Born to a Jewish family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he graduated from high school in 1907 and "tried law school for three months" but grew disenchanted and took on a series of odd jobs, including "selling hatbands". Kaufman then began his career as a journalist and drama critic; he was the drama editor for The New York Times from 1917 through 1930. Kaufman took his editorial responsibilities very 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."
Kaufman's Broadway debut was September 4, 1918 at the Knickerbocker Theatre, with the premiere of the melodrama Someone in the House. He coauthored the play with Walter C. Percival, based on a magazine story written by Larry Evans. 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.
In every Broadway season from 1921 through 1958, there was a play written or directed by Kaufman. Since Kaufman's death in 1961,there have been revivals of his work on Broadway in the 1970s, the 1980s, and in the 2000s. Kaufman wrote only one play alone, The Butter and Egg Man in 1925. 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. 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.
For a period, Kaufman lived at 158 West 58th Street in New York City. The building later would be the setting for Stage Door. It is now the Park Savoy Hotel and for many years was considered a single room occupancy hotel.
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". 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 a song he had written for the show. Kaufman was less enthusiastic, and refused to rework the libretto to include this number. The discarded song was "Always", ultimately 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 creators 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." 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.
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, 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. Cohanas 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 (not to be confused with the Astaire/Minnelli 1953 film) 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. The musical Sherry! (1967) was based on his play The Man Who Came to Dinner.
Directing and producing
Kaufman directed the original or revival stage productions of many plays and musicals, including:The 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).
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.
Hollywood and television
Many of Kaufman's plays were adapted into Hollywood films. Among the more well-received were Dinner At Eight, Stage Door (almost completely rewritten for the film version) andYou Can't Take It With You, which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1938. 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.
He appeared as a panelist on the 1949-1954 CBS television series show This Is Show Business. On the December 21, 1952, Christmas episode of This Is Show Businessthat was telecast live, the Jewish Kaufman made a controversial statement amid public outcry: "Let's make this one program on which no one sings 'Silent Night'". The networks banned him for more than a year and then allowed him to appear again.
Called "Public Lover Number One", according to The Intimate Sex Lives of Famous People, he "dated some of the most beautiful women on Broadway". 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. 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. Most recently, a "filthy" portion of it was published inNew York magazine. Kaufman had an affair with actress Natalie Schafer during the 1940s. (Schafer played "Mrs. Lovey Howell" on the TV sitcom Gilligan's Island.)
Kaufman was married in 1917 to Beatrice Bakrow until her death on October 6, 1945. Four years later, he married actress Leueen MacGrath on May 26, 1949, 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.