Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1499
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 support and critical and social guidance for the always uncertain Kaufman for most of his long career, despite the deterioration of their marital relationship after the stillbirth of a deformed child. They later adopted a daughter, Anne, but, as part of their “arrangement,” sought sexual relationships outside the marriage. They remained married until Beatrice’s death in 1945.
In 1917, John Peter Toohey noticed a play submitted by Kaufman to the Joseph W. Stern Music Company. The play was never produced, but Toohey introduced Kaufman to impresario George C. Tyler, who offered Kaufman the task of revising a play by Larry Evans and Walter Percival. Though produced, Among Those Present, which finally reached Broadway after still more revisions as Someone in the House, was never a success. Kaufman next tried to adapt Hans Miller’s Jacques Duval, a European hit. Although George Arliss played the lead, it, too, failed. Tyler, however, continued to have faith in Kaufman, and put him to work on Dulcy with Marc Connelly . Based on a character, Dulcinea, created by Kaufman’s friend Adams, the play opened in New York on August 13, 1921, and became an immediate hit.
Connelly and Kaufman worked together until 1924, when each decided to write a play on his own. Connelly became successful on his own and would eventually write the remarkable The Green Pastures: A Fable (pb. 1929, pr. 1930). After the breakup, Kaufman did write The Butter and Egg Man, a rare solo effort, but working alone was not to his liking, and he spent most of the rest of his life collaborating. Through the rest of his career, his collaborators included some of the most successful writers of the time: Edna Ferber , Alexander Woollcott, Herman J. Mankiewicz, Ring Lardner, John P. Marquand, Moss Hart , and Abe Burrows. He also collaborated with Morrie Ryskind ; Howard Dietz; Katherine Dayton; Nunnally Johnson; his second wife, Leueen MacGrath; and his biographer, Howard Teichmann. Although he was never much interested in music, Kaufman was associated with George and Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter, and he rewrote W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore: Or, The Lass That Loved a Sailor (pr., pb. 1878). He served as a “play doctor” for an unknown number of plays for which he got no credit, and he advised John Steinbeck on adapting Of Mice and Men (1937) for the stage.
After having codirected The Good Fellow with Howard Lindsay in 1926, Kaufman was persuaded by producer Jed Harris in 1928 to direct The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. After he had overcome his shy way of sending notes to the stage, Kaufman also had a remarkable career as a director. Besides his own plays, which he felt might be botched by another director, Kaufman directed Joseph (pr. 1930) by Bertram Bloch, Here Today (pr. 1932) by George Oppenheimer, Of Mice and Men (pr. 1937) by John Steinbeck, My Sister Eileen (pr. 1940) by Jerome Chodorov and Joseph Fields, Mr. Big (pr. 1941) by Arthur Sheekman and Margaret Shane, The Naked Genius (1943) by Gypsy Rose Lee, Over Twenty-One (1944) by Ruth Gordon, While the Sun Shines (pr. 1943) by Terence Rattigan, The Next Half Hour (pr. 1945) by Mary Chase, Town House (pr. 1948) by Gertrude Tonkonogy (based on short stories by John Cheever), Metropole (pr. 1949) by William Walden, The Enchanted (pr. 1950) by Jean Giraudoux, Guys and Dolls (pr. 1950) by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling, and Romanoff and Juliet (pr. 1957) by Peter Ustinov. This extraordinary list ought to have been more than enough for one man’s lifetime, but when one includes the list of plays he wrote, one sees exactly how inexhaustible Kaufman was.
Yet the anxieties of Kaufman’s childhood drove him to do even more. He adapted two of his plays (with Ryskind) for the Marx Brothers for the screen and then (also with Ryskind) wrote A Night at the Opera for them. He directed the movie The Senator Was Indiscreet with William Powell and Ella Raines in 1947, but—basically uninterested in the mechanics of filmmaking and disappointed with the way Hollywood was handling McCarthyism—he returned to the theater. He also acted in productions of Once in a Lifetime and The Man Who Came to Dinner and served as a panelist on an early television show, This Is Show Business. Given his extraordinarily productive working life, the legends portraying Kaufman as an incessant womanizer, a skilled poker player, and a regular member of the Algonquin Round Table may seem exaggerated, but the sheer number of these stories testifies to their probable basis in fact, to his incredible capacity for unceasing activity, and perhaps to a neurotic inability to relax.
The least productive period of Kaufman’s life followed the death of Beatrice in October, 1945, and lasted until he married actress Leueen Emily MacGrath in May, 1949. The disparity in their ages led to an eventual separation in 1957, but even after their divorce, Leueen spent much time helping him in various ways as his health declined. Small strokes hindered his ability to work, so much so that he was a mere shadow of himself when directing Romanoff and Juliet. In the last few years of his life, his mind deteriorated, and, among other things, he would wander onto Park and Madison Avenues in his nightshirt. After he fell against a radiator in 1961 and was badly burned, he rarely left his bed, and he died peacefully in June, 1961.
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