The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan


This collection of nearly three hundred letters gives us the life of Elia Kazan unfiltered, with all the passion, vitality, and raw honesty that made him such an important and formidable stage director (A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman), film director (On the Waterfront, East of Eden), novelist, and memoirist.

Elia Kazan’s lifelong determination to be a “sincere, conscious, practicing artist” resounds in these letters—fully annotated throughout—in every phase of his...

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The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan

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This collection of nearly three hundred letters gives us the life of Elia Kazan unfiltered, with all the passion, vitality, and raw honesty that made him such an important and formidable stage director (A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman), film director (On the Waterfront, East of Eden), novelist, and memoirist.

Elia Kazan’s lifelong determination to be a “sincere, conscious, practicing artist” resounds in these letters—fully annotated throughout—in every phase of his career: his exciting apprenticeship with the new and astonishing Group Theatre, as stagehand, stage manager, and actor (Waiting for Lefty, Golden Boy) . . . his first tentative and then successful attempts at directing for the theater and movies (The Skin of Our Teeth, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) . . . his cofounding in 1947 of the Actors Studio and his codirection of the nascent Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center . . . his innovative and celebrated work on Broadway (All My Sons, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, J.B.) and in Hollywood (Gentleman’s Agreement, Splendor in the Grass, A Face in the Crowd, Baby Doll) . . . his birth as a writer.

Kazan directed virtually back-to-back the greatest American dramas of the era—by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams—and helped shape their future productions. Here we see how he collaborated with these and other writers: Clifford Odets, Thornton Wilder, John Steinbeck, and Budd Schulberg among them. The letters give us a unique grasp of his luminous insights on acting, directing, producing, as he writes to and about Marlon Brando, James Dean, Warren Beatty, Robert De Niro, Boris Aronson, and Sam Spiegel, among others. We see Kazan’s heated dealings with studio moguls Darryl Zanuck and Jack Warner, his principled resistance to film censorship, and the upheavals of his testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

These letters record as well the inner life of the artist and the man. We see his startling candor in writing to his first wife, his confidante and adviser, Molly Day Thacher—they did not mince words with each other. And we see a father’s letters to and about his children.

An extraordinary portrait of a complex, intense, monumentally talented man who engaged the political, moral, and artistic currents of the twentieth century.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Janet Maslin
…correspondence that shows a stiff, ambitious kid's naïveté mature artfully and manipulatively as Kazan learns the tricks of his chosen profession…They reveal Kazan's dramatic way of grabbing attention in an opening sentence…They show his many strategies for getting exactly what he wanted…They illustrate his analyses of a play or a screenplay's flaws in ways meant to improve it, especially when trying to translate his thoughts into language any actor could follow. And they frankly reveal the narcissism he brought to his long marriage…These letters are vibrant and readable…The Selected Letters is a valuable contribution to theater history…[it] offers…many new insights into a man who managed to be admired or hated by everyone he knew.
The New York Times Book Review - Charles Isherwood
Kazan's was a capacious career…It was one that he himself memorialized exhaustively, and with unusual frankness, in his big slab of an autobiography, Elia Kazan: A Life (1988). That book is necessary reading for anyone interested in American theater and film. The letters offer highly readable amplification, and confirm just how forthright Kazan was in his memoir. He was not a stylish correspondent…But because he was so driven, the letters often have an urgency that makes up for any lack of cogency or eloquence…Despite the businesslike nature of many of the letters, Kazan's complicated personality bristles forth, like a constant chorus of firecrackers…this book testifies to his central importance in the maturing of American film and theater in their defining century.
Publishers Weekly
This collection of letters written by acclaimed director Elia Kazan chronicles his life from his start as an actor to his rise as a Broadway and Hollywood director to his life later as a writer. The book contains correspondence with a wide range of people beyond his family, including Tennessee Williams, John Steinbeck, Marlon Brando, and Robert De Niro. The editors provide context at the end of each letter, often making it difficult to grasp much of what Kazan discusses in the letter, especially with such an extensive list of people in Kazan's life, whom he refers to frequently by their first names only. The strict chronology by date disrupts any attempt at a narrative through line for Kazan's productions. The letters to his first wife Molly Day Thatcher are by far the highlight of the book. So emotionally explicit and outright, they provide a lurid glimpse into Kazan's troubled personal life. As for the rest, only experts in the life of Kazan will likely be able to easily digest this large book. (Apr.)
Kirkus Reviews
An engrossing collection chronicles the acclaimed director's life and work. Kazan (1909–2003) directed both plays and movies, winning Tony Awards, Oscars and many other awards. He also wrote a handful of novels and more than 1,200 letters. The Devlins have judiciously chosen 300, providing an informative context of theater and film history spiced with a hefty dose of gossip. Kazan's correspondents feature a prominent cast of producers, actors and playwrights, as well as his wife and children. He wrote to John D. Rockefeller III about establishing Lincoln Center's Repertory Theatre, of which Kazan became co-director; to John Steinbeck about the filming of his novel East of Eden (1955), with the unknown actor James Dean; to writer Budd Schulberg, explaining why Marlon Brando was "WRONG" for On the Waterfront (Kazan considered the very young Paul Newman: "This boy will definitely be a film star"). The letters reveal Kazan as restless, opinionated and fiercely ambitious. "I always had a great thirst for knowledge," he wrote when he was 23. "When I was younger I actually had a fear that some kid would know more about some subject than I did. I tried to know everything about everything." That fear persisted: When he was 45, he confessed to having "very large self doubts, especially on an intellectual level." His doubts, though, did not deter him from challenging projects, including Thornton Wilder's enigmatic The Skin of Our Teeth (1942) and Arthur Miller's All My Sons (1947), Death of a Salesman (1949) and After the Fall (1964). He was Tennessee Williams' director of choice, beginning with A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1956) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1960). Copious letters to his wife reveal both his passion for his work and his many affairs (one with the "touching pathetic waif" Marilyn Monroe). An impressive work of scholarship, this collection offers a sweeping look at 60 years of American popular culture and an intimate portrait of one complex man whirling at its center.
From the Publisher
“This book testifies to Kazan’s central importance in the maturing of American film and theater in their defining century. His impassioned stewardship of the work of Miller and Williams was crucial to its success; the Actors Studio was the font of the most important developments in the art of performance that America produced; he was a pioneer in asserting the rights of film directors to wrest control of their movies from producers. He was often fighting for himself, but he was also fighting a larger battle on behalf of the art forms he cared so passionately about . . . His complicated personality bristles forth, like a constant chorus of firecrackers . . . Kazan’s unstoppable drive and restless energy . . . spring from almost every page of this meaty volume . . . The breath of Kazan’s achievement during his prime is unmatched by any other American director.”
Charles Isherwood, The New York Times Book Review

“Vivid, pungent and forceful, Elia Kazan’s letters immerse us in the life of a working director—and not just any director. Kazan was an important, influential figure in 20th-century American culture . . . Kazan comes across as a strong, self-confident artist, unafraid to voice opinions he knows may upset . . . as a shrewd observer of other people and a self-aware analyst of his own character . . . His commitment and integrity are even more evident in correspondence with studio executives over censorship troubles . . . An honest look at a complicated artist.” 
Wendy Smith, The Washington Post

“The candid Kazan voice is at full throttle in The Selected Letters . . . Kazan’s only real subject is himself—his quest to be “A SINCERE, CONSCIOUS, PRACTISING ARTIST,” his relentless appetites . . . his love for his wives and children . . . his intense feelings toward nearly every figure in his professional life, and his will to get what he wants out of his many collaborators . . . There are blow-by-blow accounts of Kazan’s creative path on most of his major film and stage projects . . .  No less fascinating are exchanges about some of his more instructive failures . . .  Kazan’s leading questions and passionate entreaties . . . show how scripts are made and remade from draft to draft until they come to a full boil (or do not). Kazan is similarly painstaking in addressing set and costume designers . . . In all these instances, Kazan is dealing with big egos or sensitive souls, or both, yet he always seems to stay on the right side of the boundary that delineates forceful intervention and guidance from dictatorial edict . . . His appraisals of stars, present or future, are shrewd . . . As a revelation of Kazan’s own guts, the most pertinent aspect of his directorial modus operandi may be his dealings with studio chiefs . . . He loved being a rebel.” 
Frank Rich, The New York Review of Books

“Fascinating . . . These letters show Kazan creating a blueprint for the kind of work he believed was important and going on to succeed beyond his wildest expectations . . . They show his many strategies for getting exactly what he wanted; for someone who turned his scorn for Hollywood into a running refrain, he was a sharp businessman who knew how to negotiate canny business deals. They illustrate his analyses of a play or a screenplay’s flaws in ways meant to improve it, especially when trying to translate his thoughts into language any actor could follow . . . Vibrant . . . Essential . . . A valuable contribution to theater history.”
—Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“Elia Kazan lived, directed, and wrote from his gut. He was a powerhouse. His scrupulously edited Selected Letters carries the same unflinching, instinctive, brilliant wallop: vividly alive, self-aware, fervent, resourceful—they exude the pulse of a man fighting for his identity and for his place in American theater. The letters cover his struggles with the Group Theatre and Actors Studio, with his collaborators (Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, William Inge, Marlon Brando, Thornton Wilder, Clifford Odets, among many), and with himself and his family. They are incandescent witness to the century he so fiercely bustled in. Taken together with Kazan's memoir, A Life, the volumes are among the essential documents of twentieth-century American theater.”
—John Lahr

“Even for those who know the outlines of Elia Kazan’s long and turbulent career, the life described in this hefty volume will be overwhelming . . . The letters show his crucial role in asking for revisions and pushing . . .  plays towards greater coherence and power . . . The letters chart his tireless activity, his remarkable combination of combativeness and self-deprecation, charm and (where possible) loyalty . . .Above all we get a sense of the cost to himself and others of the extraordinary achievements of this ‘pretty neurotic man’, this seeker after truth—the struggles and the vision, sustained across decades, that brought them to fruition.. . A fine, packed volume.” 
—Philip Horne, London Telegraph

“Insightful, dynamic, and culturally important, Kazan . . . was that rarity—an articulate first-class mind, engaged and in action. These 300 letters are a marvelous pool to illuminate Kazan’s backstage processes, both personal and creative. . . Highly recommended.”

“These vibrant, muscular, outspoken, take-no-prisoners letters tell you everything you will ever need to know about the theater, relationships between artists, Hollywood illusions, affairs of the heart, family. Kazan had an amazing life and a brilliant career, and he wrote with eloquence, passion, and truth. These letters are to be treasured.”
André Bishop, Producing Artistic Director, Lincoln Center Theater

“Elia Kazan’s letters crackle with the impulsive exuberance of a vital, brilliant, ambitious  man wholly devoted to craft. And they tell the not-to-be-missed story of American politics and American art, deeply entwined, during the fatally conflicted era that is our inheritance.”
Brenda Wineapple
“Engrossing . . . An impressive work of scholarship, this collection offers a sweeping look at sixty years of American popular culture and an intimate portrait of one complex man whirling at its center.”
—Kirkus Reviews
“Compulsively readable . . . Few entertainment figures had the particular combination of passion, feistiness, diligence, and longevity that made Kazan such a prodigious letter writer. The Selected Letters is a history of the golden age of Broadway and Hollywood as seen through the eyes of a man who irrevocably transformed both industries, even as he ran afoul of them by naming names in the McCarthy hearings of 1952. It charts Kazan’s long, rocky friendship with Tennessee Williams, his beefs with Clifford Odets and John Steinbeck, his battles with the censors over A Streetcar Named Desire and with Marlon Brando over On the Waterfront, all the while displaying an artistic integrity and social consciousness so rare in film today.”
Julian Sancton, Departures

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307267160
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/22/2014
  • Pages: 672
  • Sales rank: 258,289
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Elia Kazan was born in 1909 in Istanbul, graduated from Williams College, and attended the Yale School of Drama before joining the Group Theatre. He was the founder of the Actors Studio, and won three Tony Awards (All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, J.B.) and two Academy Awards (Gentleman’s Agreement, On the Waterfront) for direction, as well as an honorary Oscar in 1999 for lifetime achievement. He wrote seven novels and an autobiography. He died in 2003.
Albert J. Devlin, professor emeritus of English at the University of Missouri, has written and edited books on Eudora Welty and Tennessee Williams. He received a senior fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities for work on The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams, which the Modern Language Association recognized as a "model edition" of letters and on which it bestowed the Morton N. Cohen Award in 2001. Marlene J. Devlin graduated from the University of Kansas. She taught at the University of Missouri and Columbia Public Schools.

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