Gilroy '50 speaks on new biography

by Turia Lahlou | 2/29/08 7:00am

Gambling, in many respects, has dominated the life of Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Frank Gilroy '50, who averaged $40 per night as a professional gambler after graduating from Dartmouth.

"My whole life has been a gamble. When you're a writer you're a gambler," Gilroy said.

Gilroy recounted his many gambles while reading aloud from his biography, "Writing for Love and/or Money: Outtakes from a life on Spec: The Early Years," at a book signing Wednesday evening at the Dartmouth Bookstore.

After pursuits as a gambler and a columnist, among a myriad of other odd jobs, Gilroy decided to set aside six weeks to test his fate as a playwright. During this period, a friend he had met as a soldier in World War II visited Gilroy, and inspired his first professional play, "Who'll Save the Plowboy," which won an Obie Award.

Gilroy, a self-described compulsive writer, described his uphill battle to attend Dartmouth. After serving in World War II, Gilroy visited the College and, because of his poor high school record, assumed he would never return. Gilroy nonetheless met with then-Acting Dean of Admissions Edward Chamberlain '36 to discuss admission and promised to willingly leave if the workload proved too challenging.

"I told him, 'I need a break,'" Gilroy said. "I need someone to take a gamble on me."

Gilroy applied to 28 colleges and universities, expecting to attend Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia on a military-funded scholarship. Davis and Elkins was the only school that had admitted him when he learned of his acceptance to Dartmouth.

"I came home one Saturday and saw my mother in tears," Gilroy said, "She said, 'You got a letter. You're accepted to Dartmouth'...I thought it was a clerical error."

Upon attending Dartmouth, Gilroy was assigned a room with three other army veterans. Each concerned with the College's workload, the four promised one another that every night they would not go to bed until all of the group's homework was completed. Gilroy maintained a strong work ethic throughout his Dartmouth career, which he attributed to a first-year English class with professor John Finch.

"No [other] teacher every really ignited that spark, that hunger to learn," Gilroy said, "That carried me through all my years."

While Dartmouth did not have a drama department at the time, Gilroy found creative release in the College's jazz band and was the Editor-in-Chief of The Dartmouth, which he referred to as the "hardest and most responsible job I ever had."

"I just loved being here," Gilroy said. "I just loved it all. I explored every part of my life dreams here from being a writer to a jazz musician."

Upon graduating, he received $1,200 to attend Yale School of Drama and spent time there until his funding bottomed out. In addition to "Who'll Save the Plowboy" -- he went on to write "The Subject Was Roses," which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play -- and the Drama Desk Award-nominated "Contact with the Enemy." He also worked as a novelist, screenwriter for film and television, film producer and director.

Gilroy and Ruth, his wife of 54 years, have three sons who work in the movie industry. Tony, 52, wrote and directed Academy Award Winning "Michael Clayton" and "The Bourne Supremacy." Brothers Dan and John are also screenwriters. Gilroy's grandson Sam Gilroy '09 is performing in the College's production of Julius Caesar, which provided the impetus for Gilroy's trip to Hanover.