Robert Nathan is a name that harkens back to a golden age not just of Hollywood filmmaking and the writing that went with it, but also in popular literature and the arts. He wrote screenplays at MGM in the 1940s, but he was also a highly successful and respected novelist during the 1930s and 1940s, and a poet and composer. His most famous books, Portrait of Jennie, One More Spring, The Enchanted Voyage (filmed as Wake Up and Dream), and The Bishop's Wife, are best known for their screen adaptations, the latter most recently in 1996 as The Preacher's Wife.
Robert Gruntal Nathan was born into a prominent New York family -- he was the nephew of the founder of Barnard College -- and was educated in America and Switzerland. He attended Harvard University (1912-1915), and it was there that he began writing short fiction and poetry -- he never graduated, however, choosing instead to leave school after marrying in his junior year, in order to support his wife and himself. After a two-year stint in advertising, he published his first novel, Peter Kindred, a semi-autobiographical work and a critical failure, in 1919. His success came gradually during the 1920s -- a period in which he also briefly taught journalism at New York University -- through a series of novels (among them The Bishop's Wife) as well as his poetry. During the 1930s, Nathan's output and his success grew exponentially, with a string of popular novels and anthologies of his poems appearing. Hollywood became seriously interested in his work as well, beginning with his 1933 novel One More Spring, a sad and bitter tale, laced with hope and some measure of whimsy, about a group of people displaced by the Great Depression who take up residence in an abandoned equipment shed in Central Park. The book was licensed by Fox Films and filmed in 1935 by director Henry King, to a screenplay by Edwin Burke that removed some of the harsher elements of the novel but was otherwise true to the book's overarching vision of humanity coping with despair. The emphasis in the film was on dignity and romance, with Warner Baxter (then the studio's top leading man) and Janet Gaynor as the couple drawn together by chance, who manage to help a coterie of abandoned souls, including an embittered musician (Walter Woolf King), a disillusioned banker (Grant Mitchell), and a befuddled laborer (Stepin Fetchit), to find themselves. Nathan's best-known book, Portrait of Jennie, was published in 1940, and its screen rights later became the property (and obsession) of producer David O. Selznick, who spent years and millions of dollars developing it as a vehicle for his protegée-turned-paramour, Jennifer Jones. In the meantime, Nathan went to work in the story department at MGM, where he was responsible for the screenplays of The White Cliffs of Dover (1943), which he adapted from the book-length poem by Alice Duer Miller, and The Clock (1945). The latter film, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Judy Garland and Robert Walker, was one of the most unusual big-studio movies of its time, a gentle, understated romance highlighted by lyrical, slice-of-life incidents and supporting characters. The screenplay was a beautiful transposition of Nathan's sense of humanity and its foibles and joys, from the printed page to the screen.
The mid-'40s were Nathan's heyday as an influence on American culture. In addition to his first two successes as a screenwriter in Hollywood, a second book of his, The Enchanted Voyage (1936), was licensed by 20th Century Fox and turned into a slightly too whimsical but still compelling drama, Wake Up and Dream (1946), about the search for a missing soldier. Additionally, Samuel Goldwyn produced a screen adaptation of Nathan's novel The Bishop's Wife (1947), starring Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven, which became one of the biggest comedy hits of 1947 and a perennially popular Christmas movie, as well as one of Hollywood's most beloved fantasies. Finally, in 1948, after years in pre-production and a year before the cameras, Portrait of Jennie was released by Selznick -- although not a box-office success at that time, it did develop a cult following, and a mid-'50s reissue moved it into the profit column on the ledger books. Nathan also found time to write a violin sonata and musical settings for the works of Walt Whitman, A.E. Housman, and Dunkirk, a concert piece for baritone, chorus, and orchestra, all of which received performances in New York. Additionally, his own poems were taken up and set to music by some of the leading compositional lights of the day, including Richard Hageman. Nathan also served as vice president of the Institute of Arts and Letters, and Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
Nathan's best-known work, thanks to Selznick, was Portrait of Jennie, a strange and compelling fantasy tale set in a very vividly drawn New York of the 1930s. The story, which anticipated elements (and something of the mood) of Somewhere in Time (1980), told of a talented but destitute artist (Joseph Cotten) during the Depression, who crosses paths with a young woman (Jennifer Jones) who seems not only to have come from another time, but also to exist in a completely different time continuum. One of the most romantic ghost stories ever to come out of Hollywood, the film's whimsical nature seemed to define Nathan's work, though the author himself disputed that characterization of his work; he insisted that he was quite jaundiced in his view of the world, but also declared his intent of showing readers elements of life's mystery and magic.
His work declined in fashion after the 1940s, and late in the decade he seemed to lose something of his own creative spark -- he left Hollywood after finishing work, in collaboration with Jerry Davis, on the screenplay to the 1950 musical Pagan Love Song at MGM, a lackluster vehicle for all concerned. Audiences of the 1950s showed little interest in Nathan's perceptions of the sheer romance and wonder that could go with simply living life, and by the 1960s his best-known books seemed quaintly out of date. He continued writing novels into the 1970s but he was never as popular again as he had been in the 1940s, and never saw any film adaptations of his later novels. It was the screen versions of his novels, especially The Bishop's Wife and Portrait of Jennie, that kept his memory and reputation alive, in a nostalgic vein. In 1996, some 11 years after Nathan's death, The Bishop's Wife was remade as The Preacher's Wife, starring Whitney Houston, Denzel Washington, and Courtney B. Vance, and directed by Penny Marshall, in a surprisingly deft transposition to contemporary times. Nathan was married seven times, the first five all ending in divorce. He outlived his sixth wife and, in 1970, when he was 76, Nathan married actress Anna Lee. That marriage lasted until the end of his life, at the age of 91. He continued to enjoy a cult following as a popular romantic novelist, his best work evoking a feeling of nostalgia for America's (and, especially, New York's) past that remains potent among a small percentage of readers and a larger number of filmgoers.