Hatcher Hughes (1881-1945)
Where: Town Street
Hatcher Hughes was born in 1881, the son of a North Carolina farmer who had fought for the Confederacy. Life was hardscrabble at best. Hughes was the only child in a large family to graduate from the 8th grade. He was the seventh son of a seventh son, which folklore decreed would head him toward either fame or the noose. Fortunately fame won out: Hughes won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1924.
Back in the 1890s, the younger boys on a farm family were the lucky ones. The older boys would stay on the farm and do the necessary work. This afforded Hughes the luxury of attending high school, after which he headed for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It took him several years to work his way through to an undergraduate degree (1907) and then a master’s (1909). He then headed for Columbia University, intent on a doctorate in English drama.
Columbia did not go as planned. At the time, folk plays were emerging as the latest thing in theater, and Hughes’ wide knowledge of drama, combined with his own background in the rural South, made him an asset to the Columbia faculty. He soon joined the teaching staff and was instrumental in making the Morningside Players, a near-professional campus endeavor, a success. With two years out for World War I (Hughes saw combat as a Captain), he continued to teach playwriting at Columbia until his death in 1945.
Hughes’ own efforts also prospered. Wake Up, Jonathan, written with Elmer Rice in 1921, did well on Broadway and had a nationwide tour. Hell-Bent fer Heaven, thick with heavy melodrama and the dialect of the rural South, won the Pulitzer in 1924. In all, Hatcher mounted five plays on Broadway from 1921 to 1934, some winners, some losers.
Hughes was introduced to Cornwall by Carl and Mark Van Doren, colleagues at Columbia. In January 1920, soon after his army discharge, he purchased a 150-acre farm at the north end of what is now Town Street. Tenant farmers struggled along, first with chickens, then cows, as Hughes, with his courtly Southern charm, merged into the best society. His New York duties were on-and-off; he often could spend more than half his time in Cornwall. In 1930, he married an aspiring actress, Janet Cool, and a daughter, Ranney, followed in 1933. Cornwall continued to be the family’s true home. Hughes’s rich Southern speech and old-style manners are not forgotten today by the few left to remember him.
Image courtesy of Ranney Moss