The New York Times, November 21, 1965
They Left 'em Laughing
By S. N.
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
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,
"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
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
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.