Thomas P. Cullinan, Novelist and Playwright, 1919–1995


It should have surprised no one when Thomas Cullinan’s novel The Beguiled was made into a movie starring Clint Eastwood. An instinctive feel for the dramatic situation lies at the heart of all of Cullinan’s work, whether conceived for the stage,
the television screen, or the intimate mindspace
of a novel.

Take a badly wounded Union soldier found in the last days of the Civil War by a 12-year-old girl in the Confederate South and brought to an all-female boarding school, where the poor man can be made more comfortable and his injuries properly tended to. Make that a good-looking soldier, and a house full of women deprived of normal relationships by the war, caught up instead in intensive rivalries and petty jealousies.

Such a situation, given a willing (but physically dependent) male, could lead to many interesting situations, and even, in a time of violence and brutality, to savage recriminations.

Eastwood and Don Siegel, who went on to direct Dirty Harry, The Shootist and Escape from Alcatraz, clearly saw the possibilities of Cullinan’s southern gothic story, though the 1970 film adaptation—“a twisted tale of lust. . .and horror” that cast Geraldine Page as the repressed headmistress, Elizabeth Hartman as the frail teacher and JoAnn Harris as the saucy student—was a mixed success. A stage adaptation was produced in London in 2007.

Indeed, it was the live theater to which Cullinan was first drawn as a writer. Born in Cleveland in 1919 of Irish Catholic background and educated at Cathedral Latin High School (class of 1938), it was at Western Reserve University that he met Barclay Leatham, the gifted director and teacher for whom the university’s theater is named.

That led to a relationship with the Cleveland Play House and the opportunity to write—and see produced—a serious of short plays. (It also led to Cullinan’s 1965 marriage to Helen Borsick, whom he met in the 1950s when she was rooming with the Leathams as a WRU student, and who would become the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s longtime art writer.)

St. Columcille’s  Eve, produced at the Play House in 1948 while Tom was working in the Plain Dealer’s  Accounting Department, was optioned for a Broadway production that, alas, never materialized. But by 1957 Cullinan was making his living writing for the young medium of television, first turning out scripts about famous scientists for WKYC Channel 3’s Breakthrough series; then (1959–1967) writing and producing (through Leatham’s connections) a show called Perspective for WRU.

During this time, Cullinan’s gifts as a playwright were recognized with two Ford Foundation grants. One sent him to Berlin for six months in 1964 to take part in an international colloquium of six aspiring playwrights including Tom Stoppard, whose one-act version of what would become Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was produced alongside Cullinan’s The Sentinel. Two years later, as playwright in residence at the University of Utah, Cullinan finished Madigan’s Wedding, which was also well received in Cleveland. Among other plays by Tom Cullinan fondly remembered by Cleveland theater-goers were Native Shore, The First Warm Day of Spring, The Black Horse Tavern (written in 1976 for the nation’s Bicentennial) and Mrs. Lincoln.

Produced at the Cleveland Play House in 1968 to glowing reviews, the last of these was based on an actual incident in the later life of Abraham Lincoln’s widow. Mentally unstable for years and given to bouts of severe depression (not that she didn’t have cause), in 1875, a decade after Lincoln’s assassination, she was placed in a sanitarium in Batavia, Illinois, by her son Robert. To Cullinan, a life-long Lincoln aficionado, the dramatic possibilities were irresistible. The first act of Mrs. Lincoln gives us history as seen through the eyes of a confined, shell-shocked, but not uninsightful woman. In the second act, Cullinan ups the ante with a brilliant theatrical stroke: At the request of a staff doctor, another patient, who resembles the late President, impersonates Mary’s dead husband in an effort to relieve her troubled mind.

The Cleveland Press called it  “an evening of theater that is both entertaining and informative”; the Plain Dealer, “an absorbing, engrossing and literate play.”  The show was held over for six months by popular demand. Listed in the catalogue (and on the Website) of the Dramatists Play Service, Mrs. Lincoln has received a number of productions around the U.S. and abroad.

In the 1970s, Tom Cullinan wrote a successful series of novels: Besides The Beguiled (1966), originally titled A Painted Devil, and The Besieged (1970), both of which went into paperback, there was The Bedeviled (1978) and The Eighth Sacrament (1977), a murder mystery set in a convent (the eighth sacrament is, of course, death). Cullinan’s love for live theater, however, never waned. From 1978 to his death in 1995 at the age of 75, he served as a judge for the annual Marilyn Bianchi Kids’ Playwriting Festival held by Cleveland’s adventurous Dobama Theater. Fittingly, it was also at Dobama that his last, unfinished play, The Rose of Tralee (completed by his wife Helen and son Tom) was produced.

Thomas Cullinan’s papers span 14.5 linear feet in the archives of Kent State University. Among them is a play about the infamous Marilyn Sheppard murder case, written to mark the anniversary of that controversial chapter of Cleveland’s history, which takes as its premise that Dr. Sam did it.

—Dennis Dooley




Miss Edwina Questions the Enemy:

He was reclining again and attempting to clean his fingernails with a Union ten cent piece. His nails certainly needed cleaning. I said so. Those were the first words I ever spoke to Johnny McBurney.

“They look as though you had been trying to dig a pit with them, “ I said.

“I was,” he said. “In the battle yesterday. When all that iron was flyin overhead, my first thought was to bury myself, Blackie.”

“And when you couldn’t bury yourself deep enough, you ran.”

“I did. I surely to God did, Blackie.”

Was he mocking me by repeating that?  His eyes were smiling and his voice was friendly.

“My name is Miss Edwina Morrow,” I said.

“:Ah yes. Howdy do.”

“It wasn’t very brave of you to run.”

“Maybe not. But it was smart, I think.”

“Because you’re still alive?”

“Not only still alive, but as an extra reward, I’ve met you.”

“You don’t even know me.”

“I know your name. . .Miss Edwina Morrow.”

“What have you been told about me?”

“Nothing besides your name. It’s a lovely name. If I was old Edgar Allan Poe, I’d write a poem called ‘Miss Edwina Morrow.”

The Beguiled © 1966 by Thomas Cullinan


The Discovery:

The window ledge was slightly below the level of the porch floor and she could reach it easily enough with her right foot. Then her slipper fell off, so she kicked off the other one. After a long moment she heard one and then the other hit the concrete. . . .

She stepped out into space with her right foot, found the ledge, let go of the railing and stood erect momentarily with her right foot on the window ledge and the left still on the porch. Behind her she heard Sister Heloise gasp, but she didn’t look around. . . .Then she
leaned forward, toward the building, extended her arms, slid her right foot along the window ledge, brought the left foot over quickly and caught the sides of the opening with her flattened palms.. . .

[Sister Inez’] window seemed to be open about twenty inches, maybe a little more. Cautiously she took one hand away from the concrete and tried to pull the window up higher, but it was impossible. She couldn’t get any leverage. . . . The trick, she thought, was to do it quickly, to thrust the lower half of her body through the opening and hope that her momentum would save her from falling.

She waited perhaps thirty seconds longer. Then she crouched, bringing her waist down almost to the level of the top of the opening, let go of the sides, reached in and grabbed the upper sash as though it were a parallel bar and swung in. Her forehead hit the sash, her back hit the sill, but then her feet reached the floor. She let go of the sash and wriggled the rest of herself in.

She straightened and waited for a moment, holding her throbbing head; then she turned on the light and went to the bed. Sister Inez was under the blanket, her face turned to the wall. One of her arms was dangling and her rosary beads were on the floor, beneath her hand. Sister Karen picked them up and lifted the dangling arm. The hand was cold and the fingers were slightly stiff. Sister Inez’ forehead was cold, too.

The Eighth Sacrament © 1977 by Thomas Cullinan

Cleveland Arts Prize
P.O. Box 21126 • Cleveland, OH 44121 • 440-523-9889 •