Kaufman and Co. edited by Laurence Maslon
Being George S. Kaufman must have been as much fun as a night on the town with the Marx Brothers, absent Karl. During the 1920’s and 30’s, Kaufman owned the town, turning out hit after hit on Broadway: The Royal Family, Animal Crackers, June Moon, Once in a Lifetime, Of Thee I Sing, Dinner at Eight, Stage Door, You Can’t Take It with You, The Man Who Came to Dinner, and others. These nine named comedies are collected in Kaufman & Co.: Broadway Comedies—the Company comprising four of the 22 collaborators he worked with during a career that lasted from 1918 to 1961.
Kaufman was born in Pittsburgh in 1889. His grandparents were German-Jewish immigrants; his father, a businessman, was given to risky ventures and extraordinary generosity to his workers. Kaufman went to college to study law, but left after one semester to work as a surveyor, tax-office clerk, stenographer, salesman, and newspaper humor columnist. But the only real life for him was in the theater, and New York was his natural habitat. In 1917 Kaufman became the drama editor of the New York Times, a job he held until 1930; but writing plays took precedence over writing about them. The number of these plays—at first some duds, but soon a series of Broadway smashes—is almost beyond counting. Many were made into movies, most famously the Marx Brothers’ festively goofy Animal Crackers and Frank Capra’s version of You Can’t Take It with You, which won the Academy Award for best picture in 1938. When not working, Kaufman lived well. Although an obsessive-compulsive disorder gave him some bizarre quirks, the gregarious pleasures were very much part of his routine: he was a regular at the Algonquin Round Table of legendary wits (who included Alexander Woollcott, Dorothy Parker, Harpo Marx, and Irving Berlin) and at the Thanatopsis Literary and Inside Straight Club, a weekly high-end poker game. In 1930, not a financially auspicious year for most people, Kaufman was earning $7,000 a week, the equivalent of over $80,000 in today’s money; by 1939 he had sold twenty plays to the movies for $1
About the Author
Algis Valiunas writes on culture and politics for COMMENTARY and other magazines. His "Goethe’s Magnificent Self" appeared in January.