The New York Times, November 21, 1965

They Left 'em Laughing



George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, 1936
"Hart looked like matinee idol, Kaufman like a Renaissance Cardinal in mufti"

I saw Hart and Kaufman's "You Can't Take It With You" shortly after it opened on December 14, 1936. In the 29 years that have elapsed since, I have carried about with me two memories of it. One is of Josephine Hull, as Penelope Sycamore, the blessed avatar of all the Hokinsons, who had started writing plays because a typewriter had been delivered to the Sycamore household by mistake. (Poor Penny—how could she forbear that one day Truman Capote would make a sharp distinction between typing and writing?). The other was of Henry Travers as Martin Vanderhof, explaining with quiet grandeur to the Revenue officer who came to ask him why he'd never paid his income tax: "I don't believe in it"—a point of view, parenthetically, taken with less simplicity many years later by a more sophisticated type, Edmund Wilson, and, moreover, for many of the same reasons adduced by Vanderhof when he condescends to expound his stance to the Revenue officer.

Now, I've just—and for the first time—read the play. I came, of course, upon the two planetary points. But how, I wondered, could I have forgotten so much else, so many others, equally good? How could I have forgotten Penelope's technical crisis in the middle of her current play, when, in a sudden illumination, she transfers her heroine from the Stork Club into a monastery and, having gotten her there, can't get her out? How did I forget that Donald, who is on relief, turns down a chance to earn some ready cash because he is afraid the Government might find out about it and be justifiably irritated? How did I forget what the Czar said to the Grand Duchess Olga on the subject of blintzes? How did I forget how Mr. Vanderhof finally did escape all responsibility for the income tax?

American as Possible

I envy the audiences at the Lyceum Theater who will be hearing the answers to these arcane questions for the first time starting Tuesday. I don't think I've ever read a play which made me laugh all the way through as this one did. I have always thought "The Importance of Being Earnest" the funniest play I know. I have to split this superlative now. "You Can't Take It With You" is a classic farce, dateless as Wilde's play is—one as English as possible, the other as American as possible. Even the stage directions made me laugh.

I don't as a rule enjoy reading plays, but it is an enlivening experience to read this one. The pages are so alive, hilarious, native—so present. What made it, at least for me, particularly refreshing is that while it is entirely free of aberration, it is chock full of idiosyncrasy. I had a feeling somewhere that the moment I'd finished I'd call the two authors to tell them what a wonderful time I'd had and to express the certainty of the play's success. It was a wrench to face the reality of their departure. Reading their play you inhale the pungent local air, the air the authors breathed. The very indigenousness of "You Can't Take It With You" makes it transportable; the play has been, I believe, one of the resist frequently performed, everywhere, of any American play. Any great European writer, any writer with a tragic imagination, might have written the plays of O'Neill. The plays of Hart and Kaufman could only have been written in this country and in New York. It is American humor, as authentic as Mark Twain's.

The contrast between the two men was striking. Hart looked like a matinee idol—indeed he had intended to be one; Kaufman looked like a Renaissance Cardinal in mufti. Hart paid as much attention to his ties as Beau Brummel did to his socks; he liked cunning artifices of gold, preferably jeweled; Kaufman dressed like a deacon and he looked at objet d'arts—when he did look at them—as if they were lizards. Moss was an epicure; to Kaufman meals were an interruption. Moss loved to travel. He went around the world with Cole Porter; George was insular in the strictest sense. The only island he really cared for was Manhattan. Moss was head over heels in Freud, George once told me that his first wife, Beatrice, who routed her friends along to psychoanalysts with the efficiency of a train dispatcher tried vainly to get him to go because George was subject to unaccountable sick spells. He often felt such an acute, indefinable malaise that he just had to go to bed and stay there. One day while he was prone in one of these states, Beatrice—who'd given up on him as far as the therapeutic couch was concerned—gave him a long, investigative look and made a pronouncement: Well, you know, George, in your case it may be partly physical."

Buttering His Bread

Hart said that the true hero of his deservedly and vastly successful book, "Act One," is Kaufman. Kaufman, when I asked him once how the collaboration had started, said to me: "I very quickly knew, when I met Moss, on which side my bread was buttered." The remarkable thing was that in spite of professional separation, the two men, unlike Gilbert and Sullivan, remained firm friends to the end.

Kaufman left no autobiography, but he lives in legend. He has the luminous immortality, among his contemporaries, of the true wit. I once urged him to write his autobiography. He said he'd thought of it and, in fact, had the title, but that he knew he'd never write it. I asked what the title was. "It Needs Work," he said, "is the title."

There is scarcely a gathering where one or more of George's witticisms are not repeated. Once in the White House, I was encouraged to repeat a casual remark of George's to President Kennedy. Years ago I was given a farewell party in Hollywood when I had fondly hoped that I was finished with a film job. George was there and said goodbye to me. But on Monday morning I was back at the studio. George passed me on the way to the commissary.

"Ah," he said, "forgotten but not gone."

The President, when he said good night to me, asked whether he might use this line.

I said, "It's not mine, it's George Kaufman's."

"Whosever it is," he said, "it will come in very handy to me in the corridors of the White House."

Only the other day a friend told me two Kaufman stories I'd never heard before. One concerned George Gershwin during the rehearsals of "Let 'Em Eat Cake." George—the composer one—was gregarious and affectionate and liked to invite friends and relatives to the rehearsals. The orchestra was full of them. This irked Kaufman, who was not gregarious. He conveyed this foible to Gershwin and told him it made him uncomfortable to have strangers around while he was rehearsing. Gershwin was cooperative; he promised to ring the iron curtain down on his relatives. The next day the orchestra was indeed empty, but Kaufman saw the same crowd in the balcony. On the way to lunch, Kaufman, who could have played the jocose grave digger in Hamlet without makeup, said funereally:

"You know, George, this show isn't going very well."

Gershwin was astonished. Having composed the song "Mine" and knowing it to be what it was, he was in a euphoric state. He said he thought everything was going fine.

"If you noticed," said Kaufman, at his most sepulchral, "the balcony was only half full."

Shopping for Curtains

The other story concerned Kaufman's second wife, Leueen MacGrath. She was redecorating their apartment and was shopping busily at Sloane's. George accompanied her. He stood, idly, while Leueen was undergoing crises of selection. The floorwalker rather took pity on George. He came up to him, oozing solicitude. "Can I do anything for you, Mr. Kaufman?"

"Have you got any good second-act curtains?"

Alas, the floorwalker, unlike Penelope Sycamore, was not a playwright.

Of course, I have a great many Kaufman stories of my own—too many to recall here. I venture one. I was in Hollywood once at the same time George was and ran into him on the sidewalk outside the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. George had a play running in New York and I inquired about it.

"How's it doing?" I asked. "Are you selling out?"

"Only in my room at the Beverly Wilshire."

Even in the last year of his life Kaufman pretended to be bitter about something I whispered into his ear one day in Irving Thalberg's waiting room during the great days of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. That waiting room, on any day, presented a striking spectacle. The room would be crowded with an extraordinary assemblage of famous people: a Nobel Prize winner, a gross of Pulitzers, great composers (Arnold Schonberg), John van Druten, Aldous Huxley, a huddle of just plain writers, and the Four Marx Brothers. One day I caught sight of George. He was slumped in a chair, his long legs crossed, his hand over his eyes, encircled in a penumbra of resigned weariness. I went up to him and whispered in his ear: "You look to me like a man who will never see Thalberg." George didn't remove his hand from his eyes; he made no acknowledgement of my presence. I thought that perhaps he really was asleep, that he didn't know who I was, that he hadn't heard me. To my astonishment, 20 years later, when I was working with him briefly on a project which sank beneath the waves, he suddenly said to me:

"I have never forgiven you for that prediction you made—that I would never see Thalberg."

"Did you see him?" I asked.

"Not that day."

"Did you ever?"

"It took time, but I did."

It is difficult to analyze the components of a legend. Living wit does a lot to make it and Kaufman was one of the wittiest men of our time. At a parlor game in London—whom out of the past would you like most to spend an hour with?—there were all sorts of answers. Proust and Wilde, Disraeli and Byron were tossed into the ring. Probably the most distinguished person there voted for the 19th century English cleric, Sidney Smith. "Because," he said, "he was a great wit and only a fragment of his wit is preserved in what he wrote and I should have liked to scoop up the rest of it."

In the consciousness of those who knew him and, I imagine, in that of the vast audiences who saw him on television and of those who have seen the plays he wrote with Hart and others, George Kaufman is a figure who evokes a fascinated curiosity. There was fascination in that lanky, somewhat gothic personality. He was, somehow, a salient part of the American scene. I can tell an incident which, I think, illustrates this. A few years ago I was having lunch with the editor of The New Yorker. The anniversary issue, with Eustace Tilley on the cover, was just out. The first piece in it, after the editorial columns, was by Kaufman. I spoke of it to the editor who had put it there.

"I thought it would be nice," he said, "in the anniversary issue, to have a piece by Kaufman, don't you?"

How to Succeed

I encounter people all the time, people outside the theater—civilians—who, when they find out that I knew George Kaufman—I often tell them in order to make it easier for them to find out—press me to talk about him. You have only to repeat his remarks to become an instantaneous social success. People are curious about George's personality. There was something enigmatic about him, aloof, unapproachable. That was the mask he presented. The truth is that he was a kind man, a compassionate man; I think, a great man. A good biography of George would be an important addition to the history of American culture, and an addition to the list of American originals. I hope that before it is too late, before the legend fades, that someone will do it. I couldn't because I didn't know him very well. He was not an easy man to know. But a great part of him and of Moss, perhaps the best, will be there for those who see "You Can't Take It With You." They left it behind them. The Lyceum audiences will have it.

Copyright © 2009