Roger L. Stevens, the early years

Black and white image of Roger seated in window seat.

Unidentified photographer. [Roger L. Stevens] circa 1913. Roger L. Stevens papers, Music Division.

First chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, founding chairman of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, one-time owner of the Empire State Building, producer of more than 100 Broadway plays and musicals, recipient of Tony Awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a Knight Commander of the British Empire, Roger L. Stevens got a lot done in his 88 years on this earth. We’ve written before of his busy schedule and his many accolades, but we haven’t yet touched on his early life. For every person who has accomplished great things, there is a beginning, an origin story. This is Roger’s.

Roger Lacey Stevens was born in Detroit, Michigan, on March 12, 1910, to Stanley G. Stevens (1875-1966) and Florence O. Jackson Stevens (1875-1957). Roger was the second of three sons, and for most of his childhood the Stevens family enjoyed a comfortable life in Ann Arbor. Stanley worked in real estate and invested in several local businesses. Florence was active in local women’s clubs and was a life-long learner. When Roger was 12, Florence enrolled in sociology and philosophy courses at the University of Michigan, and at age 60, she received a Master of Arts degree from the School of Education at New York University.

Black and white image of Roger in football kit in front of building steps.

Unidentified photographer. [Roger L. Stevens dressed to play football.] circa 1928. Roger L. Stevens papers, Music Division.

Roger attended local public schools and began his high school career in Ann Arbor. Report cards in the collection contain all of the expected subjects such as math, history, and writing, but they also include classes in deportment and something listed as “Man. training.” This likely stood for “manual training,” a 1920s version of shop class. Roger later transferred to the Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut. The collection holds correspondence from his parents which begins around this time. At Choate, Roger played on the basketball and football teams, and life there suited him. After graduation, he became an actively involved alum, and he maintained an interest in the institution for the rest of his life.

Roger had planned to attend Harvard University after high school. He was accepted, and there is a letter from Harvard in his personal papers requesting that he submit his application for living on campus. Three of his friends named him as the fourth roommate on their applications. Unfortunately, a change in the family’s financial circumstances prevented Roger from enrolling in Harvard. Instead, he moved back to his hometown and attended the University of Michigan where he took courses in French, history, math, and rhetoric. Essays and exams from this time are included in the collection.

Black and white image of Christine and Roger facing each other seated on fench styie.

Unidentified photographer. [Christine and Roger Stevens] circa 1938. Roger L. Stevens papers, Music Division.

Roger left the university after one year and cobbled together a living from different jobs including working as a gas station attendant and on the assembly line at the Ford factory. He also spent a fair amount of time reading in his local library. By 1933, he had ventured into the world of real estate, joining the Hamman Real Estate Exchange based in Detroit. Real estate brought Roger his first financial success, and he was soon able to strike out on his own. In 1937, he hired a young woman he’d met at a party to be his secretary. Christine Gesell was a student at the University of Michigan where her father was head of the Medical School’s physiology department. She and Roger married on New Year’s Day 1938.

The story goes on. There’s a six -month honeymoon around Europe and by the end of the year, two become three with the birth of daughter Christabel. World War II looms on the horizon, and Roger serves in the Navy from 1944 to 1946, stationed in Florida. The bulk of collection’s correspondence between Christine and Roger takes place during this forced separation. Thanks to Christine, Roger becomes a regular theatergoer, and in 1949 he produces his first Broadway show. The story goes on, but the origin tale is wrapping up. There’s so much more ahead for Roger and a great deal of it is documented in his papers at the Library. Look for the finding aid coming out this spring to find out more.

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