Jess Gregg ’41, 1919-2009

Rollins Bids Farewell to Noted Author

Jess Gregg

Author, playwright, and memoirist Jess Gregg ’41, perhaps best remembered for his “Lola” letters, which were published in The Sandspur and went on to earn national prominence, passed away on March 8, 2009.

Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, Gregg grew up in Los Angeles and came to Rollins to study writing under English professor and noted author Edwin Granberry. His “Lola” letters, described as “part newsletter, part calendar, mostly gossip, and full of hilariously bad grammar and spelling,” were penned as those of a vacuous blonde showgirl whose “daddy” was sending her through Rollins College. Gregg also served as editor of the R Book and The Flamingo, Rollins’ literary magazine. His career as a professional writer was launched when his short story “Grand Finale,” first published in The Flamingo, was picked up by Esquire magazine.

After graduating from Rollins in 1941, Gregg undertook postgraduate study at Yale, then worked as a junior writer in films and radio. His first novel, The Other Elizabeth, was published in 1952. He wrote for television, but his passion was theater.

Gregg’s 10-year fellowship with the New Dramatists Committee, during which he served as an assistant to top Broadway directors Elia Kazan (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Josh Logan (Fanny), and Gower Champion (Bye Bye Birdie, Carnival, Hello, Dolly!, and I Do! I Do!), served as a springboard for his success as a playwright. His play A Swim in the Sea was optioned by the Theatre Guild and produced by Hal Prince at the Annie Russell Theatre in 1960 prior to its opening in Philadelphia. Although it failed in Philadelphia, the following year it was successfully revived in England as The Seashell, starring Dame Sybil Thorndike and the up-and-coming Sean Connery.

The prolific writer continued to gain notice for his work. His second novel, The Glory Circuit (1962), was optioned by Marilyn Monroe Productions shortly before her death; his play Shout from the Rooftops was performed off Broadway in 1965; and his third novel, Baby Boy (1973), a prison classic that he researched by working as a prison guard at a road camp in Oviedo, Florida, was a Book of the Month Club alternate and widely optioned for films. Gregg wrote the libretto for the musical Cowboy, which toured the West for two years. He won the prestigious John Gassner Memorial Playwriting Award in 1978 for his one-act play The Organ Recital at the New Grand and won the Theater in the Works Award for The Underground Kite.

In recent years, Gregg’s participation in the Ashawagh Hall Writers Workshop, headed by M. E. Kerr, led to his capstone work: a collection of autobiographical pieces published as The Tall Boy in 2005.

Gregg is survived by his partner, Leo Revi; sisters Charlotte Gregg Ogilvie ’40 and Jenelle Gregg Bailey ’48; and six nephews and their families.