George Kaufman was born to Joseph S. Kaufman and Henrietta Myers, both members of the German-Jewish community of Pittsburgh. Joseph Kaufman had once worked as a deputy sheriff in Leadville, Colorado, and participated in one of the Ute Indian wars, but he returned to Pittsburgh poorer than when he had left. Marrying the wealthiest woman in his social circle was no help, as he soon brought his family to the brink of poverty. Mrs. Kaufman was a hypochondriac, and young George, who had been overprotected because of the infant death of his older brother, became an introverted, skinny adolescent who read adventure stories in Argosy magazine. (He even attempted to write for Argosy but had nothing accepted.) His father determined to toughen him up by sending him to an old family friend’s ranch in Idaho, but the boy was only confirmed in his reclusive tendencies.
In his teens, Kaufman became interested in theater. Encouraged by a rabbi, he first acted the part of a Scotsman in a religious production, and thereafter he was hooked for life. He collaborated on a play in 1903 with another boy, Irving Pichel, who would later become a Hollywood actor-director. The play was entitled The Failure, and both boys acted in it.
Kaufman studied law for three months, then gave it up, and on the advice of a physician took a job on a surveying team in West Virginia. That job did not last either, and other jobs followed. He went to secretarial school and became a stenographer for the Pittsburgh Coal Company. He became a window clerk for the Allegheny County tax office. In 1909, Joseph Kaufman got a job with the Columbia Ribbon Manufacturing Company in Paterson, New Jersey, and George became a traveling salesperson for the company. It was in Paterson and on his trips into New York City selling ribbons that Kaufman began reading Franklin P. Adams’s column “Always in Good Humor” in the New York Evening Mail. The column consisted of humorous contributions from throughout the area, as well as Adams’s witticisms, and Kaufman began submitting pieces under the initials “G.S.K.” to mimic Adams’s use of “F.P.A.” (only later in his life did Kaufman, who did not have a middle name, decide that the “S” represented “Simon,” his grandfather’s name.)
Adams recognized Kaufman’s talent and urged him to take acting lessons at the Alveine School of Dramatic Art as well as a playwriting course at Columbia University. In 1912, Adams maneuvered Kaufman into a position on the Washington Times, where he wrote a column entitled “This and That,” similar to Adams’s. He became familiar with the works of Mark Twain while there and honed his staccato writing style and ability to play poker. Within a year, however, the owner of the paper, who had never seen Kaufman face-to-face, noticed him in the office and remarked, “What is that Jew doing in my city room?” After several words were exchanged, Kaufman was fired and returned to New York, where he succeeded Adams at the Evening Mail, only to be dismissed. Adams then got him a job on the Tribune, where he covered local news. While reporting on incoming ships and other insignificant events, he began cadging free admission into the theaters, and eventually got himself assigned to the drama desk. In 1914, he became the drama editor. Three years later, after losing out to Heywood Broun for the position of top drama critic, he became drama editor of The New York Times.
In March of 1917, Kaufman married Beatrice Bakrow, whose ambitions and contacts helped thrust him into the theatrical world. She provided emotional...
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