Sidney Howard’s horrific death at the age of 48 in 1939 made him the first person to win a posthumous Oscar, when he won for the adapted screenplay of Gone with the Wind (1939, dir. Victor Fleming). Before that, he’d been one of the most prolific American playwrights of the 1920s and 30s.
Born in Oakland, California in 1891, Sidney Howard studied playwriting at Harvard under George Pierce Baker, with the likes of Eugene O’Neill, Phillip Barry and S. N. Berhman. After his first play, Swords, flopped on Broadway, They Knew What They Wanted was a critical success and won him the 1925 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. For the next few years, he had a string of both successes and failures, with such plays as Lucky Sam McCarver and The Silver Cord. In 1938, he co-founded the Playwrights’ Company, which aimed at producing plays, after its founding members became dissatisfied with the Theater Guild and critics alike. Once in Hollywood, he started working at MGM and he received his first Oscar nomination for the adapted screenplay of Arrowsmith (1931, dir. John Ford), and again in 1937 for his adaptation – of his own stage adaptation – of Dodsworth (1936, dir. William Wyler), both based on Sinclair Lewis novels.
In between his Oscar nods, he also served at the president of the Dramatics Guild of America in 1935, having been a fierce advocate for writers’ rights. In 1940, he won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Gone with the Wind, six months after his tragic death – crushed by his tractor in his garage. After this, the Playwrights’ Company created the Sidney Howard Memorial Award, with the goal of finding and encouraging emerging playwrights. A prominent figure on Broadway and in Hollywood throughout the early 20th century, Sidney Howard was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1981.