George S. Kaufman: Wikis


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George S. Kaufman
Kaufman 1912.JPG
photographed c. 1915
Born George Simon Kaufman
16 November 1889(1889-11-16)
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA
Died 2 June 1961 (aged 71)
New York City, New York, USA
Spouse Beatrice Bakrow (1917-1945†)
Leueen MacGrath (1949-1957)
Debut works Some One in the House (1918)
Someone Must Pay (1919)
Notable work(s) Of Thee I Sing
You Can't Take It With You
Works with Marc Connelly
Edna Ferber
George Gershwin
Ira Gershwin
Moss Hart
Morrie Ryskind
Awards Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1932, 1937)
Tony Award Best Director (1951)

George Simon Kaufman (16 November 1889 - 2 June 1961) was an American playwright, theatre director and producer, humorist, and drama critic.



Early years

Born to a Jewish family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania he graduated from high school in 1907 and pursued legal studies, but grew disenchanted and took on a series of odd jobs. Kaufman then began his career as a journalist and drama critic. He was the drama editor for The New York Times, and held on to that job until 1930, nearly a decade after he achieved great success as a playwright. Kaufman took his editorial responsibilities very seriously. According to legend, on one occasion a press agent asked: “How do I get our leading lady’s name in the Times?” Kaufman: “Shoot her.”[1]



His Broadway debut was in 1918 with Someone in the House, written with Larry Evans and W.C. Percival. This play was panned, and it had the further handicap of opening on Broadway during a flu epidemic, when theatre attendance in New York City diminished drastically because the public were warned to avoid crowds. Kaufman sardonically advised his play's producers to print advertisements with this message: "Avoid crowds: see Someone in the House."

It would be quite a long time before Kaufman had another flop. In every Broadway season from 1921 through 1958, there was a play written or directed by Kaufman. Since Kaufman's death in 1961, every decade has featured at least a couple of revivals of his work. There have also been productions based on Kaufman properties, such as the 1981 musical version of Merrily We Roll Along, adapted by George Furth and Stephen Sondheim.

Kaufman was known as "The Great Collaborator" because he wrote very few plays alone. His most successful solo script was The Butter and Egg Man in 1925. With Marc Connelly he wrote Merton of the Movies, Dulcy, and Beggar on Horseback; with Ring Lardner he wrote June Moon; with Edna Ferber he wrote The Royal Family, Dinner at Eight, and Stage Door; with John P. Marquand he wrote a stage adaptation of Marquand's novel The Late George Apley; and with Howard Teichmann he wrote The Solid Gold Cadillac. His directing credits included My Sister Eileen, Of Thee I Sing, Of Mice and Men, Guys and Dolls, and Romanoff and Juliet.

For a period Kaufman lived at 158 West 58th in New York City. The building later would be the setting for Stage Door.[2] It is now the Park Savoy Hotel and for many years was considered a single room occupancy hotel.[3]

His most successful collaborations were with Moss Hart, with whom he wrote many plays, including Once in a Lifetime, Merrily We Roll Along, You Can't Take It With You, his most-revived play, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937, and The Man Who Came to Dinner.

Despite his claim that he knew nothing about music and hated it in the theatre, Kaufman collaborated on many musical theatre projects. His most successful such efforts include two Broadway shows crafted for the Marx Brothers, The Cocoanuts, written with Irving Berlin, and Animal Crackers, written with Morrie Ryskind, Bert Kalmar, and Harry Ruby. These two productions allowed the Marx Brothers to make the transition from their vaudeville roots into the more prominent worlds of "legitimate" musical comedy and film. Kaufman was one of the writers who excelled in writing intelligent nonsense for Groucho Marx, a process that was inevitably collaborative, given Groucho's skills at expanding upon the scripted material. Though the Marx Brothers were notoriously critical of their writers, Groucho and Harpo Marx expressed admiration and gratitude towards Kaufman. (Dick Cavett, introducing Groucho onstage at Carnegie Hall in 1972, told the audience that Groucho considered Kaufman to be "his god".)

In spite of Kaufman's success as a co-writer and director of stage musicals, there is some truth to the legend about his lack of musical instincts. While The Cocoanuts was being developed in Atlantic City, Irving Berlin was hugely enthusiastic about a song he had written for the show. Kaufman was less enthusiastic, and refused to rework the libretto to include this number. The discarded song was "Always", ultimately a huge hit for Berlin (in another show). The Cocoanuts would remain Irving Berlin's only Broadway musical—until his last one, Mr. President—that did not include at least one eventual hit song.

Humor derived from political situations was of particular interest to Kaufman. He collaborated on the hit musical Of Thee I Sing (1931 Pulitzer Prize, the first musical so honored), and its sequel Let 'Em Eat Cake, as well as one troubled but eventually successful satire that had several incarnations, Strike Up the Band. Working with Kaufman on these ventures were Ryskind, George Gershwin, and Ira Gershwin. Also, Kaufman, with Moss Hart, wrote the book to I'd Rather Be Right, a musical starring George M. Cohan as Franklin Delano Roosevelt (the U.S. President at the time), with songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. He also co-wrote the 1935 comedy-drama First Lady.

This inveterate collaborator also contributed to historically important New York revues, including The Band Wagon (not to be confused with the Astaire/Minnelli 1953 film) with Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz. His often anthologized sketch "The Still Alarm" from the revue The Little Show lasted long after this influential show closed. Another well-known sketch of his is "If Men Played Cards As Women Do."


Many of Kaufman's plays were adapted into Hollywood films. Among the more well-received were Dinner At Eight, Stage Door (almost completely rewritten for the film version) and You Can't Take It With You, which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1938. He also occasionally wrote directly for the movies, most significantly the screenplay for A Night at the Opera for the Marx Brothers. His only credit as a film director was The Senator Was Indiscreet (1947) starring William Powell.

On the boards, Kaufman directed the original productions of The Front Page by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, My Sister Eileen by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, Romanoff and Juliet by Peter Ustinov, and the Frank Loesser musical Guys and Dolls, for which he won the 1951 Best Director Tony Award. Kaufman produced many of his own plays as well as those of other writers. He also acted in the original production of his own Once In A Lifetime.

After World War II, perhaps because his output and commercial success as a writer was declining, Kaufman devoted more energy to directing, producing, writing prose, and appearing on television.

Kaufman was also a prominent rubber bridge player. Many of his humorous writings about bridge appeared in The New Yorker and have often been reprinted. They include Kibitzers' Revolt and the ingenious suggestion that bridge clubs should post information that North-South or East-West are holding good cards. Kaufman was notoriously impatient with less-competent partners at the bridge table. According to legend, one such victim asked permission to use the men's room. Kaufman: "Gladly. For the first time today I'll know what you have in your hand."[4]

Personal life

Kaufman was a key member of the celebrated Algonquin Round Table, a circle of witty writers and show business people. From the 1920s through the 1950s, Kaufman was as well known for his personality as he was for his writing. The Moss Hart autobiography Act One certainly popularized Kaufman as a character. Hart portrayed Kaufman as a morose and intimidating figure, uncomfortable with any expressions of affection between human beings—in life or on the page. This perspective, along with a number of taciturn observations made by Kaufman himself, led to a simplistic but commonly held belief that Hart was the emotional soul of the creative team while Kaufman was a misanthropic writer of punchlines.

Despite the fact that Kaufman lived in the public eye alongside celebrities and journalists, he was a tireless worker, dedicated to the writing and rehearsal processes. He was particularly revered within the business as a "play doctor." Late in his life he managed to trade upon his long-developed persona by appearing as a television wag.

Of one unsuccessful comedy he wrote, "There was laughter at the back of the theatre, leading to the belief that someone was telling jokes back there." Even though he was a sometime satirist, he remarked that "Satire is what closes on Saturday night." Much of Kaufman's fame occurred due to his mastery of sharp lines such as these, generally referred to in the press as "wise cracks." However, Kaufman was more than a writer of gags. He created scripts that revealed a mastery of dramatic structure; his characters were likable and theatrically credible.

Kaufman was the prototypical New Yorker who preferred never to leave Manhattan. He once said: “I never want to go any place where I can’t get back to Broadway and 44th by midnight.”[5]

A noted philandering ladies' man, Kaufman found himself in the center of a scandal in 1936 when, in the midst of a child custody suit, the former husband of actress Mary Astor threatened to publish one of Astor's diaries purportedly containing extremely explicit details of an affair between Kaufman and the actress. The diary was eventually destroyed unread by the courts, but details of the supposed contents were published in Confidential magazine and various other scandal sheets. Kaufman later had a long affair with actress Natalie Schafer.

Kaufman was married in 1917 to Beatrice Bakrow until her death in 1945. Four years later, he married actress Leueen MacGrath on 26 May 1949 with whom he collaborated on a number of plays before their divorce in 1957. Kaufman died in New York City at the age of seventy-one.

Film portrayal

Kaufman was portrayed by the actor David Thornton in the 1994 film Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle[6] and by Jason Robards in the 1963 film Act One.


  1. ^ Herrmann, Dorothy (1982). With Malice Toward All. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. p. 58.  
  2. ^ Teichmann, Howard (1972). George S. Kaufman; An Intimate Portrait. New York: Atheneum. OCLC 400765.  
  3. ^ Laurence Okane (1965-01-24). "Adjunct Garages Irk City Planners; Loophole in Zoning Permits All Comers to Use Space". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-10-13.  
  4. ^ Hall, Donald (ed.) (1981). The Oxford Book of American Literary Anecdotes. New York: Oxford. p. 234.  
  5. ^ Meryman, Richard (1978). Mank: The Wit, World, and Life of Herman Mankiewicz. New York: William Morrow. p. 100.  
  6. ^ Internet Movie Database entry for Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle

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