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Remembering Mr. Blue

6/1/2014

Alton J. Pelowski

(Photo by Ernest A. Bachrach/Courtesy of Bachrach)

In my office at the Supreme Council headquarters hangs a framed copy of a November 1924 editorial — Myles Connolly’s inaugural column during his four years as editor of Columbia. Some nine decades later, the editorial staff still finds inspiration in Connolly’s words as he boldly asks “Our Lady to keep Columbia under her wise and kindly protection” and affirms that the magazine’s unique appeal and potential stems from its Catholicity. “It has all joy, all beauty, all truth to command,” he wrote, adding that the magazine is “broad in its conception, noble in its ideals.”

Such nobility of principle was indicative of Connolly’s magnanimous character, which complemented his six-foot-something frame. A passionate Catholic and self-described sentimentalist, he would go on to become a successful and influential author and screenwriter, making his mark on American culture and innumerable lives along the way.

Several months ago, I was contacted by Mary Kay Williams, a playwright from Richmond, Va. She invited me to attend a dramatic adaptation of Connolly’s beloved classic novel, Mr. Blue, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Connolly’s death. The experience offered me the opportunity to meet with one of Connolly’s two surviving children, Mary Connolly Breiner, and to learn more about what an extraordinary man her father was. I share here a brief sketch of Connolly’s life and work, and the legacy he left behind.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

Myles Connolly was born in Roxbury, Mass., a Boston suburb, in 1897 to a struggling Irish-American family. He attended Boston Latin School and later Boston College, where he was editor of the campus literary magazine, Stylus, during his senior year. After serving a year in the Navy, at the conclusion of World War I, Connolly spent four years as a reporter for the Boston Post. In that position, he became one of the few journalists who was ever granted an interview with President Calvin Coolidge.

While still in his 20s, Connolly moved to New Haven, Conn., to work as editor of the Knights’ magazine. Earlier that year, Columbia had published an excerpt from G. K. Chesterton’s most recent book, St. Francis of Assisi. The magazine had previously featured several articles by Chesterton and fellow British literary giant, Hillaire Belloc. During Connolly’s editorship, both authors contributed regularly to Columbia, which featured five articles by Chesterton and 10 by Belloc between 1925 and 1926.

At this time, the Church in Mexico began to suffer violent persecution as the result of anti-Catholic laws, and Columbia became an increasingly important mouthpiece for the Order. K of C leadership spoke out strongly against the Mexican government and even criticized the silence of U.S. officials. When the cover of the November 1926 issue of Columbia featured Knights carrying the banner of “Liberty” and the words “The Red Peril of Mexico,” it was extensively discussed by a meeting of the Mexican legislature, which subsequently banned the Order and the magazine throughout the country.

Still, such consequences did not quench Connolly’s boldness and zeal. He was a principled man who eschewed mediocrity, and by all accounts, he did nothing halfheartedly. In a March 1925 letter to then-Supreme Advocate Luke E. Hart, Connolly wrote, “I am growing more and more optimistic about the future of the magazine. … With a few more months of programs, it should take its place with the great magazines of America.”

Among the most notable films to which Myles Connolly contributed as a screenwriter was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, starring Jimmy Stewart and directed by Frank Capra. Connolly played a part in crafting a number of Capra hits, but in many cases was left uncredited. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Moviepix/Getty Images)

Many years later, in a 1951 interview with The Pilot, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston, Connolly recalled that he wrote much of the magazine himself in the middle of the night, sometimes using pseudonyms for various articles.

Nonetheless, while working for the Knights of Columbus, Connolly found time to write a short novel titled Mr. Blue, which remains his most celebrated work. Published in early 1928, the book features an eccentric protagonist named J. Blue — a deeply religious young man with an almost overwhelming passion for life. Blue chooses to live atop a New York skyscraper to be closer to the heavens, gives away a large inheritance for love of poverty, and has a profound effect on the lives of those around him.

Often compared to a modern-day St. Francis, the character of Blue was no doubt inspired in part by Chesterton, whose biography of the saint had been published a few years earlier. In his introduction to the 2005 Loyola Classics edition of Mr. Blue, Jesuit Father John B. Breslin further observes that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic, The Great Gatsby, was published in 1925. Both Jay Gatsby and J. Blue, he says, are larger than life, but “Gatsby stands for everything that Blue, three years later, rejects: the pursuit of great wealth, the willingness to do whatever it takes to win, the craving for status and acceptance.”

After nearly four years working for the Knights of Columbus, Connolly had grown weary of the job. Amid editorial disagreements with the Supreme Officers and Columbia’s general manager, whom he believed lacked appreciation for his work, Connolly longed for a break. “I have decided that it is time to move,” he wrote in his April 1928 resignation letter. “A change of air will do me good and I really believe others, also.”

SUCCESS IN HOLLYWOOD

Joseph P. Kennedy, the patriarch of the Kennedy family, was among those familiar with Connolly and his work. He was starting a new Hollywood studio, RKO Pictures, and offered Connolly employment as a screenwriter. As the story goes, Connolly said he would move only on the condition that he could also be a producer and that, if he proved unsuccessful in Hollywood, Kennedy would pay his way back to the East Coast and help him find work.

The backup plan proved unnecessary, however, for Connolly would soon embark on a long and successful career in the film industry — but not before marrying a young woman named Agnes Bevington, to whom he dedicated Mr. Blue. Raised in an affluent Catholic family in Nashville, Tenn., Bevington was an acclaimed concert pianist in New York City, playing in Carnegie Hall and on one occasion before the Prince of Wales. Connolly held beauty and excellence, as well as perseverance, in high esteem; he patiently courted Bevington for four years, and they were married May 29, 1929. The newlyweds left via train to California that same night.

Connolly needed no convincing about the power of film to transform culture. In one of Blue’s grandiloquent speeches, he put it this way: “It can create a new people, gracious and graceful, sensitive, kindly, religious, a people discovering in beauty the happiest revelation of God. No art has ever had the future motion picture has. If it fails, no art shall have had as great and lamentable a failure.”

It was not long after moving to Hollywood that Connolly met and befriended director Frank Capra, with whom he collaborated throughout his career. Capra, in his 1971 autobiography, The Name Above the Title, called Connolly “a hard-nosed, sentimental sophisticate who was to burn his lasting brand on my personal and professional hide.” In the book, Capra proceeded to paint a caricature of Connolly, whom he perceived as one of his greatest friends and fiercest critics.

It is commonly known that in addition to writing lesser-known Capra films such as State of the Union (1948), starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, Connolly had no small part in writing and influencing many Capra blockbusters — for which he was never formally credited.

Capra himself relates in his autobiography how the screenplay of It Happened One Night (1934) was rewritten to include essential changes suggested by Connolly. According to Capra, Connolly said, “Frank, it’s easy to see why performers turn down your script,” and then proceeded to give concrete advice on how to create more sympathetic and interesting characters. “This was Connolly at his very best — a story editor,” Capra wrote.

Ultimately, It Happened One Night went on to win five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Writing. Capra later told Connolly, “Myles, you know that picture’s an accident. I made the damn thing because everybody said it shouldn’t be made. Any credit for it belongs to you. You made the big story change.” Connolly’s name, however, was not to be found among the credits, presumably because of the politics of studio contracts.

Connolly’s family was acutely aware of this lack of screen credit for such films as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), among others, but it was not something that his youngest daughter, Mary, ever heard her father talk about.

During his two decades in Hollywood, Connolly had a hand in dozens of films. His screenplay for Music for Millions (1944), a poignant wartime comedy starring Margaret O’Brien and Jimmy Durante, earned him an Academy Award nomination. In 1952, he wrote My Son John with director Leo McCarey, a friend and fellow Catholic known for such films as Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945).

My Son John was produced at the height of the infamous McCarthy hearings and the Hollywood blacklist, which sought to purge the industry of communist influence, real or imagined. The film, starring Helen Hayes and Robert Walker, unfortunately came to be perceived as anti-communist propaganda and effectively ended Connolly’s Hollywood career.

‘THE ADVENTURE OF CATHOLICISM’

After more than 20 years in the film industry, Connolly once again turned to writing fiction. His second book was titled The Bump on Brannigan’s Head (1950), and, like the first, was dedicated to his beloved wife. He dedicated his third book, Dan England and the Noonday Devil (1951), to his three sons: Terrence, Myles Jr., and Kevin. The Reason for Ann (1953), a collection of short stories, was dedicated to his daughter Ann; and, finally, Three Who Ventured (1958) was dedicated to Mary.

In the 1951 Pilot interview, Connolly said, “My characters are mostly composites of people I’ve met. They are all, in a way, portraits.”

In fact, according to daughter Mary, her mother would say that the character of Mr. Blue was semi-autobiographical.

“It was his spirit, his thoughts,” Mary said, adding that, like Blue, her father had “a deep devotion to Our Lady” and “such a generous spirit — whether it was material or spiritual giving, it was to everyone. He really wanted to live his faith as deeply and wholeheartedly as it was possible.”

Dan England and the Noonday Devil, though out of print and much less known than Mr. Blue, was Connolly’s favorite personal work, according to Mary. Like Mr. Blue, the book features a Boston reporter as a skeptical narrator who learns about and befriends the impressive protagonist. A profoundly religious man known for his hospitality, Dan England is described by the narrator as “a combination of extraordinary wisdom and childlike innocence.” And like Blue decades earlier, England’s age and physical description roughly coincided with that of Connolly.

It might be said that J. Blue and Dan England, with all of their idealism and humility, exemplified how Connolly perceived the world and aspired to live.

Connolly’s life and work were defined by his Catholic faith. While much of his writing and many of his characters were explicitly religious, he did not believe in piety for its own sake. “To me a book is Catholic if it tells in concrete terms man’s relation to his God and to his soul,” he said in the 1951 interview. “Why can’t some of our writers talk more about the adventure of Catholicism?”

According to Connolly’s son, Kevin, a member of Stella Maris Council 3772 in San Clemente, Calif., his father influenced the faith of many colleagues in the film industry, including Capra. Connolly was godfather to Capra’s three children, and in ways both subtle and direct, urged Capra to rediscover his Catholic faith.

Finally, after several decades of poor health, Connolly was told by his doctors that he needed open-heart surgery. Four days before the surgery, Mary, then 20 years old, called and reiterated what she had written to him in a letter: “I don’t know what’s wrong with your heart. Your heart is perfect; it’s the most beautiful heart. Because of you, I understand God the Father’s love for me. I love you.”

Connolly died July 15, 1964, shortly after the surgery, at age 66. The subsequent decades brought with them the death of three of Connolly’s five children — Terrence, Myles Jr. and Ann — and his wife, who outlived him by some 23 years.

Still today, Kevin Connolly and Mary Connolly Breiner remember their father as a strong, loving man, always striving to be better, yet keenly aware of his own imperfections.

In 1928, in a final, unpublished Columbia column, Connolly wrote the following in the voice of Mr. Blue: “All of us tend to withdraw into ourselves. All of us incline to build these little walls of protection about ourselves. It is our own natural distrust of ourselves, our own hidden cowardice, our congenital selfishness, if you wish, that prompts this caution, that urges this smugness. It is only by effort, by gallant aspiration, by courage, that we can defeat these congealing, these contracting forces. And oh, we must oppose them!”

Wise beyond his years, young Connolly would go on to live by these words. He concluded, “Love should begin at home. Truly. But it’s a small love and worth little that ends there. It is not always the fool that wears his heart on his sleeve. It may well be the saint.”

ALTON J. PELOWSKI is editor of Columbia magazine.