George S. Kaufman
By: Lynn Peril | Categories: HiLo Heroes

A play written or directed by GEORGE S. KAUFMAN (1889–1961) appeared on Broadway every season from 1921 to 1958. The Cocoanuts (1925) starred the Marx Brothers and its filmed version became their first movie. Of Thee I Sing (1931) became the first musical to win a Pulitzer prize; five years later, Kaufman won another with You Can’t Take It With You (1936). He won a Tony award in 1951 for directing the original production of Guys and Dolls.

Away from the theater, Kaufman’s social life before the stock market crash reads almost like an Onion parody of New York in the 1920s. He played poker with New Yorker founder and editor Harold Ross, croquet with newspaper columnist Franklin Pierce Adams, and word games with theater critic Alexander Woollcott. He wrote wisecracks for Groucho Marx, and his acerbic wit made him welcome at the Algonquin Round Table. Fellow member Harpo Marx recounted in his autobiography an exchange between Kaufman and sportswriter Heywood Hale Broun:

Broun: No more griping. Today I shall be bold, resolute, and gay!

Kaufman: I hear they’ve just taken in a new partner and now the firm is Bold, Resolute, Gay & Berkowitz.

Despite his standing as a humorist and titan of American popular theater, Kaufman is perhaps as well known today for his role in a sex scandal. Two hundred pages of actress Mary Astor’s diary, written in lavender ink and said to reveal intimate details of her affair with the also-married Kaufman, disappeared from the courthouse where her ex-husband threatened to enter them as evidence against her during a custody battle in 1936. Snippets appeared in the papers, and decades later in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon (1965;1975). “Once George lays down his glasses, he is quite a different man,” she wrote.

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ALGONQUIN TABLE ON HILOBROW: Dorothy Parker | Harpo Marx | George S. Kaufman

On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: W. C. Handy.

READ MORE about members of the Modernist Generation (1884–93).

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Lynn Peril is the author of Swimming in the Steno Pool: A Retro Guide to Making It in the Office. She lives in Oakland, California.