George Simon Kaufman (November 16, 1889 - June 2, 1961) was a playwright, director, producer, humorist, and drama critic noted for his many collaborations with other writers and his contributions to 20th century American comedy. He was born simply as George Kaufman & later added the middle initial "S." in simulation of his friend and mentor Franklin P. Adams. The attribution of the name Simon is unknowned, though his wife, Beatrice, used to refer to him as her "Squiggy."
Kaufman was born to a Jewish family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was called "The Great Collaborator" because he wrote very few plays alone. His most successful solo script was The Butter and Egg Man, 1925. As a collaborator, Kaufman was prolific: 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.
Kaufman began his career as a journalist and drama critic. He was the drama editor for "The New York Times." His Broadway debut was in 1918 with the now-forgotten Some One in the House, written with Larry Evans and W. C. Percival. In every Broadway season from 1921 (Dulcy) through 1958 Romanoff and Juliet, there was a play written or directed by Kaufman. Since Kaufman's death, there have been 12 Broadway productions of Kaufman plays (either revivals or productions based on Kaufman properties, such as Merrily We Roll Along, adapted into a musical by Stephen Sondheim, George Furth, and Harold Prince.)
Kaufman and Hart
His most successful collaborations were with Moss Hart, with whom he wrote many plays, including Once in a Lifetime, You Can't Take It With You, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1936, and The Man Who Came to Dinner, whose lead character was based on critic and wit Alexander Woollcott. "Once in a Lifetime" is the story of New Yorkers who leave vaudeville behind to strike it rich in Hollywood. In one of his few professional acting ventures, Kaufman starred as the dry-witted playwright Lawrence Vail. You Can't Take It With You presents a lovable family of eccentrics who quietly challenge the status quo with their quirky perspectives. In the situational comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner, a celebrity who may be the world's worst house guest breaks his hip and is forced to convalesce in small town Ohio.
All three of these scripts are written in three acts, featuring an Act II loaded with comedic complications, and a quieter Act III. These shows have large casts, plummy leading roles, and numerous supporting players. Though each play is intricately plotted, the scripts devote much attention to characterization and verbal wordplay. Part of Kaufman & Hart's success may be due to the American themes present in their work: the plays celebrate a certain sort of rugged individualism. In Kaufman & Hart, the boobs and the self-important are punctured while populists emerge triumphant.
These three hits so solidified Kaufman's reputation as the writer of wise-cracking, carefully structured, commercial comedy, that the diversity and scope of his long career is often overlooked.
Words and music
Despite his claims that he knew nothing of music, and, in fact, hated it in the theatre, Kaufman collaborated on many musical projects. His most successful efforts include two Broadway shows crafted for the Marx Brothers, The Cocoanuts, written with Irving Berlin and Animal Crackers, 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.
Humor derived from political situations was of particular interest to Kaufman. He collaborated on two musical hits, Of Thee I Sing (Pulitzer Prize [ the very first musical so honored), and Let 'Em Eat Cake, and 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. The humorous tone in these shows ranges from gentle observations ("the Vice President doesn't have a real job") to the caustic ("our country encourages war profiteering.")
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 review The Little Show lasted long after this influential show closed.
Kaufman skewered the film industry in his plays and prose pieces. Though many of his plays were adapted into (mostly unsuccessful) Hollywood films, he did only occasional work for Hollywood, most significantly as a writer of A Night at the Opera for the Marx Brothers. His only credit as a film director was in 1947 in The Senator Was Indiscreet 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, 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.
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 a key member of the celebrated Algonquin Round Table, a circle of witty writers and show business people. From the 1920's through the 1950's 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.
Part of the commercial appeal of Kaufman's persona was derived from the fact that he, like Dorothy Parker, appeared to be a serious type of person, surrounded by effete or demonstrative celebrities like Wollcott, Franklin P. Adams, and Harpo Marx. 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.
A noted (but married) 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 a pivotal figure in the development of theatrical writing in the 20th century, working with collaborators who were rooted in vaudeville, in musical comedy, in film, in journalism, in prose fiction, in television, in revue, and in the commercial Broadway theatre. Despite his many collaborators, Kaufman's opus has a characteristic voice and tone. His character-driven style of comic dialogue has had lasting influences on theatrical writing in many genres. He also helped set the regulation of popular culture by using his utter influence to refuse seating to customers after the opening curtain.
He was preceded in death by hiw wife, Beatrice (6 October 1945). He married actress Leueen MacGrath 26 May 1949 with whom he collaborated on a number of plays, even following their divorce. He was survived by his adopted daughter, Anne Kaufman Schneider, and granddaughter, Beatrice "Betsy" Colen.
He died 2 June New York City in 1961 at the age of seventy-one.