George S. Kaufman and His Friends

Buckley, Christopher

Book Review/Christopher Buckley He Made America Laugh Shakespeare was sublime, but George Kaufman was prolific. Beyond belief. He wrote 75 plays in collaboration with 22 other dramatists,...

...And it was Kaufman who did all the worrying for his collaborators...
...There, in a way, you have it all...
...I'll be damned," quipped Connelly, "so it does...
...Of his personal life, we find that Kaufman's karma was coated not with glitter, but with trauma and phobias...
...He directed 46 plays, and some 48 films have been made from his productions...
...everybody who, the book jacket might as well have said, was somebody when Broadway was the Great White Way...
...Author Meredith, in his behemoth, 652-page-cum-appendixes biography has written a masterful encyclopedia of Kaufman's world...
...As for Kaufman, he wanders through the pages like a benign spider, spinning a web...
...The trouble with the book is that while Meredith often induces us to smile, he seldom makes us laugh...
...Alexander Woollcott was particularly deft at witty, back-stabbing-but-alwaysin- the-spirit-of-fun caricature...
...There is Robert Benchley's "I'd like to get out of this wet suit and into a dry martini," Dorothy Parker's "If all the girls at Smith and Bennington were laid t:nd to end, I wouldn't be surprised," and hundreds of mano ,z mano's...
...He was no one's fool...
...In the years of success that followed, he was called every name, from "a cheap play doctor" to "genius...
...He interviewed and corresponded with scores of people who knew Kaufman and worked with him...
...Kaufman wrote his first play when he was 14, and was working on one when he died in 1961 at the age of 72...
...This was no neurotic pessimism, however...
...I never want to be anyplace," he once told a friend, "where I can't be back in Times Square in thirty minutes...
...He threw himself into gothic fits of gloom before an opening, even if everyone else connected with the play, including the ever-vigilant producer, was sure of success...
...This skeletal diagram of his opus begs the question, Did success spoil George Kaufman...
...he Alternative: An American Spectator August/September 1975 27...
...What flows inbetween is, ;iggle-wise, less satisfying...
...Groucho Marx, who made his name for himself with Kaufman scripts, said that his "notion of an ideal date was a girl who looked like Marilyn Monroe and talked like George Kaufman...
...Marc Connelly, who was both very bald and Kaufman's first collaborator, was sitting in a -estaurant when a friend came up and -ubbed his hand over Connelly's bare ;kull, saying, "This feels just like my Aide's behind...
...His labor of love has a bibliography of 320 books and ten thousand clippings...
...their marital relationship was a real life parallel to Leopold and Molly Bloom's...
...The stars of these New York gatherings were the best at describing themselves and their friends...
...GSKAHF brims over with anecdotage, a compendium of tales drawn from the lives of myriad playwrights, composers, journalists, editors, actors, wits, and wags who made up New York's smart set when, as the book jacket tells us, "Broadway wa,7 the Great White Way...
...He was a hypochondriac, had phobias about touching people, flying, germs...
...He was never one of the "beautiful people," at least according to Irwin Shaw, who described him physically: "Like a small schooner built in a local New England shipyard by a boatwright with noble intentions but rough tools...
...Kaufman seldom did venture further than Times Square...
...Though Kaufman devoted his life to making America laugh, he had a keen grasp of tragedy...
...he pathologically loathed waiters and cabdrivers...
...My own notion of an ideal biography of the Primus mobile of the Great White Way would be a book researched by Scott Meredith and written by George S. Kaufman...
...He attracted...
...He wrote 75 plays in collaboration with 22 other dramatists, including three early Marx Brothers comedies, Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, and A Night at the opera...
...There was never any need to lay him low, even in jest...
...How many people," he once said to Connelly, the sanguine optimist of the pair, "really hope for your success on opening night...
...He has created not so much an engaging narrative, but as an enormously successful reference book...
...Success never spoiled George Kaufman...
...America first started to laugh when Dulcy, a Kaufman-Connelly collaboration, appeared in 1921...
...Thanatopsis means contemplation of death...
...The two major kudos came when he won Pulitzer Prizes, the first for Of Thee I Sing, written with Morrie Ryskind, and the second for The Man Who Came to Dinner, a Moss Hart collaboration...
...But, alas, in the presence of so much detail, the greatness of a man like Kaufman fades in puddles of trivia, no matter how funny...
...It is not the fault of the subjects, many of whose Algonquin Round Table aphorisms still surface today in well-heeled cocktail parties...
...Dorothy Parker, he once said, was "a mixture of Little Nell and Lady Macbeth," while another member of the Round Table, Harold Ross, "looked like a dishonest Abe Lincoln...
...he was a "cantankerous croquet player" and a demanding bridge partner...
...When it came to describing Kaufman, there was plenty of wit, but never any backstabbing...
...A failure is somehow more satisfying all around...
...and in action like the same craft with a few tattered sails flying in a force eight wind...
...Meredith tells us a great deal...
...When it came to sharing his success with his collaborators, he was self-effacing to the point of selflessness...
...His friends were usually close by, either at the Round Table luncheons, or at the gang's regular poker games, which they called "regular meetings of the Thanatopsis Literary and Inside Straight Club...
...Which is a result of flabby prose and overscrupulous attention to minutiae...
...For anyone who has wondered how the New Yorker got its name, or who was really responsible for the Citizen Kane screenplay, or even about Harpo Marx's Weltanschauung, it provides answers...
...This figure does not include, of course, the thousands of reviews he did as a staffer for the New York Times, where he worked as drama editor, resigning in 1930...
...He was charismatic in an age when charisma was undefined and the Camelot gang were attending English public schools...
...When he died, Groucho Marx came up with the condign epitaph, "He made America laugh for over forty years...
...His wife, Beatrice, was unable to have intercourse with him, having gone through agonizing labor pains which produced a stillborn child...
...But the tuthor is always informative, occasionallyto the point of maddening irrelevance...
...When Once in a Lifetime, which he wrote with a young nobody, opened in 1930 and the audience raved, Kaufman walked out on stage after the final curtain and announced to the crowd, "I want you to know this play is eighty percent Moss Hart...
...Meredith's research is flawless...
...And it was quite a gathering of butterflies: Dorothy Parker, Ring Lardner, Alexander Woollcott, George and Ira Gershwin, Herbert Bayard Swope, Heywood Broun, Moss Hart, Harold Ross, George S. Kaufman and His Friends by Scott Meredith Doubleday $12.95 Cole Porter, James Thurber, John Stein-beck...
...The book is amply punctuated with ;uch chestnuts...
...He didn't ensnare, though...
...He also managed to write 59 major humor pieces for the Nation, the Saturday Review, and the New Yorker...
...And, finally, in an era when so many of the Great White Way people were dashing off to Hollywood, or the south of France to lunch with Somerset Maugham and dine with George Bernard Shaw, he was always provincial...
...Socially, he was a combination of Calvin Coolidge and Groucho Marx: he spoke when he had something stunningly funny to say, and that meant he often only spoke three times during a party...

Vol. 8 • August 1975 • No. 10


 
Developed by
Kanda Sofware
  Kanda Software, Inc.