George S. Kaufman

George S. Kaufman

Kaufman c.1915
Born George Simon Kaufman
(1889-11-16)November 16, 1889
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA
Died June 2, 1961(1961-06-02) (aged 71)
New York City, New York
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
Awards Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1932 and 1937)
Tony Award Best Director (1951)

George Simon Kaufman (November 16, 1889 – June 2, 1961) was an American playwright, theatre director and producer, humorist, and drama critic. In addition to comedies and political satire, he wrote several musicals, notably for the Marx Brothers. One play and one musical that he wrote won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama: You Can't Take It with You (1937, with Moss Hart), and Of Thee I Sing (1932, with Morrie Ryskind and Ira Gershwin). He also won the Tony Award as a Director, for the musical Guys and Dolls.


Early years

Born to a Jewish family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he graduated from high school in 1907 and "tried law school for three months" but grew disenchanted and took on a series of odd jobs, including "selling hatbands".[1] Kaufman then began his career as a journalist and drama critic; he was the drama editor for The New York Times from 1917 through 1930.[1] 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."[2]


He worked with Moss Hart in 1930 on the Broadway hit "Once in a Lifetime" and also with Hart, wrote "You Can't Take it With You" and "The Man Who Came to Dinner".


Kaufman's Broadway debut was September 4, 1918 at the Knickerbocker Theatre, with the premiere of the melodrama Someone in the House.[3][4] He coauthored the play with Walter C. Percival, based on a magazine story written by Larry Evans.[5] The play opened on Broadway (running for only 32 performances) during that year's serious flu epidemic, when people were being advised to avoid crowds. With "dour glee", Kaufman suggested that the best way to avoid crowds in New York City was to attend his play.[6]

In every Broadway season from 1921 through 1958, there was a play written or directed by Kaufman. Since Kaufman's death in 1961,[6] there have been revivals of his work on Broadway in the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s, the 2000s and the 2010s.[4] Kaufman wrote only one play alone, The Butter and Egg Man in 1925.[7] 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. According to his biography on PBS, "he wrote some of the American theater's most enduring comedies" with Moss Hart.[8] Their work includes Once in a Lifetime (in which he also performed), Merrily We Roll Along, The Man Who Came to Dinner and You Can't Take It with You, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937.[9]

For a period, Kaufman lived at 158 West 58th Street in New York City. The building later would be the setting for Stage Door.[10] It is now the Park Savoy Hotel and for many years was considered a single room occupancy hotel.[11]

Musical theatre

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 of 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. According to Charlotte Chandler, "By the time Animal Crackers opened ... the Marx Brothers were becoming famous enough to interest Hollywood. Paramount signed them to a contract".[12] Kaufman was one of the writers who excelled in writing intelligent nonsense for Groucho Marx, a process that was 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".

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, recorded by many popular performers. According to Laurence Bergreen, "Kaufman's lack of enthusiasm caused Irving to lose confidence in the song, and 'Always' was deleted from the score of The Cocoanuts – though not from its creators memory. ... Kaufman, a confirmed misogynist, had had no use for the song in The Cocoanuts but his disapproval did not deter Berlin from saving it for a more important occasion."[13] 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, which won the 1932 Pulitzer Prize, the first musical so honored,[9] 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. In 1945, Kaufman adapted H.M.S. Pinafore into Hollywood Pinafore.

Kaufman also contributed to major New York revues, including The Band Wagon (which shared songs but not plot with the 1953 film version) with Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz. His often anthologized sketch "The Still Alarm" from the revue The Little Show lasted long after the show closed. Another well-known sketch of his is "If Men Played Cards As Women Do." There have also been musicals based on Kaufman properties, such as the 1981 musical version of Merrily We Roll Along, adapted by George Furth and Stephen Sondheim.[14] The musical Sherry! (1967) was based on his play The Man Who Came to Dinner.[15]

Directing and producing

Kaufman directed the original or revival stage productions of many plays and musicals, including:The Front Page by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht (1928), Of Thee I Sing (1931 and 1952), Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (1937), My Sister Eileen by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov (1940), Hollywood Pinafore (1945), The Next Half Hour (1945), Park Avenue (1946, also co-wrote the book), Town House (1948), Bravo! (1948, also co-wrote the script), Metropole (1949), the Frank Loesser musical Guys and Dolls, for which he won the 1951 Best Director Tony Award, The Enchanted (1950), The Small Hours (1951, also co-wrote the script), Fancy Meeting You Again (1952, also co-wrote the script), The Solid Gold Cadillac (1953, also co-wrote the script), and Romanoff and Juliet by Peter Ustinov (1957).[4]

Kaufman produced many of his own plays as well as those of other writers. For a short time, approximately from 1940 to circa 1946, Kaufman, with Moss Hart and Max Gordon, owned and operated the Lyceum Theatre.[16]

Hollywood and television

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.

From 1949 until midway through the 1952-3 season, he appeared as a panelist on the CBS television series This Is Show Business.[17][18] On the December 21, 1952 episode of the show—telecast live—Kaufman made an offhand remark about the excessive airing of "Silent Night" during the Christmas season. "Let's make this one program," he said, "on which no one sings 'Silent Night'." The resulting public outcry prompted his dismissal by CBS.[19] In response, Fred Allen said, "There were only two wits on television: Groucho Marx and George S. Kaufman. Without Kaufman, television has reverted to being half-witted."[20] It would be more than a year before Kaufman appeared on TV again.[19]


Kaufman was a prominent player of bridge, probably both auction bridge and contract bridge. The New Yorker published many of his humorous items about the card game; at least some have been reprinted more than once, including:

His first wife Beatrice Bakrow Kaufman was also an avid bridge player, and an occasional poker player with Algonquin men, who wrote at least one New Yorker article on bridge herself, in 1928.[25]

Personal life

In the 1920s, Kaufman was a member of the Algonquin Round Table, a circle of 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. In the Moss Hart autobiography Act One, Hart portrayed Kaufman as a morose and intimidating figure, uncomfortable with any expressions of affection between human beings—in life or on the page. Hart writes that Max Siegel said: "Maybe I should have warned you. Mr Kaufman hates any kind of sentimentality-can't stand it!"[26] 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. Kaufman 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."[27]

Although 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.

Called "Public Lover Number One", he "dated some of the most beautiful women on Broadway".[28] 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.[28] The diary was eventually destroyed unread by the courts in 1952, but details of the supposed contents were published in Confidential magazine, Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger, and various other scandal sheets. Some of the sexually explicit portion, involving Kaufman, were reprinted in New York magazine in 2012 and Vanity Fair magazine in 2016.[29][30] Kaufman had an affair with actress Natalie Schafer during the 1940s.[31] (Schafer played "Mrs. Lovey Howell" on the TV sitcom Gilligan's Island.) Kaufman joined the famous theater club, The Lambs, in 1944[32]

Kaufman was married to his first wife Beatrice from 1917 until her death in 1945.[25][33][34] They had one daughter, Anne Kaufman (Booth).[25] Four years later, he married actress Leueen MacGrath on May 26, 1949,[35][36] with whom he collaborated on a number of plays before their divorce in August 1957.[37] Kaufman died in New York City on June 2, 1961, at the age of 71.[37] His granddaughter, Beatrice Colen, was an actress who had recurring appearances on both Happy Days and Wonder Woman.[38]

In 1979, Donald Oliver compiled and edited a collection of Kaufman's humorous pieces, with a foreword by Dick Cavett.[39]


Kaufman was portrayed by the actor David Thornton in the 1994 film Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle[40] and by Jason Robards in the 1963 film Act One. In the 2014 Broadway adaptation of the latter by James Lapine, he was played by Tony Shalhoub.


  1. 1 2 Wallace, Irving, Amy Wallace, David Wallechinsky and Sylvia Wallace (2008). The Intimate Sex Lives of Famous People. Feral House, ISBN 1-932595-29-5, p. 173.
  2. Herrmann, Dorothy (1982). With Malice Toward All. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. p. 58.
  3. "The September Line-up". The New York Times. August 25, 1918. Retrieved 2010-11-13. (abstract) (subscription required)
  4. 1 2 3 "George S. Kaufman". Internet Broadway Database ( Retrieved 2010-11-13.
  5. White, Matthew, Jr. (November 1918). "The Stage". Munsey's Magazine. New York: F.A. Munsey & Co. LXV (2): 356–371. Retrieved 2011-10-20.
  6. 1 2 "Broadway: One Man's Mede". TIME. June 9, 1961. Retrieved 2010-11-13.
  7. Londré, Felicia Hardison (2005). Words at Play:Creative Writing and Dramaturgy. SIU Press, ISBN 0-8093-2679-5, p. 47.
  8. Larkin, Colin, ed. (2004). "Stars Over Broadway: Biography, Excerpted from the Encyclopedia of Popular Music". Retrieved 2010-11-13.
  9. 1 2 "The Pulitzer Prizes, Drama". Retrieved 2011-03-06.
  10. Teichmann, Howard (1972). George S. Kaufman; An Intimate Portrait. New York: Atheneum. OCLC 400765.
  11. Okane, Laurence (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. (abstract) (subscription required)
  12. Chandler, Charlotte (2007). Hello, I Must Be Going: Groucho and His Friends, Simon and Schuster, ISBN 1-4165-6521-3.
  13. Bergreen, Laurence (1996). As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin, Da Capo Press, ISBN 0-306-80675-4, pp. 249, 264.
  14. Rich, Frank (November 17, 1981). "Stage: A New Sondheim, Merrily We Roll Along". The New York Times.
  15. "Sherry!". Internet Broadway Database ( Retrieved 2010-11-13.
  16. Bloom, Ken (2007). "Lyceum Theatre". The Routledge Guide To Broadway, CRC Press, ISBN 0-415-97380-5, p. 158.
  17. McNeil, Alex. Total Television: Revised Edition. Penguin Books (1996), pp. 830-1. ISBN 0140249168
  18. "Radio: The Troubled Air". TIME, January 12, 1953.
  19. 1 2 McNeil, Alex. Total Television: Revised Edition. Penguin Books (1996), p. 832. ISBN 0140249168
  20. Kaufman, GS. By George: A Kaufman Collection. St. Martins Press (1979), pp. ix-x. ISBN 0312111010
  21. 1 2 3 "ACBL Bridge Beat #121: George Kaufman". Not Just the ACBL Story – but History. November 5, 2012. American Contract Bridge League (75th Anniversary contributions by anonymous members?). Retrieved 2014-06-13.
  22. Hall, Donald, ed. (1981). The Oxford Book of American Literary Anecdotes. New York: Oxford. p. 234.
  23. Johnson, Jared (1989). Classic Bridge Quotes. Louisville, KY: Devyn Press Inc. p. 61. ISBN 0-910791-66-X.
  24. Johnson, Jared (1989). Classic Bridge Quotes. Louisville, KY: Devyn Press Inc. p. 41. ISBN 0-910791-66-X.
  25. 1 2 3 Galchinsky, Michael (March 1, 2009). "Beatrice Kaufman 1895–1945". Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. Jewish Women's Archive ( Retrieved 2014-06-13.
  26. Hart, Moss (1989). Act one: an autobiography. Macmillan, ISBN 0-312-03272-2, p. 274.
  27. Meryman, Richard (1978). Mank: The Wit, World, and Life of Herman Mankiewicz. New York: William Morrow. p. 100.
  28. 1 2 Wallace 2008, p. 174.
  29. "Mary Astor Blushes When Her Filthy Diary Leaks". New York: 44. April 9, 2012. Retrieved 2016-09-26.
  30. Sorel, Edward (October 2016). "Inside the Trial of Actress Mary Astor, Old Hollywood's Juiciest Sex Scandal". Vanity Fair. Retrieved 2016-09-26.
  31. Brozan, Nadine (February 13, 1995). "Chronicle". The New York Times.
  33. "Beatrice Kaufman, Story Editor, Dies". The New York Times, October 7, 1945, p. 44.
  34. "BEATRICE KAUFMAN, STORY EDITOR, DIES; Wife of Noted Playwright Did Much Literary Work Herself – Wrote for Magazines". The New York Times, October 7, 1945. (abstract) (subscription required)
  35. "George S. Kaufman Weds". The New York Times, May 27, 1949, p. 25. Quote: "George S. Kaufman and Leueen MacGrath, English actress, were married today at the playwright's Bucks County home, Barley Sheaf Farm".
  36. "GEORGE S. KAUFMAN WEDS; Playwright and Leueen M Grath, Actress, Marry at His Farm". The New York Times, May 27, 1949. (abstract) (subscription required)
  37. 1 2 "George S. Kaufman Dies at 71; Shared 2 Pulitzers for Drama; Cited for Of Thee I Sing and You Can't Take It With You – Also Top Director George S. Kaufman Dies at 71; Shared 2 Pulitzers for Drama", The New York Times, June 3, 1961, p. 1. (abstract) (subscription required)
  38. Beatrice Colen profile. Wonderland: The Ultimate Lynda Carter Site ( Retrieved 2014-06-13.
  39. Kaufman, George S. (Donald Oliver, compiler/editor) (1979). By George: A Kaufman Collection. New York: St. Martin's Press, ISBN 0-312-11101-0.
  40. "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle". Internet Movie Database (
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