George S. Kaufman

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 for the Marx Brothers and others. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the musical Of Thee I Sing (with Morrie Ryskind and Ira Gershwin) in 1932, and won again in 1937 for the play You Can't Take It with You (with Moss Hart). He also won the Tony Award for Best Director in 1951 for the musical Guys and Dolls.

George S. Kaufman
George S. Kaufman in 1928
George S. Kaufman in 1928
BornGeorge Simon Kaufman
(1889-11-16)November 16, 1889
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
DiedJune 2, 1961(1961-06-02) (aged 71)
New York City, New York
Notable worksOf Thee I Sing
You Can't Take It with You
Notable awards
(m. 1917; died 1945)
(m. 1949; div. 1957)

Early yearsEdit

George S. Kaufman was born to Joseph S. Kaufman, a hatband manufacturer,[1] and Nettie Meyers[2] in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He had a younger sister, Ruth.[1] His other sister was Helen, nicknamed "Helse." Kaufman's family were Jewish. He graduated from high school in 1907 and studied law for three months. He grew disenchanted and took on a series of odd jobs,[3] selling silk[1] and working in wholesale ribbon sales.[4]


Kaufman began contributing humorous material to the column that Franklin P. Adams wrote for the New York Mail. He became close friends with Adams, who helped him get his first newspaper job—humor columnist for The Washington Times—in 1912. By 1915 he was a drama reporter on The New York Tribune, working under Heywood Broun. In 1917 Kaufman joined The New York Times, becoming drama editor and staying with the newspaper until 1930.[4]

Kaufman took his editorial responsibilities 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."[5]


George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart in 1937

Kaufman's Broadway debut was September 4, 1918 at the Knickerbocker Theatre, with the premiere of the melodrama Someone in the House.[6][7] He coauthored the play with Walter C. Percival, based on a magazine story written by Larry Evans.[8] 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.[9]

In every Broadway season from 1921 through 1958, there was a play written or directed by Kaufman. Since Kaufman's death in 1961,[9] there have been revivals of his work on Broadway in the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s, the 2000s and the 2010s.[7] Kaufman wrote only one play alone, The Butter and Egg Man in 1925.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12]

For a period, Kaufman lived at 158 West 58th Street in New York City. The building later would be the setting for Stage Door.[13] It is now the Park Savoy Hotel and for many years was considered a single room occupancy hotel.[14]

Musical theatreEdit

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".[15] 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 including the song "Always", which he had written as a wedding present for his bride.[a] Kaufman was less enthusiastic, and refused to rework the libretto to include this number. The song ultimately became 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 creator's 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."[19] 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.

Kaufman recalled the matter differently. In an article in "Stage" magazine, he recalled that Berlin woke him up at 5 a.m. one morning to play a new song he had just written. "Even my deficient musical sense recognized that here was a song that was going to be popular. I listened to it two or three times, then took a stab at it myself, and as dawn came up over the Atlantic Irving and I were happily singing "Always" together—its first performance on any stage. I went back to bed a happy man, and stayed happy until rehearsals started, when it turned out that "Always" had not been written for our show at all, but purely for Irving's music-publishing house. In its place in The Cocoanuts was a song called "A Little Bungalow," which we never could reprise in Act Two because the actors couldn't remember it that long." ("Music to My Ears," Stage, August 1938. Reprinted in By George: A Kaufman Collection, 1979)

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,[12] 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.[20] The musical Sherry! (1967) was based on his play The Man Who Came to Dinner.[21]

Directing and producingEdit

Of Mice and Men (1937), with Wallace Ford and Broderick Crawford

Kaufman directed the original or revival stage productions of many plays and musicals, includingThe 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).[7]

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.[22]

Film and televisionEdit

Many of Kaufman's plays were adapted into Hollywood and British films. Among the more well-received were Dinner At Eight, Stage Door (almost completely rewritten by others for the film version) and You Can't Take It with You (changed significantly by others for the film version), which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1938, and The Dark Tower (1943 film). 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 1952–1953 season, he appeared as a panelist on the CBS television series This Is Show Business.[23][24] Kaufman made a 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.[25] 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."[26] It would be more than a year before Kaufman appeared on TV again.[25]


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:

  • "Kibitzers' Revolt"[when?] and the suggestion that bridge clubs should post notice whether the North–South or the East–West pairs are holding good cards.[27]
  • Kaufman was notoriously impatient with poor players. One such partner asked permission to use the men's room, according to legend, and Kaufman replied: "Gladly. For the first time today I'll know what you have in your hand."[27][28]
  • On sitting South: (1) "No matter who writes the books or articles, South holds the most terrific cards I ever saw. There is a lucky fellow if ever I saw one."[29] (2) Oswald Jacoby reported a deal that Kaufman played marvelously in 1952, after which he cracked, "I'd rather sit South than be the President."[27]
  • On coffeehousing, "I'd like a review of the bidding with all the original inflections."[30]

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.[31]

Personal lifeEdit

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.[citation needed] 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!"[32] 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."[33]

Called "Public Lover Number One", he "dated some of the most beautiful women on Broadway".[34] 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.[34] 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.[35][36] Kaufman had an affair with actress Natalie Schafer during the 1940s.[37]

Kaufman joined the theatre club, The Lambs, in 1944.[38]

Kaufman was married to his first wife Beatrice from 1917 until her death in 1945.[31][39] They had one daughter, Anne Kaufman (Booth).[31] Four years later, he married actress Leueen MacGrath on May 26, 1949,[40] with whom he collaborated on a number of plays before their divorce in August 1957. Kaufman died in New York City on June 2, 1961, at the age of 71.[4] His granddaughter, Beatrice Colen, was an actress who had recurring appearances on both Happy Days and Wonder Woman.[41]

In 1979, Donald Oliver compiled and edited a collection of Kaufman's humorous pieces, with a foreword by Dick Cavett.[42]


Kaufman was portrayed by the actor David Thornton in the 1994 film Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle[43] 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.

The title character of the 1991 Coen brothers film Barton Fink, who is a playwright, bears a strong physical resemblance to Kaufman.[44]

Kaufman is portrayed in the film Mank by actor Adam Shapiro.[45]


  1. ^ Both Kaufman and Marx describe the song as having been written expressly for the show,[16][17] but it had been registered with the Music Publishers' Protective Association in May 1925, before Berlin started working on The Cocoanuts.[18] "Always" was eventually restored to the score in a 1996 revival.[16]


  1. ^ a b c 1910 United States Federal Census
  2. ^ U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936–2007
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ a b c "George S. Kaufman Dies at 71". The New York Times. June 3, 1961. Retrieved March 14, 2018.
  5. ^ Herrmann, Dorothy (1982). With Malice Toward All. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. p. 58.
  6. ^ "The September Line-up". The New York Times. August 25, 1918. Retrieved November 13, 2010. (abstract) (subscription required)
  7. ^ a b c "George S. Kaufman". Internet Broadway Database ( Retrieved November 13, 2010.
  8. ^ White, Matthew, Jr. (November 1918). "The Stage". Munsey's Magazine. New York: F.A. Munsey & Co. LXV (2): 356–371. Retrieved October 20, 2011.
  9. ^ a b "Broadway: One Man's Mede". TIME. June 9, 1961. Archived from the original on February 4, 2013. Retrieved November 13, 2010.
  10. ^ Londré, Felicia Hardison (2005). Words at Play:Creative Writing and Dramaturgy. SIU Press, ISBN 0-8093-2679-5, p. 47.
  11. ^ Larkin, Colin, ed. (2004). "Stars Over Broadway: Biography, Excerpted from the Encyclopedia of Popular Music". Retrieved November 13, 2010.
  12. ^ a b "The Pulitzer Prizes, Drama". Retrieved March 6, 2011.
  13. ^ Teichmann, Howard (1972). George S. Kaufman; An Intimate Portrait. New York: Atheneum. OCLC 400765.
  14. ^ Okane, Laurence (January 24, 1965). "Adjunct Garages Irk City Planners; Loophole in Zoning Permits All Comers to Use Space". The New York Times. Retrieved October 13, 2008. (abstract) (subscription required)
  15. ^ Chandler, Charlotte (2007). Hello, I Must Be Going: Groucho and His Friends, Simon and Schuster, ISBN 1-4165-6521-3.
  16. ^ a b Schneider, Anne Kaufman; Maslon, Laurence (2013). "The Cocoanuts (1925)". George S. Kaufman website. Retrieved May 17, 2019.
  17. ^ "Irving Berlin's "Always" That Groucho Complained was for the Marx Brothers play "The Cocoanuts."". The Life and Times of Hollywood. June 29, 2017. Retrieved May 17, 2019.
  18. ^ Kimball, Robert; Emmet, Linda (2005). The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin. Hal Leonard Corporation. p. 228. ISBN 9781557836816.
  19. ^ Bergreen, Laurence (1996). As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin, Da Capo Press, ISBN 0-306-80675-4, pp. 249, 264.
  20. ^ Rich, Frank (November 17, 1981). "Stage: A New Sondheim, Merrily We Roll Along". The New York Times.
  21. ^ "Sherry!". Internet Broadway Database ( Retrieved November 13, 2010.
  22. ^ Bloom, Ken (2007). "Lyceum Theatre". The Routledge Guide To Broadway, CRC Press, ISBN 0-415-97380-5, p. 158.
  23. ^ McNeil, Alex. Total Television: Revised Edition. Penguin Books (1996), pp. 830–1. ISBN 0140249168
  24. ^ "Radio: The Troubled Air". TIME, January 12, 1953.
  25. ^ a b McNeil, Alex. Total Television: Revised Edition. Penguin Books (1996), p. 832. ISBN 0140249168
  26. ^ Kaufman, GS. By George: A Kaufman Collection. St. Martins Press (1979), pp. ix–x. ISBN 0312111010
  27. ^ a b c "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 June 13, 2014.
  28. ^ Hall, Donald, ed. (1981). The Oxford Book of American Literary Anecdotes. New York: Oxford. p. 234.
  29. ^ Johnson, Jared (1989). Classic Bridge Quotes. Louisville, KY: Devyn Press Inc. p. 61. ISBN 0-910791-66-X.
  30. ^ Johnson, Jared (1989). Classic Bridge Quotes. Louisville, KY: Devyn Press Inc. p. 41. ISBN 0-910791-66-X.
  31. ^ a b c Galchinsky, Michael (March 1, 2009). "Beatrice Kaufman 1895–1945". Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. Jewish Women's Archive ( Retrieved June 13, 2014.
  32. ^ Hart, Moss (1989). Act one: an autobiography. Macmillan, ISBN 0-312-03272-2, p. 274.
  33. ^ Meryman, Richard (1978). Mank: The Wit, World, and Life of Herman Mankiewicz. New York: William Morrow. p. 100. ISBN 9780688033569.
  34. ^ a b Wallace 2008, p. 174.
  35. ^ "Mary Astor Blushes When Her Filthy Diary Leaks". New York: 44. April 9, 2012. Retrieved September 26, 2016.
  36. ^ Sorel, Edward (October 2016). "Inside the Trial of Actress Mary Astor, Old Hollywood's Juiciest Sex Scandal". Vanity Fair. Retrieved September 26, 2016.
  37. ^ Brozan, Nadine (February 13, 1995). "Chronicle". The New York Times. Retrieved March 14, 2018.
  38. ^ "Member Roster". The Lambs. November 6, 2015. Retrieved March 14, 2018.
  39. ^ "Beatrice Kaufman, Story Editor, Dies". The New York Times. October 7, 1945. Retrieved March 14, 2018.
  40. ^ "George S. Kaufman Weds". The New York Times. May 27, 1949. Retrieved March 14, 2018.
  41. ^ Beatrice Colen profile. Wonderland: The Ultimate Lynda Carter Site; retrieved June 13, 2014.
  42. ^ Kaufman, George S. (Donald Oliver, compiler/editor) (1979). By George: A Kaufman Collection. New York: St. Martin's Press, ISBN 0-312-11101-0.
  43. ^ "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle". Internet Movie Database (
  44. ^ Howe, Desson (August 23, 1991). "Barton Fink". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 17, 2019.
  45. ^ Mank (2020) – IMDb, retrieved April 22, 2021

External linksEdit