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Joanna McClelland Glass’s Interview

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Joanna McClelland Glass is a playwright best known for her play “Trying,” based on her relationship with Francis Biddle, who was the United States Attorney General under FDR and chief American judge at the Nuremberg Trials. Glass worked for Biddle from 1967 until his death in 1968. Glass is the author of two novels, one of which is “Woman Wanted,” that was turned into a film. In this interview, she discusses her childhood and attempts to make it as a playwright, before turning to her relationship with Francis Biddle.

Date of Interview:
December 28, 2017
Location of the Interview:


Alexandra Levy: This is Alexandra Levy. This is on December 28th, 2017, and I’m here in Florida with Joanna Glass. My first question for you is to please say your name and spell it.

Joanna McClelland Glass: I use my maiden name also, so it’s Joanna McClelland Glass, J-o-a-n-n-a M-c-C-l-e-l-l-a-n-d Glass, G-l-a-s-s.

Levy: Great. Thank you. Can you tell us about when and where you were born?

McClelland Glass: I was born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in 1936. Do you want to know more about Saskatoon?

Levy: I know it’s a very cold area.

McClelland Glass: It is very cold, but I think the general misunderstanding about a place like Saskatoon is that it was in Canada and part of the Commonwealth. For instance, in my education, everything was basically focused on British things, rather than American. For instance, the American Revolution, the Civil War, all of that, I actually had to learn all that later. In literature, it certainly had a big influence on me.

It’s not like it was like Lincoln, Nebraska. By the time I was ten years old, I had to learn Shakespeare soliloquys and get up and speak them.

The entire thing of the Commonwealth, the fact that the Brits got into the [Second World] War in ’39, ahead of the Americans. At I believe it was at Dieppe in France, 3,000 Canadians died [or were injured or captured], when our population was 10 million. I don’t want to go on about it too much, but that is a big difference between what you might consider a cold, Midwest Lincoln, Nebraska. 

In literature, even in high school we had a great deal of Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge,  Percy Bysshe Shelley, things that most Americans don’t run into unless they’re in pretty fancy prep schools.

Levy: Did reading all that literature help inspire you to want to go into that sort of work?

McClelland Glass: Yes. Now, I should say in the Province of Saskatchewan, Regina—there are two major cities, Regina was given the legislature, Saskatoon was given the university. Because it was the commonwealth in Saskatoon, we would have what we used to call “East Indian professors,” Australians. I mean, it wasn’t unusual for me to see people on the trolley with turbans. It had a certain sophistication about it.

Unlike, I think, a lot of American cities, there were three little theater companies. That had a big influence on theater for me.    

I did not go to college. I had to do sort of part-time work all through—I worked from 5:00 until 10:00 all through high school. But in Saskatchewan, there was—again, it’s a cultural thing. The richest province in the country is Alberta, because of several oil wells, mostly the so-called Leduc well. Whereas one would expect young people wanting to go east more, there were a lot of opportunities in Alberta.

There was a woman there named Betty Mitchell. I think she was American originally, but she was a very, very well-known teacher of theater. Within what was called the Dominion Drama Festival, she seemed to win, her plays seemed to win every year.

Essentially right out of high school, someone luckily recommended me as a writer at a radio station. I did that for a little over a year. I’d been hearing for probably five years about Betty Mitchell in Calgary. I went to the boss of the radio station and I said, “I have heard that there’s a TV station opening in Calgary. There’s a person there that I’d like to study with.”

He very nicely got on the phone and got me a job, again, as a writer. Now, when I say a writer, these are so-called continuity writers. It was mostly commercials, advertisements, dog food commercials, dry cleaning commercials, and so on. I did that.

I had really wanted for most of my life to go to—it’s called RADA, and more well-to-do young Canadian girls who wanted to study in the theater would go. Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. The most famous thing about that in London is that Bernard Shaw left all of his royalties to that school. But it just wasn’t financially possible for me to do that.

After a year and a half working in Calgary, I went down to the Pasadena Playhouse for a year and studied there. When I first got there, of course, I had such a thick Canadian accent, and they would send me out for various auditions. I managed to get an agent, and I was sent out. But I had the thick Canadian accent and really couldn’t play, you know, Marcia’s sister with my accent. I still have a little bit of it. It’s more of a precise, I think, speech than, than an accent.

What seemed almost humiliating to me—I don’t know where I got the sort of arrogance for all this, I certainly didn’t have any academic credentials to back it up—but the cattle calls, sort of twenty young women being sent out, and it was all entirely on the basis of looks, weight and so on. I just found that all very, very insulting. 

At that time in the east, one of the very popular schools was the Herbert Berghof Institute, which he ran with his very well-known wife, Uta Hagen. Uta was the first person in the play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” But prior to that, she had a very, very stellar career. She had done a lot of Shakespeare.

The one year in Pasadena pretty much did it for me. It just was not a serious enough place for me. As I say, it was all about appearance. I did meet Marlon Brando a couple of times, and so on. There was some sort of fun stuff for a girl from Saskatoon.

Then I ended up saving enough money to get to New York City. The first job that I had in New York City was where I met Naomi. It was the Olin Matheson Chemical Corporation.

I guess the writing actually—I mean, even if I was in the radio station, the television station and at Olin Mathieson, if there were, if there was going to be a period of an hour with really not much to do, I would write. I seemed to have—I can’t account for it in any way—but it’s almost a different field, writing dialogue. Not having the license to have a ten-page description of the mountains and the lake and whatnot, to have only speech to tell the story. That makes a lot of restriction and constriction. For instance, it’s essentially a minute a page. If you get to between 90 and 100, that’s it.

In screenwriting, the first screenplay that I did some years later, was 120 pages and they wouldn’t read it. They sent it back. Because this was a couple of very well-known producing partners, Zanuck and Brown. They budgeted $75,000 a page before anyone was hired. If you had Julia Roberts in there at 25 million or something, that wasn’t counted. Just the basic sort of [0:12:00] fundamentals of getting the thing on its feet with this enormous amount of money. You have to learn to write very precisely.

Levy:  Maybe if you want to talk about your career up until the point where you started working for Biddle?

McClelland Glass: Yes. Well, there really wasn’t much of a career. I had three kids in two years, because of twins. We were in Washington, D.C., and there’s really about five years there that I barely remember. We did laundry, we did diapers. I did something, at one point, like sixty diapers a day.

I would try and write at night, but I would be so exhausted by the time I got everybody bathed and into bed, that there was just this long period there of my sort of feeling every morning, “Oh, God, this is terrible,” as amateur as I was. 

I had a very good friend that I had met. My ex-husband was getting a doctorate in physics at Yale, and I had a very good friend named Austin Pendleton, who’s a fairly well-known actor in New York, actor/director. He has for all of these years, almost fifty years, been a mentor.

He very kindly, when I would scribble this nonsense—it was always for the theater, dialogue. But he would, wherever he was—I remember that he was in the film, “Catch-22” with Orson Welles. He was in a motel somewhere in Arizona or something, and he called me. And, I said, “Well, I’ve got like ten pages.” So I sent it to his motel where he was making the film. He has been very dependable that way all through, all through my career. 

It really wasn’t until all the kids got into school that I had any time. I would basically do what I had to do. The kids left at ten to eight in the morning. I had a very strict discipline until about 2:00. And, talk about multitask. I mean, I would write, I would do the laundry, I would talk to the orthodontist, I would talk to the PTA and make their cookies. It just seems to be the female—it is the female plate.

Because of Austin, we got a reading of a play that I wrote that was inconsequential, really, but it was at the Berghof studio. Just getting a reading means you’ve got to get a bunch of actors together without pay, etc. But a reading is so essential. Otherwise, it’s like writing a symphony, and you have all these instruments and you have no idea how they’re going to sound, and it’s all in your head. Then suddenly, bodies are attached. And nearly always, they are the wrong bodies, because you pick up actors as you can to just read the thing. Readings are really—it’s hard to get them. You have to be fairly established before a theater will even put itself out enough to give you a reading.

We had one recently. I have a new play with a very long title. It’s called, “Two Plain Daughters and One Handsome Son,” and it’s set in New Haven. Very fortunately, we had a reading of it, I think it was November 3rd in Chicago. A little miscasting and so on, but we had probably about thirty people there, who afterwards essentially say, “I just didn’t get this.” Or, “What was this about?” Or, “How long had that been going on?” The clarity of the thing doesn’t really hit you until you have the reading. 

The first one-acts, a “Canadian Gothic” and “American Modern,” were done when Manhattan Theatre Club opened in New York. A woman named Lynn Meadow ran it. I think she perhaps still does. They were the first place to get New York Times coverage. It’s easy to be successful in a 50-seat house, and that’s what it was. Word of mouth about it was very good. It was done in the fall, and then Lynn asked if she could do it again in the spring.

A very fortunate thing happened. The director, who was Austin Pendleton, was just out on the street one day. A friend of his, the actress Maria Tucci, who is married to Robert Gottlieb, and Gottlieb was the president of Knopf at the time. Gottlieb had, in fact, just edited Heller’s “Catch-22.” He was mostly known at Knopf for doing very fine novels, editing very fine novels. Austin said to Maria, “I’m doing these two one-acts at Manhattan Theatre Club. If you can see them, do.” And they did.

About a week later, this incredible thing happened with my agent, Lucy Kroll, was her name. Rather prominent independent agent in New York. She gets this call from Gottlieb saying, “Has she ever written a novel?” Because he had seen the play and he liked it.

Lucy said, “I think she has an idea for one,” which I didn’t, really. But you don’t get calls from Gottlieb. She called me very, very excited.

I had worked as a waitress beginning the summer that I was fifteen in the Rocky Mountains at Waterton Lakes in Canada. Waterton Lake is half in Montana, half in Alberta. I had an idea about that. It’s just so vivid to me that I would say, “Yes, I have four-year-old and two two-year-olds.” But, I took them to a pool in Berkeley every summer and pretty much wrote the novel there. 

The novel  was published by Knopf and was called Reflections on a Mountain Summer. I’ve written one other novel several years later, and it was called Woman Wanted, published by St. Martin’s Press. Other than that, I’ve worked in the theater.

Woman Wanted, the agent, Lucy Kroll, was able to sell it to, in fact, Zanuck and Brown. It was going to be made—I don’t know how to make this brief, but I have to. I was hired as the screenwriter. Gillian Armstrong, an Australian director, was hired. I was sent to Australia to work with her. You should, if you can, watch a film sometime called “My Brilliant Career,” Gillian won the—what is it called, the Golden Palm Award at Cannes for that film. It’s a very interesting film about a young woman in Australia.

At any rate, she could not direct the film, and the whole thing just kind of fell apart.

Ten years later, I get this call from Kiefer [Sutherland], saying, “I auditioned for that part, and I didn’t get it. It was given to Matthew Modine. But, do you think I’m too old to play it?”

I said, “Well, no, the right haircut or whatever.” He really was ten years too old.

That film eventually did get made. Kiefer was in it and directed it. Most of his family is from Saskatchewan. It was his grandfather, Tommy Douglas, who actually created and got enforced across Canada universal healthcare.

I’ve written, I guess nine plays at this point.  The first, there was a very fine actress named Colleen Dewhurst a few years back, who did a play of mine called “Artichoke” at Long Wharf Theater in New Haven. Then it was done in New York at Manhattan Theatre Club.

I wrote a play called “To Grandmother’s House We Go,” that required an eighty-year-old woman in it. We were lucky enough to get a very well-known stage actress, now dead, Eva Le Gallienne, very well-known in the theater. That went to Broadway, not successfully. Well, hardly anything gets to Broadway successfully. You probably know that whole thing.

Then I had this very strange experience. A very, very famous person in the theater as a producer and a director, mostly in the musical theater, is Hal Prince, who directed the original “Phantom [of the Opera],” directed not too long ago “Showboat,” worked with Steven Sondheim on nearly all the Sondheim shows. The first play that he actually ever directed was “Fiddler [on the Roof].”

I wrote a very, very serious, difficult drama about my childhood and my dad’s alcoholism. It was something I needed to get off my chest. It was more catharsis than anything else. But Lucy sent it to Hal, and he liked it. Here again, one of those phone calls, “You’re kidding, this can’t be Hal Prince calling me.” But he did produce it on Broadway.

Levy:  What was that called?

McClelland Glass:  It was called “Play Memory.” Donald Moffat was the lead actor in it. More known, I think, as a stage actor, although he worked in Hollywood a lot.

The sort of fickle quality of the theater was really delivered—well, no, there were two times. Let me just give you a little example of the novice writer’s plight. When Reflections on a Mountain Summer was published, one of the first reviews that I read came from the Toronto Star, and they said essentially, “It’s a shame to cut down trees for paper to publish stuff like this.”

Now, back in those days, they had so-called clipping services. Your agent could collect the reviews from wherever, wherever they were done. About a year later, the Oxford Daily Mail, Oxford University, because the book was published by Macmillan in England. The Oxford published a review and the headline said, “Welcome to a Masterpiece.”

Lucy called me. I thought she was ancient. She was I guess pushing seventy at the time, but I was very young. She called me, and she said, “Promise me that you will try to understand that neither review is true. You’re not that good, and you’re not that bad. You just have to be persistent if you’re going to do it.” That was an interesting lesson.

Hal opened “Play Memory” at Princeton University, a very good theater at Princeton called The McCarter. Sondheim came, and it was all very exciting. The New York Times sent their sort of stringer, they didn’t send their lead guy. A guy named Alvin Klein came and just gave it a really beautiful review. Praised everything about it, I was going to be the next Tennessee Williams, and so on. 

The very following day, Hal got on the phone and he was able to raise enough money on the strength of that review to move it to New York. Now, this was a long time ago, this is in the ‘80s. We could move it to New York for, I think, six million [dollars]. Today, it would be sixteen at least million. 

Long story short, moved it in. The critic at that time was Frank Rich, who has since become known for a lot of other—he stopped being a critic and got bigtime into journalism. He loathed it. And, it was hurtful, because it was about alcoholism and it was painful for me to write it. He basically said that it was so bad that he needed a drink at the end of it.

There are all kinds of insults that one remembers verbatim. John Simon in New York Magazine reviewed—I can’t remember what it was, I think it was “To Grandmother’s House We Go,” the Le Gallienne. And said, “The trouble with Joanna McClelland Glass is that she’s from Canada, which is only slightly behind Bulgaria and Romania culturally.” I was just so angry, angry at that.

But the thing is in the theater is that if the play closes, the following Monday, all the actors are out auditioning again and so on. You’re sitting there with this thing for which you have not been paid anything, and worked on possibly for three or four years, and no theater is going to pick it up.

There are about 300 regional theaters, and the way that you have to make your living is to get the play out into the regional theaters. If you even get done in New York, they will pretty much read your next play. Otherwise, it’s very hard, because theaters can’t afford to hire readers.

The most successful play has had about 150 professional productions. The way that works is that you earn your royalty according to the size of the theater and the length of the run.

I wrote a play about Francis Biddle. When it was done—I’ll just give you an example here—when it was done in Philadelphia, which is Biddle turf, the entire family for the last 250 years has been Philadelphia.

Well, I was actually going to just give you an idea of the economics, but when the play, it’s called “Trying,” and when it was done in Philadelphia, it was done at a theater that really was too large for the play.

There are just two characters in the play, Biddle and a secretary, which was me. And one set, so that’s a fairly inexpensive play to get on. But the biggest audience that we ever had was in Philadelphia, and I think it’s the oldest theater in Philadelphia. It’s called the Walnut Street Theatre. That is a theater that holds 1100 people. I think primarily because it was Biddle and it got such good reviews, they did thirty performances for a month. My royalty was $28,000. 

Working in the theater goes down from there. It might be a 500-seat theater that might run two weeks. Or, it might be a theater that just runs six performances over a weekend, but still is a professional theater. Or, then when you turn the play over to amateur companies, it gets done anywhere in the country where they feel that they can do it, and the author gets essentially $100 a night for maybe a ten-night thing.

The story of Biddle is—he was eighty-one. I had been working as essentially a kind of social secretary/administrative assistant for a family named Rude in D.C., and they went to Tobago every winter. They were very, very well-to-do. They were from Minneapolis, Gold Medal flour fortune. They kept a French domestic couple to cook and buttle.

While I was working for them—we had just moved to D.C., actually. I guess it was ’64, ’65, in there. The Rude family went to Tobago and she—the elderly woman—was killed in a Jeep accident. I basically finished up her estate and so on and helped out. I got to know Alfred and Louise, the French couple who took care of them, very well. But we had to tie up this whole thing, because Mrs. Rude had died.

About a month later, I actually got a handwritten letter from Francis Biddle, who had been Attorney General under [President Franklin] Roosevelt. After that, Truman had named him Chief Judge of the Military Tribunal at Nuremburg. But I was this kid from Canada, and I really didn’t—at any rate, I got this lovely handwritten letter saying, “You’ve been highly recommended to me. I need help three days a week, secretarial help, and please call me.”

It was such a mystery, but it turned out that it was the cook and the butler from the other house that he had hired. He was 81 and very—not senile, but just the faculties, everything was very, very slow and he really needed help. He couldn’t do his checkbook at all, and he would forget who he wanted. He’d dial and then forget who he had called.

It was very, very moving to me that a man that had been, not just Harvard Law, but he had actually clerked his first year out for Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Just to talk a bit about Francis Biddle, he was called a radical patrician, because he had grown up in a family—this doesn’t really occur anymore. It’s a very Victorian kind of thing where the wealth certainly mattered, but public service in these families mattered a great deal also. The feeling being that if you had gone to Groton, as he did, and then his Harvard undergraduate, Harvard Law, that you owed something. But he had been in a very Republican firm, legal firm, in Philadelphia. Again, had all kinds of family connections. 

It was amusing to me that he wrote two volumes of autobiography. In the first one, A Casual Past, he talks about how the family, they left England not in poverty, but they left because they were so-called Dissenters. They were Quakers, as was William Penn. In his Casual Past, he says that the Biddle family came to Philadelphia in 1647 and purchased from William Penn 400,000 acres of what is now New Jersey. That’s how he began.

This radical patrician Republican thing was a very big thing, because he essentially just rejected all of that and became a member of the New Deal. But of course, Franklin had gone to Groton ahead of him, so there was very much—I think it probably still exists in D.C., too, the eastern schools and the way that works.

At the very end of his life—and I can’t really talk in any kind of detail about Nuremburg. I certainly had to handle paperwork concerning the archives. Most of the Nuremburg papers are at Syracuse, and some are at Georgetown.

His wife was Katherine Garrison, Katherine Chapin Garrison Biddle. You know the Chapin School? It was that, it was that family. That family actually, I think, was wealthier than the Biddles. I was always very fond of her and she was a very fine, very fine poet. But she suffered from being the wife of the famous man.

Let me just, again, try and cut to the chase a little bit. At the very end of his life, his two greatest regrets were that they lost a son, a seven-year-old boy. The first son was two years older, and was fine. The seven-year-old boy developed some sort of strep throat thing. I really can’t remember what it was. But both Biddle and Mrs. Biddle had this kind of mantra all through their lives of saying, whenever they talked about the boy, of saying, “Penicillin could have saved him, but it wasn’t available then.”

And, they were very, very elderly and every time the boy was mentioned, they would say, “You know, penicillin could have saved him.” It even turned out that the help, the French help, whenever the boy was mentioned, they would say that. That certainly stuck in my memory.

The death of that boy caused them, unfortunately—they kind of stayed in the house and nursed their grief. It was very difficult for the son who lived. He was essentially kind of rejected. I know him quite well. Biddle’s daughter-in-law, of the son that lived, I’m still in touch with her and she’s ninety-seven.

His major regret, which really overshadows all of this, was that he signed the law that caused the Japanese internment.

He just never got over the fact that he signed that. And again, I don’t have any immediate experience, because all of that happened to him during the Second World War, obviously prior to the Nuremburg stuff. I was a little kid on the prairie, I barely knew who FDR was at that time. I can’t speak in any great detail about that.

When he let down this façade, this very Victorian façade that he had—well, we just watched a movie, “The Post,” and he knew Katherine Graham. I remember him saying on a couple of occasions, because they hated to go out. They were old, and they were feeble, and he would say, “Oh, no, if, if Mrs. Graham calls, you answer that call and you go and you attend.” But she somewhere referred to him as, “the sardonic Mr. Biddle.” He was not a fuzzy-wuzzy easy character to be with.

It was almost like a marriage with the two of us being above this stable. And, he would really take it out on me when he would dial and then say, “Who am I calling?” He was humiliated and deeply hurt. It was very painful for him. But, I would know the minute that happened, it was going to be a hell of a day.

Levy:  Did he ever talk to you about the Japanese internment?

McClelland Glass:  Oh, yes, yes. It wasn’t so much that he talked to me, but he said to me the day that I started, that he thought he had one year left. In fact, he did have one year left.

During that, that year an awful lot of historians, I think, throughout the country were very, very, very much interested in all of these old New Dealers, who were dying off. So much of what we did, the correspondence that we did, was that people would be sending him manuscripts, asking—I seem to remember several of them coming from Berkeley and Stanford. It would be very hard for him to have to wade through all of this. But he had a real sense of history about it, in that he wanted things to be accurate.

My job was pretty much taking the dictation for him to answer, after he had read the thing, and then I would have to send the manuscripts back. I had to deal with his, all the bill-paying for the servants, the whole house thing, all of the household stuff and then anything else that had to be done. He just couldn’t. For instance, he would pay the phone bill three times, and then say to me, “Take this home and fix it,” which I would do. 

It was in some ways, again, as the sort of kid from Saskatoon, it was my American education. But through Mrs. Biddle also, because she had been very prominent in what was called—I think it was called the Harlem Renaissance. They were very big on civil rights. I’m not able to remember all the names of the Harlem Renaissance people that she dealt with. Most of the poets and writers of that time were, she was friendly with them. She had grown up in New York in a very Henry Jamesian kind of society. She loved the idea that—I had told her that if and when I ever got past all these babies, that I was going to try and write. She was, she was very encouraging.

I think that he had hated Groton, loathed Groton, and he wrote a lot about his loneliness there. He wrote about the sort of forced religiosity of the place. It was very much based on Eton or Harrow or the British schools. And, then the fact that his father died very young and left four boys, all of whom the mother had to somehow or other get them into Groton and Harvard and so on.

The first book is A Casual Past, and then the book about his being Attorney General is called In Brief Authority. That’s one of the most beautiful passages in, in Shakespeare, that he put me onto. Let me see if I can—it’s in “Measure for Measure,” and I’m going to try this.

It’s one of Shakespeare’s many, many contemplations of man’s evil and good and frailty and so on. It goes, “But man, a proud man dressed in a little brief authority, most ignorant of what he’s most assured, plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven as make the angels weep.” Isn’t that just amazing? That was the second book, and these are available. In Brief Authority.

I think if there’s anything else you want to know specifically about him, you’ll have to ask me. 

Levy:  What made you decide to write a play about your experience working for him?

McClelland Glass: I guess I was young enough at the time to be sort of naïve enough to believe that someone with his privileged background, even before Groton and Harvard and all of that, and the connections that he had, and he was a brilliant man. He had a mind like a steel trap. It was being in this sort of small room with him, seeing the tragedy, really, of age, the diminishing of all of that, and the humiliation of that. It just had a tremendous effect on me.

I was still inundated with babies, but I was able to write a one-act play that I think encapsulated what I really felt at the time, the immediacy of what I felt at the time. As years went by and I had more time, and I had more experience, I had written other things and I realized how to do two hours instead of one. I think it was just that—well, almost a little epiphany about old age.

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