O.Z. “Zebby” Whitehead (1911-1998) Remembered by John Lynch

23rd November 2020 by admin

The tall, thin and gangly sandy-haired sixty-five-year old American gentlemen rose from his seat and to a hushed audience at the Dublin Arts Festival announced: “The winner of the O.Z. Whitehead Award for new writing 1976 is John Lynch for his wonderful play “Poor Old Joe”.  He then proceeded to present the winning prize to the journalist and writer Kevin O’Connor.  There was a loud round of applause followed by confusion as Kevin identified himself and explained that he knew John Lynch but he couldn’t see him anywhere in the room.  The committee had not invited me, made a wrong identification on the night, and poor Mr. O.Z. Whitehead, affectionately known as Zebby, was upset beyond belief.  His concern was not for himself, however, but for the insult and offence he felt the mix up had caused to me.  I took no offence at all and told him I was delighted to win the prize which he gave to me a few nights later over dinner in the Trocadero.

Zebby was a saintly man, with whom I developed a warm friendship for the following twenty-two years of his life and which I have continued with my involvement as writer and organiser for the ZeBBie Awards which the Writers’ Guild of Ireland hold every year in his honour.  I know that he would be delighted that we have continued his work in some way because he spent much of his time and money here in Ireland on encouraging, supporting, and financing new writing talent.

When I first met Zebby I didn’t really know much about him except that he was an American actor who had come to live in Dublin in 1963, that he ran a play competition, the O.Z. Whitehead Awards, and that he financed productions of the winning entries at the Dublin Theatre Festival.  Thanks to Zebby my own play was staged successfully at the Dublin Theatre Festival, in London and Los Angeles, published and broadcast.  This gave him great satisfaction and he always referenced it for years later when he presented the awards which I, as Chair of The Society of Irish Playwrights (now the Writers’ Guild of Ireland), organised for him.

This came about because I had met him one day, as I often did, in Leeson Street as he walked from his small ground floor apartment, opposite where a bank used to be in the middle of the road, on his way to the Kildare Street Club for his dinner – he spent his formative years in the privileged salons of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and in some ways, retained the old style of an American gentlemen.  He was a bit gloomy that day and said that he could not handle the administration of the O.Z. Whitehead Awards any longer as the Arts Council had stopped their support and he feared he would reluctantly have to stop doing them.  He was overjoyed to accept my offer of help and I, with the support of the Society of Irish Playwrights, set up a committee to handle the administration, correspondence, and the reading of plays which in some years amounted to almost two hundred texts.  We met frequently in his place in Leeson Street and were always treated to a pot of strange but pleasant tea which he brewed from what looked like twigs.

Zebby would have read all of the plays and chaired our meetings with great attention to detail and an endearing ability to listen intently to the opinions of readers and committee members.  He was no sentimentalist and was forensic in his appreciation for the clear and economic use of words.  He was sharp and polite always but had little truck with nonsense or untruth, written or spoken.  He was not without a sense of fun either as he announced on one occasion: “In the past, and I’ve been doing this for over twenty years, I found it impossible to read some of the plays because they were written in unreadable handwriting, bound with a safety pin sometimes on the back of a collection of paper bags from the shop with the Lyon’s Tea logo in green and red on the other side.  I often wondered was the choice of green and red meant to be symbolic as many of the plays were patriotic and started with the line: ‘Quick, get behind the dresser, the red coats are coming’.  Well for the first time I’m glad to say there are no plays about red coats or green coats this year and our writers have learned to type so let’s start our deliberations without excuses”.

Another time I arrived before anyone else as Zebby was starting to brew the twig tea and he said: “John have you read any good plays this year?”.  Before I could answer, as he poured the hot water over the twigs, he quickly continued, “There’s one play and I don’t know who wrote it as our entries are anonymous.  I hope you don’t like it.  It’s about two dreadful vaudeville gentlemen and I find them unwholesome and not characterised by or conducive to health or moral well-being”.   I knew exactly the play he was talking about.  It was top of my list and was about two old washed up camp screaming queens in a variety show.  I told him that I thought it was rather good.   Zebby looked worried but we were interrupted by the arrival of the other committee members and quickly got down to examine our short list.

Some weeks later when it was time to pick the winner, the judges were equally divided, three for and three against the play about the two old queens, but the final and deciding vote fell to Zebby who had, during our meetings, repeated his reservations about the play.  There was a very long silence, Zebby looked like a hanging judge in a John Ford western, and then he seemed to grow bigger and stronger and said in a quiet but clear voice “ That play about the two vaudeville gentlemen is the best writing this year and we must award it first prize, it is the right thing to do, and we must do it, and disregard my personal feelings”.  The play, Remember Mauritania turned out to have been written by the late Aodhan Madden. It was later staged by the Abbey Theatre.

When Zebby died in 1998 the late writer Carolyn Swift financed the O.Z. Whitehead Awards for a few years but following Carolyn’s passing in 2002 it ceased and I was not very much involved in the business of the Society/Guild for some time.  However, in 2007 the new CEO, David Kavanagh, asked myself and writer Thomas McLaughlin if we could think up a public event for the members of the Guild which would help our profile.  I immediately suggested that we revive the O.Z. Whitehead Awards but as we wanted to include not only awards for stage writing but for film, radio and television as well, we knew that it would have been somewhat different from its predecessor.  We wanted to honour Zebby Whitehead in the title and initially settled on, Zebby Awards, but Thomas suggested that spelling it, ZeBBie Awards would look really good and sound the same.   We settled on that, I booked the Sugar Club, got Senator David Norris as our presenter and the rest is history.

Zebby was a remarkable human being. He was wise and generous, he was a religious person. The publicity about him always talks about him being a successful Broadway and movie actor particularly in the films of John Ford.  He told me he had little regard for that and only began his real search for meaning in life when at the age of 38 he adopted the path revealed to him by the Bahá’í faith.   That was in 1949.  He came to Ireland in 1963, almost as a missionary for that faith.  He continued to accept acting roles on stage and screen here and found many converts in the acting profession, among them Paddy Dawson and the late and wonderful Anita Reeves.  Apart from his extensive religious work and writing he spent much of the second half of his long life generously encouraging people in many ways, but particularly those involved in the art of writing.  He was an altruist, he enriched my life and anyone who got to know him.  His funeral in Mount Jerome Dublin, July 1998, was a joyous occasion, led by the beautiful Persian songs and poetry of his faith.  Zebby’s final wish to the congregation was that we all would enjoy a very good dinner, on him, in the Burlington Hotel.   We did.


John Lynch


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