George S. Kaufman was a playwright, director, producer, humorist, theater journalist, and editor whose work was consistently showcased on Broadway for decades. He is lauded as one of the most successful playwrights of the interwar period, and mostly engaged in comedies and political satire. Forty-four of his collaboratively written works were produced on Broadway in his lifetime.
Kaufman was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1889. After graduating from high school, Kaufman attended law school for three months before leaving to work odd jobs instead.
Kaufman began his career in the theater as a columnist and editor. The writer received his first newspaper job as a humor columnist for The Washington Times in 1912. He worked there for two years before accepting a position as a drama reporter for The New York Tribune. After working for the Tribune for two years, Kaufman became a drama editor at The New York Times, where he worked until 1930.
Kaufman simultaneously wrote plays during this time, many of which he co-authored with an additional playwright. Someone in the House, his first play to be produced on Broadway, premiered in 1918. This production set a precedent, as every Broadway season from 1921 through 1958 featured a play that was either written or directed by Kaufman. Kaufman himself produced many of these works.
Though Kaufman outwardly expressed that he didn’t like the incorporation of music in works of theater, he found great success through musical theater collaborations. His most notable musical collaboration was with the Marx Brothers, who he became known to write intelligent nonsense for. Outside his collaboration with the Marx Brothers, Kaufman won the Pulitzer Prize in drama for Of Thee I Sing in 1932. George Gershwin and George Kaufman’s win for Of Thee I Sing is historic as it was the first musical to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize. In 1937, Kaufman won his second Pulitzer Prize for the play You Can’t Take It With You. In 1951, Kaufman won the Tony Award for Best Direction for his work on the original Broadway production of Guys and Dolls.
Though not his primary medium, Kaufman also engaged with the film industry. Many of Kaufman’s stage works were adapted into Hollywood films. Most notably, the film adaptation of Kaufman’s play, You Can’t Take It With You won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1938. He additionally wrote screenplays primarily intended for film, and served as a director for the 1947 film, The Senator Was Indiscreet.
Personally, Kaufman was an avid fan of the card game Bridge, which he humorously commented on in pieces written for and published by The New Yorker. Kaufman was married twice in his lifetime. He was married to Beatrice Bakrow from 1917 until her death in 1945. Kaufman had many affairs during this marriage, and the most publicly scandalized was his affair with actress Mary Astor. Kaufman married Leueen MacGrath four years after Beatrice’s death in 1949, and divorced in 1957. Kaufman died in New York in 1961 of old age.