Kirkwood was born in Los Angeles, California. His father James Kirkwood, Sr. was an actor and director in silent films and his mother was actress Lila Lee. After their divorce, he spent much of his time with his mother's family in Elyria, Ohio where he graduated from high school.
Kirkwood wrote the semi-autobiographical novel There Must Be a Pony, which was made into a television film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Wagner. In the story, the main character Jimmy acted in the 1950s TV series Valiant Lady, as Kirkwood himself had done in real life. Other novels include P. S. Your Cat Is Dead! (adapted into a play of the same name, which was, in turn, adapted into a film by Steve Guttenberg), Good Times/Bad Times, Some Kind of Hero, and Hit Me with a Rainbow.
Kirkwood won the 1976 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical, the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Book of a Musical, the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama with collaborator Nicholas Dante for A Chorus Line.
Kirkwood also wrote the comedic play Legends! which toured the United States with Mary Martin and Carol Channing in 1987. The plot concerns a producer with a sure-fire commercial script, but no credibility, who lures two out-of-work but long-time feuding actresses "of a certain age" to star in his putative Broadway production. Legends! was the most financially successful road production of that season, but when producers insisted on cutting an important speech about breast cancer by Mary Martin's character, the actress declared she would complete her contractual obligation, but would not open the play on Broadway, and the show closed on the road. Kirkwood wrote a book about the production of Legends! entitled Diary of a Mad Playwright: Perilous Adventures on the Road with Mary Martin and Carol Channing.
A revival of Legends! was mounted with Joan Collins and Linda Evans of Dynasty fame. It toured more than 30 cities in the United States and Canada beginning in autumn 2006, but did not appear on Broadway as had been planned.
Kirkwood was a personal friend of Clay Shaw, the New Orleans businessman tried on conspiracy charges in the murder of President John F. Kennedy by District Attorney Jim Garrison. Shaw was later acquitted and the story of the trial spawned Kirkwood's book American Grotesque.
In 1968, Kirkwood signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.
Kirkwood died of spinal cancer in 1989.
In Kirkwood's memory, his friends and admirers established the James Kirkwood Literary Prize to honor new generations of fiction writers for their literary achievements. The competition is hosted by the UCLA Extension Writers' Program and the winner is determined by Andrew Morse, the prize's benefactor.
There Must Be A Pony!
Good Times/Bad Times
Hit Me with a Rainbow
Some Kind of Hero
P.S. Your Cat Is Dead
I Teach Flying (unfinished)
U.T.B.U. (Unhealthy To Be Unpleasant)
A Chorus Line (book - co-authored with Nicholas Dante)
Stage Stuck (co-authored with Jim Piazza)
Diary of a Mad Playwright: Perilous Adventures on the Road with Mary Martin and Carol Channing, about production of the play Legends! (Dutton, 1989)
P.S. Your Cat Is Dead by James Kirkwood
Paperback: 224 pages
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin (November 15, 2003)
Amazon: P.S. Your Cat Is Dead
It's New Year's Eve in New York City. Your best friend died in September, you've been robbed twice, your girlfriend is leaving you, you've lost your job...and the only one left to talk to is the gay burglar you've got tied up in the kitchen... P.S. your cat is dead.
An instant classic upon its initial publication, P.S. Your Cat is Dead received widespread critical acclaim and near fanatical reader devotion. The stage version of the novel was equally successful and there are still over 200 new productions of it staged every year. Now, for the first time in a decade, James Kirkwood's much-loved black humor comic novel of manners and escalating disaster returns to bewitch and beguile a new generation.
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