A Brief Biography of John Sanford

A Brief Biography of

John Sanford

(1904 - 2003)

author photo

Biographical Overview

John Sanford was born Julian L. Shapiro May 31, 1904, in Harlem, New York, then a thriving Jewish enclave. His father was a Russian immigrant, working as a real estate lawyer. His mother was America-born, of immigrant parents. Sanford's mother died in 1914; her death had an enduring effect on him. In 1925, Sanford bumped into childhood friend Nathanael West, who announced he was writing a book. This announcement was the trigger for Sanford's embarking on his own literary career.

Sanford's first book, The Water Wheel, was published in 1933. Its main character was named John Sanford. Following West's suggestion, and in an attempt to escape the limits anti-Semitism might place on sales, Sanford published his his next book, The Old Man's Place, under the name John B. Sanford. The Old Man's Place brought Sanford a screenwriting contract.

Sanford moved to Hollywood in 1936. He worked for a year for Paramount Studios but received no screen credits. During that year, though, he did meet fellow screenwriter Marguerite Roberts, whom he married in 1938. In 1939, Roberts began 12 years as one of the most successful and highest paid contract writers at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Roberts' success allowed Sanford to stay at home and write the books he chose to write.

In 1951, Sanford and Roberts were called before hearings of the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities. Both of them invoked their Fifth Ammendment right and refused to name names. This choice left them unemployable in the film industry. There followed ten dark years on the Blacklist. Although not prohibited from publishing books during this period, Sanford found himself unable to write while his wife's career languished. In 1957, the Sanfords moved to Montecito, California, where they remained through the rest of their lives.

In 1961, Roberts was one of the first screenwriters rehired when the Blacklist began to crumble. In 1969, Roberts wrote the screenplay for True Grit, which won John Wayne his only Oscar. Roberts retired from screenwriting in 1971.

Following Roberts' return to her profession, Sanford published two more novels, bringing his total to eight. After this, Sanford reinvented himself as a writer of non-fiction, with the 1975 publication of A More Goodly Country. There followed three more books of creative interpretations of history. In 1985, Sanford began publishing his five-volume autobiography, Scenes from the Life of an American Jew.

Marguerite Roberts died February 17, 1989, shortly before the fourth volume of the autobiography appeared. Following her death, Sanford devoted much of his work to chronicling their lives together. This work culminated with A Palace of Silver, published by Capra Press in March 2003. John Sanford died shortly afterward, on March 5, 2003, a few months shy of his 99th birthday. He wrote almost until the end of his life, leaving three yet-to-be-published books.

More Detailed Biographical Sketches

For more detailed descriptions, and photos, of John Sanford's family, childhood, marriage and work, follow the links below.


Photo Gallery

Return to the John Sanford Homepage

Go to the Writings of John Sanford Page

Text & photos copyright © Jack Mearns, 2003-2021. All rights reserved.

rev. 8/22/21