Kiss Me, Kate:
Sam and Bella Spewack
Posted on: April 4, 2019
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the book of Kiss Me, Kate--full of romantic discord and backstage shenanigans--was penned by veteran husband-and-wife playwriting team Samuel and Bella Spewack. Theatrical lore holds that the couple, married 25 years but separated at the time of writing Kiss Me, Kate, reunited through their work on the piece, and remained married throughout their lives.
Bella Cohen was born in 1899 near Bucharest, Romania. By 1903, she and her mother had immigrated to the United States and settled on New York’s Lower East Side. After graduating from Washington Irving High School, she worked as a publicity agent and reporter for several newspapers, including The Call, a socialist daily. Bella chronicled her impoverished childhood in Streets, a memoir written when she was 23 and published posthumously. Streets reveals Cohen’s anguish as she and her mother struggled to survive as immigrants and women. It also shows early evidence of both her eye for character-revealing details and ear for colorful dialogue.
Samuel Spewack was likewise an immigrant, born in the Ukraine in 1899. He immigrated to New York City with his family and graduated from Stuyvesant High School before entering Columbia College (now University) and dropping out to pursue work as a reporter. Sam was working for the New York World when he met Bella. “Sam really fell in love with my writing,” Bella told The New York Times in 1971. They married in 1922 and spent four years in Europe as foreign correspondents, including stints in London, Riga, Amsterdam, Moscow, and Berlin. In 1926, Bella broke the story of Anna Anderson, who claimed to be the last surviving member of the royal Romanov family.
When they returned to the U.S., the couple settled in Pennsylvania. Sam wrote novels, and Bella embarked on a career as a press agent. She was working for the Girl Scouts of America when she came up with the idea for Girl Scouts to sell cookies. Bella and Sam also began collaborating on plays. Their first success was Clear All Wires! (1932), a comic farce about a foreign correspondent. It was turned into a successful film in 1933 and established the Spewacks as writers of madcap comedies with witty dialogue.
During WWII, Sam (who was fluent in Russian) served as an information officer in Moscow. He also wrote and produced The World at War, a government-sponsored documentary that explained the causes behind the war to the public. After the war, Bella, working as a United Nations representative and ABC news reporter, covered the distribution of food in war-ravaged Eastern Europe.
Kiss Me, Kate, written in 1948, was the Spewacks’ greatest success and won them the Tony Award for Best Author (Musical). A recent article in American Theatre Magazine, written by Anne Potter, highlighted Bella’s work, noting that she was the primary writer of the book and that Sam’s contribution was limited to revising some scenes. Cole Porter forced the inclusion of Sam’s name in the credits, likely assuming the audience wouldn’t want to see a solo female book-writer. The article also noted an early version of the of the script in which Bella “attempted to change the narrative of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew...to create a more progressive Katharine.” Her changes were edited out by her male collaborators against her wishes.
Sam and Bella continued writing through the 1950s. In 1960 they founded the Spewack Sports Club for the Handicapped in Ramat Gan, Israel. Sam Spewack died in 1971; Bella Cohen Spewack passed away in 1990. Their papers are held at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Kiss Me, Kate is now playing at Studio 54 through June 30th. For tickets, visit roundabouttheatre.org.