George Cram Cook, the son of a lawyer, was born in Davenport, Iowa on 7th October 1875. An intelligent student, "Jig" Cook completed his bachelor's degree at Harvard University in 1893. He continued his studies at the University of Heidelberg and at the University of Geneva.
On his return to the United States he taught English literature at the University of Iowa from 1895 until 1899. He also taught at Stanford University before taking up writing full-time. For a time he worked under Floyd Dell on the Chicago Evening Post Literary Review. Dell later recalled that Cook was "a romantic-philosophical novelist of whose reactionary Nietzschean-aristocratic conceptions of an ideal society founded upon a pseudo-Greek slavery, I as a socialist had totally disapproved." Dell later commented in his autobiography, Homecoming (1933) that later he came under the influence of the writing of Peter Kropotkin and considered himself an anarchist: "This immediate and deep friendship took me out to George's farm at every opportunity. In our discussions he was converted from his Nietzschean aristocratic anarchist philosophy to Socialism."
Jig Cook wrote during this period: "I do not aspire to be, in the great sense of the word, a scholar. I hope to prove some day, writing and teaching, a person of tastes and talent, able to help people understand and love rightly the things which are beautiful." As Linda Ben-Zvi pointed out: "Throughout his life Jig Cook attempted to be the conduit through which others realized their inner potential."
In May 1902 Cook married Sara Herndon Swain. After moving to Buffalo he completed his first book, Roderick Taliaferro, that was published in 1903. The marriage was not a success and in 1906 he began an affair with Mollie Price. Cook wrote in his diary that "love is moral even without marriage but marriage is immoral without love." Mollie was an anarchist who believed in free-love and was not concerned that Cook was a married man.
Susan Glaspellmet Cook in November 1907. Glaspell describes the meeting in her biograpahy of Cook, The Road to the Temple (1926): "It was in Chicago he (George Cook) was married, to a girl of beauty and charm whom he met through friends there, and after a summer at the Cabin they went to California, where Jig will teach English at Leland Standford University under Professor Anderson, his old teacher. Already he has the idea, which grows important in his life, that it is better a writer make his living in some other way than by writing. It seemed to him that this either conscious or unconscious adapting of one's work to what it will mean in money was as a blight. He thought there were ways of freeing oneself; he cared enough about it to shape his life toward that ideal of giving the mind free play."
Floyd Dell was with Cook when he met Susan Glaspell for the first time. "George and I called upon Susan Glaspell, a young newspaperwoman who began a brilliant career as a novelist. She read us some of her just-finished novel, The Glory of the Conquered, the liveliness and humour of which we admired greatly, though George deplored to me on the way home the lamentable conventionality of the author's views of life. Susan was a slight, gentle, sweet, whimsically humourous girl, a little ethereal in appearance, but evidently a person of great energy, and brimful of talent; but, we agreed, too medieval-romantic in her views of life."
In January 1908 Cook was granted a divorce from Sara. Three months later he married Mollie Price. However, the relationship was soon in trouble. Floyd Dell commented that the problem was that "marriage had tamed this wild bird." The situation was complicated by the birth of their children, Nilla and Harl.
Cook eventually left his wife and children to live with Susan Glaspell. The couple moved to Provincetown, a small seaport in Massachusetts, where they married on 14th April, 1913. They joined a group of left-wing writers including Floyd Dell, John Reed, Mary Heaton Vorse, Mabel Dodge, William Zorach, Harry Kemp, Neith Boyce, Theodore Dreiser, Hutchins Hapgood and Louise Bryant.
As Barbara Gelb, the author of So Short a Time (1973), has pointed out: "Cook and Susan Glaspell had participated, along with Reed, in the birth of the Washington Square Players in Greenwich Village and had written a one-act play to help launch a summer theater in Provincetown in 1915. Cook dreamed of creating a theater that would express fresh, new American talent, and after his modest beginning in the summer of 1915, began urging his friends to provide scripts for an expanded program for the summer of 1916. None of his friends were professional playwrights, but several, like Reed, were journalists and short-story writers. Their unfamiliarity with the dramatic form was, in Cook's opinion, precisely what suited them to be pioneers in his new theater and to break up some of the old theater molds; Cook wanted them to disregard the rules and precepts of the commercial Broadway theater, and to stumble and blunder and grope their way toward a native dramatic art."
In 1915 several members of the group established the Provincetown Theatre Group. A shack at the end of the fisherman's wharf was turned into a theatre. Later, other writers such as Eugene O'Neill and Edna St. Vincent Millay joined the group. The play, Suppressed Desires, that he co-wrote with his wife Susan Glaspell, was one of the first plays performed by the group. He also wrote the anti-war play, The Athenian Women during the First World War.
Many of the productions that appeared at Provincetown were later transferred to New York City. This were initially performed at an experimental theatre on MacDougal Street but some of the plays, especially by Susan Glaspell and Eugene O'Neill were critical successes on Broadway. The Provincetown Theatre Group came to an when its star writer, Eugene O'Neill, decided to deal directly with Broadway.
As Floyd Dell pointed out: "George Cook had come to a crisis in his life; he was spiritually centered in the plays of Eugene O'Neill, and now the young playwright had decided to deal directly with Broadway, refusing to allow the Provincetown Players to put on his plays before they went uptown. This was an entirely reasonable decisions on his part, but it broke George Cook's heart."
According to Susan Glaspell he remained a socialist but was disillussioned by the Russian Revolution. He told his friends: "Unless the Socialist movement is going to make room in itself for a culture as broad and imaginative as any aristocratic culture, it would be better for the world that it perish from the earth."
Cook eventually came to the conclusion that the Provincetown Theatre Group had failed: "Three years ago, writing for the Provincetown Players, anticipating the forlornness of our hope to bring to birth in our commercial-minded country a theatre whose motive was spiritual... I am now forced to confess that our attempt to build up, by our own life and death, in this alien sea, a coral island of our own, has failed. The failure seems to be more our own than America's. Lacking the instinct of the coral-builders, in which we could have found the happiness of continuing ourselves toward perfection, we have developed little willingness to die for the thing we are building. Our individual gifts and talents have sought their private perfection."
The two main figures in the group, Cook and Susan Glaspell, suspended operations and moved to Greece. According to Barbara Gelb, at this time: "Cook had a mane of white hair and a habit of twisting a shaggy lock between his fingers when moved or excited." Glaspell had to visit the United States but when she returned she found him unwell: "Jig was not well. I found him thinner when I returned from America, and he was thinner now than then. He would get tired of the food.... His thinner face, and his beard, made him look older. His moustache was black, like the eyebrows, but the beard, like his hair, was white... He looked like a man of the mountain; more and more his eyes were the eyes of a seer."
Cook was diagnosed as suffering from typhus or glanders. However, he was too weak to be taken to Athens. The doctor told Susan Glaspell that he was dying: "Most of the time was unconscious, but I could call him to a moment's consciousness. His eyes and mine could meet, and know. I came to feel I must not do it, that it might call him into what I must shield him from knowing... It was at midnight of the second day that Jig, who had been in much distress, fell back on his pillows. His breathing slowed. There came that moment when he did not breathe again."
George Cram Cook died on 14th January, 1924. In his obituary, The Nation wrote: "George Cram Cook... was a brave enthusiast, whose experimental eagerness helped break new paths for the American theatre and drama. He was a playwright and novelist but, beyond these things, he was extraordinarily a person, exerting an incalculable personal force and influence. That influence is itself not easy to describe, except as a civilizing influence, or perhaps a Utopian influence; he made people ashamed of surrender to an ignoble world, he made them try to do the beautiful and impossible things of which they dreamed - and that attempt, which is often enough ridiculous, is the best the world has yet been able to offer in the way of civilization anywhere."
Floyd Dell wrote: "I loved him, and I would have had his life and death other than they were. I would have him die for Russia and the future, rather than Greece and the past." Greek Coins: Poems of George Cram Cook was published posthumously in 1925.