London: Cassell, 1973.

McCreadie, Marsha. The Women Who Write The Movies: From Frances Marion to Nora Ephron. NY: Birchlane Press, 1994.

McGilligan, Pat. "Lenore Coffee: Easy Smiler, Easy Weeper," in Backstory. n.d.

Deborah Jones , Studio City, California