John Monk Saunders

Last updated
John Monk Saunders
Born(1897-11-22)November 22, 1897
DiedMarch 11, 1940(1940-03-11) (aged 42)
Cause of death Suicide
Education University of Washington in Seattle
University of Oxford
  • Novelist
  • screenwriter
  • film director
Avis Hughes
(m. 1922;div. 1927)

(m. 1928;div. 1939)
Awards Academy Award for Best Story (1930)

John Monk Saunders (November 22, 1897 – March 11, 1940) was an American novelist, screenwriter, and film director.


Early life and career

Born in Hinckley, Minnesota, to Robert C. Saunders and Nannie Monk Saunders, his family (6 children) moved to Seattle, Washington in 1907 where his father served as US Attorney. John attended Broadway High School, [1] where he excelled as both student and athlete. Saunders, a member of Sigma Chi Fraternity, received his education at University of Washington in Seattle where he was president of his freshman class and quarterback on the freshman football team. He served in the Air Service during World War I as a flight instructor in Florida, but was never able to secure a posting to France, a disappointment that frustrated him for the remainder of his life. After the University of Washington, he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, entering in the fall of 1919 where he was the first American to attend Magdalen College. Saunders was a member of their championship swimming team and played on the Rugby squad. He completed his 3-year degree there in just 112 years. While at Oxford, he formed friendships with John Masefield and Rudyard Kipling. After graduation, he served as attaché at the American Relief Association in Vienna, Austria.

After the war he spent time in Paris then returned to Oxford, completing his master's degree in 1923. He worked as a journalist in the US, including stints with the Los Angeles Times and New York Tribune. Saunders began selling short stories to magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Liberty magazines and became editor of American magazine. [2]

He first sold the movie rights to one of his stories in 1924, and in 1926, Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount purchased the rights to Saunders's unfinished novel about WWI pilots. Wings garnered $39,000 for the writer - the highest sum paid for film rights at that time - as well as the first Academy Award for Best Picture.


Saunders' first screen credit was Too Many Kisses (1925), based on his story "A Maker of Gestures". This was followed by The Shock Punch (1925) based on his play.

In 1926 Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount purchased the screen rights to Saunders' unfinished novel about pilots in World War One for a then-record $39,000. The film, Wings (1927), became the first film to ever win an Academy Award for Best Picture.

He followed it with The Legion of the Condemned (1928), starring Gary Cooper. [3]

Saunders' story "The Dock Walloper" was filmed as The Docks of New York (1928), Directed by Josef von Sternberg. He worked on the script for She Goes to War (1929)

The Dawn Patrol (1930), was based on his story "The Flight Commander". It starred Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Saunders won an Oscar for Best Story. [4] On receipt of his award, he said, "This indeed is a crazy business where I am being sued for plagiarism on one hand and given the statuette for originality on the other".

Saunders published a series of short stories collectively referred to as "Nikki and Her War Birds" in Liberty magazine. In 1931, Saunders arranged these stories into his first complete novel called Single Lady. [5]

Saunders wrote The Finger Points (1931), then The Last Flight (1931) which he adapted from Single Lady.

Saunders also wrote a play Nikki which was produced on Broadway with Fay Wray. [6]

The Eagle and the Hawk (1933) was based on his story, "Death in the Morning". It starred Fredric March, Cary Grant and Carole Lombard.

Saunders wrote Ace of Aces (1933), adapting his story "Birds of Prey".

Devil Dogs of the Air (1935) was based on his story. His stories provided the basis for West Point of the Air (1935) and I Found Stella Parish (1935).

Saunders was one of several writers on the documentary film Conquest of the Air (UK, 1936), which he also co-directed.

He was credited for providing the idea for A Yank at Oxford (1938) and did uncredited work on Star of the Circus (1938). The Dawn Patrol was remade in 1938 starring Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone and David Niven.

Saunders went to Virginia in 1938 to research a historical novel. [2] He and his second wife separated that year, and Saunders was treated at a Virginia hospital for what was described as a nervous disorder. [7] [8]

Personal life

Saunders was married to Avis Hughes, daughter of novelist Rupert Hughes (uncle of Howard Hughes), from 1922 to 1927. Later he married actress Fay Wray (1928–39). Friend Gary Cooper served as his best man. John and Fay had a daughter, Susan Cary Saunders (Riskin). [9]

In 1934, Saunders was involved in a highly publicized fist fight with actor Herbert Marshall, a veteran of WWI. [10] This led to Saunders losing work opportunities and condemnation from the Hollywood social scene.


Saunders suffered from alcoholism most of his adult life. Despite care by a nurse from Johns Hopkins hospital, Saunders hanged himself at a Fort Myers, Florida, beach cottage on March 11, 1940. [11] [12] [13]

Selected writings





Related Research Articles

Fay Wray American actress

Vina Fay Wray was a Canadian-born American actress best remembered for starring as Ann Darrow in the 1933 film King Kong. Through an acting career that spanned nearly six decades, Wray attained international recognition as an actress in horror films. She has been dubbed one of the early "scream queens".

Tailspin Tommy was an air adventure comic strip about a youthful pilot, "Tailspin" Tommy Tomkins. Originally illustrated by Hal Forrest and initially distributed by John Neville Wheeler's Bell Syndicate and then by United Feature Syndicate, the strip had a 14-year run from May 21, 1928 to March 15, 1942.

Richard Thorpe American actor and film director

Richard Thorpe was an American film director best known for his long career at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

<i>Dirigible</i> (film) 1931 film

Dirigible is a 1931 American pre-Code adventure film directed by Frank Capra for Columbia Pictures and starring Jack Holt, Ralph Graves and Fay Wray. The picture focuses on the competition between naval fixed-wing and airship pilots to reach the South Pole by air.

Charles Alfred Selwyn Bennett was an English playwright, screenwriter and director probably best known for his work with Alfred Hitchcock.

Lane Chandler Actor (1899-1972)

Lane Chandler was an American actor specializing mainly in Westerns.

Tay Garnett American film director and writer (1894–1977

William Taylor "Tay" Garnett was an American film director and writer.

Robert Armstrong (actor) American actor

Robert William Armstrong was an American film and television actor remembered for his role as Carl Denham in the 1933 version of King Kong by RKO Pictures. He uttered the famous exit quote, "'it wasn't the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast." at the film's end.

Rowland V. Lee Film director

Rowland Vance Lee was an American film director, actor, writer, and producer.

Wade Boteler American actor

Wade Boteler was an American film actor and writer. He appeared in more than 430 films between 1919 and 1943. He was born in Santa Ana, California, and died in Hollywood, California, from a heart attack.

Warner Richmond American actor

Warner Richmond was an American actor. He appeared in 141 films between 1912 and 1946. He was born in Racine, Wisconsin and died in Los Angeles, California.

Richard Tucker (actor) American actor

Richard Tucker was an American actor. Tucker was born in Brooklyn, New York. Appearing in 266 films between 1911 and 1940, he was the first official member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and a founding member of SAG's Board of Directors. Tucker died in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles from a heart attack. He is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, in an unmarked niche in Great Mausoleum, Columbarium of Faith.

Seton Ingersoll Miller was an American screenwriter and producer. During his career, he worked with film directors such as Howard Hawks and Michael Curtiz. Miller received two Oscar nominations and won once for Best Screenplay for fantasy romantic comedy film Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) along with Sidney Buchman.

George Irving (American actor) American actor

George Henry Irving was an American film actor and director.

<i>The Legion of the Condemned</i> 1928 film

The Legion of the Condemned is a 1928 American silent film directed by William A. Wellman and produced by Jesse L. Lasky, Wellman, and Adolph Zukor and distributed by Paramount Pictures. Written by former World War I flight instructor John Monk Saunders and Jean de Limur, with intertitles by George Marion, Jr., the film stars Fay Wray and Gary Cooper.

Lester R. Rice-Wray

Lester Rice-Wray was a professor of mathematics at the University of Denver who later was elected to the City Council in Los Angeles, California, and was the first councilman there to face a recall election under the 1925 city charter.

Clements Ripley was an American fiction writer and screenwriter.

Tremlet C. Carr was an American film producer, closely associated with the low-budget filmmaking of Poverty Row. In 1931 he co-founded Monogram Pictures, which developed into one of the leading specialist producers of B pictures in Hollywood.

Martin Goodman Cohn was an American film editor and film producer who worked on B-movie genre pictures in Hollywood from the 1910s through the 1940s.

L. William O'Connell was an American cinematographer who worked in Hollywood for decades, beginning during the silent era. He frequently worked with directors Howard Hawks and William K. Howard.


  1. "John Monk Saunders", The Seattle Daily Times, March 11, 1940, retrieved 2020-06-06
  2. 1 2 "John M. Saunders Suicide in Florida" (1940, Mar 12). New York Times
  3. Kingsley, G. (1927, Sep 07). "'Wings'" Combine to Repeat" Los Angeles Times
  4. "Academy Awards Database" . Retrieved 2008-08-14.
  5. Goff, J. J. (2008). "Singling Out John Monk Saunders: Hemingway's Thoughts on an Imitator" The Hemingway Review, 28(1), 135–141,6-7. Retrieved from
  6. "Saunders, film writer, hangs self" (1940, Mar 12). Los Angeles Times
  7. "John Saunders, Screen Writer, Hangs Himself" (1940, Mar 12). Chicago Daily Tribune
  8. "Saunders, Wife Fay Wray and Daughter in Hospital" (1938, Nov 15). Los Angeles Times
  9. "Divorce won by Fay Wray" (1939, Dec 13). Los Angeles Times
  10. "Marshall Fight Version Displeasing to Saunders" (1934, Sep 26). Los Angeles Times
  11. "Google newspapers".
  12. "Fay Wray sobs as tribute is paid John Monk Saunders" (1940, Mar 17). Los Angeles Times
  13. Special Dispatch to, T. P. (1940, Mar 12). "John Monk Saunders, writer, hangs self in Florida cottage" The Washington Post