Presson Allen, Jay: Writer-Scribe (Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Cabaret) Dies

Jay Presson Allen, who as an adapter of novels for plays and movies developed some of the most memorable roles for women in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, died yesterday morning at her home in Manhattan. She was 84. The cause was a stroke, said her daughter, Brooke Allen.

Allen made her breakthrough with a stage adaptation of Muriel Spark’s novel “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” about a romantic and frustrated Edinburgh schoolteacher who, for good or ill, has a magnetic influence on her students.

In its first few years, the role brought out critically acclaimed performances from almost every actress who played it; Vanessa Redgrave, who originated the role in London in 1966, won raves, and Zoe Caldwell won a Tony Award in the 1968 American production. In 1969, Ms. Allen adapted the play for the screen, and Maggie Smith won the Academy Award for best actress.

In 1968, Allen also wrote an English adaptation of “Forty Carats,” originally a French play about a 40-year-old divorce who begins a relationship with a 22-year-old man. For that, Julie Harris won a Tony Award.

Allen’s ability to develop star-making roles for women was not limited to the stage. In 1972 she adapted the musical “Cabaret” for the screen; it was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including best picture and best adapted screenplay. Liza Minnelli won best actress for her role as the tragically oblivious party girl Sally Bowles.

Allen, known for her withering wit and sometimes-off-color wisecracks, was one of the few women making a living as a screenwriter at a time when women were a rarity in the profession. She was primarily an adapter, most successful in her ability to make compelling dialogue out of other people’s works.

In addition to adapting Ms. Spark’s novel, Ms. Allen dramatized a novel by Graham Greene for the 1972 movie “Travels With My Aunt” and a nonfiction book by Robert Daley for “Prince of the City,” a dark 1981 drama about police corruption that she wrote with Sidney Lumet. For both “Cabaret” and “Deathtrap,” a 1982 thriller starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, her screenplays were based on Broadway shows.

For the stage, she twice adapted the works of the French playwriting team Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy; for “Tru,” which she also directed, she created a play out of Capote’s own writings.

“The trick in adapting,” Allen said in a 1982 interview with The New York Times, “is not to throw out the baby with the bath water. You can change all kinds of things, but don’t muck around with the essence.”

Jay Presson was born on March 3, 1922, in Fort Worth, the daughter of a department store manager and a buyer of women’s clothing. She attended a girls’ school in Dallas but skipped college, moving out to California at 18 to become an actress.

It did not take long for her to turn from acting to writing. In 1948, she published a novel, “Spring Riot,” and during the 1950’s wrote scripts for live drama television shows like the Philco Television Playhouse.

In 1955, through Robert Whitehead, who later produced “Jean Brodie,” she met Lewis M. Allen. Mr. Allen, whom she married, produced two of her plays, “Tru” and “The Big Love”; he died in 2003. In addition to her daughter, Ms. Allen is survived by two grandchildren.

After her marriage, Allen stopped writing for several years, but returned to screenwriting in 1964, adapting Winston Graham’s novel “Marnie” at the request of Alfred Hitchcock.

But she achieved her greatest critical success when she read Ms. Spark’s novel and, at the encouragement of Lillian Hellman, wrote her stage version. Ms. Spark died on April 14.

Other works by Ms. Allen include “Funny Lady” (a sequel to “Funny Girl”) and “Just Tell Me What You Want,” a romantic comedy directed by Mr. Lumet and featuring a critically praised turn by Alan King as a vulgar, megalomaniacal business magnate. The movie was based on a novel that Ms. Allen wrote for the purpose of adapting it.

She also worked in television, creating the drama “Family,” which ran four seasons. In the last decades, Ms. Allen occasionally cleaned up scripts for movies, though she was not credited. And while her writing dropped off, she remained curious, observing particularly salacious crime trials from the benches in Manhattan Criminal Court.