Moviegoers applauding ALL ABOUT EVE at its New York premiere on Oct. 13, 1950, didn’t know its story of intrigue in the world of Broadway theatre was true.
The only onscreen credit for what later became EVE’s Oscar-winning screenplay was for Joseph Mankiewicz, who also won for directing. He went into the record books for winning twin Oscars back-to-back with his two from a year earlier for A LETTER TO THREE WIVES. Unlike EVE, WIVES credited two other source material writers.
Learning where and how EVE’s story originated is, perhaps, an even better story than the one Mankiewicz told so well. EVE began as a short story, but its behind-the-scenes story could and, in fact, did fill a book — Sam Staggs’ ALL ABOUT “ALL ABOUT EVE” in 2000. It all began with THE WISDOM OF EVE, a short story by Mary Orr that ran in Cosmopolitan in May 1946, but didn’t ignite any interest from Hollywood. Three years later, 20th Century-Fox’s story department suddenly sent it to the studio’s producers, including Mankiewicz. While there are many similarities to EVE, Orr’s WISDOM differs in that her ambitious ingénue Eve Harrington — Anne Baxter in the film — doesn’t suffer in the end for her many sins against aging stage star Margo Channing — the movie’s Bette Davis — who’s called Margola Cranston in Orr’s story.
But that’s not nearly the whole story. Orr wrote what she’d been told in the summer of 1944 on a weekend visit with her then almost-husband, director Reggie Denham, at the New Hampshire country home of actress Elisabeth Bergner and her husband/manager Paul Czinner. Bergner was a big theatre star then, best known for THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS in 1943-44, which Denham directed. While preparing dinner, Bergner told Orr all about a “terrible girl” always wearing a red coat who stood outside the stage door nightly to catch a glimpse of Bergner. She later became Bergner’s understudy and then wound up doing — well, much of the bad stuff that Eve Harrington winds up doing.
Orr absorbed every word and later, at Denham’s suggestion, turned it into WISDOM. In January 1949, to earn money while Denham recovered from a serious accident, Orr adapted WISDOM for NBC’s Radio Guild Playhouse, which after being heard in NY was repeated live for L.A. Three days later, she got word Fox wanted to option WISDOM and was offering $5,000, big money then. But in putting the deal together, or so Fox later claimed, Orr’s agent didn’t request screen credit for her — so, therefore, none was given.