"I thought he was grand," Anne Kaufman Schneider says. "He was strange. Kind of austere — not with me, but with a lot of people. He wasn't outgoing, and he was very much a taskmaster. He was dedicated to his work. When he was working on a show, he didn't start until noon. He worked from noon to 4:30 — and he was not to be interrupted. He was very rigid in his ways. The critic John Mason Brown once described him as a Presbyterian minister. He was neither, but his reactions were like one."
The "he" Kaufman Schneider is talking about is her father, George S. Kaufman, considered by many to be Broadway's greatest comic dramatist and certainly the most successful playwright of the 1920s and 1930s. Born in a middle class Jewish family in Pittsburgh in 1889, he wrote 45 Broadway plays and musicals, most of which were successes and almost all of which were written in collaboration with someone else. Two of them, Of Thee I Sing and You Can't Take It With You, won the Pulitzer Prize.
A classic example of his collaborations, this one with Moss Hart, their 1937 musical comedy, I'd Rather Be Right, with a score by Richard Rodgers and that other renowned Hart, Lorenz, is onstage starting Feb. 8, presented by Musicals Tonight! at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre at Broadway near 76th Street.
Written and set in the Depression, amid Franklin D. Roosevelt's battles with Congress and the Supreme Court, it features FDR as its main character, a president strolling through Central Park who meets a young couple and seeks to do everything he can to help them get married. The show is 74 years old but it has a distinctively modern ring — to get the boy and girl to the altar, the president must do the seemingly impossible — balance the budget! Musicals Tonight! specializes in semi-staged showcase revivals of old musicals; it has presented more than 60 of them in the last 14 years. Tickets are $25. The box office number is (212) 579-4230, or visit www.iseats.net. The team of Kaufman and Hart was perhaps the most lauded and successful playwriting partnership Broadway has ever seen. In addition to I'd Rather Be Right, the two wrote Once in a Lifetime — which Kaufman also directed and acted in — Merrily We Roll Along, The Fabulous Invalid, The American Way, You Can't Take It With You, The Man Who Came to Dinner and George Washington Slept Here.
"The picture of my father that Moss Hart painted in 'Act One,'" Hart's much beloved 1959 autobiography of his early years, "described very much what he was like," Kaufman Schneider says. "My father was tall and thin and didn't care about food. Moss described the agonies he had at two or three in the afternoon when he hadn't had a morsel to eat since breakfast, and my father didn't care." It was their first collaboration, Once in a Lifetime, with Kaufman the established scribe and Hart the eager, grateful relative newcomer, "and Moss at that point didn't have the nerve to say, 'Excuse me, do you think you could ask the maid to make me a ham sandwich?'"
Kaufman Schneider is sitting in the living room of her East Side apartment, which is filled with photos and a score or more of other mementos of her father, including an Al Hirschfeld drawing of the famous Algonquin Round Table, a group of writers and other celebrities in the 1920s who met over lunch in the dining room of the Algonquin Hotel in midtown Manhattan to share witty repartee and colorful bon mots. Her father was a founding member. Her apartment is less than three blocks from the town house at 158 E. 63rd Street where she grew up, "across the street from a rather odd-looking house where Gypsy Rose Lee lived."
Kaufman Schneider, who is in her mid-80s, is known for her acerbic and often penetrating wit — somewhat like her father's — but this day she seems relaxed and easygoing. Talking about her Dad, remembering those good old days, agrees with her.
Among her father's many other collaborations are The Royal Family, Stage Door and Dinner at Eight with Edna Ferber; The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers for the Marx Brothers, the former with Irving Berlin and the latter with Morrie Ryskind, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby; and Strike Up the Band and Of Thee I Sing with Ryskind and George and Ira Gershwin. He was also a journalist — he was a drama reporter and then the drama editor of The New York Times for more than a decade, from 1917 to 1930. And he was also a director — his directorial stints included the original productions of The Front Page and Guys and Dolls. He won a 1951 Tony Award for the latter.
Other members of the Algonquin Round Table included Irving Berlin, Harpo Marx, Dorothy Parker, the humorist Robert Benchley and the critic Alexander Woollcott. Some would also make appearances at the Kaufman summer and weekend home in Bucks County, PA, insuring that Kaufman Schneider would grow up among stars.
"There were so many celebrities every weekend," she says. "They were all famous — all pretty much connected with the theatre — but they were treated like regular friends. My father and mother [Beatrice] had lots of friends. I remember seeing Lillian Hellman a lot. My father was shy, but my mother was much more gregarious." Other celebrities who would make appearances included Ferber, Rodgers and Marx. Moss Hart was a neighbor.
"Moss bought a house in Bucks County, very near ours," she recalls. There would be dinner one night at the Kaufmans, she says, the next night at the Harts, the next at someone else's. Weekend after weekend.
"Moss's house was of course bigger than ours," she says. "Bigger was better, he thought. One day, after about three months, he called my mother and father — my father didn't drive, he didn't know how — and asked them to come over. He wanted to show them something. So they drove down and turned into the driveway. It was like the forest primeval — there were trees, bushes, flowers, everything, everywhere. And Moss turned to my father and said, 'Well, George, what do you think?' And my father said, 'It's what God would have done if he had the money.'"
Kaufman was known for his one-liners. Once, when he reviewed a comedy, he wrote, "There was laughter in the back of the theatre, leading to the belief that someone was telling jokes back there." He said that Skylark, a play starring Gertrude Lawrence, "is a bad play saved by a bad performance." He once sent a telegram to an actor he disapproved of: "Saw your performance tonight from back of house. Wish you were here." One of Kaufman and Hart's most beloved plays, The Man Who Came to Dinner, was based on an incident in Bucks County. As Kaufman Schneider has told it, the critic Alexander Woollcott, known for his difficult personality, came to visit, but there was no room left at the Kaufman house, so he was sent to the Hart home. Not only did he demand to sleep in Hart's bedroom, he was so annoying he made another guest leave. Hart conveyed the information to Kaufman, and imagined how terrible it would be if Woollcott had broken a leg and been forced to hang around. They both suddenly realized it would be the basis for a play, and the arrogant and pretentious Woollcott was transformed into the arrogant and pretentious Sheridan Whiteside. The Man Who Came to Dinner opened in 1939 and ran for nearly two years.
Her father's austerity, Kaufman Schneider notes, did not extend to his personal life. He was in fact widely known as a lothario. "He had a lot of lady friends," she says. "I think they were all actresses. And I knew quite a few. They weren't all locked up somewhere." (Her parents had what in later years would be described as an open marriage.)
Indeed, according to the book "The Intimate Sex Lives of Famous People," Kaufman was often called "Public Lover Number One." One of his companions was the actress Mary Astor, of "Maltese Falcon" fame. According to the book, he enjoyed talking about one chorus girl who, in the midst of passion, called out "Oh, Mr. Kaufman! Oh, Mr. Kaufman!"; he even kept a charge account with the infamous madam Polly Adler, of the autobiography "A House Is Not a Home."
What Kaufman will be remembered for, though, is his skill with words, not with the opposite sex. And his daughter is the guardian of his dramatic work. "I was very touched and thrilled," she says, "because he left all the plays to me" when he died in 1961.
For years, she and Kitty Carlisle Hart, Moss Hart's widow, who died in 2007 and was a close friend, would confer whenever someone wanted to revive one of the great collaborators' comedies. "She lived just on the next corner," Kaufman Schneider says. "Once in a while her phone was busy, busy, busy, and I would just go downstairs and walk into her building and go upstairs and say, 'Just a minute,' and she would say, 'What is this [about]?,' and I would ask her, and she would say, 'Do what you want.'" Being the plays' caretaker, she says, has been "my life's work." She travels to see many of the professional revivals. "I love them. I've been a lot of places to see the plays. It's very heartening. I wish my father knew." And she says she very much is not amused "when people meddle around with them. I don't think they should. But occasionally, they do. And if I'm there I'm not gracious and charming, as I'm being with you."
(Merv Rothstein writes Playbill magazine's A Life in the Theatre column.)