George S. Kaufman

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Date: 2003
Document Type: Biography
Length: 6,201 words

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About this Person
Born: November 16, 1889 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States
Died: June 02, 1961 in New York, New York, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Playwright
Other Names: Kaufman, George Simon; The Great Collaborator
Updated:Aug. 22, 2003
 
PERSONAL INFORMATION:

Family: Born November 16, 1889, in Pittsburgh, PA; died after a heart attack, June 2, 1961, in New York, NY; son of Joseph S. and Nettie Schamberg (Myers) Kaufman; married Beatrice Bakrow, March, 1917 (died, 1945); married Leueen McGrath (an actress and playwright), May, 1949 (divorced, 1957); children: (first marriage; adopted) Anne Schneider. Education: Attended law school; studied playwriting with Clayton Hamilton and Hatcher Hughes at Columbia University. Memberships: Lambs and Players' Club.

 
CAREER:

Journalist, playwright, and director. Worked as stenographer for coal company, as chain man, transit man, and surveyor for city of Pittsburgh, PA, as traveling shoelace and hatband salesman for Columbia Ribbon Co., and as window clerk in Allegheny County, PA, tax office; author of humor column "This and That and a Little of the Other" in Washington Times, 1912-13; New York Evening Mail, New York City, author of humor column "Be That as It May," 1914-15; New York Tribune, New York City, theatre reporter, for c. 1915-17; New York Times, New York City, theatre reporter, critic, and editor of drama page, 1917-30; playwright, 1918-61.

Director of plays, including Front Page, 1928, Joseph, 1930, Face the Music, 1932, Of Mice and Men, 1937, Here Today, 1938, My Sister Eileen, 1940, Mr. Big, 1941, The Doughgirls, 1942, The Naked Genius, 1943, Over Twenty-one, 1944, While the Sun Shines, 1944, The Next Half Hour, 1945, Town House, 1948, Metropole, 1949, Guys and Dolls, 1950, The Enchanted, 1950, and Romanoff and Juliet, 1957.

Actor in plays, including Once in a Lifetime, 1930. Guest on weekly television programs during 1950s.

 
AWARDS:

Megrue Prize for Comedy, 1931, for Once in a Lifetime; Pulitzer Prizes for drama, 1932, for Of Thee I Sing and 1937,for You Can't Take It With You; elected to Theatre Hall of Fame, 1972.

 
WORKS:

WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:

PLAYS

  • (With Larry Evans and Walter Percival) Someone in the House, first produced in New York at Knickerbocker Theatre, September 9, 1918.
  • Jacques Duval, first produced in 1920.
  • The Forty-niners, first produced in 1922.
  • The Butter and Egg Man (three-act comedy; first produced on Broadway at Longacre Theatre, September 24, 1925), Boni & Liveright, 1926.
  • The Cocoanuts (two-act comedy; music and lyrics by Irving Berlin), first produced in New York at Lyric Theatre, December 8, 1925.
  • If Men Played Cards as Women Do (one-act comedy), Samuel French, 1926.
  • (With Herman J. Mankiewicz) The Good Fellow (three-act comedy; first produced on Broadway at Playhouse Theatre, October 7, 1926), Samuel French, 1931.
  • (With Ring Lardner; and director) June Moon (three-act comedy with prologue; music and lyrics by Lardner; first produced on Broadway at Broadhurst Theatre, October 9, 1929), Scribner, 1930.
  • (With Alexander Woollcott) The Channel Road (three-act comedy), first produced on Broadway at Plymouth Theatre, October 17, 1929.
  • The Still Alarm (one-act comedy; first produced on Broadway in The Little Show at Music Box Theatre, 1930), Samuel French, 1930.
  • Eldorado, first produced in 1931.
  • (With Howard Dietz) The Bandwagon (two-act revue; music and lyrics by Arthur Schwartz and Dietz), first produced in New York at New Amsterdam Theatre, June 3, 1931.
  • (With Woollcott; and director) The Dark Tower (three-act melodrama; first produced on Broadway at Morosco Theatre, November 25, 1933), Random House, 1934.
  • Prom Night (one-act farce), first produced in 1934.
  • Cheating the Kidnappers (one-act farce), first produced in 1935.
  • (With Katherine Dayton; and director) First Lady (three-act comedy; first produced on Broadway at Music Box Theatre, November 25, 1935), Random House, 1936.
  • (And co-producer) Sing Out the News, first produced in 1938.
  • (With J. P. Marquand; and director) The Late George Apley (three-act comedy with epilogue; based on novel by Marquand), first produced on Broadway at Lyceum Theatre, November 23, 1944.
  • (Lyricist, director, and reviser of book) Hollywood Pinafore (musical), first produced in 1945.
  • (With Nunnally Johnson; and director) Park Avenue (two-act musical comedy; music and lyrics by Schwartz and Ira Gershwin), first produced on Broadway at Schubert Theatre, November 4, 1946.
  • (With Howard Teichmann; and director) The Solid Gold Cadillac (two-act comedy; first produced on Broadway at Belasco Theatre, November 5, 1953), Random House, 1954, revised edition, 1956.
  • Hollywood Pinafore, or, the Lad Who loved a Salary, (book and lyrics revised by George S. Kaufman), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1999.

Also author of Going Up, a farce, c. 1918; coauthored No, Sirree! (revue) with members of Algonquin Round Table, 1922. Associated with writing of Seven Lively Arts, 1944-45.

PLAYS; WITH MARC CONNELLY

  • Dulcy (three-act comedy; first produced in New York at Frayzie Theatre, August 13, 1921), Putnam, 1921.
  • To the Ladies (three-act comedy; first produced in New York at Liberty Theatre, February 20, 1922), Samuel French, 1923.
  • Merton of the Movies (four-act comedy; first produced on Broadway at Cort Theatre, November 13, 1922), Samuel French, 1925.
  • Helen of Troy, New York (two-act musical comedy with prologue; music and lyrics by Burt Kalmar and Harry Ruby), first produced in New York at Selwyn Theatre, June 19, 1923.
  • The Deep Tangled Wildwood (three-act comedy), first produced in New York at Frayzie Theatre, November 5, 1923.
  • Beggar on Horseback (two-part adaptation of Paul Apel's Hans Sonnenstoessers hoellen fahrt; first produced on Broadway at Broadhurst Theatre, February 12, 1924), Boni & Liveright, 1924.
  • Be Yourself (two-act musical comedy; music by Lewis Gensler and Milton Schwartzwald), first produced in New York at Sam H. Harris Theatre, September 3, 1924.

PLAYS; WITH EDNA FERBER

  • Minick (three-act comedy based on short story by Ferber; first produced on Broadway at Booth Theatre, September 24, 1924), Samuel French, 1925.
  • The Royal Family (three-act comedy; first produced in New York at Selwyn Theatre, December 28, 1927; produced in England as Theatre Royal, 1936), Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1928.
  • (And director) Dinner at Eight (three-act comedy; first produced on Broadway at Music Box Theatre, October 22, 1932), Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1932.
  • (And director) Stage Door (three-act comedy; first produced on Broadway at Music Box Theatre, October 22, 1936), Doubleday, 1936.
  • (And director) The Land Is Bright (three-act drama; first produced on Broadway at Music Box Theatre, October 28, 1941), Doubleday, 1942.
  • (And director) Bravo! (three-act; first produced on Broadway at Lyceum Theatre, November 11, 1948), Dramatists Play Service, 1949.

PLAYS; WITH MORRIE RYSKIND

  • Animal Crackers (two-act musical comedy; music and lyrics by Kalmar and Ruby), first produced in New York at Forty-fourth Street Theatre, October 23, 1928.
  • Strike Up the Band (two-act musical comedy; music and lyrics by George and I. Gershwin), first produced in New York at Times Square Theatre, January 14, 1930.
  • (And director) Of Thee I Sing (two-act musical comedy; music and lyrics by G. and I. Gershwin; first produced in New York at Sam. H. Harris Theatre, December 26, 1931; revival produced in 1952), foreword by George Jean Nathan, A.A. Knopf, 1932, reprinted, 1959.
  • (And director) Let 'Em Eat Cake (two-act musical comedy; sequel to Of Thee I Sing; music and lyrics by G. and I. Gershwin; first produced on Broadway at Imperial Theatre, October 23, 1933), Knopf, 1933.
  • (And director) Bring on the Girls, first produced in 1934.

PLAYS; WITH MOSS HART; AND DIRECTOR

  • Once in a Lifetime (three-act comedy; first produced on Broadway at Music Box Theatre, September 24, 1930, revival produced on Broadway at Circle in the Square Theatre, c. June 16, 1978), Farrar, 1931.
  • Merrily We Roll Along (three-act; first produced on Broadway at Music Box Theatre, September 29, 1934), Random House, 1934.
  • You Can't Take It With You (three-act comedy; first produced on Broadway at Booth Theatre, December 14, 1936), Farrar,1937.
  • I'd Rather Be Right (two-act musical revue; music and lyrics by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart; first produced on Broadway at Alvin Theatre, November 2, 1937), Random House, 1937.
  • The Fabulous Invalid (two-act first produced on Broadway at Broadhurst Theatre, October 8, 1938), Random House, 1938.
  • The American Way (two-act spectacle play; first produced in New York at Center Theatre, January 21, 1939), Random House, 1939.
  • The Man Who Came to Dinner (three-act comedy; first produced on Broadway at Music Box Theatre, October 16, 1939), Random House, 1939.
  • George Washington Slept Here (three-act comedy; first produced on Broadway at Lyceum Theatre, October 18, 1940), Random House, 1941.

Kaufman and Hart also wrote Dream on, Soldier (one-act),1943.

PLAYS; WITH WIFE, LEUEEN McGRATH

  • (And director) The Small Hours (two-act comedy; first produced in New York at National Theatre, February 15, 1951), Dramatists Play Service, 1951. (And director) Fancy Meeting You Again (three-act comedy; first produced on Broadway at Royale Theatre, January 14, 1952), Dramatists Play Service, 1952.
  • (Also with Abe Burrows) Silk Stockings (two-act musical comedy based on Menyhert Lengyels's Ninotchka; music and lyrics by Cole Porter), first produced on Broadway at Imperial Theatre, February 24, 1955.
  • Amicable Parting, Dramatists Play Service, 1957.

SCREENPLAYS

  • (With Robert E. Sherwood; and author of original story) Roman Scandals, United Artists, 1933.
  • (With Ryskind) A Night at the Opera (released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer [MGM], 1935), Viking, 1935.
  • (With Arthur Ross, Fred Saidy, Melvin Frank, and Norman Panama) Star Spangled Rhythm, Paramount, 1943.
  • (And director) The Senator Was Indiscreet, Universal, 1947.

OMNIBUS VOLUMES

  • Six Plays by Kaufman and Hart, Random House, 1942, new edition (with introduction by Brooks Atkinson), 1958.
  • By George: A Kaufman Collection, edited by Donald Oliver, St. Martin's, 1979.
  • Three Plays by Kaufman and Hart, introduction by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, Random House, 1980.

Work represented in anthologies, including: H. L. Cohen, editor, Longer Plays by Modern Authors, Harcourt, 1922; A. H. Quinne, editor, Contemporary American Plays, Scribner, 1923; R. W. Pence, editor, Dramas by Present-Day Writers, Scribner, 1927; S. M. Tucker, editor, Modern American and British Plays, Harper, 1931; Famous Plays of 1932, Gollancz, 1932; Famous Plays of 1933, Gollancz, 1933; G. H. Liverton, editor, Plays for the College Theatre, Samuel French, 1934; Six Plays, Heinemann, 1934; J. Gassner, editor, Twenty Best Plays of the Modern American Theatre, Crown, 1939; W. H. Hildreth and W. R. Dumble, editors, Five Contemporary American Plays, Harper,1939.

M. E. Shattuck, R. W. Chamberlin, and E. B. Richards, editors, Beacon Lights of Literature, volume 12, Iroquois, 1940; B. A. Cerf and V. H. Cartmell, editors, Sixteen Famous American Plays,introduction by Brooks Atkinson, Garden City Publishing Co., 1941; M. J. Moses and J. W. Krutch, editors, Representative American Dramas: National and Local, revised edition, Little, Brown, 1941; E. B. Watson and B. Pressey, compilers, Contemporary Drama: European, English and Irish, and American Plays, Scribner,1941; H. W. McGraw, editor, Prose and Poetry, for Appreciation, L. W. Singer Co., 1942; F. P. Rolfe, W. H. Davenport, and P. Bowerman, editors, The Modern Omnibus, Harcourt, 1946; W. H. Durham and J. W. Dodds, editors, British and American Plays, 1830- 1945, Oxford University Press, 1947; Gassner, editor, Best Plays of the Modern Theatre, 2nd series, Crown, 1947; B. Carpenter, editor, A Book of Dramas, revised edition, Prentice-Hall, 1949; Gassner, editor, Twenty-five Best Plays of the Modern American Theatre, Crown, 1949.

B. H. Clark and Davenport, editors, Nine Modern Plays, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1951; Six Modern American Plays, introduction by A. G. Halline, Modern Library, 1951; R. Warnock, editor, Representative Modern Plays, Scott, Foresman, 1952; R. S. Loomis, D. L. Clark, and J. H. Middendorf, editors, Modern English Readings, 7th edition, Rinehardt, 1956; Gassner, editor,Best American Plays, 4th series, Crown, 1958; E. R. Davis and W. C. Hummel, editors, Readings for Enjoyment, Prentice-Hall, 1959; J. E. Mersand, editor, Three Comedies of American Family Life, Washington Square Press, 1961; S. P. Congdon, editor, The Drama Reader, Odyssey, 1962.

 
MEDIA ADAPTATIONS:

FILMS

Someone in the House, Metro Pictures Corp., 1920.

Dulcy, Joseph M. Schenck, 1923, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), 1940.

To the Ladies, Famous Players-Lasky Corp., 1923.

Merton of the Movies, Famous Players-Lasky Corp., 1924, MGM, 1946.

Welcome Home (based on a Kaufman-Ferber play), Paramount, 1925.

Beggar on Horseback, Paramount, 1925.

The Butter and Egg Man, First National Pictures, 1928.

The Cocoanuts, Paramount, 1929.

Animal Crackers, Paramount, 1930.

Not So Dumb (based on Dulcy), MGM, 1930.

The Royal Family of Broadway (based on The Royal Family), Paramount, 1931.

June Moon, Paramount, 1931.

The Tenderfoot (based on The Butter and Egg Man), First National Pictures, 1932.

Once in a Lifetime, Universal, 1932.

Make Me a Star (based on Merton of the Movies), Paramount, 1932.

Dinner at Eight, MGM, 1933.

The Man With Two Faces (based on The Dark Tower), First National Pictures, 1934.

Elmer and Elsie (based on To the Ladies), Paramount, 1934.

Stage Door, RKO, 1937.

First Lady, Warner Bros., 1937.

Blonde Trouble (based on June Moon), Paramount, 1937.

Dance, Charlie, Dance (based on The Butter and Egg Man), Warner Bros., 1937.

You Can't Take It With You, Columbia, 1938.

No Place to Go (based on Minick), Warner Bros., 1939.

An Angel From Texas (based on a Kaufman play), Warner Bros., 1940.

The Man Who Came to Dinner, Warner Bros., 1941.

George Washington Slept Here, Warner Bros., 1942.

The Good Fellows (based on The Good Fellow), Paramount, 1943.

The Late George Apley, Fox, 1947.

Dancing in the Dark (based on The Bandwagon), Fox, 1950.

Three Sailors and a Girl (based on The Butter and Egg Man), Warner Bros., 1954.

The Solid Gold Cadillac, Columbia, 1956.

Silk Stockings, MGM, 1957.

 

Sidelights

"Kaufman is a very popular name," the famous playwright once chortled. "In fact, Lee is Kaufman in Chinese." However common the surname, the man himself was quite unique, according to biographers. Today they remember him in both legendary and factual proportions as one of America's greatest wits, with passions for the theatre, for women, and for cards.

Because of his sharp, sardonic wit, George S. Kaufman was one of the most quoted Americans. He was responsible for such famous puns as "one man's Mede is another man's Persian" and for witticisms born during his career as a newspaper humor columnist. His epitaph for a waiter, "God caught his eye," is among his many lines still bandied about at cocktail parties. Even presidents have been known to "borrow" his material. For instance, upon meeting the playwright Samuel Nathaniel Behrman after his "farewell" party, Kaufman quipped, "Ah, forgotten but not gone"--an incident Behrman repeated to President John F. Kennedy years later. Quite taken with the line, the president asked if he could use it, but Behrman told him it was Kaufman's to give, which prompted the president to reply: "Whoever['s] it is, it will come in very handy in the corridors of the White House."

Kaufman began his career as a contributor to Franklin P. Adams's "Always in Good Humor" column. Here he introduced Americans to his caustic commentaries. Of the twenty-eighth president of the United States, he wrote, "Mr. Wilson's mind, as has been the custom, will be closed all day Sunday!" Kaufman was often brusque, and, according to Brooks Atkinson's Broadway, his "wisecracks were destructive," which a backstage-bound Leonora Corbett, the star of a musical on the road, came to know. As she flitted past Kaufman, the actress commented that the play was "fantastic," when in fact she had delivered quite a poor performance. At this remark, the playwright turned to his coauthor, Nunnally Johnson, and said: "You've heard of people living in a fool's paradise? Well, Leonora has a duplex there." Then there was the doorman who did not recognize the dramatist, stopping him as he entered the theatre. "I beg your pardon, sir," he asked, "are you with the show?" So Kaufman answered: "Let's put it this way, I'm not against it." And when a press agent pursued the playwright's view on how to get a leading lady's name into the newspapers, his idea was to "shoot her."

Even as a child Kaufman apparently exhibited a razor-sharp wit. His mother, it is said, once remarked: "Aunt Margaretta is coming to visit later. It wouldn't hurt us to be nice, would it?" To which her young son responded by stating, "That depends on your threshold of pain."

As a master of the mal mot, the put-down, Kaufman was "the first of his time," noted one of his collaborators, Alexander Woollcott. "As a wit," commented Clive Barnes in the New York Times Book Review, "he held a rapier in one hand and a bludgeon in the other." His theatre criticisms were spiked with gibes like "I saw the show under unfortunate circumstances; the curtain was up." The performance of actor Guido Nudzo he called "nadzo guido," and he once fired off a telegram to a leading man saying, "I am watching your performance from the rear of the house. Wish you were here."

The put-downs in his plays are just as biting. Most exemplary of this are the lines of Whiteside, the character in The Man Who Came to Dinner who was fashioned after Alexander Woollcott. Woollcott, a frequent Kaufman collaborator, has been described as both a "New Jersey Nero" and "a fat, sexless pasha," so the character of Whiteside is famous for spitting nasty comments--often addressing them to his well-meaning nurse, whom he refers to as "Miss Bedpan." In one scene, Miss Bedpan is forced to endure one of the New Jersey Nero's tirades when she attempts to limit his consumption of sweets. "My great-aunt Jennifer," Whiteside snarls, "ate a whole box of candy every day of her life. She lived to be a hundred and two, and when she had been dead three days, she looked better than you do now!"

Besides the mal mot, Kaufman's economy of humor was considered extraordinary. In Let 'Em Eat Cake the discontented politician Wintergreen calls together the Supreme Court justices to lament his losing a bid for the presidency. The chief justice asks, "Was there ballot stuffing?" "Yes," Wintergreen replies, "but not enough for us to win." Rosalie Stewart, a Broadway producer and Hollywood author's agent, also experienced Kaufman's wit firsthand when she asked the dramatist if he remembered her brother, Stewart Stewart. Upon receiving an affirmative response, Rosalie began an explanation of how the family's name was actually Muckenfus until it was changed to Stewart. "You mean," Kaufman questioned, "your brother's name was Muckenfus Muckenfus?"

His humor was not always cutting, though, since Kaufman used his wit to camouflage his insecurities or to laugh at his fears. For example, when an Army driver was speeding the playwright, a man desperately afraid of automobiles, over the icy streets leading to the George Washington Bridge, Kaufman implored: "Sergeant, don't cross the bridge till we come to it."

As his prominence as a playwright and wit grew, Kaufman became an integral part of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of newspaper and theatre people who met daily for lunch to exchange witticisms. The conclave, which redefined public tastes by its influence, consisted of such writing talents as Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Ring Lardner, Marc Connelly, Edna Ferber, and Alexander Woollcott. "By force of character," observed Atkinson, "they changed the nature of American comedy and very largely established the tastes of a new period in the arts and theatre," which was okay with Kaufman because he loved the theatre.

In fact, the theatre was one of Kaufman's greater passions. "Broadway was his oyster," Thomas Lask remarked in a New York Times article, "and he was one of its shining pearls." In thirty-seven year career as a playwright, Kaufman generated forty-five productions for Broadway. Mostly collaborative efforts, twenty-seven (about two-thirds) were hits, and eighteen failed. Two won Pulitzer Prizes.

Stylistically, his plays are notable for their sound constructions. "He was a compulsive writer and a ruthless editor: If a line worked, it stayed; if it didn't, out it went," Eliot Fremont Smith reported in Saturday Review. "With Kaufman it was always the lines that counted, and no actor could alter them with impunity." As the librettist Abe Burrows pointed out, Kaufman always emphasized the "wright" in playwright. "Indeed, when I was working on the final draft of Guys and Dolls," Burrows confessed, "Kaufman treated me as though I were a member of the bricklayers' union."

Kaufman was always critical of plays that lacked solid structures, and, true to form, he generally vocalized his displeasure. While viewing a production he found unsatisfactory, the playwright poked the woman seated in front of him and asked, "Madame, would you mind putting on your hat?"

Nevertheless, critics claim that Kaufman brought wit, skill, and integrity to the Broadway stage. He "presided over an era," wrote Atkinson, "and pioneered the darting, withering, iconoclastic play that made routine comedy obsolete." "Probably more accurately than any other playwright," Glenn Hughes concluded in A History of the American Theatre: 1700-1950, "Kaufman symbolizes the spirit of Broadway. He is the essence of slickness."

Yet, as Atkinson indicated, this honest, humane, and ethical man, with his austere manner and reserved personality, was hopelessly unsure of himself. He lacked self-confidence and needed his collaborators for security. According to Thomas Lask's New York Times article, "There was evidently a frightened and uncertain boy lurking behind the gruff and sardonic adult." But few seemed to realize this, so many credited Kaufman with all the witticisms and good points in his plays, snubbing the talents of his co-writers."Kaufman was constantly embarrassed by this inequality of recognition," observed the author of Broadway. "He was forever trying to set the record straight to the advantage of his collaborators."

His major collaboration with Marc Connelly was Dulcy, a play based on a character from Franklin P. Adam's column. Indicative of the influence of the Algonquin Round Table, it marked "the beginning of a new era of comedy," noted Atkinson. Trite and insipid, the flighty Dulcinea Smith was famous for blurting: "It never rains if I am carrying my umbrella."

Kaufman's three political plays were innovations, too. Actually, as critics now realize, they were ahead of their time. Strike Up the Band, the playwright's satire on war, did not do well in its original version because it offended people. "America," Atkinson submitted, "was not ready for such acid iconoclasm yet." The play's plot involved the United States declaring war in order to expand her trade. Kaufman created a cartoon reinforced by Ira Gershwin's jeering lyrics. Their soldiers sang, "Our contract calls for ice cream soda when the weather's hot / And a helluva lot of publicity if we get shot." But the public was unreceptive to the play's venom. Three years after its 1927 opening, Strike Up the Band was revised and mellowed. In this form it saw one hundred and ninety-one performances.

Of Thee I Sing, a swipe at national politics (especially the presidency and the vice-presidency), made musical comedy a criticism of life while maintaining the standard structure of songs and wisecracks. "After this play was produced," remarked Atkinson and Albert Hirschfeld in The Lively Arts: 1920-1973, "it became increasingly difficult for librettists to write like imbeciles." The play was a huge success and received the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1932. Of Thee I Sing's sequel, Let 'Em Eat Cake, continued the satire by snickering at the politics of the Great Depression.

Many of Kaufman's plays were still being produced in the 1980s, among them The Royal Family, Once in a Lifetime, and The Man Who Came to Dinner. Believed to be satire of the Barrymore family, the original production of The Royal Family nearly ended in a law suit. Ethel Barrymore never forgave Kaufman and Edna Ferber for writing the play. At one point she threatened to sue for slander as did the Marx Brothers, their condition being if Barrymore sued they would too. Fifteen years later, when Kaufman asked Barrymore to appear in a benefit, she was still upset and responded with: "But I'm going to have laryngitis that night"--a line from The Royal Family. At any rate, revivals of the play continue to receive glowing reviews. The script, said a New Yorker critic, "has great wit and dash." Its "ingredients are bright, nicely detailed, and winning," Harvey E. Phillips praised in National Review. "With so many characters, Kaufman and Ferber still manage a delicious exposition and, up to a point, a neat tapestry of laughter." "The Royal Family," declared a Time reviewer, "is a love letter to the theater and those who, contrary to all sound reason, persist in loving it."

Once in a Lifetime, Kaufman's play about the demise of silent movies and the birth of the talkies, "is a roller coaster of merriment, with hairpin turns of plot, zany swoops of emotion and a breakneck tempo," said a critic in Time. The play revolves around three vaudevillians who decide to open a school of elocution for former silent movie stars. Jokes and sight gags are strung together "by hook or crook" to laugh at Hollywood. "The playwrights ... perceived," wrote the Time critic, "that the place was a squirrel's paradise" that abused Broadway's writers. This "joke that was no joke," Richard Eder maintained in a New York Times review, "gives the play some real bite." Over forty years after its first production, the play was still receiving good reviews. Of Once in a Lifetime's 1978 Broadway revival at the Circle in the Square Theatre, the New Yorker's Brendan Gill wrote: "It is very pleasant indeed to have this celebrated souvenir of the thirties revived."

Like Once in a Lifetime, The Man Who Came to Dinner's revival met with much critical acceptance. "The play is just over forty years old," remarked Gill, "and it passes the test of time with welcome ease." The plot consists of an international celebrity condescending to eat dinner at the house of an Ohio couple, slipping on ice outside of their home, and forcing them to endure his presence throughout his recovery. The play "has induced fits of manic laughter" since it debuted in 1939, T. E. Kalem wrote in a Time review. The celebrity is Kaufman's rendition of journalist Alexander Woollcott, the man who greeted people with a casual "Hello, repulsive." True to his mold, Sheridan Whiteside "is a monster," stated Gill. Some of the lines Kaufman wrote for Whiteside and the other characters in The Man Who Came to Dinner, John Simon reported in New York, "sink in like trembling knives outlining a human target, and you never know when this knifethrower may decide to go for the heart."

Regardless of Kaufman's immense success as a playwright, "he was still of a nervous disposition, both dreading and expecting failure," Clive Barnes explained in the New York Times. "Yet," the critic went on to say, "he had the confidence to direct Broadway plays with a drive and artistic economy that few have matched."

As a director, Kaufman was quiet, calm, and responsible for the expert staging of three acclaimed productions. In the words of Atkinson and Hirschfeld, the playwright's first professional directing endeavor, Front Page, became "one of Broadway's greatest accomplishments--taut, crackling and loud." Notable for violating accepted standards of taste, the melodrama dissected the newspaper industry. Its language was as earthy as the tone was realistic, which shocked audiences, although they did not find the play revolting. Kaufman's second triumph as a director was the first, "fresh and exciting" production of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.

Kaufman's "masterpiece in direction," however, was neither Front Page nor Of Mice and Men. His direction was most superb in Guys and Dolls, a musical that ran for twelve hundred Broadway performances. As Abe Burrows, the musical's book writer, remembered, "Kaufman put the whole thing together like a master jeweler assembling a watch." "He was a tough boss," the librettist continued. "But I respected his knowledge and talent so much that when he had agreed to direct Guys and Dolls, I had told my wife, `I'm going to do everything this man tells me to do.' That was a tough decision because I thought of myself as a pretty good comedy writer; but I had to trust the teacher if I was to learn anything." The resulting production was "perfect," in Atkinson and Hirschfeld's shared opinion,"the last of his [Kaufman's] many triumphs."

No matter how much Kaufman loved the theatre, it cannot compare to his dislike of the movie industry, as Once in a Lifetime suggested. "The upshot was that he hated Hollywood and loved to ridicule it," Howard Teichmann claimed in George S. Kaufman: An Intimate Portrait. For the playwright, Hollywood was impermanentand immature, and though he worked in California as a writer and as a director, he never wholly enjoyed it. First, he felt that Hollywood ignored and insulted writers. Irving Thalberg, then the "boy genius" of MGM studios, eluded writers, would not speak with them, and would not extend the royal carpet treatment to them. With this fuel in his fire, Kaufman cooked up the line: "On a clear day you can see Thalberg." When he did finally meet with the executive, Thalberg shot questions at him about the production schedule. "Mr. Thalberg," Kaufman reminded him, "I came here to write for the Marx Brothers, not to play Twenty Questions." But the boy genius continued to hound for a date. Could the script be ready Monday? Wednesday? "Mr. Thalberg, do you want it Wednesday," Kaufman tried again, "or good?"

In short, Hollywood was too mechanical for the playwright. He found the fast pace, the shooting, the dubbing, the whole production process "contemptible." "The mechanical aspects of Hollywood were abhorrent to him" because, according to one biographer, "Kaufman had a lifelong battle with inanimate objects. He would walk across a room and always be sure that chairs deliberately got in his way."

After the theatre, Kaufman liked girls, especially young, pretty ones. Friendly with the chorus girls in his plays, he often gave them perfume, so often that they would exchange bottles with each other if they received a scent that did not suit them. "He was a Beaumont with many Fletchers," decided Barnes, "a Romeo with many Juliets."

By all accounts Kaufman's first wife was an extraordinary person, both "bright" and "handsome." "Beatrice," Franklin P. Adams's wife assessed, "was like putting your hands in front of a warm stove. She was so appreciative and humorous." But after she delivered a stillborn child, Bea preferred a sexless marriage for psychological reasons, though both parties were predisposed to an open marriage. In her case, Bea took up with young men, and on at least one occasion she found it necessary to use her influence as a celebrity's wife to secure a hotel room for herself and a male companion. When told there were no available rooms, she admonished the desk clerk with a "See here. I am Mrs. George S. Kaufman!," and suddenly a room was ready.

For his part, Kaufman opened a charge account with Polly Adler, "the literary madame whose house was not a home." Apparently he had physical relationships with many women, from dancers in the chorus to international stars. Just as apparent, biographers found, was the fact that friendships continued long after the passion waned. "As a lover," Barnes suggested, "he was obviously attentive, delicate, and most women seem to agree, adorable."

"His great appeal, and he certainly had it," an internationally-known entertainer told Teichmann, "was that he really understood and liked women." Many prominent actresses claim to have succumbed to the Kaufman charm, among them Millie Green, Natalie Schafer, Nola Chilton, and Joan Castle. One highly-regarded leading lady left in the J. Pierpont Morgan Library of New York a sealed envelope that is supposed "to be opened fifty years from the above date"; its "contents: 68 tender and intimate pieces of correspondence from George S. Kaufman, 1938-1953."

Kaufman's most publicized affair involved Mary Astor, and it was "the juiciest scandal in the world in 1934." Astor's husband caused a sensation when he threatened to publish the actress's diary, which contained an admiring and detailed account of her affair with Kaufman. The press had a field day, and the publicity made the playwright quite uncomfortable. He joked that what he resented most was being called a "middle-aged playwright," which he was at the time, but he was genuinely distressed. Standing by her husband, in fact sympathetic to his embarrassment, Bea, who was in Europe when the headlines were printed, instructed the press: "I am not going to divorce Mr. Kaufman. Young actresses are an occupational hazard for any man working in the theatre."

After Bea's death, Kaufman became bitter, angry, and withdrawn, though he was saved from despair by the beautiful Leueen McGrath. "Those who were closest to him realized it was a magical marriage for George," Teichmann stated. "All of his life he had wanted to pour out affection and tenderness to one woman, and he finally had found her." After their wedding, he became more self-confident, and his desire to work, which left him at Bea's death, returned.

Still, his "best friend was his first wife," wrote Teichmann. "He loved Leueen but he never forgot Bea. During all the time he was married to Leueen, one day each year belonged to Bea. On the anniversary of her death, George--this irreligious, irreverent man--always lit a candle, a jahrzeit candle, which burned for twenty-four hours in his bedroom. Loyalty and friendship are hand maidens. Bea had been his friend. He lit the light in her memory." Though McGrath and Kaufman eventually divorced, they, too, remained close. Always his salvation, she became, as biographers suggested, a "second daughter" to him.

Besides the theatre and women, Kaufman loved playing cards. He "was not a card sharp," Teichmann explained, but "he was ... the best poker player in New York at that time and probably the best amateur bridge player in the country." For example, one day Kaufman and Howard Dietz engaged Moss Hart and Charley Lederer in a bridge game. Losing badly, Lederer asked if he and Hart could look at each other's hands, an advantage their opponents allowed. But it was to no avail since the Hart-Lederer team still tasted defeat.

Some of the members of the Algonquin Round Table formed a card club which sported various names at different times, including the Thanatopsis Inside Straight Chowder and Marching Society, and Kaufman was the group's unofficial secretary and bookkeeper. One of the Society's better players, the playwright enjoyed cards for three reasons. First, as Harpo Marx noted, the card table provided a captive audience for Kaufman's stories. He always waited until he was the dealer to spout anecdotes and witticisms, Marx observed. Then Kaufman held all the cards, so to speak, and everyone paid attention to him.

He also played for financial gain, and Kaufman generally gained considerably. During the 1920s, the dramatist actually subsidized his income at the tables. At this time, he was paid forty-eight dollars a week for his work at the New York Times. But he and Bea lived in a five hundred dollar per month apartment, so his winnings made up the difference. In his biography of Kaufman, Teichmann remembered the night Heywood Broun sat down at Kaufman's card table with enough money to buy a house. By morning, he was a homeless man with a wife who would not speak to him for three weeks.

More importantly, playing cards was a vent for Kaufman's competitive spirit, which was fierce. By his own admission, he would "rather be a poor winner than any kind of loser." Frequently frustrated by players less skilled than himself, Kaufman often showed his ire at the table by lampooning the blunderers, whether they were his partners or his opponents. One player, anticipating Kaufman's disgust after messing up a hand badly, said: "All right, George, how would you have played it." "Under an assumed name," was the cardsman's retort.

In fact, Kaufman took cards so seriously that he once slapped Moss Hart's wife for a misplay, which is the only record of the playwright ever striking anybody for any reason. "He could bear mistakes," Teichmann revealed, "but he was wholly intolerant of foolishness at the card table, in a news story, or the stage. He expected of everyone what he demanded of himself: the best."

To Kaufman, by nature a very disciplined individual, everything but work was amateurish or foolish. He demanded perfection of himself, but it was unobtainable. Therefore, the writer possessed myriads of guilts, anxieties, and hostilities, many of which were rooted in his childhood. He thought himself weak and ugly while the rest of his family strong and beautiful. For all his affairs, the playwright was to have been a prude to rival any Victorian, and he possessed an incredible fear of dying.

A hypochondriac who would not touch doorknobs because he considered them havens for germs, Kaufman suffered the first of a series of paralytic strokes fourteen months after his second marriage. "Kaufman was not nearly so sick a man as Kaufman thought he was," wrote Teichmann. But "lifetime habits are not easy to break and Kaufman's hypochondria was not ready to desert him yet." Falling victim to arteriosclerosis, he was forced to forego most of the activities that he loved, including cards. Comforted by the presence of McGrath and his daughter, Anne, the playwright slowly deteriorated until the morning of June 2, 1961, when he died.

FURTHER READINGS:

FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

BOOKS

  • Atkinson, Brooks, Broadway, Macmillan, 1970.
  • Atkinson, Brooks, and Hirschfeld, Albert, The Lively Years: 1920-1973, Association Press, 1973.
  • A Concise Encyclopedia of the Theatre, Osprey, 1974.
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 38, Gale.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Gale, 1981.
  • Donaldson, Betty, and Donaldson, Norman, How Did They Die?, St. Martin's, 1980.
  • Goldstein, Malcolm, George S. Kaufman: His Life, His Theatre, Oxford University Press, 1979.
  • Gould, Jean, Modern American Playwrights, Dodd, 1966.
  • Gruen, John, Close-Up, Viking, 1968.
  • Mason, Jeffrey D., Wisecracks: The Farces of George S. Kaufman, UMI Research Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1988.
  • McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Drama, McGraw, 1972.
  • Meredith, Scott, George S. Kaufman and His Friends, Doubleday, 1974.
  • Meredith, Scott, George S. Kaufman and the Algonquin Round Table, Allen & Unwin, 1977.
  • The Oxford Companion to American Literature, 4th edition, Oxford University Press, 1965.
  • The Penguin Companion to American Literature, McGraw, 1971.
  • Pollack, Rhoda-Gale, George S. Kaufman, Twayne (Boston), 1988.
  • Roberts, Vera Mowry, On Stage: A History of Theatre, Harper, 1962.
  • Sennet, Ted, Lunatics and Lovers, Arlington House, 1973.
  • Teichmann, Howard, George S. Kaufman: An Intimate Portrait, Atheneum, 1971.
  • Twentieth Century Writing: A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literature, Transatlantic, 1969.

PERIODICALS

  • America, December 11, 1965; October 29, 1966; January 31, 1976.
  • Atlantic, January, 1980.
  • Choice, March, 1973; April, 1980.
  • Christian Century, February 1, 1967.
  • Commonweal, October 21, 1966.
  • Current History, June 9, 1961; December 17, 1965; November 25, 1966; June 30, 1972.
  • Illustrated London News, June 10, 1961.
  • Modern Drama, December, 1963, pp. 241-43.
  • Nation, December 13, 1965; October 17, 1966; November 7, 1966; June 1, 1970; January 3, 1976.
  • National Review, January 24, 1967; June 25, 1976; June 25, 1990.
  • New Republic, December 18, 1965.
  • Newsweek, June 12, 1961; December 6, 1965; October 10, 1966; May 25, 1970; July 17, 1972; January 19, 1976.
  • New York, November 13, 1966; July 3, 1978.
  • New Yorker, June 11, 1960; December 4, 1965; October 8, 1966; October 29, 1966; May 23, 1970; December 29, 1975; June 26, 1978; July 7, 1980; January 11, 1982.
  • New York Times, June 3, 1961; April 30, 1972; October 27, 1972; July 5, 1978.
  • New York Times Book Review, November 24, 1974.
  • Reader's Digest, March, 1961; March, 1967.
  • Reprint Bulletin Book Reviews, October 2, 1981.
  • Saturday Review of Literature, June 24, 1961; July 8, 1961; December 11, 1965; October 15, 1966; July 22, 1972.
  • Theatre Arts, August, 1961.
  • Time, June 9, 1961; December 3, 1965; October 7, 1966; June 19, 1972; January 12, 1976; July 17, 1978; July 28, 1980.
  • TV Guide, November 5, 1977.
  • West Coast Review of Books, January, 1980.
  • Writer's Digest, April, 1975.*

 

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1000052538