Written by Sandy Sturges
Born Edmund Preston Biden on August 29, 1898 in Chicago, Illinois.
His mother, nee Mary Estelle Dempsey, was born in Quebec, Canada, of Irish immigrant parents. His father, Edmund C. Biden, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, of a family with longer established roots in the American soil. By October 1901, Mary had rid herself of Mr. Biden and married Solomon Sturges of a socially prominent Chicago family. Mr. Sturges adopted Mary's three-year-old who was thereafter known as Preston Sturges.
From the age of two years to about eight years, he criss-crossed the Atlantic several times, living in his father's home in Chicago for shorter and shorter periods. In Europe he was dragged through museums, subjected to concerts, and often found himself parked in one locale or another while his mother, now known as Mary Desti, joined her best friend, Isadora Duncan, wherever fortune led them.
His first school was Dr. Coulter's Harvard School in Chicago where, dressed in a Greek tunic to signify his mother's Duncan-inspired devotion to the arts, he was greeted with derision by the other boys. Not much later, Mary left Solomon to his brokerage business, his newspapers and his cigars and enrolled Preston at his first boarding school, the Lycee Janson in Paris. During the next few years, he boarded at the Ecole des Roches in Normandy, at La Villa in Lausanne, Switzerland, and had a song published in Latvia. During these same years, his mother rejoiced in liaisons with, among others, a notable French actor, a notorious practitioner of the black arts, married a Turk, and opened an elegant salon on the rue de la Paix in Paris called the Maison Desti.
The War Years
For his summer vacation of 1914, Preston, then fifteen, was sent to manage the newly opened seaside branch of the Maison Desti in Deauville, France, that season's Mecca for the beau monde. Toward the end of July, in response to the assassination of an obscure grand duke, Austria declared war on Serbia, initiating hasty declarations of war all over the place. The World War was underway. His mother shipped Preston off to America, the native land he had not set foot on in more than eight years. He got a few months of schooling, did some short-lived backstage work for Isadora Duncan's New York presentation of Oedipus Rex, and was told to handle things at the New York branch of the Maison Desti as his mother impulsively sailed off with Isadora and the Isadorables in early 1915. Under the management of this sixteen-year-old, the business did not prosper.
In April 1917, the United States declared war on Germany and at the end of that month Preston volunteered as a flyer in the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps. There were some obstacles to overcome, but finally in March 1918 he was ordered to report for duty at Camp Dick, Dallas, Texas. Later, at Park Field, Millington, Tennessee, for flying instruction, he agreed to do a weekly comic strip for the camp paper. He titled it "Toot and his Loot," and never forgot the "horrible days of anxiety" engendered by having to come up with a zinger every week. Suddenly on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, an armistice was declared and the war was over. His squadron was sent to Carlstrom Field, Arcadia, Florida, to finish its training. There he earned his wings as a pursuit pilot, was commissioned Second Lieutenant of the Aviation Section of the Signal Officers Reserve Corps of the Army of the United States and discharged on May 1, 1919. By then, he was twenty.
The Roaring Twenties
Returned to civilian life, he went back to the only business he knew anything about: the Maison Desti. As usual, the business failed to prosper. On January 17, 1920, federal law criminalized the manufacture, sale, import and export of alcohol for beverage purposes. The Volstead Act also prohibited its consumption and overnight the Prohibition Game was on. About a month later, women got the vote. Preston invented kiss-proof lipstick, fell in love with a young married woman, sailed to Paris to meet his mother's latest husband and spent some months there falling in love, or something like it, a couple of times. Back in America, he married the young woman he'd left behind. At the exact moment that the Maison Desti stood on the brink of actual prosperity, he was forced to surrender the business to his newly re-patriated mother, withdrew with his bride to a country estate and spent his days inventing. One morning his beloved announced that she loved him no longer.
Brokenhearted, he tried his hand at song writing, writing several a day along the lines of Even the Skies are Crying (now that you've gone away). Tin Pan Alley wasn't buying. Had not a successful actress taunted him by announcing that she was dating him solely as fodder for the play she was writing, that to her he was nothing more than was a guinea pig to a scientist, his first produced play, The Guinea Pig, might never have been written. It opened on Broadway on January 7, 1929, got encouraging reviews and ran for 57 performances. With nothing in his past to suggest such a future, he was now a playwright. On September 19, 1929, his second play, Strictly Dishonorable, opened to rave reviews. The stock market crashed in October, but the play continued to pack them in. At thirty-one, he was what he had always tried to be - a success.
It didn't last. Four months later, on January 29, l930, his third play, Recapture, hit the boards on Broadway and skidded off with its tail between its legs after 24 performances: the critics could scarcely find words enough to convey their distaste and disappointment. In April he eloped with a daughter of Marjorie Merriweather Post Hutton, built a yacht, and invested thousands of his own money to stage his fourth play, The Well of Romance. It opened on November 30, 1930 and closed eight days later. His fifth play, Child of Manhattan, debuted on March 2, 1932 to scalding reviews, the best of them suggesting that he really belonged in some other line of business. He and the Hutton girl parted company forever a month later. Broke and disheartened, he signed on as a hired writer at Universal Studios and arrived in Hollywood on September 9, 1932.
Hired because of his hit comedy, Strictly Dishonorable, he was put to work on a screenplay of the strictly non-comedic story, The Invisible Man. The proposed director didn't like the results and Universal dropped his option. Off salary, he wrote an original screenplay, The Power and The Glory, sold it to Jesse Lasky at Fox for cash up front and a percentage of the gross, and, still off salary, wrote another original screenplay eventually titled The Great McGinty, which nobody wanted to produce. Allowed on the set while they shot The Power and The Glory, he noted the deference accorded the director, especially as compared to the minimal respect accorded the hired help, the writers. He decided to change his profession to "director." No studio was interested in his services in that capacity, which didn't prevent his bringing it up all the time. Irving Thalberg invited him to join his team at Metro to work on the screenplay for The Green Hat. Four weeks later he was out of a job. He did a short stint at Columbia, another at Universal, a longer one at Paramount working on Thirty Day Princess, then back to Universal for a month's job on Imitation of Life. Sam Goldwyn signed him to write We Live Again. Universal re-hired him for The Good Fairy and Diamond Jim. Paramount booked him to write Hotel Haywire, Easy Living, and Never Say Die.
All this studio hopping resulted in ever increasing remuneration for each new assignment, which was a good thing since he had ever increasing expenditures. He started an engineering company in Wilmington, sailed his expensively refurbished boat to Honolulu in the Transpacific Yacht Race, opened a restaurant at 8789 Sunset Boulevard as a watering hole for songwriters, among whom he counted himself, bought his first (and last) home in Hollywood and another property at 8225 Sunset Boulevard. At Paramount he wrote If I Were King, worked on Broadway Melody of 1939and accepted an assignment to write the screenplay for a story called Two Bad Hats. In September 1938, his contract with Paramount ran out, in November he married Louise Sargent Tevis which came as a shock to the girl he had brought to Hollywood with him. Under a new contract with Paramount wrote Remember the Night, sold his 1932 The Great McGintyscript to the studio for a dollar (the Legal Department upped it to ten dollars) and, relentless perseverance finally paying off, was named its director. Shooting began in December l939. He was forty-one and one happy guy.
Handed the directorial reins at Paramount, he took off at top speed. In 1940 alone he wrapped The Great McGinty, wrote and directed Christmas in July, opened his new restaurant, The Players, at 8225 Sunset, and wrote and directed The Lady Eve. In 1941 he won an Oscar for The Great McGinty in the Best Original Screenplay slot, wrote and directed Sullivan’s Travelsduring which his first son, Solomon Sturges IV, was born, wrote The Palm Beach Story and began its direction in November.
On December 7, l941, Japanese air raiders sank the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Congress declared war on the Empire of Japan and, while they were at it, threw in Germany and Italy. For the second time in twenty-three years, America was at war. At Paramount, Preston was made a producer and wrote produced and directed The Great Moment. The big city critics hailed those pictures of his in release (Christmas in July, The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels) with surprise and delight. He was sought out for articles, interviews and photo ops, celebrated in the pages of Life and The Saturday Evening Post, and itemed by Louella, Hedda and the trade papers.
He wrote, produced and directed The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero and then left Paramount. Both films were nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award.
In 1945 he and Howard Hughes formed California Pictures Corporation, Preston to make pictures, Howard to make airplanes and supply the money for both ventures. Preston wrote, produced and directed The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, (released as Mad Wednesday) and wrote, produced and eventually undertook the direction of Vendetta. Howard Hughes pulled the plug on the company, bought RKO, and Vendetta wound up in other hands. Preston wound up with Darryl Zanuck at Fox, wrote, produced and directed Unfaithfully Yours and The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend and then was out of a job. He was also out of a wife: Louise had moved out in l946, filed for divorce and, when it was final, left for Europe with their son.
For the first time in years, he was producing no income and his agent was not sorting through lucrative offers as he had been when Preston left Paramount. He built a theatre at The Players to make of the restaurant a profit producing entity instead of the needy dependent it had been since its opening, picked up a little cash writing the book for the Broadway musical, Make a Wish, based on his screenplay, The Good Fairy, and some more cash when the State of California exercised its power of eminent domain to acquire for the Hollywood Freeway the land on which his home stood.
In August 1951, he married Anne Margaret Nagle (“Sandy”). In 1952, he wrote the screenplay of the musical Look, Ma, I’m Dancin’ (unproduced) for Paramount. In 1953, he lost The Players, the engineering company and his boat trying to satisfy a blanket lien imposed on his assets by the IRS, produced his second son, Preston, and was hired to doctor and direct the play, Carnival in Flanders, three weeks before its New York opening. For an independent producer in New York, he wrote and was to direct a screenplay of George Bernard Shaw’s The Millionairess starring Katharine Hepburn. That got him, his wife, little Preston, and Katharine to London where it turned out the producer couldn’t come up with the American share of the investment. In Paris, for Gaumont, he wrote and directed Pierre Daninos’ Les Carnets du Major Thompson(released in America as The French They Are a Funny Race), produced his third son, Thomas Preston (“Tom-Tom”), and played a cameo part in Bob Hope’s movie, Paris Holiday.
Toward the end of the summer of 1957, Sandy and the boys flew to California to retrieve Matrix, a story Preston had written a few years earlier, which a producer who seemed to have plenty of money wanted to produce as soon as the script was in his hands. The script arrived in Paris four days after Sandy’s plane landed, but by that time there was no more sign of the rich producer than there were feathers on a fish. More false starts and dashed hopes punctuated the following months. At the end of December 1958, he was brought to New York to stage The Golden Fleecing. Rehearsals began January 6, 1959. Ten days later, one of the producing partners emerged from a self-imposed retreat in a nut house to announce that he was taking over the direction of the play and Preston was out of a job. He wasn’t tempted to jump into the East River though because a week earlier he had accepted an offer from Henry Holt publishers to write his autobiography. The work began in February 1959 at his quarters in The Algonquin Hotel and it ended there, suddenly, the autobiography half finished, on August 6, 1959.
His little boys turned out well. Preston is a successful writer and lyricist. Tom has served as the Executive Vice President, Creative Affairs for the Universal Music Publishing Group. Tom's untiring dedication to his father's legacy has spawned, among other things, retrospectives, play productions and the publication by the University of California Press of three volumes of his father's screenplays, including all of those he wrote and directed, and a volume of those he wrote before he became a director.